Who are the Heirs of the Abrahamic
Key Words: covenant,
Abraham, seed, land, promise
Synopsis: This paper discusses the question of
the church’s relationship to the Abrahamic Covenant. Though ancillary questions will be discussed
indirectly,[i] the issue here is simply whether or not the church of Jesus Christ is a full
recipient of the promise and blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant. This author
affirms that the church is a full recipient of all the blessings and benefits
of the Abrahamic Covenant.
paper the Abrahamic Covenant is viewed in relationship to the broader theme of
creation/recreation which establishes a “beyond-ethnicity” scope for the
Abrahamic Covenant. This paper concludes that the language of the Abrahamic
Covenant allows that “faith not ethnicity” defines the descendants of Abraham,
and that the New Testament clarifies that New Testament believers are fully the
“seed of Abraham.”
paper does not enter directly into the discussion between traditional and
progressive dispensationalists regarding the unity of the people of God,[ii] it perhaps serves as a challenge for progressive dispensationalists to see even
more of a Christ-centered continuity among people of faith in both Testaments.
media and public have concluded that ‘being a Christian entails being
pro-Israel.’ A ‘pro-Israel’ stance normally infers that modern day Israel has
some sort of divine or biblical right to the land of Palestine, i.e. that
ethnic Israelites are the legitimate heirs of the Abrahamic covenant. How did this understanding come about, and is
being ‘pro-Israel’ a necessary corollary of biblical Christianity?
‘Popular American Christian eschatology,’ as
represented in books such as the Left
Behind seriesand in prophetic conferences
of the last century, emphasized the unique status of Israel among the nations of the
world in the plan of God. This plan included the ancient gift of what we know
as modern day Palestine to the Old Testament
people of God, known as Israel.
Admittedly, if one reads only the Old Testament, he would conclude that Israel is still God’s nation and Palestine yet remains a
gift and a promise to faithful Jews. However, ‘popular American Christian
eschatology’ does not represent the consensus of Christian theology worldwide
nor is it inexorably the position that best reflects biblical understanding.
must begin their reading of the Bible with the New Testament, without which
there is no Christianity. Consequently, Christians as they read the New
Testament become aware that the coming of Jesus introduces a fundamental change
in regard to how the Old Testament is understood. This is especially true in
regard to the Abrahamic covenant.
As Christians we
read the Old Testament from the perspective of Christ’s teaching that he was
the Messiah whom the Old Testament anticipated. The Old Testament was promise;
Jesus is fulfillment. Jesus was the only Israelite who truly fulfilled the
righteous requirement of the law. He alone was the faithful covenant-keeper. As
the quintessential seed of Abraham, he inherited all the promises given to Israel. Now, in
light of the fulfillment in Jesus, all believers share His inheritance through
their faith in Jesus Christ. Anyone, regardless of ethnicity, can become an
inheritor of the Old Testament promises. This is what the New Testament teaches
clearly: If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according
to the promise (Galatians
In regard to the current struggle
over the land in the Middle East, God’s
promises to Abraham belong to Jesus Christ and to all believers, Jews and
Palestinians included, who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. Jews and
Palestinians who continue to reject Jesus as the Messiah are in the same boat
spiritually before God. Though one or the other may be ‘more just’ on certain
ethical and political issues, neither Jews nor Palestinians are in greater
favor with God or have a divine right to the land.
There is no difference, for all have sinned and
fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through
the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:22-24).
Does the church of Jesus Christ have a legitimate and
biblical basis to lay claim to the covenant given to Abraham? Greg K. Beale[iii] and W. J Dumbrell.[iv] view the Abrahamic Covenant in relationship to the broader biblical theme of
creation/recreation. This context of a creation/recreation motif establishes a
“beyond-ethnicity” scope for the Abrahamic Covenant because it views the
covenant in relationship to the creation-wide purposes of God. A New Testament
understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant fully allows that “faith not ethnicity”
defines the descendants of Abraham, and clarifies that New Testament believers
are fully the “seed of Abraham.” A Christian interpretation of the biblical
texts containing the Abrahamic covenant establishes believers in Christ as the
legitimate heirs of the promise.
let us briefly survey the Old Testament covenantal texts and highlight their
main points. Genesis 12:1-3 introduces God’s purposes with Abraham as
“promise.”[v] The first four promises in verses 2 and 3,
are all cohortatives (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, 34.1d), denoting Yahweh’s
resolve (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, 34.5.1a): “I will make you [into a
great nation]”; “I will bless you”; “I will make [your name
great]”; “I will bless [those who bless you].” The one non-perfective, “I shall curse
the one who treats you lightly,” signifies a contingent future (Waltke and
O’Connor 1990, 31.6.2).
