Redemptive-Historical Survey: 4 | Abrahamic Covenant & the Patriarchs (LDBC Recap 3/6/16 Pt. 1)

Explanation

logo-lake-drive-baptist-churchOn Sunday, January 24th, 2016, I began a Core Seminar on Redemptive History & Biblical Theology at my church, Lake Drive Baptist Church. During the course of this series I’ll be sending out emails recapping lessons and directing recipients to resources for further study.

Rather than just share these recaps with my church family, I’ve decided to share them here on the blog for anyone else who might be interested. I will be posting them occasionally over the next couple of months on a weekly basis or so.

See previous posts:

Recap/review

This week we finished up our discussion on the Abrahamic Covenant and moved through the role of the Exodus in redemptive history. Since we completed coverage of two stages in redemptive history this week, we’ll have two parts to our recap. In this post (part one) we’ll review the Abrahamic Covenant.

Overview of Biblical material

Genesis 11:27-50:26

  • God calls out a man named Abram (eventually renamed Abraham) and makes a covenant[1]  with him and his descendants.[2] God is with Abraham and blesses him throughout his life.
  • Abraham and his wife Sarah miraculous have a child, Isaac, according to God’s specific covenant promise of numerous descendants.
  • As promised (Gen 17:7, 19, 21), God’s promise to Abraham is passed to his son Isaac (Gen 17:21; 26:1-6, 19-26) and then Isaac’s son Jacob (eventually renamed “Israel”—father of the nation of Israel [Gen 27:18-29; 28:10-16; 35:6-15]). God is with Isaac and Jacob and blesses them throughout their lives.
  • Through a great series of events, involving the selling of Jacob’s son, Joseph, into slavery and a great famine, Jacob (Israel) finds himself and his family in the land of Egypt. Again, God is with them and blesses them.

Role within redemptive history

We summarized the role of the Abrahamic Covenant (and, by extension, God’s dealing with select descendants of Abraham–the patriarchs–on account of this covenant being passed down to them) the following way: God initiates his new-creational kingdom plan in the form of covenant-bound promises to Abraham.

Picking up on our organizing theme for surveying redemptive history–the re-establishment of God’s creational-kingdom (hence: “new-creational kingdom”)–with this covenant with Abraham we see God initiating his redemptive-restoring-saving purposes to bring this new-creational kingdom. We saw in the Noahic Covenant that God committed himself to his creation. Now, in the Abrahamic Covenant we find God committing himself to restore that creation. We see in the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant the initiation of God’s new-creational kingdom purposes.

 We noted several dimensions of this:

  • The content or aim of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant is the new-creational kingdom.

In reviewing our past discussion, we will remember that, as we investigate redemptive history, we see God executing the re-establishment of his creational-kingdom through a series of covenants, the promises of which aim at this new-creational kingdom (hence: new-creational kingdom through [or: “by means of”] covenant).

We see evidence of the fact that the Abrahamic Covenant aims at re-achieving the original creational-kingdom intent in the fact that the original mandate given to Adam now becomes one of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. The very language of creation is used:

The original intent of creation, in other words, becomes the aim of the Abrahamic Covenant. It becomes a promise that God declares he will fulfill for his people.

Also, when we look at the specific promises of the Abrahamic Covenant…

  • Abraham would be blessed (Gen 12:2; 22:17).
  • Great descendants, a nation, a people (Gen 12:2; 13:16; 15:4-7; 17:4-7, 15-21; 18:19; 22:17)
  • The land of Canaan, the “promised land” (Gen 12:1, 7; 13:14-17; 15:7-21; 17:8)
  • A special relationship between God and Abraham’s descendants (Gen 17:7-8).
  • Blessings to the nations, universal blessing (Gen 12:2-3; 18:19; 22:18)
  • Royal lineage (Gen 17:6; 49:10; cf. Gen 3:15).

…we see that the blessings promised are rather wholistic; they cover all spheres of human existence and are as broad in scope as blessing the nations.

(It’s also important to take note of the progress in the specificity of what’s promised here in the Abrahamic Covenant. This is common phenomenon in each of the subsequent covenants. The picture of God’s new-creational kingdom becomes clearer and clearer as redemptive history moves forwards [cf. progressive revelation].)

And, so, the point is, we see that the Abrahamic Covenant promises are promises of the new-creational kingdom.

Comparing the Abrahamic Covenant promises with the chart of the new-creational kingdom pattern above, we find that the following elements of this pattern are present in the Abrahamic Covenant.

