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Chapter 17

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The Covenant Of Circumcision (ch. 17:1 - 27)


In verse 1 God comes to Abraham at the age of ninety nine years old.  It appears that after the flood, God "came to people" instead of having people walk with Him as seen with Adam, Enoch, and others.


In verse 2 God tells Abram "to walk before Him and be blameless".   Note the word "walk before", not "Walk with".  I believe this means that Abram was meant to live as God wanted him to live, and to live with the understanding that he is living before God.  God can see everything that Abram does.


God also tells Abram to be "blameless".  We see from the last chapter that Abram was far from blameless.  The question is asked, "can Abram be blameless"?  Can anyone be blameless.  We're all fallen people.  We can be blameless.  Jesus tells us to be blameless as well, but Jesus knew we are fallen people and that's not possible. 


Being blameless is possible in one sense of the word.  God views you and I as being blameless if we trust our lives with Jesus.  Jesus lived the blameless life for us, and on our behalf.  We trust His blameless life to be ours, and as a result, God views us as being blameless.


The same worked for Abram.  He could never be blameless, but faith in God made Abram blameless in God's sight.  It is also the offspring from Abram, and further from Isaac, that Jesus would be born, the one who paid the price for our blamelessness. 


In verse 2 God brings up the idea of covenant .  A covenant is just an agreement between two or more people.  What we discovered in chapter 15 is that the covenant that God is talking about here was made by Himself and with Himself. He did not make it with Abram.  God agreed with Himself to fulfill the terms of the covenant, that is, all the things that He promises Abram, and there are many.


Here God says, "I will confirm my covenant between me and you."   Note here that it is "God's covenant, God's agreement".  It's not really between God and Abram except for the fact it concerns Abram, his descendents, and his offspring.


One of the promises of the covenant that God promised Abram is seen in verse 2.  God says that He will greatly increase Abram's numbers.  Simply put, Abram will have lots of descendents.


We see Abram's response to God in verse 3.  He fell forward on his face.  Abram was overtaken with the presence of God, as any of us would be as well.


In verse 4 we see another promise.  God says that Abram will not only have lots of descendents, but he will be the father of many nations, not just one nation, but many.  For this reason, in verse 5 God changes Abram's name from Abram to Abraham.  Abraham means the father of many peoples.


In verse 6 God promises that He will make nations from Abraham and that kings will come from him.  These promises are part of the Abrahamic Covenant as it has been known. 


In verse 7 God sets forth how long and to whom the covenant applies to.  This covenant will last forever, and it will be for all the descendents of Abraham.  For those who believe this covenant is no longer in effect should have a hard time with this verse.  God's not going to change His mind about this covenant and neither is He going to redefine the terms of this covenant.  He says that His covenant is forever, and we need to understand that forever means forever.


He also says that He will be the God of Abraham and his descendents forever.  God will never give up on his people, no matter how far they stray from him.  Even when God was speaking these things to Abraham, He knew that Abraham was far from the man He'd like him to be.  The one good thing about Abraham was that he trusted what God said, and he believed that He would certainly do as He said He'd do.        


We notice that the Abrahamic Covenant is to both Abraham and his descendents.  God's promises here are just directed towards Abraham, but for all of his descendents, and I'd suggest that the descendents of Abraham today and into the future are included. 


You might want to note that God made the same promise to Abraham's offspring, which Paul tells us is Jesus.


Abraham's descendents for the most part have rejected the God of the Abrahamic Covenant, but God says here that He will continue to be Israel's God.  God will remain faithful to His promises, even though Abraham's descendents aren't faithful to Him. 


Verse 8 speaks specifically of the land of Canaan where Abraham now lived.  God tells Abraham that this is an everlasting possession.   I'd suggest that everlasting means everlasting.  That means throughout eternity, into the new earth, the promised land will be Israel's.  We also learn elsewhere that this land is also promised to the offspring of Abraham which ewe know is Jesus.   I believe that on the new earth, the land of Canaan will belong to Jewish believers, while the rest of the world will belong to Gentile believers.


