Divine Sufficiency; Omnipotence. Genesis 17:1-8
As the curtain goes up in Genesis chapter seventeen, some thirteen years have gone by since the close of chapter sixteen. Chapter sixteen dealt with a test related to the faith-rest drill. It was Abraham's opportunity to trust God to provide the promised seed through whom his descendants would come. Abraham failed the test which really focused on the concept of waiting. It also focused on grace orientation. God had graciously promised this to Abraham. He had promised him many things, that he would have innumerable descendants and that God would bless the nations through Abraham's seed. This was a tremendous presentation of God's grace but Abraham failed to trust God and he failed to appreciate this gracious gift.
So Abraham now has to go through a divinely imposed test. God is going to teach him to wait. For thirteen years Abraham has to wait. God is going to make sure he learns the lesson. When this began in chapter sixteen Sarah was seventy-seven and it seemed impossible that she would have a child. God wants Abraham to learn that God is the God of hopeless situations, that no matter how difficult the problem may be, no matter how hopeless the circumstances may seem, He is the one who is able to overcome all problems. No matter what our problems may be God has a solution to those problems and the solutions are always in the Word of God. Abraham has to learn that God is the one he can trust, and that God will fulfill His promises.
Abraham is being taught the lesson that God is omnipotent and His power is all-sufficient. That is one of those that so many conservative evangelical believers talk about, but it is a concept that too many don't understand. We talk about the sufficiency of Christ, that His work on the cross is sufficient to pay for all of our sins. Usually we find that people can relax on that. We also believe in the sufficiency of grace, that God's grace is sufficient to handle all of our problems. We talk about that, we use that word a lot, that God's grace is sufficient. We talk about the sufficiency of Scripture, and that is where things start getting a little flaky, especially in our modern era. The sufficiency of Scripture is all we need to face, handle and surmount the problems that we face and to have real peace, stability, happiness and tranquility in our souls. After all, that is what the Bible teaches. We don't need anything else.
The root problem we have for all of our problems is sin and sinful approaches to handling human problems. So the solution starts with understanding the truth of God's Word and utilizing the problem-solving devices, spiritual skills outlined in Scripture, and we go forward on that basis. Part of the reason is that people really don't understand the word "sufficiency," it almost sounds like it is not quite enough, it is just sufficient. But that is not what it means, the word "sufficient" means enough, and God's grace is always enough, more than enough, but it always meets us with just what we need and not more.
Abraham has to learn this and he has to go through thirteen years of silence from God: no theophanies, no special appearances with the renewal of the promise. In the previous thirteen years there had been two or three appearances of God and reaffirmations of the promise, but now God is going to teach Abraham to wait with this imposed silence. What was going on during that time? Romans chapter four gives us a bit of an idea. Romans 4 is an exposition on justification by faith alone, and in the middle of this chapter which uses Abraham as the example and illustration from the Old Testament that helps us understand the principle of justification by faith Paul talks about the faith that Abraham exhibited. Romans 4:16, "Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace." In other words, the only thing that fits with grace that is consistent with grace is faith alone, a non-meritorious system of knowledge. Faith looks at something; merit is in what faith looks at, either the cross of Christ which is sufficient for sins or the Word of God which is sufficient for our spiritual life: "…to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all." So we as Gentiles are spiritual seed of Abraham because we follow him in faith. We have the same kind of faith that Abraham had.
Verses 17 & 18 in Romans chapter four relate specifically to what is going to happen in the first few verses of Genesis chapter seventeen. Romans 4:17, "(As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were." Romans 4:18, "Who against hope believed in hope," i.e. contrary to what human viewpoint confidence would be based in. Human viewpoint would have no confidence when it came to a ninety-year-old woman becoming pregnant and giving birth to a son. So contrary to that confidence in real divine viewpoint confidence, based on the Word of God, he believed; "…that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be." He has learned the lesson, that is why God appears to him in Genesis chapter seventeen, reaffirms the covenant and gives him a new name as a pledge of God's promise.
Romans 4:19, "And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform." So what was going on between the end of Genesis 16 and the beginning of chapter 17 was Abraham was growing spiritually. He was learning to wait on the Lord.
Genesis chapter 17 has four divisions. The first three paragraphs relate to God's provision to Abraham and His promise to Abraham. The last five verses, 23-27, relate to Abraham's application of God's mandates in the first 22 verses. So 17:1-8, God reiterates His promise to Abraham, and as a pledge He changes Abram's name to Abraham. Then 17:9-14, which is the crux of the chapter, God stipulates that Abraham and his descendants need to obey the requirements of circumcision. In 17:15-22 God changes the name of Sarah. So there is a pledge to Sarah and a pledge to Abraham by means of this name-change that indicates a new position, a new status, and new role. In 17:23-27 we have Abraham's obedience to the covenant. This is where he applies the mandates related to circumcision.
To understand the thrust of this narrative we have to look at literary structure. The structure shows where the emphases are. This is a chiasm. There are various statements that are made and things that are said throughout the chapter, and they are structured a certain way. It can be broken down into different sentences, and the way this is done is to label them a, b, c, d, and son on, and then the second half of the passage mirrors of reflects the first half. What we see in this structure is that at the beginning, the "a" statement, we are told that Abraham was 99 years old. In the "b" statement the Lord appears to Abraham. God speaks then to Abraham. Then the next part, "I am Almighty God; God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly." This is the first speech.
