Does God always do what He says He will do? And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day”
A Promise Is a Promise
By Dennis Meier
“And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day” (Gen. 18:1).*
The fire that completely destroyed Malden Mills on December 11, 1995, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, was one of the biggest factory disasters in the history of the state of Massachusetts. Following the tragedy, affecting thousands of workers, Malden Mills CEO Aaron Feuerstein announced that he would keep his employees on payroll—and that he would rebuild. Most clothing factory insiders had expected Feuerstein to take the huge insurance check and rebuild the factory in Asia where most North American mills had relocated. Was he really serious or was this just a public relations stunt?
In Genesis 18, God shows His faithfulness by visiting Abraham’s camp and enjoying the blessings of a shared meal. God not only comes to eat delicious food. He has come to visit with his friend Abraham. In fact, there is a special reason for this meeting, since this is not the first time that God has come to Abraham.
In the course of the conversation the reason for this particular meeting becomes clear. If you look closely, you will find that only a few verses earlier (Gen. 17:21) a similar encounter had occurred. God had said to Abraham: “But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.”
The Reason for the Visit
God’s visit at the Oaks of Mamre has a backstory. God comes to repeat a promise that was either not taken seriously or not heard correctly. Somehow Abraham must have “heard” the promise without really “believing” it.
We can use our “sanctified imagination” to picture the scene. While all the others are talking and enjoying the sumptuous meal, God unobtrusively leans over to Abraham, and there ensues the following dialogue:
Abraham: “Yes, Sir?”
God: “About the talk three months ago—do you remember?”
Abraham: “Of course, Sir, the thing with the covenant and the great nation and the circumcision, right?”
God: “Yes, exactly. So Abraham, what do we need for a great nation?”
Abraham: “People! Many people!”
God: “Well, Abraham, where should they come from? Remember My words!”
Abraham: “Well, obviously from me—and Sarah.”
God: “That’s right, Abraham. Let’s be direct: I spoke to you three months ago and I said that in one year Sarah shall have a son. Do you remember?”
Abraham: “Yes, but I thought that . . .”
God: “Apart from thinking, what did you do, you and Sarah, along the lines of multiplication?”
Then God repeats conspicuously loud the words: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Gen. 18:10).
Now we know why God had to visit Abraham in Mamre. Three months had passed, and nothing had happened. God’s promise had been “heard” as an empty phrase. Perhaps the promise had been spiritualized. Perhaps Abraham reasoned, as theologians often do, that there was a hermeneutical problem, a problem of interpretation. In any case, action did not follow the promise.
A promise that is not applied, not lived out, remains an empty phrase or becomes an oracle.
God Visits Us
Followers of Christ have a whole bag full of promises in their luggage. God has given them to us. Sometimes they are applicable to everyone; others are very personal.
A promise that applies to all of us, and is meant as seriously as the announcement of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, is the following sentence spoken by Jesus: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). We have to realize how radical this promise is. It is not dependent on whether we feel Jesus close to us. It is also not dependent on whether we always do the right thing. Dogmatic correctness is not a condition for its fulfillment. It applies unconditionally to all who are partakers of the kingdom of God (verses 18, 19).
There are times in our lives that we’re not sure if Jesus is with us. Serious illness, disappointment, or depression may cloud our sense of God’s nearness.
But there is another lesson: God’s second visit teaches us that it is not about religious words, but about the fact that promises may require action on our part. Abraham would have the promised child only by enjoying his conjugal obligations with Sarah. The fulfillment of the promise comes through action; through action we express our confidence in God.
After I had preached about this concept, a church member who had suffered greatly from an illness asked me a tough question. He wanted to know why his prayers for healing had not been answered. Others had prayed for him according to James 5, and he had read the promise of healing literally (James 5:15: “The Lord will raise [the patient] up”). How could he in a practical way claim this promise and live it?
The answer, however, does not lie in a mechanical do this and then that will happen. Promises are trustworthy pledges of a loving relationship. In Jesus’ promise found in Matthew 28:20, the Master says that He is there until the end. Then He is there—even if we do not notice it. Why? Because only One who loves me and wants to be near me can make such a pledge. This promise is also true for disease and illness. It could mean that healing is not always a visible improvement for us; it could come only later, and sometimes only in the resurrection. But even that is also a matter of trust.
The promise is lived in faith, and faith grows in a relationship; a relationship in turn grows when we invest in it. Relationships are the perpetual motion (perpetuum mobile) that scholars have sought after for centuries: they are driven by their own energy, which they themselves produce.
Strictly speaking, therefore, it is not about claiming a promise in order for it to be fulfilled (the so-called name-it-and-claim-it theology), but rather to act, because we know the One who has promised. Then we can move forward, because we know God is there. Through prayer we can take Him with us into our daily life. We can let go. The text simply says: With God, nothing is impossible (cf. Gen. 18:14).
A Fulfilled Promise
God’s promises were fulfilled. Sarah actually became pregnant and gave birth to a son. In the letter to the Hebrews Sarah is praised for her trust in God (Heb. 11:11).
By the way, my sick church member is much better. And CEO Aaron Feuerstein kept his promise. Keeping his employees on payroll during the reconstruction of the factory in Massachusetts cost him more than $25 million and ultimately control over his company—but he did what he said he would do.
God keeps His promises. No matter what you’re going through, He does not leave you. The promise applies. Now get up and live it.
* Scripture quotations have been taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Dennis Meier is president of the Hansa Conference and lives with his family in Hamburg, Germany.