In verse 9 God told Abraham that both he and his descendents "must keep" this covenant. We need to think about what "keeping the covenant" means.  One thing it doesn't mean is to think that we, or Abraham and Israel in this case, are responsible to fulfill the promises of the covenant.  God alone will make sure the promises get fulfilled.  Keeping the covenant means to trust God that He will keep His promises.  That was clearly Abraham's part in the covenant.  There is one more part for Abraham and Israel to do, and that was to follow through on obeying God in having the sign of the covenant in their bodies, which is, circumcision, the main point to this chapter.  Some might say that keeping the covenant means obeying God's law, obeying the Law, as in the Law of Moses.  Well, the Law of Moses was not even around at this time.  To date, there are only two ways that we've seen when it comes to obedience to God, and that is to trust God, and now to be circumcised.   


Back in chapter 15 we had the confirmation of the covenant with a covenantal ritual.  Abraham was put to sleep and he was not awake to ratify the covenant.  God made the covenant with Himself.  He agreed with Himself to fulfill the promises as stated.  Here in chapter 17 we have what is called "the sign of the covenant".  To show that Abraham and his descendents  were people of the covenant, God wanted them to be circumcised.


I'm not sure just why God chose circumcision as the means to be a sign.  It wasn't exactly an outward sign for all the world to see.  It might possibly have to do with reproduction of Abraham's descendents.  Maybe because the male reproductive organ was cut, it signified  that the descendents of Abraham were to follow in Abraham's footsteps of faith.  This is only a guess.  I really don't know. 


Verse 12 says that all males eight days and older must be circumcised.  No time was to be lost concerning this circumcision.  Many people compare New Testament baptism to Old Testament circumcision, and I can certainly understand that. If there is a comparison to be made, I'd like to point out that soon after a male baby was born he was to be circumcised.  The same should then be true in Christian circles today.  Soon after a person is born again, he should be baptized.  There is no need to wait. 


Yet concerning circumcision, Paul throughout the book of Romans compares Old Testament circumcision in the flesh to New Testament circumcision in the heart.  So I believe the first way to view this in New Testament terms is that we should see circumcision as a cutting away of our hearts as we give our lives to Jesus. 


Verse 12 states that not just Abraham's biological descendents are to be circumcised, but any slave, that is, one who has been bought, or any foreigner must be circumcised.  That means, any Gentile living under the authority of Abraham had to be circumcised, act and live as if he were one of Abraham's biological descendents.  This is an important fact when thinking about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the New Covenant of salvation, and also in relation to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant.  Gentiles were never totally excluded from the covenant of God.    


In verse 12 we see the word "offspring" here.  To date we've been thinking in terms of Jesus being the offspring here because that's what Paul says in Galatians 3:16.  In this case, at least on the surface, that definition doesn't seem to fit.  Offspring here seems to be in reference to Abraham's descendents.   The phrase says, "those who are not your offspring", as in, those who are not your offspring who live with you must be circumcised.  The word "those implies more than one person, so how can it be Jesus?


There might be one way in which Jesus is involved in this phrase.  The whole point to this verse is that any Gentile living under the authority of Abraham must be circumcised and live as if he is a biological descendent of Abraham.  I could be wrong, but if we apply the word "offspring" here to Jesus in this Gentile context, then this might well be prophetic of Christian Gentiles who are adopted into the family of God as Paul speaks of when he says that Gentiles with faith are descendents of Abraham.


Verse 13 is basically a repeat, a strengthening of what has been said in the last few verses.  All males in the household of Abraham, whether Gentile or not, must be circumcised. 


Verse 14 states that any male who is not circumcised must be "cut off" from God's people, that male has broken the covenant.  The uncircumcised male has stepped outside the boundaries of the covenant.  He shows to the world that he does not want to be a covenant person by his actions, therefore God does not force him to be part of the covenant.  God cuts him off, but it was the noncompliance of the uncircumcised male that brought God to this decision. The man brought this upon himself.  The same is true in New Testament times.  Unless we are circumcised in our hearts, we cannot be a part of God's family. That's why we should see New Testament circumcision as a matter of the heart first before we see it as water baptism, although water baptism is symbolic of death, that is, the cutting of our hearts.  So in that sense of the word you can still view circumcision to water baptism. 


