WHERE THERE’S SMOKE
“On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram...” Genesis 15:18.
I remember working as a plumber in a house in Toronto, Canada. I’d just finished what I thought was a beautiful repair job on a pipe in an awkward place. I’d had the old blow-torch going as I soldered a pipe to another pipe buried in a wall. I was admiring what I thought was a neat job when I saw smoke! Oh, oh! You know the old saying, Where there’s smoke there’s fire! I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t noticed the smoke. I could have burned down the whole house with everyone in it.
Have you ever noticed that the fire-brigade never seems to teach their people to check to see if the door’s open before the break it down? When I was a technical college learning how to be a plumber our instructor used to say: “Always make sure that the flame never leaves the end of your torch!” Apparently the flame had left the end of my torch and run up the pipe inside the wall. It had set fire to some wood-shavings inside the wall of the woman’s house in which I was working The “fierys” managed to put the fire out. But what a mess when it was all over. They had to smash big holes in the bathroom wall to find the fire to put it out.
Adam and Eve, as it were, started a fire in the Garden of Eden. Adam kindled the fiery-anger of God as he brought sin and evil into God’s beautiful creation. He broke the Covenant of Works that God had placed him under. And God pouring out fire and brimstone on places like Sodom and Gomorrah, according to Scripture, are examples of how much God hates sin and evil. However, we are thankful that God has provided sinners an escape from His fiery wrath. We escape through faith in Jesus Christ who rescues us from the wrath to come. But His rescue plan is not like a bunch of firemen smashing holes in walls. No! Christ’s plan to put the fire out is much more carefully planned. And it was all executed with perfect timing and surgical precision. This plan we call The Covenant of Grace. The whole Bible is the revelation of this Covenant. And in Genesis 15 we see the Lord ratify His covenant with Abram the father of all believers.
The general gist of what we’re looking at in the following may be summed up as follows, The Covenant of Grace is God’s plan to rescue His people from the fire. First we’ll put ourselves in Abram’s shoes and consider the covenant from his perspective. Then we’ll put our own shoes back on and consider the covenant as it stands today. Let’s consider this under two heads, first The Little Picture and then The Big Picture.
The Little Picture
We need to look at the content of Genesis 15 through the eyes of Abram. If we’re to understand anything of this passage we need to try to see things the way he saw things So let’s for the moment observe things as did Abram living circa 2,000 BC.
Take note that he didn’t have a New Testament. He didn’t even have an Old Testament. God spoke to him directly in a vision (Genesis 15:1) and then a dream (15:12). Therefore, take note that everything that transpired in Genesis 15 took place in a vision and a dream.
As the Lord communicated with Abram and Abram with the Lord the subject of offspring and land arose again. The Lord had already promised Abram offspring and land. So what we see before us is the ratification of this promise. In other words, the Lord in this covenant-cutting ceremony was binding Himself by His Word to Abram. He was confirming, i.e., giving Abram confirmation of His promise of offspring and land. However, if you look at the way the Lord chose to do it, you’d be excused for thinking there was whole lot more to it than that, what, with bits of dead animals not to mention the smoking oven and burning torch. Like they say, Where there’s smoke there’s fire! So, what’s really going on here? Well, in Genesis 15:1 the LORD told Abram He was his shield and his exceedingly great reward. And in Genesis 15:6 we see that Abram believed in his shield and his exceedingly great reward. For that is who the Lord revealed Himself to be to Abram.
Notice in Genesis 15:1 that the Lord also said to Abram, “Do not be afraid.” From those words we might anticipate what the Lord was going to do a little later. For in Genesis 15:12 we’re told that “horror and great darkness feel upon him” – i.e., upon Abram.
So let’s make sure we’re all looking at the same thing here. There’s Abram sitting on an armchair or whatever on his own somewhere. Then he starts to have this vision. The closest any of us will ever come to a vision is perhaps a vivid daydream. Remember when you were off fishing or riding a horse when really you were sitting at your desk staring at the blackboard in school. Well, Abram’s vision would be nothing like that. All his senses would have been heightened. He got to converse with the Lord and the Lord showed him things. The Lord took him outside and showed him the stars in heaven.
Abram also got to carve up a cow, a ram and a goat and place them strategically. He placed one half of the other opposite the other. He placed a pigeon on one side and a dove on the other. He even got to chase some vultures away from the carcasses. All of this took place in a vision. Then a deep sleep fell upon him along with horror and darkness. It was the type of darkness you could plunge a knife into – right up to the hilt! It was a scary darkness; the kind of darkness that gives you the creeps; the kind that makes the hair on the back of your neck bristle with terror. But the Lord has already said to Abram. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.”
