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.
Abram and his family head down to Egypt because there is a famine in the land. And along the way, Abram asks his wife Sarai to pretend she is his sister and not his wife. He does this because Sarai is so beautiful that Abram's afraid the Egyptians would kill him to take her. When they arrive, Pharaoh hears about Sarai, as Abram predicted, and takes her into his harem. Abram uses his own wife as a shield to protect himself. He gives Sarai into the arms of a pagan king to have free access to do to her as he wished.11 Praise God, that wasn't the end of the story. Abram failed God, but God didn't fail Sarai. The Lord rescued her from the harem and gave her back into the arms of Abram.
What does this dark passage teach us? For one thing, it teaches us that there are no “heroes in the faith;” there are no “great men of God.” That's even an understatement. What Abram did was so bad, that he was sternly rebuked by a pagan king for his moral behavior (vv18-19) — and then promptly deported from the country (v20)! A lot of Christian biographies nowadays make Christian men and women out to be heroes. But the truth is, there are no Christian heroes. Even the greatest in God's kingdom are sinners who are ever prone to wander—ever in need of God's grace.
One way we can see Christ in the pages of the Old Testament is by observing how God's people fail to exemplify their Savior. In the account recorded in the second half of Genesis 12, Abram's actions are actually diametrically opposed to those of Christ. Genesis 12:13 tells us that the reason Abram told Sarai to lie was that it would go well with him because of her, and that he would live on account of her. Well, the reason Christ went to the cross was exactly the opposite: that it would go well with us on account of him, and that we would live on account of him. Abram put his bride in harm's way in order to protect himself; but Jesus put himself in harm's way in order to protect his bride.
1 Traditionally, the various promises made to Abraham have been classified in different ways. Perhaps the most simply way to classify the promises are the communicable versus the incommunicable. This same language is also used as it relates to the doctrine of God: which attributes we also reflect (communicable) versus which are His alone (incommunicable). But the same terminology can also be used with respect to the promises to Abraham. Many of the promises to Abraham are communicable to us; that is, we have a share in them just as much as Abraham did. For instance, Paul writes in Galatians 3:9 that “those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.” But some of the promises to Abraham are incommunicable to us; that is, they were made to him alone and we have no share in them. For instance, speaking of the promise to Abraham that the Lord would make him into a great nation, Goodwin notes that, “as we all know, [this] is to us incommunicable” (Children in the Covenant, Works V9, p428ff). Witsius puts it this way: “The promises annexed to the stipulation are of various kinds; some are spiritual, others corporal. The spiritual, are either general and common to all believers, or special and peculiar to Abraham.” (V2, p146). Others have been even more specific. For instance, Roberts divides up the promises into as much as five different groups: “1) Some of these covenant privileges tend to, and terminate in Jesus Christ alone the Head of the covenant, as only accomplishable in him. As, those promises: 'In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.' 'All the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.' 'And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.' These promises were directed to Abraham, but only fulfilled in Abraham's primary seed, Jesus Christ, as the New Testament abundantly witnesses. 2) Some of these covenant privileges seem peculiarly applicable to Abraham. As, the eminency and greatness of his name; that he should be a blessing; that he should be a father of many nations, etc. 3) Some of these privileges belonged more especially to Abraham's Jewish seed, and not to his Christian seed. As, the inheritance of Canaan; the token of circumcision. 4) Some of these privileges belonged both to Abraham, and to Abraham's Jewish and Christian seed. As, all the temporals of common concernment; divine benediction, protection, remuneration, etc. And all the spirituals, as the Lord's being a God to them; the blessing in Jesus Christ, etc. 5) Finally, the outside, the visible advantage only of the covenant state, covenant promises, covenant inauguration, and other covenant administrations, belong to the mere visible seed of Abraham, that are his merely by profession; but the inside, the invisible advantages and saving efficacy of all these, as well as the outside, belong to the true believing and gracious seed of Abraham, whether Jewish, or Christian, respectively.” (Roberts, pp319-20).
2 See Revelation 7:9. This is also confirmed in the Old Testament itself by the fact that God promises, not only Abraham, but also Jacob, that a company of nations would come forth from him (Genesis 35:11). Though someone might argue that the multitude of nations from Abraham were the three physical nations mentioned above, it would only be one nation that would come forth from Jacob (the Israelites)—and yet God also promises that a company of nations would come forth from him. Ainsworth notes on Genesis 12:2: “But under this promised nation, was implied also a spiritual seed, of faithful people, Romans 4:11-12; Galatians 3:7.” And Roberts likewise writes: “'A father of many nations have I made thee; Thou shalt be a father of multitudes of nations.' That is, not only of the Jews, which was but one nation; but also of the Gentiles.” (p306).
