IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 6, April 5 to April 11, 1999

A Sermon on Genesis 17

by Dr. Richard Gamble


Before God instituted the sign of circumcision, he had been gracious to Adam, even after Adam's sin. He had also been very gracious to Noah: God saved his life and made a promise to himself. Abram, a descendant of Noah's son Shem, was blessed too.

The focus in this sermon is on God's covenant with Abraham. God had covenants with Adam and Noah. In God's covenant with Noah there was a promise: no more floods; and a sign: a rainbow. In Genesis 17, there is a promise (or covenant) to Abraham and a sign. That sign is circumcision.

What is particularly exciting about this particular covenant is that God revealed himself in a new way. He called himself "God Almighty" or "Almighty God." That name in Hebrew is "El-Shaddai." This is the third name we have seen for God. First was "El" or "Elohim," which describes God as creator. The other name was "Yahweh," which is the redemptive or covenant name for God. "El-Shaddai" fits in between the other two. "El" is "powerful creator," and "Shaddai" is "to overpower." God will overpower nature to fulfill his promise. Even an old woman will bear a child.

This promise or covenant also has two very clear parts: 1) God promised to love Abram; but 2) Abram also had to "walk before him and be blameless."1

This covenant also bore a corresponding sign. The idea of a covenant sign was not new to Abram. But this command, to circumcise a male, sounds strange to our ears. Actually, history tells us that there was circumcision before Abraham. Later in the history of Israel, only the Philistines did not circumcise their males, which was a great reproach against that tribe. But why would God make this particular command? The other sign, the rainbow, is a pretty thing, beautiful to behold. But circumcision hurts! More unfortunately for Abram, the meaning of the painful sign was unclear. Still, God commanded it, and the Bible states that Abraham performed it that day. He obeyed immediately. Nevertheless, it was not a well-informed obedience.

However, the Bible does not stop explaining circumcision with Genesis. As God continued to reveal himself progressively through Genesis and into the book of Exodus, Israel better knew the meaning of circumcision.


Circumcision remained a command of God and a sign of membership in Abraham's family. But it was more than this as well. In Leviticus 26:40-42, God himself revealed the true meaning of circumcision: "But if they confess their iniquity, that they have walked contrary to me, . . . if their uncircumcised hearts are humbled, then I will remember my covenant."

Two books later, Moses commanded circumcision of hearts. Deuteronomy 10:16: "Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stiff-necked."

Finally, as God commanded the circumcision of Abram's skin, and God through Moses commanded a circumcised heart, God promised that he himself would circumcise his children's hearts: "And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Deut. 30:6). This is the same "great commandment" of Jesus! (Matt. 22:37).

The true meaning of circumcision was clear. Circumcision of the flesh included circumcision of the heart. In the same way, the message of circumcision was unambiguous.

The body part God chose to be cut off was intentional. From that body part all children are born. Now, that body part is no more sinful than any other part. Neither is its use in procreation sinful. God commanded procreation in the garden of Eden, before sin (Gen. 1:28) — that was a good thing.

The product or fruit bears the problem. God tells us that children are born in sin. It is the sin that must be cut off.

God also reminds us that natural birth does not entitle us to grace. Even a natural born child of Abraham, who received circumcision, was not automatically entitled to grace. Birth does not confer grace. Circumcision does not confer grace. The Jews were wrong at time of Jesus. Circumcision is a sign that the sin that comes by natural birth must be cut off.

The rainbow was an earlier sign that God would not destroy with a flood. Circumcision was a sign that sin would destroy. Where there is sin there is death (Rom. 5:12-14,21; 6:16,23; 7:13; 1 Cor. 15:56; Jas. 1:15). Where there is no "uncircumcised heart," there is destruction like a flood.

1. What does God mean for Abraham to be blameless? Does it mean "sinless"? At first we might think "no," but that is precisely what God had in mind. Remember that when Adam was sinless, he walked with God. Abram, after the fall, was righteous by faith in God. Abram was worthy to see God because of the righteousness he had by faith. We cannot walk before God and be covered in the filth of sin. We must wear righteous robes.