absent in the text of the NIV, the Hebrew text contains a conjunction attached
to these promises which signifies either purpose or result (in order that)
after the imperative, “go” (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, 34.6).[vi] The combined sense is: “Yahweh said
to Abram, Go … to the land I will show you that I may make you into a great nation, that I may bless you, that I may make your name great.” At
the end of verse 2, the imperative, “you
will be a blessing,’<
signifies that these divine resolves have the further purpose that Abram
“be a blessing.” A similar
construction is found in Ruth 4:11: “May Yahweh make the woman who is
entering your house like Rachel and Leah … and so do valiantly in Israel.” God filled Abram with life that he in turn
might mediate life to others. As Abraham
became a blessing, verse 3 describes how God fulfilled His purpose of bringing
blessing to others, i.e. by blessing those who blessed Abraham.
the land promise becomes an important focus of the covenant, it is significant
that it is originally set apart from God’s initial promises to Abraham. The idea of land is introduced in 12:1, but
the concept of land as “gift” is introduced upon Abraham’s obedience
and apart from the promise (see Gen 12:7).
The additional promise “and all peoples on earth will be
blessed through you,” contrary to the translation in the New
International Version, wherein the verb
is taken as a passive, is better translated as “find for themselves a
blessing” (Dumbrell 1984, 70-1).[vii] This line of the covenant delineates the
universal scope of God’s redemptive and restorative program for the world.
Genesis 15:1-6 after having successfully overcome another threat to his
occupation of the land, Abraham’s doubt, in light of the absence of any
offspring, is assuaged by divine assurance that a son will come from
Abraham. Again the innumerability of
Abraham’s seed is confirmed, this time being compared to the stars of heaven. This seed of Abraham, shares a corporate solidarity
as indicated by the use of ‘seed’ in
the singular. As we will see, this
corporate solidarity raises the question of whether faith or ethnicity provides
this solidarity among the seed of Abraham.
In 15:7 Yahweh’s unsolicited affirmation concerning His promise of the land provokes from Abraham a question desiring assurance in 15:8: “O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
response to Abraham’s need of assurance, in 15:9-21 Yahweh elevates the promise
of land for Abraham and his seed to the status of covenant.
Yahweh engages in a ceremony that confirms the inviolability of His covenant
with Abraham and his seed. In obedience to God Abraham gathers, divides, and
arranges selected animals on the ground.
In the darkness of the evening, Yahweh, in a visible manifestation of
Himself, passes alone through the midst of the divided animals, thereby taking
upon Himself an oath of self-malediction (Robertson 1982, 130).
significance of this ceremony lies in God’s asseveration, wherein He solemnly
swears death upon Himself should He fail to fulfill His promise to Abraham
(Robertson 1980, 130-1).
oath-taking on God’s part confirms the land promise of the Abrahamic covenant
as unilateral, unconditional, and inviolable.
It emphasizes the importance of the gift of land in the redemptive and
restorative purpose that God is fulfilling through the Abrahamic covenant.
covenant text in Genesis 17 reaffirms the promise\covenant adding the rite of
circumcision as the external evidence of the parents’ acceptance of the
covenant and their desire for the continuity of the covenant through their
seed. Though Yahweh had affirmed in
reference to the land in chapter 15 His commitment to keep the promise, Genesis
17 makes it clear that receiving the benefit of His commitment is not without
obligation on those who participate.
covenant itself in this chapter is now described in terms of a gracious gift in
17:2. Verses 4 and 5 contain an additional covenant arrangement that Abraham
will be the father of nations. This is ultimately fulfilled in and through the
Church (Matt 28:19; Rom 4:16-17; Rom 15:8-16). Also there is included an
additional note in 17:7 that a relationship between Yahweh and Abraham’s seed
results from the establishing of this covenant.
This promise extends to the true seed of Abraham, i.e. to Isaac, not
Ishmael (Gen 17:15-22) and to Jacob, not Esau (Gen 27:27-9; 28:10-15). The gift
of land is also reaffirmed in 17:8,
then set forth as the outward sign of the covenant relationship that exists between Yahweh and Abraham
and his seed in verse 10: This rite
was open also to Gentiles, the significance of which
is brought out by O. Palmer Robertson:
This absolute openness to the incorporation of Gentiles into the community of Israel has far-reaching significance affecting the interpretation of massive portions of the Old and New Testaments. Many traditions of interpretation build on an implicit assumption that God has a distinctive purpose for the racial descendants of Abraham that sets them apart from Gentiles who respond in faith and obedience to God’s program of redemption. This entire hermeneutical structure begins to totter when it is realized that `Israel’ could include non-Abrahamic Gentiles just as well as ethnically related Jews (Robertson 1980, 154).
maintained outward circumcision, they often lacked circumcision of the heart
which is the true mark of the seed of Abraham (Rom 2:28-29).
covenant text is Genesis 22 which records the willingness of Abraham to
sacrifice his seed, Isaac, in obedience to the command of Yahweh. Upon this forceful demonstration of Abraham’s
loyalty to Yahweh, the promise\covenant is now bound with an oath in 22:16, “I
swear by myself….”
promise\covenant, employing cohortatives of resolve, reaffirms personal
blessing to Abraham, the innumerability of Abraham’s seed, an additional motif
of victory over enemies, and blessing to the nations through Abraham’s seed.