3 Actually, in the English language, his name is even used as slang for “idiot.”
4 And how sweet is it that fruitfulness is a promise for believers. In the garden it was a command. In Genesis 1:28, God said to Adam, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. . .” But here with Abram, God does so much more than command him to be fruitful and multiply. What God had given to Adam in the garden as a command—He now gives to Abram as a promise. Ligon Duncan in his audio series on Covenant Theology notes that it's debatable whether this clause in v2d is an indicative promise (the way we've taken it) or an imperative command (IE, “and so be a blessing”). He goes on to say that however we take the clause here, both things are true: God both promises to make us instruments of blessing as well as commands us to be so. I take it as a promise, since it would seem strange to include a single exhortation in the middle of verses 2-3 that are otherwise an exclusive list of promises alone (the exhortations were in verse 1). Another thing Duncan notes here is that Abram had to come out from the world in order to be a blessing to the world. He had to be set apart from the nations in order to be a blessing to the nations. And this is exactly what Christ is calling us to when He calls us to be salt and light, a city on a hill. The reason we're to be in the world but not of the world is in order to reach the world. Christians tend to have a hard time holding these two truths in tension: either we live too much like the world or we despise the world. But Scripture calls us to come out from the world and be set apart from the world—but to do so in order to be a blessing to the world.
5 Insight again gleaned from Ligon Duncan's Covenant Theology course. The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible notes on this clause: “Those who bless. That is, those who acknowledge Abraham and his offspring as God's agent of blessing.”
6 Still, it's also true: “God's greater intention was to bless, not curse. This is indicated in the Hebrew text by switching from a form indicating resolve ('I will bless') to a simple statement of fact ('I will curse') and by switching from the plural ('those who bless') to the singular ('whoever curses').” (Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible; cf. also Waltke on Genesis 12:3, p206).
7 Ibid Duncan. Thomas Goodwin sees another truth in that phrase, families of the earth; namely, that God's covenant blessing is not limited to a believing individual, but also extends to the children of believers and their household, or family: “The promise (Genesis 12:3) runs in these terms, 'In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed;' as elsewhere, [in] Genesis 18:18, and 22:18, it runs in these terms, 'All the nations of the earth shall be blessed.' These expressions are both used; the one to show, the seed should be of all nations and people, yet so as withal the covenant was to run by families in those nations. Therefore the New Testament quotes it in both senses: Galatians 3:8 says, panta ta ethne', all nations, or, heathens, because some of all nations shall be converted; but Peter, when he makes mention of the covenant, [in] Acts 3:25, though chiefly for the end to show the Jews were the first children of the covenant, yet he expounds these words spoken to Abraham, 'In thy seed shall the families of the earth be blessed'. . .” (Works, V9, pp431-32). We'll speak more of this later.
8 God declares this truth himself in Genesis 15:7, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it;” and we hear of the same truth from Abraham's own lips later in Genesis 20:13 as he begins to explain to Abimelech why he called Sarah his sister: “it came about, when God caused me to wander from my father's house. . .”
9 Matthew 22:14. We see the same truth later with Isaac instead of Ishmael and Jacob instead of Esau (see Romans 9:6-13).
10 We could clarify that he has a new life because he has new desires for a new Lord: he's now a man of prayer and worship because he has a new heart that longs for God. There are two distinct doctrines here: regeneration and sanctification. Christians are a people who are being sanctified because they are a people who have been regenerated. Throughout Genesis, we see the Spirit's sanctifying power in the lives of His people, changing them more and more into His image. Another example is Jacob in Genesis 33. Though some take Jacob here as playing the role of a winsome diplomat, I believe this interaction with his brother Esau powerfully puts on display the grace of God that had been so deeply at work in his life. In this passage we see that Jacob had moved: 1) from deceiving his family to defending them: for in the past he was known for his deception, but now he not only makes himself a shield to protect his family from any harm at the hands of Esau (vv1-3), but refuses to let any harm come to them by driving them on too quickly (vv13-14); 2) from ruling others to serving them: for in the past, Jacob did whatever he had to, “by hook or crook,” to ensure that he would never be the one serving or bowing down to his brother, but now we see him intentionally doing just that, bowing down in v3 (cf.27:29!) and either calling himself Esau's servant or Esau his lord no less than seven times (vv4,8,13-15; cf.27:29!); 3) from stealing blessings to giving them: for before he had stolen the blessing from Esau, but in verse 11 he's giving blessings away (the Heb. word here for gift is lit. blessing).
11 This would happen again in Genesis 20.