Episode 14: God’s mysterious (and bloody!) Covenant with Abram + Faith vs. Works + Encouragement to NOT give up from Charles Spurgeon.
Today we have a fascinating situation in Genesis 15 whereby God and Abram make a covenant, some deep encouragement from Acts 14, Builders rebuilding the walls in Nehemiah with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other (shout out to Charles Spurgeon!) and two of Jesus’ most well known miracles: the feeding of the five thousand and His walking on water. Our Bible question of the day is: Why does Abram cut animals in half to make a covenant with God?
Genesis 15 is monumental in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is the beginning of the story of God’s people – the Israelites. It is the beginning of His promise to bless the descendants of Abram and cause them to flourish. No less than three books in the New Testament refer directly back to verse 6, where it says that Abram believed God and it was counted or credited to him as righteousness. This is one of the absolute pillar and foundational verses of New Testament faith. Religion in almost every other sector of the world has always been about earning your way to God. God is on the mountain, so to speak, and religion serves as a series of rules that are designed to please the deity, and elevate our status with whatever god we might be seeking to please. Religion is about DOING ACTIONS. Do these actions and God will be happy with you – Do NOT do these actions, or God will be angry with you. To be clear there are commands and warnings in Christianity too…but the CORE of Christianity is BELIEF not WORKS. Abram believed God, and such a belief was added to his account to make him righteous in the eyes of God. What did Abram do here in this massively important covenant episode? HE FELL ASLEEP! He didn’t DO anything – God alone walked through the severed animals, but, even though Abram did no action, it was still credited as righteousness to him, because he had faith in God’s promise. Paul discusses this in depth in Romans 4:
What then will we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about—but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness.4 Now to the one who works, pay is not credited as a gift, but as something owed. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes on him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited for righteousness.Romans 4:1-4
Amazing! Christianity is not about WORKING to make God happy with us, or DOING things to make God save us and give us life eternal in Heaven – it is about BELIEVING what has already been done for us by Jesus. And therefore, Abram/Abraham is our father – not merely because he was in the line and genealogy of Jesus, but primarily because he was apparently the FIRST to explicitly believe God in a way that it was credited to him as righteousness. Paul continues:
19 He (Abraham) did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about a hundred years old) and also the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 because he was fully convinced that what God had promised, he was also able to do. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness.23 Now it was credited to him was not written for Abraham alone, 24 but also for us. It will be credited to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.Romans 4:19-25
This here, my friends, is the absolute CORE of the Christian faith – Heaven is for perfect people with absolutely impeccable righteousness. All humans have sinned, somehow, some way, and have therefore fallen short of being able to get into Heaven on our own merits. BUT, thanks be to God, if we believe in God and His resurrection of Jesus – that He was crucified for our sins and raised to make us right with God – then we will have that perfect righteousness credited to our account – by faith – that opens the doors to Heaven and eternal life. That is the core of Christianity. It is not what you DO to be saved, but your faith in what Jesus has done for you!
So, Abram believed God’s promise, and then God went a step further, and made a covenant – as solemn a promise as there can be – with Abram. The way this is done is fascinating – Animals are cut in two and Abram waits for God, falling into a deep sleep. Suddenly, God Himself comes down (in some sort of terrifying darkness) and walks between the cut part of the animals while Abram sleeps. What is this all about?
Before we offer an answer, I want to encourage you to picture this incredible scene in your minds: God comes to Abram and makes a promise to him. We must keep in mind here that Abram did NOT come from a family of Yahweh (the God of Israel and the Bible) followers. He came from a family of polytheists who worshiped many gods! (see Joshua 24:2, “Joshua said to all the people, “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. “) So, much of this would be new to Abram, but Abram believes God. And, still believing God, he asks for some kind of sign or assurance that God would keep His Word, and this is when God calls Abram to gather some animals and cut them in half. Abram does this, leaving a path through the carcasses of the animals, and he waits. And waits. And waits. Eventually some buzzards, or other similar birds, come by and tries to eat animal carcasses, but Abram drives them away. And he waits, and waits, and waits – until after the sunset, Abram falls into a deep sleep…and then – God comes down. What a mysterious way He comes down – “suddenly great terror and darkness descended on him. “! Then God, represented by a torch and smoking fire-pot, walks through the animals carcasses to seal the deal, so to speak. What a strange ritual! Fortunately, Jeremiah 34 gives us quite an important clue as to what is going on here in this ancient practice:
“As for those who disobeyed my covenant, not keeping the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat them like the calf they cut in two in order to pass between its pieces.“Jeremiah 34:18
As mentioned above – a covenant is a big, big, big deal. Some churches have membership covenants, and, as a pastor, I am honestly scared to do that – because a covenant goes far beyond a mere promise, as this incidence shows. In ancient times, when the two participants in a covenant slaughtered animals and walked between them, the meaning was clear and literally visceral: If I break this covenant – or you do – may we become as this dead, slaughtered animal. A covenant is quite literally a life or death matter. And I note here again, that only God walked through the animal parts – a declaration, of sorts, that God would keep His end of the covenant no matter what Abram’s descendants did. And God has done so – He has kept and maintained His covenant with Abram. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “to cut a deal?” I believe that phrase has its origin in this ancient practice. I’m glad we don’t cut deals this way anymore!
One more bit of encouragement: This is Charles Spurgeon, commenting on Acts 14:22, “We must go through many trials to enter the Kingdom of God“
“Perseverance is the badge of true saints. The Christian life is not a beginning only in the ways of God, but also a continuance in the same as long as life lasts…. He only is a true conqueror, and shall be crowned at the last, who continues until war’s trumpet is blown no more. Perseverance is, therefore, the target of all our spiritual enemies. The world does not object to your being a Christian for a time, if she can but tempt you to cease your pilgrimage and settle down to [worldly pleasures.] The flesh will seek to ensnare you, and to prevent your pressing on to glory. “It is weary work being a pilgrim; come, give it up. Am I always to be mortified? Am I never to be indulged? Give me at least a break from this constant warfare.” Satan will make many a fierce attack on your perseverance; it will be the mark for all his arrows. He will strive to hinder you in service: he will insinuate that you are doing no good; and that you want rest. He will endeavor to make you weary of suffering, he will whisper, “Curse God, and die.” Or he will attack your steadfastness: “What is the good of being so zealous? Be quiet like the rest; sleep like others do, and let your lamp go out as the other virgins do.” Or he will assail your doctrinal sentiments: “Why do you hold to these creeds? Sensible men are getting more liberal; they are removing the old landmarks: fall in with the times.” Wear your shield, Christian, therefore, close upon your armor, and cry mightily unto God, that by his Spirit you may endure to the end.”
C. H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening: Daily Readings (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1896). (slightly modernized)