An Immutable Promise

adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 20 July 2012


17 Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: 18 That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:17-18).

The book of Hebrews was probably written between the years AD 64 and AD 70.

In AD 64, the Roman Emperor Nero wanted to rebuild Rome. Tradition has it that he set a third of Rome on fire. When the people began to suspect that he ordered the burning, he needed a scapegoat.

There was a group of people readily available to serve that purpose. These were the early New Testament Christian—converts—if you like—from Judaism. These were hated by the Jews who were looking for a political Messiah and were jealous of the ministry of Jesus. These were also hated by the Romans because they refused to worship the emperor and they conducted their worship behind close doors. Rumours had it that they were eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood. Nero immediate cast the blame on them. Christianity began immediately to be treated like an illegal religion, by the whims of Nero.

Many Christians died. Some we made to don animal skins and torn apart by wild dogs. Other were covered with tar, impale on stakes and set aflame to illumine Nero’s garden.

Understandably many Jewish Christians were discouraged. They understood that they were the true successors of Old Testament Judaism. But now Judaism was, as it were, religio licita, whereas Christianity was religio illicita. Many were tempted to return to Judaism. It was for this reason that the Epistle to the Hebrews was written.

In this letter, the apostle explains to his readers that the New Covenant was far superior to the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant saw Christ in shadows and types. The New Covenant saw Christ coming in the flesh, living and dying and then being exalted to the right hand of the throne of God. And so he warns them that if anyone reverts to Judaism, he would be trampling underfoot the blood of Christ. The sacrifices of a Judaiser who denies Christ, is not much different from the sacrifices of idolatrous pagans feeding their hungry and impotent gods. So serious was the sin of reverting to Judaism and Old Testament sacrifices that the apostle warns in chapters 6 that it would be impossible for anyone who take the step back to Judaism to return to Christ.

But make no mistake. This letter is not predominantly negative and full of warnings. In fact, it is actually full of promises. Indeed, we may say that the entire message of encouragement to believers to persevere on in this letter is founded on a great unbreakable promise of God. We see this promise expounded in chapter 6, verse 13 onwards. In verse 13 we read—

 

For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself…

But the heart of the apostle’s thesis lies in verses 17-18, which reads—

Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.

The Lord helping us, we must consider briefly, what the apostle is saying. To do so, let us ask 3 questions.

First, let’s ask: What is God promising in the text? Secondly, what assurance do we have that He will keep His promise? Thirdly, how should we walk in the light of this promise?


1. What is God Promising?

The event referred to in this verse is recorded for us in Genesis 15. In Genesis 12, God had instructed Abraham to move into the Promised Land, and He promised Abraham that He would make of him a great nation and that all the nations of the world would be blessed through him (Gen 12:2-3). In Genesis 15, God reiterated his promise by saying “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (v. 1). But Abraham was childless. And so he asked the LORD how that promise could possibly be fufilled.

God brought him out to the open and showed him the stars and assured him that as many stars as his eyes could see, that many descendants would he have. Of course, in the Palestinian night sky during the days of Abraham, the stars visible in the sky would have been uncountable.

We read that Abraham “believed in the LORD; and [God] counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen 15:6). And then the Lord reiterated that he would give the Promised Land to Abraham.

This was the promise referred to in our text. It is about inheriting the Promised Land, and having children who would inherit the land.

But let us be clear about 2 things in our mind.

First of all, Abraham knew that the Promised Land was not ultimately the substance of the promise. The land was just a picture or a shadow of the real thing. This is clear from Hebrews 11, for there we are told that Abraham was looking “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (v. 10). He was looking for a better country, even a heavenly city (v. 16). He was looking for a heavenly inheritance in Christ. He was looking for the fulfilment of the “promise of eternal inheritance” (Heb 9:15).

And likewise, let us understand that just as the promise is not merely about an earthly parcel of land, so the seed who would inherit the land is not merely the physical descendants of Abraham, but his spiritual descendants.

A number of passages makes this very clear. Turn first of all to Romans 4. This whole chapter has to do with Abraham’s faith, and in fact brings into focus Genesis 15. Look at v. 3 “For what saith the scripture?  Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” This clearly is a quotation of Genesis 15:6. Now look at verse 13—

 “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.”

We see that Paul is not only stressing that Abraham was saved by grace through faith but that the promise was not really to the physical descendants of Abraham (through the law), but to his spiritual descendants (through the righteousness of faith)! The promise in other words are not made to Jews by flesh, but to Christians. Thus Paul says in Galatians 3:16—

“Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.”

Are you in Christ? Do you bear his sign and seal? Do you believe He died for you? Do you submit to him as your Lord? If so, you are of the seed of Abraham and the promise which God made to Abraham is for you. It is a promise that you will inherit a heavenly inheritance.


2. What Assurance do we have of this Promise?

We ask this question partly because Abraham needed an assurance. He pleaded: “Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? ” (Gen 15:8). We can understand why he needed assurance. He had left all to follow the Lord; and He had no children yet!

