This article was written by Rich Tutt to accompany the ‘The Mission of God and the Story of the Old Testament‘ hangout.
- What do you recall as the key events in the life of Abraham?
- Why do you think Abraham is such an important figure in the Bible?
Abraham was originally a childless, city-dwelling idol worshipper named Abram in what is now Iraq, yet God chose him to be the father of the Jewish nation, and the defining Old Testament example of faith. God made a covenant (a binding agreement) with him, which went on to shape the whole of the Biblical Story. This covenant was reaffirmed, clarified and expanded on a number of occasions when God met with Abraham. It is often referred to as the Abrahamic Covenant, and is one of the central themes of the whole Bible.
This covenant is introduced in Genesis 12:1-4. God promised to bless Abraham and cause him to become the father (ancestor) of a great nation that will live under the blessing of God. This blessing will be so great that, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3) For his part, Abraham was expected to trust God and leave everything behind, going to the land that God would show him. God promised to give this same land to Abraham and his offspring forever (see Genesis 13:15).
During his travels, Abraham was told that the promise would be fulfilled through a son supernaturally born to him in his old age. Moreover, his descendants would be so numerous that they will be as uncountable as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5) and the sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17) and that, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 22:18) The Hebrew word translated ‘offspring’ is literally ‘seed’ and can be used as either singular or plural (like in English: ‘a seed’, ‘some seed’). So, in these verses it can refer to either ‘many offspring’ or one ‘single offspring’. In some places it clearly refers to many offspring, in others, it must mean one offspring, but in some verses it is tantalisingly ambiguous whether it refers to all of Abraham’s descendants blessing all nations or whether one specific descendant is in mind.
The key points of the Abrahamic Covenant are God’s promises that Abraham’s descendants would:
- Live under the blessing of God
- Become very numerous
- Inherit the promised land of Canaan
- Bless all the peoples of the earth
THINK IT THROUGH
- How were these promises fulfilled in the nation of Israel?
- In what ways did Israel not see them fulfilled? Why do you think that was?
At 100 years of age, Abraham miraculously became the father of Isaac, who also later inherited the Covenant that God made with Abraham. “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 26:3-4) Isaac overcame childlessness himself to become the father of Jacob, who also inherited the covenant (see Genesis 28:13,14). Under his new God-given name of Israel, he went on to father 12 sons whose descendants lived in the promised land as the 12 tribes of the nation of Israel. God’s promises seem to be fulfilled as Abraham’s numerous offspring lived under the blessing of God in the land he provided for them. But what about everybody else on the planet? How is the blessing of God spreading to them?
Read Exodus 1:1-7.
- In what ways is this a fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant?
- In what ways is the fulfilment incomplete?
Paul picks up the ambiguity of the use of ‘seed’ in Galatians 3:16. “Note the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring [literally seed]. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring’, who is Christ.” Whilst he is obviously aware of the plural use of seed to refer to the numerous offspring of Abraham, Paul also identifies the ultimate fulfillment of the Covenant promises in one individual – Jesus. Ultimately all the promises God gave to Abraham are fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus on behalf of his people. He is the supernaturally born son in whom all the promises will find their ultimate fulfilment. The blessing of God comes to all people on earth through him, Abraham’s ‘Ultimate Offspring’. This is why Matthew is so keen to start his gospel by identifying Jesus as a descendant (‘son’) of Abraham in the very first verse, and then proving it by the subsequent genealogy (see Matthew 1:1-17).
THINK IT THROUGH
- Why do you think that Matthew is also keen to show that Jesus is a descendant of King David?
We often think of the gospel as being all about Jesus’ death and resurrection, and framed in legal terms – Jesus died on the cross, in our place, for our sins, so that our guilt may be removed, and we can be declared righteous by God. This is of course completely true, but another aspect of Jesus’ work of redemption is that by his perfect life he completely fulfilled everything God requires of us, in our place, on our behalf. Jesus achieved everything that God commanded his people Israel to do – in that sense he was the ultimate Israel: Jesus perfectly obeyed God and kept the law (see Exodus 9:5), he loved the LORD with his whole life (see Deuteronomy 6:5), he was a light to the Gentiles (see Isaiah 49:6), and he suffered to bring salvation to many (see Isaiah 52:13-53v12).
