Biblical Theology- Part 5: God’s Covenant with Abraham

February 17, 2010 at 9:42 pm 2 comments

Note: This series comes from the notes of a course I am teaching on Biblical Theology at Calvary Baptist Church. This material is organized similar to Graeme Goldsworthy’s book According to Plan.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. [1]

“The figure of Abraham, or Abram as he is initially known, dominates the book of Genesis and casts a shadow that extends across the whole Bible.”[2] In fact, after chapter 11 the rest of Genesis deals with four generations of one family: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. As we will see, the members of this lineage had a significant role in the plan of God for human redemption.

God progresses his purposes of redemption in “his call of Abraham to found a new nation.”[3] In fact, “all of world history is related to the promises that God makes to Abraham. “The prime motive behind the call of Abraham is God’s intention to bless humanity and reverse the disastrous consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden.”[4] The final meaning of history will be found in the person of Jesus, a descendant of Abraham.”[5]

Abraham

First and foremost we must establish a foundational understanding of how God chooses to work. God does not begin with working on Abraham as if he were a ‘subject for reform.’ He begins with giving a promise. So the focus is not on what Abraham has to do for God, but what God will do for Abraham. Then, in response to this, faith that changes the inner and outer life is cultivated. This is central to understanding the absolute sovereignty of God in accomplishing the things He has promised.

It is with this foundation of a ‘promise giving God’ that we understand why, in obedience to God, Abram left his home in Haran and traveled to Canaan with his nephew Lot and their families plus households. Abram learns to live by faith in the promises of God against the background of events that seem to threaten the fulfillment of those very promises. But God appears to Abram and establishes a covenant with him. It is at this crucial point that:

“God changes the name of the patriarch from Abram[6] to Abraham[7], thus signifying a prominent aspect of the covenant: Abraham will be the father of many nations. At the same time[8] God indicates that the covenant is signed with the sign of circumcision.[9] This mark in the flesh of every Hebrew child is to signify the special relationship that the covenant established between God and His people.”[10]

This is a significant shift in the narrative drama of the Bible story. It is interesting to note that “God’s desire to bless Abraham, and through him bless others stands in sharp contrast to the events described in Genesis 3. Whereas these earlier chapters are dominated by the effects of divine punishment as a result of human disobedience, the Abraham narrative emphasizes the theme of divine blessing.”[11]

Notice that directly after the account of Babel the author places the genealogy of Shem’s Descendants[12] before the narrative of Abraham. Remember that Shem was the son that Noah blessed and declared that Canaan (the land God promised to Abraham) would be his servant. Shem’s[13] lineage is traced to Abraham, whom God promises to ‘make his name great’[14] through a covenant promise. The author of Genesis places the genealogy in-between these accounts so that the reader would consider the importance of this promise to Abraham compared to the narrative of Babel. God promised to ‘make Abraham’s name great’, this stands in direct contrast to the people of Babel, who desired ‘to make a great name for themselves’ apart from God.

In establishing His covenant with Abraham God promises to make his name great. Goldsworthy[15] presents the covenant as fourfold, showing that the objective action of God’s blessing was interlinked with the following promises:

  1. God will give Abraham many descendants, who will become a great nation.[16]
  2. Abraham’s descendants will possess the promised land of Canaan.[17]
  3. God will be their God.[18]
  4. Through Abraham’s descendants all Nations of the World will be blessed.[19]

What is striking and points to the absolute sovereignty of God is that the fulfillment of these promises is not within the control of man, nor is it simply a matter of natural events. As you follow the narrative it becomes apparent that fulfillment can only be achieved by the supernatural work of God. Circumstances exist or develop which threaten the fulfillment of these promises.

  1. God calls Abraham to leave the security of his home in Haran and become a nomad towards a foreign land, not knowing where he was going.
  2. The land God promised was under the possession of the Canaanites.
  3. Sarah is barren, which is a major source of doubt that Abraham’s family line will actually be continued.
  4. Sarah is almost taken as a wife by Pharaoh. If she had remained there, Abraham could have never has the child of promise.
  5. When Abraham and Lot settle in Canaan they are forced to split because their flocks and herds are too large.
  6. When Abraham and Sarah was very old, and beyond their childbearing years they were still childless.

