This is the third in a series of posts entitled, The Story of Scripture: A Basic Overview of the Bible. My purpose in this series is to help us get a richer understanding of the overarching story line of the Bible. I am convinced, after many years of biblical study, that the Bible is structured around the covenants God made with his people. To understand God and his plan in an in-depth way, it is necessary to understand the covenants. In the previous post we talked about the Adamic Covenants (Edenic, Redemptive, and Noahic). In this post we look at the Abrahamic Covenant.
Epic? Epochal? Or Both?
It sometimes occurs in the course of human events that something so surprising and radical happens, that it forever changes the world. You can’t go back to the way things were before. This is what happened around 1540 with the invention of the printing press. It profoundly changed the world. The world was and is a different place because this happened. Something similar took place with the advent of the personal computer in the second half of the twentieth century. This does not only happen with technology, but also with ideas and events. The flow of life in the world experiences a turning point, a bridge crossed that is burned behind us.
Twenty centuries before Jesus something like this, but more so, happened in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia. An ordinary man was visited by God. It may not sound like much, but In those days it was very much out of the ordinary. The condition of life in the world at that time had deteriorated to a crisis level. The knowledge and worship of the one true God had all but ceased to exist. His ways were largely unknown. Then, God stepped into the course of history. He appeared to a man named Abram (later changed to Abraham). Apparently, Abram did not seek this encounter. God just showed up in his life with some directions.
This is the biblical story of the Abrahamic Covenant. You will recall from the previous post that God had created the world good, but humanity had rebelled against God and plunged the world into the darkness of sin and death. The world was under the Lord’s righteous judgment. Though the Lord offered people his grace, they turned from him in self-centered autonomy. But God’s plan was in no way shaken by the rebellion of his creatures. It was time for the Lord’s plan of redemption to shift into high gear.
We find the story of the Abraham, and the covenant God made with him, in the second section in the biblical book of Genesis, chapters 12-50 (see the previous post for a more detailed understanding of Genesis). These chapters tell the story of the Lord appearing to Abraham to enter a covenant relationship with him. The focus of the rest of the Bible will be in this trajectory. The covenant of the Lord with Abraham shapes the story for the rest of the story. In the covenant with Abraham we have the beginnings of how God will redeem humanity. The Abrahamic Covenant reveals the shape of God’s plan of salvation.
The Lord appeared to Abraham three times with regard to the covenant. He appeared to Abraham at other times concerning the covenant, but these three directly give the content and the contours of the covenant. God first appeared to Abraham in Ur of the Caldeans with the call to leave his land and his kin, and go to the place the Lord would show him. This initial encounter is related in Genesis 12:1-3. Here the Lord promised to make Abraham a great nation and bless him. But the Lord added that all the families of the earth shall be blessed through him. The stunning nature of this promise takes one’s breath away. One ordinary person becomes the point of focus for God’s cosmic plan of redemption.
The Lord again appears to Abraham in Genesis 15. In this pivotal chapter God confirms the covenant with Abraham. He had promised Abraham that his descendants would be a great nation. But as yet, Abraham had no children, no heir. The main struggle for Abraham in his faith concerning the promises of the covenant is this struggle for an heir. How can your descendants be a great nation if you do not have any children? Here in chapter 15 God confirms his covenant with Abraham. The Lord makes serious promises through a solemn covenant ceremony. This ritual may seem weird to readers today, but it was common in that day. Covenants were ratified with animal sacrifices and blood. The Lord is saying to Abraham, “You can trust me, I will do this.” It is here in chapter 15 that we find one of the most significant verses in the Abraham story that resonates with the central New Testament teaching of Justifacation by Faith, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3,20-25; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23).
The third and final appearance of the Lord to Abraham regarding the covenant is found in Genesis 17. Here the covenant is renewed with the sign of the covenant being circumcision. The Lord again appears to Abraham in chapter 18 to announce that Sarah, Abraham’s wife who was barren and past child-bearing age, would have a son in a year’s time. Thus, the Lord began to fulfill his promise to Abraham. The Lord makes promises and the Lord keeps his promises. Faith is the path to realizing the promises of God.
Isaac, the Child of Promise
Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. The Lord had kept his promise concerning an heir. But later when the boy was some older the Lord tested Abraham by instructing him to take his son Isaac to a certain place and there sacrifice him as a burnt offering. This was a detestable practice of the pagans, but Abraham trusted the Lord and went to the place and was about to offer Issac when the Angel of the Lord stopped him. Abraham passed the test. Later, after the death of Abraham, the Lord established the covenant with Issac. The Abrahamic Covenant is an everlasting covenant.
Isaac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. As he usually does, the Lord did the unexpected thing. He chose Jacob, the younger son, to inherit the covenant. Even though Jacob acquired it by deceit, it was the Lord’s will to pass the covenant on through Jacob. Jacob has twelve sons that formed the twelve tribes of Israel (the Lord changed Jacob’s name to Israel). God’s plan of salvation moves forward. Each generation has a part to play.
The Promises of the Covenant
The promises God made to Abraham in the covenant are basically three: Land, Seed and Blessing. The land is the Promised Land, the land of Palestine. The Lord gave the land to Abraham and his descendants forever. The land is the environment for blessing and for the experience of the presence of the Lord. Here the Lord will establish his presence in the Tabernacle and the Temple to demonstrate how a holy God can live with an unholy people (the subject of the next post).
The seed promise to Abraham is that he would have a vast number of descendants of many nations and kings. The fulfillment of this promise comes over time. It comes first with Abraham’s son Issac, then his grandson Jacob, and with Jacob’s twelve sons who become the twelve tribes. Out of Egyptian slavery they take the land under Moses and Joshua. This promise of the seed will have its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the Church.
The final promise to Abraham is the promise of Blessing. In a very real sense, all the promises are blessings, but this promise has a specific focus. The focus of the Blessing promise is threefold. First, the Lord promised to bless Abraham and be with him. This is a unique blessing that unfolds in the other parts of the promise.
Secondly, the Lord promises to bless those who bless Abraham, and curse all those who curse him. One’s treatment of Abraham and his descendants have consequences. This promise can be traced through out the Bible with amazing insights. Even when the Lord used other nations and people to bring judgment on his people Israel, there were grave consequences.
Finally, the promise to Abraham of blessing is that he would be a blessing to all the people of the earth. This blessing to all comes through his seed. The people of Israel somehow bring blessing to all the world. This happens through Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.
Christ, the Promised Blessing
In the New Testamant (Galatians 3:16) we understand how Abraham can be a blessing to the world. The seed of Abraham is Jesus Christ. The New Testament begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. In him we discover and experience true blessing. It is in Jesus that all believers are Abraham’s seed and receive Abraham’s blessing (Galatians 3:6-9,29).
The Abrahamic Covenant is your covenant. It comes to full fruition in the New Covenant. Read it. Learn about it. Live in its full and future blessings. God did all this for his glory and our good. This is indeed good news!