Circumcision, the Sign of the Covenant

We are continuing to meditate on the life of Abraham. The people of Israel were required by God to have a sign in their flesh that would remind them of their commitment to the covenant that they had entered into with God. Much as a wedding ring is an outward sign that a person had entered into a covenant with another, so a Hebrew man had a sign on his flesh that was forever with him to remind him of his commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

9Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:9-13).

Commentator R. Kent Hughes says this of the mark of circumcision:

“Significantly, circumcision involved Abraham’s powers of procreation—the area of life in which he had resorted to fleshly expediency—and had so failed. Man’s best plans and strength of will would never bring about the promise. For Abraham circumcision was an act of repentance and a sign of dependence upon God for the promise.”[1]

Abraham had tried to bring about God’s will and purpose through doing what he could do (as in the matter of Sarai’s servant girl, Hagar, giving birth to Ishmael), and had miserably failed. God was now showing that He alone could satisfy their every need and fulfill the vision that He had given them. Only He was God Almighty, the great El Shaddai. Abraham had listened to Sarai and tried to bring about the vision by their own means, but now it was time to listen to the Lord and do things His way. He was finally at rest and waiting for God to fulfill His Word and His promises, by doing things His way and in His timing.

Circumcision is a sign upon the flesh saying that the Jewish people are committed to following God’s way in God’s timing. Later on, in the New Testament, we see that circumcision became a matter of great controversy among believers in the early church. When non-Jews became believers, some argued that they should be circumcised as well. Paul argued that this was no longer necessary. His argument followed the reasoning that believers should be circumcised at the heart level, and not focus on that which is physical.

28A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God (Romans 2:28-29).

This is the Sabbath rest of faith. No more do we have to please God by signs on the outward skin of our commitment to keeping the way of the Lord. Now it is a matter of the inward heart. The Spirit leading and guiding us from within, not by a written code of trying to please God by the works of the flesh, but realizing that God has come down from heaven and satisfied all the demands of the Law. We please God from the heart, not from the flesh.  Paul’s teaching at this time was radical. Many who listened to him were offended. After all, had God not given the ritual of circumcision as a sign to them? In this case, the symbol had become all-important. Paul wanted them to see that it was a symbol of the truth that these new believers were already circumcised in their hearts, set apart though faith in Christ.

Thank God that we now have a new covenant, which has been sealed with Messiah’s blood.  He has given us what we need to be perfect and complete. When Christ died for our sanctification, circumcision was no longer required, as He is our sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30). Paul explained it well when he wrote: “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Jesus Christ, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). Keith Thomas

[1] R. Kent Hughes, Genesis, Beginning and Blessing. Published by Crossway, Page 248.

El Shaddai Appears to Abram

1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” 3Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you (Genesis17:1-6).

God reveals Himself to Abraham by a new name, El Shaddai, translated as God Almighty in the New International Version. This is the first use of this name of God in the Scriptures. El Shaddai describes the God who makes things happen by means of his majestic power and might. El signifies strong one, and Shaddai literally means the Breasted One. We should not understand that to mean that He has female body parts, it is a word picture of God as the Strong-Nourisher, the Strength-Giver, Satisfier, and All Bountiful, the Supplier of all the needs of His people. Yes, He is the one who can restore life and fruitfulness to Abraham and Sarah and cause them to have a child, and to fulfill every one of His promises to them and us.

There is a condition though. Abraham must walk before the Lord and be Tamiym, translated into English with the word “blameless” (verse 1). Tamiym means to be complete, without defect, faultless, blameless, and having integrity. God has been watching the character of this man evolve over time as the Lord has been working in his life, transforming his character to one whose heart is blameless toward Him. He requires the same of us. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Further, God tells him that he will be a father of many nations and that kings will come from him (verses 5-6). What amazing promises God gave to Abraham and to us also as His children. Each of us that have entered into covenant with God on the basis of the blood covenant of the Messiah has been called to walk before the Lord in purity and blamelessness. Do not let this world conform you into its image of godlessness and evil. Walking blamelessly before the Lord sounds difficult, almost as difficult as Jesus’ command to “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.” How can we fulfill this command? We see elsewhere in scripture where Micah the prophet also revealed what God requires of man:

