|Study 1: God || Study 2: The Spirit Of God || Study 3: The Promises Of God || Study 4: God And Death || Study 5: The Kingdom Of God || Study 6: God And Evil || Study 7: The Origin Of Jesus || Study 8: The Nature Of Jesus || Study 9: The Work Of Jesus || Study 10: Baptism Into Jesus || Study 11: Life In Christ||3.1 Introduction || 3.2 The Promise In Eden || 3.3 The Promise To Noah || 3.4 The Promise To Abraham || 3.5 The Promise To David || Doctrine In Practice 8: Covenant Relationship With God |||
There’s a connection between the promise in Eden and the promises to Abraham. Abraham was promised the very things which were lost in Eden. A land flowing with milk and honey (cp. the garden of Eden); a nation without number (cp. “be fruitful and multiply”), and kingship (cp. “subdue it and rule…”, Gen. 1:28). We can see here the golden thread of God’s purpose developing a link further- His intention, revealed through the promises, was to enable His people to have again what had been lost in Eden.
The Gospel taught by Jesus and the apostles was not fundamentally different from that understood by Abraham. God, through the Scriptures, “preached before the gospel unto Abraham” (Gal. 3:8). So crucial are these promises that Peter started and ended his public proclamation of the Gospel with reference to them (Acts 3:13,25). If we can understand what was taught to Abraham, we will then have a very basic picture of the Christian Gospel. There are other indications that “the gospel” is not something which just began at the time of Jesus.
§ “We declare unto you glad tidings (the Gospel), how that the promise which was made unto the (Jewish) fathers, God has fulfilled” (Acts 13:32,33).
§ “The gospel of God, which he had promised afore by his prophets (e.g. Abraham, Gen. 20:7) in the holy scriptures” (Rom. 1:1,2).
§ “For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead” (1 Pet. 4:6) - i.e. believers who had lived and died before the first century.
§ “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them” (Heb. 4:2) - i.e. Israel in the wilderness.
The promises to Abraham have two basic themes.
(1) things about Abraham’s special descendant and
(2) things about the land which was promised to Abraham.
These promises are commented on in the New Testament, and, in keeping with our policy of letting the Bible explain itself, we will combine the teachings of both Testaments to give us a complete picture of the covenant made with Abraham.
Abraham originally lived in Ur, a prosperous city in what is now Iraq. Modern archaeology reveals the high level of civilisation that had been reached by the time of Abraham. There was a banking system, civil service and related infrastructure. Somehow Abraham was aware of the Lord and of His Word, but he was the only faithful one in Ur (Is. 51:2; Nehemiah. 9:8). Then the extraordinary call of God came to him - to leave that sophisticated life and embark on a journey to a promised land. Exactly where and exactly what was not made completely clear. All told, it turned out to be a 1,500 mile journey. The land was Canaan - modern Israel.
Occasionally during his life, God appeared to Abraham and repeated and expanded His promises to him. Those promises are the basis of Christ’s Gospel, so as true Christians that same call comes to us as it did to Abraham, to leave the transient things of this life, and go forward in a life of faith, taking God’s promises at face value, living by His Word. We can well imagine how Abraham would have mulled over the promises on his journeys. “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out (from Ur) into a place (Canaan) which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went” (Heb. 11:8).
As we consider God’s promises for the first time, we, too, can feel that we do not know exactly what the promised land of God’s Kingdom will be like. But our faith in God’s Word should be such that we also eagerly obey.
Abraham was no wandering nomad with nothing better to do than take a chance on these promises. He was from a background which, in fundamental terms, has much similarity with our own. The difficult decisions he faced were similar to those we may also have to face as we consider whether to accept and act on God’s promises - the strange looks from business colleagues, the sly look in the eye from the neighbours (“He’s got religion!”) ...Abraham would have known these things. The motivation which Abraham needed to go through with it all must have been tremendous. The only thing that provided that motivation throughout his long travelling years was the word of promise. He must have memorised those words and daily meditated upon what they really meant to him.
