April 18, 2004
From Scripture we learn that God works intimately with His people to fulfill His purpose. In this sermon from Genesis, Alistair Begg shows God’s redemptive involvement in the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. We also see Him shaping His people through Jacob, who tricked his way into both birthright and blessing yet still received God’s promise. As their stories show, God’s providence is always loving and overrules all of mankind’s plans.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read from the eighty-fourth Psalm:
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.
Or “think about that for a moment.”
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
Hear my prayer, O Lord God Almighty;
listen to me, O God of Jacob.
Look upon our shield, O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.
Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
O Lord Almighty,
blessed is the man who trusts in you.
Let us pray together, and then we’ll study the Bible: O God, our loving Father, we thank you that you have not left us to our own devices, but that you have given us the Bible as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. You know that we are trying to get a handle on the big picture, and you know that it’s taken us a long time so far to get started. You know how much we need your help to do this in a way that is understandable and beneficial and ultimately life-changing. And so, we pray for your help to this end as we continue our study now and as we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, for those of you who have been tracking along with us over these few studies, I know that many of you are probably saying to yourselves, “We’re really not making much headway at all.” We certainly couldn’t be accused of rushing; I understand that. We have made a few attempts at it, and we’re still only a quarter of the way through the book of Genesis. Which means we have sixty-five and three-quarter books left before we could even come close to saying that we have an overview of the Bible.
But don’t be disheartened, we’ve taken time to lay in the foundations, and any frustration that you are feeling now I can guarantee you is going to be more than matched by the sense of frustration you feel when we zip through certain sections of the Bible with hardly even a mention of certain parts of it. The reason for that, of course, is to prevent us from being lost in the details because we have set ourselves the objective of the overview and of the big picture, and we have moved now in our study to consider the partial kingdom. We’ve seen the pattern of the kingdom: the kingdom spoiled. We saw this morning that this kingdom is still promised to us and the various aspects of that, and we come now to consider this notion of the partial kingdom. It’s a long section—we won’t get through it this evening—it’s a section which covers approximately a thousand years from Abraham to the high point in the monarchy, the reign of Solomon.
There are four main elements to the promise of the kingdom of God—to the partial kingdom as we understand it. Three of them we have noted already, and we finished with them this morning in the covenant to Abraham. It involved the people, and it involved the land, and it involved blessing, and we’re going to add in a bit, to these, a fourth element, and that was the promise of a king. And all of these aspects are wrapped up in this unfolding story of God’s kingdom.
Now we’re going to see how the promise of the kingdom is partially fulfilled in the history of Israel. And there are going to be four main sections that allow us to look at the fulfillment of each promise in turn. For those of you who are nitpickers, you will say, “Well, in some places the fulfillment is a fulfillment of more than one promise,” and I readily acknowledge that. But broadly speaking—broadly speaking, and in the interest of trying to get a handle on things—what we have here is as follows: The issue of God’s people, the promise of God’s people, is largely between Genesis 12 and Exodus 18. And then the aspect of God’s rule and blessing is from Exodus 19 to Leviticus. And then the whole emphasis and promise concerning God’s place, the land, the story of that we’re going to discover from the book of Numbers right through to Joshua. And then when we come to add the fourth aspect, namely, the expectation and the provision of a king, then that will be from Judges right through to 2 Chronicles. As I say, it’s a long section, and we won’t get through all of it just now.
We’re going to deal just with the first aspect of it: God’s people—the promise concerning God’s people—which begins, as we saw this morning, in Genesis 12 and goes all the way through until the eighteenth chapter of the book of Exodus. The promise is as we saw in Genesis 12; it is reiterated in Exodus chapter 6: “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” Now, if you have that clearly in your mind—that God is promising to put together a people that are his very own—we’re now going to see the way in which the partial fulfillment takes place. God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham regarding his descendants, as we made much of it this morning. He is granting to them, if you like, great nation status. He’s bringing the nation of Israel into being as his very own people—that’s what Genesis 12 and the opening verses promises—and in doing so, the focus falls very directly on a number of individuals, first of all, on Abraham and on Isaac.
