Introduction: We stood last week at the inn with Moses, amazed at his failure to circumcise his son, and awestruck at the ‘life and death’ confrontation which ensued between Moses and the Lord. What was this rite of circumcision, and why was it so important – so as to bring Moses into danger of death for neglecting it? How does this rite help us understand the nature of our sacraments? These are questions which we will consider in this week of Bible notes, as we pause to consider the roots of this rite back in the book of Genesis.
Monday: read Genesis 15:17-18 and 17:1-7. In Genesis 15:17-18, God inaugurates his covenant with Abram by symbolically “passing between the pieces” of the sacrificial offering, thereby bringing upon Himself what Palmer Robertson calls “an oath of self-malediction: that if He should break the commitment involved in the covenant, then He would be torn in pieces just as the animals had been divided ceremonially.” Then in Genesis 17, God gives Abraham (whose name is changed in honor of the promise that he would be the “father of a multitude, Gen. 17:5) the seal of this same covenant in the rite of circumcision. Circumcision in Gen. 17 thus becomes the sign of God’s covenant which He has already established with Abraham and his offspring in Gen. 15. Grace first, then duty!
Meditate and Pray: Thank God for the primacy of His grace over all our covenant responsibilities. Before Abraham is commanded to circumcise in Genesis 17, God is already committed unto death to maintaining His covenant in Genesis 15. Before circumcision is instituted, God gives Abraham the saving grace of faith. Clearly then, while circumcision and Passover, and their New Testament counterparts of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are important signs and seals of God’s covenant, they are not the foundation of our salvation. It is because God adopts the attitude of saving grace towards His people, walking between the pieces of the Gen. 15 sacrifice alone in order to bind Himself by blood to saving them when they sin, that the covenant sign of circumcision has any meaning. May we never forget this order: God’s grace and promise first – and only then our obedience to His commands, empowered as those already redeemed by His love!
Tuesday: read Genesis 16:15-17:9. Between the covenant highlights of Abraham’s life, when God appeared to Him in Gen. 15 and confirmed His covenant to him with circumcision in Gen. 17, we have the terrible low point of Abraham’s union with his concubine Hagar in Genesis 16. What is the significance of Gen. 17 following hard after Gen. 16’s failure? For an answer, listen again to Palmer Robertson: “In spite of the spectacular vision of covenant inauguration experienced by Abraham in Gen.15, he nonetheless stumbles into a reliance on the flesh in Gen. 16. Possibly it is because of this failure on the part of the patriarch that a more permanent reminder of God’s relationship with Abraham is instituted. Some abiding sign must be given which will last beyond the visionary stage of experience in Gen. 15. Circumcision as the seal of the covenant remains permanently with the patriarch to remind him of the surety of God’s promises in a way that the vision of Gen. 15 didn’t.”
Meditate and Pray: Thank God for the sacraments of the Old and New Testaments, which we enjoy and benefit from just as Abraham did of old. Let us thank Him for the physical nature of these sacraments, which are meant to strengthen our weak faith in the invisible promises of God – by granting us things which we can see and touch! Ask the Lord to make your next experience of His sacraments to be a truly nourishing and strengthening experience for your faith.
Wednesday: read Genesis 17:10-16. The sacraments are meant to strengthen us as physical signs of God’s grace. In Gen. 17, God knew that Abraham needed a permanent reminder of His grace to reassure him after his terrible mistake with Hagar. Abraham would repeatedly doubt God’s goodwill towards him, given his miserable failures of the past. This is where the sacraments come in. How does John Calvin describe the reassuring nature of these sacraments? “A sacrament is an external sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences His promise of goodwill toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn testify our piety toward Him both before Him and before angels as well as men.”
Meditate and Pray: Ask the Lord to truly bless the sacramental observance in your church, that all of God’s people might be reassured of God’s goodwill towards them and have a true experience of God’s grace in Christ. Use the words of hymn # 427 in our Trinity hymnal as your sacramental prayer:
|Amidst us our Belovèd stands,
And bids us view His piercèd hands;
Points to the wounded feet and side,
Blest emblems of the Crucified.