By showing a similar faith and acting upon it, we can have the same honour as Abraham - to be called the friends of God (Is. 41:8), to find the knowledge of God (Gen. 18:17) and to have the sure hope of eternal life in the Kingdom. Again we emphasise that the Gospel of Christ is based on these promises to Abraham. To believe truly in the Christian message, we too must believe firmly the things promised to Abraham. Without them our faith is not faith. With eager eyes we should therefore read and re-read the dialogue between God and Abraham.
1. “Get out of your country...unto a land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).
2. Abraham “went on his journeys...to Bethel (in Central Israel). And the Lord said unto Abram...Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your descendant for ever...walk through the land...for I will give it unto you” (Gen. 13:3,14-17).
3. “The Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, Unto your descendant [singular- i.e. one special descendant] have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18).
4. “I will give unto you, and to your descendant [singular- i.e. one special descendant] after you, the land wherein you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8).
5. “The promise that he (Abraham) should be the heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13).
We see here a progressive revelation to Abraham.
1. ‘There is a land which I would like you to go to’.
2. ‘You have now arrived in the area. You and your children will live here forever’. Note how this promise of eternal life is recorded without glamour or emphasis; a human author would no doubt have jazzed it up.
3. The area of the promised land was more specifically defined.
4. Abraham was not to expect to receive the promise in this life - he was to be a “stranger” in the land, although he would later live there forever. The implication of this is that he would die and then later be resurrected to enable him to receive this promise.
5. Paul, under inspiration, evidently saw the promises to Abraham as meaning his inheritance of the whole earth.
Scripture goes out of its way to remind us that Abraham did not receive the fulfilment of the promises in his lifetime.
“By faith he sojourned (implying a temporary way of life) in the land of promise, as in a strange country, living in tents” (Heb. 11:9).
He lived as a foreigner in the land, perhaps with the same furtive sense of insecurity and mismatch which a refugee feels. He was hardly living with his descendant in his own land. Along with his descendants, Isaac and Jacob, (to whom the promises were repeated), he “died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and (they) were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). Notice the four stages.
§ Knowing the promises - as we are doing through this study.
§ Being “persuaded of them” - if it took a process of persuasion with Abraham, how much more so with us?
§ Embracing them - by being baptised into Christ (Gal. 3:27‑29).
§ Confessing to the world by our way of life that this world is not our real home, but we are living in hope of that future age to come upon the earth.
Abraham becomes our great hero and example if we appreciate these things. The ultimate recognition that the fulfilment of the promises lay in the future came for the tired old man when his wife died; he actually had to buy part of the promised land in which to bury her (Acts 7:16). Truly God “gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession” (Acts 7:5). The present spiritual children / descendants of Abraham may feel the same incongruity as they buy or rent property - on an earth which has been promised to them for their personal, eternal inheritance!
But God keeps His promises. There must come a day when Abraham and all who have those promises made to them will be rewarded. Heb. 11:13,39,40 drives home the point.
“These all died in faith, not having received the promises; God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect”.
All true believers will therefore be rewarded at the same point in time, i.e. at the judgment seat at the last day (2 Tim. 4:1,8; Mt. 25:31-34; 1 Pet. 5:4). It follows that to be in existence in order to be judged, Abraham and others who knew those promises must be resurrected just before the judgment. If they have not now received the promises and will only do so after their resurrection and judgment at Christ’s return, there is no alternative but to accept that the likes of Abraham are now unconscious, awaiting the coming of Christ. Yet stained glass mosaics in churches throughout the world have been known to depict Abraham as now in heaven, experiencing the promised reward for a life of faith. Thousands of people for hundreds of years have filed past those pictures, religiously accepting such ideas. Will you have the Bible-based courage to step out of line?
As explained in Study 3:2, the promise of a descendant applies primarily to Jesus and, secondarily, to those who are “in Christ” and therefore are also counted as the descendant of Abraham..
1. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you...and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:2,3).
