GENESIS17:1-7, 15-16

THE BACKGROUND

At the conclusion of the story of Noah and the flood, we learn the details of the dispersion of his descendants across the world. Immediately following this, begins the story of Abram and Sarai (chapter 12).  God promises Abram that of him he will make a great nation.  But Sarai is barren, and no heir is forthcoming.  In accord with local customs & practices, she offers her servant-girl Hagar to bear a surrogate child for them.  Ishmael is born of this union.  They think they have their ducks in a row, and God’s promise will be fulfilled through Ishmael.  But they have a big surprise in store for them.

THE DETAIL

  • This passage begins by telling us that Abram is 99 years old at the time of this God-event.  God appears, and states that he is going to make a covenant with Abram. (vv. 1-2)
  • God repeats the promise he made earlier (12:1-3), that He will make of Abram “exceedingly numerous”; He will make Abram “the ancestor of a multitude of nations”.  (vv. 3-5)
  • Next, God renames Abram, saying that his name will now be Abraham.  (v. 5) He does the same with Sarai in verse 15. We will discuss the significance of renaming in the takeaway below.
  • Our text eliminates verses 8-14.  These verses give the details of the cutting aspect of the covenant (see second bullet below).  But instead of cutting animals, this time it is circumcision. 
  • Verses 15 and 16 turn God’s attention to Sarai. He begins by renaming her, and then states that He “will give you a son by her”.
  • What we do not see in this selection is verse 17. When Abraham hears what God said (in verse 16), he “fell on his face and laughed…”  In my paraphrase of this verse, Abraham says “How’s THAT going to happen—I’m 99, and Sarah is 90.  Seriously, God???”

THE TAKEAWAY

“In the ancient world, having the authority to give names implied mastery.”*  You may recall that Adam named the animals in the Garden of Eden. Jesus renames Simon Peter.  In our text, as part of the covenant, God renames Abram (“Exalted Father” in Hebrew) Abraham (“Father of a multitude of nations”).  Both Sarai and Sarah mean “princess” in Hebrew. But the point of renaming them is that they now belong to God; it is a binding relationship, such as a marriage.

In modern times, when we make a binding promise, it is usually written on paper, sealed by a notary, and sometimes registered with a county clerk. In Old Testament times, the promise was bound by cutting animals in two.  Details of one such covenant is found in Genesis 15:9-11.  But in the case of God’s covenant with Abraham, the cutting is more personal; it is circumcision.  Circumcision was practiced in some other ancient cultures.  The illustration below is taken from an Egyptian hieroglyph.  But for Abraham’s clan, this procedure would take on a new religious meaning.  It seals the promise between God and the people of Abraham in a very personal way.

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Just as we read last week with Noah, God is the initiator of the promise-making.  It is God who draws near to Abraham and Sarah, and wants to engage in a close relationship.  In both cases, the humans involved are obedient, but God is the one desiring the relationship.  He wants this same relationship with all of us.  If you are in doubt, pick up a bible and flip through it.  It is full of God’s reaching out to us, our failure, and His forgiveness.

As a result of Abraham’s faithfulness, God does the impossible.  Abraham and Sarah do miraculously bring Isaac into the world. Isaac is the fulfillment of God’s promise.

* “Reading the Old Testament”, Barry L. Bandstra
 

ROMANS 4:13-25  

(I strongly recommend reading The Message for this passage.)

THE BACKGROUND

If you have ever belonged to an organization consisting of two very different types of people, you know that there can sometimes be problems between the groups.  In most of the early churches, the congregation consisted of a mix of Jews and Gentiles.  In 49 AD, Emperor Claudius expelled a large segment of the Jewish population in Rome, including the Christian Jews.  This left the Gentile Christians behind, in charge of keeping the church going.  The Christian Jews returned after Claudius’ death, five years later, finding Gentiles in church positions they had vacated. This must have made for some tense moments.  Christian Jews placed high importance on the keeping of Old Testament Law and traditions. In this passage, Paul explains the importance (or the lack of importance) of keeping these laws and traditions.

