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The Church Is Israel

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The Abrahamic Covenant is a big deal. The Author(s) of Scripture spilled a lot of ink over it, and the people of God over the centuries have staked their faith on it's promises. So, when it comes to building theological systems or frameworks, how those systems deal with the Abrahamic Covenant is rather important.

In this article, I'll be looking at how the Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled and whom its promises are for, based on Galatians 3 (in particular verses 15-29).

Galatians: Faith is the Bedrock of the Christian Experience

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is primarily concerned with reminding the Galatian believers that the Christian life is built on the bedrock of faith. Any substitutes for faith or distractions from faith, as a means of knowing and serving and being saved by God, are to be discarded and despised. And in chapter 3 of his letter, he brings up the faith of Abraham to prove that this was God's design for all believers everywhere from the dawn of time, and not just a fleeting phenomenon of the NT "age."

Now, in this article, I do not plan to spend much time, if any at all, on the nature or importance of faith even though this is Paul's primary point. Paul is making several arguments to build up the importance of faith in the church's mind, but we will focus on examining some secondary things that he touches on regarding the Abrahamic covenant. The assumptions he makes and his interpretation of the Old Testament texts that speak of the Abrahamic covenant will be our primary concern, because doing so will help us appreciate what we are believing Christ for (that is, what we receive through faith in him). I pray these brief comments fuel your worship of Jesus and enlarge your vision of what a great salvation has been accomplished for you, body and soul.

And, with Paul, I encourage you to believe!

Promises without Law

The argument that Paul is making in chapter 3 is that God graciously gave the promises to Abraham, no strings attached. The law gave Israel national identity and conferred grace to them in that it kept them near the promises of God, but it did not give them the promises of God. These (the promises) have always come to God's people by grace and through faith. This is Paul's point throughout Galatians, and particularly at the beginning of this chapter (Gal. 3:6-9 in particular).

So when Paul says, in verse 15, that a ratified covenant cannot be annulled by any other means, what he has in mind is that the law of Moses (works-based and earthly) cannot annul the promises to Abraham (gracious and eternal). Paul makes this same point in further detail in Romans 41, as well. Interestingly, in Galatians 3:18, he uses the word "inheritance" to refer to these promises. Let's look a little closer at what these promises involve.

What are the "promises to Abraham"?

After the style of Paul in this very passage, I would first like to clearly point out that "promises" is plural. I simply draw from that fact that he has in mind not any one specific promise (the land promise exclusively, for example), but any and all of the promises that God made to Abraham, indiscriminantly. I hold this to be a self-evident meaning of the text and the broader answer to our question. The promises to Abraham are clearly communicated throughout the book of Genesis, and Paul is referring to all of them collectively here in Galatians 3. However, Paul does quote from a particular promise to Abraham in verse 16 to drive his point home, and the details of that exegetical exercise will direct us to some profound conclusions.

And to Your Offspring

In verse 16, Paul quotes a phrase that occurs several times in Genesis: "and to your offspring" (12:7, 13:15, 15:18, 17:7-8, 24:7, 26:3, 28:4, 28:13, 35:12, 48:4). In each instance,2 the context of the phrase is "to your offspring I will give this land." Land! I find this observation endlessly fascinating. There are other Scriptural representations of this covenant Paul could have drawn from to make his point, but he (intentionally? carelessly? unwittingly?) chose a text that deals directly with the land.

Generally, the Abrahamic Covenant is considered to have three components of promise:3

  1. The special land
  2. Many descendants
  3. Blessing that pours over to all nations

The "many descendants" component is curious, as we will see soon. And if I were making these arguments myself, I would have sought to reach into the "blessing to all the nations" as the obvious point at which Christ enters the picture of fulfilling Abraham's covenant and radiating blessing out to the ends of the earth. But make no mistake, the promises to Abraham definitely involve land, and I would suggest, at the very least, that Paul is not unaware of this fact as he hearkens back to this gracious covenant in the phrase "and to your offspring."4

Who is/are Abraham's Offspring?

If you're reading the passage carefully, of course we can see that Paul is very clear about the answer to this question — it's his main point! Jesus Christ is the rightful heir of the promises to Abraham! It was he alone who "walked blamelessly before God," and it is he alone who represents the ideals of the children of Abraham as God expected and demanded of them throughout history, and to borrow an idea from Romans 9:8, he is uniquely the "offspring" of promise. God graciously chose him, His one and only Son, to be the particular beneficiary of all the promises he made to his people throughout the centuries. Indeed, "all God's promises find their 'Yes' in Christ" (II Corinthians 1:20).

