How Am I To Know? – Part 1 (Genesis 15:7-21)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles this morning back to the book of Genesis. Our passage for today’s sermon will be Genesis 15:7-21. If you do not have a Bible with you today, or if you’d like to follow along in the translation I will be preaching from, I encourage you to make use of one of the pew Bibles where you can find this passage located on pages 10 and 11.

Back in early March, we returned to our study in the book of Genesis, picking up where we left off a year earlier, in Genesis 12. And, as I said then, in Genesis 12, the biblical narrative begins to zero in on a particular family of people beginning with a man named Abram and his wife named Sarai. You may remember that back in Genesis 12, God called upon Abram, telling him to leave his home and everything he knew for an unnamed and yet to be identified place that God would show him. Along with this promise of a land, God also promised to make Abram into a great nation of people and to make his name great in this world. Well, over the past couple of months, we have followed Abram on this journey away from his home, and we have seen many of the struggles he has had along the way. We have watched as he demonstrates great faith in God’s promises, and we have watched as he has struggled to believe God’s promises. And today’s passage will be no exception.

Back in Genesis 12, God made two main promises to Abram. The first promise was for a piece of land—a piece of land we now refer to as the Promised Land. And, the second promise was for offspring to fill the land that God was going to give to Abram. But, in our sermon two weeks ago, we saw in Genesis 15:1-6 how Abram was beginning to wonder how and if God would truly keep his promise for offspring. He was beginning to wonder how God was going to bring forth a great nation of people from him, seeing that God had not yet given Abram a single child and Abram and Sarai were now getting old. And, because of God’s delay, we also saw how Abram was beginning to come up with his own plan for a family heir.

Well, in today’s passage we are going to see that even after Abram came around to believing God’s promise about God giving him a son who would be the first of many offspring in this family of people who would eventually become the nation of Israel, that Abram was now struggling with God’s promise to give him a land to possess. In fact, what we are going to see in this passage for today is that after God reiterates this promise of a land for Abram, that Abram asks him very straightforwardly, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Genesis 15:8 ESV). In other words, “I hear what you are saying God, but how can I be certain that what you are saying is true? How can I know?”

And, I suspect that many of us in this room today have asked similar questions. I suspect that many of us in this room have struggled in a similar way with God’s promises. It’s not so much that we just don’t believe God outrightly, it’s that we struggle with assurance—we struggle with not knowing all the details and with not knowing how God is going to keep promises to us that, from our vantage point, seem so difficult and impossible to keep. Yes, at one time or another, I suspect that every believer in this room has struggled to believe some of God’s promises to us. In fact, I suspect that some of us are struggling in that way to some degree right now.

Well, in today’s sermon, I want to help you and encourage you. I want to help you by showing you how to overcome the doubts you have about God’s promises to you. And I want to encourage you by pointing out that even this man the Bible refers to as the father of our faith, struggled from time to time with his own faith. Yes, when you find yourself wondering about some of the things God has promised, I want you to know that you are in good company.

So, if you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to turn with me in your Bibles to Genesis 15 and follow along as I read from verses 7-21.

7 And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:7–21 ESV)

Continue To Live Obediently (vv. 8-11)

So this passage begins in a way that is similar to the way the passage for our previous sermon began. It begins with God speaking a promise to Abram. In Genesis 15:1, God said, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And here in Genesis 15:7, God begins speaking to Abram once again, by reiterating his promise about giving Abram and his offspring the land of Canaan to be their home. He says, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”

But then, just as in the previous passage, Abram gently pushes back, seeking some assurance about God’s promise. In our last sermon from Genesis 15, Abram responded to God’s promise of a great reward by saying, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15:2 ESV). And here, Abram gently asks God for some confirmation about his promise to give him and his offspring the land upon which he was standing. Notice that he does so in verse 8 by saying, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He is not expressing doubt that he will possess it per se. He is only asking God to provide some confirmation that he will possess it.

The fact is, Abram has already demonstrated his belief in God’s ability to do the impossible. He has already believed that God will give him and Sarai a son long after their time for having children has passed. We saw that in our previous sermon from Genesis 15, and we saw that God counted Abram’s belief in his promise as righteousness. But, Abram has been in Canaan for about a decade now, and as much as he wanted to believe God’s promise here, as far as Abram could tell, the Canaanites still had a pretty firm grasp on this land upon which he was standing, and he couldn’t see that changing anytime soon. So it was really stretching his faith to believe God’s promise here, and so he asks God for some confirmation. That is how this story begins.