THE DETAIL

  • The opening line says it all.  Abraham did not keep his promise with God through obedience to the law, but through faith.  The law was given through Moses, who lived 600 years after Abraham. Abraham, therefore, had no Old Testament or Ten Commandments; Abraham’s righteousness was based purely on his faith in God and God’s promise.  (v. 13) 
  • Verses 14 & 15 further support the statement made in verse 13.
  • Paul expands upon this further in verses 16-22. The bottom line is the same as the opening line—getting right with God (being “reckoned as righteousness”), is not based upon our actions, but upon only our faith and nothing more.
  • Paul then sums it up by saying that it is no different for us Christians than it was for Abraham.  Abraham was “reckoned to him as righteousness” purely on the basis of faith.  What “reckons us to be righteous” with God is not our actions; it’s all about faith. (vv. 22-25)

THE TAKEAWAY

Paul is not throwing out rules and laws.  Elsewhere, he points out their value.  He tells us that it is the laws of Moses that provide us with a good conscience.  They provide the framework for living together in harmony.  But the law not the road to salvation, any more than it was for Father Abraham.  It is our faith in Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, and his resurrection that saves us. 
 

MARK 8:31-38

THE BACKGROUND

We are about halfway through Mark’s gospel at this point. Jesus has been preaching and teaching, healing and performing miracles.  Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, on foot, of course.  As they walk, they talk.  It is on this road where he asks them who they think he is.  This is where Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah. Today’s passage comes right after that event.

THE DETAIL

  • Jesus must have felt comfortable with his disciples. After all, Peter has just declared Jesus to be the Messiah.  So he tells them what lies ahead; he will suffer, die, and rise again in three days. (v. 31)
  • Peter takes him aside, and “rebukes” him.  (v. 32)  I wondered what he might have said.  Then, I discovered what Matthew tells us— Peter said “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you!” (Mt. 16:22) 
  • Jesus’ response seems a little harsh.  In fact, it is the same response that he gave Satan at his temptation (Mt. 4:10).  Why would he react like this?

As is typical for Jesus, he turns this into a teaching moment.  We might want to entitle the second paragraph “The Cost of Discipleship”.  Let’s look at what he says.

  • He tells his disciples and the crowd that followed that if they want to be his followers, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. (v. 34, italics emphasis is mine) The cross in that time was the equivalent of our electric chair—a device for executing the worst criminals.  This must have been a shocking statement.  Jesus was challenging their thinking; to reconsider their priorities. He must have known that they would suffer for believing in him.
  • Verse 35 is an interesting paradox.  It must have been puzzling at the time, because Jesus offers a small explanation in verse 36. 
  • He hits the nail on the head in verse 37. What is your life actually worth? How much would it cost you to buy eternal life?  (You can’t earn it.  It’s too expensive. )
  • Knowing what’s in store for his followers, he encourages them to not be ashamed of what is about to happen.  It is part of the divine plan.  If they are ashamed of the divine plan, they’re going to find themselves in an “awkward position”, when Jesus returns in glory. (v. 38)   

THE TAKEAWAY

Jesus was sent to earth with a mission.  He had a long list of things to do.  The last but not the least of these tasks was to suffer and die for our sins.  It was probably not something that Jesus was looking forward to, at least to the suffering.  Maybe Peter’s rebuke was yet another temptation for him.  A temptation for Jesus to avoid the pain. The temptations he endured in the wilderness were similar in nature to the rebuke he received from Peter.  No wonder he called Peter Satan.

We are all Jesus’ disciples here on earth today.  We must be prepared to sacrifice for our beliefs.  Jesus makes it clear that this is a life or death decision.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

When we shy away from an opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus to those around us, aren’t we in some way ashamed of sharing the gospel?   (Please note that I’m saying “we” and not “you”.)  But it’s true, isn’t it?