I suspect that you will need assurance too if your following Christ in His way is a costly decision. If yours is a half-hearted, nominal, nothing-to-lose kind of Christianity, you will not need assurance. But if you suffer loss as it pertains to present pleasures and convenience, you are going to need assurance. I suspect too if you know your own heart and realise how prone you are to wander, how prone to giving up and backsliding, you are you will need assurance too.

How did God assure Abraham? Well, He instructed Abraham to take a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years (v. 9). He was cut them into half and lay each half against the other, thus forming a blood path lines by the animal carcasses.

What was God telling Abraham to do? He was instructing him to prepare to cut a covenant. Today when we make a covenant or contract, we have a stack of paper declaring the agreement, and then both parties would sign on the front page. In those days it was not so simple. In those days covenants were cut rather than made. The Hebrew does not say “make a covenant,” but “cut a covenant.” The way this is done is to have several animals divided right in the middle and laid on the ground to create a bloody path. Each of the covenanting parties would walk though the path created by the animals. And as they walk through the path they would say something like: “May God deal with me ever so severely if I should fail to keep my promise.”

The divided animals symbolised what they were calling God to do to them if they should fail to keep their promise. They were calling God to cut them asunder if they fail their oath.

In Genesis 15, God was making a covenant with Abraham. But who passed through the pieces? We read in verse 12 that a deep sleep fell upon Abraham. Abraham did not pass through the pieces. But we read in verse 17: “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.”

It is clear that the smoking furnace and the burning lamp represent God. I personally believe that the smoking furnace represents God the Father, the Giver of bread (Mt 6:11) as well as He to whom we have to give an account of our live (Mt 6:11; Heb 10:31); on the other hand, the burning lamp represents God the Son, the Light of the World (Jn 1:9; 8:12). I believe that Abraham was witnessing an enactment of the eternal Covenant of Grace between the Father and the Son.

But in any case, one thing is clear, the covenant and its promise depended entirely upon God to fulfill. God as it were puts his entire being down as guarantee that He would keep His promises.

Or to refine it further, we see that the Father representing God Triune and the Son representing the elect would see to it that all things needful for our eternal blessing will be fulfilled.

The apostle, in our text, informs us of how God would assure his children of the immutability of his counsel confirmed it by an oath or by cutting a covenant — “that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation” (v. 18).

What are these immutable things? Some say that they are the word of God and the promise of God. But are not the word and promise of God essentially the same thing? More likely, what the apostle mean are the word and the being of God. Remember that when God pass through the pieces, he is essentially saying, “Let me be destroyed if I keep not my promise.” But God cannot be destroyed, else He is no more God, therefore He cannot but keep His word.

But I think, most likely, what the apostle is referring to are the two theophanies representing the Father and the Son.  If this is so, then what the apostle is saying is that God cannot possibly fail to keep His promise because it is a covenant confirmed by the members of the Trinity.

The Father would order all things in providence that lead to the birth and crucifixion of the Son, and He would send the Spirit to regenerate the heart of his children. The Son would take on human flesh, live to keep the covenant of works on their behalf and die to pay for the debt of his people for their transgression of the covenant of works.

Well, whether or not you can appreciate the full detail and explanation of what the Lord did in cutting the covenant, I think one thing is clear: We can have no doubt that God will keep His promise. The covenant has been fulfilled and will be fulfilled. For God confirmed it by an oath that “we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (v. 18).

What a blessing and privilege! God has not only given us a promise, but he condescended to cut a covenant to assure us that He will keep his word.

But now…


3. How should we Walk in Light of this Promise?

Firstly, because of what God has done, you and I can have no doubt of what await us in eternity. It is not about us—how good we are and what we have done. It is about the Lord: what he has done, is doing and will do for us.

Yes, in this life we may sin and fall, but we will never finally fall away. And one day, “this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” (1 Cor 15:53). Then we shall have ever-blessed communion with Christ our Lord, the desire of our hearts, for ever and ever. What a blessed hope!

Secondly, for God’s promise and covenant, you can be very sure that among your children will be found the children of promise. Remember that the promise is unto you and to your children. As such, I believe that as a general rule, most of the children of believing parents who are faithful to their covenant obligations will come be regenerated early and come gradually to faith and repentance as they grow up in their covenant homes. But you have a covenant obligation to bring up the children that the Lord has given you. As a covenanted person, Abraham not only lived a life of gratitude and obedience, but he ensured that his children observed the obligations of the covenant. The covenant, after all, was made with him and with his seed after him. So in Genesis 18:19, the Lord declared concerning Abraham—

“For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.”

But finally, as a church constituted as a covenant people in the name of Christ, we can be assured of His blessings, because God is a covenant keeping God. When He looks at us as His covenant people, He looks at us with favour—even though we are not perfect. This is because He views us organically as a branch of Christ the Vine. For this reason, we are “confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in [us] will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).


Conclusion

This is God’s unbreakable promise. Doubt no longer. Persevere on running the race looking unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of your Faith. The way will be tough. If it will not be tough why did God take all the care to make sure that we may maintain a firm assurance that all our efforts will not be in vain. May the Lord therefore help us to run on and fight on cheerfully for the glory of Christ who laid down his life for us as our covenant head! Amen. W