Study 3: The Promises of God
Introduction | The Promise In Eden | The Promise To Noah | The Promise To Abraham | The Promise To David | Digressions (Destruction of Heavens And Earth, The Claims Of "British Israelism") | Questions
3.4 The Promise to Abraham
The Gospel taught by Jesus and the apostles was not fundamentally different from what was 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:-
The promises to Abraham have two basic themes:
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 civilization which had been reached by the time of Abraham. There was a banking system, civil service and related infrastructure. Knowing no different, Abraham lived in this city; as far as we know, a man of the world. But 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 complex, agonizing 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!")...these things would have been known to Abraham. 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 memorized 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 (Isa. 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 emphasize that the Gospel of Christ is based on these promises to Abraham. To truly believe in the Christian message we, too, must firmly know the promises to Abraham. Without them our faith is not faith. With eager eyes we should therefore read and re-read the dialogues between God and Abraham.
We see here a progressive revelation to Abraham:-
Scripture goes out of its way to remind us that Abraham did not receive the fulfilment of the promises in his lifetime:-
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 seed 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:-
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 seed 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:-
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; Matt. 25:31-34; 1 Peter 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 Europe 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 seed applies primarily to Jesus and, secondarily, to those who are "in Christ" and therefore are also counted as the seed of Abraham.:-
Again, Abraham's understanding of the "seed" was progressively extended:-
Notice that the seed 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:-
Notice here how Peter quotes and interprets Gen. 22:18:-
The promise that Jesus, the seed, 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.
Joining The Seed
By now it should be clear that the basic elements of the Christian Gospel were understood by Abraham. But these vital promises were to Abraham and his seed, Jesus. What about anyone else? Even physical descent from Abraham would not automatically make someone part of that one specific seed (John 8:39; Rom. 9:7). Somehow we have to become intimately part of Jesus, so that the promises to the seed 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:-
- The promise of eternal life on earth, through receiving the "blessing" of forgiveness through Jesus. It is by being baptized into Christ, the seed, that we share the promises made to him; and so Rom. 8:17 calls us "joint heirs with Christ".
Remember that the blessing was to come on people from all parts of the earth, through the seed; and the seed was to become a world-wide 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 seed. Thus the (singular) seed "shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation" (i.e. many people; Ps.22:30).
We can summarize the two strands of the promises given to Abraham:-
(1) The Land
(2) The Seed
By baptism into the name of Jesus we become part of the seed.
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 baptized. 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" (John 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:-
These were the very two things explained to Abraham under slightly different headings:-
Note in passing that "the things" (plural) about the Kingdom and Jesus are summarized as "preaching Christ" (Acts 8:5 cp. v. 12). All too often this is taken to mean "Jesus loves you! Just say you believe He died for you and you're a saved man!" But the phrase "Christ" clearly summarizes 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 Corinth, Paul was "three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the Kingdom of God" (Acts 19:8); in Ephesus he went around "Preaching the Kingdom of God" (Acts 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 just 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 seed 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 seed, in Christ, if we are to receive the promises made to the seed. Baptism is therefore just a beginning; we have entered a race which we then need to run. Don't forget that just technically being Abraham's seed does not mean that we are acceptable with God. The Israelis are Abraham's seed in some ways, but this does not mean that they can be saved without being baptized 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 ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me...If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham" (John 8:37,39), which was to live a life of faith in God and Christ, the promised seed (John 6:29).
The "seed" must have the characteristics of its ancestor. If we are to be the true seed of Abraham we must therefore not only be baptized 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 ye therefore (i.e. really take it to heart!) that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7).
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 baptized, so that they come to apply to us personally (Gal. 3:27-19). 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 summarize 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 (Deut. 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:-
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, symbolizing 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). Hebrews 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 fully 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 quaintly 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 summarize as follows:-
For this reason things like tithing, Sabbath-keeping etc., which were part of the Old Covenant, are not now necessary - see Study 9.5. The New Covenant will be made with natural Israel when they repent and accept Christ (Jer. 31:31,32; Rom. 9:26,27; Eze. 16:62; 37:26), although, of course, any Jew who does that now and is baptized 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 realize 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 yea and nay. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us...was not yea and nay, but in him was yea. For all the promises of God in him are yea, 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...'?