The numerous seed and the victory over enemies are administrations of “to
bless.” Once again ‘bless’ signifies “to confer abundant and
effective life upon something … someone” (Oswalt 1980, 132).
granting of this oath-bound promise\covenant is connected to Abraham’s
obedience. It is worth noticing that in the Abraham narratives (12-22), both
the issues of Abraham’s obedience and the blessing to the nations form an
inclusio for the cycle.[viii] If any conditionality is involved, as some
have suggested, it is removed on the ground of Abraham’s obedience.
both Isaac and Jacob had the covenant reiterated to them. Throughout the Pentateuch are found frequent
restatements and allusions to the promise\covenant.[ix] Having looked exegetically at the primary covenant texts, we will now proceed
to highlight their significant elements from a New Testament vantage point.
The Significant Elements of the Abrahamic Covenant
recognizes three basic elements in the promise: posterity, divine-human
relationship, and land (Clines 1982, 31).
Similarly, VanGemeren identifies four areas of the promise: a seed, a
land, blessing to the patriarchs, and blessing to the nations (VanGemeren 1988,
104). VanGemeren’s categories of blessing to the patriarchs and to the nations
correspond to Clines’ division of “divine-human relationship.”
This author has chosen to follow Clines’
three-fold breakdown as a concise encapsulation of the major elements of the
Abrahamic covenant and has chosen to deftly exegete those elements as found in
Genesis 12:1-3,7; 13:14-17; 15; 17:1-22; 22:15-18.
Promise of Posterity
Abrahamic covenant often speaks of “seed.” The Hebrew word for ‘seed’ and the related
Greek word for ‘seed’ present a complex concept in identifying the recipients
of the Abrahamic promise.
“Seed” is used at times to include the physical descendants of
Abraham, those who share the faith of Abraham, whether physical seed or not,
and in Galatians 3:16, Paul argues forcefully that ‘seed’ in the singular finds
its ultimate reference to Christ as “the” offspring of Abraham.
variegated usage produces perplexity in understanding “who are the
recipients of the Abrahamic covenant?”
of the solution to this complexity is to understand that ‘seed’ is used to
describe both a singular entity as well as a collective. The promise was given to Abraham and to his
seed (Genesis 12:1-3,7; 15; 17:1-22; 22:15-18), i.e. both to Isaac (27:27-29)
and to Jacob (28:10-15). Both Isaac and
Jacob stood representatively in the Messianic office, an office fulfilled in
Jesus Christ. McComiskey notes:
“The collective function of zera allows the writer to refer to the group or to a representative individual of
the group” (McComiskey 1985, 20).
The focus is not on the physically related ‘seed’, for those who are not
physically related can participate in the covenant (Gen 17:9-14). The collective singular disallows any notion
of “seeds,” physical and spiritual.
There is but one seed.
New Testament clarifies that Jesus Christ is the ideal representative seed,
while those in Christ comprise the collective seed, i.e. the community of faith
(Gal 3:16,29). Isaac and Jacob cannot
ultimately fulfill the promise. Only
Jesus Christ can bless the earth in a final sense. The collective seed has no identity apart
from their relationship to the ideal representative, Jesus Christ.
dual concept of “individual representative” and “corporate
community of faith” is essential to understanding ‘seed’. It appears that later in the progress of
revelation the Davidiccovenant
expands on the royal status of the representative individual who guarantees the
covenant and the New covenant expands on the spiritual nature of the corporate
community of faith who participate in that covenant.
indicated earlier, another step in resolving the complexity of ‘seed’ is to
understand that ‘seed’ does not equate to ‘physical descendants.’ Though Ishmael was a descendant of Abraham,
he was not the seed of Abraham to whom the promise was guaranteed. Likewise, Esau was a descendant of Isaac, yet
was not in the line of promise. Also,
there were many who were physically seed of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob,
yet who stood outside the covenant (Rom 2:28-29).
not all of the physical seed of Abraham inherit the promise. Only those physical descendants bound in a
unique “covenant” relationship or those non-physical seed who by
faith enter that covenant of Abraham inherit the promise.
unique relationship that establishes someone, as the true seed of Abraham, is
one built on a faith participation in a divinely initiated covenant.[x] O. Palmer Robertson recognizes covenant
as the bond that determines relations between God and his people:
By creation God bound himself to man
in covenantal relationship. After man’s fall into sin, the God of all creation
graciously bound himself to man again by committing himself to redeem a people
to himself from lost humanity. From
creation to consummation the covenantal bond has determined the relation of God
to his people (Robertson 1980, 25).
