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Waiting & Faith | Genesis 16-17

As preached by Timothy O'Day.

"God's promise comes through faith, not human effort."

1) The Lord's promises are not achieved by human effort.

2) The Lord is merciful in the midst of sin.

3) The Lord graciously builds up faith while you await His promise.

Waiting and Faith

Genesis 16-17

September 3, 2023

I’ve always had trouble sleeping on the eve of a big occasion. When I was a kid, I found it almost impossible to sleep on Christmas Eve—there were too many wonderful possibilities! When I was in High School, I always had a hard time sleeping before big tennis tournaments. I would tell myself that I needed to sleep in order to be ready, but I so looked forward to the tournament that it felt impossible to shut off my mind. I felt the same way the night before I got married, every time we’ve had an induction scheduled for the births of our children, and just about every Saturday night before I preach. The formula feels the same: tomorrow is a big day. I better get some sleep,” but wanting to sleep is a formula for not sleeping.

That is because waiting is hard. But it is a strange kind of hard. Waiting for something to come requires nothing of you but also seems to require all of you.

In Genesis 16-17, Abraham is waiting. In Genesis 12 God called him and promised him land, seed, and blessing. In Genesis 15 God put this promise into a covenant with Abram: his child would be the root of a great people that would possess the land of Canaan.

That’s a great promise in a great covenant. And in the covenant, I pointed out that God, symbolically, passed through the covenant elements of the animals alone, meaning that he alone would bring this promise about. Abram had nothing he needed to do because God obligated himself to bring this promise to fruition.

So Abram had nothing to do except wait. And waiting required nothing of Abram, but it also required all of him.

What we see in Genesis 16-17 is how difficult it is to wait on God’s promise, but also how gracious God is toward his people as they wait in faith. Ultimately, what these chapters show us is that God’s promise comes through faith and not human effort.

Let’s walk through these verses and see how this is the case

1. The Lord’s promises are not achieved by human effort (16:1-6)

Genesis 16, unsurprisingly, comes right after Genesis 15, which is where God made his covenant with Abram. Now remember: Genesis is one story that is connected and not a hodge-pudge of stories. This promise of offspring should make us think of the promise given to Adam and Eve right after the fall of humanity in Genesis 3. In Genesis 3:15, God promises that one would come from the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. This promised one, then, would rid creation of the one who deceived Adam and Eve and led humanity into its fallen state. All of the chapters following this promise are aimed at looking for this promised seed. It wasn’t Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth, or Abram. But now Abram is called by God in Genesis 12 to be a blessing to the world and he is promised a child in Genesis 15. This isn’t just a promise of a child; this is a promise of salvation.

But Genesis 16 displays a familiar doubt. There is only one promise so far with God’s promise and Genesis 16:1 points it out, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.” Sarai has an interpretation of this reality and a solution. Her interpretation is seen in the first half of verse 2, “behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children.” Do you see her interpretation? She is saying, “The Lord is withholding what he has promised.” The second half of verse 2 presents her solution to this problem, “Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” This may seem like a shocking suggestion to you, and it is. Culturally, however, this was not an uncommon practice in the ancient world. Maidservants could be given to the husband of their mistress and the children would be counted as belonging to the mistress. So Sarai isn’t inventing a practice, but she is adopting it.

The language in these verses, however, clue us into the fact that we should not read this as an innocent act. Sarai looks at God’s promise and at her present situation and, instead of trusting God, dispenses with his word. How does she do this?

Remember way back in Genesis 2, Adam is given one woman as a wife. God says over their marriage ceremony that the two become one flesh. The first instance of polygamy in Genesis is with Lamech (cf Gen 4:19), who comes from the murderous line of Cain. In order to receive the promise, then, Sarai and Abram with her are willing to dispense with God’s word. This is exactly what Adam and Eve did in the garden. They looked at God’s word, doubted his goodness, and so went against what he said.

This is exactly how we should see the events in Genesis 16 as well. There is word play in these verse that matches the words used of Adam and Eve when they sinned in the garden. Just as Adam and Eve thought they would benefit and get the good life when they abandoned God’s word, Abram and Sarai do the same.

When Sarai says, “The Lord has prevented me…” She is blaming God and doubting his goodness. In effect, she is saying, “God made a promise, but I can’t do it. So I am justified in throwing off his standard for marriage.” Her desire for a child was so great that she was willing to disregard his word.