2. “I will make your descendant as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall your descendant also be numbered...all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your descendant for ever” (Gen. 13:15,16).
3. “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you be able to number them...So shall your descendant be...Unto your descendant have I given this land” (Gen. 15:5,18).
4. “I will give unto...your descendant[s] after you...the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Gen. 17:8).
5. “I will multiply your descendant as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and your descendant shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in your descendant shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:17,18).
Again, Abraham’s understanding of the “descendant” was progressively extended.
1. Firstly he was just told that somehow he would have an extraordinary number of descendants, and that through his “descendant” the whole earth would be blessed.
2. He was later told that he would have a descendant who would come to include many people. These people would spend eternal life, along with himself, in the land at which he had arrived, i.e. Canaan.
3. He was told that his descendant would become as many as the stars in the sky. This may have suggested to him that he would have many spiritual descendants (stars in heaven) as well as many natural ones (as “the dust of the earth”).
4. The previous promises were underlined with the additional assurance that the many people who would become part of the descendant could have a personal relationship with God.
5. The descendant would have victory against his enemies.
Notice that the descendant was to bring “blessings” to be available to people from all over the earth. In the Bible the idea of blessing is often connected with forgiveness of sins. After all, this is the greatest blessing a lover of God could ever want. So we read things like: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps. 32:1); “The cup of blessing” (1 Cor. 10:16), describing the cup of wine which represents Christ’s blood, through which forgiveness is possible.
The only descendant of Abraham who has brought forgiveness of sins to the world is, of course, Jesus, and the New Testament commentary on the promises to Abraham provides solid support.
“He (God) doesn’t say, ‘And to descendants’, in the plural, but in the singular, ‘And to your descendant’, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
“...the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in your descendant shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed. Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus (i.e. the descendant), sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities” (Acts 3:25,26).
Notice here how Peter quotes and interprets Gen. 22:18.
The descendant = Jesus
The blessing = forgiveness of sins.
The promise that Jesus, the descendant, would have victory over his enemies now slots more neatly into place if this is read with reference to his victory over sin - the greatest enemy of God’s people, and therefore of Jesus, too.
BECOMING PART OF THE DESCENDANT
By now it should be clear that Abraham understood the basic elements of the Christian Gospel. But these vital promises were to Abraham and his descendant, Jesus. What about anyone else? Even physical descent from Abraham would not automatically make someone part of that one specific descendant (Jn. 8:39; Rom. 9:7). Somehow we have to become intimately part of Jesus, so that the promises to the descendant are shared with us as well. This is by baptism into Jesus (Rom. 6:3-5); frequently we read of baptism into his name (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). Gal. 3:27-29 could not make the point any clearer.
“As many of you (i.e. only as many!) as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek (Gentile), there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one (through being) in Christ Jesus (by baptism). And if you be Christ’s (by baptism into him), then are you Abraham’s descendants, and heirs according to the promise”.
The promise is of eternal life on earth, through receiving the “blessing” of forgiveness through Jesus. It is by being baptised into Christ, the descendant, that we share the promises made to him; and so Rom. 8:17 calls us “joint heirs with Christ”. People from all nations “bless themselves” by becoming part of that descendant through baptism into Him- they thus appropriate to themselves the promised blessings (Gen. 22:18 RVmg.).
Remember that the blessing was to come on people from all parts of the earth, through the descendant; and the descendant was to become a worldwide group of people, like the sand of the shores and the stars of the sky. It follows that this is due to their first receiving the blessing so that they can become the descendant. Thus the (singular) descendant “shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation” (i.e. many people; Ps. 22:30).
We can summarise the two strands of the promises given to Abraham.
1. The Land
Abraham and his descendant, Jesus, and those in him would inherit the land of Canaan and by extension the whole earth, and live there forever. In this life they would not receive it, but would do so at the last day, when Jesus returns.
2. The descendant
This was primarily Jesus. Through Him the sins (“enemies”) of mankind would be overcome, so that the blessings of forgiveness would be made available world-wide.
