We talked briefly about the promises God made to Abram when He called him to journey to the land of Canaan in Genesis 12:1-3; and there we described the promises as: a land, a people, and a heritage. But we could also summarize the promises in this way: 1) a land, 2) a seed, and 3) blessing. These promises are first made to Abram in Genesis 12, and then reaffirmed throughout Abram's life. The same promises are then also confirmed to Abram's son Isaac, and then to Isaac's son, Jacob:
Well, how are we to understand these promises? There was a TEMPORAL aspect to the promises. There was a physical land1 that God had promised to Abram and his descendants; there would be a numerous physical seed (or offspring)2 that would come forth from Abram; and God would lavish physical and temporal blessings3 upon Abram. But the promises that God had made to Abram were so much more than just temporal promises. In a stalk of corn there is both the outer husk and the inner kernel. And so it was in the promises to Abram. There was the husk of a temporal land, seed, and blessing. But Abram understood that inside the husk was the kernel—something far more precious. Behind the temporal promises made to Abram were realities of ETERNAL significance.
A) LAND: In a sense, the promise God made to Abram of the land was fulfilled in the possession of Canaan during the days of Joshua (cf. Joshua 21:43-45). But the promise was always about so much more than just a temporal piece of land. The Scriptures make it emphatically clear that God's promise to give Abram the land looked forward to the possession of an eternal inheritance.
1) The true BOUNDARIES of the land: In Romans 4:13, Paul says: “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” Paul is telling us something incredibly significant here: the promise to Abram concerning the land was actually something far more vast than the boundaries of the land of Canaan: God was promising Abram that he would be the heir—not just of Canaan—but, “heir of the world.” This teaches us that the actual scope of the land that God was promising to Abram was far more vast than just the area called Canaan. What God was promising Abram was the same thing Jesus was promising when He declared, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
2) The true DURATION of the land: In Genesis 17:8, the Lord says to Abram: “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession. . .” The Lord is promising here, not only to one day give the land of Canaan to Abram and his seed, but to give it to them “for an everlasting possession. . .” The Jews indeed possessed the land for a while, but eventually they were cast out of the land at the time of the exile. It's rather the new heavens and the new earth that the Lord has promised to give His people as an everlasting possession. The prophet Isaiah picks up on this truth: looking ahead to a glorified church, he says: “Then all your people will be righteous; they will possess the land forever” (60:21).4
3) The true ENJOYMENT of the land: The verse we read above, Genesis 17:8, tells us something else significant about the land. The Lord there had told Abram: “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings. . .” Scripture tells us here that the promise of the land was spoken to Abram himself, as well as his seed (cf. 13:15, 17; 15:7). Yet we're told in Acts 7:5 that, “[The Lord] gave [Abram] no inheritance in [the land], not even a foot of ground.” This is a major problem if God's promise only had to do with the land of Canaan in a temporal sense. If God promised to give Abram a land, and if the land God promised to give Abram was the physical area of Canaan, and if God never gave that land to Abram—then God failed to keep His Word. We say God did not fail to keep His word; because ultimately the promise was of a heavenly inheritance.
What Scripture would teach us is that the promise of a land was always meant to be understood as so much more than just a physical piece of property. It was never ultimately meant to be understood as a place on earth, but as a place in heaven. This is why David wrote in Psalm 37:29, “The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.”5 David lived in the land of Canaan; he reigned as king over the land promised to Abram; he was living proof that God had fulfilled His promise to Abram by giving the land of Canaan to his descendants. But David still spoke of inheriting the land as something yet to come: “The righteous will inherit the land.” Why does he put it in the future tense? Why not say: “the righteous have inherited the land”? Because ultimately the promise of the land was never about an earthly piece of property in the Middle East. It looked forward to the possession of an eternal inheritance. Abram himself understood this, as the author of the book of Hebrews makes clear: “By faith [Abram] lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise, for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:9-10; cf. 13-16).