It was “at critical times [like these] during that period God reminds[20] Abraham of his promises to sustain him in the face of seemingly impossible odds against their coming true.”[21] This is seen most fully when God makes an oath with Abraham in the ceremony of walking through the divided parts of an animal sacrifice. In essence God is declaring “if I do not keep the oath that I swear, may I be divided as this animal has been.”[22][23] God swears to Abraham by His own life that He will do what He has promised.

Themes in the Life of Abraham

1. Grace

There was nothing special about Abraham that made him deserving of God calling him into these blessings. We know nothing of Abraham’s faith before God calls him. So it is not as if God is responding to Abrahams obedience, more properly Abraham is responding to God’s grace.

Remember, Abraham is not perfect. On many occasions we see him either lie to preserve his life,[24] or take hard situations into his own hands in doubt of God’s promise.

  1. He lied and said that Sarah was his sister so that Pharaoh would not murder him in order to have Sarah as a harem.[25] In doing this Abraham puts his wife Sarah at risk and shows a lack of faith in God’s promises. He does the same thing later to Abimelech, the Canaanite King.[26]
  2. Abraham also attempted to have a son by Hagar, his wife’s chief servant.[27] This was an act contrary to God’s promise that he would bear a child with Sarah.[28]

The author of Genesis wants us to know “in recounting these sins…that Abraham was a fallible person.”[29] In other words, grace shows us that “whenever God acts for the good of the people, he is acting against what they deserve as rebellious sinners.”[30] God’s grace shown to Abraham[31] is important because it was the basis for all the other blessings God promised and gave to him.

2. Election

Election means that God chooses to show His grace to certain people. “It is no use in asking why we find a godly line and a godless line in the early chapters of Genesis, or why Noah and not someone else finds grace, or why Abraham and not some other person is chosen to be the father of a blessed race.”[32] What we can say is that these actions are in accordance with His plan, demonstrate His sovereignty, and are done for His glory.[33] Vos writes about Abraham and his descendants, “here one family is taken out of the number of existing families, and with it, within it, the redemptive, revelatory work of God is carried forward.”[34]

3. Faith

“Abrahams faith is certainly not perfect, not always strong, and sometimes boarders on disbelief. Yet at the crucial times he takes God at His word and believes in his promises.”[35] In fact, “from beginning to end, faith expressed in obedience is the hallmark of Abraham’s relationship with the Lord.”[36]

Abraham learns that God is absolutely faithful to His word, and is thus reliable to follow through. Since Abraham deserves nothing that is promised to him, it is all seen as unmerited gift. This is why Abraham is counted as righteous before God by simply believing His word.[37] The focus is not on the reliability and strength of Abraham’s faith, but on the reliability and strength of God’s word.

Obedience is motivated by faith in the promises of God. We see this in the life of Abraham who lives in obedience that comes from faith, which is “obedience motivated by Abraham’s confidence that what God had promised, he would do. And in such obedience God receives all the glory.”[38]

Abraham’s Son Isaac

Abraham had tried to get around being childless by taking matters into his own hands and producing children[39] through the servant Hagar, and others, but Isaac is God’s chosen. Isaac is the promised child of God, born when Abraham is one hundred years old and fully incapable of conceiving by natural means. “Isaac is a gift of grace, and his birth to extremely aged parents signifies the supernatural element in the birth of the covenant people. Against all odds God is shown to be absolutely faithful to his promises.”[40]

“The most significant challenge to Abrahams trust in the God of the covenant comes with the demand that he offer the boy as a sacrifice.[41] Clowney makes an important observation here:

“We must remember that God did not ask him to murder his son, but to offer him as a sacrifice. The difference is important. In the Old Testament, it is evident that the lives of all sinful men are forfeit before God; God can require the death of any sinner. Further, the demand of God’s judgment is directed against the firstborn as the representative[42] of all [in the family].”[43]