By baptism into the name of Jesus we become part of the descendant promised to Abraham.
These same two threads occur in New Testament preaching, and, not surprisingly, it is often recorded that when people heard them taught, they were then baptised. This was, and is, the way through which these promises can be made to us. We can now understand why, as an old man faced with death, Paul could define his hope as “the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20): the true Christian hope is the original Jewish hope. Christ’s comment that “salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22) must also refer to the need to become spiritual Jews, so that we can benefit from the promises of salvation through Christ which were made to the Jewish fathers.
We read that the early Christians preached:-
1. “The things concerning the Kingdom of God
2. the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12).
These were the very two things explained to Abraham under slightly different headings.
1. Promises about the land
2. Promises about the descendant.
Note in passing that “the things” (plural) about the Kingdom and Jesus are summarised as “preaching Christ” (Acts 8:5 cf. v. 12). At times, this has taken to mean “Jesus loves you! Just say you believe he died for you and you’re a saved man!”. All of which is valid in some sense. But the phrase “Christ” clearly summarises the teaching of a number of things about him and his coming Kingdom. The good news about this Kingdom which was preached to Abraham played a big part in the early preaching of the Gospel.
In Ephesus, Paul was “three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the Kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8; 20:25); and his swan-song in Rome was the same, “He expounded and testified the Kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus...out of the law...and out of the prophets” (Acts 28:23,31). That there was so much to talk about shows that the basic Gospel message about the Kingdom and Jesus was not simply and only a matter of saying “Believe on Jesus”. God’s revelation to Abraham was more detailed than that, and the things promised to him are the basis of the true Christian Gospel.
We have shown that baptism into Jesus makes us part of the promised descendant and therefore able to inherit the promises (Gal. 3:27-29), but baptism alone is not enough to gain us the salvation promised. We must remain in the descendant, in Christ, if we are to receive the promises made to the descendant. Baptism is therefore just a beginning; we have entered a race which we then need to run. Don’t forget that just physically being Abraham’s descendant does not mean that we are acceptable to God. The Israelis are Abraham’s descendants but this does not mean that they will be saved without being baptised and conforming their lives to Christ and the example of Abraham (Rom. 9:7,8; 4:13,14). Jesus told the Jews: “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; but you seek to kill me...If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham” (Jn. 8:37,39), which was to live a life of faith in God and Christ, the promised descendant (Jn. 6:29).
The descendant or “seed” must have the characteristics of its ancestor. If we are to be the true descendant of Abraham we must therefore not only be baptised but also have a very real faith in God’s promises, just as he had. He is therefore called “the father of all them that believe...who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had” (Rom. 4:11,12). “Know therefore (i.e. really take it to heart!) that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Paul is alluding here to the practice of Gentile converts to Judaism [“proselytes”] taking the name ben Avraham, son of Abraham. The real conversion to the hope of Israel, Paul is saying, is not through joining Judiasm but through faith and baptism (Gal. 3:27-29).
Real faith must show itself in some sort of action, otherwise, in God’s eyes, it isn’t faith (James 2:17). We demonstrate our belief in these promises that we have studied by first being baptised, so that they come to apply to us personally (Gal. 3:27-29). This is even an Old Testament idea- for David says that the true believer will share the promise to Abraham that “his descendant shall inherit the land”, and thus God will make us know personally His covenant with us (Ps. 25:13,14 RVmg.). So do you really believe God’s promises? This is a question we must continually ask ourselves all our lives long.
The Old And New Covenant
It should be evident by now that the promises to Abraham summarise the Gospel of Christ. The other major set of promises which God made were with the Jews in the context of the law of Moses. These stated that if the Jews were obedient to this law, then they would be physically blessed in this life (Dt. 28). There was no direct promise of eternal life in this series of promises, or “covenant”. So we see that there have been two “covenants” made.
1. To Abraham and his descendant, promising forgiveness and eternal life in God’s Kingdom when Christ returns. This promise was also made in Eden and to David. This is the “new covenant”. When this “new covenant” is made with Israel when Christ returns, it will include the promise to Abraham that “I will be their God” (Jer. 31:33 cf. Gen. 17:8).