B) SEED: The second promise to Abraham was the promise of a seed. We see this in several Scriptures. For instance, in Genesis 22:17-18 the Lord said to Abraham, “indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their6 enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” So, what is this promise of a seed that God was making to Abram? Who is Abram's seed? Scripture gives us two answers to this question:
1) The CHILD OF PROMISE: The promised seed at times referred to the coming Messiah. This is what Paul was saying in Galatians 3:16, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as referring to many, but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ.” Now, just like in English, the Hebrew word “seed” (zera) can designate either the singular (a single person) or the plural (many people). So Paul's point isn't that some of the promises made to Abram of a seed were in the singular tense in Hebrew (and thus, referred to Christ). But though the Hebrew word “seed” can mean either the singular or the plural, Paul's point here is that there are still times in the course of God's promises to Abram when that word seed is indeed referring to a single person—to the coming Messiah.7 If you remember, we saw this same principle at work in Genesis 3:15, where speaking to the serpent, the Lord says: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” Here, the seed the Lord was speaking of was a particular individual; the promised Messiah, who would one day come from Eve and finally crush the serpent.8 In the same way, in the course of God's promises to Abram, there are times when the seed being promised is referring to a particular individual, to the Christ, who would come from Abram and bring blessing to the world.9
We mentioned earlier that the last clause in Genesis 12:3 was incredibly significant, where the Lord says to Abram: “And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” What is Scripture telling us here? All the families of the earth would be blessed—so far, so good—but what does it mean that they would be blessed in Abram? Well, thankfully, this verse is reaffirmed and clarified once again a little later, in Genesis 22:18, where the Lord tells Abram: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. . .” So how will the nations be blessed in Abram? They will be blessed in and through Abram's seed. And here in Genesis 22:18, this seed is referring to a particular individual.10 So, the nations would be blessed in and through a particular descendant that would one day come forth from Abram: This seed is the Messiah. All nations would be blessed in Abram because the Messiah was in Abram's loins and would come forth from him. The promise God was making was that the Christ would come forth from Abram, and in and through Him, blessing would come to the nations. That's why Paul said in Galatians 3:8: “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the nations will be blessed in you.'” Paul calls Genesis 12:3 the gospel because it tells us that all the nations would be blessed in Christ.
2) The CHILDREN OF PROMISE: So, one meaning of God's promise to Abram of a seed is the unique seed of promise: the coming Messiah. But there are also times in the Genesis narrative when it's clear that the promise of the seed is referring to a corporate group of people. God promises to make Abram's seed like the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), the stars in the sky (15:5) and the sand on the seashore (22:17) in abundance.11 This is a vast company of people. And in Genesis 17:7, we are told of their defining characteristic. Here, the Lord says to Abram: “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” This is the mark of Abram's seed; the Lord would be their God. Just as He was Abram's God, He would be the God of Abram's seed.
But who is this seed referring to? We might assume that it means all the children of Abram. But the narrative of Genesis goes on to explain that the promised seed wasn't necessarily each and every child without exception. In Genesis 17:19, while announcing the birth of Isaac, the Lord tells Abraham: “Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.” Later, the Lord made clear to Abraham what this really meant, when He told him: “through Isaac your descendants shall be named.” (Genesis 22:12).12 In other words, the lineage of that seed God had promised to Abram would be traced through Isaac—but not through Ishmael. And later, we come to find out that the lineage of the promised seed would be traced through Isaac's son Jacob, but not through Esau.13 What we learn from this is that the seed God had promised to Abram was not all of his descendants without exception; rather, the seed God had promised to Abram was a distinct group among them.14