P. Fuller in his discussion of the seed of Abraham concludes that since faith
is the prerequisite for participation in the Abrahamic covenant by both Jew and
Gentile, then ” … faith which produces obedience, rather than physical
descent, is the primary aspect of the seed of Abraham” (Fuller 1957, 234).
holds true then that physically related seed are not guaranteed participation
in the Abrahamic promise, but the promise is insured ” … to all the
people of faith throughout all ages” (McComiskey 1985, 17). Once again, the New Testament affirms that
not all Israelites were inheritors of the promise (Romans 2:28-29) and that
some of those outside Abraham’s physical seed do inherit the promise (Galatians
The “seed” of Abraham are
those who by faith engage The Seed, whether physically related or not. It remains for the New Testament to clarify
the notion more specifically. In any
case, there is no basis for a distinction between physical seed and spiritual
seed in these accounts in Genesis.
Promise of Divine\human Relationship
The promise of divine\human
relationship is bound in the terms of blessing and cursing. Divine blessing extended from Abraham to
Isaac to Jacob and to their seed. The
presence of blessing depicted the liveliness of the relationship between God
and His people. McComiskey comments
The blessing of the Abrahamic promise then connotes every aspect of God’s favor, both temporal and spiritual, bestowed on the patriarchs. The emphasis seems to be primarily on the spiritual blessing of the promise. This secured a bright future for the progeny of the patriarchs in a land in which they could grow to become a great nation and affirmed that, in some yet unforeseen way, the offspring would become a blessing to Gentiles (McComiskey 1985, 40).
promise of personal blessing was reaffirmed to both Isaac (Gen.26:3) and Jacob
(Gen. 35:9-12). That relationship was
dominant as the essence of this blessing is clarified in Genesis 17:1-8 where
… the concept of divine-human relationship inherent in the words `to be your God and the God of your descendants after you’ (v.7)” (McComiskey 1985, 17).
included in this divine\human relationship is the promise that Abraham’s name
would be great. McComiskey explains:
It is the promise of an enhanced reputation…. Because of Abraham’s faithfulness his name still lives today. His example of faith and his role as mediator of the promise permeate the teaching of both testaments…. If it were not for his obedience to God, his name probably would have been lost (McComiskey 1985, 40).
this divine\human relationship includes the promise of blessing for those who
favor Abraham and cursing for those who disfavor him. Cursing is the experience of one who curses
Abraham. Again, McComiskey offers
helpful insight into ‘cursing’:
The word curse in the statement of the promise clearly denotes the expression of an unfavorable attitude toward Abraham. Its emphasis on treating contemptuously or regarding as unimportant defines an attitude. It is an attitude toward Abraham that deems him unworthy of attention. It regards his example of faith as not important enough to emulate. One who disregards the fact that through Abraham God is urging everyone to faith in the promise is treating Abraham contemptuously, and may expect that God will treat him or her the same way (McComiskey 1985, 41).
the promise of divine\human relationship includes, as a result, the extension
of blessing to the nations of the world.
This guarantees that Abraham’s seed will be the mediator of blessing to
the nations. By invoking in faith the
name of Abraham’s God, the nations of the world share in the covenant to
Abraham.[xi] Through the Abrahamic covenant “this
rectification of curse is worldwide in scope…. `All the families of the
earth’ may turn from the history of curse and enter that of blessing by their
own historical involvement with Abram and his descendants, the blessed of
Yahweh” (Yarchin 1980, 172).
relationship entails responsibility for those in the covenant. Genesis 12:2b commands Abraham to be a
blessing.[xii] His living within covenant obligations is part
of the link of bringing blessing to the nations of the world.
Promise of Land
The land is promised to Abraham in Gen
12:5-7 and 13:13-17, covenanted in Gen 15:7-18, and explicated in verses 19-21.
This promise of land is repeated to Isaac (Gen 26:3-4) and to Jacob (Gen 28:3,
13-15; 35:9-12). Deuteronomy 12:8-32
describes the land as “… a ‘resting place’ (menuha) and an
‘inheritance’ (nahala). It is the
place where God will choose a site as a ‘dwelling for his Name’ (v.11)”
(McComiskey 1985, 43).
in the Old Testament is both a physical reality as well as a theological
symbol. The 2,504 uses of
“land” in the Old Testament speak of its importance to theology
(Martens 1981, 97). Though God promised
to Abraham a specific piece of geography, Abraham apparently understood it as
more than geography (Heb 11:16, 39-40).
land is the gift of God. Land is the
place of blessing. Land is the fulfillment of promise. Land is that sphere of life where one lives
out his allegiance to Yahweh. Land is that place where Yahweh uniquely chooses
to dwell and to reveal Himself (Martens 1981, 242-7). Land is the sphere of God’s kingdom activity.
