In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham and promises to bless Him abundantly. In chapters 13-14, we see that begin to come to pass. Despite Abram’s own sins and shortcomings, God preserves him and blesses him. In Genesis 15, then, God repeats the promises of blessing. Why the repetition? It highlights the faithfulness of God – even in times when it may seem (to us) like He has forgotten what He promised. And it provides a clearer glimpse of the details involved in relationship with God – details about both His character and the way in which we should respond to Him.
We are not told how much time passes between chapter 12 and chapter 15, but apparently it was enough to cause Abraham to begin doubting God’s promises. Even though God had preserved him and blessed him, he was still childless – no doubt wondering how the Lord would make him a “great nation” (12:2) without any children. After God reiterated that Abram would have a great reward (15:1), Abram brought this concern to God and was reassured that the promises still stood: God would give him a son of his very own. Abram believed God, and God counted him as being righteous because he believed (15:6).
Then, in order to verify and cement the certainty of His promise, God “upped the ante” by entering into a binding covenant with Abram. He had Abram sacrifice a number of animals and lay them beside each other (15:7-11). Then, after putting Abram into a deep sleep, God came to him in a vision and reiterated the promises: Abram would have offspring, and even though those offspring would be slaves in a foreign land, they would eventually inhabit the land promised to Abram (15:12-16, 18-21). The promise was strengthened by a vision of a fire pot and torch passing through the mutilated pieces of the sacrifices – indicating that if God did not keep His promise, He should be mutilated like the animals had been (15:17). No doubt, this was a profound episode in the life of Abraham, and it is recorded for us because it is soaked with meaning and truth.
First, on the simplest level, this episode demonstrates that our emotions – our doubts, fears, and frustrations – are not the deciding factor of what is true and false. Though we may feel as if God has forgotten His promise, He never does so. Though we may see no way that God’s word can come to pass, it most certainly will. God always does what He says He will do – our feelings or fears about the matter notwithstanding.
Second, this episode demonstrates both the power and faithfulness of God. God’s purpose was to use one man to bring forth a people who would outnumber the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. He promised to do it, and the rest of the Bible makes clear that He kept His word (Deut. 10:22). Moreover, just as God promised, Abram’s descendants were slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Ex. 12:40-42) and then they did come back to the land in the fourth generation. Everything happened just as God said. Why was that? Because God is the sovereign ruler of all things – declaring the end from the beginning because He ordains the end from the beginning. Just as God knew the future then because He had planned it, He knows the future now because He has planned it.
This means there is reason for confidence and hope. Though we do not know the future, God does. Though we are uncertain and weak, God is not. Though we doubt and fear and get confused, God does not. His power is as great as ever, and His purpose is as certain as ever.
Third, this episode gives us a glimpse into the nature of relationship with God. Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Paul quotes that verse in Romans 4:3 and uses it to make a very clear, strong point: the way we gain right standing with God is not through our works but through faith in Him. Even though the object of our faith is more specific and precise than was Abram’s – because we know about Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection, the basic core is the same. We cannot gain access to God by our merits; such access comes only when we believe. Abraham was not justified because of his works – as we see in chapters 12 and 16, he had plenty of sin to go around. He was justified because He believed. Without a doubt, that faith was then demonstrated in his actions – as all true faith is (James 2:21-24), but we must not miss the fact that faith preceded his works and was the basis for those works.
This episode still stands as relevant today. God is faithful to do what He has promised. We can trust Him, even when we cannot see or understand. And that’s the good news: all He asks us to do is trust Him. If we will believe, we will be counted righteous. By faith, we are children of Abraham, and that is what God intended all along.