We began this series last week by looking at the scene in Matthew 16 where Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter. And this week we move back to the Old Testament and start looking at the patriarchs—beginning with Abraham. As a quick reminder, we are specifically looking at examples in this series where God comes and changes somebody’s name. If you were here last week maybe you remember that we talked about how important names are in the Bible. Or to be more specific, we focused on how important the meanings of the names in the bible are.
And so this week we want to continue with that same idea that names in the Bible are significant because they have meaning. And again we will focus our attention on an example where God himself changes somebody’s name. Last week when we looked at the example of Peter we saw how the changing of Simon’s name to Peter represented something of a conversation. Because in that same passage we saw how Peter testified publically that Jesus is the Christ—the Messiah, the anointed one of God. In that example we saw that Christ’s commission of Peter as the first leader of the new covenant church came as a response the confession that Peter gave concerning Jesus as the Christ. This week as we look at the example of Abraham in Genesis 17 we will discover something quite different going on.
Background to the Covenant Sign
Let’s begin our examination of Genesis 17 by backing up for a moment and setting a little bit of context around this passage so that we can see better what is happening between God and Abraham here in our text for this morning. There are a few points of reference we need to make in order for this passage to be clear.
It is only a few chapters back in Genesis 12 that we first meet Abraham. It is there in chapter 12 that God first comes and announces his covenant with a special people. In some sense, we can consider Genesis 12 the beginning of the nation of Israel—beginning there with only Abraham and Sarah. And that covenant relationship that God announces first in chapter 12 is gradually revealed in greater and greater depth as we go along. That’s the first thing we need to understand as a frame of reference for this passage today. The covenant—that God refers to nine times in this passage as “my covenant” is an extension and deepening of the covenant that was begun with Abraham in chapter 12.
The second item we should note as context to this passage is the obvious problem that exists within this covenant. A major piece of the covenant relationship that God is establishing has to do with a family lineage. As we have said, the covenant is first established in chapter 12. Then there is a series of diversions in the story as Abraham goes to Egypt, and then there is some interaction with Abraham’s nephew, Lot. But then in chapter 15 we pick up the story of the covenant again. And now Abraham calls attention to the obvious. Abraham asks God, How can you keep this covenant promise “since I remain childless?” And God deepens the covenant in chapter 15 by promising Abraham that he will have a son. But notice that chapter 15 tells us nothing of how Abraham will have that son—or with whom he will have that son. So in chapter 16 we find Abraham and Sarah trying to find their own solution to this dilemma. And chapter 16 details for us the birth of Ishmael. This is Abraham’s apparent resolution of the covenant issue. Now—or so he thinks—he has the son that God promised him.
But that is not the covenant arrangement God had in mind. So we come into chapter 17—which we read from this morning—where God sets his covenant straight again with Abraham. Abraham needs God to spell it out for him in absolute terms. God says, You will have a son…with your wife…Sarah! As unbelievable as this sounds, this is exactly what God intends.
This entire context with the previous chapters in Genesis brings us right to the heart of the covenant issue. It has to do with God’s faithfulness, not just to Abraham, but to his descendants as well. And just as God did in chapter 15, he seals the covenant with a sign here as well. In chapter 15 is the recounting of how God sealed his covenant with what looks like a rather bizarre ritual. It’s called a self-maledictory oath. Let me summarize the sign that takes place in chapter 15. Abraham slaughters some animals by cutting them into two pieces. He then places the two halves of each of these animals apart from each other. God then comes—represented in the text as a smoking firepot and a torch—and God passes between the halves of the animals. This was a common practice in the Ancient Near East for symbolizing a covenant oath. In effect, what the ritual with the animals was saying was, “may this happen to me if I do not keep my word.”
Circumcision—Sign of God’s Covenant
And now the covenant renewal we find here in chapter 17 introduces the practice of circumcision. Much like the self-maledictory oath ritual of a few chapters back, the sign of circumcision symbolized that same cutting away. In fact, the Hebrew word in the Bible used for circumcision literally means to cut away. See the n how this helps us to make sense of verse 14 where God says anyone, “who has not been circumcised (or, cut away) in the flesh, will be cut away from his people.” It’s as though God is saying, “May this happen to you if you do not keep the terms of my covenant.”
But there is something new and different in the covenant sign of circumcision that we have not seen before. Now the sign for the covenant is not just between God and Abraham, but it extends down to everyone who comes after Abraham in his family. We cannot underestimate how important this is. This is a covenant unlike any other before it. And isn’t it true that this very covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants form the backdrop for the entire rest of the Old Testament leading right up to Jesus. That brings us to the importance of the name change.
We are first introduced to Abram at the end of Genesis 11. And all references to Abram from there up to chapter 17 always refer to him as Abram. But once God changes his name in chapter 17 he is forever known from that point on as Abraham. Abram means exalted father. Abraham means father of many; and that is exactly what this chapter confirms in God’s covenant—that Abraham would be the father of many.
Name Changes—Parentheses to the Covenant Sign
But more important in this chapter than the meaning of the names is the placement of them in the passage. Because we need to notice also that Abraham’s wife gets a new name as well. Her name changes from Sarai to Sarah. And in this case both names mean the same thing—they both mean princess. So if Sarah’s new name does not carry a new meaning then why does God do it? Why does God give her a new name as well? To answer this we have to take a careful look at how this passage is structured.
