Every organization that does not recruit new members will become extinct. Every year thousands of young teens are recruited to join gangs. Teens who have a dysfunctional family and little support are lured into the prospect of belonging to the “family” of the gang. They are proposed loyalty, support, and a true sense of belonging. Many of the initiation rites of gang members are designed to show the seriousness of their commitment and the courage of their conviction. There are a variety of initiation rites, everything from fighting your way out of a circle of gang members, to participating in a theft or in extreme cases committing murder. Whatever the initiation rite, it is designed to cost the prospective member so that they show their commitment.
Gangs have a high cost of membership. Their membership is costly because the promised reward is great. They get to belong to something beyond themselves. Many of the gang members have never experienced the true loyalty and love of a family are desperate to belong and feel that sense of support from people who claim will always have their back. Sadly, gang loyalty is a mirage. A good friend of mine joined a gang in his earlier teens with the promise of people that will always be there for him. One day he was arrested and facing up to 40 years in prison. While he was standing in the court room, he turned towards the gallery to see his loyal “family” who promised to always be there for him. Except when he turned, he saw no one. He was alone. The loyalty and belonging was a mirage.
Gangs make promises that they cannot deliver. And yet, their promises of belonging and connection are woven into our very make up as individuals. We want to belong to something beyond ourselves. We want loyalty and commitment. We want people to stand with us regardless of what comes our way. We want our membership to a community to mean something. Gang members want to experience “family.” And we are no different. We all want to experience “family.” It is easy to see the powerful allure of gang affiliation, which is why thousands of teens choose to walk through the painful and costly initiation every day. And without even knowing it, gangs are dimly reflecting a story that is far greater than the loyalty of fallen man.
God promises loyalty and belonging to his people. The difference is that his commitment to keeping his promise or covenant is not like that of a gang member who bails at the first sign of real trouble, but a promise that is an everlasting covenant. Genesis 17 sets up the requirements and initiation rite of his covenant community. Genesis 17 pictures one of the greatest events in all of redemptive history. God makes his covenant with Abram, which marks off the boundaries of the covenant community of God with a sign.
The Covenant Stated
Abram has already been received promises from God. Genesis 12:1-3, Abram is called to leave his country and his kindred to go to the land that God will show him to make him a great nation and to ultimately bless all the families of the earth. Genesis 15:1-6, God promises to give Abram a son and asks him to go out and look at the night sky and to number the stars to see how numerable his descendants would be and it says of Abram that, “he believed the Lord, and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6).
Abram did not earn righteousness, but it was given to him. Abram has not been given requirements of the promise until Genesis 17.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (Genesis 17:1-2)
The LORD appears to Abram, who is now 99 years old, and introduces himself as God Almighty, or El Shadday. El Shadday is used throughout Genesis to show God’s ability to keep his promises specially to make the barren fertile. Thirteen years had passed since Abram tried to fulfill the promise himself by uniting with his maidservant Hagar to provide an offspring. Hagar gave birth to Abram’s first son, Ishmael. God reminds Abram with His name that He and He alone has the power to fulfill His promises. How often have we tried to take God’s place to do what only He has the power to accomplish?
God tells Abram that he must walk before him and to be blameless. The language would have reminded the readers of Noah in Genesis 6:9, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” Literally, Abram is to walk before God wholly devoted to Him. Abram must totally surrender to The Lord, God Almighty, his Eternal King. As God made a covenant with Noah by putting his bow in the clouds, He is ready to make a covenant with Abram. The covenant is the Lord’s. Nine times in this chapter we see God refer to the covenant as “my covenant.” Abram gave the perfect response, Genesis 17:3, “Then Abram fell on his face.” Abram bowed in humble submission.
God inaugurates this new era in redemptive history by giving Abram a new name to clearly identify his promise.
Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No 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. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And 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. And 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.” (Genesis 17:3-8)
God changes Abram’s name to Abraham to symbolize him being the father of a multitude of nations. Remember in Genesis 12, God says to Abram that, “I will make you a great nation,” but here it is a multitude of nations clearly alluding to his promise to bless all the families of the earth. The heart of this covenant is in the last five words, “I will be their God.” God promises an everlasting covenant to be the God of the descendants of Abraham.
Notice the verb tense in Genesis 17:5, “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” God has already made Abraham into a multitude of nations before he even has received the child of the promise. God’s Word always accomplishes its purpose. Isaiah 55:10-11, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11) God will fulfill his promise.
The Covenant Sign
We know that God will fulfill his promise, but how will Abraham and his descendants show that they believe? God gives them a specific requirement in a covenant sign so that they will be a clearly identified as his people. God has already said what he is going to do, but now Abraham is receiving his marching orders. Genesis 17:9-14,
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He 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, both 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. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
The sign of given to Abraham is different than the sign given to Noah. Circumcision, unlike the rainbow, has to be performed by human beings to show their partnership in the covenant. Circumcision was a sign for the people to be marked off as God’s covenant community. They were to show that they were totally committed to God.
Circumcision was a permanent sign in the flesh as a permanent reminder of the permanency of the everlasting covenant of God. Circumcision was a painful, bloody initiation rite into the people of God. It was not easy obedience. And yet, circumcision was appropriate because it was a physical reminder that God promised physical offspring to Abraham. That which provided the seed would carry the mark of God’s people and would be a constant reminder of the promised seed that was to come.
God establishes the seriousness of his covenant by providing a poignant word play for his hearers, Genesis 17:14, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” One scholar notes,
The warning that he “shall be cut off from his people” involves “a word play on cut. He that is not himself cut (i.e. circumcised) will be cut off (i.e. ostracized). Here is the choice: be cut or be cut off.” The one who will not submit to this painful rite of covenant membership has disobeyed the covenant stipulation and thereby broken God’s covenant. Therefore he has forfeited his privilege of being part of God’s covenant community, and God requires his excommunication from the community.
God takes his covenant very seriously. Circumcision played a huge role throughout the history of God’s people.
How would the Israelites in the wilderness have received this command? The Israelites were being encouraged to continue with covenant faithfulness to God as they entered into the land of the Canaanites. Israel needed to be distinct from the surrounding world. God was very clear in his commandments, so wouldn’t all the Israelites already have been circumcised? God commanded Joshua 5:5-7,
Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people who were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the LORD; the LORD swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the LORD had sworn to their fathers to give to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised. For they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way. (Joshua 5:5-7)
A whole generation had not been circumcised because of the sin of their waywardness of their parents. Now as they were becoming adults, they needed to fulfill the covenant obligations. Understanding that the original hearers were not circumcised underscores the importance of the covenant sign. Will Israel continue to walk with God?
Outward circumcision is no longer the sign of God’s people. God is not after an outward circumcision, but the inward circumcision of the heart. Circumcision has been replaced with baptism. Baptism is now the covenant sign of God’s people. Paul makes this point explicitly in Colossians 2:11-14,
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Being buried with Christ in baptism is a sign that you have experienced the circumcision of Spirit.
Paul makes this point also in Romans 2. Circumcision is no longer outward and physical, but it is a matter of the heart. It is done by the Spirit. Paul was only drawing on Moses’s words in Deut. 10:12-16,
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deuteronomy 10:12-16)
The only way we can experience the circumcision of the heart is through the new covenant. Jeremiah 31:33-34,
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
And we demonstrate that we are children of New Covenant through rites of baptism and the Lord Supper which ensure we live in righteousness as God’s covenant community.
Baptism helps mark the boundaries for the people of God. As circumcision clearly identified the people of God in the Old Testament, baptism clearly marks the people of God in the New Testament. We all were at one time dead in our trespasses and the uncircumcision of our flesh. God fulfilled his everlasting covenant when he sent Jesus Christ to the cross. Jesus canceled the record that stood against us. The demands for our sin was literally nailed it to the cross and was paid in full by Christ. Therefore, for anyone who turns from their sin and calls upon Christ in repentance and faith is made alive by the Spirt. We are born again. We are new creatures in Christ.