Then we’re told in Genesis 15:17 that the sun had gone down. It was dark. And behold, “A smoking oven and a burning torch passed between the pieces.” This is what Abram saw. This was the revelation that God burned into his heart. Abram personally witnessed the Lord make a covenant with him. This covenant is the Covenant of Grace and is still in force today.
Just before we move on to our second heading let me quote some words of Louis Berkhof. Louis Berkhof is a well-respected Reformed Theologian. He says,
The Bible teaches that there is but a single gospel by which men can be saved. And because the gospel is nothing but the revelation of the covenant of grace, it follows that there is also but one covenant. The gospel was already heard in material promise, Gen. 3:15, was preached unto Abraham, Gal. 3:8, and may not be supplanted by any Judaistic gospel, Gal. 1:8,9.
Let’s hang onto his line, “The Gospel is nothing but the revelation of the Covenant of Grace.” Therefore this covenant-making ceremony must be full of the Gospel! Abraham has already heard and had already believed in the Gospel. For in Genesis 15:6 we’re told that Abram has received through faith the righteousness he needs to save him from the fires of hell. For, he has believed in the Lord who is his shield and his exceedingly great reward.
He has been justified, i.e., declared righteous, which is evidenced by his faith in the Lord. He believes in the Lord – the Lord who rescues us by His Gospel. The Lord rescues us as a fire-man might rescue someone from a burning building, someone who is about to be engulfed in the flames!
The Big Picture
Now, again, let’s be reminded that Abram didn’t have a copy of the New Testament under his arm. He didn’t have a copy of the Apostle’s Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith. However, by the same token, the Bible tells us that Abram heard the Gospel, (cf. Galatians 3:8). So he wasn’t some Neanderthal. He wasn’t some Evolutionist’s cave-man! Abram had a true knowledge of God revealed to him. He had the righteousness of God revealed to him. And he had the holiness of God revealed to him. And all these things were revealed to him by the Lord Himself!
How can we say this? Because Abram heard and believed in the Gospel. And by believing in the Gospel Abram was embracing the true knowledge of God, His righteousness and His holiness, i.e., the things Adam lost in the Fall. In short, God was at work in Abram’s heart. God was busy reforming Abram back into the true image and likeness of God. For the Covenant of Grace, i.e., the Gospel, is the true Knowledge of God, His Righteousness and Holiness. So Abram would be seeing and understanding much more than todays’ Christian credits him.
So, let’s consider what Abram would be seeing and understanding. What was Abram doing while the Lord was confirming his covenant with him? Well, keep in mind that this was, first off, taking place in a vision. Then the vision intensified into a dream as Abram went into a deep sleep which fell upon him. The deep sleep and the darkness that fell upon him were supernatural.
It was the Lord who came seeking Abram. It was the Lord who had called him out of Ur of the Chaldeans, Genesis 15:7. It was the Lord who had come to him in this vision. He’d come now to confirm the covenant or Gospel He had already revealed to Abram. Abram was already believing in the Gospel. He was trusting in the Lord as his shield – his exceedingly great reward. So far, Abram, would have had the same basic knowledge of God stated in our own Westminster Confession of Faith. Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7 under the head “God’s Covenant with Man” states,
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and REWARD, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.
God has condescended to reveal Himself in His covenant to Abram. So Abram would have understood something of the great humility of God. For he saw Almighty God humble Himself to talk to him and show him His covenant. And also, as he waited for the Lord, he would have contemplated the meaning of the carcasses. They were graphic pictures of sin and death.
These were the very types of animals that were to be used in the future sacrificial system. These were “clean” animals. Even Noah, years before this event, knew about clean birds and animals. How did Abram know he was supposed to cut them in half? Well, that’s how you cut a covenant in those days. The same ceremony was still going on in Jeremiah the Prophet’s day, “And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it–the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf–I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth.” Jeremiah 34:18-19.
Abram had to drive away the vultures from the carcasses. He knew that those dead animals were there instead of him. He could see that God would accept a substitute sacrifice on his behalf. But he knew that that substitute would need to be worth more than a cow, a ram, goat, a dove and a pigeon! He knew that his substitute sin offering would need to be a man – a special man. There was coming a time when the Lord would say to Abram, “Take your son, your ONLY son Isaac, whom you love … and offer him as a burnt offering” Genesis 22:2.
