Friday, October 19, 2007

All the Promises of God V


The Seed

Integral to the Abrahamic covenant was the promise of a great seed. Abraham’s offspring would be blessed by God; they would be numerous and they would constitute a thriving nation.

Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3)

But Abram said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Gen. 15:2-5)

Along with the seed promise, God also promised Abraham that through his seed, all the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). Many Protestants who read of the promise of Abraham’s seed think that it is an unconditional promise and that it applies simply and directly to racial Jews. But there are problems with this view.

The promise was guaranteed and infallible to be sure, but not in the way that is usually assumed. In fact, there was a real sense in which it was conditional. For example, with respect to any individual Old Testament Jew, the promise was never an unconditional statement. Individual Jews could be and were cut off from the covenant. Many examples from the Old Testament could be given. But right from the beginning, we learn that “the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:14). Later, we learn that one could be cut off from the covenant because of a “high-handed” sin (Num. 15:30, 31). And Old Testament history is replete with examples of this. It should be no surprise then to see that many racial Jews in the O.T. were not ultimately saved.

For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. (Heb. 3:16-19)

Though they partook of the covenant blessings for a time (cf. I Cor. 10:1-10), their genealogy did not make their covenant membership permanent and it did not guarantee their salvation. Early in the Gospel of Luke, the prophet John’s words to a multitude of Jews is recorded. “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones…. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8, 9) Circumcision brought them into the covenant, but it did not guarantee their faithfulness or perseverance. Through rebellion, Jews could and did turn their circumcision into uncircumcision (Rom. 2:17-29). And when they did this, they failed to inherit the fulfillment of the promises or to enter into God’s rest.

Moreover, the promised seed was not nearly as “racial” as many imagine. Though Israel as a nation was marked out by God to be His holy and priestly people, gentiles who desired this relationship and responsibility could enter into this covenant as well. From the very beginning, most of the “original Jews” were not actually descendents of Abraham. “So Abraham took Ishmael his son, all who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very same day, as God had said to him.” (Gen. 17:23) Here we have a reference to Abraham’s slaves as well as those under his command (Gen. 14:14). These were not his relatives or offspring. Later, we see that any gentile could be grafted into the covenant (Ex. 12:48).

But if it was common for Jews to be cut off from the covenant and gentiles to be grafted in, how can we speak of a guaranteed and infallible covenant promise? How can it be a promise? The New Testament gives an answer that may be as surprising to us today as it was to the 1st century Jews who first heard it.

The big-picture context for Paul’s letter to the Galatians was the perversion of the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). The gospel is the proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah-King who came to fulfill the old covenants by restoring His people to a new covenant and incorporating the gentiles into that covenant. He embodied the old covenants in order to transform them into something more glorious: the new covenant in Him. The primary issue addressed by Paul in Galatians involved the covenant status of gentiles. Had the gentiles been brought into the new covenant as gentiles or did they first need to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic ceremonial laws (thus becoming Jews) before they could be real Christians? Was the Abrahamic covenant still operative in the Old Testament sense; was it still in operation as it had been before the Messiah came?

The event that brought the issue to a head was Peter’s separation from the gentiles during table fellowship. Paul first rebuked Peter publicly for this behavior.

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel gentiles to live as Jews? (Gal. 2:11-14).

Biblically, table fellowship is koinonia – the communion of the saints. By separating from the gentiles at table fellowship, Peter was actively denying that God had created one new man from the two old men in Jesus. His behavior presupposed that the Jew-gentile distinction was still in place. Quite apart from whether or not he meant to do this, he was saying that the gentiles had not really been grafted into the covenant. Thus, he was “not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). This is the issue in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. Who are the people of God? Or perhaps more specifically, how can one be part of the God’s covenant family? Just behind this, of course, is the nature of the covenant after the Messiah had come. There is a very short path from Peter’s behavior to the belief that Jesus had not fulfilled and transformed the covenants in the way that the apostles were teaching. Instead, the idea was that the old covenants were still in place and operated just as they always had. In fact, this was the belief of those Jews who came from Jerusalem and caused Peter to waver.

Thus, after discussing his rebuke of Peter, Paul turned to the views of the Jewish false teachers (the “Judaizers” as they are known today) and their disastrous effects on the Galatian gentiles. He launched into a series of arguments designed to show that the gentiles who were in Christ were, because of that relationship, heirs to the Abrahamic promises. The gentiles did not need to be circumcised into the Abrahamic covenant in order to inherit the promises; they already had the promises in Christ. These promises were, in fact, the very gospel itself.

Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? – just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” (Gal. 3:5-8 quoting Gen. 12:3; 15:6; 18:18; 22:18)

The conclusion to this was obvious. “So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham” (Gal. 3:9).

The reason this is true is because the Mosaic covenant (i.e., “the law”) was not the same as the covenant promises. “Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.’” (Gal. 3:12 quoting Lev. 18:5) The law was not of faith because it was a present reality that the people already had. They did not have to hope and trust that they would get it some day; they already had it. But the promises related to future actions on God’s part. The people were to live within the covenant according to God’s command in Leviticus while trusting by faith that God would fulfill His promises. He did this by sending Jesus to take the curse of the law upon Himself so that the gentiles would receive the blessing of Abraham and the promise of the Spirit (Gal. 3:13, 14). Jesus is the connecting link between Abraham and the gentiles, for He is the true Seed of Abraham in whom the promises are infallibly fulfilled.

