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The Abrahamic Covenant: God's Promises to Abraham (Lesson 5.3)

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

We've now come to a complete understanding of why Paul calls Genesis 12:3 the gospel: Earlier we saw that the clause, “in you” referred to Christ, who would come forth from Abraham. This is how blessing would come to the world. In the last section, we talked about who this blessing would extend to; namely, not just to the believing among Abraham's physical descendants, but also to “the nations,” that is, the Gentiles. Here, Paul is telling us what this blessing actually was; namely, the blessing of justification. So, how does Paul call Genesis 12:3 the gospel, which says: “All the nations will be blessed in you”? Because the nations means the Gentiles, in you means Christ, and blessed means justified. We could paraphrase it this way: In Christ, salvation will extend to people from all nations.

2) Secondly, Scripture equates the blessing of Abraham with THE SPIRIT. We see this later in the same chapter. In Galatians 3:13-14, Paul writes: “Christ 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” — in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Earlier (vv8-9), Paul had equated the blessing of Abraham with justification; but here he equates it with the Holy Spirit: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, in order that the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles. What is that blessing? It is the promise of the Spirit, which we receive by faith. So here, the blessing of Abraham is the Spirit.19

And by the way, this wasn't just an idea that started with the New Testament. Long before Paul, the prophets were announcing the same thing. We read in Isaiah 44:1-3: “But now listen, O Jacob, My servant, and Israel, whom I have chosen: Thus says the Lord who made you and formed you from the womb, who will help you, 'Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; and you Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour out water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring and My blessing on your descendants.” So then, the blessing is the Spirit; and it has now been richly poured out upon God's people in and through and because of Christ.

So then, is the blessing of Abraham salvation or is it the Spirit? It's both. It's the blessing of salvation that is given through the Spirit. The blessing is salvation—but that very salvation is a gift of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus himself said, “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” (John 6:63).20

A FINAL WORD: So, God promised to Abram a land, a seed, and blessing. And though each of these had temporal aspects, ultimately they looked to the fulfillment of eternal gospel realities:

But we could really summarize all these things in this simple way: God's promises to Abraham were about the Savior and salvation. God would be Abraham's God (Genesis 17:7-8). This is the heart of the promises. God would send a Messiah to redeem His people. And He would be their God.

God made promises to Abraham: land, seed, blessing. For much of the time, though, Abraham's experience seemed to completely contradict what God had said. God didn't fulfill the promises right away—it took time. And so Abraham had to wait on God, to trust Him to do what He said that He would. Often all that Abraham had to hang on to was what God had said, despite all evidence to the contrary. This is true of each and every promise God had made to him: 1) The promise of the LAND: God promised to give the land of Canaan, not only to Abraham, but also to his seed. And He made this promise long before Abraham even had any “seed” to speak of! We can imagine Abraham thinking: “Lord, let's slow down here; I don't even have children to put in that land which you've promised to give to them!” And when Sarah dies, Abraham has to buy a plot of land from the Canaanites because he doesn't even own a single square foot (Acts 7:5). 2) The promise of a SEED: Abraham was 75 years old when the Lord first began to promise that He would multiply his offspring. That's when God began to make this promise—but it wouldn't actually come to fulfillment until much, much later: Isaac wouldn't even be born for another 25 years. Romans 4 tells us that Abraham needed a lot of faith to even believe the promise to begin with as a 75 year old man (vv18-21). But he didn't just need faith to believe the promise when God made it; he also needed faith to continue to believe the promise as the years continued to roll by, and he was still childless. 3) The promise of BLESSING: The Lord promised to bless Abraham and make him a blessing. But most of the time, Abraham seems to be more of a curse to his neighbors than a blessing. Twice he gives his wife over into the arms of pagan kings to protect himself (Genesis 12 and 20), which also brought judgment upon those kings and surely must have left permanent scars on his bride. He also takes his wife's maid as a second wife, which brings nothing but turmoil on his own family (Genesis 16:4-6) and in the end leaves Hagar and her son devastated, ruined and desolate. . .And yet, who can calculate now what kind of impact Abraham's life has had on bringing true and lasting blessing to the nations?

God's promise of the land at first seemed not to be true; God's promise of a seed at first seemed not to be true; and God's promise to make Abraham a blessing at times seemed not to be true. But God who promised was so faithful. In the same way, God has made promises to us in Christ. But just like with Abraham, what God has said often seems to contradict our daily experience. We often find ourselves living in the gap between what God has promised and what our eyes can see. What do we do? We cling to God's Word; that's what we do. There might be a lot of waiting; there might be a lot of tears; we might not understand everything. But the day is coming when we'll be able to look back, just like Abraham, and say—perhaps with tears of praise—that God who promised was so, so faithful.