So Abram knew that the blood of goats and heifers and sheep wouldn’t satisfy the justice of God. He knew that these things were just picture symbols of the real thing; just as in the future Moses would sprinkle the blood of the everlasting covenant on the people; just as we today sprinkle the blood of the everlasting covenant symbolized in water baptism. But Abram knew his substitute needed to be a man righteous in the eyes of God. He knew he needed to be child from heaven, a child from God Himself – a child of promise, even the conditional promise – a child of the covenant. He knew his substitute needed to be his exceedingly great reward – the blessing of the covenant; the One who would shield him from all his enemies; the One who would cover his sins against the fiery wrath of God – against death itself.
And yet what a terrible dilemma the Lord placed Abram in – IF – IF... if He had promised him descendants as numerous as the stars – destined for the fires of hell! But Abram knew, as we shall see as we follow his life, that God’s love is a covenantal love. He knew according to His covenant, God would save him and his whole house. Just as the Lord saved Noah and his whole house, so the Lord would save Abram and his whole house to which you and I today belong. For, as Peter says in Acts 2:38, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And the condition of the Covenant is that we believe in the Lord and His Covenant, i.e., the Gospel. Abram, we’re told in Romans 4:11, is the father of all who will believe – in the Gospel.
So Abram sat there contemplating death as he looked at the blood and the carcasses. And as the sun had set and horror and great darkness fell upon him he would have tasted something of the terrors of hell. For hell is in outer darkness as the Lord informs us in Matthew 8:12. But hell is more than that. It’s the place where the burning wrath of God abides forever on those who do not believe in the same Lord in whom Abram believed, John 3:36.
But Abram didn’t have to worry about hell, for he believed in the Lord. The Lord who had already told him he’d be buried at a good old age. He’d been told that he’d go to his fathers in peace – not in torment, Genesis 15:15. But what a terrible and awesome sight it must have been for Abram to see the Lord appear as a smoking furnace and a burning torch! How he must have sensed the holiness and the righteousness of God in this sight. For Abram saw God reveal Himself as a consuming fire! Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
We take it that the sacrificed animals were consumed as the Lord passed between the pieces, consumed by the same righteous holiness which consumes, burns up, all sin in its path! As the holiness and righteousness of God was manifested to Abram, he would have been acutely aware of his own unholy unrighteousness. However, as the torch and the pitcher meant victory for Gideon’s army over the enemies of the Lord, so the smoking oven and torch meant victory for Abram over sin and the last enemy which is death. For here Abram could see clearly that the Lord was rescuing him from his sins, from sin and death. Here he could see that this covenant was completely and utterly a covenant of grace.
God had condescended to make, i.e., to cut, a covenant with him to save him and his faithful house from the consuming justice of God. Abram could see the Gospel, the good news of his salvation as he fixed his eyes upon the Lord.
How is it with you dear reader? Is the Gospel just some billowing smoke to you? Have you at least noticed the smoke? Remember, where there’s smoke there’s fire!
Our God is a consuming fire, but His Covenant of Grace is our shield. For the Gospel reveals the One who is our shield, One who is our exceedingly great reward. However, the Covenant is the thing that stops our whole house burning down, for the Gospel deflects the wrath of God from Abram and his whole house to which we belong. It is as it were the blood painted on the lintel that protected Israel from the destroying angel at Passover in Egypt.
The Covenant the Lord cut with Abram signified what happens to unrepentant covenant breakers. They are to be consumed by the fiery wrath of God. Jesus received the fiery wrath of God as it was poured out upon Him on the cross, but not as a covenant breaker, but for covenant breakers such as us. For, He perfectly kept the Covenant by which we are condemned, i.e., the Covenant of Works (as revealed to pre-Fall Adam).
Jesus, as the Second Adam and the Last Man, kept the Covenant of Works as our representative, and even unto death He perfectly did the will of the Father. However, since the Covenant of Grace is from everlasting, God justice was satisfied by the death of Christ our substitute. Therefore, He was consumed by the fiery wrath of God not for His own sin but for the sins of His people a people as numerous as the stars! “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” John 3:16.
Jesus asked for our forgiveness and He said He was going to prepare a place for us. For in His Father’s house there are many mansions. It’s a land of milk and honey. It’s a place with no sin, pain, crying, sorrow or death, (Revelation 21:4). It’s a place in which righteousness dwells.