Because of Jesus’ obedience, even to death, the blessing of God is available to all God’s people, despite their own disobedience.
THINK IT THROUGH
- How does Jesus’ perfect obedience motivate you to obey God?
- How would you reply to someone who says that because Jesus fully obeyed God on our behalf, we don’t need to?
Even though Paul identifies Jesus as the unique seed of Abraham in Galatians 3:16, a few verses later he picks up the plural sense and identifies all Christians as the seed of Abraham. “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:29) The way to be truly Abraham’s offspring then is through belonging to Jesus, and not by having a biological link to Abraham. Paul tells us that our racial background is actually irrelevant – “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28) – the only thing that matters is that we identify by faith with Jesus, the Ultimate Offspring of Abraham. When we do this we become ‘heirs’ of all the promises made in the Abrahamic Covenant: we live under the blessing of God by his undeserved grace and favour in our lives. We become very numerous as the gospel advances, and more and more people become believers. Rather than a geographical piece of Middle Eastern land, we will inherit the whole earth in the future New Creation. And we bless all peoples on earth as we bring the kingdom of God into their lives in a multitude of ways.
- How does understanding the Abrahamic covenant help us link the Old Testament to the New?
Physical or Spiritual?
By Jesus’ time, many Jews took the blessing of God for granted. They assumed that because they were physical descendants of Abraham, they were automatically accepted by God and living under his blessing. John the Baptist had warned his hearers that simply being ethnic Jews was not enough to satisfy God. “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.’” (Matthew 3:9) In John 8:31-39, Jesus’ Jewish hearers use their genetic relationship to Abraham as a reason to ignore the claims of Jesus, saying, ‘we are offspring of Abraham…. Abraham is our father.’ (John 8:33,39) Paul argues against this complacent attitude in Romans 9:6-8. “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring…. it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of promise are counted as offspring.” (Romans 9:6-8) In other words, something more was required of Abraham’s physical descendants for them to truly be counted as his ‘offspring’.
Only those who respond to the promise of the gospel, accepting the work of Jesus on their behalf are truly the descendants of Abraham, living under the blessing of God. This change in understanding from biological to spiritual is like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis: being born to Jewish parents is superseded by the need to be born again by the Holy Spirit – the old cocoon of biological descent discarded for wings of personal faith in Christ.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Are there similar ways that people today can assume that they are right with God?
- Are there ways that you personally take for granted your relationship with God?
Of particular interest to the New Testament writers is the response of Abraham to God’s Promises. In Genesis 15:6 it says, “And he believed the Lord, he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). This verse is quoted in several places in the New Testament in order to show how we can get right with God. Contrary to many people’s view, it is not by working hard to please God, but by trusting in him and in his promises.
It is quoted in Romans 4:3-5, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3-5) Paul is telling us that the way to be declared righteous and to be accepted by God is not by piling up ‘good works’ – that approach fails because no one is able to live a sufficiently good life to meet God’s standards. Instead, we have righteousness ‘credited’ to us when we put our faith in God’s promises to bless us, just as Abraham does. To have righteousness ‘credited’ to us means that it is freely given to us and counted as if it is our own, like a large sum of money being placed in our bank account. Jesus was the only one who lived a perfectly righteous life, and when we trust in him his righteousness is counted as ours.
Galatians 3:6-9 also uses this verse to show that it is by faith in Christ that we become Abraham’s descendants and can live under the blessing of God. “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’. Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham… so then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:6-9) . The big difference between Abraham and ourselves of course is that he lived before Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and we live afterwards. Abraham looked forward in time, as if through thick fog, to Jesus, his Ultimate Offspring, with little idea of how it would all work out. We look back in time to the cross and to Easter Sunday, and can see clearly how God’s covenant promises were all fulfilled in Jesus. However it is the same faith in both cases, both looking to God, trusting him to bless us as he has promised to do. John Calvin, the famous reformation theologian, explains,
“Abraham was justified by believing because, when he received from God a promise of fatherly kindness, he embraced it as certain.” (John Calvin)
In the gospel, we now have an even clearer promise of ‘fatherly kindness’, through Jesus, that we can embrace by faith.
