Would it surprise you to know that the average attention span of adults today is 8.25 seconds? And yet, the average sermon here at SonRise is 40-45 minutes long? Are we doing this wrong? Should we adjust our preaching to more engage modern people with their shortened capacities? Or should our sermons look more social media reels? As if they were merely well-crafted sound bites. No, not at all. What then is our answer to this? Do we just enjoy forcing people to sit and listen longer than they’re used to or comfortable with? Again, no, not at all. Here it is Church. We believe that when the Word of God is preached faithfully something uniquely wonderful occurs. That God’s Spirit awakens God’s people to behold God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. We believe the Word preached renews our minds, revives our hearts, and recruits our wills. And we believe that when the Word of God is preached the people of God become more and more shaped and transformed by the truth of God. So we will today, yet again, far exceed the limits of modern attention capacities to fix our eyes, minds, and hearts on our glorious God and Savior.
Let’s ask His help in this…
The theme of covenant is before us once again today. So be reminded. Covenant isn’t just a Presbyterian word, or an old dusty theological word, it’s a biblical word! And here in this part of Genesis the covenant God has made with Abram has been front and center for much of our time in these recent weeks. In chapter 12 we saw the covenant established. In the end of chapter 12 through chapter 14 we saw the covenant threatened. In chapter 15 we saw the covenant confirmed as Abram believed and God alone walked through the animal parts. In chapter 16 we saw the covenant threatened once again by man’s wisdom. And yet here we are today in Genesis 17 where not only is God’s covenant with Abram still intact, but God, in His grace, now makes the covenant visible by giving the sign of circumcision. There is much to see and work through in chapter 17, so I’ve divided it up into four scenes that follow the flow of the narrative. So see first…
Scene 1 (v1-8)
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless, that I may make My covenant between Me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
As the chapter begins it gives us a time frame. Chapter 16 ended with the mention of Abram being 86 years old, and here chapter 17 begins with Abram being 99. So 13 years have passed between the events of chapter 16 and 17. That’s 13 long years of Hagar and Sarai living under the same roof with Abram, and Ishmael growing into a teenager. It’s glossed over quickly, and I’m sure those years are loaded with detail and drama, but Moses isn’t concerned to tell us those details. Rather he’s keen to tell us of these events. Of God’s next appearance to Abram. See it in v1-2. God appears to Abram and says, “I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless, that I may make My covenant between Me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” This name ‘God Almighty’ is in Hebrew ‘El Shaddai.’ It’s the first time we’ve seen it so far in the Bible. It will be the preferred name for God among the Patriarchs, especially for Jacob, and in the book of Job as well. And though it is much debated what the exact meaning is most think it means something like ‘the God of the mountain’, ‘the Strong One’, ‘the Powerful One’, or ‘the God who is able to do anything.’ God then commands two things of Abram: to walk before Him, and to be blameless. Taken together they mean Abram is live out a total obedience before God in all of life. This kind of life was displayed in the pre-flood world in the lives of Enoch and Noah, and by using this language God is calling Abram to embrace a similar obedience in all his life. This is the condition of the covenant. If Abram is to experience the blessings of the covenant he must walk with God in this manner. If he does, God will multiply him greatly.
In v3 Abram responds to this rightly. He falls on his face. Then God speaks again, changing Abram’s name from Abram, meaning exalted father, to Abraham, meaning father of a multitude. This name change is biological, he will physically be the father of a multitude. But this name change is also spiritual, he will be the father of all who believe. So this name change isn’t just a statement of parental hope, but a promise itself, that his future is secure in his descendants. Why does God do this? In v4-8 we find out why as God explains this covenantal name change in a series of five ‘I will’ statements. First in v6, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful…” Second in v6, “I will make you into nations and kings shall come from you.” Third in v7, “I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” Fourth in v8, “I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” And fifth and lastly see the greatest covenant promise made in v8, “I will be their God.” Abraham’s end of covenant is to live a certain way of life, a long obedience in the Godward direction. God’s end of the covenant is contained in all these I will statements.
Of all we could linger on in this first scene notice this. Adam and Noah were both commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Now with Abraham we see a change as God promises to make him fruitful and to multiply him greatly. Why the change from a command to a promise? God wants us to see that in His grace and by His covenant, God gives to His people what He commands. That’s scene 1, now see…
Scene 2 (v9-14)
“And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall My covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
Earlier we saw keeping God’s covenant for Abraham meant a certain way of life, being blameless before God. Now we see more of what this entails. This way of life involves an action Abraham and all his male descendants must do, circumcision. Though this was new for Abraham, circumcision was not new in this culture. In some peoples of this day circumcision was a ritual done to boys as they entered into puberty as a social rite of passage from childhood and manhood. In other peoples it functioned as a similar social rite but it was done to men as they were married. Here God takes this social reality, brings it into the covenant context with Abraham and makes it a religious reality. But that God desires this to be done to infants, to boys at 8 days old, is something new for this culture. It’s as if God desires His people to be visibly identified among His people from their very birth. And God ensures this through the act of circumcision. Why 8 days old? Because the 8th day often symbolizes life. In the creation week the 8th day is the first day all of creation could be function as God intended it to be. There were 8 people who walked out of the ark into God’s new world. And far greater, Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday morning occurred on the day after the sabbath, which was the 8th day.
