For several decades, God has been promising Abraham that he will become a father of a great nation that will be the source of a blessing from God to the entire world. In Genesis 17, Abe is now 99 and his wife is 90, and once again God reaffirms the promise to the childless couple. Abe has heard the promise over and over, but now he laughs at the improbability that a couple in their 90’s will have a son.
God Almighty, the One who has ultimate power, explains to Abraham that He wants to have a special covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants. The sign of this covenant is to be circumcision, which reminds Abe that the promises God is giving are not only for him, but to all who will be born to his future family.
A covenant is simply an agreement that binds two parties together and lays out what is expected of each party if they are to have a relationship. It also describes what the relationship will look like if the parties live up to their end of the agreement, and lays out the consequences if a party does not live up to the terms of the covenant.
In Genesis 15, Abraham is told to bring various animals and cut them each in half. He then is to divide the halves. Many scholars believe that this “cutting of a covenant” is a picture signifying what will happen if a party to the covenant does not live up to their end of the bargain. In other words, even God is promising that if He doesn’t fulfill His covenant responsibilities, He will become like the dead animals (see Jeremiah 34:18-19). What a picture!
Then something incredible happens. Normally, both parties would walk through the cut-up animals together, showing that each is committing themselves to the consequences of not fulfilling the covenantal terms. But in Genesis 15, God makes Abraham fall into a deep sleep, where he is unable to walk through and make such promises. God walks through alone. Mankind has always failed to live up to his end of the deal when it came to having a relationship with a holy God. God understands our inability to do so, so He walks through and makes the promise for both parties. This is what Jesus did when He became a Man – He entered the world to live a perfectly righteous life (thus living up to our end of the bargain for us) and taking the punishment for not being able to live up to the covenant upon Himself (thus, being crucified in our place). Because He did what He did for us, we are now truly able to have a covenant relationship with God!
We already have seen how Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Abe is to be the father of an entire nation of people, marked by circumcision, who will also live lives of faith and obedience to a faithful God. As spiritual descendants of Abraham with spiritually circumcised hearts, all those who have placed their faith in the promised seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, should do no less.