1 God promised to give the land of Canaan to Abram and his offspring, and this promise was fulfilled under Joshua, when he and the people of Israel crossed the Jordan and went in to take possession of the land. After recording how the land was divided up to the sons of Israel under Joshua, Scripture says, “So the Lord gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the Lord gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass.” (Joshua 21:43-45).

2 Though Abram had no children, God also promised to give him a seed; not only a single child, but a numerous posterity. The Lord would multiply his descendants like the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), the stars in the sky (15:5) and the sand on the seashore (22:17); not only making him a great nation (Genesis 12:2), but the father of a multitude of nations (17:4-5). God did this. God gave Abram Ishmael, and then Isaac, and other children as well (25:1-6). Ishmael became the father of twelve princes and became a great nation (17:20; cf. 25:13-15). Isaac had two sons; Esau his firstborn became the father of the Edomites; and Jacob his second-born became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel—the father of the nation of Israel. So Abram truly became the father of whole nations; God multiplied his physical offspring like the sand of the sea and the stars in the sky.

3 God truly lavished rich blessings on Abram. One example of this is in Genesis 24, where Abram's servant goes back to Mesopotamia to find a bride for Isaac. In this passage, the servant describes his master (Abram) to Rebecca and her family in this way: “The Lord has greatly blessed my master, so that he has become rich; and He has given him flocks and herds, and silver and gold, and servants and maids, and camels and donkeys” (Genesis 24:35). Abram had hundreds of servants (14:14). He was so prosperous that when Lot, his nephew, is taken away by a powerful army coalition made up of four kings (who had just defeated another army), Abram takes his own “trained men,” chases them down, and defeats them! Abram and his household servants put to flight entire kingdoms. So, there's no question that God had blessed Abram in a temporal sense.

4 Though it's true that the Hebrew word here for everlasting (Heb. olam) has a range of meaning that includes temporary periods of time (IE, “a long time”), it's also true that this kind of meaning is incredibly rare. The word is used 438 times in the Old Testament, and while the vast majority of these occurrences take on the meaning we would normally associate with the English word for everlasting (IE, perpetual; without end), the times it is used in a way that would imply a long season that eventually comes to an end we could probably count on one hand. Scriptures such as Isaiah 60:21; Psalm 37; and Hebrews 11 remove any doubt as to what is meant. Ainsworth notes on Genesis 17:8: “Everlasting. So in Isaiah he says, 'thy people shall possess the land forever,' (Isaiah 60:21); howbeit they possessed the earthly land, 'but a little while,' (Isaiah 63:18); but the 'eternal inheritance,' was to be received by Christ, reserved in the heavens for them and us (Hebrews 9:15; 1 Peter 1:4).”

5 See also verses 9, 11, 22, 34. This Psalm is absolutely jam-packed with the imagery of the righteous inheriting the land and dwelling there forever, on the one hand; but also of the wicked, on the other hand, being finally and eternally cut off from it.

6 Literally in Hebrew, the text reads “his enemies.” We'll see the significance of the singular pronoun below.

7 The specific passage Paul is quoting here isn't absolutely clear. Some scholars believe Paul is referring to Genesis 13:15, and others to Genesis 17:8. The problem with these passages is it's not immediately clear how the seed being referred to was meant to be taken as singular (indeed, the seed in Genesis 17:8 is modified by a plural pronoun, giving seed a plural meaning; see below). Collins follows Desmond Alexander in his article, Galatians 3:16: What Kind of Exegete was Paul? Here, Collins argues that in Galatians 3:16, Paul is referring back to Genesis 22:18. I heartily concur with his reasoning, which is given in the footnotes below. If what we argue in the footnotes below is true, the implication is that, as he penned Galatians 3:16, “Paul, in alluding to [Genesis 22:18], was drawing out the meaning that was already there in the Hebrew of Genesis” (Collins' article).

8 We mentioned in our study of Genesis 3:15 (in Lesson 2), that one of the reasons we know this is the use of the pronouns that are modifying the word “seed.” We cited another Collins' article that shows how, in Scripture, though the word seed itself in Hebrew can be either singular or plural, still we can deduce a singular or plural meaning based on the pronouns that modify “seed.” If a modifying pronoun is singular (IE, he, his), the seed is singular; if it is plural (IE, they, them), the seed is plural. In the passage in Genesis 3:15, we know that the last seed spoken of is singular because of its pronoun: “you shall bruise him”.