But notice what happens next. Instead of immediately providing Abram with anything that would help him feel better about the status of this promise, God tells Abram to gather and return with five animals. Look again at verse 9 and notice what God says to Abram. He says, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And then, notice in verse 10, that Abram does exactly what God said. Yes, according to verse 10, Abram “brought him all these.”

And this brings me to the first point I want to make about what we ought to do whenever we find ourselves feeling a little shaky on some of God’s promises to us—needing to know that they are still true. The first thing we ought to do is continue to live in obedience to his commands even as we are currently doubting or unsure of some of his promises. Yes, look at verses 10 and 11 again and notice how Abram responds to this request from God.

10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. (Genesis 15:10–11 ESV)

Now, before I say anything else about Abram’s obedience here, let me explain to you what is going on in these verses because it can seem a bit strange to us. First of all, we can assume that God said more to Abram that what is reported in verse 9, because Abram not only brought these animals to God, but he also cut them in half and arranged these halves in a particular way. It doesn’t seem that Abram would have just done that without God telling him to do so. But what in the world is going on here? Well, this is the way that people often made covenants with one another in the ancient Near East. We are going to look at this in more detail later, but in that part of the world at this particular period of time, when two people were entering into a covenant with one another, they would sometimes take and divide animals into halves and lay the halves side by side with a walking path between them. And as part of the ratification of the covenant, the two individuals would walk down the path they created through the middle of the dead animals. I will explain the significance of this later on in this passage, but for now, it is enough to know that what Abram is doing here was preparing to enter into a covenant with God.

But, getting back to my first point for today, I want you to see that Abram remained obedient to God and his commands even though his faith was a bit shaky in certain areas. That’s right, even though he wasn’t exactly sure at this particular point in time about some of the things God had said, he still kept doing what God said. Yes, in spite of his lingering questions about God’s yet-to-be-answered promise concerning the land of Canaan, Abram did not hesitate when God issued this command to gather these animals. In other words, he did not allow this shaky area of his faith to nullify his faith altogether.

Unfortunately, that is where we often go astray. Yes, as Christians we sometimes find ourselves wondering how the problems we are dealing with at work or the struggles we are having with our kids are ever going to be something God is going to work out for our good as he has promised. And we allow that particular area of our life to dominate (and sometimes destroy) our whole relationship with God.

And so, I want to encourage you in this today. Yes, the next time you find yourself heading toward a situation like this, I want to encourage you to remain obedient to God instead of turning your back on him. Remember, I am talking to you as believers today. I am talking to people who like Abram have believed God and have had that belief counted to them as righteousness. And as believers, we must remain obedient to God even when we are struggling to see how he is working out his promises for us. We must remain faithful to him even when it does not feel like he is being faithful to us in one or two particular areas. Because when we do, we will soon discover, that God has been faithful all along and will be faithful to the end—just as he has promised.

The truth is, it would have been very easy for Abram to assume that after ten years in Canaan waiting on God to keep his promise about giving him the land, that he had either misunderstood what God had said or that God had changed his mind altogether. And it would have been easy for him to allow that uncertainty to push him away from God—like it often does with us. And it would have been easy for his doubt to increase when the birds started picking at the carcasses of the animals he had arranged in the way God had told him. Yes, it would have been easy for him to say, “God, I have done what you have asked. I have gathered these animals and laid them out just as you have asked. But since then, I have been waiting on you all day. Where are you, God? Why are you not showing up?”

But, Abram remained obedient. He remained obedient in spite of this area of his faith that was a bit shaky. Yes, when God told him to gather these animals, Abram complied without hesitation because he was still a believer even though he needed some help with his unbelief. And afterwards, when God seemed to be late to the party, Abram kept on believing that he would eventually show up. And in this regard, Abram is a good example for us here. Yes, friends, the first thing we learn from Abram in this passage, is that whenever we have doubts about God’s promises to us, we mustn’t give up on him altogether and become disobedient to him. Instead, we must continue to live in obedience to his commands in the face of the doubts and uncertainties we are dealing with. That’s the first thing I want you to take away from this passage.

