Post Series on Genesis 17:1-27:
- The Command with a Promise (Genesis 17:1-2)
- The Promise with a Command (Genesis 17:3-14)
- The Faith and Obedience of Abraham (Genesis 17:15-27)
After issuing his command that Abram walk before him in obedience–while simultaneously promising Abram the fullness of the power of God Almighty–God then confirms his covenant with Abram by instituting the sign of circumcision:
3Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.
9And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be sign of the covenant between me and you. 12He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Genesis 17:3-14)
At this juncture, God swears a covenantal promise to Abram, specifically that Abram would become the father of a multitude of nations, from whom kings would come. Accordingly, he changes Abram’s name from Abram (“exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of a multitude”), and he further promises to Abram that he would give Abram’s offspring the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession.
Now, these were not new promises. God had been promising Abram an offspring and the land since the beginning. Changing Abram’s name is something new, although the name change only underscores what God has been promising the whole time. Clearly, this is not an independent covenant from what God had cut with Abram in Genesis 15–rather, the covenant God is cutting with Abram here is a continuation and confirmation of the original covenant.
The difference in the promise between this passage and Genesis 15, then, is that God promises more to Abram than just offspring and land. Here, God actually promises himself to Abram, and to Abram’s offspring after him: “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:7).
The Promise with a Command
It is on the basis of this promise that God issues a command, that Abraham must circumcise himself, and every male among him, as “a sign of the covenant between me and you” (v. 11). As a sign, circumcision points to a larger reality–that is, circumcision points to the promise that God will “be God to you and to your offspring after you” (v. 7). Abraham was commanded to circumcise, but the command came on the basis of a promise.
Calvin explains this well:
In the first place; since circumcision is called, by Moses, the covenant of God, we thence infer that the promise of grace was included in it. For had it been only a mark or token of external profession among men, the name of covenant would be by no means suitable, for a covenant is not otherwise confirmed, than as faith answers to it. And it is common to all sacraments to have the word of God annexed to them, by which he testifies that he is propitious to us, and calls us to the hope of salvation; yea, a sacrament is nothing else than a visible word, or sculpture and image of the grace of God, which the word more fully illustrates.
If, then, there is a mutual relation between the word and faith; it follows, that the proposed end and use of the sacraments is to help, promote and confirm faith. But they who deny that sacraments are supports to faith, or that they aid the word in strengthening faith, must of necessity expunge the name covenant; because, either God there offers himself as a Promiser, in mockery and falsely, or else, faith there finds that on which it may support itself, and from which it may confirm its own assurance.
And although we must maintain the distinction between the word and the sign; yet let us know, that as soon as the sign itself meets our eyes, the word ought to sound in our ears.
(John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis, p. 451-52; CCEL)
The covenant sign of circumcision points to the covenant promise that God will be God to us, and to our offspring after us.
Seen in this light, circumcision is neither a burdensome regulation, nor a religious ceremony that we go through to earn God’s favor. Instead, the covenant sign of circumcision is all about promise, and it is given to confirm, strengthen, and encourage our faith.
In the same way, neither baptism nor the Lord’s Supper (the two signs of the New Covenant) are burdensome regulations that we are forced to do, nor ways in which we merit God’s approval. Instead, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are all about promise–God’s promise to be God to us, and to our children after us. We receive these sacraments with joy to confirm, strengthen, and encourage our faith.
In the sacraments, then, God commands that we embrace his precious and magnificent promises. Praise God for his goodness to us!