How is God going to fulfill this promise made to Abraham concerning a people—a vast number of people—and concerning the descendants of Abraham? Well, it involves Isaac, his son. The problem, of course, is immediately obvious in that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is unable to have children. And Genesis 16:1 says, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.” Well then, isn’t the promise immediately in danger of failing? Here God has promised that there’s going to be this vast company, this people put together, and it’s going to happen, and then we’ll all be the descendants of Abraham, and Abram doesn’t have any children. And furthermore, time is going by, and it doesn’t look like Abram is ever going to have any children, and his wife has borne him none. And it’s on account of that, that Genesis 16 tells us that Abraham decides to take matters into his own hands. And Genesis 16 gives to us the story of Hagar—how he takes Sarah his wife’s maid, Hagar, to be his wife, and she has a baby, and that baby is called Ishmael.
And despite Abram’s concerns for Ishmael, God makes it clear—and you can read this in Genesis 17 at your leisure—God makes it clear that his people, the descendants that he has promised, are not going to emerge through the line of Ishmael. And Abraham is needing to learn that if the promises of God, which are really gospel promises, are going to be fulfilled, then only God will bring that about. And the responsibility that is given to Abram is simply to trust in God’s promises—a promise that faced insuperable difficulties; a promise that demanded an omnipotent God for its fulfillment. And of course, it was to just such an omnipotent God that Abraham turned and trusted. In Romans chapter 4—you needn’t turn to it—in verse 18, we read: “Against all hope,”—Paul is referring to this now—“Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. [And],” says Paul, “this is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’”
The promise of an heir to this aged couple called for nothing other than the supernatural impartation of life. Without God’s supernatural intervention, there would be no life, pointing forward to the reality to which Paul refers in Ephesians 1 and in Ephesians 2—namely, that there will be no spiritual life without supernatural intervention and impartation. And that which is ultimately fulfilled in the gospel is partially fulfilled in the promise that God has made to his servant.
But the years go by, and Sarah still doesn’t conceive. God comes to Abram again, reassures him of the fact that even in her great age, she is going to bear a son. And, of course, eventually—as I said to you this morning—the day dawns and she appears on a camel at the local hospital, she has a walker by this time, she shows up, and the people say to her, “And where can I help you, old lady. Are you looking for the geriatric ward?” “No, no,” she says, “I’m looking for the maternity ward.” “Oh,” says the person, “Have you come to meet one of your great-grandchildren?” “No,” says Sarah, ninety years old, “I’ve come to have a baby.” How bizarre! What a laugh! What a laugh the nurses would have had. And Abram also laughed. And that’s why the boy was called Isaac, because Isaac means “he laughs.”
The laugh of incredulity, the laugh of wonder, the laugh of unmitigated excitement and unbelief. God, you are the God who keeps your promises. It is impossible for a ninety-year-old woman to give birth, but you have enabled it to be so, and it has happened.
And what is God teaching? He’s teaching this, right at the very beginning: he’s teaching his people that it will take a miracle for the gospel to be fulfilled in any life —it will take a miracle for the gospel to be fulfilled in any life. Was it John W. Peterson, who is a member of Scottsdale Bible Church—someone was telling me the other day that every so often he gets up and does a little thing musically—wasn’t it Peterson who wrote the words:
It took a miracle to [hang] the stars in [space];
It took a miracle to [set] the world in [place].
But when He saved my soul, and
Cleansed and made me whole,
It took a miracle of love and grace!
And it is that which is pointed to in this birth of Isaac.
Now with that, the gospel train is on its way. We used to sing in Scotland: “Join the gospel express, come along”—answer, “‘Yes’!”  and it’s still a long way down the line. It’s still a long way down the line before it reaches its destination in Jesus, but at least the journey has begun. But the journey is no longer begun, the train is hardly out of the station, and it looks like it’s about to be derailed. We’ve waited all of these years because God cannot fulfill his promise of descendants unless there is a descendant—unless there is Isaac, the fruit of the womb of Sarah. Isaac is born and—Genesis chapter —God says, “Hey, take your son, your only son, Isaac, and sacrifice him at a place that I will show you.” Now you read this in Genesis 22: an extraordinary command—how can it possibly be? What hope is there for the fulfillment of this promise if Isaac dies? No hope—no hope!
