Encounters with God is a sermon series about the theophanies or divine appearances and how they reveal the stunning character of God and his heart for a world that is lost without him. In Abraham’s encounter with God, we discover both God’s desire to have a relationship with people and how we might respond to him today. Recorded on Oct 31, 2021, on Genesis 15, by Pastor David Parks.
All year, we’re focusing on The Greatness of God. And today, we get to start a brand new sermon series called Encounters with God. In the Bible, when God appears to someone it’s known as a theophany or divine appearing. These encounters are wild stories, full of surprises. God never seems to act how we would expect. However, again and again, these stories reveal the stunning character of God and his heart for a world that is lost without him. This series will go all the way into the new year (with a little break for Christmas). So today, we’ll start our series with Abraham’s encounter with God in Genesis 15. And we’ll see God’s heart for a relationship with people and we’ll see how we might have a relationship with him, even today. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Genesis 15:1.
Genesis 15:1-6 (NIV), “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield,[a] your very great reward.[b]” 2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit[c] my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” 4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring[d] be.” 6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
Let’s pause here. So first, a little context. Genesis is a book of beginnings written by the prophet, Moses. The first 11 chapters describe a number of prehistoric creation stories and then chapter 12 seems to fall down into history with the family of Abraham and Sarah (or Abram and Sarai as they were known at this time). Now, Abram’s story is a very important story to understand anything about the work of God in the world, because it sets up and helps explain everything that comes after this. So first, this chapter is structured around two “I am” statements of God. “I am your shield, your very great reward.” in v. 1 and then “I am Yahweh (the LORD), who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans.” These statements are followed by a ceremony to ratify a covenant relationship between God and Abram. However, after the first “I am” statement, Abram has a problem. You see, back in Ge 12, God made a promise to Abram saying, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” But here, Abram says to God, “You promised to make me into a great nation, but I don’t even have a child of my own.” From previous chapters, we know that Abram had great wealth and he had many people working for him, but he and Sarai have no children of their own. God responds right away saying, “Come outside, Abram, and look up. Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” In other words, God says, “I’m not just going to give you a child, Abram, I’m going to give you a people. I’m not just going to give you a little, I’m going to lavish my grace on you.” Now, would this be hard for you to believe? At this time, Abram was an old man, and his wife, Sarai, was an old woman. No doubt, they both thought that ship had sailed long ago. The only way for them to have kids at this point would be through a miracle of God. How would Abram respond? Look at v.6, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited (counted) it to him as righteousness.” And it is here that we find the great biblical doctrine of justification by faith. Abram is justified before the Lord, he is declared righteous. How? When? When he had done great things for the Lord? No. When he had lived the perfect life? No. When Abram believed the Lord. Abram heard the word of the Lord and believed it; he had faith. Almost 2,000 years later the Apostle Paul would write to the Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God,” (Eph 2:8). or to the Romans, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,” (Ro 1:17a). So God appears to Abram and reminds him of his promise to give him a people, a great nation, that would come through the miraculous birth of a son and heir. But that’s not all, let’s keep going in v. 7.
Genesis 15:7-16 (NIV), “7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” 8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” 9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” 10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
So v. 7 has our second “I am,” statement from God. “I am the Lord; I am Yahweh God.” Who has done what? “Who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” So God not only promised to provide a people for Abram but also a place. God had called Abram and Sarai to leave their country, to leave all the safety and familiarity of their culture and way of life, and journey to a land that God would show them and give to them, that is, the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. In Ge 13-14, we learn that Abram had been living in tents among the great trees of Mamre near the city of Hebron, which was in Canaan, but they certainly couldn’t say that they had possession of the land at this time. So in v. 8, Abram understandably asks, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of this land? God, you promised a people and we don’t even have a child, you promised a place but we’re living in tents here.” How would God respond? Well, the Lord starts telling Abram to do some strange things. He asks Abram to bring a number of animals. And Abram seems to know exactly what God had in mind because he doesn’t ask any more questions, he just gets to work. He cuts the heifer, the goat, and the ram in half and lays the pieces out so that there’s a path in between them. The birds were small enough, he didn’t cut them in half, but he laid one on either side of the path.
