As we saw recorded in Genesis 12,[1] when the LORD first appeared to Abram, he asked him to leave his home and go to a land he would show him and he further promised to make of him a great nation.[2] We saw that this promise of both land and offspring was one the LORD repeated to Abram in Genesis 13.[3] Two weeks ago,[4] as we considered the opening verses of Genesis 15, we saw the LORD yet again appear to Abram in a vision and promise him that, though he and Sarai were currently childless, a son who was Abram’s own flesh and blood would be his heir and, what is more, that his offspring would be as the stars in the sky.[5] This was a promise that Abram believed. And his belief that God would do as he had promised was “credited…to him as righteousness.”[6] One who is righteous is one who believes that God will do what he has promised. And Abram’s belief in God, his righteousness, will continue to be displayed throughout his life as seeks to live according to God’s Word.

Well having reassured Abram that he would give him an heir, the remainder of chapter 15 records how the LORD similarly assured him that he would one day possess the land. Thus we read in verse 7, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” This way of self-identifying by God is in keeping with ancient royal covenants in which a king would identify himself and provide a brief historical prologue.[7] In this particular self-identification, God who is King over the universe he has created reminded Abram that he is the true God, the God who took him from his formerly pagan roots when he lived in Ur[8] with his father who at the time worshiped other gods.[9] This very God, the Sovereign LORD acknowledged by Abram in verse 2,[10] brought Abram out of Ur to give him the land of Canaan—or present day Israel. Thus by this self-identification we see that God has not only reminded Abram of his initial call, but has also reminded him of the original promise he made to him to give him possession of the land. And we’ll continue to see how throughout Abram’s life God kept revealing himself to him as Abram ever sought to follow in God’s ways.

Now as we last saw Abram question the LORD regarding how he would provide him an heir since he and Sarai were childless—not to mention that Sarai was both barren[11] and, at 65, beyond the age of childbearing—so did Abram now question the LORD concerning the land he had promised. Thus Abram asked him as recorded in verse 8, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” This is once again a reasonable question. Though Abram had material wealth and, with the LORD’s help, was able to rescue with but 318 men his nephew Lot from a coalition of kings who had taken him captive, [12] the fact of the matter was that the land the LORD had promised Abram was already occupied by Canaanites among others.[13] So this was a fair question. But notice that even in the midst of his posing his request to God, Abram once again addressed him as “Sovereign LORD.” This suggests that Abram wasn’t so much questioning God in the sense of doubting whether or not he was able to do such a thing. No, Abram was inquiring of God how these unlikely turn of events would come about.

By way of response, we have recorded for us a ritual that would have been recognized as such in Abram’s day but which to us seems very foreign. The first part of this ritual is recorded in verse 9 and is completed in verse 17. Beginning with verse 9 we read how the LORD told Abram, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram did as the LORD asked him. As recorded in verses 10–11, he “brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.” This is yet another instance in which God spoke and Abram obeyed. God asked for a heifer, goat, ram, dove, and young pigeon and Abram fetched these. And after dividing them, he guarded them in order that they might not be eaten by birds of prey. We’ll return to the meaning of this ritual when we get to verse 17 but will first consider what happened next.

Now some time had passed after Abram obeyed and kept watch for we’re told in verse 12 that “As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” Given that the chapter opened with the LORD taking Abram outside at night and had him look up at the sky, promising to make his offspring as numerous as the stars,[14] it’s likely that another day had passed for the sun was now again setting. And as “Abram fell into a deep sleep,” we’re told not simply that night fell but that “a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” Thus did God, who is light and peace, again appear to Abram in a vision while he experienced “a thick and dreadful darkness.” Starting in verse 13 we read how the LORD said to Abram,

Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.

Keep in mind that Abram’s question to the LORD had been how he could know that he would gain possession of the land God had promised (verse 8). But we see here that the LORD answered Abram far more than he had asked. For starters, he let him know that the fulfillment of the promise of possessing the land would not happen for a long time—long after Abram had died. In fact there would be 400 years when Abram’s descendants would be strangers “in a country not their own” where they would “be enslaved and mistreated.” This country, in turn, would be punished by God and afterward his people would “come out with great possessions.”[15] We, of course, know from later Scripture that the land spoken of will turn out to be Egypt.

