When facing hard times, Christians sometimes discover that their faith is gradually being eroded by their circumstances. Though we are doing our best to stand upon the promises of God, we can sense that our feet are beginning to slip. Like the desperate father who met Jesus at the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration, we might find ourselves crying out, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
There is an Old Testament echo of that cry in the life of Abraham, which can be of great help to us in dealing with our own struggles with unbelief while facing hard times. In Genesis 15, God appeared to Abram and spoke words of great promise and reassurance: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (v. 1). Since Genesis 16:16 lists Abram as eighty-six years old (having begun his journey at age seventy-five, 12:4), I would estimate that Abram had lived in Canaan about ten years and yet still possessed none of the land and did not have a single descendant. His faith was being tried.
Abram responded to this renewed promise with a desperate plea: “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (15:2). Our God dealt tenderly with the strained faith of His chosen one and renewed His promise yet again. It is then that we read: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (v. 6). Abraham held fast to faith, even though it was tried.
Abraham’s believing response was met with a further statement of the promise: “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess” (v. 7). But we quickly learn that the trial of faith did not cease for Abraham. He cried out again, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (v. 8). He believed, but he needed help for his unbelief.
One might suppose that at this point the patience of God would have been strained, for this was the third time that God had renewed His promise to Abram in this chapter alone. Would not God be offended at the weakness of Abram’s faith, seeing that he was actually speaking with God and had received repeated affirmations of God’s promise to him? But no, the Lord was not offended. He moved to support Abram’s faith. He met Abram’s “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief” with tenderness and patience.
What followed in Genesis 15 was an ancient covenant-making ceremony wherein various animals were cut in two and the halves laid opposite to one another, creating a path in between (see Jer. 34:17–20). The Lord then appeared to Abram in the darkness of night, passing between the pieces in a theophany by a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. By this rite, “the Lord made a covenant with Abram” (v. 18).
What was the meaning of the ancient ceremony? By passing between the pieces, the Lord pledged His very life to the fulfillment of His promise to Abram. Should He fail to keep His promise, the Lord would forfeit His life.
Hebrews 6:17–18 explains the great significance of this act: “When God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”
In the Old Testament, God’s covenant with Abram is sometimes described as the “oath” that He swore (see Gen. 26:3 and Deut. 7:8). In Psalm 105:9 and 1 Chronicles 16:16, “covenant” and “sworn promise” are set in parallel, with “sworn promise” being the same word that the ESV elsewhere translates with “oath.” Genesis 15 is the first place where the word “covenant” is used in God’s dealings with Abram. Up to that point, Abram had received a promise from God. Now that promise was confirmed with an oath. God pledged His life to the fulfillment of the promise by making a covenant with Abram.
We could wish for ourselves such a dramatic encounter with God as Abram received in that dark night of Genesis 15. But, surprising as it may seem, we have that same assurance given to us each time we sit at the Lord’s Table. The signs and seals of the new covenant point to the body of Christ given for us and the blood of Christ shed for us. His life was given, not just pledged. It provides help for our unbelief, and it was given because our Lord desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose. The Holy Scriptures speak to us the promise of the gospel. The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are, by Christ’s own appointment, seals of that holy promise. Our Lord has confirmed His promise with an oath. Thus, we have help for our unbelief, strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. Thanks be to God.