February 4, 1996
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
"I Am God Almighty, Be fruitful and Multiply" God's Purpose for Jacob and Bethlehem Genesis 35:11
"God also said to him, 'I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come forth from you.'"
Today's message is the introduction of a series of messages on the command and the empowerment of God to be fruitful and multiply as a church. I am led to this series by the conviction that God is calling us to greater fruitfulness. This was the sense of those who came to minister to us during prayer week. It strikes a chord over and over among the prayer warriors of this church when we cry out to God together.
Repeatedly texts like Acts 9:31 have been prayed in recent weeks over this year: "The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase (it was multiplied)." Or Acts 6:7 -- "The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase (i.e., multiplied) greatly in Jerusalem."
More important than the sense of the pastoral leadership, or the prophetic encouragement of guest ministers, or the common chord of praying people, or the pattern of the book of Acts is the simple fact that God in his word reveals that it is a good thing to want to be fruitful and multiply through winning people for the glory of Christ and for their salvation. "My heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they might be saved" (Romans 10:1). "I appointed you that you should go and bear fruit" (John 15:16). God's will is that we be fruitful and multiply.
So I want to introduce this series with an unusual text on evangelism. Genesis 35:9-11
Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. 10 And God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name." Thus He called him Israel. 11 God also said to him, "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come forth from you."
The words that gripped me as never before -- the words that stand now over this series as the theme are: "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply." This is a promise and a command. The promise to Jacob (now called Israel) is that God is Almighty on his behalf. He is not God Almighty merely in general. He is God Almighty in relation to Israel. His Almightiness is there for them. That's why he says it here. This is the promise that enables the command. You can be fruitful and multiply because I am God Almighty. I am the covenant God of Abraham and Isaac. My Godness and my Almightiness are covenant Godness and covenant Almightiness. And if you will trust me as God Almighty, you can and you will be fruitful and multiply.
Now the question is, Can we use these words given to Jacob mainly about his physical offspring to apply to our church mainly about our spiritual offspring? You can't just take words that you like in the Bible and make them apply to anything you want. There have to be Biblical reasons for the application.
So here are my Biblical reasons for taking Genesis 35:11 and applying it to Bethlehem. Why do I believe that when God said to Jacob, "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply," he was making a promise and giving a command that included us gentiles at Bethlehem and the people who would be saved through our witness to the gospel? Put on your Biblical thinking caps for a few minutes. If this line of thinking were merely mine, I might say, "Lord, it's a bit heavy sledding." But it's not my line of thinking, amazingly. It's right at the heart of the apostle Paul's understanding of who we are as Christians in relation to the Jewish people, and why it is that the promises to Abraham belong to gentile Christians as well as Jewish Christians. And he meant for ordinary Christians to grasp this, even though it demands mental effort.
Step 1. These words to Jacob are a reaffirmation and continuation of God's promise to Abraham, Jacob's grandfather, in Genesis 17:4-6.
As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you.
At least four things are almost identical between the promise to Abraham here and the promise to Jacob in Genesis 35:10-11. Both promises contain 1) a name change (Abram to Abraham, and Jacob to Israel), 2) promise that kings will come from them, 3) a reference to being fruitful, and 5) a promise that a "multitude of nations" will come from Abram and Jacob.
That last one is the key. Notice it carefully. In Genesis 17:5 and again in 17:6 God promises Abraham that he will be "the father of a multitude (hamon) of nations." And in 35:11 God promises Jacob, "A company (qahal =congregation) of nations shall proceed from you." So this promise of being fruitful and multiplying with a "multitude" or "congregation" of nations is common to both. Jacob's promise is a reaffirmation of the promise made to Abraham.
Step 2. The promise that the patriarchs (Abraham and Jacob) would be fruitful with a "multitude of nations" is fulfilled in the gentiles inheriting the promises of Abraham through faith, not Jewishness (Romans 4:16-17).
16 For this reason [the promise] is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law [i.e., Jewish believers], but also to those [i.e., gentiles] who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all [there's the interpretation of Genesis 17:5], 17 (as it is written, "A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU") in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.
Paul reasons like this: Abraham and Jacob did not seem to became the father of a multitude of nations in a physical sense. There were the fathers of the twelve tribes born to Jacob. And there were in addition the Ishmaelites (descendants of Ishmael) and the Edomites (descendants of Esau). But these 14 peoples do not make a "multitude" of nations. So Paul ponders the possibility that this fruitfulness may include spiritual children, not just physical.
He finds evidence for this in several places (cf. Romans 4:18 and Genesis 15). For example, he notices that in Genesis 12:3 that God had said to Abram, "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (cf. Galatians 3:8). He noticed that this blessing is coming to the families of the world not through physical descent, but spiritual. So he sees Genesis 17:5 in this light. Becoming the father of a "multitude of nations" (in 17:5) is the same as "blessing all the families of the earth (in 12:3).
Step 3. Paul shows that what unites Abraham and the gentiles to God is faith, not Jewishness, so that now all how trust Christ (the seed of Abraham) are true offspring of Abraham and heirs of the promises (Galatians 3:6-8).
Look at Galatians 3:6-7 to see this:
Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS (= Genesis 15:6). 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
The key here is that faith, not Jewishness, makes you a true offspring of Abraham (and Jacob). So how is it that Abraham and Jacob become fruitful and multiply with a "multitude of nations?" The answer is that they are fruitful and multiply when Christians witness to the gospel and win unbelievers to faith in Christ. Every gentile and every Jew who puts faith in Christ becomes a "child of Abraham" and an heir of the promises. The key is belonging to Christ, who is THE offspring of Abraham (cf. Galatians 3:16). As Paul says in Galatians 3:29, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise."
Step 4. Therefore, when God says to Jacob, "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply," he includes in his meaning, "Let multitudes of Jews and Gentiles in all generations be saved through faith in Christ, and become heirs of the promises of God."
Which means that these words belong to us. They are God's word to Bethlehem as well as Jacob. We are children of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, because we have believed on the Messiah, Jesus Christ. So we are now in the great covenant line of promise. Everyone we lead to Christ is a fulfillment of this promise, "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply."
Let me close with two implications of this truth.
First, it means that the Almightiness of God is the confidence of our witnessing to unbelievers. We do not enter this week of witness on our own strength. Let these words ring in your ears, "I am God Almighty! THEREFORE, be fruitful and multiply." When John the Baptist confronted some Jews who boasted in their Jewishness that it guaranteed them salvation he said (in Luke 3:8), "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham."
And God does just that. He raises up from stones children to Abraham. He takes the hard, stony, unbelieving gentiles in our lives and turns them into humble believers in Jesus through your witness and mine. That's the main point of saying he is God Almighty. He can do that. We can't. He can. So keep listening when he says, "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply."
This is the very same logic that Jesus uses in Matthew 28:18-19 when he says, "All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations." In other words, "I am Christ Almighty; go and be fruitful and multiply." Our confidence comes from the authority and the Almightiness of Christ.
Finally, let's get very practical and apply this to the people we love and long to see come to Christ in faith and be saved. There are cards in your worship folder with spaces for you to write a few of these people's names. Would you do that as we close and promise to pray for them daily through June. With confidence welling up from this amazing word of promise, let's ask God that in 1996 there be an average of one profession of faith per day in response to our witness. Do you waver. Listen. "I am God Almighty -- ALMIGHTY! Be fruitful and multiply."
Copyright 1996 John Piper