God doesn't only change Abram's name to Abraham, but He changes Sarai to Sarah in verse 15.  Both Abraham and Sarah are undergoing changes here to represent the fact that they are starting a new life.


In verse 16 we see God promising Abraham , and Sarah too, that even though she is old, she will have a son.  Sarah to will be the mother of many people and the kings will come from her lineage.  This is true in both a natural sense and a spiritual sense.  Through Isaac, Sarah's son of promise, both Jesus will be born and many descendents will be born.  Many descendents will be added to the descendents of Abraham because of people's faith in Jesus.


In verse 17 we see that Abraham fell face down to the ground and laughed, saying, "will a son be born to a man who is a hundred years old".  Many often wonder about Abraham laughing here.  They remember in the New Testament that Zechariah laughed at a similar promise and God struck him down so he could not talk.  Why didn't God do the same here with Abraham. 


I think the answer is easy to figure out.  You note here that Abraham fell to the ground.  His laugh was one of joy and reverence.  Zechariah's laugh was probably one of unbelief. 


We also learn in verse 17 that Sarah would be 90 years old when she gave birth to her son.       


In verse 18 we see the heart of a true father coming out in Abraham when he said to God, "if only Ishmael might live under your blessing."  It's clear the son to be born to Sarah would live under God's blessing but Ishmael was Abraham's biological son too, even though he was not born from his wife.  Abraham was concerned about his son, and rightly so.


In verse 19 God redirects Abraham's thoughts back to Sarah and the son that would be born from her.  God told Abraham that his son would be called Isaac.  The name Isaac means "laugh".  This tells us a couple of things.  The name Isaac might have been chosen because Abraham laughed when he heard of God promising a son to be born from Sarah.  This would prove that this laugh was not a laugh of unbelief but a laugh of joy and reverence for God.   


We also know that through Isaac Jesus would be born.  The birth of Jesus will bring reverent laughter to throngs of people throughout eternity. 


Also in verse 19 God says that the covenant that He has established with Abraham will also be established with Isaac.  God was setting up the lineage of the descendents of Abraham here in which the offspring Jesus would be born.  God was confirming to Abraham that the covenant was more than just for Abraham. 


In verse 20 God comes to the point that Abraham is interested in, and that's Ishmael.  Like Isaac, and like himself. God would make Ishmael into a great nation with many descendents too.  Yet unlike Abraham and Isaac, Ishmael would only become the father of one nation.  Isaac, as promised to Abraham, would become the father of many nations, not just one nation.


In verse 21 God says, "butů"  He's reminding Abraham that even though what He said concerning Ishmael is true, it's through Isaac that the blessings of the covenant come, not through Ishmael, and that's a major difference between the two men.


Verse 22 says that when God finished speaking with Abraham "He went up from him".  God simply disappeared.  We don't know in what way God actually appeared to Abraham, if He appeared at all.  He might well have simply spoken to Abraham.  That's my guess.  Or, it might be possible that God appeared to Abraham and the "angel of the Lord', but if that were the case, I think the text would have said so, as it does in other places.


Verses 23 to 26 tells us that every male in Abraham's household was circumcised.  Abraham himself was 99 years old and Ishmael was 13 years old when they were circumcised.  I can't imagine how the events of that day went.  It must have been one memorable day.  Abraham had lots of men that needed to be circumcised.  We know from the time when he took his army of men to get Lot out of captivity that he had 318 men in an army.   I'm sure he had many more men, and of course, many young boys who weren't a part of that army to circumcise.  I wonder who did the circumcision.  I wonder if the women would have helped. 


Then verse 27 says that the Gentiles living with Abraham were also circumcised.  That would have added even more men to this memorable day.

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