Keep Listening to God’s Word (vv. 12-16)

But, that’s not all we have here. The second thing this passage teaches us that we ought to do whenever we find ourselves feeling a little shaky on some of God’s promises to us is to keep listening to God’s Word. You see, if we are honest, one of the things that gets abandoned most quickly whenever we feel like God is not keeping his promises to us, is we stop reading our Bibles. This is probably because we feel like there is no use reading God’s Word if we are beginning to think that some of the other things we have read in his Word are not turning out the way we think they should. You can certainly see how Abram would have felt this way. God had made this promise about the land, Abram had felt like he heard it clearly, and yet all these years had passed and what God had clearly spoken to him had not yet come to pass—and Abram couldn’t see any progress that would make him think it would ever come to pass. And you can see how it would have been easy for Abram to start listening to God a little differently—with a bit of skepticism maybe. And it is easy to see how eventually he might stop listening to God altogether, thinking that perhaps this whole faith in God’s Word thing was not working out for him as he had hoped—yes, maybe he’ll give up on listening to God’s Word and try some other way of living.

And the sad truth is, while this is an odd way to respond for someone who is trusting in God on most things and only struggling with a few things, it is nonetheless what we often do. Yes, oftentimes, we get frustrated with the way things are going in our life, and we start to blame God. We begin to think things like, “I have been obedient to him, I have believed him, and I just cannot understand why things are going so badly for me. Why all these struggles at work? Why all these issues in my family? Where is God at in all this? Is it even worth it to follow him if things are going to be so tough and uncertain?” And the next thing you know, we start avoiding God altogether. We let our Bibles collect dust. We get so frustrated that he is not answering our prayers on schedule that we stop praying as well. And we allow other things to assume his rightful place as the central focus of our lives.

Now, earlier, I said that one of the struggles we have is that we want to know all the details. Yes, during times of difficulty, we often want more details than God has determined to give us. Well, it seems this was part of what Abram needed here—he just needed some more information. And, in this instance at least, God was gracious toward him and told him a bit more than he had before to help provide Abram with some assurance about this promise to give him and his offspring the land of Canaan.

But, I have to be clear; this is not always the way it goes—not normally the way it goes even. Most of the time, we don’t get more details from God. That’s right; usually, God has said everything he is going to say, and that is where faith comes into play. Yes, sometimes we have to keep believing without having all the answers.

But, contrary to what many think, believing without having all the answers does not mean that you are just stepping out on a limb, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best. In fact, God never asks us to cross our fingers and blindly believe him on anything. He always asks us to believe him based on what he has revealed to us about himself in his Word and his world. In fact, blindly believing something may not be saving faith at all.

You see, saving faith is about looking at the biblical evidence and reaching the conclusion that what God has said is reasonable, and then trusting it with all our hearts. It doesn’t mean that we know and understand all the details, it just means that when we consider the evidence, and when we consider who God is, we find the things we have read and understood to be convincing based upon what we know about ourselves and about the world God has created. Yes, not knowing all the details is not blind faith any more than it is blind faith to allow someone to perform an operation on you that you do not completely understand. Think about it. You allow that doctor to cut you open not because you understand every single detail about what they are promising to do. You allow the doctor to cut you open because you have heard their explanation of your condition, you have listened and agreed with their proposed solution, and you have placed your trust in them to perform the surgery well—just like they have done hundreds of times before. You don’t understand it all, but based on what you do understand, you have concluded that it is reasonable to allow them to put you to sleep and open you up with a scalpel. But, that’s not blind faith. That is a reasoned faith. And it is no different than the sort of faith that God expects you to have in him and his promises. You don’t have to understand it all. You only have to understand enough to conclude that it is reasonable to trust what he has said about the things you do not yet understand.

But, at the same time, when we don’t understand how God is working out one of his promises to us, it is easy to become frustrated and discouraged. However, the thing we cannot do when we become frustrated or discouraged is that we cannot stop listening to God. We cannot tune him out and stop listening to him by not reading his Word. Because, it is in these moments that we most need to hear from him. And that is why, when Abram started having this crisis of faith, part of God’s response was to give him more of his Word. Look again with me at verses 12-16.

In verse 12 we are told that a deep sleep came upon Abram and then in verse 13 we see that the Lord said the following to him; he said,

13 Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. (Genesis 15:13–16 ESV)

Now, don’t miss this. Notice how that in response to Abram’s question in verse 8, “How am I to know that I shall possess this land you have promised me?” that God begins his response with the words, “Know for certain.” Yes, God wants Abram to know with absolute certainty how things are going to play out with regard to the Promised Land. God wants Abram to know for sure that he will give Abram and his offspring the land. Again, that is not how it always works for us, but in this instance, God is being very clear with Abram.