Then there is a response from Abraham. He falls on his face. This is the statement in verse 3. Then God speaks again. This the second speech of God, "As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee." This is an expansion on the promise. Then the seventh statement is the third speech from God, and it extends from verse 9 down through 14. That is the centerpiece of the chapter. It is God's instruction to Abraham that he should be circumcised, every male child in his household should be circumcised, and it would take place when they were at eight days.
Then we start backing up in terms of subject. The fourth speech is a name change of Sarai. There is the promise that she will be the mother of nations and kings, vv. 15, 16. Then again we have Abraham falling on his face in v. 17. Then a fifth speech from God in verses 19-21 where He reiterates the fact that Sarah would be the one who would bare the son. It wouldn't be done through a surrogate. God is not going to honor human viewpoint methods for achieving His ends. Wood, hay, and stubble never glorifies God. Then God ceases speaking in 22a. In 22b God departs from him, and then we are told in vv. 24-25 that Abraham was 99 years old when this took place. This is like framing a picture. Everything points to that central element, the third speech.
In the mind of the writer of this section the focal point is on God's instruction on circumcision as a sign of the covenant. This is an application of doctrine. When we talk about what we have in the spiritual life we use two terms: positional reality and experiential reality. Our positional reality deals with what we have as Christians in Christ. These are eternal realities given to us at the instant of salvation. God gave us forty things at the instant of salvation which can never be lost, with the exception of the filling of the Holy Spirit which is lost when we sin. These are positional realities and are ours unconditionally. They are not based on what we do. The Abrahamic covenant is an unconditional covenant, it is not dependent upon Abraham's obedience or disobedience in any way at all. God is making these promises to Abraham based totally and exclusively on God's own character and not on Abraham's character. There is no "if" clause there.
There is an apparent condition in this chapter. Verses 1, 2, "I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly." It appears that the command to walk before God and to be blameless is a precondition for the covenant. How do we know that is not true? It is easy. What happened in chapter fifteen? God cut the covenant. God moved between the animals in the ceremony alone, indicating that God is binding Himself alone to this covenant. The activation of this covenant is totally dependent upon God and not in any way dependent upon Abraham. That is positional truth. However, just like everything else in the spiritual life from Genesis all the way to Revelation experiencing the blessings of our position is dependent upon application of doctrine, learning the Word and applying it—otherwise known as obedience to the Word. That is what happens in Genesis chapter seventeen. Here we are talking about the experiential aspect of the covenant for Abraham. He has already been given the covenant, now God says that if He is going to bless Abraham in terms of the covenant then this is what has to happen in terms of experiential obedience.
The same thing is true of our Christian life. We have all these things that God gave us at the moment of salvation. We are in the royal family of God, adopted as sons, and have all of the magnificent blessings we could imagine that are ours in Christ; but they aren't ours actively until we are in fellowship, learning the Word, and applying it under the ministry of God the Holy Spirit. Only then will we experience the blessings that God has for us in terms of spiritual growth and our spiritual life. So we have to maintain that distinction in our thinking between the positional reality and the experiential reality.
Genesis 17:1, "And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God [El Shaddai]; walk before me, and be thou perfect [blameless]." Abraham is going to live to 175 years old, so he has 76 more years to go. The Lord appears to him after 13 years. We don't know what the term El Shaddai actually means. It is one of a series of divine names given in Genesis beginning with the word El, a Hebrew generic name for deity. There are some options. First, this is one of the most popular names used of God in the Old Testament. Shaddai is used 48 times. Most often it appears in the book of Job—31 times. All the characters in the book of Job use the title, indicating that it is a very ancient title for God. In Genesis and in Exodus 6:3 and Ezekiel 10:5 Shaddai is connected with the title El. This has been understood to signify God the Almighty, a very ancient interpretation. The LXX translated Shaddai with the Greek word PANTOKRATOR [pantokratwr] (PAN = ALL; KRATOR = powerful). So the Jews who translated the Hebrew text into the Greek LXX thought that El Shaddai had to do with the power of God, His omnipotence. When Jerome translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Latin he borrowed this idea and used the Latin word "omnipotent," and that is why the KJV and some of the earlier English versions translated "God the Almighty." Some versions just leave it untranslated as El Shaddai. However, another view came out from the rabbis that was embedded in the Babylonian Talmud and many understood this to refer to the self-sufficiency of God, that He is the one who is self-sufficient. There is a connection in terms of the ideas of the power of God and the sufficiency of God. Because God is all-powerful He is sufficient for every situation and every problem in life.
Then He gives two mandates to Abraham. The first is to walk before Him. This is the hithpael imperative of the word to go. This is the same command that God gave Abraham to leave his father's house and go to a land that He would show him—Genesis 12:1. But in the hithpael stem it doesn't have the idea of literally walking but is used metaphorically for living one's life. So here God is saying, not walk before me in terms of taking steps but living your life in front of me. This is the idea of walking before God, in the presence of God, so that God so that the life is completely open and exposed to God, recognizing that God in His omniscience sees, knows, and understands everything in our life. "…and be blameless." The Hebrew word is tamim, meaning complete, whole or entire. It means being everything that God planned and intended for a human being to be as an image bearer of God. It has the idea of completion and maturity and is comparable to the Greek verb TELEIOO [teleiow] on the New Testament which has the idea of completion or maturity. Never once in all of Scripture do these words when applied to human beings have the idea of flawlessness or perfection. It has the idea of maturity.
Genesis 17:2, "And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly." What does He mean, "I will make"? That sounds in English as though it was future tense, i.e. if you do this I will make my covenant with you. What He is talking about is the application of the covenant now, not its inauguration. It was inaugurated in chapter fifteen, now it is going to be applied on one sense visibly and overtly through the overt sign of circumcision.