God's Promises

Reading: Romans 4.13-25
A few weeks ago I asked a primary school class, "What is a promise?" After a few moment's thought, one student said, "It's something you're meant to keep."

That's a good answer, telling what we are meant to do with a promise, even if it doesn't actually define the word. Those of us who were schooled in roots would readily see it derived from the Latin pro (before) plus mitto (I send) meaning to "send before". A promise is something said or done beforehand with a strong pledge that "there is more to follow". And, yes of course, a promise is only of value when the person means to keep it.

The issues of honest intentions and the ability to "deliver" are part of what we seek in political leaders. Before the First World War, a treaty was signed guaranteeing Belgian neutrality. But with the outbreak of war, Germany regarded this treaty as "a scrap of paper" and invaded anyway.

But honesty and ability to deliver are important for parents too in the promises (and warnings!) made to children. If our talk is cheap, our children will grow up cynical and unable to trust anyone.

Of course, there are times when we just can't keep a promise. Perhaps it was foolishly made - with not enough forethought. But then, we don't have foreknowledge - circumstances beyond our forethought or control can prevent us from fulfilling a promise.

God's Promises

Unlike our promises, God's are based on both forethought and foreknowledge. The integrity of all reality depends on God's promises being true. God's truthfulness lies at the heart of truth itself. If we can't depend on God's word, we are in bad trouble.

We trace God's promises from the earliest parts of the Bible - the effectiveness of his word in creation (Gen. 1), the promise that the offspring of the woman would crush the serpent's head (3.15), the promise in the rainbow in Noah's time (8.21-22), the promise to Abraham… In today's reading, Paul makes reference to God's promise to Abraham.

Abraham was brought up in Ur, the ruins of which are in the lower Euphrates, some 150 km from the modern Iraqi city of Basra. Ur was a pagan city where an artificial mound called a ziggurat had been built with a temple to the Moon god on top. Abraham's father, Terah, had led his family from Ur to go to Canaan. They travelled up the Euphrates valley and, when they came to a place called Haran, they settled down there. Terah died there (11.31-32).

Then Abraham heard God's call to "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you". No tourist maps, no brochures, no motels along the way… just a promise…

"I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (12.1-3). What a wonderful promise! Descendants who would become a great nation, blessed to be a blessing to all peoples on earth!

Human Response

God in fact made a covenant with Abraham. But Abraham had to do something about it - he had to receive it and believe it. We are told in Hebrews 11, "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going" (v. 8). The only way to get to the promised destination was to believe in - and to act on - God's promises.

We read in Genesis 15 that "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (v. 6) This verse is quoted by Paul in Rom. 4.3 as part of his teaching about how we are made right with God. God accepted Abraham, not on the basis of all the good he had done, but on the basis of his faith. This illustrates the general principle that "to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness" (v. 5).

This is what we call "justification by faith". It doesn't mean that God is pleased with sin or idleness. But we can only be right with God on the basis of his grace, on the basis of what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Abraham lived long before the coming of Jesus. But the promise to Abraham was part of a long line of promises about the coming Messiah. The problem for Abraham was advancing years - for both himself and his wife Sarah - and no children. How could he be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth if he had no descendants? Perhaps Sarah's suggestion of a child by the maidservant Hagar is the only way to go. But no, Ishmael isn't the promised child. Isaac, born when his father was 100 and his mother 90 - beyond normal possibility - would be the child of promise.

We get very impatient. They had to wait a ridiculously long time for their promised son. And then there were the hundreds of years before the promised Messiah came. We want God to do something "at the double". A promise isn't enough - we want it and we want it now!

Well... "now" is a good time to begin. "I tell you, now is the time of God's favour, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6.2). God's promises are already fulfilled in Jesus. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3.16). The promise is fulfilled, but we still have to receive him and believe in him.

God makes us right with himself because of what he has done in Jesus who died for our sins and is alive from the dead. God offers us forgiveness and a whole new way of life. Now is the time of opportunity to say "yes" to his promise and to begin living that positive eternal life that is his gift to us in Jesus.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 16 March 2003
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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