If you have a Bible open to Genesis, look with me at how the narrator arranges this scene between God and Abraham. The covenant sign of circumcision takes up verses 9-14. But right before the covenant sign comes Abraham’s name change in verses 5-8. Specifically, God says to Abraham, “I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.” Then we get the sign of the covenant to Abraham and his descendants. Then in verses 15-16 we see Sarah’s name change where God again specifically says of Sarah, “she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
You see, the name changes of both Abraham and Sarah form these parentheses around the covenant sign. The names changes highlight the importance of this covenant. They help to cement it firmly in place. We can back up even further than that. Because look at what happens right outside of the name changes. In verse 3—right before Abram’s name change—we read that Abram fell facedown before God; and in verse 17—right after Sarah’s name change—we read that again Abraham fell face down before God. And on and on this sequence goes through every detail of the entire chapter. I don’t think we need to examine all of it; you get the point. But it begins right at the start of the chapter where we read that Abraham was 99 years old and it ends at verse 24 where we read again that Abraham was 99 years old. And everything else that happens between those verses forms this perfect funnel of events that mirror one side of the chapter to the other. The events echo each other on either side of the covenant sign. And the point is this: the name changes of Abraham and Sarah form the parentheses in which the sign is given.
Prominence of Circumcision as the Covenant Sign
So then, there is no mistaking just how important the covenant sign of circumcision is to the Old Testament Israelite people. The entire covenant hangs on this sign. All of the laws and rituals and regulations and sacrifices all follow underneath this sign. It’s no wonder then that when we get to the New Testament this becomes a major issue for the apostolic church to deal with. As Paul traveled about planting new churches all around the Roman Empire, he constantly had to deal with conflict between the Jewish Christian converts and the gentile Christians. And the heart of the issue was circumcision. Of all the ways that Jesus fulfils the Old Testament covenant, the one thing that Jewish Christians had the hardest time accepting—more than anything else—was the truth that Jesus renewed and replaced the covenant sign with something different than circumcision. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is all about this issue. In Ephesians 2 Paul goes on and on about how there is now no difference in Christ between those who have been circumcised and those who have not. Yet when Paul takes Timothy—who, by the way, is a gentile convert—and Paul makes Timothy a leader in the church, he consents to have Timothy circumcised. And it’s not because Timothy needs to conform to this old sign of the old covenant; but rather it is because Paul knows this is still such a hot-button issue for Jewish Christians.
Let me summarize what this all points to. The sign of God’s covenant promises is no small thing. The way in which we symbolize and commemorate God’s faithfulness to his people is a big deal. It’s a big deal for the church; and it’s a big deal to God—it’s the sign of his eternal promise.
Baptism—New Sign of the Covenant
But now let’s shift our attention to something different. In Jesus, we have something new. The covenant promise that God made with Abraham is not gone, but it has been altered in Christ. It’s different now than it was back then. Jesus showed us a new sign for the covenant. Jesus demonstrates how, through him, God’s promise to be faithful is symbolized differently. In fact, we saw it here this morning. It’s baptism. Jesus himself demonstrates how baptism becomes the new sign of God’s covenant promise and faithful love. Jesus himself was baptized when he began his earthly ministry. And if we were to take a close look at all the events of the New Testament church in the book of Acts, we would see just how frequently people are baptized as the new sign of God’s covenant.
But also notice with me at what this new sign of the covenant means. You see, circumcision represented that self-maledictory oath we talked about. The cutting away of circumcision symbolically said to the people, “if you do not keep the covenant with God, then you will be cut away from God’s people.” Baptism takes the symbol of God’s promise and turns it completely on its head. Now, instead of the sign of God’s covenant being a cutting away, it is a washing away. In Christ, we no longer live as those who constantly have to amend ourselves to God’s standard of perfection—unless we are cut away from his people. In Christ, we now live as those who have had our unrighteousness washed away in Christ. In baptism, God comes to us and says, “Because of Jesus, you are clean. Because of Christ, you have been purified.”
Let me finish by highlighting two features baptism as the sign of God’s covenant; two things that help to expand upon the words that Dr. Arnold read in the form we used this morning. First, notice with me that baptism is a sign we only receive once. The book of Leviticus is full of ceremonial washings and purification rituals that the Israelites and the priests had to constantly repeat. The sacrifices and the atonement had to be continually performed in order for the covenant to remain in effect. In baptism, the ceremonial washing happens only once. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient atonement to cover all our sins. So even though we come here to church week after week and confess our brokenness to God as we approach God in worship, the sign of baptism reminds us that the sin and brokenness we struggle with week after week do not jeopardize our covenant standing with God. Baptism reminds us that our place in God’s family is secure.
And finally, let me highlight a second feature of baptism as a sign of God’s covenant. Just as Old Testament Israel gave the sign of God’s covenant to infants as a confirmation of God’s faithfulness, so we also give the sign of the covenant to infants by baptism. I know this is a practice not shared by all protestant Christians. And I don’t mean this morning to create divisions between Christian brothers and sisters of other denominations, but I want to emphasize what infant baptism says to us. It says that God moves first. Before Willem or before Matthew even learn about who God is, before they even know God at all—God knows them. Before they can ever make any promises to God—God makes promises to them.
That’s how it worked back in the Old Testament. That’s how it worked with Abraham. Abraham did not go looking for God. God came to Abraham. Abraham did not seek to make covenant promises with God. God made covenant promises with Abraham. God comes to us his people and calls us his own.