The Lord kept Abram waiting as Abram sat contemplating the meaning of what he was witnessing. He pondered the dead carcasses, torn in half. He pondered their poured out blood. As Jesus ate the Passover Lamb with His disciples He took bread, gave thanks and broke it. With the cross waiting for Him outside the door, He said, “Take, eat; this is MY body broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me. In the same manner He also took the cup after supper saying, ‘This is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
The Lord says to Christ as recorded by His Prophet Isaiah, “I will preserve You and give You as a covenant to the people, to restore the earth.” Isaiah 49:8. Make no mistake, our covenant is IN Christ. Nay, God’s covenant with Abram and us IS Christ! Christ our covenant hung on a cross between two divided places. He hung between the two places that were torn apart by Adam’s sin, heaven and earth. And He hung on the cross between a divided humanity, i.e., an unrepentant thief on one side and a repentant thief of the other, one destined for pangs in the utter darkness and the black fires of hell and the other for bliss and light in Paradise.
As He hung there contemplating what it all meant supernatural darkness fell upon Him and over the whole land and the sun was darkened, Luke 23:44-45. Horror and great darkness fell upon Him as, and like Abram, God kept Him waiting. He experienced the utter darkness of hell, “My God, My God why have You forsaken Me?” Then the fiery wrath of God consumed Him, “My heart is like wax; it has melted within Me.” Then, when His work was finished, a deep sleep fell upon Him, even the sleep of death. Then, by the Spirit, Christ entered into the Holy of Holies with His own blood, Hebrews 9:14. This was signified by the curtain of separation in the Temple, being cut or torn in two, Mark 15:38. The tearing in half of that veil means that we are reconciled to God by Christ’s blood. It means that we are no longer separated from God, that we are now joined together again. The Apostle says, “[He] was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” Romans 4:25.
The Gospel declares that you must believe in the Lord to be saved from your sins. Therefore you must believe in the same Lord in whom Abram believed. Jesus Christ was his shield, his exceedingly great reward, for He is the sum and substance of the Gospel. For in Him and His Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed, Romans 1:17. Jesus says that Abraham rejoiced to see His day, and saw it and was glad, John 8:56.
Along with Abram Jesus rescues all who by God’s grace call on Him. He delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10), and believe the Scriptures when they tell us about wrath to come. Abram shooed the birds of prey away from the carcasses as he waited patiently for the Lord to come. Then the Lord appeared as a smoking oven and a burning torch. The Lord is coming in like manner again. But let us not grow impatient. For “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is long suffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” 2 Peter 3:9. And the verses following say, “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with a fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
Our God is indeed a consuming fire. And He’s going to purge the whole universe of unrighteousness. He’ll do this as He comes which is when He comes to confirm His covenant with the world, even the cosmos! He’ll separate the sheep from the goats. As the pillar of smoke and fire separated His people from the Egyptians, so the Son of God will stand between His own people and those who belong to the world. A river of fire separate them, even a lake of fire, into which the devil and his followers will be thrown.
Our God is a just God He punishes iniquity. But praise be to His name, He is also merciful! The smoking oven and the burning torch must have been a terrifying sight on a dreadfully dark night. However, the Good News is that it was simply the LORD’s way of showing Abram that sometime in the future He was going to cauterize the gaping, festering wound of our sin. It was a picture of what He was going to do to His only begotten Son Jesus Christ at Calvary. This is what was being confirmed to Abram, as we see recorded here in Genesis chapter fifteen.
It was Abram who shed the blood of these animals. God accepted his sacrifice. It was Christ who shed His own blood. God accepted His sacrifice. Therefore the LORD, Abram’s shield, his exceedingly great reward, kept His covenant He had cut with Abram. He kept it unto death, even His own death upon a cross.
If you’ve read this and all you’ve seen is a bit of smoke, then remember: Where there’s smoke there’s fire! Just pray that it’s the fire of the Gospel that’s burning in your heart. But don’t call on the fire-brigade to come and put it out. Call on the Lord Jesus Christ to come and set your whole house on fire. Call on Him to come and set your whole street on fire. Call on Him to set your whole country on fire. Call on Him to set the whole world ablaze with His glorious Gospel of Grace!
Father we give You thanks that You have revealed Your Covenant of Grace to us, Abram’s children. We thank You that You spared His household, to which we belong, from the fires of hell. Kindle in us anew, a fiery zeal for the advancement of Your kingdom, that Your kingdom would come, that Your will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
May the Gospel light up the darkness of our hearts and may You make, as the Psalmist says, “Your minister’s a flame of fire”. May each of us be consumed, not by Your justice (for that is hell), but rather may each of us be consumed by Your burning love for sinners such as us. In the Mediator of the Covenant’s name, even Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.