Now, as much as we would say, “Oh, if God would just answer my questions that directly, it would make things so much better,” I wonder if that is really true. Because, I am not sure that God’s answer here would have satisfied most of us. You see, what God has revealed to Abram about his offspring and about the promised land, is that before his offspring would ever possess it, they would serve a foreign nation as slaves for 400 years. And Abram would never really personally possess it in his lifetime; he would only possess the land through his descendants. Yes, he will live to a good old age and die in peace, but as long as he was alive, the Canaanites and the Amorites would maintain physical possession of the land.

Now, this all played out exactly as God promised. Abram’s descendants did indeed serve as slaves in Egypt for 430 years before God led them back to the Promised Land. But, God kept his promise to Abram, and his offspring did indeed inherit the land God had given to Abram.

But again, would that answer really satisfy us? Would you really be satisfied with this answer if you were Abram? You see, the truth is, God has also told us how everything is going to work out for us in the end. He has told us that life will be a struggle for us as followers of Jesus in the here and now, but that one day Jesus will return and all will be made well as God’s promises to us are perfectly kept and fulfilled. But, the truth is, that answer does not satisfy most of us, most of the time, does it? The truth is, we want God to keep all his promises to us on our timeline—meaning during our lifetimes. And the truth is, we become very frustrated and discouraged when he does not do so. And we even begin to doubt his promises altogether—even though God never intended to answer them in our lifetimes.

So I want to encourage you to keep listening to God’s Word when you find your faith in God’s promises a little shaky. Because it is in God’s Word that we are reminded that many of God’s promises to us are not promises that are going to be kept in the here and now, but promises that will only be kept once Jesus returns and abolishes all evil and wickedness from the face of the earth. And it is in God’s Word that we learn to place our hope in those promises and keep fighting the fight of faith in the here and now, even while we struggle—and sometimes struggle even to believe.

Remember that God’s Promises Rest On Him Not Us (vv. 7, 17-21)

So, the first thing this passage teaches us that we ought to do whenever we find ourselves feeling a little shaky on some of God’s promises to us is to continue living in obedience to God. We don’t give up and go our own way because our faith is shaky on one or two things, but we must keep on living the life of faith that is characterized by obedience to God. And, then, the second thing this passage teaches us that we ought to do whenever we find our faith a little shaken is we must keep listening to God’s Word. We don’t stick our fingers in our ears and pout because things aren’t going our way. But, we keep following Jesus and trusting in the goodness of God.

But the most important thing this passage teaches us to do whenever we find ourselves struggling to believe God’s promises is to remind ourselves that God’s promises rest on him, not on us. And because this is such an important point, and because we are running short on time today and I would have to breeze through it faster than it warrants, I have decided to stop here this morning and pick back up in this passage next Sunday. Just as it is essential to understand that God counts our faith as righteousness, it is also crucial to understand that God’s promises to us rest solely upon him, and not ever upon us.

Conclusion

So, let me close by saying that we are all going to struggle with assurance at some point in our Christian walks. We are all going to wonder at some point along the way if God’s promises are really for us and if they are really going to come to pass the way the Bible says. And God knows this too. He wasn’t surprised when Abram looked up at him and asked, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” And he wasn’t surprised when the desperate father looked to Jesus and cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 ESV). And he isn’t surprised when we find ourselves believing and not believing all at the same time either.

But, there are three things we cannot do in these situations. We cannot stop being obedient to God because our faith is a bit shaky in one or two areas. We have believed God’s promise about Jesus, we have placed our faith in him, and we cannot quit faithfully following him each time we find ourselves struggling with some unbelief. That will never help us work through the doubts we are struggling with.

The second thing we cannot do is we cannot stop listening to God’s Word. Because, it is in these moments—these moments where our faith is weak—that we most need to hear from God. And every kid in our Awana program will tell you that the place we hear from God is in his Word. So, if you are having doubts about God’s promises this morning, don’t walk away from him and try to figure things out on your own. Open up his Word and prayerfully listen to what he has to say to you. That is what Christians who are struggling with unbelief ought to do.

And the third thing we cannot do—the most important thing we cannot do—is we cannot begin to believe the lie that God’s promises are somehow dependent upon us. There is nothing that will rattle your assurance in this life more than that because, the truth is, we are pretty lousy at living in the way we ought to live as Christians. We make a pretty big mess of things a lot of the time. And if our right standing with God were based on how we were currently doing at living the Christian life, none of us would have any assurance about anything. But, we’ll leave that for next week. For now, let me encourage you to continue living obediently, to keep listening to God’s Word, and to always remember that God’s promises rest upon him, not upon you. And to that, every Christian says, “Thank you, and Amen.”