In Galatians 3, Paul doesn't go so far into all that detail; he sums it all up very succinctly with "'to your offspring' refers to one, who is Christ." If you read this as a Christian, maybe you don't find this to be a controversial point, but I welcome you to consider just how controversial this really is before we accept what the Apostle is telling us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

That's not how that verse reads at all!

First of all, it is incredibly doubtful that many, if any at all, have ever read those verses in Genesis, before or after Paul penned Galatians, and thought, "well, clearly God is referring to a singular heir in this sentence." And it wouldn't be the fault of the reader! One could argue objectively on grammatical grounds that that is exactly not what those verses in Genesis are saying! After all, collective nouns (like "offspring") are a feature of most human languages, and their usage in a context like this (the transference of generational blessings) is well understood to be referring to all of the descendants of the person whose offspring they are. It's just the plain reading. The grammatical, historical, and literary understandings of this phrase unanimously speak to the inherent plurality of the descendants of Abraham, who will receive these promised blessings.

Theologically, it's still a bit dubious...

If the plain reading argument isn't enough for you, consider the theological context: what fills your mind (assuming you are a Christian) when you read the phrase "to your offspring I give this land"? The Scriptures go into so much detail describing how the many descendants of Abraham marched through the desert and stood on the banks of Jordan and longed to enter the land and dwelled in the land and were promised they could stay in the land if they obeyed and were kicked out of the land when they disobeyed and have pined (to this very day!) for the restoration of the land in which they all could dwell together and enjoy God's blessings. And at no point in the Old Testament do we see a correction by prophet or priest who says, "This land isn't for all of you, there is only one heir." No, the collective nouns of the OT are pretty plainly...collective.

And we could ignore the land aspect of the Abrahamic covenant and still arrive at the same theological or grammatical conclusions: How does God promise "many descendants" but only have one (1) in mind? How would Paul explain the use of "offspring" in Genesis 15?? How do you have a nation that represents God to all the other nations, a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6-7), while maintaining that really there is only a singular offspring in view? It borders on mental gymnastics. But, while there may be some coherently Christian answers to these questions (don't worry, we're getting there 😉), I really hope you can appreciate the reality that nobody was reading these specific verses this way until Paul showed us we should have (apparently?) in Galatians 3.

But let's go along with it for a minute before we look at how Paul could possibly justify such a reading.

Christ is Abraham's Descendant

So why is the "singular heir" such a big deal to Paul? Because of what he says in verse 22:

But the scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise could be given — because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ — to those who believe.

Reminding ourselves again of the primary point of this section, Paul is explaining how the law cannot nullify a covenant that God established by grace. And yet the law was given, and it played an important role: our condemnation. Israel, the descendants of Abraham, and everyone else who would seek to gain blessing from God based on their merits, is shown by the law to be inadequate and undeserving — imprisoned under sin. But, because of his own faithfulness and the good pleasure of God, Christ has inherited the promises to Abraham. His merits are undeniable, his heirship is irrevocable. To so perfect an offspring of Abraham, the promise could never be rescinded.

And he shares that blessing with us! Fully, without reserve, without qualification. In his divine graciousness, he takes what belongs solely and rightfully to him and doles it out to those who forsake their earthly (dis)qualifications and trust only in Jesus. Incredible! Magnanimous! Praiseworthy!

We will return to praise and gratitude again at the end of this article. But our journey from here to there runs along the important hermeneutical axiom that we have just encountered (but might not have noticed):

All God's promises find their fulfillment in Jesus.

ALL OF THEM.

Let's consider how the world-shaping impact of this reality directs Paul's thinking and how it colors his reading of those passages from Genesis.

Paul's Christological Reading Lens

All God's promises find their fulfillment in Jesus. This isn't only a doctrinal proposition, it is a core component of Paul's interpretive framework, a very important hermeneutical axiom. Paul carries this critical assumption with him every time he reads the promises of God in Scripture. Let's observe how it is at work in Paul's interpretation of the Genesis phrase "and to your offspring".