Abraham didn’t understand. Abraham was full of grief, but Abraham was prepared to obey. And he reveals his faith in the promises of God, as we saw in Romans chapter 4. He knew that the future of the promises that God had made to him depended on Isaac’s survival. And so he trusted that God would either protect or provide. In fact, he believed that God may even raise his son, Isaac, from the dead—Hebrews chapter 11: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from [the dead].”
You see how when we sing that little song, “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham”—this is an amazing illustration of faith. His faith is placed in this God, teaching us that we need to follow Abraham’s example. To trust the promises of God even when we can’t understand what God is doing. We don’t understand everything that God does. Everything that God does does not put a smile on our face, does it? Some of the things that God has brought into our lives has pained us deeply.
Abram didn’t understand; Abram was consumed with grief. Abraham took God at his word. And my dear friends, in the journey of your Christian pilgrimage, that is always going to be the crossroads: “I do not understand, I am filled with grief, and I will resent God for the rest of my life,” or “I do not understand, I am filled with grief, but I will trust God with the rest of my life.”
Now, from Abram and Isaac, we go to Jacob and Esau. Abraham dies, and the focus of the promise is now on Isaac. He marries Rebekah, and they have these two sons: Jacob and Esau. And it just gets stranger and stranger, doesn’t it? I mean, I love it when people tell me: “This was all invented, this was all invented. I mean, people just made this up—they sat and wrote all this down.” What a bunch of hooey! It’s so hard to believe that this was invented. It’s so unbelievable, it can’t be invented. Esau is the oldest, the firstborn, but Jacob receives his father’s blessing. It is through Jacob that the descendants will be in the line of promise and become the people of God.
But why does God choose Jacob? After all, Jacob is younger, and he’s quite an unpleasant character. His name essentially means “twisted” or “deceiver.” So, God is fulfilling his purposes that he’s had from all of eternity. He chooses Abraham; he has a wife who can’t have babies, she reaches the age of ninety, by supernatural intervention she produces a child, then God says, “Why don’t you kill the child.” Then they go through that, then he dies, mixed up in the batting order comes this individual, and here we have this character. Principle is what? God doesn’t choose on the basis of merit—God doesn’t choose on the basis of merit. And if you find it difficult to imagine God choosing Jacob—what? You don’t find it difficult to imagine God choosing you? I find it very difficult to imagine God choosing me. None of us deserve to belong to him.
Yesterday in our elders’ meeting, as we studied through Jerry Bridges’s book, we came to the section—that is The Gospel for Real Life or something like that; it’s the gospel anyway, it’s a super book, get it in the bookshop—and we came to the section where Jerry was tackling the issue of our adoption into the family of God. And he was waxing eloquent on “Behold, what manner of love the Father has lavished upon us,”—1 John 3—“that we should be called the children of God.” And he said, “You know, the only way that we can fully get our heads around that is if we realize our predicament before we became his children.” And after him—this is essentially what he said—he said, “You know by nature, I am a condemned rebel who has tried to assassinate the king, but instead of death, he gives me eternal life; instead of wrath, he gives me favor; instead of eternal ruin, he makes me an heir of God.” And here’s the deal: I didn’t do a single thing to earn the king’s favor. I made absolutely no restitution for my rebellion. And therefore, on what basis would he adopt me into his family? Because Jesus did it all—Jesus did it all.
Now, when Paul tackles this in Romans chapter 9—Romans 9, 10, and 11 are difficult chapters for everyone except those who are in Pastor Mills’ Sunday School class. He has explained them exceptionally to all, at least, that’s what I’m hearing. This is how Paul puts it:
Not only [did Sarah have a son], but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—”
“before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad”—
in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I [will] have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.
Now, I’ll give you one more, and then we’ll have to stop ’cause our time is gone.