9 In Genesis 3:15, we learned that the line of the Messiah would run through Eve; now we learn it would also run through Abram. Later, Scripture tells us that the Messiah's lineage would run through Isaac (rather than Ishmael; 17:19-21; 26:4), then through Jacob (rather than Esau; 28:14). In Genesis 49:10, Jacob prophecies that the Messiah's line would run through his son Judah. Many years later, the Lord makes the same promise in His covenant with David. The Lord tells king David that the Messiah would come forth as one of his descendants; which is why the Messiah was sometimes called the son of David.

10 See the footnote dealing with Genesis 3:15 above; it's the same principle here: Again, the pronouns associated with the seed indicate the meaning. In the broader context of the passage, Genesis 22:15-18, “seed” occurs three times; and though the first occurrence is clearly referring to Abram's offspring in the plural, the second occurrence is just as clearly referring now to a particular individual. We know that this second time seed must be singular, because the pronoun modifying it is singular: “. . .your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.” The context would dictate assuming that the seed mentioned at the beginning of verse 18 is the same seed that was mentioned just prior at the end of verse 17. Besides, the overarching narrative of Genesis (3:15; 49:10), as well as all of Scripture (Acts 2:29-31), would compel us to take seed in verse 18 as singular. How else could we make sense of Paul's words in Galatians 3:8, that Genesis 12:3 was the gospel? Just as it was Christ, the special seed, that was referred to in Genesis 3:15, so it is again here in Genesis 22:18. Ainsworth says of Genesis 22:18, “In thy seed: Here the word seed is in special meant of one, that is, Christ (Galatians 3:16,18), who was both of the seed of David, and son of Abraham according to the flesh (Romans 1:3), and also 'God over all blessed forever' (Romans 9:5), in whom the nations do bless themselves, and glory (Jeremiah 4:2; Psalm 72:17).” And the ESV Study Bible likewise notes on Genesis 22:17-18, “The oath falls into two parts: whereas the first half focuses on Abraham's many descendants, the second part concentrates on a single descendant who will overcome his enemies (Genesis 22:17) and mediate blessing to all the nations of the earth (v18).”

11 We'll see from the rest of the paragraph that there is actually a dual aspect in the seed promise: God made promises of this innumerable seed to Abram—but He also made promises to this innumerable seed. God was not just making promises of an offspring to Abram; He was also making promises to Abram's offspring. God promised to give the land of Canaan—not just to Abram—but also to his seed (12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8). God promised to establish His covenant—not just with Abram—but also with his seed (17:7). God promised not only to be the God of Abram—but also to be the God of his seed (17:7-8).

12 The Lord later reaffirms this promise to Isaac himself in Genesis 26:3-5; and Paul quotes it in Romans 9:7 (see below).

13 See Genesis 28:10-15, where the same promises God had made to Abram are extended here to Jacob (cf. Romans 9:6-13).

14 This is the truth Paul was getting at in Romans 9:6-8. Here he says: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's seed, but: 'through Isaac your seed will be named.' That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” Haldane says of Romans 9:7, “The promise to Abraham and his seed was not made to him and all his descendants in general, but to him and a particular seed. . .from the beginning a distinction had been made among the descendants of Abraham, indicating that they are not all Israel which are of Israel. Only a part of that nation, which he calls a remnant (verse 27), and afterwards 'a remnant according to the election of grace' (11:5), was to participate in the spiritual blessings to be conveyed by promise.”

15 Not even being Jacob's natural children was a guarantee that you were children of God. We can learn this truth also from Romans 9:6-8 (quoted in the footnote above). Here Paul tells us not only that it's not all the natural children of Abraham who are his true children, but that it's not all the natural children of Jacob who are true children of Abraham, for not only are they not all children because they are Abraham's seed, but “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” Paul's meaning is that not all of Abraham's (or Jacob's) physical offspring were truly the promised seed. He's not making a blanket statement that the physical seed of Abraham are not his true seed (we'll deal with this in a bit more depth below); but rather informing us that they are not “ all children because they are Abraham's seed”, nor are they “all Israel who are descended from Israel”; IE, not all of his children according to the flesh were truly his true children according to the Spirit. As Hodge says of Romans 9:7, “Paul's immediate object is to show that natural descent from Abraham did not make a man one of his true seed.” (Romans).