See, God can and must require of Abraham not only the dedication of all that he has and is, but also the full satisfaction due to God’s holy justice. For Abraham, “to trust in God means to look to Him alone, to find in Him all our hope, to hold nothing back, no reserve.”[44] If Isaac dies, how can the promises of God be fulfilled through him?”[45]

We learn in the narrative that Isaac does not die. While the cost of redemption was total, what God required He also provided. We see that God provides a substitute in the form of a ram caught in a bush. This was to show Abraham by symbol that God would pay the price of redemption. This becomes clear as the Bible story unfolds. We see that God did what Abraham did not have to do: He made His Son an offering for sin.

The promise to Abraham now rests on Isaac. So, Isaac is shown to be the descendant of Abraham through whom the promises of God will be fulfilled. His birth, and life illustrates the faithfulness of God to those promises.

Abraham’s Grandson Jacob

Isaac’s wife Rebekah is infertile, but God grants them the ability to have children when Isaac is sixty years old.[46] Again, the conception and birth of their twins Jacob and Esau is supernatural just as their father Isaacs was.

“Before their birth the two struggle in the womb, and God tells Rebekah that they will be fathers of two nations, and the older shall serve the younger. Esau is the first to be born, but it is soon clear that the other, Jacob, is the one chosen by God.”[47]

Now, Esau “despised” his birthright. While Jacob may be criticized for exploiting his brother’s dismissive attitude towards being the first born, it is true that Esau was indifferent and did not care about the importance of his birthright. So, Jacob deceives his feeble and nearly blind father Isaac, tricking him into giving him the blessing that belonged to Esau. “If there is any doubt that God will confirm this arrangement it is soon dispelled.”[48] On Jacobs way out of the Promised Land to find a wife God speaks to Jacob in a dream affirming that all the promises of Abraham belong to him.

Once Jacob enters into Mesopotamia he meets his cousin Rachel and wises to marry her. Rachel’s father Laben employs Jacob for seven years to earn the hand of his daughter. Once the seven years is up Laben gives Jacob Rachel’s older sister Leah instead. Therefore Jacob must work seven more years to earn the hand of Rachel. This trial is nothing more than another challenge to the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, but God is with Jacob, and eventually Jacob leaves the employment of Laben and returns to Canaan. If anything, it becomes “quite clear that Jacob’s election is grace and not what he deserves.”[49]

Upon returning to Canaan Jacob prepares for a confrontation with his brother Esau. “He is armed only with the promises of God[50].”[51] Yet it is not Esau who confronts Jacob but an ‘unnamed man’ who is a messenger of God.[52] Jacob wrestles with this man who appears to be hindering his return to the Promise Land.

“The last thing Jacob expects, as this point in his life, is to find that God is his [opponent.] He is deeply afraid of his brother Esau, because of his theft of Isaac’s blessing years before, and is doing his best to show Esau his deep repentance[53]…Why does God suddenly…wrestle him into submission?…God has been wrestling with him throughout the story[54], ever since he obtained the blessing by trickery. Now, at last he is seeking it the right way, as a gift from God with desperate determination[55]…He recognizes that his [opponent] has something he wants, something that he can receive only as a gift.”[56]

What we see is that God’s fourteen year strategy with Jacob climaxes in this wrestling match. The point was to develop Jacob the self sufficient schemer into the man who is totally dependant on God.[57] See, Jacob was consumed with a desire for blessing, for which he was willing to sacrifice his fathers respect, lose his place in the family, and incur his brother’s hatred. It is not until this wrestling match that Jacob abandons his own resources, and clings with desperation to his God.

The blessing is granted and Jacobs name is changed to Israel, signifying that he ‘has struggled with God.’[58] From that point on Jacob was a different man, a godly patriarch. God’s hand is on Jacob, “as to confirm this, he is received by Esau” and “his name is linked to the covenant promises. Thus God is known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob[59].”[60]

This is the paradox, while God is the enemy of His people, opposing them in sin, He is also their savior, granting blessing to them. Ultimately we see this culminate in the cross where Christ defeats sin and judges wickedness, while also extending blessing to all who are dependant on Him for salvation through faith.