Where does it go then? Well, it goes to Joseph. Jacob has twelve sons—quite a bunch and far from being a great nation, but the promise is beginning to be fulfilled. You know the story of Joseph—we’ve done it together—they’re jealous, they hate their youngest brother. He comes, he wakes up in the morning, he has all these dreams that are really self-fulfilling and very focused on his young shoulders. And he annoys them to the point that they can’t even stand to talk with him, and they come up with a plan, and they sell him into slavery, and off he goes into Egypt. He is sold into Egypt as a slave. He gets a decent job, he ends up under false charges, accused by his master’s wife, and he hits the jail. And in the jail, he doubtless was caused to wonder if God was really in control. And he discovers, of course, that God really was in control. And in remarkable providences, he puts the people in the jail beside him who will be able to speak a word concerning Joseph later. And what we discover is that God had put Joseph in the right spot, and as a result of that, the embryonic people of God is being preserved.
Now, the lesson again is a simple lesson: God always overrules to ensure that his gospel promises are protected. And we may not always understand how he works, but we may be certain that his purposes are always loving and they’re always good.
So, there you have it. This is the start of the partial fulfillment: Abram and Sarah; then we have Isaac and his wife, Rebekah; Esau and Jacob; Jacob and the twelve sons; Joseph—and where we gonna go next? I don’t know myself. I’m nowhere, apparently. Oh yeah, there we are.
To whom does God say this? To Moses. Because the people get down… He puts Joseph in position so that when the famine comes, they’ve got a place to go; they are provided for. Jacob moves his operation down into Egypt. They’re off to a flying start. It looks like everything is terrific. Then they have a change of leadership, and the people who had gone down there to enjoy the situation that had been provided by Joseph find themselves completely enslaved. And as they labor away in enslavement, they doubtless put another brick together and looked at one another and said, “How in the wide world is God going to fulfill his purposes in this mess? Do you really think that God’s in charge? If God was in charge, do you think we’d be making bricks without straw? If God was in charge, you think we’d be breaking our backs here for this stinkpot Pharaoh, whoever he is?”
When you get to Romans 15, Paul says, “Everything that was written in the past was written … so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures [you] might have hope.” So, as you go through all these Old Testament stories, and as you stand back from them far enough, you realize that what you’re discovering here is this historical redemptive purpose of God that runs all the way from eternity to eternity. And unless we stand back from it far enough to understand what God is doing, then we will have not stood far enough back to understand who God is. And the way we discover who God is, is on account of what he does, for he not only reveals his plan of salvation, but he reveals his character.
Now I wish we could go further; I’m not sure if you do. But we can’t, and so we won’t. So, let us pray.
Let’s just take a moment and ask God to perhaps take a little snippet of something that we’ve been considering, something that he has directly for us. Perhaps we are burdened by a great sadness in our lives, and quite honestly, we’ve gone through the past week, and we’ve been saying, “I wonder if God really knows and cares, and I wonder if he’s at work given how difficult this is.” Perhaps because of a decision that we’ve made, and we feel regret concerning it, and we’re tempted to think that we’re just making a hash of things and we’ve got completely off the map. Or perhaps we’ve begun to doubt the promises of God to us in the gospel.
Father, we thank you for beginning to teach us that you are “working your purpose out, as year succeeds to year—that you’re working your purpose out, and the time is drawing near; nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that will surely be, when the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” We thank you that even when you act in judgment, you are a merciful God. “Behold, what manner of love the Father has lavished upon us that we should be called the children of God. And this is what we are.” Such love. We bless you, Christ. Amen.
 Psalm 119:105 (paraphrased).
 Exodus 6:7 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 4:18–22 (NIV 1984).
 John W. Peterson, “It Took a Miracle” (1948).
 Hugh Mitchell, “The Gospel Express” (1946).
 Genesis 22:2 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 11:17–19 (NIV 1984).
 1 John 3:1 (paraphrased).
 Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 29, 140. Paraphrased.
 Romans 9:10–16 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 15:4 (NIV 1984).
 Arthur Campbell Ainger, “God Is Working His Purpose Out” (1894). Paraphrased.
 1 John 3:1 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.