Abram does no better. Look at the end of verse 2, “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.” There is one other place in Genesis with this exact word. It comes in Genesis 3:17 when God is punishing Adam. There he says, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife.” This is not to say that husbands should never listen to their wives, but it is drawing our attention back to this incident to show us that Abram is falling into the same sin as Adam.

Finally, look at the end of verse 3, “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife.” It is not a coincidence that the same order and words are used in Genesis 3:6 of Eve, “she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

Familiar Doubt, Familiar Results

What resulted from all of this? We see in verses 4-6 that Hagar conceived and, upon this development, “looked with contempt on her mistress.” This word communicates a type of gloating and displacing of Sarai. Hagar, then, felt superior to Sarai and as if she should displace her role. In response, like Eve before her, Sarai shifts blame when she says to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you!” This idea had originated with Sarai, but now she wants nothing to do with it. Abram, for his part, plays the role of Adam well by abdicating responsibility. He tells Sarai that Hagar is her servant so she is free to do to her whatever she likes. So Sarai abuses Hagar to the point that Hagar runs away. Sin brings in familiar fellows: marital strife and brokenness.

What Should We See in This?

Before moving on to what happens next, I want you to pause and consider your own heart. Abram wanted and believed the promise. Sarai wanted and believed the promise. So what went wrong? They domesticated the promise. They lowered what it meant to the point that they could actually bring it about. But that is the thing about God’s promises: they are so great that we cannot bring them about in our own strength.

Are you domesticating God’s promises? Consider, for example, the promise of eternal life. That promise is too great for you to earn or achieve by your own efforts, but you can domesticate it. God promises eternal life to those who place their faith in Christ, but you can turn that into a promise of a pain free and happy life. You can come close to getting that, but only by compromising his word. If that is you this morning, then hear me: Christ himself is the happiness you seek. You won’t find it in the empty cisterns of this world.

Or perhaps you are domesticate the gospel. You hear the promise that God will forgive you completely in Jesus Christ and think, “that’s too good to be true.” Instead of receiving you think you need to get your life in order and clean yourself up before you come. You domesticate the gospel by thinking that the good news is that you can earn some favor with God. If that is what you think the good news is, then let me tell you some very good news: You cannot earn favor with God, but you truly can be forgiven and redeemed today because Jesus has earned it for all who trust in him.

And if you doubt that, just see what happens next in this passage.

2. The Lord is merciful in the midst of sin (16:7-16)

We left Abram, Sarai, and Hagar in the terrible mess of their sin. Hagar has fled because she is abused and Abram isn’t intervening. Yet there is a child of Abraham’s in the womb of Hagar.

In the midst of all this sin, God does not come to Abram and say, “What have you done? The deal is off!” Verses 7-16 reveal something that might come across as a surprise: God remains who he has revealed himself to be despite the sin of Abram, Sarai, and Hager. That is to say, he remains faithful and merciful. Three things happen in this chapter:

• The angel of the Lord finds Hagar

• The angel of the Lord speaks to Hagar both a word of correction and of comfort.

• Hagar believes the Lord and returns to Abram and Sarai in faith.

Why are these three things significant? Why have this included in Genesis? Let’s look at each in turn to understand why

The angel of the Lord finds Hagar

This is significant because of the action and the identity of the angel of the Lord. This is the first time that this significant figure, the angel of the Lord, appears in Genesis. While it is possible that the angel of the Lord is simply an angelic messenger, but the events of this passage and the reality of other passages in the Old Testament show us that the angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate divine Son of God. This is the only way to make sense of what would otherwise be a seemingly contradictory portrayal of the angel of the Lord throughout the Old Testament. In this passage, the angel tells Hagar in verse 10, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered…” After the this event, we read in verse 13, “So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” Now, one could argue that the angel was speaking merely as a first person messenger for the Lord and that Hagar was mistaken—but she isn’t presented as such or corrected in this passage. On top of that, other passages in the Bible make it clear that the angel of the Lord has a unique identity. In Exodus 23:20-23, we read that God’s name is in the angel of the Lord and implies that he has the power to forgive sin, which only God can do. Likewise, in Exodus 3:2, it is the angel of the Lord who appears in the flame of fire in the midst of the burning bush before Moses. In that event, the angel is called “the Lord” directly (Exodus 3:4), he sanctifies the ground so Moses must remove his sandals (Ex 3:5), he says to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” which causes Moses to hide his face so that he does not look at God (Ex 3:6).