Abram was further told, verse 16, “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”[16] As one commentator notes, the Amorites, descendants of Ham who are often listed along with the Canaanites, will be “dispossessed of their land as an act of divine punishment. At that time, their accumulated iniquity will be so great that God will no longer tolerate their presence in the land.”[17] Again, Abram would be witness to none of this for, as the LORD told him, verse 15, “You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.” And Abram indeed lived to the good old age of 175 years![18]

Well what we have recorded in this vision to Abram is, in effect, God’s revelation of what was yet to occur. It’s a revelation that would not come to pass until hundreds of years later during the time of the exodus. So let’s review what has taken place thus far: After Abram asked the LORD how he would know that he would take possession of the land that God had promised (verse 8),

First, God had Abram bring him “a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon” (verse 9);

Next, “Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two”—the dove and young pigeon excepting—“and arranged the halves opposite each other.” And Abram took care that birds of prey wouldn’t come down upon the carcasses of these animals (verse 10);

Then the LORD spoke to Abram while he was in a deep sleep, and detailed for him what would happen to his descendants and how long it would take them to return and finally possess the land the LORD had promised Abram.

And it is at this point that the narrative returns to the ritual of the divided carcasses. As stated in verse 17, “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.” Again, though foreign to us, what we have enacted here is a ritual whose general features are in keeping with those found in other ancient Near Eastern texts. Now given that Gods’ presence is often associated with fire in Scripture,[19] the “smoking firepot” and “blazing torch” may be understood as representing God’s presence.[20] And the significance of the LORD passing between the pieces of the divided animals is that in doing so God is calling a curse upon himself should he fail to keep his covenant promise;[21] should the foretold events he has disclosed to Abram fail to come to pass. As one commentator puts it, what we find here may be understood as “a type of oath that involves self-curse if not fulfilled; God will become like the dead animals if he does not keep his word.”[22] Another similarly states that the idea here is, “May it be so done to me if I do not keep my oath and pledge.”[23] Therefore, here we find the answer to Abram’s question in verse 8. How can Abram know he will gain possession of the land? Because the Sovereign LORD has sworn by himself, the highest authority that exists, that he will keep the terms of the covenant, of the agreement, he made with Abram to give him possession of the land.

What has been presented in these verses is known as the Abrahamic covenant. This is a covenant, an agreement, a commitment made by God to Abram without condition. Notice that there was nothing Abram was asked to do in return. God initiated this covenant and God would carry it out. In other words, this is purely a covenant of grace, a covenant of promise. As stated beginning in verse 18, “18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.’” And with this part of the LORD’s promise we find yet another connection with practices of the day in that the LORD giving Abram land parallels the way in which kings would give royal land grants to their loyal servants and their descendants in perpetuity. A final observation is that the phrase translated as “made a covenant” in verse 18 uses a Hebrew idiom that literally means, “to cut a covenant.”[24] The “cutting” here refers to the slaughtering of the animals.

Thus we’ve now come full circle for Abram asked, verse 8, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

“Abram,” the LORD answered in effect, “although you personally will not possess the land, your descendants will.

“You can know this because I have pledged it to you unconditionally;

“You can know this because I’ve revealed to you what awaits your descendants—the good, the bad, and the ugly. For though your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country and will be enslaved and mistreated there, I am the LORD. And just as I brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land and have prospered you, so I will bring your descendants out of a land that is foreign to them and prosper them;

“You can know this because I have sealed this pledge with a promise; I have passed through the pieces of the sacrifice you have made at my behest and vowed, ‘So may it be done to me if I cease to keep this pledge.’

“Abram, this is how you can know that you will gain possession of this land. For I am God who not only makes promises, but I am God who keeps every promise I make. Therefore, you can trust my Word. Therefore, you can trust me.”

And trust in God did Abram. For his following the one and only Sovereign LORD began with believing God; and his belief in God as demonstrated by his obedience to God carried him through to the end of his days. Again, we know how the story of the promised land ended for after many zigs and zags Abram’s descendants did come to possess the land of Canaan, the land which in time took on the name of Abram’s grandson, Israel.

But as we turn to the book of Hebrews, we’re provided further insight into the nature of this story’s ending. As stated in verse 8 of Hebrews 11, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” This is the part of the story we’ve already witnessed from Genesis 12. But verse 9 of Hebrews 11 summarizes a larger part of the story we have yet to see: “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” Dear Abram whom the LORD called out of Ur of the Chaldeans was promised a land that, while he lived, he never knew as home. For he, like his son Isaac after him and his grandson Jacob—later to be known as Israel—after him, only knew the land of Canaan as they lived in tents. During their respective lifetimes, they did not possess Canaan. During their respective lifetimes, Canaan was not their home.

