God first introduced His covenant promises to Abram while he and his family were living in Haran. At that time, Abram was 75 years old (Genesis 12:1-3). Later, after he’d made his way to Canaan, God again spoke to Abram at the Oak of Moreh (Genesis 12:6-7) and pledged to give his descendants that land. Sometime thereafter, following his brief stay in Egypt, God again appeared to Abram in Canaan and reiterated His promises for a third time (Genesis 13:14-17). Sometime after this, God formalized all of these promises by ceremoniously establishing an official covenant (Genesis 15:1-21). Yet, despite all of these interactions, still the years passed by and Abram waited...
This morning our series continues with a message titled, “The Sign of Circumcision”. We will discuss yet another encounter between Abram and God related to this ancient covenant. Perhaps this time the wheels will be set into motion and the tangible fulfillment of God’s promises will begin to unfold.
I. A NEW NAME (v1-8)
When Abram was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to him yet again. As He had done on a few previous occasions, God repeated and reaffirmed His covenant promises. It had been 24 years since God had originally called Abram out of Haran. During this long span, the LORD had periodically spoken with Abram to reassure Him that the promises He’d made were not forgotten. God had sworn that Abram would be the father of a great nation which would someday dwell in the land of Canaan.
However, during this particular encounter, the LORD did something more. He changed Abram’s name, which originally meant “High Father” or “Exalted Father”, to Abraham which means “Father of a Multitude”. Through this act, God recognized Abraham as the patriarch of Israel. His name now described him as the ancestor of the numerous descendants. It was changed so as to become an oral expression of the LORD’s covenant.
There are several instances in scripture when God changes a person’s name. In each case, He gives them a new identity and mission. Because a person’s name is so valuable, the changing of a name is a significant event. It indicates a transformation of sorts - a passage from the old person to someone new. The Bible teaches that someday God will give every triumphal believer a new name (Revelation 2:17), which will represent the amazing change that God has brought about in them.
II. A COVENANTAL SIGN (v9-14)
The LORD then described a physical procedure which would be used to signify and set apart those who were partakers of the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham, the males in his immediate family, and those of his servants, were all to be circumcised. Going forward, all Hebrew boys were to be circumcised on the 8th day after their birth. Centuries later this tradition would be formally codified in the Mosaic Law.
God declared circumcision to be a physical sign or mark that designated His chosen people. While some other ancient cultures practiced circumcision as a rite of passage, none other viewed it as a special identification of God’s children. The LORD told Abraham that if any male remained uncircumcised they would be in violation of the covenant. Such an individual was to be “cut off” from God’s people - ie, the Jews.
People entered into the old covenant physically - either by natural birth or through acquisition as a servant. Therefore, the sign of the covenant was physical as well - circumcision. However, Jesus fulfilled the old and established a new and better spiritual covenant. The sign of the new covenant is baptism, which should take place shortly after (similar to the 8 day precedent) a repentant sinner is born again. Baptism identifies the newly redeemed person as a Christian and as a member of God’s church.
III. A SECOND SON (v15-22)
God then told Abraham to rename his wife Sarai, which may have originally meant something like “Contentious”, Sarah, which instead meant “Princess”. Sarah would become the princess of many multitudes to follow. Future kings of great nations (such as Israel, Edom, and so forth) would be birthed from her lineage. When God made this bold prediction, Abraham laughed out loud and openly doubted that a woman who was already 90 years old could bear a child.
Besides, Abraham already had a son - Ishmael - who had been conceived by and born of the Egyptian handmaiden Hagar. Abraham asked God to establish the covenant through him. But God refused, and proclaimed that Sarah would bear her own child. Her son would be the promised heir, through whom the covenant of God would be perpetuated. This baby was to be named Isaac, which means “He who laughs”. While God would certainly remember and bless Ishmael and his descendants, He specifically and exclusively chose Isaac from among Abraham’s children to be a patriarch of His people.
God told Abraham that Sarah would give birth to their new son, Isaac, in about a year. Seeing that a human pregnancy only lasts 9 months, Sarah was not yet with child at the time of this declaration. The couple would have to look beyond their present age and condition, embrace and believe in God’s word, and then act accordingly so that this miracle child might be conceived. Unlike with Hagar and Ishmael, these things would take place in accordance with the LORD’s direction and blessing.
IV. AN OBEDIENT ACT (v23-27)
After speaking with God, and in keeping with His divine instruction, Abraham prepared himself and his family for circumcision. He and his son Ishmael, along with every other male in his household and among his many servants, were circumcised that same day. As stated earlier, Abraham was 99 years old. His son Ishmael was 13 at the time. Thus, these men became the first of many to come to be initiated into the Abrahamic covenant through circumcision.
Without being overly graphic, circumcision is the removal of the foreskin from the male penis. The foreskin serves no meaningful bodily purpose, and can be safely removed without excessive pain. Obviously, this procedure will temporarily limit a man’s ability to work or move and will cause some discomfort. Usually circumcisions heal in about 5 to 7 days. Medical studies have shown that there may even be some healthy benefits that result from circumcision. There is no female equivalent of circumcision, due to the differing anatomy of women and men.
Preachers, like myself, often use phrases like “The Children of God” to describe particular people groups. It is important to recognize that these types of phrases can have 2 very different meanings. There are those who belong to the physical, ethnic “people of God” - those chosen under the Old Covenant to serve as God’s representatives on the earth. These are the Jews. There are also those of all backgrounds and races who belong to the spiritual, redeemed “people of God” through faith in Jesus Christ. These are the Christians. It is possible to be both Jewish and Christian, as was the case for many of the early believers.
Therefore, circumcision identifies someone as a Jew, but not necessarily a born-again believer. There are many circumcised people, Jewish and otherwise, who are not truly saved. In the same way, there are many baptized church goers who are not saved. These are merely outward symbols, not evidence of genuine faith. True, transformative, and saving change must take place within and can only be accomplished by God Almighty. Scripture describes this as “circumcision of the heart” (Romans 2:25-29).