“He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

We need God’s help—the One called El Shaddai. By faith we must cast ourselves on Him, being vulnerable and crying out to Him to empower and enable us. He will do it. He does not ask us to rely on what resources we have, but on His resources. What do you need El Shaddai to do for you—what prayer do you need to ask God about today? He is listening and waiting for your cry. Keith Thomas

The Patience Test

We are continuing to think on the testing of Abraham’s faith, and how it relates to all believers being tested in similar ways. In the time of waiting God takes us through a patience test. This test happens to a man or woman of God when their expectations in God are not fulfilled “on schedule.” (Of course, we think in terms of our schedule, not God’s!) Patience is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 6:2). This word comes from a Latin word which means, “to suffer.” To pass the patience test a person has to yield to the Lord for His will to be accomplished His way and in His timing. Men and women of God down through the centuries have been given visions of what God wants them to do, but almost always they have had to wait for God to act. Why is this? God does not want His people to short circuit the process by jumping in and trying to fulfill the vision with their own strength and natural talents. He uses talents and abilities, which He has given to us, but it must be in God’s timing and not ours. Waiting on God’s timing is the hard part.

The testing time is different and unique to each of God’s servants. After all, The Lord knows each one of His children intimately. He knows what we need to experience in order for our character to be shaped so that we are ready for the task. For instance, Joseph was given a vision of his brother’s sheaves bowing down to him (Genesis 37:7). The interpretation was that his brothers would literally bow down before him, but the fulfilling of the vision would be many years in the future. In the waiting period, Joseph’s character had to be changed and made ready for his future as the vice president of the nation of Egypt. He had to endure years as a slave in Potiphar’s house, before being falsely accused and thrown into prison. While in prison, the dreams of two men of pharaoh’s staff were correctly interpreted, but Joseph short-circuited God’s work by pleading with the cupbearer to get him out of jail. God made him wait another two years before Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered Joseph’s unique talent of dream interpretation to Pharaoh (Genesis 40:23 and 41:1). Sometimes God deliberately makes a man or woman of God wait until things are humanly impossible before He moves in our situation. This is what He did to Abram and Sarai. Fourteen years had gone by and it was now many years since it had ever been naturally possible for Sarai to conceive and bear a child.

Why The Wait?

We know that God was teaching Abram and Sarai valuable lessons in this waiting period. Why did it go on so long? Do we have a part to play and can we delay God’s promise by obedience or disobedience? It is impossible for us to know how long Abram and Sarai would have waited if they had never taken matters into their own hands and used Hagar to bring forth Ishmael. The “waiting time” is also a time of testing. We need to be alert and aware of the part we play in the waiting time.

The Lord shows up after a fourteen year wait, twenty-three years from the initial promise, and tells Abram that from now on he shall no longer be called Abram, which means exalted father, but his name from now is changed to Abraham, which means father of a multitude. The interesting thing about God’s word to Abraham was that the Lord spoke in the present tense and not the future tense. He said, “I have made you a father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). Abraham was asked to believe God’s Word about himself before it became a reality. Imagine what that was like going over to Mamre to see his friends, Eshcol and Aner, his allies in the war against the kings of the north (Genesis 14:13). How does a man tell his friends that his name has changed at ninety-nine years of age into father of a multitude? Do you think that Abraham corrected people every time they called him Abram? I wonder. Don’t you think that Eshcol and Aner would have laughed at him along with many others of his friends? Today we would consider a person like Abraham to be eccentric, but the Bible calls him the Friend of God (James 2:23). My prayer is for you and me to be a Friend of God. Keith Thomas

Waiting for God.

16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael. 1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” 3Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you (Genesis 16:16-17:6).