The challenge in the West is that baptism does not have the same cost as it does in the rest of the world. Circumcision was painful and it was costly. It signified a permanent change. It is not uncommon in America to have people baptized two or three times, but in places where Christianity is vilified like in the Middle East and Asia, to be baptized is costly. Many of our brothers and sisters enter into the baptismal waters knowing that it may cost them their life. They literally understand the meaning of being buried with Christ. Their baptism literally may mean their death. Baptism is always costly because it says that you have died. You are no longer your own, but you belong, both body and soul, in life and in death to God and his Son Jesus Christ. Baptism is always costly because it came at the expense of the death of God’s own Son.
Let us not trivialize membership in God’s covenant community. In Abraham’s day, God said if you are not circumcised you will be cut off from God’s people. So today, if you have not experienced the circumcision of the heart, you will be cut off from God’s people. Baptism does not save you, but is a sign that you have been saved. Have you experienced the circumcision of the heart (i.e. believed by faith?) Have you been buried with Christ in baptism? The New Testament does not see those as mutually exclusive, but intimately connected.
The New Testament never explicitly baptizes infants. Infant baptism became popular in the church in the 3rd century under the leadership of Cyprian of Carthage. Paedobaptists, (those who baptize infants) believe that as babies were circumcised, so to should babies be baptized. Peter proclaims at Pentecost those all must, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins are forgiven,” and then says, “for the promise is for you and for your children,” recalling this passage in Genesis 17. Paedobaptists make their argument from anaology and silence. (By analogy see above). When I say by silence, this means that when they see households being baptized in the book of Acts, they assume there would have been infants. The Jewish believers would have connected baptism with circumcision so they would have naturally baptized infants. And yet, they miss Peter’s clear exhortation to repentance and the end the end of his quotation of Genesis 17 when he adds, “and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” and who, “received his word.” Circumcision is no longer outward and physical, but of the heart. Infants cannot experience repentance and thus they should not be baptized.
We cannot lose the distinctiveness of the covenant community. We are God’s people. We, like Abraham, are called to walk before God and be blameless. Baptism cuts us off from the world and unites us to Christ. Baptism is the entrance rite of the New Testament church as the Lord’s Supper is the continual rite that marks us off from the world. We need to celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper. God takes these signs very seriously. He took circumcision in the Old Testament very seriously (even excluding Moses from entering the promise land for failure to circumcise his children) and thus, we should take baptism in the New Testament just as seriously. It is not an add on for the Christian faith, but central to our expression as the New Testament covenant community.
Abraham took the command of the Lord very seriously. After receiving the sign, Abraham went that very day to obey. Genesis 17:22-27,
When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him. (Genesis 17:22-27)
The very first act of circumcision was done to all the people of the house including Ishmael, the house servants, and even foreigners. We see the beginning of the covenant people of God who chose to fully surrender to God.
The Covenant Son
Abraham was not the only one who had their name changed that day. God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah because she was going to bear a son. Remember God’s introduction, He is El Shadday, God Almighty, Genesis 17:15-21.
And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
Abraham didn’t fully believe God right away. He laughed at God’s suggestion that Sarah could bear a child. We know he still trusted God because he was willing to be circumcised and to circumcise his house.
Abraham walked in obedience even when he did not fully understand, because he fully convinced that God was El Shadday, God almighty who had the power to bring about his promises. Let me close today with a call for all of us to have hope. In hope to believe against hope that God is able. God is mighty to meet your needs. God is mighty to heal your sickness. And God is mighty to save. Romans 4:18-25,
In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:18-25)
The promise made to Abraham was written for our sake so that we would be counted as righteous who believe that God delivered up Jesus for our trespasses and raised him from the dead for our justification. God promised an everlasting covenant to Abraham so we would always have hope in Christ. Beloved, walk before God and live in righteousness as we await the blessed hope of the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.