16 Palmer Robertson speaks of this in Christ of the Covenants: “First of all, the 'grafting' principle must be remembered. . . Any definition of the biblical significance of 'Israel' must not fail to include this dimension. 'Israel' cannot be restricted in its essence to an ethnic community. Israel must include the proselyte who does not belong to 'Israel' according to the flesh, but is absorbed into Israel by process of ingrafting. The New Testament displays an awareness of this principle when it speaks of the 'ingrafting' of the Gentiles (Rom. 11:17,19). . .Secondly, and from the opposite perspective, the 'pruning' principle must be noted. Not only is it possible for a new branch to be grafted into genealogical relation to Abraham. It is also possible for a natural seed of Abraham to be removed from its position of privilege. This principle also may be traced back into the earliest experience of the line of promise. To demonstrate the sovereignty of God in the electing process, it was said, 'Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated' (Rom. 9:13; cf. Mal. 1:2,3; Gen. 25:23). This concept of pruning also must be given full weight in the definition of 'Israel.' Again, 'Israel' cannot be identified merely as ethnic descendants of Abraham, for 'they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel' (Rom. 9:6). It is those who, in addition to being related to Abraham by natural descendency, also relate to him by faith, plus those Gentiles who are ingrafted by faith, that constitute the true Israel.” (p40).

17 Some may object to this teaching on the basis of Romans 9:8: “That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” But this verse must be taken in its context; both in its immediate context of vv6-13 as well as in its larger context in Romans. In its immediate context, vv6-7 help to show what Paul means here, and as we pointed out in an earlier footnote, his intent is not to say: “Abraham's true seed are his spiritual seed as opposed to his physical seed.” We know this, in part, because of the language he uses in vv6-7a: Paul does not say: “For they are not any (or actually or truly) Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they any (or actually or truly) children because they are Abraham's descendants. . .” Rather, he says: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants. . .” Paul is not telling us that the promise never had anything to do with Abraham's physical descendants; he's rather simply telling us that it was not all of his physical descendants who were truly the seed of promise. This is confirmed by what Paul goes on to say in vv7b-13. In these verses, who, according to Paul, are the children of promise, the true seed and rightful heirs of God's promise to Abraham? Isaac (v7b) and Jacob vv12-13); who are emphatically indeed Abraham's children according to “the flesh” (v8). Paul's intent in verse 8 is not to say that the promise never extended to Abraham's physical descendants (at all). His intent was simply to show that the promise never extended to all of his physical descendants. Isaac and Jacob were Abraham's descendants according to the flesh—but not solely according to the flesh; they were also of his true seed, descendants according to the Spirit. As Haldane explains: “Ishmael, who was of the bondwoman, it is said, was 'born after the flesh.' This denoted that though he was descended from Abraham according to the laws of nature, he was not a son of Abraham's faith. Isaac was also in a certain sense born like Ishmael after the flesh, because he was naturally descended from Abraham; but not of the flesh merely. . .He was not only a son of Abraham's flesh, but his son as born after the Spirit. . .” (Romans 9:8). And Murray says of this passage: “there is an 'Israel' within ethnic Israel. . .The Israel distinguished from the Israel of natural descent is the true Israel. They are indeed 'of Israel' but not coextensive with the latter.” (Romans, V2, p9). Vos says: “God has not chosen an association of individuals, but a people. . . And Paul teaches us that the root of this old people has continued to exist, although the majority of the branches are cut off.” (V5, p166). Calvin deals with this at length. He writes: “[Anabaptists] find this difference: those who had their origin from [Abraham's] seed were called the children of Abraham under the Old Testament; now, those who imitate his faith are called by this name. They therefore say that that physical infancy which was engrafted into the fellowship of the covenant through circumcision foreshadowed the spiritual infants of the New Testament. . .But if, as they plainly indicate, they mean that God's spiritual blessing was never promised to Abraham's physical offspring, they are gravely mistaken in this. . .the Lord promises Abraham that he will have offspring in whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3), and at the same time assures him that He will be his God and the God of his descendants (Genesis 17:7). All those who by faith receive Christ as author of the blessing are heirs of this promise, and are therefore called children of Abraham.” (Institutes, 4.16.12). And again: “But they will bring forward in opposition another passage of the apostle (Romans 9:7), where he teaches that those who are of the flesh are not children of Abraham, but that only those who are children of the promise are counted among his offspring. This seems to hint that physical descent from Abraham, to which we give some place, is nothing. But we must mark more carefully the case which the apostle is discussing there. For, intending to show the Jews how God's goodness was not bound to the offspring of Abraham, indeed that of itself such descent conferred nothing, Paul cites, by way of proof, Ishmael and Esau (Romans 9:6-13), who were rejected just as if they were strangers; even though they were real offspring of Abraham according to the flesh, the blessing rests upon Isaac and Jacob. . .Nevertheless, when Paul cast them down from vain confidence in their kindred, he still saw, on the other hand, that the covenant which God had made once for all with the descendants of Abraham could in no way be made void. Consequently, in the eleventh chapter [of Romans] he argues that Abraham's physical progeny must not be deprived of their dignity. By the virtue of this, he teaches, the Jews are the first and natural heirs of the gospel. . .Therefore, that they might not be defrauded of their privilege, the gospel had to be announced to them first. For they are, so to speak, like the first-born in God's household.” (4.16.14). Throughout Romans, we see Paul deeply grappling with this question: If God had made a solemn covenant with Abraham, and if that covenant was primarily about salvation in the fullest sense, and if God did not only make that covenant with Abraham but also his children after him, then how is it that salvation failed to reach every single ethnic Jew (cf. Romans 3:1-4; 9:1-8; and 11:1-32)? “What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?” (Romans 3:3). “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. . .But it is not as though the word of God has failed. . .” (Romans 9:3,6). How has God's covenant not failed? How will the fact that Israel didn't believe not nullify the promise God had made to save them? Paul gives the answer in primarily two places. Paul quotes from Isaiah in Romans 9:27, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved.” There are two truths here. Paul is saying, on the one hand, that many ethnic Jews wouldn't be saved. But he's also saying on the other hand, that a remnant of them would be. And in Romans 11:1-5, Paul writes, “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. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 'Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.' But what is the divine response to him? 'I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.' In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice.” So, Paul's answer is that God hasn't actually rejected ethnic Israel—because the promises were never given to each and every physical descendant of Abraham without exception; and though the great majority of the Jews had indeed turned away from the Savior—God has and will continue to preserve a believing remnant for himself among ethnic Israel. In other words, there will always be at least a remnant of believing Jews who bow the knee to the Messiah.

