Great Moments in Bible History
Sometimes we get things backwards
A God Who Doesn’t Need Our Help
Thirteen years have passed since the events we discussed in our last issue (Genesis 16). That chapter told the story of Sarah’s idea that her husband Abraham should marry her servant Hagar and have children through her (since Sarah obviously could not have any herself). That was not an idea that came from God, nor had God said anything about it in the years since. As his son Ishmael grew up, Abraham fully expected that God’s promises would be fulfilled through that son. But the God who created the universe does not need our help or advice. When we act like we think that He does, we generally end up making things worse. That is a lesson that Abraham began to learn in Genesis 17.
This chapter is one of only a handful of times when God appeared to Abraham. In this story Abraham became the first man whose name God changed, and his wife Sarah became the only woman in the whole Bible whose name God changed. Up to this point in his life the man we call Abraham was actually called Abram. But in this story, God told him, “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.” (Genesis 17:5-6) The name “Abraham” means “father of a multitude.” Given that Abraham at the age of 99 had only one son, that was an impressive promise. But God has an even bigger surprise for Abraham.
“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.’” (verses 15-16) The name “Sarah” means “princess.” The idea that the promise would come through Sarah was a big surprise to Abraham. “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?’” (verse 17) “And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before you!’”
It comes as quite a shock for Abraham to learn that God did not need the “help” he provided by marrying his wife’s servant, nor will the child of that marriage (now a thirteen-year-old) be the one through whom God’s promises are accomplished. When we studied Genesis 15 a few issues ago we learned that God was the one making promises to Abraham and that God counted Abraham righteous simply because he believed that God would keep those promises. Time and again throughout the Bible God shows that He can keep His promises without any help from humans. This does not mean that there is nothing for us humans to do. God has already commanded Abraham to do some difficult things in his life, telling him to leave his family and his country and become a stranger in a foreign land. In this chapter he has another command that Abraham must obey. We will look at that command in the next article. Anyone who wanted to be part of God’s covenant people had to obey that command. But it is not the sort of command that was given because God needed anyone’s help.
The Sign of the Covenant
What kind of command would you expect God to give the ones He had chosen to be His covenant people? Would it be a huge command like when He told Abraham to move to a strange land or like when Jesus told a rich man to sell everything he had and give to the poor? Would it instead be just a small token like signing your name on a roll? The reality was stranger than either of these. “Every male among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10)
For 99-year-old Abraham and for his 13-year-old son that would have been a rather painful procedure, but for future generations every male child was expected to be circumcised at the age of eight days. It probably still hurts, but the child soon forgets the experience. To this day the Jews (Abraham’s descendants) are still faithfully circumcising their newborn sons.
But what a strange command! What does cutting off a piece of skin have to do with being part of God’s covenant people? At least God’s command for Abraham to move to a new land made some sense. If God was going to give him that land, he needed to go see it (though, in fact, his descendants would not get it for several hundred more years). And Abraham’s willingness to obey demonstrated that God had chosen the right person. But circumcising babies does not fit either of those explanations.
Like many of God’s commands, circumcision was designed to teach people something important—even though the command itself did not actually do much for them. It taught them that there is something built in to every one of us that must be cut off before we can be part of God’s people. Centuries later, David explained what that something is. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, every baby that has lived long enough to grow up has demonstrated by its behavior the truth of what David said. We are all sinful creatures. Time and again we demonstrate that we are just living for the flesh. We need to have that sinful nature cut off. And that is what circumcision pictures—the cutting off of our fleshly nature.
Circumcision itself did not accomplish the task of cutting off people’s sinful nature. Jewish babies grow up to commit sins just like gentile babies. It merely pictured it. It showed Abraham and his descendants the need for a radical transformation. The transformation itself did not come until Abraham’s great descendant Jesus. When Jesus came, He described the transformation using another picture—that of being born again. When a teacher named Nicodemus visited Jesus, Jesus told him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). There are two parts to every new birth—the human and the divine. The human part is referred to as being born of water. Nicodemus was no doubt familiar with John the Baptist. People came to him confessing their sins and being baptized. That is the human part, but it is not enough to solve the problem. The divine part is being born of the Spirit. It takes God’s Holy Spirit to truly cut off our fleshly nature. That is what circumcision ultimately pictured.
An Even More Painful Cutting Off
As painful as circumcision must have been for 99-year-old Abraham, in the New Testament the apostle Paul describes an even more painful cutting off. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Paul describes not just a cutting off of part of our flesh, but a death of the flesh—and a most painful one at that.
Just like with Jesus’ picture of being born of water and the Spirit, this death requires both human and divine efforts. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). We ourselves are to put to death the deeds of the body, but we do it by the Spirit. What does it mean to put the deeds of the body to death? It means to turn away from our sins with all the power that is in us, along with the power of God’s Holy Spirit. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
Who would possibly be interested in participating in such a painful, difficult work as to crucify their flesh? Only those who value God above everything else. For those people God makes the promise, “I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8).