  • The promise of God’s people → Abraham is promised many descendants.
  • The promise of being under God’s rule and exercising that rule 
    • (A) Note the passing of the mantle of the Adamic-mandate (see above where the Abrahamic Covenant makes a promise out of the original command to Adam who was God’s appointed image-bearer, i.e., the one who was to image [or: reflect] God’s rule over creation).
    • (B) Note also above the promise of royal lineage from Abraham’s line.
  • The promise of dwelling in God’s place → the promised land.
  • The promise of experiencing God’s special, relational presence → We might say that this promise is present in “seed” form here (pun intended) when we recall the promise, “I will bless you,” alongside a promised special relationship (“I will bless those who bless you” and “I will make your name great”). This promise of God’s presence, of course, is to be made clearer in subsequent covenants.

When we look at the New Testament, we find that the Abrahamic Covenant finds its ultimate fulfillment with Christ in the Gospel, and, thus, by extension the church which is that community that is the recipient of the saving realities of the Gospel. Note, for example, Galatians 3:8 where Paul, in talking about the saving blessings poured out on Gentile church-members, explicitly connects these Gospel-blessings to fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, even calling the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant a “seed” expression of the promises we receive in the Gospel.

God … preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham….

Here, and throughout the book of Galatians, Paul assumes that the promises of the Gospel and promises made to Abraham are equivalent. (That’s why the Judaizers want to the Gentile Galatians to be circumcised [circumcision = the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant.)

The point is that the content or aim of what the Abrahamic Covenant promises is the new-creational kingdom, which is decisively accomplished or realized by Christ in the Gospel.[3]

  • This covenant is the initiation of God’s new-creational kingdom plan.

This covenant is the initial formulation (in history) of God’s saving purposes—his purposes to save and restore his people and his creation – what we have called the new-creational kingdom. As such, the Abrahamic covenant is foundational for the rest of scripture which tells the story of the outworking of God’s saving (new-creational kingdom) purposes. This is the turning point. Everything in the rest of scripture–the rest of redemptive history which unfolds God’s plan to restore his people and his creation–flows out of this covenant.

We might think of it this way… Have you ever had that experience where you walk into the middle of a conversation and have no idea what’s going on? Sometimes they do this to us in movies. A change of scenes occurs; and the new scene begins with someone delivering the punch line to a joke–something like: “And then she said, he’s not my cousin! But if you want to buy my sub, you’ll have to join the circus first, ya goon!” (all the actors belly laugh). And, you’re like, what was that all about?  You are lacking information about the joke that is necessary in order to know what’s going on. And, to be honest, the conversation sounds a little crazy without that important piece of information.

Well, reading scripture without knowing about the Abrahamic Covenant is similar to that. God’s dealings with the patriarchs, specifically with the Abrahamic Covenant, are foundational for understanding the rest of scripture. All of the rest of scripture, which reveals and depicts the outworking and unfolding of this saving, restoring, new-creational kingdom plan, is based on this covenant-initiation. Without understanding the Abrahamic Covenant, when we come to subsequent parts of scripture, it’s like hearing the punchline to the joke without knowing the build up. It doesn’t make sense.

  • The nature of the covenant: conditional but guaranteed (certain, irrevocable, ultimately unconditional)–

It’s important for us to note the nature of this covenant, both for the sake of understanding the flow of redemptive history, but also because rightly understanding the nature of this covenant is imperative for rightly sorting out certain theological questions related to the fulfillment of this covenant’s promises to the people of Israel.

For example, this issue can have significant implications for what we make of the modern nation of Israel today. Does the modern, geo-political nation of Israel have a divine right to the land, for example, by nature of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant? See this article for more a theological assessment of that.

First, we note that, in one sense, this covenant is conditional. By that we mean this: faithfulness to the covenant on behalf of the human partner (Abraham and his descendants) is necessary to experience the covenant blessings in history. We see this in the following scriptures:

Gen 18:19 – For I have chosen him [Abraham], that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.

Gen 17:1-2 – When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.

Cf. Gen 22:16-18; 26:5.

We also see this throughout Israel’s history where, when Israel fell into disbelief and disobedience (what we have called “disbelieving-disobedience”), she failed to experience the blessings of this covenant, and, in fact, at times, experienced the opposite of them. For example we note the wilderness wanderings where Israel failed to enter the land due to unbelief. Or we can think of the oppression Israel faced under the judges when she fell into rebellion and disobedience. Or, finally, we note the exile where Israel got the opposite of the covenant promises.

However, at the same time, and in a different sense, the God’s covenant promises in the Abrahamic Covenant are guaranteed, everlasting, certain, irrevocable, unbreakable, and ultimately unconditional—based on God’s gracious promise.

We can see this, for example, in Genesis 17:7 where God’s promises in the Abrahamic Covenant are described as everlasting (think: irrevocable, unchangeable, certain).

And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant.

Cf. Gen 13:15; 17:13, 19; 1 Chron 16:15-19.

Or, again, we looked at the covenant ratification ceremony in Genesis 15:1-21 (cf. Jer 34).

Here we have the account of God formalizing this covenant with Abraham. We see a few things that are incredibly unusual but incredibly telling.