v. 12 says, “As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” Now here, things get a little weirder. While Abram is asleep, there’s a thick and dreadful presence that falls around him. Perhaps this is why the first words of the Lord to Abram are, “Do not be afraid.” Now, as we’ll see repeatedly throughout this series, every time the Lord appears to someone, it’s not this warm and fuzzy experience. It’s otherworldly and there’s often a sense of divine judgment which is terrifying. I think if you came face to face with God today, apart from the promise of life and the assurance of peace with God that is found in Jesus, you’d be terrified, too. But what does God say as he draws near to Abram? He speaks words of truth and words of hope to him. God tells him what he’ll do in the generations to come. He will fulfill his promises to give Abram a people and a place. But these things won’t be fulfilled until the time just after the writing of Genesis by Moses. The family that God would provide for Abraham and Sarah would eventually find itself enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. It was during this time that the family of Abraham and Sarah became known as the people of Israel. And it wasn’t bad initially for the people of Israel to be in Egypt. But eventually, they were treated harshly and abused and needed to be rescued from Egypt. And that is the story we’ll pick up next week in Ex 3. But here, God promises Abram that he will not abandon Israel in Egypt. But eventually, the sin of the Amorites, or the people who were living in Canaan during the time of Abram and Sarai, would reach a point where God would bring judgment against them and drive them out of the promised land. And so, God would be both just and would fulfill his promise to Abram here. But let’s come back to this strange pathway that God had asked Abram to make out of the animals that were sacrificed. What was the point of all that? Let’s find out in v. 17.
Genesis 15:17-21 (NIV), “17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi[e] of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.””
Now, Moses doesn’t need to describe what is happening with the animals because a covenant-making ceremony was a well-understood practice in their day. Kings or other powerful people could enter into a covenant relationship with another king or nearby tribe/people. These official relationships sometimes traded goods for protection or were used to form a strategic political/military alliance. But why the path between the animal pieces? Commentator Bruce Waltke writes that what is depicted here, of cutting the animals in two and walking between the pieces, was saying essentially, “May the violence done to these animals be done to me if I fail to keep my end of this covenant.” It was a way of symbolizing the curse of covenant-breaking. In other words, this was a serious agreement with serious, life-and-death consequences if it was broken. But what do we notice about the covenant-breaking curse here in Ge 15? (This is fascinating!) Who passed between the pieces, both parties of this covenant? No! Only one. Only God, represented by the smoking firepot with the blazing torch passed between the pieces. This foreshadows the time of the Exodus, which was when Moses was writing this account when God would lead his people by a column of smoke by day and fire by night. What this means is that God alone was taking responsibility for the consequences of breaking the covenant with the people of Abraham. Now from the whole of the record of Scripture, we know that God is faithful. He will certainly hold up his end of this covenant agreement. But the fact that God alone walks this path of death, the fact that God held this covenant-making ceremony when Abram was asleep, tells us that here, God was willing to pay the price alone, even if Abraham’s family failed to hold up their end of the bargain. God would be faithful, even if the people of Israel were not.
Now, the rest of the OT Scriptures provide a historical record of God’s faithfulness through generation after generation of the family of Abraham and Sarah, and often despite the unfaithfulness of the people. God didn’t abandon them, even when they abandoned him. But it was God alone who walked through the path of death. So would God actually pay the price of the covenant-breaking curse for the people of Israel? The surprising answer of the gospel is yes. There came a day, many generations after God entered into a covenant relationship to the family of Abraham and Sarah, long after Isaac, the son of promise was born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age when there was another son who was born according to the promise of God. Another one who was Abraham’s offspring. One who would literally walk through a path of death as a sacrifice himself. One who would pay the price to redeem those under the curse of sin and death and judgment. The Apostle Paul wrote in Gal 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” So in Jesus, God made good his ancient promise, to provide both a people and a place in relationship with him. Now, some of you might be thinking, well, what does any of this have to do with us today? Why does this strange, ancient story matter? Here’s why: Because at the heart of this story is v. 6. Remember, v.6 separates two statements of promises made by God and ratified through this covenant ceremony. At the heart of this is Abram’s response, which is a response of faith. Ge 15 matters to us, Abram’s encounter with God matters to us, because of the promises that God made to Abraham, to give him a people and a place, a promised land, these promises are now given to all people, first to the Jew and then to the Gentile, by faith in Jesus. How does one have a relationship with God today? Look all the way back to Abram’s encounter with God. And see a God who wants a relationship with people. Who wants to bless them and provide for them, not to curse them or destroy them. See a God who is willing to do whatever it takes to be with people, even despite their own sin. And see that all the promises of this relationship were received by faith and faith alone. So today, do you want a relationship with God? Do you want to receive all the promises of God? Do you want the work of Jesus and his death and resurrection to apply to you? Here’s how: turn to Jesus. Listen to him. Follow him. Trust in him. All the promises of God find their yes and amen in him. This is the work that God is doing in the world, and this is what we’ll see again and again in the encounters with God in the Scriptures. Do you believe it? Do you receive it?