This land promise retains a fulfilled,
yet not consummated aspect. There are
indications within Scripture that the land promise is fulfilled (Josh 1:13;
11:23; 21:43-45), not yet consummated (Josh 13:1-7; Ps 95; Heb 4:6-11), and yet
to be consummated in a new cosmos (Heb 11:39-40).
conquest under Joshua was more that just a military invasion, it was a
theological event wherein the pious in Israel had their faith confirmed in
God’s promise to Abraham. Joshua
21:44-45 indicates that to a measure the promise was fulfilled in Joshua’s day,
in Solomon’s day (I Kings 8:56) and in Nehemiah’s day (Nehemiah 9:7-8). However, since the land promise is eternally
operative, each and every successive generation looks for the promise of rest
the land promise, some of the poetic material (ca. Pro 2:21) “…
demonstrates the vital principle that although the promise is irrevocable in
nature, its benefits are only enjoyed by those who maintain a proper
relationship to God through the obedience of faith” (McComiskey 1985,
48). Ultimately the realization of the land promise awaits the time of
the resurrection, the removal of the curse, and the restoration of all things
(Rev 21-22) under the rule of Christ.
The prophets (cp. Zech 14:1-11)
maintain an expectation that there will be, not simply a return to the land of Palestine by the seed of Abraham, but an
expansion of the territorial borders of the promised land to include the world.
was always important to the original purpose of God for man. At creation this land included the entire
earth and all its resources. Man was
given dominion over this land (Gen 1:26-28).
In the fall man lost this dominion.
an act of redemptive grace, God granted to the seed of Abraham the land, then
defined more narrowly (Gen 15:18-21), as the nation of Israel was to enjoy in a
microcosmic way what God intended originally and now eschatologically for the
people of God (Rev 21-22). As old Israel found rest in the land of Palestine,
so the Church experiences a spiritual deliverance out of the bondage of Satan’s
world of sin and death to inherit rest in Christ (Heb 3-4) and ultimately
expects a restored cosmos.
New Testament believers, this “landedness” presently finds expression
in their current experience with Jesus Christ (Col 1:13) as the fulfillment of
the theological symbol, accompanied by an expectation, as seen in the
eschatology of the Old Testament prophets and of the New Testament, that the
physical reality involves an expansion of the territorial borders to include
the entire earth and ultimately the New Creation, as originally intended in
Genesis 1 and 2.[xiii]
ethnic Israel occupies the land of Palestine in a millennial kingdom or the
New Creation as fulfillment of the promise to the seed of Abraham is a question
built on a constricted understanding of the terms “land” and
“seed.” Limiting the seed of
Abraham to ethnic Israel
confines the land promise to Palestine. Allowing for the inclusion of all believers
in the seed of Abraham coincides with the expansion of the land promise to
include the whole earth and ultimately the new cosmos.
noted earlier, McComiskey pointed out that covenant theology does not demand an
abrogation of the promise of land. To
him the New Testament expands the promise of land to include the whole redeemed
world under the kingship of Jesus Christ (McComiskey 1985, 199-209). He concludes his discussion saying:
The land will belong to the people of God because it is part of the larger triumph of Christ. Perhaps the definable borders of Canaan will no longer be important under the rule of David’s son, but the promise of the land as a territorial heritage need not be considered as abrogated if one approaches the promises through covenant (McComiskey 1985, 208).
Abrahamic covenant is God’s answer to the failures of Genesis 1-11. In those chapters the “seed” of
mankind became corrupted through the fall, the “land” was cursed with
a consequent loss of man’s dominion over it, and the “divine-human
relationship” was ruptured. The
Abrahamic covenant restores to believing mankind the promise of seed, land, and
words of Dumbrell capture the significance of that covenant:
The covenant with Abraham is a response to the situation created by the fall, remotely, and immediately to the circumstance arising from the humanistic attempt by man to find the center of his world in himself. The aim of the Abrahamic covenant is to redress all the aberrations of Gen. 3-11. Striking as it does a note of ‘land’ and ‘people’ as concepts with which the blessings of this covenant will be bound up, it points initially to Israel’s history about to unfold. Finally, however, it directs us to the political unity sought by men in Gen. 11:1-9. These will come to the ‘great nation’, the company of the redeemed, which will rise by commitment to the God of Abraham. The call of that patriarch began a programme of redemption, which aimed at full and final restoration of man and his world. It will end with a series of relationships established by which the new creation will be brought into being (Dumbrell 1982, 50).
have looked at the significant elements of the Old Testament texts on the
Abrahamic Covenant from a New Testament perspective. We will now listen to key
New Testament texts as they affirm the church as the legitimate heir of the
Abrahamic Covenant. The New Testament unequivocally affirms that the promises
of this Covenant belong to all those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Look at
some selected New Testament Texts relating to the Abrahamic Covenant.