First, we want to note that the practice described here of cutting apart animals and walking through them seems to have been a common way of initiating or ratifying a covenant in that time period and culture. Both covenant parties or partners would walk through the animal pieces together. The idea seems to have been, “If I do not keep up my end of the covenant here–if I don’t perform my obligations in this covenant–may I be like these torn animal pieces. May I be destroyed.” And so they solemnized imprecations (curses) upon themselves if they failed to keep the covenant.

What’s interesting here, however, is that Abraham is asleep for this part of the covenant ratification. What we see is simply this flaming pot thing (note: God often uses fire throughout scripture to represent his presence [think of the fire at Mt. Sinai or the fire of the burning bush, for example]; so he seems to representing himself here by means of this fiery pot) going through the animals pieces by itself. Only one partner goes through the pieces in this case! And that partner is not Abraham, but God! In other words, God seems to be saying here, “No matter what happens, the fulfillment of this covenant finally rests on me. It’s guaranteed by me.”

In other words, faithfulness is required. But, nonetheless, disobedience on the side of the human parter can’t annul God’s promise.

Now, this creates a significant tension. (Note how we keep observing these tensions throughout redemptive history.) Here we have a tension between (a) God requiring faithfulness from the human covenant partner–a faithfulness we expect won’t be supplied because, as we know from the account after the flood in Genesis 9, humanity is still utterly sinful; (b) the fact that the covenant seemingly involved imprecations or curses when that faithfulness is not provided (cf. the “may I be like these torn animals” bit); and (c) that God has guaranteed this covenant’s fulfillment.

This tension, of course, anticipates its resolution in Christ and the Gospel where God writes himself into the story of redemptive history, so to say, in the person of Jesus Christ and becomes that faithful human covenant partner, fulfilling both the faithfulness required as well as bearing the imprecations (curses) due to the disobedience or unfaithfulness of humanity to the covenant. 

  • The correspondence of faith and promise.

One more point is important to observe before moving on from the Abrahamic Covenant. And that point is the correspondence between the promise-nature of these covenant blessings and faith as the fitting response to such promises.

First, we note that the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant rest on grace. As Romans 4:16 says,

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring.

This means, as Paul says in Galatians 3, the subsequent Mosaic Covenant (with its intense emphasis on conditionality) does not nullify the previously ratified promises of Abrahamic Covenant.

Gal 3:15, 17-18 – To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. … 17 This is what I mean: the law [Mosaic Covenant], which came 430 years afterward [i.e., after the Abrahamic Covenant], does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God [i.e., the Abrahamic Covenant], so as to make the promise [of the Abrahamic Covenant] void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

Likewise, circumcision was a sign (i.e., a confirmation) of the justification by faith that Abraham received before circumcision. Thus, neither does circumcision–if it is to be viewed in some way as law–nullify the fact that the promise was based on grace/promise. The promised blessings were received by faith–and that faith was before Abraham was even circumcised in the first place!

Rom 4:11 – He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.

Works, on the one hand, goes with law. Law means you work for it. However, faith is the only fitting response to promise, because promise is by nature something given, not something earned.

Rom 4:13-14, 16 – For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. … 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace… (Cf. Gal 3:2, 7, 9, 12, 22)

And so faith becomes an incredibly significant theme through scripture. Because salvation is always based on God’s promise and grace, salvation is always through faith. In other words, God’s promises rest on grace; and therefore faith, not works, corresponds to these promises.

And, so, to summarize the big picture here lest we lose the forest for the trees, the role of the Abrahamic Covenant in redemptive history is this: God initiates his new-creational kingdom plan in the form of covenant-bound promises to Abraham.


Notes

[1] A covenant we defined in simple terms as “A binding agreement between two parties involving promises and obligations.”

[2] We find that this covenant is established through what we might call various “installments” across the narrative of Genesis (e.g., compare Gen 12, 15, 17, and 22). Gen 12 presents us with the initial promises. Gen 15 formalizes those promises in a covenant ceremony. Gen 17 affirms that original covenant and develops it. Gen 22 binds that covenant with a divine oath.

[3] As we look at the Abrahamic Covenant in the context of redemptive history, we noticed something significant: The fact that the emergence of God’s dealings with Abraham—the patriarch of Israel—is set within this creational—and thus universal—narrative (Gen 1-11) and creational–and thus universal–intent (i.e., to restore all of creation, not just Israel) signals us off to the fact that God’s purposes in interacting with Israel here and throughout redemptive history is attached to much broader “ambitions,” so to say, then merely acting for and on behalf of Israel and saving Israel for the sake of Israel herself. It tips us off to the fact that God’s workings with Israel are intended to have universal—creation-wide—implications (cf. “…in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”).

Cf. Stephen Dempster (Dominion and Dynasty, 23) who makes a similar observation/conclusion based on the fact that Israel’s history is embedded, and thus subordinated to, more universal history (Gen 1-11).

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