2. To the Jewish people at the time of Moses, promising them peace and happiness in this present life if they obeyed the law which God gave to Moses.
God promised Abraham forgiveness and eternal life in the Kingdom, but this was only possible through the sacrifice of Jesus. For this reason we read that Christ’s death on the cross confirmed the promises to Abraham (Gal. 3:17; Rom. 15:8; Dan. 9:27; 2 Cor. 1:20), therefore his blood is called the “blood of the new testament” (covenant, Mt. 26:28). It is to remember this that Jesus told us to regularly take the cup of wine, symbolising his blood, to remind us of these things (see 1 Cor. 11:25): “This cup is the new testament (covenant) in my blood” (Lk. 22:20). There is no point in “breaking bread” in memory of Jesus and his work unless we understand these things.
The sacrifice of Jesus made forgiveness and eternal life in God’s Kingdom possible; he therefore made the promises to Abraham sure; he was “a surety of a better testament” (Heb. 7:22). Heb. 10:9 speaks of Jesus taking “away the first (covenant), that he may establish the second”. This shows that when Jesus confirmed the promises to Abraham, he did away with another covenant, that was the covenant given through Moses. The verses already quoted about Jesus confirming a new covenant by his death, imply that there was an old covenant which he did away with (Heb. 8:13).
This means that although the covenant concerning Christ was made first, it did not come into operation until his death, therefore it is called the “new” covenant. The purpose of the “old” covenant made through Moses was to point forward to the work of Jesus, and to highlight the importance of faith in the promises concerning Christ (Gal. 3:19,21). Conversely, faith in Christ confirms the truth of the law given to Moses (Rom. 3:31). Paul sums it up: “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). It is for this purpose that the law through Moses has been preserved, and is still beneficial for us to study.
These things are not easy to understand at first reading; we can summarise as follows.
§ Promises concerning Christ made to Abraham - New Covenant.
§ Promises to Israel associated with the law given to Moses - Old Covenant.
§ Death of Christ - Old Covenant ended (Col. 2:14-17); New Covenant came into operation.
For this reason things like tithing, Sabbath-keeping etc., which were part of the Old Covenant, are not now necessary - see Study 9.4. The New Covenant will be made with natural Israel when they repent and accept Christ (Jer. 31:31,32; Rom. 9:26,27; Ez. 16:62; 37:26). Of course any Jew who does that now and is baptised into Jesus, can immediately enter the New Covenant (in which there is no Jew/Gentile distinction - Gal. 3:27-29).
Truly appreciating these things makes us realise the certainty of God’s promises. Sceptics unfairly accused the early Christian preachers of not giving a positive message. Paul replied by saying that because of God’s confirmation of His promises on account of the death of Christ, the hope they spoke of was not a touch-and-go affair, but a totally certain offer: “As God is true, our word (of preaching) toward you was not yes and no. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us...was not yes and no, but in him was yes. For all the promises of God in him are yes, and in him, Amen” (2 Cor. 1:17-20).
Surely this torpedoes the attitude of, ‘Well, I suppose there might be some truth in all that...’?
“I will be with you”
There are two other things promised to Abraham and his descendants: “I will be their God…I will be with you” (Gen. 17:8; 26:3; 28:15 cf. Ex. 6:7). The Lord Jesus Christ is ‘God with us’ (Emmanuel, Is. 7:14). For those of us who have part in these promises concerning Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God, God will be with us and guide us to that happy end. Time and again God’s people in their times of desperation have come back to these promises to Abraham, in their realisation that truly God is with us (e.g. 2 Chron. 32:7,8). Covenant relationship with God means that He will give us foretastes of His future salvation by being our God now and going with us in salvation now (Ps. 111:9). And we will respond to this, and fulfil the truth of 2 Cor. 1:20, which says that the sure outworking of God’s promises to us results in us glorifying Him.