In Romans 4 the apostle continues
his argument from chapter 3 that justification is by faith alone. It is faith, not rite or law that establishes
man in relationship to God. He
illustrates from the experience of Abraham to whom justification was granted
prior to the requirement of the rite of circumcision. The apostle contends that circumcision was
not the link between Abraham and those who participated in the covenant with him,
but rather “faith” was that link (Rom 4:9-12). Circumcision merely portrayed that faith.
further asserts that Abraham received the promise by faith prior to the giving
of the law (Rom 4:13-15). Paul here
understands the Abrahamic promise as primarily having redemptive significance.
conclusion is that the promise comes by faith and that those who share
Abraham’s faith are related to the promise.
“He is the father of us all” and the promise is
“guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring” (Rom 4:16).
quoting Genesis 17:3 Paul equates the Gentile believers of Rome with the “many nations” of the
Abrahamic covenant. Both Genesis 17 and
Romans 4 make no distinction between the “many nations” and the
“seed of Abraham.” Abraham is
the father of both. Romans 4 shows that
Genesis 17 anticipated that “seed of Abraham” and “many
nations” involved, not physical descendence, but a relationship of faith.
9-11 is critical to any interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant because it concerns
the apparent failure of the covenant promises to the nation of Israel. The apostle’s explanation of God’s past,
present, and future relation to Israel
sheds light on the intent and scope of the Abrahamic covenant.
brief, Romans 9 dispels the notion that physical lineage constitutes Israel as the
people of God and clarifies the true nature of that people. Using both the choice of Isaac over Ishmael
in 9:6-9 and the choice of Jacob over Esau in 9:10-13, Paul argues that
Abraham’s true offspring are the those who inherit the promise (v.8) and that
those inheritors of the promise become such through their faith participation
(9:30-10:21) in the sovereign plan of God (9:1-21).
plan to gather a people for Himself also includes those Gentiles who share that
faith response (9:22-26; 10:12-13). This
inclusion of Gentiles is not to be perceived as a rejection of ethnic Israel. Though ethnicity in itself does not guarantee
participation in the purposes of God, God’s present extension of His grace to
the nations does not exclude the availability of His grace to ethnic Israelites
salvation of any Israelite, such as Paul (11:1-2), Elijah (11:2-6), or Jews
today, demonstrates God’s faithfulness to His promises to ethnic Israel. God’s present abrogation of Israel’s
favored nation status and His glorious work among the nations, serve the dual
purpose of saving Gentiles and arousing envy in Israelites.
the present extension of God’s mercy to the Gentiles should not be construed as
a negation of His promises for Israelites.[xiv] The partial hardening of Jews and the
fullness of the Gentiles is the manner[xv] in which God is accomplishing the saving of Israel. This is consistent with the Scripture that
anticipated the coming of the Deliverer to Zion to take away sins. The Deliverer has come and is now gathering
both Jew and Gentile unto Himself (11:25-27).
Martin Wouldstra argues that the “saving of all Israel” in
Romans 9 is presently being accomplished through the formation into one body of
both Jew and Gentile and that Israel “… will not form a separate program
or a separate entity next to the church” (Woudstra 1988, 236-7).
olive tree illustration sets forth the unity and continuity of the people of
God. As the ingrafting of Gentiles does
not replace the original branches, so the ingrafting of Israelites will not
supplant the position of Gentiles.
apostles understanding of God’s past, present, and future work among the
nations and Israel coincides with the understanding that “the undeniable
center of Old Testament religion lies in the believer’s response to the words
of the covenant God that He would be Abraham’s God and the God of his
descendants” (Woudstra 1988, 227).
Included in those descendants are all those who have faith in Abraham’s
Galatians 3, as the apostle Paul discusses of the relationship of the law to
saving faith, he introduces Abraham as a paradigm of saving faith and inclusion
in the promises of God. In the course of
his discussion the apostle makes some interpretive statements, based on his
understanding of the Genesis passages. These reflect on the Abrahamic
covenant. These statements are: (1)
“those who believe are children of Abraham” (v.7); (2) “The Scripture
foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel
in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you”
(v.8); (3) “those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham”
(v.9); (4) “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham
might come to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ” (v.14); (5) “The
promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say `and to seeds,’
meaning many people, but `and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is
Christ” (v.16); (6) “But the Scripture declares that the whole world
is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in
Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe (v.22).”
