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Leading question:

“How sure are God’s promises? How do we know if He will really keep His word?”

Key Passages:

  • Galatians 4:21-31 – The birth of Ishmael and Isaac illustrate the false and true way of salvation.
  • Genesis 15:1-6 – God confirms His promise to Abraham by means of a formal covenant.
  • Exodus 19:3-6 – The reaction of the Israelites to God at Mt. Sinai reveals a mistaken self-confidence.

Key Points and Questions:

1. Covenant Basics: The predominant metaphor of salvation in the Bible is the idea of a covenant. A covenant was a formal agreement that bound two or more parties together. We continue to make covenants today, though we usually refer to them as contracts or treaties. The fundamental difference is the means by which the agreement is guaranteed. Today the sign of a legally binding agreement is a person’s signature and the stamp of a public notary. In the ancient Near East in Abraham’s day, the legally binding nature of an agreement was symbolized by the slaughter of an animal. The slaughtered animal represented the penalty that would fall on the party who failed to honor the covenant.

2. God’s Covenant with Abraham: God promised Abraham He would provide him with a son through whom the whole world would be blessed. Abraham, however, struggled to take God at His word. To help Abraham see the certainty of His promise, God did what no other earthly monarch did with a vassal. He entered into a formal covenant with him by passing through the pieces of a slaughtered animal. By formally entering into a covenant with Abraham this way, God assured Abraham that He staked His life on the certainty of His word.

A. What hope is there in knowing that even Abraham had questions during his walk of faith?

B. God bound himself to the human race by a covenant. What practical difference can this make in the way we view God, and the way we live the Christian life?

3. Hagar, Mt. Sinai, and Legalism: Paul associates Abraham’s experience with Hagar and the experience of the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai with legalism. Paul refers to this as the Old Covenant. In the same way that Abraham tried to fulfill God’s promise himself by fathering a child with Hagar, the children of Israel mistakenly thought that by their own obedience to God’s law that they could earn His favor. Just as Abraham and Sarah could not produce a child, so we are unable to save ourselves by our own behavior. We need to rely on God completely.

A. In Genesis 17:18, Abraham pleaded with God to accept Ishmael as his heir. Why did God refuse? What was so wrong with Ishmael?

B. Would Paul agree with the saying, “God helps those who help themselves”?

C. What are some of the “Ishmaels” in life that try to undermine our walk with God? How can we avoid succumbing to such influences?

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