But then verse 10 states something striking for we’re told that even at the time that God made this promise, Abram understood that the land God had promised him—with a pledge and a sacrifice—was one that was far greater than the literal earthly land. For verse 10 of Hebrews 11 tells us that Abram “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” As one scholar notes, at this time, “‘country’ and ‘city’ were virtually interchangeable since a country was viewed as an extension of its royal city.”[25] Therefore, the city, the country, Abram looked forward to was one in which he would no longer be a stranger. The city Abram looked forward to was a permanent land, an eternal home. It was permanent because it was a heavenly city, a heavenly country. Jesus Christ himself, who was not only fully human but was also fully God, affirmed this when he said concerning Abram that he “rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”[26] How did Jesus know this about Abram? Because as God, Christ has ever existed. As he said to the Jewish leaders in his day, “before Abraham was born, I am!”[27] So we see that thousands of years earlier, Abram sought an eternal home that only God in Christ could deliver.

As the author of Hebrews goes on to say in verse 13 of chapter 11, not only Abram but all who followed the one and only Sovereign LORD “were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” And how do we know this? Because, verses 14–15 answer, “14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.” Yet Abram didn’t return to Ur of the Chaldeans where he was from. No, he believed God; and followed God; and continued to believe and follow God until the day that he died. Because, as stated in verse 16, he and all the saints who lived by believing God, by placing their faith in God, “were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

Dear sisters and brothers, this is what God calls us to. For we, too, are those who live by faith in him. We, too, are those who live by faith in what he’s promised in his Word. We, too, are those who live by faith in his Son who lived, suffered, died, and rose from death in order that he might give his life to all who believe in him. The promise of an eternal home with Christ Jesus, our Savior and LORD, is one we all must see and welcome from a distance. For we all must admit that this earthly dwelling isn’t our final home. We, too, are foreigners and strangers on earth. And heaven, spending eternity with God, is the promised land. Heaven, spending eternity with God, is our true home. For heaven is a home that is given to all who are righteous, that is, to all who, like Abram, have faith alone in God alone;

heaven is a home that is given to all who believe God will do what he has promised;

heaven is a home that is given by God’s grace alone for there is nothing we can do to earn it;

heaven is a home that is given through Christ’s sacrifice alone for there is no other way of coming to our heavenly Father and becoming part of his family;

heaven is a home that is promised by God and his Word alone;

heaven is a home that is guaranteed by the sealing and indwelling[28] of Christ’s Holy Spirit alone;

heaven is a home that exists for the glory of our heavenly Father alone.

Therefore let us embrace and follow and celebrate and share our good—and kind—and merciful—and loving—and great God knowing that as we do, he is not ashamed to be called our God for he has prepared an eternal city for us where we can continue to love and enjoy and live with and for him for all eternity!

Let us pray.

 

[1] See sermon preached on June 14, 2020, God’s Blessing through Abraham, on Genesis 12:1–9.

[2] The opening of Genesis 12 presents two appearances of the LORD to Abram which I’m counting as one. See vv. 1–3, 7: 1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you….” 7 The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your seed I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

[3] See sermon preached on June 28, 2020, Valuing Others above Ourselves, on Genesis 13:5–18. Genesis 13:14–17: 14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring[Or seed; also in verse 16] forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

[4] July 5, 2020, Believe God—Be Credited his Righteousness, on Genesis 15:1–6.

[5] Genesis 15:4–5: Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This [Eliezer, Abram’s servant] man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring[Or seed] be.”

[6] Genesis 15:6.

[7] Per the Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 15:7. For another example of such self-identification, see Exodus 20:2:  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

[8] Genesis 11:31: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.” Ur was about 186 miles southeast of modern Baghdad on a bend of the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia.

[9] As recorded in Joshua 24:2: This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.”

[10] Genesis 15:2: But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?”

[11] Genesis 11:30: Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.

[12] Genesis 14:14–16: 14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.

[13] Genesis 12:6: Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.; Genesis 13:7: And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.

[14] Genesis 15:5: [The LORD] took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

[15] See Exodus 12:35–36: 35 The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. 36 The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.

[16] Zondervan NIV Study Bible suggests 400 years; Crossway ESV Study Bible suggests 600-800 years.

[17] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 15:13–16.

[18] Genesis 25:7–8: Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.

[19] E.g., see Exodus 13:21–22: 21 By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

[20] Others have taken the symbolism even further by viewing “the ritual [as] an acted sign in which the sacrificial animals symbolize Abram’s descendants (all of Israel), the ‘birds of prey’…signify their enemies (unclean nations), and the ‘fire pot’ and ‘torch’…represent God’s presence” (Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 15:9–18).

[21] See, e.g., Jeremiah 34:18–20: 18 Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.

[22] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 15:9–18.

[23] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 15:17.

[24] Hebrew berith.

[25] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Hebrews 11:14.

[26] John 8:56.

[27] John 8:58.

[28] As God sealed his pledge with a promise to Abraham by walking through the halves of the animals, so now he has sealed his pledge of eternal life to all who believe in his crucified and risen Son by giving his Holy Spirit. See Ephesians 1:13–14: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.; 1 Corinthians 6:19–20: 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.