Abraham’s Great Grandson Joseph

The covenant established with Abraham is reaffirmed and developed with each of the succeeding generations. God continues this process with Joseph the eleventh son born to Jacob and Rachel.[61] Because of envy his brothers sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelite traders, who in turn deliver him to an official in Egypt. “He is jailed on false charges but released some time later as he interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams.”[62] Joseph rises in power and is later reconciled with his brothers. The significance of this episode is heard in Joseph’s words to his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”[63] Josephs dependence on God is notable:

“He regards the action of God within the destructive, sinful behavior of the brothers as decisive. It is surly this liberating perspective that saves Joseph from [surrendering] to temptations such as anger, resentment, and bitterness.”[64]

In the same way that Joseph trusted in God’s saving presence, and redemptive purposes in the midst of trial so did Christ in the shadow of the cross. Jesus, the true and greater Joseph, chose the path of reconciliation rather than retribution. Joseph serves as a great reminder to look beyond the present circumstances in trust that God is providentially in control of redemptive history.

The Death of Jacob

After the reunion of Joseph with his family it becomes time for Jacob’s death. Before he dies two significant events take place. Goldsworthy describes them as follows:

  1. Jacob accepts two sons of Joseph as his own, Ephraim and Manasseh.[65] He makes them heads of ‘half-tribes’ which numbers them with the tribes of Israel. Jacob makes it clear that this adoption is integral to the fulfillment of the covenant promises.[66] Jacob also places his blessing on the head of Ephraim the younger.[67]
  2. Jacob then gathers his twelve sons and makes a prophetic blessing on each one of them. Above all Jacob declares a special blessing on Judah by declaring: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.”[68] “Out of Judah (the Jews) would come David and his royal line leading eventually to Jesus of Nazareth[69]

The Gospel of Jesus Christ

We know that the divine promises made to Abraham ultimately find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. There are certain things we can reflect on about the narrative of Abraham’s family that would encourage our trust in God.

1. Forgiveness

The calling of Abraham is foundational to the remainder of redemption history since the covenant established with him “provides the baseline along which God brings to pass the crucial steps in completing His plan for the world.”[70]

“God credited [Abraham] as righteous while he was sinful so that God could proceed with the work of imparting the great blessings he had promised to Abraham and his seed.”[71] So Abraham was forgiven, despite his continual falling short of sinlessness.[72]

The object of the Christian’s faith is the same as Abrahams. Both believe in the promise of forgiveness and redemption through the promised seed, Jesus Christ.

2. Faith

Paul[73] describes the faith of Abraham in these terms: “In hope he believed against hope… He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Abrahams faith is an example of “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[74]

Fuller is right when he argues: “we need to emulate this man who, against the darkness of visible circumstances, nevertheless rejoiced in the way God would (has) glorify himself” in the promise of the Christ.[75] We have a much greater encouragement to trust God’s promises than did Abraham, who had no idea how God would fulfill His promises.[76] So, the Divine promises of Abraham anticipate the coming of a royal descendant who will impart God’s blessing to all the nations of the earth.

Abraham was justified by faith and his obedient actions were visible expressions of this inner faith. This is faith’s power to motivate obedience. Abraham obeyed because he believed God. See, “genuine faith carries with it the power to do righteous works.”[77][78]

3. Fulfillment

In Genesis 17:5 we read that Abraham would become the “the father of a multitude of nations.” So, the seed of Abraham extends beyond the boundaries of physical descendants. Essentially, the account of Abraham in Genesis clears the way for him to become the father of those from “every tribe and language and people and nation.”[79] Just as it was with Abraham, “what is decisive in making men and woman the true seed of Abraham is God’s work.”[80] There was nothing in Abraham himself that qualified Him to receive God’s call and blessing, so it is with us. Fuller rightly highlights the fact that:

“The attainment of this great blessing comes not through the flesh but through God’s purpose; not through works but through God’s purpose and calling.”[81] Since no one possesses any distinctive[82] that brings about God’s calling, the riches of His grace are available to anyone[83] who calls upon Him for mercy.

