How Can I Know? (Genesis 15)
At this point in Genesis, God has made tremendous promises to Abram and Abram has left his whole life behind because of his faith in those promises. God told Abram to leave his land, his people, and his father’s house. “Later, I’ll show you a new land, make a great nation of you, make your name great, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” Abram left - trusting God’s promises. God proved faithful through Genesis 12-14; yet, in Genesis 15 Abram still has no child, he is a foreigner in the promised land, and he hasn’t become a blessing to all nations. God’s repeated promises in Genesis 12-18 can feel frustrating when you read with a critical eye. “Here comes God again telling us we will have children, become a great nation, and possess this land.” His promises sound like the father in the movie “Angels in the Outfield” who promises to bring his son home “when the Angels win the pennant.” How are Abram and Sarai supposed to fully anchor their faith in God’s promises?
Needless to say, we can have same trouble with faith. God has commanded us to leave our whole way of living and thinking to trust and follow him. He has promised us he will forgive us and that his grace is sufficient for all our sins. God has promised that he can conquer sin and Satan and bring us to maturity, yet the battle rages on. God assures us that Christ’s kingdom is growing and that he is the one ruling, yet we often feel alone. God promises us that one day Christ will appear, the dead will be raised imperishable, and that we will enjoy a reward in his presence for time without end, yet that promise was made 2000+ years ago. From an objective standpoint our faith can seem insane! How can we know God will keep his promises and that our faith and hope will not turn out to be wishful thinking in the end?
When Abram faced these same questions and fears, God reminded him of two promises and, at Abram’s request, God gave two signs to help Abram actually anchor his faith in the Lord. I believe this passage will help us ask the question, “How can I know?” and give us solid signs to look to when our faith and hope in God’s promises are weak. Read Genesis 15:1-6 with me.
Abram’s First Fear and God’s First Sign (15:1-6)
By God’s power, Abram recently won a victory in battle against local kings in order to rescue his nephew Lot. Though Abram was a blessing to Lot, having to go into battle was probably a bit unnerving for Abram. So the Lord came to Abram in a vision and told him, “Do not fear, I am your shield. Your reward shall be very great.” God had protected Abram and his family so far, but Abram had not received God’s biggest promises. Even though God tells Abram not to fear, it is evident that Abram is afraid. “What reward will you give me? I continue childless and a man who isn’t even my own son will be my heir!” Abram is facing a crisis of faith. God continues to remind Abram of the promises made to him, but what Abram sees is not helping.
What God does with Abram’s fear is so encouraging. God does not tell Abram to figure out his faith on his own. God deals with Abram’s doubt. “Eliezer will not be your heir. A son from your own body will be your heir.” But God does not stop there. Hearing the promise is helpful, but Abram knows the promise. God brings Abram outside and notice what he says to him in verse 5. “ ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your offspring be.’ ” God tied a visible sign to his promise. Verse 6 shows that this refreshed Abram’s faith; he believed God and God credited his faith as righteousness. Every time Abram struggled with his faith in God’s promise for the rest of his life, he could remember God’s sign, look to the stars, and see how numerous his offspring would be.
Do you ever struggle with God’s promise to Abram? I have openly stated that some days it feels like everyone we teach will just fall away and that we will end up alone in the end. Trusting in the good news and hoping in God to build an everlasting kingdom could turn out to be a foolish hope. It would do us all good when we struggle with this doubt to drive away from the city lights and spend a little time in prayer underneath the stars. It is amazing how many stars there are. In Genesis 22:17 God told Abram that his descendants would be like the sand on the seashore. You cannot count the stars or the sand! This is like the number of God’s children. Revelation 7:9, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” Let us be like Abram and take strength from these pictures God gives us. We are not alone and we will not be alone. We are part of a family whose offspring cannot be counted.
Abram’s Second Fear and God’s Second Sign (15:7-21)
Apparently God was able to sense that Abram was concerned about something else too, for God continues to remind Abram that he brought him from Ur to give him the land of Canaan. Abram takes this opportunity to ask him about this very promise. “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” This question is great because we have already seen that Abram does believe God. This teaches us about the nature of faith. Faith is not simply something that we have or do not have. Abram has faith, but he is imploring God to give him a sign by which his faith can grow. And God’s response to this is better than he could have ever imagined.
