9 Sept 2021
In Genesis 17 and 18 (17:6; 18:18), God made a promise to Abraham: the very existence of Israel was the substance of God’s promise declared to Abraham – the promise itself was the immovable foundation on which the relationship between God and Israel survived in spite of all that threatened it. God entered into a commitment to Abraham and his descendants which involved growth, blessing and protection for him and his descendants after him. This promise involved something else as well – the universal goal of blessing to all nations through his descendants – God would bless all nations through the community which was as yet to emerge from the loins of Abraham (Gen. 18:19). The promise to Abraham is in fact a commitment to humanity, not just to Israel. And that includes you and me (all those who subsequently entered into the same saving and covenant relationship with God); Jesus is the fulfilment of the promise; the blessing given to Abraham comes to the Gentiles through Chriist Jesus by faith – all those who belong to Christ are Abraham’s seed and heirs of the promise (Galatians 3:29). For Apostle Paul, the Gospel itself began, not just with Jesus, but with Abraham – every Gentile believer who enjoys his relationship of sonship to God as Father, does so as a living proof of the fulfilment of the promise in Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
We need to recognise and acknowledge that we are ‘children of promise’, children of God – to be ‘in Christ was, and is to be ‘in Abraham’ and to share in the inheritance of God’s people, an inheritance which includes all the blessings and responsibilities of the fellowship of God’s people. Jesus Christ was the singular seed of Abraham, through whom the seed would become universal and multi-national, in whom all nations would be blessed. He was the passover lamb protecting God’s people from His wrath; HIs death and resurrection had achieved a new exodus; He was the mediator of a new covenant; His sacrificial death and risen life fulfilled and surpassed all that were signified in the tabernacle, the sacrifices and the priesthood; He was the temple not made with hands.
We ought to distinguish ‘prediction’ from ‘promise’. A prediction can be made and fulfilled without the persons concerned knowing anything about it, let alone doing anything about it. Cyrus in the Old Testament is an example: there is no evidence that Cyrus ever acknowledged Yahweh (Isa. 45:4) although it is possible. Cyrus fulfilled the predictions concerning him made in Isaiah 40-45. The prediction concerning Cyrus was part of a promise concerning Israel, and here we see the difference between prediction and promise. Cyrus was instrumental in fulfilling a promise concerning Israel, but he himself did not participate in it. His part required no response to God. He simply acted in the exercise of his own ambitions, thereby in the mystery of providence also carrying out God’s promise.
A promise involves personal relationship and commitment; it has a dynamic quality that goes beyond the external details involved. For instance, in a marriage, the promise ‘to have and to hold, to love and to cherish’ looks far beyond the honeymoon. Fulfilling the promise will take different forms and make different demands and call for different responses as life and circumstances proceed. The promise remains, and the words do not need to be changed, but it is the relationship which dictates how the promise is fulfilled in any given situation.
It is God who takes the initiative of grace in giving a promise to His people; salvation is always a matter of God’s grace and promise. The fulfilment of the promise requires the response of faith and obedience from the recipients of the promise. God is not merely concerned with external or mechanical obedience to rules for their own sake, but He wants to inculcate an ethos of intelligent and willing moral behaviour in HIs people. Obedience proves the relationship with God from which life flowed; obedience is the expression of love for God and gratitude to Him. The law in itself gives no life; life comes from the source of the law, God Himself.
The Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completed. It declares the promise which He fulfilled; it provides the pictures and models which shaped His identity; it gives a mission which He accepted and passed on; it teaches a moral orientation to God and the world which He endorsed, sharpened and laid as the foundation for obedient discipleship. We have seen that God is the One who takes the initiative in making a promise to HIs people which often involves a covenant. Although there is a human response and obligation, God is the sovereign initiator – the Lord of the covenant and promise. The covenant and promise issue from the redemptive intention of God to act in blessing for human beings, who neither deserve such actions, nor could fulfil any condition to deserve it. They call for human response, but they are not based on it, nor motivated by it. The covenant and promise are not only initiated by God’s grace, they are also sustained by God’s grace. As in the case of Israel, many a generation suffered for disobedience to the covenant and promise, but the promise and covenant continued, grounded as it was in the grace of God’s redemptive purpose for humanity, not just the obedience of Israel.
We are children of promise – a promise made by God to Abraham and to all the nations that would come forth from the loins of Abraham. The Old Testament had declared the promise which Jesus fulfilled.
Israel was the servant of God, chosen and upheld by Him, with the purpose of being a light to the nations, as was the original intention of the election of Abraham. But historically, Israel was failing in that role and mission. Jesus, the Messiah, came to challenge Israel to come back to God. He is identified with Israel, but in the surprising purposes of God, He (the Servant) enables the original mission of Israel to be fulfilled. Through Him, God’s justice, liberation and salvation will be extended to the nations. The universal purpose of the election of Israel is achieved through the mission of the Servant (and we are part of the beneficiary and we are also part of the church called to complete the mission that the Lord Jesus initiated).
When we look at the history of Israel in the Old Testament, we see, behind all the repeated failures of the nation and God’s judgement and discipline in His love, God’s promise continues throughout the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ in the history of this nation until the arrival of the Messiah. God is faithful and He continues to keep HIs promise to Abraham. Today, we, as spiritual children of Abraham and children of the almighty Triune God, can take comfort and confidence that despite the failures of God’s people today and the apparent ‘triumph’ of evil, those who continue in faith and obedience can rest in full assurance that God’s promise and faithfulness would see us through to the end. As in the history of Israel, God upholds the faithful remnant and would enable them to persevere to the end.