Some of the Jews in Jesus' day saw this truth in Scripture, but they misunderstood it. They saw that God chose Isaac and his descendants, not Ishmael; and then they saw that God chose Jacob and his descendants, rather than Esau. And who were the Jews? They were the descendants of Jacob! They were the ones who had been chosen. And so they loved this truth. They basked in the fact that it wasn't all of Abraham's descendants who were truly the people of God. The way they saw it, the true seed didn't go through Ishmael, but Isaac; and it didn't go through Esau, but Jacob; and since they were the offspring of Jacob, they thought that they were the true, distinct, promised seed of Abram. This is why the Jews said to Jesus in John 8:33, “We are Abraham's descendants. . .” What were they saying? “Jesus, why are you talking to us as if we don't know God? We are the chosen seed. We're the true seed; the seed within the seed.” But what did Jesus tell them? “I know that you are Abraham's descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. . .He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.” (John 8:37,47). These words would have been absolutely shocking; because Jesus was telling them that though physically they were children of Isaac; spiritually they were actually children of Ishmael. Physically they were the children of Jacob, but spiritually they were actually the children of Esau.15
So then, being a physical descendant of Jacob never guaranteed you were the true seed of Abraham. And the New Testament tells us that the opposite was just as true: the fact that you aren't a physical descendant of Jacob doesn't mean you're not the true seed of Abraham. Paul talks about this a lot in Galatians. Now, Galatians was a letter that Paul wrote to Gentiles; these were non-Jews; those who were definitely not descendants of Abraham or Jacob. But what does Paul tell them? He says: “And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.” (Galatians 4:28). So: The Jews, though physically the offspring of Jacob, weren't actually Abram's children at all. And the Gentiles, though physically unrelated to Abram, are actually his true children. Paul is telling us that your physical lineage actually doesn't have anything to do with whether or not you're a true child of Abraham. He writes to them: “Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7); and he concludes, saying: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, heirs according to promise.” (3:29). So, who are the children of promise? Abraham's true seed are his spiritual descendants—a community that both excludes many of his physical descendants and includes many of his non-physical descendants. Abraham's true seed are believers in Jesus; it's as simple as that.
Now, there's one last question that arises here: If all this is true, what does it mean for ethnic Israel? What is Scripture telling us about how Abraham's spiritual seed relates to his physical seed? Did God's promise never actually have anything at all to do with Abraham's physical seed? Was God promising to Abraham a spiritual seed instead of a physical seed? Have believing Gentiles, in effect, now replaced the Jews as the people of God? Paul answers this question for us in Romans 11. Speaking of ethnic Israel, Paul says in verse 1: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.” He goes on to describe what he means in verses 17-24, where he likens Abraham and his physical seed to an olive tree: Abraham is the root; his physical descendants are the branches. In his analogy, some of Abraham's physical seed—ethnic Jews—were cut off from God's promises (as a branch from the tree) because of their unbelief in Christ; while other “wild” branches—Gentiles—were grafted into the olive tree (and the promises of the covenant) through faith in Jesus.16 But notice what Paul is saying: God didn't cut down the whole Jewish tree and plant a new Gentile tree. Rather, He cut off certain branches; and grafted in others. What Paul is telling us is that when the Lord promised to be God to Abraham and to his seed, He was making promises to Abraham's physical offspring—just not to each and every one of them. God was never promising Abraham a spiritual seed instead of a physical seed—but a spiritual seed among his physical seed. It's just that others also of his physical seed could be cut off from those promises (through unbelief); and so too, Gentiles could be grafted into those promises (by faith). But Paul tells us there will always be a spiritual seed for the Lord among Abraham's physical seed (Romans 11:1-6). And so, it's not that the Gentiles replaced the Jews as the true seed of Abraham; rather, we were given the amazing privilege of joining them.17
C) BLESSING: Along with the promise of a land and a seed, God promises to bless Abraham and to bless all the families of the earth through him. We read in Genesis 12:2-3, “. . .and I will bless you. . .and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Again, in Genesis 22:17-18, “indeed I will greatly bless you. . .In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. . .” The same promise is later confirmed to Isaac (26:3-4) and Jacob (28:14). So, what is this promise of blessing?
1) First, Scripture equates the blessing of Abraham with SALVATION: We see this in Galatians 3:8-9. Here, Paul says: “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the nations will be blessed in you.' So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.” In this passage, Paul refers back to the Scripture in Genesis 12:3, where the Lord tells Abram: “All the nations will be blessed in you”, and tells us that this Scripture is fulfilled in the Gentiles being justified by faith (v8); and then again, that those who are justified by faith are blessed with Abraham (v9). So then, the blessing of Abraham is being equated with justification by faith. So, what was the blessing the Lord had promised to Abraham? It was the blessing of justification: It's those who are justified that enter into the promised blessing of God.18