Because we live in such a results-based world meaning most people are driven by success, I have found that one of our biggest sources of anxiety centers upon a fear of failure. If you simply Google “fear of failure” article after article will emerge addressing this issue.
You see no one wants to fail or worse yet become known as a failure. There is something deeply embarrassing when the world tags you as not being good enough. And since success is the ultimate remedy to this problem, becoming so intertwined with our identity and self-worth, people work harder, smarter, longer, with more tenacity, energies, and efforts. Fear of failure propels people to make incredible sacrifices and restructure all priorities to succeed.
Tragically, this same physiological intertwining of one’s pride and success is not only limited to a person’s career. People fear failing as a parent or failing as a spouse. They fear failing those who look up to them or their friends. I have even found many people fear failing God.
And it’s with this final point in mind that I’d like to point out this fear of failing God ends up becoming the principle driver behind legalism. Because people don’t want to fail God or be a failure, it’s so easy to end up creating a metrics by which they measure success. Here’s the irony of legalism… These created, manmade traditions end up being tailored in such a way that success by the tradition-makers is all but guaranteed.
Understand… Church traditions like the prohibition of alcohol, dancing, dressing up for church, only reading out of the King James Version of the Bible, refusing to listen to any secular music, kissing dating goodbye, banning HBO or rated R movies, etc. are created as a way Christians can measure their Spiritual success so they don’t feel like a failure. The truth is that a legalist is easily identifiable because they’ll always point to any number of these things they do or don’t do as evidence of their spiritual prowess.
Here’s the problem with creating a list of legalist traditions in order to measure Spiritual success… As we’re about to see in the way God addressed Abram’s fear, our failure and inability to succeed is a central component of the Gospel! You see legalism is dangerous because it promotes personal success when the power of the Gospel only manifests in the presence of a broken sinner who’s accepted his never-ending failure.
Genesis 15:1-6, “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.’ But Abram said, ‘Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ Then Abram said, ‘Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!’
And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.’ Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”
“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision…” At this point in Abram’s journey he’s had five recorded interactions with God - making this the sixth. And yet, it’s in this sixth that we see something new… “The word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision.”
In the Hebrew this word “vision” is unique and presents an exchange with God unlike all the others. In actuality this event is so different the only other place the word is used is the O.T. is in conjunction with a man named Balaam - recorded in Numbers 24. While Abram is awake and conscious, his mortal man is enraptured in a state of spiritual ecstasy.
Though the text doesn’t say what Abram is seeing, we are told what he hears… God says to him, “Do not be afraid…” Why would God seek to calm Abram’s fear? A: He was afraid!
I want us to consider what Abram was afraid of at this point in his life. While it would seem logical Abram may have feared some form of retribution brought on by Chedorlaomer (he’d just launch a sneak attack against him), the text insinuates his fear ran much deeper.
It should also be pointed out that, for the first time in his journey with God, Abram has finally been doing all the right things. He demonstrated bravery by rescuing Lot. He showed kindness by liberating those from Sodom who’d also been taken captive. Abram then wisely resisted the urge to keep the spoils choosing instead to return them to the King of Sodom.
Abram is in the land of promise… Walking with God… Receiving the blessings of God… I mean what could Abram possibly fear? It’s with these things in mind (and in the greater context of the passage itself) that I believe, in this particular season of life, Abram feared two things: (1) He feared God might fail him, and (2) He feared he would fail God!
Let’s begin with his fear that God might fail him… Notice what Abram says to God, “Lord, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”
Abram rightly understood the entire crux of God’s promise to provide a Savior depended upon him having a biological son who would be the rightful heir. And yet, despite walking with God for well over 15 years, this Promise had failed to materialized. Abram still remained “childless” even pointing out that his current “heir” was a servant named “Eliezer!”
It’s almost as if Abram is confronting God… “What’s the deal Lord? I’m old and my wife is barren, but you’ve promised to give me a son. As a matter of fact, all of Your promises are contingent upon that happening. At this point the window seems closed, having a son impossible, with all the evidence mounting that Your promises may not come to fruition!”
Look at how God responds to this fear… First, God initiates a conversation. Only to then remind Abram of His faithfulness. Before finally reiterating the same promise again.
First, it’s important we note, God initiates a conversation! Why, in this instance, does the “word of the Lord come to Abram?” Had Abram voiced some complaint to God? Did this happen in the midst of a marathon prayer meeting? No! It’s clear by the initial command for Abram “not to be afraid” God knew full well what was happening in his heart.
I find it so interesting, and in many ways encouraging, that God didn’t wait for Abram to bring this fear to Him nor did He wait for this fear to fester; instead, God took the lead, came to Abram in this “vision,” and spoke with the intention of addressing what he was dealing with.
Now admittedly, if this was all that the “word of the LORD” communicated to Abram (the acknowledgment of his fear), it would have been rather hollow - even counterproductive. I mean telling someone to chill-out without providing them a reason to chill doesn’t do much to calm an anxious heart. And yet, God not only acknowledges Abram’s fear, but He then seeks to defuse this fear by reminding Abram of His past and present faithfulness.
