Summary: The covenant established with Abraham is not just about the land, or circumcision - but it is also about God's plan of redemption for the nations, via the cross of Jesus.
A COVENANT FOR THE NATIONS
Abram was ninety-nine years old. Ishmael, his son by his wife’s slave girl Hagar, was thirteen. Now, after a long silence, the LORD spoke anew to Abram. When we try to work out God’s purposes on our own strength, as Abram and Sarai had done, it often leads us into those places where God seems silent to us.
The LORD introduced Himself anew, under a name not hitherto used in the Scriptures: “El Shaddai” - the gist of which is captured in the translation “God Almighty” (Genesis 17:1). It may take afflictions, or long silences from God, before we recognise that we should not be ‘working out our own salvation’ on our own (Philippians 2:12-13; cf. Zechariah 4:6; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
The LORD says to Abram, “Walk before me” (Genesis 17:1). Follow the example of Enoch (Genesis 5:24), and Noah (Genesis 6:8-9). Life is a pilgrimage: and when we would turn aside to the right or deviate to the left, the Good Shepherd comes up behind us and redirects our paths (Isaiah 30:21).
As for you, “be blameless” (Genesis 17:1). Be perfect, be whole, be an integrated human being. I think this may be what David means when he prays, ‘unite my heart’ (Psalm 86:11). James encourages a whole-hearted commitment, which in turn leads to a perfection and entirety which lacks nothing (James 1:4).
The LORD had already ‘cut a covenant’ with Abram (Genesis 15:17-18), walking Himself between the pieces of the sacrifice. Now He “makes” or “gives” His covenant to Abram (Genesis 17:2). Later he added security and changelessness by “establishing” it in perpetuity with Abram’s seed after him (Genesis 17:7).
To the old man who was ‘as good as dead’ (Hebrews 11:12) - and to his wife whose womb shared in this deadness (Romans 4:19) - there came the promise, “I will multiply you” (Genesis 17:2). You (both) shall be father and mother of many nations (Genesis 17:4-5; Genesis 17:16).
Abram fell on his face (Genesis 17:3) - in worship no doubt, although there was also later intermingled some laughter (Genesis 17:17). Sarah also laughed in her heart, but the LORD reminded the old couple, as He would later remind Zechariah and Elizabeth (cf. Luke 1:36-37), that ‘with God nothing is impossible’ (Genesis 18:12-14).
In what sense is Abram to be a father of many nations (Genesis 17:4)? In the natural he had already been working on this. Of course there was Ishmael, and there were to be others (Genesis 25:1-4). But between them would come Isaac, the son of promise, and from him Jacob/Israel and the Jews.
Spiritually, the answer lies with the Jews, and through them the church. ‘Salvation is of the Jews,’ said Jesus (John 4:22). Furthermore, reaching out towards the nations, Abraham is the father of all who follow in the footsteps of his faith (Romans 4:16; Galatians 3:29).
For Abram and Sarai, there are name changes, signifying a new direction. Abram, whose name means ‘exalted father’ becomes Abraham, ‘the father of a multitude’ (Genesis 17:5). Sarai has her name changed to Sarah, meaning ‘princess’ (Genesis 17:15). From this couple shall come “nations” and “kings” (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 17:16).
The covenant narrows down to one man and his family, only to open out again to embrace all the nations in Christ (Isaiah 42:1). All the promises of God are ‘yea and Amen’ in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). Ultimately, He is the promised seed (singular) (Galatians 3:16), and only through Him are any of us included.
Kings shall fall down before Him, and repentant nations shall worship Him (Psalm 72:11). The church is established as a ‘kingdom of priests’ in Christ Jesus (1 Peter 2:9). Victorious Christians are also given a new name (Revelation 2:17).
Finally we see the spiritual and everlasting nature of the covenant, its inclusiveness and perpetuity (Genesis 17:7). All that Jesus went through on the Cross was for ‘the kindred of the nations’ (Psalm 22:27). His righteousness shall be declared to a people yet unborn (Psalm 22:31).