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Covenant Father 7: Cutting Off the Flesh - Genesis 17:1-14

Abram tried to fulfill the covenant by means of the flesh, and Ishmael was the result. Here in chapter 17, we see God act to clarify and renew the covenant in order to remove all confidence in the flesh. God uses the most intimate and to-the-point object lesson imaginable to establish the central lesson of the covenant of circumcision: cut off the flesh and rely completely on faith.

The first 14 verses of Genesis 17 divide into two parts: vv. 1-8, and vv. 9-14. The first part contains the covenant prologue promises (God’s part) and vv. 9-14 contain the covenant conditions (Abram’s part). God’s promise in His part of the covenant is to be God to Abram and to the many offspring which God will give him. Abram’s part is to keep the covenant by means of the covenant sign of circumcision.

In these two parts, we see three themes: names, nations, and knives. In the first eight verses, God introduces a new name for Himself and renames Abram. God’s new name, El Shaddai, communicates the ideas of strength, protection, and blessing. With this name, God is saying that covenant power belongs to Him.

Abram’s new name Abraham is a change from “exalted father” to “father of a multitude”, which God explains in v. 5 refers to Abraham’s offspring, who will comprise a multitude of nations spread out over generations. God’s covenant runs deep into the future and as wide as the world, and so the heart of God’s promise is found in v. 7: “I will be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

That’s God’s part of the covenant. In vv. 9-14, Abraham is responsible to keep the covenant, and to lead his offspring to keep the covenant by means of a covenant sign: every male must be circumcised; the foreskin of his male member must be cut off to signify this covenant relationship. That’s where the knives come in.

Now, circumcision isn’t just a random sign. God is using the sign to communicate what the covenant is all about: cutting off the flesh and relying completely on God. On the surface, it makes no sense: God’s big promise is that Abraham will have lots of children, and then God tells him to attack his instrument of childbearing. It’s like saying: “Let’s go boating. First step, cut a big hole in the bottom of the boat.” But God wants to cut off our confidence in the flesh, so that we put all of our trust in Him. And so God ensures that Abraham understands by giving him a covenant sign that he cannot forget.

There’s much more to say about the covenant of circumcision: notice that in the history of redemption, the covenant sign comes before the law. Believing and belonging come before obeying. Also, God says to circumcise the infant boys – this is a family covenant, not just an individual covenant. Circumcise on the eighth day – the day of new creation. Servants and foreigners, too: this covenant isn’t ethnic. It’s about faith, and it’s for the whole world, not just Abraham’s physical descendants.

For us, cutting off the flesh looks different than it did for Abraham. In Jesus Christ, God renewed the covenant at an even deeper level, taking His war against the flesh to its ultimate conclusion not just by cutting off the flesh, but by crucifying the flesh. This new covenant comes with a new sign: “In Christ also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, but putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11-12)

In baptism, God welcomes you into His new covenant. You are baptized into God’s new name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You receive your new name: Christian. Your flesh is drowned and buried completely, not just a small cut with a knife! And you are raised to a new life of fruitfulness by the Spirit. The way you cut off the flesh today is by being baptized and living a baptized life.

And this baptism is not just for you; it’s for your family. Baptism is not just for your family; it’s for the world. The Great Commission is the new covenant charter: Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And the covenant promise is fulfilled in the presence of Christ: “Behold, I am with you always.” So learn the lesson of Genesis 17: put no confidence in the flesh. Instead, let God cut off your flesh in baptism and raise you up to a new life of faith, so that you might bear fruit for God.

Posted on Wednesday, May 10, 2017 by CJ Bowen