One of the joys of serving at PBC has been our Sunday night Bible study. I will occasionally use this blog to share recaps of what we’ve been studying. That way, even if you can’t join us in person, you can study along with us online. Though we cover much more than I can share in a short recap, I hope nonetheless you’ll be encouraged. The following is a brief summary of the high points of last night’s study of Genesis 17.
God’s “impossible” promise. Abraham’s imperfect faith.
Even though Abram is held up in the Scriptures as a man of exemplary faith, a model that we should strive for, even Abram had his struggles. We’ve seen this several times already as we’ve followed his story. His faith wavered in Genesis 12 when, despite God’s promise to Abram of posterity and that he would possess the land of Canaan as a dwelling place, he panics when famine hits Canaan and he flees to Egypt, weaving a web of deceit the whole time because he feared Pharaoh.
We see Abram waver in Genesis 15, as, after many years, he remained childless and therefore was ready to adopt his chief servant as his heir. God graciously reassured Abram that his heir would not be a son through adoption, but would come from his own body.
And of course, we see Abram waver big time in Genesis 16 as he listened to the desperate voice of Sarai and brought Hagar into the picture. But his struggles don’t stop there. In the Scripture we looked at last night, in Genesis 17, God reaffirms His original promise to Abram. In fact, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham which means father of a multitude. The problem is that Abraham is 99 years old and he’s got only one child from an illegitimate marriage. He is past the time of fertility. And of course, Sarai has not only remained barren but is now 89.
This is why, after God reaffirms His promise to Abraham, he still struggles and he says, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?…Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:17-18, ESV)
Abraham is fixed on Ishmael, and in his brain he’s thinking that this boy should be the one to inherit God’s promises. It’s not that Abraham doesn’t love God and is abandoning God. Rather, Abraham is looking at his circumstances and judging reality based on what he sees and what is humanly possible. He’s old, she’s old and barren. This is impossible! And that’s precisely the point.
God is El Shaddai
Before God reminds Abraham of His incredible promises, He reveals to Abraham a name that He hasn’t revealed before. In the very first verse of chapter 17 God reveals His name to be El Shaddai. In English this means “God Almighty.” It is no coincidence that God reveals this incredible name to Abraham at this most critical juncture in the story.
If God is all mighty that’s another way of saying He is all powerful. And if God is all powerful that means He can do anything He wants to do. And if He can do anything that means God can do things that, from our perspective seem impossible. This was good news to Abraham who has to believe that something humanly impossible is going to take place, namely, he and Sarah having a son. And the fact that God is El Shaddai is good news to us too.
God has made promises to you too. Promises that may seem impossible
And like Abraham, we really struggle to believe those promises sometimes. God promises us provision. That’s hard to see when you’ve lost your job or when it doesn’t seem you can make ends meet from month to month. So the question before us is what do we listen to? Do we listen to our circumstances around us? Do we listen to other people? Or do we listen to God’s promises such as:
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19, ESV)
God promises to save all who trust in Christ but that’s hard to see after you’ve sinned for the 5000th time in the same area and you feel like you’re struggling so much and you fail over and over again. That’s when we need to cling to promises like Philippians 1:6 that say, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6, ESV)
When tragedy strikes, and your heart is broken, do you respond based on what you see, or do you let your response be informed by God’s spectacular promises found in Romans 8, that God “works all things together for the good of those who love Him.”
And remember, the only way that God can keep these and other amazing promises He has made to us is because He is truly El Shaddai.
We struggle with faith, but God is faithful
God is so kind and gracious to Abraham. Several times we have seen Abraham struggle and even fall flat on his face. We see again his struggle in chapter 17, where, even after God has been so faithful in blessing Abraham in many ways over the years, and even after He reveals Himself as El Shaddai, and even as God reaffirms His commitment to keep His promises, Abraham still struggles. To himself, he laughs. To God, he suggests Ishmael be the child that inherits the promises. And yet God is so gracious. He doesn’t punish Abraham or deride him for struggling. God is gentle and kind and gracious. God gently but straightforwardly reaffirms His commitment to keep that promise and follows through a year later.
One thing we learn from the story of Abraham is that God’s commitment to bless us and do us good and keep His promises to us is not dependent on our ability to be faithful. Thank God for that! Otherwise, we’d be in a heap of trouble because we struggle all the time, don’t we? And yet we don’t have to live in fear that God will let us down despite all the times we may have let him down. God knows that we struggle, and our faith does not have to be perfect for Him to work.
We believe, help our unbelief!
One of my favorite parts of the Bible is in Mark 9 where a man appeals to Jesus to heal his child. Jesus says all things are possible for the one who believes. And at that the man cries out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, ESV)
And what does Jesus do? Does He walk away? Does He scorn the man and tell him to come back when his faith is perfect? No. He grants the man’s request. Jesus is not hindered by our weak faith. Jesus is not waiting for us to have perfect faith before He moves. Indeed, the man’s confession to Jesus that He believed but needed help with lingering unbelief is in itself a great act of faith. The man is throwing himself down before the mercy of Jesus, recognizing that he in and of himself brings nothing to the table and realizes that even his faith is not of himself but is granted to him by God. I think that God loves it when we pray, “I believe, help my unbelief!” It is a beautiful and humble display of trust in the Lord and not in ourselves.
God will work and God will move in spite of our weaknesses. And God will keep all of His promises to you because His faithfulness far exceeds yours and mine. And He has the power to keep every promise, including those that seem impossible. He is El Shaddai, after all.
Grace and Peace,