In previous sections, I spouted my shameless disbelief (unbelief?) that Paul could possibly be interpreting the phrase correctly by harping on the singularity of the noun "offspring." And I wasn't playing devil's advocate, either. In fact, it's partly the persuasive weight of those hermeneutical arguments that gives so much emphasis to Paul's Christological5 reading. Paul's understanding (that the entirety of God's promises are found in and through Christ) helps him see Genesis more clearly, and thus he picks up on the reality that the promises were always intended for one particular recipient: Jesus. Now the singular "offspring" can be seen, even in the grammatical details of the text, because the theological and spiritual reality of Christ as the heir of all God's riches upholds such hermeneutical details. If it were not so, then such interpretations would be open to criticisms on the basis of human logic. Because it is so, Paul can drive home his arguments with spiritual force, not relying on mere grammar alone, but on the strength of Christ's own meritorious righteousness, a righteousness that even Abraham believed in, though he did not understand it as we do now, who have the fullness of Christ's revelation in our hearts and before our eyes in the Scripture and through the Holy Spirit.

Assumptions

As I previously pointed out, what I have attempted to capture through many words, Paul states simply, "referring to one, who is Christ." He then proceeds from this (easily established) fact with his primary argument about the law not annulling the gracious covenant, but let's recap some of the critical assumptions of Paul that we have observed:

  1. The promises belong to Christ, directly, and it is only through him that anyone else participates in them.
  2. The faith of Abraham is the same faith we have, and it results in the same outcome: Christ's righteousness for us.
  3. He feels free to make his argumentation using Scriptures that involve the land promise!

Each of these assumptions are huge in understanding well how Paul concludes chapter 3.

Heirs with Christ

Let's get to the point: Paul is about to make a massive statement, and now that we've entered into his mind and observed how he understands the nature of God's promises, we should be floored by what he says about us. He's already said it several times throughout the passage (Gal. 3:7,9), and he drives it home with gusto in verse 29:

"If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise."

It is clear enough what it means to belong to Christ: that's believers! All of us! Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freemen! But observe the conclusion he draws, which builds heavily on the assumptions of Paul we've laid out above: being in Christ, who is the offspring of Abraham, makes us the offspring of Abraham! And what do the offspring of Abraham receive?

The promises. All of them.

Land? Many descendants? Blessing exploding throughout the nations? The indwelling Spirit? Adoption and sonship with the Father God? "I will be your God and you will be my people"? "Your kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom"? "I have plans to give you a future filled with hope"? "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved"? Those promises?

YES!

If you believe, then you are an heir according to promise! You may not even know what to do with most of those promises, but my brothers and sisters, they are yours in Christ! You don't deserve them, but he does! You didn't earn them, but he did! You might not have even looked for them, but by his grace, Christ has shared what is his — with you.

Believe!

Paul urged the Galatians to forsake their self-righteous striving and believe in Christ for their justification and sanctification. And now I encourage you, believe in Christ for all of God's promises. Do not look at your ethnicity, or your location in history, or your theological presuppositions. Look to Jesus in faith. His faithfulness has earned you a reward much bigger than your mind could have comprehended or anticipated. Cease your striving, and believe that the promise — all of it, and whatever Scripture says it may be or involve — is yours in Christ.

"The Spirit Himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God's children. And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ) — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

— Romans 8:16-17


Footnotes

1Make special note of Romans 4:13 as it relates to the points being made in this article.back

217:7 says "I will ... be God to you and to your offspring," so this one phrase does not refer to the land, but it is immediately followed in verse 8 with "And I will give ... to your offspring ... all the land of Canaan," so I hardly think this de-emphasizes the point being made. Interestingly, even the cases where the phrase is used to Isaac and Jacob, the reference to the land is still present. One would be hard pressed to prove persuasively that the phrase "and to your offspring" had to do with anything other than the inheritance of land.back

3These are listed sometimes together and sometimes in isolation, and of course this list is not exhaustive; "I will be your God" and other ideas could easily have been included.back

4I would remind the reader of my position early on that "the promises" is surely a reference to all the promises to Abraham. The goal of this section is not to limit the scope of the promises to merely the land, but simply to point out that land is definitely included.back

5"Christological" in hermeneutics refers to reading and interpreting Scripture under the guiding realities provided by Jesus in his Person, Work, and Teaching. Such an approach (in my view) is all-inclusive, meaning there are no Biblical texts that should be read apart from this framework. More could be said about this, and I may later amend this article with further reading resources or an article of my own to flesh out this idea in appropriate detail. For purposes of this article I use it to refer to the idea that All God's promises find their fulfillment in Jesus.back

6His main argument in this section of Galatians is about the law not annulling the covenant with Abraham, an argument which we have not looked at in much detail at all. However, he is upholding this argument on the grounds of his interpretation of Genesis, which we have been looking at quite closely. I hope you find these details helpful, if you are also seeking to understand his larger point.back

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