18 Roberts notes on this passage: “Hence it is evident, that the Gentiles' justification by faith, is part of the blessedness promised the nations in Abraham and in his seed. They that have their sins pardoned, and their persons accepted as righteous, are blessed indeed. David speaks emphatically: 'Oh the blessedness of him whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! Oh the blessedness of the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity.'” (p346). And John Brown likewise writes of this Scripture: “Now, how was he blessed? 'To be blessed' and 'to be justified,' seem to be here used as synonymous, and it is not wonderful they should; for, how can he be blessed who is condemned of God? And how can he be otherwise than blessed who is the object of God's favor? In the declaration, then, that with him all nations should be blessed, God beforehand gave an intimation to Abraham that it was his design to justify Gentiles by believing; in other words, to make them blessed in the same way in which he had been made blessed.” (Galatians, p122). Moo also says: “Paul closely associates, if he does not identify, the 'blessing' promised to Abraham and his descendants with justification.” (Galatians, p200).

19 Roberts says on Galatians 3:13-14, “To me this seems to be the Apostle's meaning, as to our present purpose, Christ's redemption of us from the curse, is here described, partly by the manner of it, [namely], Christ being made a curse for us; partly by the effects, or fruits of it; more general, that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; more particular, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. The promise of the Spirit being an eminent branch of the blessing of Abraham.” (p345). And Moo likewise says: “Most scholars think that the parallelism of the clauses suggests that 'the promise of the Spirit' is identical to, or at least forms a part of, 'the blessing of Abraham'. . .” Though he modifies this slightly, he goes on to say: “The Spirit as the promised blessing of new covenant fulfillment is a significant prophetic theme. . .Isaiah 43 might be especially important since it brings together the words 'blessing' and 'Spirit.'” (p216).

20 Scripture clearly teaches us that even faith and repentance themselves are gifts that God must give us (Acts 5:31; 11:18; Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:25). What this means is that faith and repentance are utterly impossible until the Holy Spirit is given to us. This is why sinners are not saved by trying harder to believe and repent, but by calling upon Jesus. When we call upon Christ, He freely gives us the Holy Spirit—and once this happens, to not believe and repent is what is utterly impossible.


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