We could keep going in looking at references to the angel of the Lord, but for our purposes I hope the point is made. You could ask, then, why I am laboring so much to make this point. Here is why: God comes to Hagar to comfort. She did not seek him; he sought her. Like the woman at the well, the Lord comes to this broken woman by a spring of water. She did not call him. She did not seek him. He sought her.

The angel of the Lord speaks to Hagar

And in seeking her, he speaks a message of correction and comfort. In short, he tells her that her child will not be the child of promise, but that he will have a future if she remains in Abram’s house. She is to call his name Ishmael, which means God hears. While he will not have the covenant blessing, he will be blessed because he is Abram’s offspring.

Hagar believes the Lord and returns to Abram and Sarai

Upon hearing this, Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai, trusting the Lord.

What Should We See in This?

What does this tell us? God is merciful in the midst of your sin. So merciful that he comes when you do not call and he listens when you have been wrong. The coming of the angel foreshadows something greater: one day, God the Son comes to his own even though they do not recognize and receive him. Who is Hagar that the Lord would hear her and speak to her? Who are you and who am I that the Lord Jesus Christ would come to us? The answer doesn’t lie in who you are; it rests on who God is. Which is what we see in chapter 17.

3. The Lord graciously builds up faith while you await his promise (17)

Genesis 17 is exactly what you would expect from the faithful and merciful God that the Lord is. In this chapter, God’s revelation confirms, comforts, and assures Abram that he will do what he has promised and covenanted with him to do.

Note the scene: 17:1 tells us that this is 13 years after the events of Genesis 16. We know this because Genesis 16:16 tells us that Abram was 86 years old when Ishmael was born and now, in 17:1, he is 99. Abram has been waiting a long time and he and Sarai are much older than they were in Genesis 16.

So, in appearing before Abram, God begins by saying that he is El Shaddai, “God almighty.” This title means that he is able to do all things, including produce a child from a barren woman and an old man.

Despite the mess of human sin that Abram and Sarai have created by their efforts to bring about God’s promise, God remains committed to his promise. This is not the making of another covenant with Abram, but a confirmation of the covenant that God made with Abram in Genesis 15. We know this for at least 3 reasons, two in our text and one from all of Scripture. First, all of the elements of the previous covenant and promise remain:

• Offspring (4-5; 15-22)

• Land (8)

• His presence (7)

Second, in the rest of Scripture, there is never reference made to the “covenants” made with Abraham, only the “covenant” made with Abraham. Third, the word “make” in verse 2 is not the word “cut,” which is used when a covenant is being initiated. This word has the meaning of confirm. This is what is meant when God says to Abram at the end of verse 1 “walk before me, and be blameless.” These are covenant terms. Simply put, in every covenant, members were expected to orient their lives around the promises and demands of the covenant. This is not talking about perfection. Noah is said to walk before the Lord and to have been blameless (Genesis 6:9), and he certainly was not sinless. Rather, he was exemplified by integrity in his relationship with God.

But there are two new items:

• He changes Abram’s name to Abraham, which means father of a multitude, and Sarai to Sarah, which means princess.

• He adds the sign of circumcision.

The name changes seem straightforward enough. Abram is now Abraham because, as the Lord says in 17:4, “You shall be the father of a multitude of nations,” and Sarai is changed to Sarah because, as the Lord says in 17:16, “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, ad she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Circumcision is also introduced in verses 9-14. Look at verse 11 and you see that it was a sign of the covenant. Every male, 8 days old and older, is to have this sign of the covenant on his body. This sign, as we see in verse 14, is also a seal of the covenant, because if you do not have it then you are considered one who has broken the covenant. That is to say, if you refuse circumcision then you do not belong to the covenant people. So circumcision is a sign and a seal that one belongs to the covenant people of God.

Why Confirm the Covenant With These New Items?

If this is the same covenant, then why does God repeat it and add these elements? Two reasons: Clarity and strength.

Clarity for the sake of faith

Abraham and Sarah are given clarity that God will produce a son for Abraham from Sarah. This is the path that he has promised. This seems so impossible that all they are able to do is trust God. They cannot achieve this on their own. It is completely out of their hands and, in that sense, their faith is strengthened because there is no other way.