This is why Paul argues in Galatians 3:28-29 that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” So, God Himself would be the inheritance and portion of Abram and his seed.


  1. Hebrews 11:8-12.
  2. T.D. Alexander, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 367.
  3. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 251.
  4. Alexander, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 368.
  5. Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 120.
  6. Literally: Exalted Father
  7. Literally: Father of a Multitude
  8. Genesis 17:1-14.
  9. Circumcision was one of the practices that clearly distinguished God’s people from pagan nations. It is a sign of being part of the covenant relationship with God. It is a physical expression of faith, a response to God expressing belief that He will fulfill His promises. It is interesting to compare this sign to that of God’s covenant with Noah. The ‘bow in the clouds’ was public, circumcision private. One pledging universal benefits, the other inward promises. Both were visible expressions of the promises of God intended to excite and provide motivation for faith. Circumcision, unlike the ‘bow’, required responsive obedience. (Alec Motyer, Look to the Rock, 44.)
  10. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 121.
  11. Alexander, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 368.
  12. Genesis 11:10.
  13. Literally: Name
  14. Genesis 12:2.
  15. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 121.
  16. Genesis 12:12.
  17. Genesis 12:7, 13:14-17.
  18. Genesis 12:3.
  19. Genesis 12:2-3.
  20. Genesis 15:4-6, 13-21; 17:1-21; 18:16-19.
  21. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 122.
  22. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 47.
  23. See Genesis 15.
  24. Genesis 12:11-20; 20:1-18.
  25. Genesis 12:11-16.
  26. Genesis 20:1-18.
  27. Genesis 16:1-16.
  28. Genesis 17:16.
  29. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 259.
  30. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 122.
  31. Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23.
  32. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 122.
  33. Romans 9:19-24.
  34. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, 76.
  35. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 123.
  36. Alexander, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 369.
  37. Genesis 15:6.
  38. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 252.
  39. Ishmael.
  40. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 123.
  41. Genesis 22:2.
  42. A first born son served as a representative for the families future. Being the firstborn had certain rights and privileges, namely to inherit the rule of the family ‘kingdom.’
  43. Edmund Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 53.
  44. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 55.
  45. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 124.
  46. Genesis 25:21
  47. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 124.
  48. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 125.
  49. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 125.
  50. Genesis 32:9-12.
  51. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 125.
  52. Genesis 32:22-32.
  53. Genesis 32:13-21.
  54. Genesis 27-32.
  55. Genesis 32:12, 26.
  56. S. Motyer, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 582-583.
  57. Genesis 32:9.
  58. Goldsworthy notes: “We can only suppose that this was some kind of conversion experience for Jacob.” (125)
  59. Genesis 35:9-15.
  60. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 125.
  61. Genesis 37-50.
  62. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 126.
  63. Genesis 50:20.
  64. V.P. Hamilton, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 607.
  65. Genesis 48:5.
  66. Genesis 48:3-6.
  67. Genesis 48:8-14.
  68. Genesis 49:10.
  69. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 127.
  70. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 254.
  71. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 256.
  72. Genesis 12:2-3.
  73. Romans 4:18, 21.
  74. Hebrews 11:1
  75. Romans 4:18-22.
  76. Genesis 15:6.
  77. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 313.
  78. James 2:14-26; Romans 3:27-4:5. For a good resource on these often disputed passages, see John Piper’s sermon “Does James Contradict Paul?” at this link: http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1999/1085_Does_James_Contradict_Paul/
  79. Revelation 5:9.
  80. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 332.
  81. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 333.
  82. Romans 10:12-13.
  83. Romans 9:6-24.

Entry filed under: Biblical Theology, Calvary Baptist Church, Christian Theology, Christianity, Faith, Religion, The Great Commission Resurgence, The Southern Baptist Convention, Theology.

Biblical Theology- Part 4: God’s Covenant with Noah Our Adoption Fundraiser

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