Who has ever made a promise? I have made many promises in my life. I promised my wife [img I promise] that I would remain faithful to her till death do us part on August 3, 1996. I promised the CRC that if I left the ordained ministry before completing 10 years of service in the denomination that I would reimburse them a prorated amount of money for the funds they contributed to my seminary education. And I promise my kids that I will play with them, read to them or teach them various skills in the garage all the time.
Most of us can’t get away from making promises, can we? Now, let me ask if you have ever said you will do something only to have the other person say, “Do you promise?” How does that make you feel? For me, it is sobering on two fronts. First, it makes me reflect upon my words to see if I really meant them. You see, I can say a lot of things in my home and to my kids. I have the superman power of being able to answer my wife and my children without really understanding anything they have said, just knowing that the proper lag in speaking is my cue to answer. And my kids, particularly, have gotten wise to this and if it is really important and a request for me they will ask, “Do you promise?” Second, when I have been paying attention and answered out of a sound, engaged mind, the question makes me sad. For it hints at a certain amount of distrust in the relationship and the need for further assurances. Can anyone identify with my experiences?
Well, today, we encounter a series of promises that God makes to Abram and we will see that he responds in much the same way of the person asking me, “Do you promise?” Yet our Lord and God is gracious, and he isn’t hurt by such an assurance, but he stoops to the realm of people and grants the necessary assurances and signs of his intentions. So what is it that God promises to Abram in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis? There are six items to which God commits himself.
Firstly, he declares to Abram, I am your shield (Gen 15:1c). A shield is a piece of armor that protects someone from incoming hostilities. It is primarily a defensive weapon. In the book of Deuteronomy, we find God declaring his plans to protect and defend his people by calling himself their shield. (Deut. 33:29) Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will trample down their high places.” As God would declare again in Isaiah his intentions to protect the nation, (Is. 31:5) Like birds hovering overhead, the Lord Almighty will shield Jerusalem; he will shield it and deliver it, he will ‘pass over’ it and will rescue it.” So also, God is promising Abram that he is his protector and defender. Nothing will come against him that will overpower him or cause his defeat.
Secondly, God promises Abram, I am…your very great reward (Gen 15:1d). If we recall from the context of this passage, these promises come after the rescuing of Lot and the meeting with Melchizedek and the King of Sodom. At these meetings, Abram has given God glory by refusing any of the spoils of battle and declaring indirectly that any wealth he receives must come from the hand of God alone, not from the hands of some foreign king, listen: (Gen. 14:22-23) But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ In response to these declarations and acts of worship, God promises Abram that he has not forgone his reward, quite the contrary, the Lord declares that he, himself, is the very spoils of battle to which Abram has a right. God is and will be his wealth, his comfort, his increase, and his protection.
And just like a child, Abram calls out for some assurance, because [img alone] he doesn’t feel blessed, protected or rewarded. In fact, his very words about being childless in verses 2-3 are a declaration that he is exposed, not protected. Linguistically, the word childless can also be read as being one who is exposed to public humiliation, or devoid of clothing. Abram is challenging the very words concerning God’s protection, saying, “What does it matter? I am futureless. There is no one here on earth to care for me. Anything you give me is insignificant compared to my present situation without a son. Who is going to grow up for me to bear further fruit and enjoy all these promises you are making, because they really don’t matter much for me.” I realize that may be reading a lot into this particular exchange of words, but I think it is faithful to the tone of the Scriptures at this point.
And so, the Lord in his graciousness, makes a third promise to Abram. This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir (Gen 15:4). God meets Abram at his point of need and in his distress at being childless and adds this promise of a son who will keep him from exposure and serve as an inheritor of the promises. Furthermore, God adds to it a fourth promise of a great plethora of descendants [img fruitbasket]. Abram will no longer be exposed and without the metaphorical clothing of a family. On the contrary, if you can count [the stars in the heavens], so shall your offspring be (Gen 15:5). As Abram’s protector and reward, the Lord is promising bountiful gifts. For that is what children are, a gift from the Lord (Psa 127:3).
And over all of this, God adds two further promises, the repetition of his promise of possessing this land, as far as he can see, I give to you this land to take possession of it (Gen 15:7) and the promise of his descendants suffering and ultimate redemption as they are forced to work as slaves in a foreign land before returning to this land, know for certain God declares that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here…(Gen 15:13-16a).
And as we read through the book of Genesis and Exodus, we find that these promises were fulfilled. Abram does have a son and he is named Isaac. His family does end up going down to Egypt and are enslaved from the time following Joseph’s management of the Kingdom of Egypt until the time of Moses when we learn that upon leaving Egypt they plunder the Egyptians. (Ex. 11:2, 12:36) Tell the people that men and women alike are to ask their neighbors for articles of silver and gold…The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.
These are some powerfully large promises, and like I already mentioned, Abram wanted some assurance that the words of God were in fact trustworthy and certain. Instead of being able to simply believe God on first stating his intentions, Abram is overly focused on his current situation. But God graciously met this man where he was and after assuring him through another promise, the promise of redemption from slavery, we are told Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6). In fact this cycle of giving a promise, needing further assurance and meeting the man where he is, occurs twice in our story – one related to the need for a son and once related to the promise of the land where Abram asks O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it? (Gen 15:8).