Paramount in these verses
is the redemptive significance of the Abrahamic covenant as it finds its
consummation in the person of Jesus Christ.
Christ as the quintessential seed of Abraham is both the guarantor and
inheritor of the promises of the covenant.
with Christ, established by emulating the faith of Abraham, guarantees one’s
participation in the promises of the covenant.
It is neither the keeping of the law nor physical descendence from
Abraham that constitutes one as a child of Abraham, but rather faith in Jesus
verses sanction the redemptive nature of the Abrahamic covenant. They confirm
that covenant as the unifying factor between Jews and Gentiles and they
substantiate the view that there is one people of God of all ages that share
the covenants of Scripture which find their consummation in Christ.
Paul perceives redemption in Christ to be the dominant, though probably not
exclusive, feature of the Abrahamic covenant.
He finds the consummation of the covenant in Christ and participation in
the covenant to be predicated on relationship to Christ. Though admittedly an argument from silence,
the “earthly” nature of the promises to Abraham appear to be somewhat
idealized in Christ. Though not
necessarily eviscerating those “earthly” elements of the Abrahamic
covenant, it certainly places them in a new light.
In the pericope of Ephesians 2:11-22
Paul offers a contrast between Gentiles apart from Christ (2:12) and Gentiles
in Christ (2:13). In delineating that
contrast, Paul asserts the unity and continuity of the people of God.
In the past Gentiles were able to
participate in the covenants of God only through their identification with the
God of Israel and their becoming proselytes of the religion of Israel. The advent of Christ ushered in a marked
change in the focus of redemption.
longer does common participation in the religion of Israel
guarantee one’s participation in the covenants, but rather common participation
in the Lord Jesus Christ (the true Israel?) binds one to the covenants
Gentiles apart from Christ were “excluded from citizenship in Israel and
foreigners to the covenants of the promise” (2:12); whereas now, Gentiles
in Christ “are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with
God’s people and members of God’s household” (2:19).
dividing wall (2:14) between Jew and Gentile is destroyed through the person
and work of Jesus Christ. A new order
has been established, replacing the old and forbidding its reconstruction.
temple of Judaism is now replaced with a temple
composed of Jew and Gentile sharing alike the life of the Spirit (2:21-2). Paul interprets the present experience of
believing Jews and Gentiles in Christ as that which was anticipated by the
1 Peter 2:9-10 Peter assigns the elevated status granted to Israel in
Exodus 19:5-6 to New Testament believers.
In unmistakable language–“a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a
holy nation, a people belonging to God” (2:9)–Peter removes any thought
of a continuing distinction between Jew and Gentile, formerly marked by
supremacy of the nation of Israel.
cogently discusses the significance of these concepts in their Old Testament
context. The Hebrew word for ‘possession’ derives from an Akkadian term which
refers “to what is owned personally or what has carefully been put aside
for personal use” (Dumbrell 1984, 85). It is a term that is nuanced by its
use in suzerain\vassal relationships.
Hebrew words ‘kingdom’ and ‘priests’ and the corresponding Greek words describe
the mediatorial function of the nation. In an ancient society the priest was
separated from the people in order to serve them. The separation of the people was a
demonstration of their allegiance to the covenant. Israel was to serve the world by
being distinct from it.
this new relationship, as disclosed in these terms, Israel is “withdrawn from the
sphere of common international contact and finds her point of contact as a
nation in her relationship to Yahweh’ (Dumbrell 1985, 87). Under this new constitution she becomes
“a societary model for the world.
She will provide, under the direct rule which the covenant contemplates,
the paradigm of the theocratic rule which is to be the biblical aim of the
whole world” (Dumbrell, 87).
“now, the people of God” (2:10) becomes the designation that Peter
grants to New Testament believers, echoing the words of Hosea the prophet (Hos
preceding passages share a common perspective of the Abrahamic covenant and of
the people of God. In these
representative New Testament texts the covenant is largely viewed in light of
its redemptive significance. Apart from
Romans 11:25-27 a future restoration of the nation of national Israel is not
even hinted at. Of the seventy-four
references to Abraham in the New Testament, not one clearly focuses on the
“earthly” elements of the covenant.