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your seed,” who is Christ. And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise. (Gal. 3:16-18).

God gave His promise to Abraham before the law and independent of it, so the law could not have been the true fulfillment of the promise. It was a foreshadow to be sure, but it was not the final goal of the promise. That final goal was Jesus, the true Seed in whom the promises are fulfilled.

What then was the point of the law? “But before faith came [i.e., before the fulfillment came], we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Gal. 3:23-25) Paul made the same point just a few sentences later. “Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father.” (Gal. 4:1, 2) The law was a good thing. It was a guard and a “tutor” (paidagogos) – the one in the household responsible for training up the children. Before the Messiah came, the Mosaic covenant played the role of a “steward” (oikonomos) – one who rules and manages a house. The law guarded, trained, and managed God’s people until “the time appointed by the father” when the true Heir would come and claim His house (cf. Heb. 3:1-6). The Mosaic covenant was to bring God’s people to Christ. Thus, once the true Heir had arrived, the steward’s job was done.

Therefore the children of Abraham are all those (whether Jew or gentile) who have been baptized into covenant with the true Seed because of their faith in Him and what He had done.

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:26, 29)

All those who have been baptized into Christ – both Jew and Greek – are Abraham’s seed and heirs to the promises specifically because they have been united to Jesus, the true Seed and Heir to the promises. The prophets had foretold of a time when the gentiles would be brought into the covenant (Is. 42:5-7; 49:1-9; 56:1-8; Acts 13:46-48; Rom. 9:22-29; 15:8-12), and that time had come. God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham’s seed had been realized because God had given Jesus to the nations. Thus, both the seed promise and the promise to the nations have been and continue to be realized in Christ. In Him, Christians of every tribe, tongue, and nation are Abraham’s seed. They are the ones who receive the Abrahamic blessings and promises. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (Gal. 3:13, 14)

Paul made much the same point in his epistle to the Romans. After showing Jews that their covenant membership did not automatically ensure their salvation (Rom. 2; 3), Paul turned his attention to Abraham. The patriarch, Paul argued, proves an example of justification apart from circumcision. Thus, he is the father of all uncircumcised believers (gentiles) along with the faithful Jews (Rom. 4:9-12). “Therefore [the promise] is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law [i.e., Jews], but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham [i.e., the uncircumcised], who is the father of us all (as it is written, ‘I have made you a father of many nations’)...” (Rom. 4:16, 17). This is why Paul could make a statement to the Corinthian Christians in passing that would otherwise have made no sense. “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses…” (I Cor. 10:1, 2). Paul could tell the gentiles at Corinth that the Jews whom God brought out of Egypt were their fathers because they were in fact in the same family. God’s family is defined by His gracious covenantal relationship, not race, and the connecting link between Christians today and Jews under Moses is Jesus, the true Seed. Those who are in Him and partake of Him (I Cor. 10:3, 4) are part of the seed.

Therefore, it is Christians, whether Jew or Greek, who have inherited the Abrahamic promises through faith in Christ. Christians constitute the real “twelve tribes” (Jas. 1:1) and the “pilgrims of the disporia” (I Pet. 1:1). The racial Jews who rejected Christ’s fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises had in fact become the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9) and sons of the devil (John 8:37-47). Through unbelief and rebellion, they had lost their status as Abraham’s children. It must have seemed strange and ironic to both gentiles and Jews that many gentiles would become the sons of Abraham while many Jews would lose their status as sons. But as we have mentioned, covenant status is based on grace and faithfulness, not race. And this role reversal is just what had been foretold by Isaiah when he prophesied about the Messiah’s advent and restorative work.

Arise, shine;
for your light has come!
And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
and deep darkness the people;
but the Lord will arise over you,
and His glory will be seen upon you.
The gentiles shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising….

The wealth of the gentiles shall come to you….
and they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord….

Also the sons of those who afflicted you
shall come bowing to you,
and all those who despised you shall fall prostrate at the soles of your feet;
and they shall call you the city of the Lord,
Zion of the Holy One of Israel.
(Is. 60:1-3, 5, 6, 14)

The unbelieving Jews during Jesus’ advent had become the synagogue of Satan because they had rejected the Messiah and His restoration of Zion. As the book of Acts records, many chose to afflict the Church instead. They therefore received what Isaiah said would come upon them. “I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie — indeed I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.... He who overcomes... I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Rev. 3:9, 12, 13) The “you” spoken of by Isaiah was the restored Zion. The Redeemer would come to her (Is. 59:20), and foreigners would rebuild her walls (Is. 60:10). Her oppressors would bow down before her and declare her to be Zion, the city of God. And as Jesus told the Christians at Philadelphia, this was their heritage. The unbelieving Jews would bow down before them, for they were in Christ which means that they were part of restored Zion, the New Jerusalem.

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