Notice circumcision is called the sign of the covenant in v11. Meaning it signifies or points not to itself but to something else. As the rainbow was the sign of the Noahic covenant, pointing to God’s promise to never again flood the earth, so too circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, the visible mark identifying who belongs to God. And more so, see v10, God calls circumcision ‘my covenant.’ Much like Jesus will lift the cup and say “This cup is the new covenant in My blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). In other words, this is no small matter. This is why God says in v13 this covenant in the flesh will be an everlasting covenant. Each time Abraham himself or a son of Abraham looked at their body they would be reminded they were part of God’s people. This sign is for all of Abraham’s children, and notice in v12-13, it’s also for all in Abraham’s household, however they got there. And this is of such importance that v14 says anyone who rejects the sign of circumcision has broken God’s covenant. Or to put it more bluntly, you will either be cut in circumcision or God will cut you off from His people. That’s scene 2, now see…
Scene 3 (v15-21)
And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
As chapter 17 began with God making great promises to the Patriarch Abram and changing his name to Abraham, now God does the same to the Matriarch Sarai. God changes her name to Sarah. Her name change, though, isn’t explained as Abraham’s was. Perhaps that’s because both names Sarai and Sarah are variations of the same word and both mean princess. Nonetheless, what makes this so monumental is that God has promised to bless Abraham and give him a multitude of descendants, but until these verses God has never made it explicitly clear to them how He was going to do this. It was implied that it would be Sarah who would give birth to their children, but the events of chapter 16 show us that even this was foggy to them. But now, it’s clear. God will bless Sarah and give Abraham a son, many nations, and many kings by her.
And as before when Abraham hears this he falls on his face, but, in v17, this time he laughs. What is this? I don’t think he laughs in a mocking way but in disbelief because this promise is utterly unthinkable in human terms! He thinks their present circumstances limit God’s promises. He’s calls himself 100 years old, says Sarah is 90, and as he desired Eliezer to be his heir in chapter 15, so to now he expresses a desire in v18 that Ishmael would be his heir. But God has other plans, and in v19-21 He makes them known. Sarah will bear a son this time next year and he’ll be called Isaac, meaning laughter. As great as God’s plans are for Ishmael, he will be blessed, and from him will come princes and nations, and he even has the sign of circumcision put on him as we’ll see in a moment, but he will not be the one in covenant with God, Isaac will. As Abraham’s very name would remind them of God’s promise of a multitude and as Sarah’s name would remind them of her nobility as God’s daughter, so too from now on, every time they call Isaac’s name they’ll be reminded of two things: their laughter at the promises of God, and the reality that Isaac’s birth was only something God could do.
That’s scene 3, now see…
Scene 4 (v22-27)
“When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.”
This final scene functions as a conclusion to the chapter. And here we see Abraham do what he was commanded to do back in v1. In quick obedience, that very day, Abraham himself, Ishmael his son, and all the men in his house were circumcised. From this point forward, there is no turning back. Circumcision is, after all, permanent and irreversible. Now, Abraham and his house bear the visible sign of belonging to God’s people.
What are we to make of all this? Here are a few threads we can pull out.
First, circumcision points to deeper things. Meaning, circumcision was a physical action that pointed to a spiritual reality. Leviticus (26:41) and Deuteronomy (10:16, 30:6) both mention God’s desire for His people to be not just outwardly circumcised but circumcised in heart. Jeremiah (4:4) and Ezekiel (36:26-27, 44:7, 9) mention this as well and add that this will be a reality in the New Covenant when God will give His people a new heart.
Second, circumcision points to baptism. The Apostle Paul would pick up this in Col. 2:11-12 to teach us of baptism. “In Christ you also were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” So as circumcision was to Israel, baptism is to the Church. But be careful, just as many Israelites had the external sign done to them without having the internal reality of a circumcised heart, so too, we must guard against the danger of doing baptism thinking baptism alone makes us right with God. It doesn’t. Only faith saves, but all who are saved ought to go into the waters of baptism.
Third, circumcision points to how we live. We enjoy the unilateral grace displayed in chapter 15, that God alone walked through the animal parts and God alone will bear the curse for us, yes and amen. But we need to remember the covenant bears on us as well, that all who have the sign of the covenant put on them must walk in a v1 manner, ever before the face of God. In this way we too will only enjoy the blessings of being in covenant with God if we walk in obedience to our covenant King.
Fourth, circumcision points to Christ the King. God promised kings would come from Abraham and Sarah, which ultimately points to the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ. Our covenant King Himself, the One who, in every sense of the term, was cut off for us that we could come in.
Fifth, circumcision points to the Immanuel principle. In v8 we heard the heart of the covenant as God says, “I will be their God.” Trace it out. God with the Patriarchs, God with Israel, God with us in Christ, and in the end, Rev. 21:3, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” Lesson? God with His people is the chief joy of God’s people.
 Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, NICOT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 460.
 Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2001), 258–259.
 Ibid., 260.
 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, WBC (Waco, Texas: Zondervan, 2000), 21.
 Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 469.
 John D. Currid, Genesis 1:1-25:18, EP Study Commentary (Holywell, UK: Evangelical Press, 2015), 316.
 Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 25.
 Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 477.
 Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 26.
 Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 480.