Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
–Genesis 12:1-3 (ESV)
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. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
–Galatians 3:15-16 (ESV)
For the past several installments of this series including Part 7, I’ve been focusing on aspects of the New Covenant, mainly because the little bits and pieces that relate to Christianity can only be tracked down in different parts of the New Testament. However, recent conversations have shown me that I should probably return to the foundation of my understanding for a bit to illustrate its solidity, or at least describe the trail of reasoning that I’m pursuing.
As you have probably guessed, it all goes back to Abraham and the covenant God announced to him in Genesis 12. But what exactly did God promise Abraham and what does it have to do with us, that is, with Christians?
Here’s my understanding:
- Genesis 12:1-3 – God promises to make Abraham into great nation, bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him, and all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham.
- Genesis 15:18–21 – God promises to give Abraham’s descendants all the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates, and this area is later referred to as the Promised Land or the Land of Israel.
- Genesis 17:2–9 – God promises to make Abraham a father of many nations and of many descendants and the land of Canaan as well as other parts of Middle East will go to his descendants.
- Genesis 17:9-14 – God declares that circumcision is to be the sign of the covenant for Abraham and all his male descendants and that this will be an eternal covenant.
This covenant is then reaffirmed to Isaac in Genesis 21:12, and again reaffirmed to Jacob in Genesis 26:3-4. (the New Covenant as recorded in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 affirms and expands upon this and the Mosaic covenant) God confirmed that the promise of the covenant is specifically for the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the Children of Israel, in many places in the Torah, not the least of which is in Deuteronomy 34:4 (ESV):
And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”
As far as the land of Israel goes, there is no provision in the covenant to give it to anyone or any other people group besides the Children of Israel and their descendants forever, the Jewish people.
That takes care of the Land. But what about us?
We learn from Galatians 3:15-16 which I quoted above, that through Abraham’s seed, through his offspring (singular) we among the nations would be blessed. Paul declares that the offspring in question is specifically the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. Our blessings that issue from the Abrahamic covenant are directly transferred to us through the Messiah.
So far, of the four items in the above-referenced list, only one of them seems to apply to Christians, the blessings of the Messiah.
What else do we know about the Messianic blessings in the Abrahamic covenant?
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. –Romans 4:9-12 (ESV)
We see that it was Abraham’s faith that was counted to him as righteousness, and this was before the sign of the covenant was placed upon Abraham. We too, the “uncircumcised” of the nations, are called “righteous” because of our faith. Thus Abraham Avinu is our father, according to Paul, not just the father of the Hebrews. No, that doesn’t mean we are Hebrew (Jewish) too, nor does it mean we inherit the total body of covenant blessings and responsibilities that are incumbent upon the Jews, but it does make us connected to Abraham as the father of our faith, and through his covenant and the Messiah, with God.
This is kind of a delicate trail to negotiate, and we have to be careful that we don’t slip off the path and fall into erroneous thinking. The promise of the Land, and I believe the other specific promises, including the covenantal sign of circumcision, are for the physical descendants of Abraham and of Isaac, and of Jacob. That’s not the rest of us. That’s just the Jewish people.
In other words, all of the conditions of the Abrahamic covenant, including the blessings of the Messiah, flow to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The single blessing that we can be attached to through the Messiah is attached to Abraham alone, as he was before his circumcision, as he was before Isaac; a man of faith and righteousness before God.
That’s the split, the demarcation line between Christian and Jew, the slender thread of “covenanthood” by which we Gentile Christians are connected to Abraham, the Abrahamic covenant, and thus, to God.
So what do we get out of it? Well, first of all, a cautionary tale:
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
–Romans 11:17-24 (ESV)
Paul seems to be toggling back and forth between addressing the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. “You wild olive branches, you Gentiles,” Paul is saying. “Don’t get cocky just because you were grafted in. Remember, it’s the root that nourishes you, not the other way around. You think you are so hot just because a few Jews were knocked off the root to make room for you Gentiles? So what,” he might be saying. “If you fall away from the kindness of the Messiah, you can be knocked off and the Jews can be put back twice as fast!”
So to the Jews, don’t be arrogant to the Gentiles because they’re “newbies.” To the Gentiles, don’t be arrogant because some Jews were removed from the root to which you are now attached. Nothing is necessarily permanent. Anyone can be “ungrafted.”
That’s a terrific lesson for many non-Jewish believers to learn because, through one process or another, we have come to feel superior to the Jewish people who God, in the end, will reattach to the root, all of them. Remember, any of you out there who are not physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (apart from legitimate converts to Judaism) don’t get cocky. God not only didn’t get rid of the Jews, it is through them that your salvation and covenant connection to God is established and nourished in the first place.
And for those of you who feel that being “grafted in” has whitewashed any physical and covenant distinctions between you and the “natural branches,” think again:
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,
“That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
–Romans 3:1-8 (ESV)
Being Jewish is not beside the point just because we Gentiles have been grafted in. There remains much advantage to being Jewish. Even those Jews today who do not acknowledge Christ as Messiah are not permanently condemned as many Christians seem to believe. They are not discarded and cast aside.
Israel will be saved:
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers:a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
–Romans 11:25-29 (ESV)
I’ve probably wandered from the strictly Abrahamic path, but with good purpose. The purpose is to illustrate that just because Jews and Christians share the Messianic blessings that are part of the wider Abrahamic covenant through faith, that does not mean we share all of the blessings attached to that covenant. Paul was extremely clear that there is a distinction between Jewish (native) and Gentile (wild) olive branches. They all didn’t “morph” into a single type of branch with no way to tell them apart.
Also, Paul was extremely clear that there were many advantages to being a Jew. Further, he said that even if some of the Jews were temporarily removed from the root for the sake of we Gentile Christians, in the end, God’s promises to the Jewish people are irrevocable; they cannot be revoked!
The really interesting thing about all of this is that a Christian must choose to become part of the covenant with God through Jesus and Christians can also “unchoose” Christianity for another religion or no religion at all. Not so with the Jewish people. If you are born a Jew, you are automatically born into the covenant (actually covenants, but I’m only talking about Abraham for the moment). God has temporarily turned His face away from His people Israel in the past, and He has temporarily exiled them in the past, but as “temporarily” implies, He always takes them back and He always will take them back.
In spite of the fact that this missive is longer than I intended, I didn’t get to say everything I could have said about Christianity and the Abrahamic covenant. Hopefully, I’ve said enough for now.