He says, “Do not be afraid… I am your shield!” I love this original Hebrew word for “shield” mainly because the English translation paints such an incomplete picture. The word “magen” literally referred to the “scaly hide of the crocodile.” In this instance, the idea of a “shield” wasn’t so much of a tool used to defend oneself, but rather a garment warn for defense.
God’s point that He’s been Abram’s “shield” illustrated the reality of His past faithfulness. While Abram feared what God had yet to do, the reality was that this fear had developed because he’d lost sight of the things God had already done! God called Abram to embark on a journey with Him. Had God failed to come through in the past?
It’s as though God is saying, “Abram, I not only called you, but I’ve proved my love for you in the fact that I’ve protected you… I’ve been your shield! I’ve been active in preserving My plan even when your actions could have proved detrimental. During your detour in Haran - My grace covered you. When you went to Egypt without consulting me - My grace protected you. Even during this conflict with Chedorlaomer, I acted as your shield in that I granted you the victory. Abram, don’t forget how far I’ve brought you and that I’ve proven to be trustworthy!”
God also says, “Do not be afraid… I am your exceedingly great reward!” Once again our English translation butchers the original Hebrew behind this phrase “great reward.” This word “sakar” was used to describe “passage-money” and could be translated as “hire or wages.”
Not only had God acted in the past as Abram’s “shield” of protection, but at no point in his journey with God had Abram found himself separated from the presence of God. Abram didn’t leave Ur because of the promises God made. He left Ur because he wanted to walk with God. Never forget, the profound joy of walking with God is that you’re walking with God!
In the place of fear and worry that God’s promises might fail to materialize, Abram is being reminded that if the God of the universe was actively involved in his life, what reason did he have to fear God would now let Him down? In a sense his fear was completely unfounded.
Well, after initiating the conversation and reminding Abram of His past and present faithfulness, what does God do? He simply reiterates His promise. God begins by making it clear Eliezer would “not be his heir, but one who will come from his own body.” In a sense God restates the same promise He’d given Abram in Genesis 12:2 and Genesis 13:15-16.
God is reaffirming His commitment to provide a Savior through Abram’s “Seed.” As impossible as it may have seemed in the moment, God’s plan was still for he and Sarai to conceive and bear a son! In order to illustrate the magnitude of His plan God brings Abram outside and commands him to “look toward heaven and count the stars” in order to see “if he could number them.” Then we’re told God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”
Notice… While God initiated the conversation and even reminds Abram of His past and present faithfulness in order to defuse his fear, His promise for Abram remained the same.
God didn’t provide an explanation to Abram as to how He was going to accomplish this promise nor does He provide some new insight for the purposes of tempering his fear. No! God’s promise still required Abram believe in spite of the fears he presently possessed.
Once again, because we read that Abram “believed” and “God accounted” this belief “to him for righteousness” it’s obvious this exchange and even the core nature of Abram’s fears ran much deeper than him having a son and this son becoming a mighty nation.
Understand… The only belief that God will account on ones behalf for righteousness is a faith in Jesus - the Savior that effectively atones for sin while at the same time imputing His righteousness on ones account. This is the promise Abram believed!
Before we move on I want to ask you a very personal question… Are there specific promises God has made to you that haven’t yet come to fruition? Like Abram, because of the delay, do you find yourself afraid God might fail to make good on these promises?
First, while God might not explain how or when He’s going to accomplish that work and He’s probably not going to reveal to you this morning why the fulfillment of those promise have not manifested, I hope you know God is fully aware what’s going on in your heart, is completely willing to meet you were you are, and has a message He wants to speak into your life!
This morning, if you find yourself doubting His promises, God wants you to know that He is “your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” Friend, please consider… Has God failed you in the past? Is He not with you in this very moment? Has He not proven His faithfulness? Never forget… Abram was able to “believe God” and hold fast to God’s promises because he remembered that God had proven Himself worthy of his trust and his confidence.
And yet, as we mentioned, Abram had two fears… Not only was he afraid God could fail to make good on His promises, but I believe he also feared he would fail God!
Genesis 15:7-8, “Then God said to him, ‘I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.’ And Abram said, ‘Lord God, how shall I know that I will inherit it?’”
It’s interesting that God stakes the fulfillment of this promise to provide a Savior on no one other than Himself. He says, “I am the Lord” and I will “give you this land to inherit.” Abram did nothing to earn this promise nor could he do a thing to see this promise manifest.
This work was something only God could accomplish! And yet, as you can imagine this all seemed to good to be true. Notice how Abram replies, “How shall I know that I will inherit it?” You see while Abram isn’t doubting God’s ability to “give” he does appear concerned with his ability to receive. It’s as though he’s saying, “I know you’re going to give the land, but will I inherit it? What if I mess up? What if I fail? What if I don’t live up to my end of the bargain?”