Even the acceptance of a mass conversion of Israelites at some future
time does not demand a return to a former order of things.
to the advent of Christ, as the seed of Abraham, the New Testament text sees a
semi-realized fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in New Testament believers
and an ultimate fulfillment for all those who are “seed” of Abraham by faith.
texts that consider the question of “who are the legitimate heirs of the
Abrahamic Covenant?” unequivocally answer “all of those who are in Christ
Jesus.” In reference to the unity
of believing Jews and Gentiles George N. H. Peters cogently concludes:
Both elect are the seed, the children of Abraham; both sets of branches are on the same stock, on the same root, on the same olive tree; both constitute the same Israel of God, the members of the same body, fellow-citizens of the same commonwealth; both are Jews `inwardly’ (Romans 2:29), and of the true `circumcision’ (Phil. 3:3), forming the same `peculiar people,’ `holy nation,’ and `royal priesthood’; both are interested in the same promises, covenants, and kingdom; both inherit and realize the same blessings at the same time (Peters 1952, Vol. 1, 404).
Who are the legitimate heirs of the
Abrahamic covenant? The legitimate heir
is Jesus Christ, the quintessential seed of Abraham. Israelite believers,
Palestinian believers, and all other Gentile believers share in that
inheritance through faith in Jesus Christ.
[i] 1) Does the church replace Israel? 2) What is
the future of ethnic Israel?
[ii] See Bateman, Herman W. ed. Three Central
Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Kregel
[iii] In Brower, Kent E. and Elliot Mark W. Eschatology in Bible & Theology.
(Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997): 11-52.
[iv] Dumbrell, W. J. Covenant and Creation. (Nashville:
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984):11-43.
[v] P. D. Miller’s syntactic study of this passage
is helpful (Miller 1984, 472-76).
adequately defends the command\promise structure of Genesis 12:1-3 (Yarchin
[vii] It should be noted that barak is used in the Niphal
in Gen. 12:3 and in the Hithpael in Gen. 22:18. Though the causative-reflexive
sense is usually reserved for the Hithpael, it is also a legitimate scheme in
the Niphal. In both texts it is best to understand barak as “get to
themselves blessing” (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, 390-1). Dumbrell translates the phrases as “`win
for themselves a blessing'” or “`find for themselves a
blessing'” (Dumbrell 1984, 70-1). This
is contrary to Gerhard Wehmeier’s conclusion that the Niphal and Hithpael are
distinct in meaning (Wehmeier 1974, 1-13).
[viii] See Yarchin’s discussion of these narratives wherein he
sees imperative\promise “gauged toward the formation of a sort of framing
of the whole Abraham cycle….” (Yarchin 1980, 174).
[ix]See Clines 1982, 31-43.
[x]See O. Palmer Robertson, “Genesis 15:6; New Covenant
Expositions of an Old Covenant Text,” WTJ 42 (1980b): 259-289.
[xi]See endnote number 15.
[xii]Yarchin forcibly defends the command\promise structure of
Genesis 12:1-3 (Yarchin 1980, 164-178).
See Beale’s discussion of “Eschatological Conception” in Brower and Elliot,
[xiv]See the discussion of Rom 11:11-32 defending a future for
Israel (Andrews 1982).
[xv] houtos is here used with the sense of “in this way”
(Arndt and Gingrich 1957, 602). As in
its two other occurrences in this chapter (vv.5, 31), it describes the manner
in which something takes place.
G. 1982. “Romans 11:11-32: The Future of Israel.” Th.M. Thesis, Westminster Theological
Arndt, W. F. and
Gingrich, F. W. 1957. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other
Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
W. ed. 1999. Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism. Grand Rapids: Kregel
Brower, Kent E. and Elliot Mark W. eds. 1997. Eschatology
in Bible & Theology.
Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press,
Clines, David J.
A. 1978. The Theme of the Pentateuch. Sheffield:
Journal for the Study of the Old Testament.
Dumbrell, W. J. 1984. Covenant
and Creation. Nashville:
Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Fuller, Daniel P. 1957. “The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism.
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Martens, Elmer. 1981. God’s Design: A Focus on Old
Testament Theology. Grand Rapids:
Baker Book House.
McComiskey, Thomas Edward. 1985. The Covenants of
Promise. Grand Rapids:
Baker Book House.
Miller, Patrick D. 1984. “Syntax and Theology in Genesis
XII, 3a.” Vetus Testamentum 34, 472-76.
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Robertson, O. Palmer. 1980. The Christ of the
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Vangmeren, Willem. 1988. The Progress of Redemption:
The Story of Salvation from Creation to the New Jerusalem. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company.
Waltke, Bruce K. and M. O’Connor. 1990. An
Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake,
Wehmeier, Gerhard. 1974. “The Theme ‘Blessing for the
Nations’ in the Promises to the Patriarchs and in the Prophetical Literature.” Bangalore Theological
Forum. 6 (July-December): 1-13.
Woudstra, Martin. 1988. “Israel and the Church: a Case for
Continuity.” In Continuity and Discontinuity. pp. 221-238. Edited by
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