When we look at the life of Abraham, we see a man who had learned to wait. The end of Genesis chapter sixteen points out to us that Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael, but chapter seventeen tells us that nothing had happened for 14 years until God finally spoke to him again at ninety-nine years of age (Genesis 17:1). What can we learn from what is not written about that time?

Why do you suppose God made Abram wait so long? What work does God do in a person through making him or her wait? Some of the greatest lessons I have learned have been in times of waiting. God does His best preparation work in His servants in the waiting times. The prophet Isaiah gives us a picture of the preparation of a servant of the Lord:

Before I was born the LORD called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. 2He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver (Isaiah 49:1-2).

For every servant of God called to do an important task for the Kingdom of God, there is a preparation time that is compared to the making of an arrow. There is a personal calling, then a preparation of what issues out from his lips, a cleansing of his language. He or she are also drawn close to the Lord, an intimacy under God’s hand before a polishing of his character.  And then, lastly, there is the concealment in the quiver. During this phase of training and preparation, a man or woman of God are not allowed to do anything that is “seen” by the world, at least for a time. He or she is called to be in hidden ministry that has to wait until the right timing to be shot in ministry from the Lord’s bow. Think of Moses and his having to wait forty years while shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness of Midian. God made him wait until he was eighty years of age before the Lord would use him to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt. He definitely had to endure the hiddenness and waiting of the quiver!  Imagine how hard it would have been for him to be trained in the best schools of Egypt, and then do nothing seemingly of value while he shepherded the sheep in the desert. Why would God do that to a man? The greater the task, the greater the training. It is hard to wait for God’s timing, but it is part of the training. Keith Thomas

The God Who Sees and Hears Us

4He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.” 6“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. 7The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur.

When Hagar, Sarai’s slave girl, becomes pregnant, there were changes in the household and relationships. Things got messy! Hagar becomes proud and begins to look down upon her mistress. We don’t know what is said or the behavior of Hagar, but whatever the attitude of the younger Hagar to the seventy-five-year-old Sarai, it is one of suffering for Sarai:

5Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me” (Verse 5).

Sarai now blames Abram for his lack of leadership in allowing this shortcut to go ahead, and she is right. Abram was the leader of the home, the one who gets direction from God and leads the family accordingly, yet his leadership is reactionary to go with the flow, rather than seeking God for His direction as to the strife that he has now brought upon his family and into his home. When Sarai brings the situation up with Abram, he should have been the one to sort it out, but instead he throws it all back into Sarai’s lap:

6“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her (Verse 6).

Abram should have dealt kindly to Hagar and counseled Sarai to do the same. After all, they were the ones who came up with the plan in the first place! Unfortunately, Abram does not bear responsibility for Hagar. Notice that in his response to Sarai, he does not even call Hagar by her name, but calls her ‘Sarai’s slave’ (Verse 6). It is as if he is distancing himself from the whole situation, and from Hagar herself, along with the child he is responsible for. It is complete abdication. Hagar is not asked how she feels about all that is going on, and Abram takes little care for her soul. Having been used as a commodity, she is now cast aside. Surely she must be, at this point, a visible reminder of the failure of Abram and Sarai in trying to take a shortcut to God’s purposes. How many unwanted feelings did this situation breed for all three involved? I’m sure Hagar was left feeling that this baby she is carrying will be unwanted by the family she has been a part of. Hagar must have felt very insecure at a time in life that a woman needs even more security with a baby on the way. Can you imagine her grief and state of mind as she ran away from home? We are told that she went to a deserted place where she sat down by a spring. A deserted place tells us that she wanted to be alone. It is possible she did not feel safe, having been badly treated by Sarai and not sure of their intentions toward her and the child she was carrying. She is retreating, licking her emotional wounds, so to speak, and seeking solitude when the Angel of the Lord comes to her. Thank God that whenever we are in a dry and desert place, there is always a well of salvation, and our God is always watching over us.

If you have not yet entrusted your life to the God of all comfort, it is time to cast your soul upon Him, for He cares for you. Keith Thomas