1. WE LEARN HOW GOD DRAWS US TO HIMSELF
A) The NATURE of God's Call: Genesis 12:1-3 records God's calling of Abram to leave kin and country for the land that God would show him. There are both commands and promises in the call of Abram. We see the COMMANDS in 12:1: “Now the Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father's house. . .” God is calling Abram to leave: 1) his country (land); 2) his relatives (people); and 3) his father's house, which probably signifies both his father's authority and his family heritage; as he is being called to submit to a new authority and obtain a new heritage. But along with the commands God gives Abram to leave his country, relatives and father's house, the Lord also gives him PROMISES. We see seven promises in verses 2-3:1
1) And I will make you a great nation: In Genesis 17:4-5, the Lord expands this promise from one great nation to “a multitude of nations.” From Abram would come forth entire physical nations—not only the Israelites (from Jacob), but also the Ishmaelites (from Ishmael), the Edomites (from Esau). But there was also much more meant by this promise than physical nations. The New Testament in referring back to these promises, tells us that they extended not only to those who were the physical descendants of Abraham, but also to those who would “follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham” from among the Gentiles (Romans 4:16-17). In other words, this promise has its ultimate fulfillment in the church. The great nation and multitude of nations that the Lord was promising Abraham was ultimately the people of God—those who with Abraham would call upon the God of Abraham; a great multitude indeed gathered from every tribe, tongue, and nation under heaven.2
2) And I will bless you: The blessing isn't specified here, but it becomes clear later. We'll be talking about it in more detail ahead, but for now we can simply note that this same blessing rests on all of God's people, for the New Testament tells us that “those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer” (Galatians 3:9). It's the blessing that David would write about years later: “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity” (Psalm 32:1-2). It's the blessing that our Savior would speak of in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . .” (Matthew 5:1-12). And it's the blessing that Paul would reflect on when he wrote: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. . .” (Ephesians 1:3).
3) And [I will] make your name great: This points us back again to the story of the tower of Babel. If you remember, the reason those men were building the tower was to make a name for themselves. God is telling Abraham: Don't waste your time trying to make a name for yourself. Seek after Me, and I will make you a name that will endure forever. We're told in Genesis 10:8-10 that the founder of Babel was Nimrod, and that he “became a mighty one on the earth.” So, Nimrod was “a mighty one” on the earth. . .but who has ever heard his name? Nobody knows who he is. We have to be told that he used to be big-time back in the day to even know who in the world he is!3 Not so with Abraham. You don't have to tell anyone who Abraham is. Why? God made his name great.
4) And so you shall be a blessing: Earlier in verse 2, God had promised to bless Abraham; but here, God is promising to bless others through him. In other words, God's blessing would not only come to Abraham (v2b), but it would also flow through him (v2d). God wouldn't just bless him, He would make him an instrument of blessing in the lives of those around him. What an amazing thing! The blessing of God didn't just mean deliverance from sins' punishment—it also meant fruitfulness for God's glory. God's blessing wasn't just about salvation in the next life—it was about significance in this life. And doesn't God promise us the same thing in Christ? Paul says, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.” (2 Corinthians 2:14). And our Savior cried out in John 7:38-39, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, 'From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.'” Just like Abraham, God has promised to make us instruments of His blessing in this life for eternity.4
5) And I will bless those who bless you: What does this mean? We can understand this clause by recalling Noah's prophecy in Genesis 9:26-27, where he says, “May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem. . .” What's Noah saying? He's saying that the descendants of Japheth would be blessed as they dwelt in the tents of Shem. Why? Because the Messiah would come from Shem, and the blessing is in the Messiah. So if you're dwelling with Shem, ultimately, you're dwelling with the Messiah who would come from Shem. If you're at peace with Shem, you're at peace with the Messiah who would come from Shem, and God's blessing is upon you. So again, for Japheth, to dwell with Shem meant to dwell with the Messiah who would come from Shem. And it's the same thing here: To bless Abram meant to bless the Messiah who would come from Abram. Those who bless Abram in the truest sense are those who bless the Savior who would come forth from him.5
6) And the one who curses you I will curse: This clause isn't as pleasant but it's no less important. Abraham won't just be the door for a blessing—but also for a curse. If those who bless Abram are by implication blessing the Messiah, then those who curse him are by implication cursing the Messiah. As Simeon held the baby Jesus in his arms at the temple, he declared to Mary: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed. . .” (Luke 2:34). Many would rise to life and blessing through faith in the Messiah, but many would also stumble and fall on account of Him. It's the same truth that Paul wrote of when he said in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16, “For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.” There is no neutral response to Jesus: To receive Him is to be blessed, but to reject Him is to be cursed.6
7) And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed: Blessing is promised over and over again to Abram in these two short verses (12:2-3). But each time it's mentioned, the meaning is distinct. In verse 2b, blessing would come to him; in verse 2d, blessing would flow through him; and now here in verse 3c, blessing would spring from him. This clause is incredibly significant. We're going to deal with it in depth later, and show why it is that, in Galatians 3:8, Paul actually refers to this clause as the gospel. But for now, I want us to just notice the language that the Lord chooses to use here in His promise to Abram; that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God's plan from the beginning was never just to bless Abram, but in him to bless all peoples. His desire has always been to draw every tribe and tongue and nation to himself. Christian missions started long before Matthew 28! In fact, God's promise here in Genesis 12:3 is actually the basis for the Great Commission: God sends us to the nations with hope because He's promised to extend His blessing to them as well.7
Aside from these seven promises in verses 2-3, the Lord gives Abram another promise in verse 7, where after Abram had come into the land of Canaan, we read: “The Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To your descendants I will give this land.'” So, the Lord makes several promises to Abram here in Genesis 12. Really, we could condense them all down to three promises that equate exactly to the commands God had given to him: The Lord is telling Abram: 1) leave your land (country), 2) your people (relatives), 3) and your heritage (father's house); because: 1) I am going to give you a new land, 2) I'm going to make you into a new people, and 3) I'm going to give you a new heritage:
So, there's both commands and promises in God's calling of Abram. There were commands: This wasn't just a suggestion for Abram—to leave everything he knew and go to the land that God would show him—it was a command; so there were commands. But there were also promises: God doesn't tell Abram to leave everything just because; just for the sake of sacrifice. God tells him to leave these things behind because He has something infinitely better in store for him (Genesis 12:2-3).