The Whole World
Many Jews of Jesus’ day looked down on Gentiles (non-Jews), calling them ‘dogs’ and thinking of them as ‘unclean’, assuming that God wanted nothing to do with them. However, this was a total misunderstanding of the heart of God and the nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. God’s covenant was that through Abraham’s Ultimate Offspring all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. It was never just about Israel becoming a ‘great nation’ and selfishly enjoying the blessing of God alone. In the Old Testament, God repeatedly calls on his people to invite others into Covenant relationship with him. God’s desire was always that his people would be an example and an inspiration for people of other cultures and faiths to come to know him.
In Galatians 3:8, Paul understands the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham to be the gospel of Jesus Christ, Israel’s messiah, being announced to non-Jews. “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’” (Galatians 3:8) So when you share the gospel with your friends and family, or invite people to an Alpha Course or a church service you are actually being part of the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham! The blessing of God comes to them as they hear and respond to the gospel – just as God promised to an old, childless, Middle Eastern man 4000 years ago!
This helps us the keep evangelism as an essential part of what we do as individual Christians and as churches. We are not just here to enjoy God’s blessing ourselves but to bless all the peoples of the earth by sharing the message of Jesus with them. It is not just something on our ‘to-do list’, it is a fundamental part of who we are as offspring of Abraham and heirs of the promises. In all sorts of ways, as we share the gospel and live God-centred lives in the midst of a culture that is far from God, we are bringing the blessing of God to them – just as Abraham, our spiritual ancestor, did four millennia ago.
This also gives us huge confidence that we will see many people respond to Jesus. God has promised that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore: this speaks not of an enormous number of Jews, physically descended from Abraham, but of an uncountable number of people whose lives have been transformed by Jesus and have reconnected with God through him. We know that as we announce God’s amazing plan of salvation, many, many people will respond and be born again into the great nation of the worldwide church of Jesus.
The Abrahamic Covenant also tells us to keep world mission high on our list of priorities. The blessing of God through Abraham’s Ultimate Seed is for ‘all peoples on earth’ or as Paul translates it in Galatians 3:8 ‘all nations’. We must be faithful to Jesus’ command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth (see Acts 1:8), knowing that the gospel has to be preached to all nations and then Jesus will return (see Matthew 24:14).
THINK IT THROUGH
- Even if you never leave the country of your birth, in what ways can you be involved in world mission?
Two Halves of the Same Story
Many Christians struggle with much of the Old Testament. They come to Christ and begin a wonderful relationship with God and gradually learn to live as disciples of Jesus. The New Testament explains to them how we get saved, and how to live once we are saved. However, with the exception of a few psalms, the Old Testament seems like a different world to them: It begins with a family of wandering nomads, and becomes centred on the ups and downs of the small and obscure nation descended from them. It appears to have no relevance to someone living as a Christian in 21st Century western culture.
However, when we understand that both Testaments, Old and New, are all about the fulfilment of God’s Covenant to Abraham, unfolding over several thousand years, we begin to grasp the unity of the Bible. It is not that God is initially interested in Israel, and then later on switches his attention to the church after Jesus, but that all along he was working to bless the whole world through the fulfilment of the Covenant he made with an obscure traveller along the banks of the Euphrates river. This Covenant was not just about God adopting a race of people, but would be the way in which the curse of sin and all the terrible effects of humanity’s rejection of God would be undone.
- How can knowing that you are an heir of the Abrahamic covenant help you when you are going through tough times?
- In what ways are you personally being a blessing to the people around you?
- How does the covenant with Abraham give you confidence in evangelism?
- Read Hebrews 11:8-19. In what ways does Abraham’s faith inspire you to trust God and live wholeheartedly for him?