“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had
no one greater to swear by, he swore by himself” Hebrews 6:13
Here’s a funny question: When God swears, whom does he swear by? We know when people swear an oath they almost always do so by swearing to God. For example, when people are sworn in as witnesses in a court of law they are asked to put their hand on the Bible and ‘swear to God that they will tell the truth, the whole truth, so help them God. They do so because there is no higher person to swear by.
But if God were to take an oath, which he swore to behold, by whom can he swear to other than himself? The answer, of course, is no one. He must, in fact, swear by himself. And that is exactly what the writer of Hebrews said God did when God made certain promises to Abraham (Genesis 22:15-17). After Abraham obeyed God by demonstrating a willingness to offer up his own son Isaac, God swore by Himself that through the son he almost sacrificed, he would make him descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. And he prefaced that oath by saying “By Myself I have sworn.”
There is more here than first meets the eye. The covenant God entered into with Abraham is a foreshadowing of the covenant of grace that would eventually come in Jesus Christ. And in swearing by Himself, God was in fact saying it would not be dependent upon conditions Abraham fulfilled, but was based completely on what God promised. In fact, in saying that God swore by himself it may infer that the covenant was really made between the members of the Godhead. Father, Son, and Spirit all covenanted together to bless Abraham and his offspring.
Perhaps the best place to see that demonstrated is in Genesis 15. One of clearest previews of the new covenant God gave his people occurred in the life of Abraham. You will remember that when God first called Abram out of the land of the Chaldeans, he had promised him: “in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). But, when this promise was given, Abram was seventy-five and still childless. How could all the nations of the earth be blessed through an old man who was yet to bear children?
After Abram had rescued his nephew Lot from the slaughter of the kings (Genesis 14), God spoke to Abram and reminded him that he would give him divine protection (15:1). But Abram responded by telling the Lord that he remained childless and that his heir was the servant in his house. That’s when God spoke and promised him a son from his own loins:
“And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (15:4-5).
To reconfirm the promise, God took Abram outside and told him to lift up his eyes to the heavens and to number the stars if possible. As it was impossible for Abram to number the stars, so it would be impossible for him to number his offspring. What could Abram do? Even if he began to produce offspring from that moment how could he fulfill this promise? All he could do was trust the God who had made this promise:
“And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (15:6).
Abram knew he could not fulfill the promise in his own power. Yet, he also knew he was dealing with God who was making the promise. So he “believed the Lord” and God considered his faith to be righteousness. It is from this verse Paul posits his entire understanding of the great doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone (Galatians 3:6). Despite his bodily limitations and the deadness of Sarah’s womb (see Romans 4:18-21), he believed that God would fulfill his promise regardless of his circumstances. And according to the apostle this statement that God “counted it to him as righteousness” was written not just for Abraham’s sake but for ours as well (4:24). When we believe God raised Jesus from the dead, our faith is counted as righteousness as well.
While Abraham believed God would fulfill his promise to give him offspring, he was not as confident that God would fulfill his promise to give him the land (Genesis 15:7-8). In his merciful and gracious disposition towards his servant, God instructed him to bring a three-year-old heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtle dove, and a young pigeon. These (except for the birds) Abraham divided with his sacrificial knife, laying the pieces across from one another. This was in accordance with the practice of entering a covenant at the time. Each party, after dividing the pieces, would then pass through the pieces, announcing the covenantal terms.
But as Abraham waited on God to pass between the pieces so that he might follow, the Lord laid a deep sleep upon him and a terror descended on him (15:12). It was then that God spoke to him, announcing beforehand what would happen to his descendants (15:13-16). The Lord told him that they would be “sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward, they shall come out with great possessions.” So God gives Abraham a forewarning of that entire period that Israel was in bondage to Egypt and the subsequent exodus in which Israel would vanquish their enemies and leave with great possessions.
Abraham had slept for most of the day and when he awakened he saw a “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (15:17). These were all tokens of the divine presence, which as they passed through the pieces, the voice of God announced the covenantal terms:
“To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites” (15:18-21).
But there is no record of Abraham having passed through the pieces—only God did! What does this mean? It means that the covenant was not a conditional covenant dependent on Abraham’s obedience but an unconditional one, dependent on God alone. In other words, when God entered this covenant with Abraham he didn’t, in fact, enter it with Abraham—he entered it with Himself! If Abraham would have passed through the pieces then he himself would have been responsible to hold up his end of the bargain, but since he did not, there was nothing to uphold.