God tells Abram to bring a three year old heifer, female goat, and ram along with a turtledove and a young pigeon. Abram brings these, cuts them all in half (except for the birds), and lays them down in a row with each half opposite the other. Abram drove any birds of prey away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep and a dreadful darkness fell over Abram. Then, the Lord told Abram when and how his offspring would come to possess the land. Abram’s offspring will be wanderers on land they do not own, they will be servants and will be afflicted for 400 years. But, God will judge the nation they serve and bring them out with great possessions back to this land in the 4th generation. Abram will die old and be buried in peace.
But God wasn’t done. Once the sun went down, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the animal halves. Most believe the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch represent God passing down the middle of the animal halves. Since 4,000 years separates us from this event, this picture means little to us, but it meant a great deal to Abram. As verse 18 says, God was making a covenant with Abram. Plenty of evidence from this time period shows that this was how the people then made covenants. Today, we sign our name to a piece of paper as evidence that we mean what we say. In those days, two parties would pass through animal carcasses split in half to “seal the deal.” The meaning of this is seen in Jeremiah 34:18-20. “And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts— the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf. And I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.” Those who pass between the split carcasses are declaring that if they are not faithful to the covenant, they will become like the animals cut in half. Signing our name is a wimpy in comparison!
But it is not Abram who passes between the carcasses - it is the Lord God. By passing through these pieces, God is declaring that he will give Abram’s offspring this land and that he is willing to die himself if this does not come to pass. What an amazing picture for Abram to remember in days when he struggled with God’s promise to give him this land.
When we hear from Scripture and see with our eyes how the creation itself groans because of the futility and evil committed on the earth and because of its enslavement to corruption, it is hard to trust some of the promises God makes. Isaiah prophesies in 9:7 that the increase of the government of Christ will never end. Later in Daniel 2 God tells Nebuchadnezzar through Daniel that God will setup an everlasting kingdom that will fill the entire earth and never be conquered. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:5 that the meek will inherit the earth. The Spirit tells us in 2 Peter 3:13 that God has promised a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells. The bottom line is that some days it really does not look like this is a place where Christ is reigning. It doesn’t look like the saints are truly the ones who will last in the land. It seems fantastical to imagine that we will ever inherit a place with God in a new creation.
The picture God gave Abram is what God was willing to do two thousand years later through Jesus Christ. We have made ourselves unworthy of any inheritance. But God did not pass through the carcasses in vain, for the Son of God allowed himself to remove our sins. Then the Son rose from death to give evidence that the time of his new creation project had begun.
How Can We Know?
Do you believe God, but struggle to anchor your life in his promises? Genesis 15 not only gives hope through the signs God gives Abram, but it gives us a picture of what we can do when we have faith, but we want to know that our faith is truly lodged in a secure place. When we want to know how we can know…
1. Ask God, “How can I know?” God invites this conversation with Abram and he invites it with us. Explain your struggle to God. Explain what you are thinking and seeing that makes you afraid. Ask God to help you trust him more. Ask God to help you see pictures of what he has promised you. Having these conversations with God and wrestling with faith in his promises does not nullify our faith in the past or mean we do not have faith. Abram believes God, God counted him as righteous, and Abram still asked, “How can I know?”
2. Remember his signs to you. Continue returning to the word of God which builds faith by reminding us of God’s promises, but don’t forget that God has given us signs too. Do you think God needs baptism? That’s not for him - that’s for us. It is a beautiful picture of how God - at that very moment - washed us of our sins and saved us. Do you think God needs us to participate in the Lord’s Supper each week? That is for us too. It is a reminder to us that Christ sacrificed his body and shed his blood for our sins. When we are struggling to believe that God has saved us, that we aren’t alone, and that he will give us an inheritance with him, remember your baptism, remember communion from the past week - Jesus gave you his body and blood. Remember the promise to Abram and how God is so serious about his promise to forgive and save us that he was willing to be cut off himself. Romans 8:31–32, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” When you ask, “How can I know?” remember the cross. God allowed his Son to be cut off to preserve you.
3. Remember, God alone sees the big picture (vs. 16). When you still struggle to know why the promises are not fulfilled now, remember that God sees the big picture. Abram hoped God would give him the land in his lifetime, but it turned out that this promise was for future generations. Why couldn’t it be now? In Genesis 15:16 God says that it would not be until later because the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet complete. God was going to give Abram’s family land that currently belonged to the Amorites, but God was still giving the Amorites time to repent. When you ache for God to fulfill his promises now, trust that God has given us his Son, he has not forgotten us, and that he is working with a world bigger than we know. Let’s anchor our faith in the Rock who has proved true to every generation.