This is what’s ironic about these two fears of Abram… Would God fail Abram? Absolutely not! God’s promises were sure to the end! But would Abram fail God? Absolutely! He would fail and fail miserably. And yet, because God wouldn’t fail Abram’s failures wouldn’t matter!
As we’ll see illustrated in the next several verses, the fulfillment of God’s promises were solid because they weren’t predicated upon Abram and his propensity to fail God.
Genesis 15:9-10, “So God said to him, ‘Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.”
What’s being described here was an ancient way of entering into a formal covenant. These animals would be killed and sliced down the middle creating a bloody pathway. Then to demonstrate the seriousness of the agreement each of the parties would walk down the path declaring that they’d uphold their end of the deal or “this blood would be attributed to them.” In those days this practice was literally called “cutting a covenant.”
Genesis 15:11-16, “And when the vultures came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him. Then He said to Abram: ‘Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.
And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’”
Before this covenant was formally sealed, God provides Abram a prophetic insight into what will happen to both he and his descendants. As it pertained to Abram, God tells him that when he dies he would “go to his fathers in peace” being “buried at a good old age.”
As far as his descendants were concerned, God is equally clear they would eventually leave Canaan and “be strangers in a land that was not theirs.” Additionally, God indicates that during this 400 years Abram’s descendants would find themselves enslaved and afflicted. And yet, following God’s judgment of this nation, Abram’s kin would eventually “come out with great possessions” and “return” to the land God had given them to possess.
While in hindsight we understand God is prophetically describing the 400 years the Hebrew people would spend in Egypt, what makes this prophecy fascinating is that God provides the reason all of this was part of His will. God keeps the children of Israel in Egypt for “four generations” specifically in order to provide the “Amorites” time to repent of their “iniquity.”
Though God will use the Israelites to judge these nations of Canaan, judgment would only come after they had been given ample time to repent - another manifestation of God’s grace!
Genesis 15:17-21, “And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces. On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates - the Kenites, Kenezzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’”
Since we’re told “the Lord made a covenant with Abram” we can assume the presence of God was manifested in the appearance of this “smoking oven” and “burning torch.” In order to understand these symbols, keep in mind, this covenant centered upon God’s promise of a Savior. Salvation, sanctification, and the assurance of eternal life would be completely based in God “giving the land to inherit” independent of any of our involvement.
With this in mind… If the ultimate fulfillment of this covenant is Jesus, then it’s only logical the manifestation of these two symbols must also point to Jesus. Consider that Jesus, perfectly illustrated by this “smoking oven,” had to first endure the testing of affliction, the trial of fire, the pressure cooker of life! Jesus was placed in the oven of suffering so that, in the end, He might emerge as the “burning torch.” Jesus is the “Light of the World!”
Aside from this interesting symbolism, the more significant detail of this passage is that while “the Lord made a covenant with Abram” did you notice it was only God who entered into the agreement? While we’re told God “passed between the pieces” we have no record of Abram doing the same. “The Lord made a covenant” with Abram that didn’t include Abram.
To this point Pastor David Guzik observes that “the certainty of the covenant God made with Abram was based on who God is, not on who Abram is or what Abram would do. This covenant could not fail, because God cannot fail… [As Abram] We merely enter into the covenant by faith; we don’t make the covenant with God… This covenant God signed alone; Abram did not haggle with God over the terms. God established and Abram accepted. [Meaning] Abram was unable to break a contract he has never signed!”
Understand… Abram’s fear that God might fail him was unfounded and completely baseless, but on the same token his fear he would fail God proved to be surprisingly pointless and irrelevant. Abram and God did not meet in the middle nor did the covenant itself demand Abram’s involvement. This work of salvation would be completely dependent on God coming through and wouldn’t be dependent in any way on his performance.
And why was that important… While God would never fail, Abram would! Salvation is a work of God for man independent of man, which is glorious for if salvation was contingent on our performance we’d be in serious trouble. Abram was afraid he’d fail God, but the reality was that his performance didn’t matter.
Understand… Your Spiritual success is only manifested because of your failure. Though you will fail isn’t it nice to know Jesus doesn’t? Because you could never be good enough to uphold your end of the bargain, God left you out of the process. He provided a Savior… He fulfilled His promises! Because God wouldn’t fail, Abram’s failures mattered not.
This is why any attempt to mask our failure by employing these legalistic metrics for success only serves to detract from the fact that we’re saved for one reason - Jesus succeeded! You see grace concedes your failure by celebrating His sufficiency!
This morning if you fear failing God or you’ve come to church defeated because you have failed Him in some way, it’s ok because your failure is expected - the Gospel not only demands it, but is made all the more powerful because of it. And yet, what is amazing and worthy of your celebration is that even when you do fail God - God will never fail you! How incredible that you “believed in the LORD, and God accounted it to you for righteousness.”
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