Strength given to faith

By confirming the covenant with Abraham, he is strengthened by knowing that God will remain faithful to his covenant promise. The changing of his name is an additional confirmation that God will do what he has promised to do. Circumcision as well is a sign that strengthens the faith of Abraham and all who partake in his covenant. By marking this piece of anatomy, they were setting aside this member to the Lord. This was to say that God will bring the promised offspring.

One Covenant, Two Fulfillments

The covenants that God makes throughout Scripture are important for us to understand in order to see God’s plan of redemption. The Abrahamic covenant is one covenant that has two fulfillments that we can call physical and spiritual.

The physical fulfillment sees the promise of seed, land, and presence fulfilled in Israel

• Father of a Multitude: Abraham has physical offspring that become many nations: Ishmael, sons of Keturah (Midianites); Esua (Edom); Israel.

• From Sarah come those who become kings of Israel and Judah.

• Land: Israel eventually conquers Canaan and sets up a physical government over that land

• God delivers Israel from Egypt, making a covenant with them so that they will be his people and he will be their God; he dwells with them through the tabernacle and eventually the temple in Jerusalem.

All of these things come to pass and are a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham.

But as we read in the New Testament, there is more going on than just the physical fulfillment of this covenant.

The spiritual fulfillment sees the promise of seed, land, and presence fulfilled in Christ and, by extension, those united to him by faith—the church.

• Jesus is the true offspring, seed, of Abraham that blesses the whole world. As people from many nations come to Jesus, they are redeemed and have Abraham as their father—making Abraham the father of a multitude of nations.

• Jesus is a descendent of Sarah and he now reigns as the King of kings.

• Upon his ascension, Jesus was given all authority in heaven and earth, meaning that all of creation is his. The promised land is his and all of the earth is his.

• Christ delivers his people from the domain of darkness and gives the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, as a downpayment of the full salvation we will have at his return. That is to say, God dwells in his people now.

The Abrahamic covenant, then, finds its ultimate fulfillment when Christ inaugurates the New Covenant. In the New Covenant, members have circumcised hearts marking them as belonging to the people of God (cf. Col 2:11-13). This is why physical circumcision is no longer necessary. Spiritual circumcision has taken its place.

We are not, then, to look to the Abrahamic Covenant for our hope. But in the Abrahamic covenant, we see the type and foundation of our New Covenant hope.

Two Options Before You

Abraham, then, is the father of all who believe because we are to imitate his faith and because we get to partake of the promises given to him and applied to us by Christ.

Since that is the case, you need to note his two responses in this chapter: one you should avoid and the other you should imitate

First, upon hearing this confirmed a clarified covenant, Abraham laughs in verse 17 and then, in verse 18, pleads that God would just use Ishmael instead. Why does Abraham laugh? Is it because he doesn’t think God can do it? I don’t think so. I think he is laughing out of consternation. Ishmael is now 13. If God uses him, then Abraham doesn’t have to wait anymore. It is a frustrated laugh that says, “I don’t want to wait anymore!”

But God is determined to give Abraham a child through Sarah. Why? Because only God can do that. Bringing a child through Sarah shows that only God can bring about Salvation. A baby from a barren woman is nothing that Abraham can accomplish. Only God can do that. And, as we see later on in the Bible, a child born of a virgin is something impossible for man. Only God can do that. A man living a sinless life is impossible for men like us. Only God the Son incarnate could live a life like that. A man being raised from the dead in order to conquer the penalty of sin? Only God could do that.

Salvation is of the Lord. The sooner we learn this the sooner we can taste the sweetness of salvation and throw off the use of dead works.

But there is a second example that we can and should follow: faith.

After the Lord went up from Abraham, we see at the end of verse 23 Abraham circumcised everyone in his household that very day. He believed God and his faith manifested itself in obedience to this call. While Abraham continued to wait for his son, he had no reason to wait on obeying the clear call of God before him.

Where do you need to immediately obey today? Christian, is there sin you are playing with or an act of obedience that you feel pulled toward? You are waiting for the return of the Lord, but you do not need to wait to obey him in what is obviously before you now.

Or are you an unbeliever who keeps thinking about following Jesus? Salvation belongs to the Lord and he offers it to you today. Why would you wait?


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