Events earlier in the chapter serve as an important backdrop to this study. In the previous 14 verses, God introduced circumcision as a symbol that marked the people of God. Circumcision marked a ratification of the covenant that God established. God also changed Abram's name to "Abraham", meaning "father of many nations", in line with the covenantal promise that He is making.
(A) The mother of a nation of kings (Gen 17:15-16).
God changes Sarai's name to Sarah. Though both mean the same thing ("princess"), here, God is giving her reasons to be worthy of her title. God promises 3 blessings:
- Abraham's son will be given through Sarah
- Sarah will become the mother of nations
- Their sons will become kings.
All these blessings come to and through this old and barren woman Sarah. Verse 16 puts at the forefront this barren woman Sarah. In their culture, it was shameful not to have children, especially at old age because it is a sign that God has not blessed her. She was deemed fruitless, akin to a dried tree, not valued. In the agricultural context, not to have children also meant economic risk. Imagine what pain and struggles they faced. Though deemed fruitless and possibly scorned by society, God was still not done with Sarah, and chose her to accomplish His plans, purposes and promises. It is at this time that God promised a child by Sarah. Not that there wasn’t already a child, because there was Ishmael. Technically, Abraham has an heir. To God, Sarah is precious. Though the world thought of her as worthless, God still values and treasures her. Abraham has nothing to base it on, save for the Word of God.
(B) The father’s sins shown great mercy (Gen 17:17-21).
We read in these verses Abraham's response to God's incredible promise. Abraham laughs when he heard all that God had promised. Things did look impossible, for he was 100 and Sarah, 90. Abraham put forward his existing son, Ishmael instead.
But God, reiterated that He will use the son that He will give to Sarah to accomplish everything. Abraham was to name this son "Isaac", which means "he will laugh". Through this son, God will transform Abraham's laughter from one of bitter cynicism, to one of true joy. God is a God of the impossible, and he does things that we don’t expect. This is the Gospel – a way of the impossible. We try to tame it, to fit things into our ideas and world. BUT GOD SAYS NO. It is His world and His work and He will do it His way. This is the same God today. And yet, we are like Abraham. There are so many truths in the gospel that we don’t even dare believe completely in. As Christians, do we realise that our old self has died and we have a new life in and with Christ? Do we believe in the transforming power of the gospel, that His Word will be victorious and true and last till the end even though the world looks so different?
However, God did not forget or ignore Ishmael. God also blessed Ishmael not because he was worthy, nor was it because Abraham asked. Instead, He blessed Ishmael because He is a God of mercy. Ishmael was born out of wedlock and a result of Abraham’s incompetence at managing his family. God didn’t need to bless Ishmael, but He did – all out of love and mercy. This family is a picture of sin, a repeat of Gen 3. Yet, God looked at their sin, and continued to bless this family abundantly. What can we say about a God like this? Faithful, generous, patient. This is God stepping in to mop up the mess in our lives, even when we try to do it right. Our best intentions and efforts are not going to achieve much, and God kindly steps in to pick up our pieces. And we are like Abraham and Sarah, making messes like this all the time. And God stillgraciously steps in to pick up the pieces. Even today.
(C) The family’s obedience through faith in the promise (Gen 17:22-27).
Abraham responded in faith and obedience to all that God said. Circumcision was done, not only to Abraham and Ishmael, but also to his entire household.
In Rom 4:18-25, we read also of Abraham's obedience.
- Abraham hoped in the promise, though circumstances did not seem favourable. Reality did not control his belief in God’s Word (Rom 4:18).
- The physical limitations of his body and his wife’s did not weaken his faith (Rom 4:19).
- Faith is connected to the relationship with God. In trusting God’s character continually, he gives God the glory. This is how we can give glory to God (Rom 4:20).
- Abraham believed that God’s character is faithful, and He will do what He has promised. To not have faith in God is not to trust God’s person. To have faith in God is to give God the glory, for we testify to his faithfulness (His being). God takes this personally (Rom 4:21).
In this study, we see a God of grace and love, reaching out to care for the Sarahs of the world -- possibly forgotten, bitter and hopeless. We see a God that shows great mercy, continuing to provide for a family that has messed up, choosing to bless the undeserving. We continue to read of a God that accomplishes His great plans through seemingly impossible and illogical ways. We are reminded that this is the God of the Bible. He does not fit our categories, and does not work according to our plans.
This is truly a God that works against what we deem as impossible. This God values those that no one else values, that no one believes in. This God is embodied by King Jesus, who came in not riding in pomp and splendor, but on a humble donkey. This was a king that was not born in a kingly palace, but in a stable. He was born to parents too poor to afford a good sacrifice, only two birds. Jesus surrounded himself not with the established of his time, but with poor fishermen, tax collectors and outcasts.
In Christ, we too, are given new lives, and raised with Christ (Eph 2:5-6). When we, like Abraham, believe in faith, that Jesus "was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (Rom 4:25), it too, will be counted to us as righteousness. Let us continue to live by faith and not by our own sight, trusting in this great loving, merciful and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, and us too.