If now, with eyes defiled and dim,
|Thou glorious Bridegroom of our hearts,
Thy present smile a heav’n imparts!
Oh lift the veil, if veil there be,
Let every saint Thy beauties see!
Thursday: read Genesis 17:10-17. Abraham found the promise of covenant blessing on his offspring, by which God would be their God even before they were born, so outlandish and incredible that all he could do was laugh in response in Gen. 17:17. Was this the laughter of joy or that of weakness, or a combination of both? Well, do we not in a similar way often find God’s promises more than we can believe? Are we not amazed at the strength of what God says compared to the weakness of our own experience? Thus our need for continual reaffirmations of our saving interest in God’s covenant is highlighted. We need so often to have the weakness of our faith sustained, and so we ought not be surprised that, at the heart of the meaning of the sacraments, we see that they are wonderful means of strengthening weak faith.
Meditate and Pray: Use James Philip’s words about Martin Luther to encourage you in your struggles with weak faith:
Martin Luther was said to have had great and terrible doubts, often doubting his salvation, mighty warrior of the faith as he was. And what he did when he used to doubt was to remind himself that he had been baptized! ‘Baptizatus sum’ – I have been baptized – he said. Now he was not clinging to any superstitious rite when he said that, but simply turning his mind and his heart to the objective realities of redemption, to the truth that it was not he who had chosen Christ, but that it was Christ who had chosen him. This is the point. It is not our frail grasp of Christ’s redeeming love that is important. We must never rest upon our frail grasp of Him for our assurance of faith. What we must rest on is His mighty hold upon us.
Friday/Saturday/Sunday: read Genesis 17:24-27. We have just finished saying in this week’s notes that the sacraments, such as circumcision, are meant to strengthen us. But how strong do you think Abraham felt after his first sacramental experience in his own circumcision? Do we realize what a weakening experience God’s sacrament of circumcision was for Abraham as a 99 year-old man in Gen. 17:24? For adult males, this was a dehabilitating experience. We see this in Joshua 5:7-8, where, after Joshua circumcised all the Israelite males, they had to remain in their places for days in order to heal. Not the kind of “sacramental experience” which we would desire, especially when we need strength!
So clearly, the strengthening effect promised in the sacraments, is not a mechanical process by which we automatically receive comfort and strength at the time when we partake of them. It may have taken years (long after the administration of circumcision in his flesh) for Abraham to receive spiritual strength through this sacrament. Just as with Martin Luther in Thursday’s Bible notes; It was as Luther looked back many years to his baptism, that he found his discouraged faith emboldened again to believe. In the same way, the grace symbolized by any of the sacraments, be they circumcision or baptism; Passover or the Lord’s Supper, is not tied to the time or place of their administration, or the intention or piety of those administering them. Abraham was in too much pain to experience the joy of his circumcision! But when he looked back at this physical sign years later, he would be reminded that God, by grace, had promised to be his God and the God of his children!
Meditate and Pray: Let us thank God that the grace promised in the sacraments is not tied to any human intentions, arrangements, good works or planning. We do not put our trust in when we were baptized; who baptized us; how much water was used or by what mode we were baptized. Neither do we find our assurance at the communion table tied to our own fitness to receive the elements; what the elements are (leavened or unleavened, alcohol or juice), or how many times we receive them (monthly, weekly, etc.). Instead, we see these sacraments as signifying God’s pre-existing grace towards us, which came to final expression in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Through Christ and His once-for-all offering up of Himself on the Cross, God seals us to Himself, claiming, naming, calling and converting us – and then gives us His sacraments as a “seal” of the work which He has already accomplished for us in His Son!
Can we not therefore boil down the essence of all the sacraments to what our Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 27 says on the ‘Sacraments’ in paragraph I?
Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits, and to confirm our interest in him; as also to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his word.
May God give us a spirit of increasing praise and love to Him for the gifts of His sacraments – but even more for the once-for-all sign and seal of our salvation, Christ offered up for us on the Cross.