In both instances, God confirms the promise with a further oath, and in both instances we are left to believe that Abram believes the assurance that is given. The questioning of God wasn’t a problem, as long as faith came, for faith is the declaration that a person’s character can be counted on. The Lord doesn’t respond like me in sadness that my word is questioned. Quite the opposite, (Psa. 103:13-14) As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
From this I hope that we can see that our Lord is gracious – both in terms of his promises that are beyond one’s wildest imaginations and also in terms of his interactions with a frail, suspicious, questioning people. The Lord is (Psa. 86:15) But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. He knows us, he knows our proclivities, our frailties, our inner need for promises and assurance and so he is willing to provide those so long as we are willing to come to faith and respond appropriately by staking our future upon those promises.
It would be easy to assume that this story was just an anomaly in human history. It would be easy to think that God isn’t in the promise making business anymore, but that is entirely false. For each of these 6 promises is echoed to the believer. Christ will protect us from all that seeks to separate us from the love of God. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39 NIV) Jesus is our shield from all the flaming arrows of the evil one for he is the author and perfector of our faith.
Furthermore, he is our reward, so that “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”(Revelation 21:7 NIV). Jesus is the very promised Son to whom God referred. “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.” (Galatians 3:16 NIV) and he is the one who promises to give us a family of exorbitant size which cannot be rivaled. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29 NIV) He gives us a land, namely the very Kingdom of Heaven, for we are strangers and aliens in this world and we belong to another place. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20 NIV). And finally, just as Abram was promised that hardship would precede the ultimate inheritance of the land, so Jesus has promised us that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospelwill fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields — and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:29–30 NIV)
And these are but the tip of the iceberg [img iceberg] of promises that God has made to his people. We are told by Peter that God has promised to both destroy the earth and bring forth a new home for his people at the end of the ages. (2Pet. 3:13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.) As believers we are promised life eternal (John 6:51); we are promised that we will be transformed in to the glorious image of Christ and be reflectors of his glory. (2Cor. 3:18) And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. We have been given the Light of God, we have been promised an eternal house in heaven, not build with human hands (2Cor 5:1).
We have been promised the right to be called children of God (1John 3:11), and to have the power to stand up to all the plans and forces of evil (Luke 10:19) I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. We have been promised the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:28) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Eph. 1:7) In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.
All of these promises and countless more have been made to the believer and like Abram so many of us cry out for further assurance. “Convince me, Assure me,” we cry. “How can I be sure these words of your are true God?” And as the story of Abram serves as our template, we find that God doesn’t smite us. No, he grants the question and answers it with further promises, particularly the promise of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us, “…Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer;” (John 16:7–10)
The spirit comes to assure us of the promises of God. The spirit comes to lead us into life-giving obedience to the commands of God. The spirit comes to birth in us the faith that is commended as righteousness. As we cry out and ask for assurance, Jesus invites us to follow him and test his promises to see if they are true. And as Paul writes to Timothy of the Elders who live the life of integrity Christ has proclaimed, he says, “Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.”(1 Timothy 3:13 NIV) Assurance comes from obedience, trusting and ultimately taking God at his word, i.e. Assurance comes from faith which is exactly what Paul uses this story to illustrate to both the Roman and Galatian believers (Gal 3, Rom 4).
Paul quotes this very story, when trying to assure the Galatians of their faith apart from works of the Law saying, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?…Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”” (Galatians 3:3, 6 NIV)
The Holy Spirit is God’s answer to our first round of needing assurance, of questioning the declarations of the Lord. The Spirit comes and opens us up so that we can live like Abram did, gaining a righteousness that comes by faith, even being willing to stake everything upon the promises of God – like sacrificing his only son. The Spirit empowers us to obedience and strengthens our feeble bodies and minds so that, “What is more, I [we can] consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:8–9 NIV).
It isn’t wrong to ask God for an assurance to his promises, the problem is asking him for more and more assurance such that we are actually sinning against the holy Spirit by not believing the internal testimony of the spirit in our hearts. People of Christ, obedience is a must, but all obedience begins in faithfully trusting [img tightrope] the word of God and the internal testimony of the Spirit. When this happens, then true faith is at work and righteousness abounds. As the Catechism has so eloquently defines true faith as that which springs out of a heart of trust and assurance in God and is motivated for his glory alone.
When we are willing to follow that quiet, still small voice in our hearts that is leading us to trust the very promises of God to sinful humanity, then we too find ourselves in the paradigmatic story of Abram – skeptical at first, but trusting on the subsequent promises of God. He promised to be Abram’s great reward, but in the New Testament the fulfillment of that promise has come to all who believe in Christ Jesus. So let us be people of faith, who live into and enjoy all the covenantal promises that God has made. Through him, we gain not only him, but we are found in him. Through him, the story of Abram becomes our story. The promises given to Abram become our promises and the righteousness granted to Abram becomes illustrative of the righteousness we too possess. “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.” (2Cor 1:20).
- God’s Promises to Abram
- Shield (Gen 15:1, Dt 33:29, Is 31:5)
- Great Reward (Gen 15:1, 14:22-23
- Child as heir (Gen 15:4)
- Great descendants (Gen 15:5, Ps 127:3)
- Possession of a Land (Gen 15:7)
- Suffering and Redemption (Gen 15:13-16a, Ex 11:2, 12:36)
- Abram’s Response
- Wanting Assurance, (Gen 15:2-3, 8)
- Belief à Righteousness (Gen 15:6
- God’s response of Assurance and Covenant Promise (Psa 103:13-14, Ps 86:15)
4. God’s Promises to us
5. Our Response
6. God’s Assurance and Covenant promise
A. All are yes in Christ. He is the fulfillment of the covenant promise