And this is meant to highlight for us the way that God calls us as believers to himself in the gospel, in the Covenant of Grace. The way that God calls Abram to the land of Canaan is exactly the same way that He calls us home to himself in the gospel. There are commands. God called Abram to leave everything and follow Him; and it's no different for us. Jesus said to the rugged fisherman, “Follow Me” (Mark 1:17). Christ was calling His disciples to walk away from everything they knew for a new life. This is how it is in the Covenant of Grace. Abram had to count the cost, and so do we.
There are commands, but there are also promises. God tells Abram to leave his land, his people, and his inheritance for something much, much greater: he will inherit an infinitely better land, he will father an innumerable people, and he will gain an everlasting inheritance. It's a pretty good trade. Losing the world in order to gain Christ is no sacrifice. Jesus describes it this way: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Jim Elliot, missionary to Ecuador, put it this way, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
B) The POWER of God's Call: How did Abram respond to God's call? Genesis 12:4 says, “So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him. . .” But that wasn't exactly the whole story. We know this because of what Scripture records in Acts 7:2-3. In making his defense to the Sanhedrin, Stephen begins by saying, “Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Leave your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.' ” It seems that Abram had lived in Haran a long time (cf. 12:5). And Acts tells us that God spoke to Abram the words recorded in Genesis 12:1-3 before Abram even lived in Haran; which means that Abram did obey, but only years after God had first appeared to him. Abram followed God's call, but it took him a long time.
Well, what happened? How did Abram finally come to his senses in Haran and make the rest of the journey to Canaan? Stephen tells us in the next verse, in verse 4: “after his father died, God removed him from there [Haran] into this land in which you are now living” (ESV). What happened? “God removed him.” And by the way, the Greek word used here (Gr. metoikizo) is only used twice in Scripture; once here and then later in verse 43, where Stephen quotes from a passage in Amos that describes how God would send Israel into exile for their sins: “I will remove you beyond Babylon.” That's a violent removal. And yet that's the same word that's being used here for how it was that God brought Abram into Canaan! Ultimately, God did it—God caused Abram to leave Haran and come into the land of promise. God didn't just call Abram to the land of promise—He drew Abram to the land of promise.8 There was a command, but in the Covenant of Grace, all that God requires, He also provides. This was more than a call—it was an effectual call; it was a call that Abram couldn't resist, because God himself would cause him to obey. And it's no different with us; with God's calling us to turn from our sins and believe upon Christ. If you are a believer in Jesus, you need to know that the reason you left all to follow Christ wasn't because you made a decision—it was because God made a decision. It wasn't because you chose Him but because He chose you. What we see here with Abram is the same truth Jesus spoke of in the gospels: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”9
2. WE LEARN WHO GOD'S PEOPLE ARE:
In Genesis 12:1-3, we learned about the call of God. Through the rest of the chapter (Genesis 12:4-20), we learn about the children of God: who are God's redeemed people? What do their lives look like? What are the characteristics that mark their lives? What sort of people are they? And in answering these questions from the rest of Genesis 12 (verses 4-20), we can say two things. First:
A) God's people are NEW CREATURES: We see this in Genesis 12:4-9. Abram follows God's call to the land of Canaan, going forth “as the Lord had spoken to him” (v4). As he travels through the land, we're told twice that he builds altars to the Lord; one in Shechem (v6), and then again near Bethel, where we're told, “he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord” (v8).
These verses are describing for us Abram's relationship with the Lord. He's now a man who calls upon the name of the Lord. He's a man of prayer. A man of worship. A man who loves the Lord. A man with new desires, a new Lord, and a new life.10 Abram is a new creature in Christ.
These verses also describe for us Abram's relationship towards the world. When Abram get's to Canaan, he doesn't settle down in one place. He goes from Shechem, to Bethel, then further south. This is to show us that Abram was a stranger and an exile on the earth (Hebrews 11:13), even as he lived in Canaan. Even in the land of promise, Abram was a pilgrim; this world was never his home.
B) God's people are STRUGGLING SINNERS: The first half of Genesis 12 (vv1-9) is filled with glory and wonder; the second half (vv10-20) is filled with shame and defeat. We're a little shocked as we read through verses 10-20; but we shouldn't be. We see here in Abraham's life a truth we're all too familiar with: There are both highs and lows in the Christian life; there are incredible mountain-tops, but there are also dark valleys. If Genesis 12:4-9 teaches us that Christians are new creatures in Christ; Genesis 12:10-20 teaches us that Christians are still a people who struggle with sin.