God’s promise to Abraham and its fulfilment

The Lord God revealed that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15), but His redemption plan only comes into view with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12.

Two religions emerge in Genesis 4. The first accepts the consequence of sin, namely death, and depends on the atonement – the death of a substitute – for right-standing with God. This is the blood sacrifice of Abel which continues through the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law and arrives at its fulfilment in the death of Messiah Jesus on the cross. Cain, on the other hand, offers a gift of his own choice and making.

Two lines of Adam’s progeny are contrasted in Genesis 4 and 5: the one clings to the hope of restoration, while the other shuns God and drives innovation and progress in the fallen world. Eventually these lines begin to mix and God’s wrath against man is consummated in the Flood.

The tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is a monument to man’s attempt to secure an independent destiny in defiance of God and to avoid His judgments. God’s redemption plan comes into view with the call of Abraham in chapter 12.

faith and promise

Doubt in God and in His Word led to disobedience in the Garden of Eden and death: faith leading to obedience reverses the process and is required for restoration and life. Abraham believed God, and his faith was credited to him as righteousness (Gen. 15: 6).  Abraham left his country, his people and his father’s house to receive the promise:

I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
(Genesis 12:1-3)

Abraham was also promised a new homeland:

“… the land that you see I will give to you and your seed forever” (Genesis 13:15).

“The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your seed after you … ”  (Gen. 17: 8).

While there are many criteria by which greatness is measured, the one that was intended according to Scripture is that Abraham’s nation would greatly increase and through obedience and faithfulness  become renowned for the abiding presence and nearness of their God and the superior wisdom of His laws and decrees (Deut. 26:5, 4: 5-8).

Abraham’s name is great because he became the father of the redeemed of all nations, and the progenitor through faith of the Son of Promise, the Redeemer of mankind.

The blessedness of Abraham in its essence is not material wealth and prosperity, nor achievement or excellence in national or individual pursuits, but rather:

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,” (Ps. 33: 12)


“Blessed is he  whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Ps. 32: 1 ).

Ultimately this blessedness is obtained through the work of the Cross – reconciliation with God through forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit – as the apostles proclaimed to their fellow Israelites:  “And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, `Through your seed all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up His servant, He sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways”  (Acts 3: 25-26).

The Lord reveals what Abraham understood by the promise at its inception: ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad’ (Jn. 8: 56).

The same blessedness that is promised to Abraham is also promised through him, to all the peoples and nations of the earth:  ‘through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed’ (Gen. 22: 18).

‘He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit’ (Gal. 3:14. Cf. Rom. 4: 7-12).

‘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’ (Gal. 3:8).

Those who bless Abraham in his Divine mission are blessed by God, and those who curse him, are cursed.  No reward is intended for any who bless or aid Abraham’s descendants in rebellion, unbelief or apostasy, as appears from the fact that Israel was herself cursed for disobedience (Deut. 28: 15-68).

Egypt did not earn a blessing when it helped faithless Judah to fight off Assyria. Instead:

He will rise up against the house of the wicked,
against those who help evildoers.
The Egyptians are men and not God;
their horses are flesh and not spirit.
When the LORD stretches out his hand,
he who helps will stumble,
he who is helped will fall;
both will perish together.
(Isaiah 31: 2-3).

When Messiah was revealed in Israel those who rejected him were exposed as unfaithful and cut off from among their people (Acts 3: 25). Whoever hates the son hates the Father also (Jn. 15: 23). There is no blessing except repentance for those who hate the Lord (1 Cor. 16: 22).

Those of Israel who followed Messiah Jesus continued in Abraham’s Divine mission and took his promised blessing ‘to the ends of the earth.’  ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’ (Gal. 3:29). Every good done to the faithful remnant is reciprocated by God. ‘I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward’ (Mk. 9: 41).

After Abraham obeyed in the ultimate test of his faith, in the binding of Isaac, the Lord God swore by His own name –

  • descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore;
  • Abraham’s seed will possess the gate of his enemies; and
  • through Abraham’s seed all nations on earth will be blessed

(Gen. 22: 15-18).
who is the seed of the promise?

When John the Baptist warns the Pharisees, ‘out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham’ (Mat. 3:9-10), he is simply affirming what was already clear from Old Testament history: the Lord God would sooner bring forth descendants for Abraham out of stones than fulfil His oath to unfaithful natural seed. ‘Our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea … Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert’ (1 Cor. 10: 1-5).

The Lord God could reduce Israel to a single progenitor and still fulfil his promise to Abraham. This was demonstrated at the time of the Exodus when He twice threatened to destroy the entire nation and create a new Israel out of Moses (Ex. 32: 10; Num. 14: 12).  In a later fulfilment of this threat, the Lord Jesus did, figuratively speaking, become the sole progenitor of Israel under the New Covenant.

The apostle Paul makes it clear that ‘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’ (Gal. 3: 16).

When the ‘prophet like Moses’ was revealed, all those who did not receive the word that God spoke through his mouth were completely cut off from among their people (Deut. 18: 18, Acts 3: 22-23), i.e. ceased to be part of the holy nation unless grafted in again.

Throughout Israel’s history, the falling away of unfaithful natural descendants was compensated by the addition from other nations of those who became faithful to the God of Israel. Caleb, Ruth and Rahab serve as examples, while assimilation was at various times common and widespread.

Aliens living among the Israelites were required to obey the terms of the Mosaic covenant and a demonstrable faithfulness would lead to their eventual acceptance into Israel: “Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD” (Deut. 23: 7-8).

The prophets hinted at a time when the influx would swell to unprecedented numbers: “‘Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,’ declares the LORD. ‘Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people’” (Zech. 2:10-11).

Psalm 87 anticipates Zion as a mother of nations: “I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me – Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush – and will say, `This one was born in Zion.’ Indeed, of Zion it will be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her’” (verses 4-5).

After the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon, aliens would be counted as native-born Israelites and receive their allotments among the twelve tribes: “‘You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,’ declares the Sovereign LORD” (Ezek. 47:21-23).

When Paul explains that not all who are of Israel are Israel (Rom. 9: 6), it is in response to the question: did God’s word fail?  Paul addresses the apparent failure of God’s word that ‘Israel will be saved by the LORD with an everlasting salvation’ (Isa. 45: 17) by refuting the crass ethnic definition of Israel and not by deferring the hope of fulfilment to a future time. Using Jeremiah’s allegory of Israel as an olive tree (Jer. 11:16-17), Paul explains the cutting off of unfaithful branches of natural stock and the grafting into Israel of those ‘formerly excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise’ (Eph. 2: 12) who had now received ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’. The grafting-in process would also have the consequence of provoking some of the cut off branches to jealousy, so that these would repent of their unbelief and be grafted back in again, receiving life from the dead. In this manner all Israel (as defined by faith and not ethnicity) will be saved.

the promised land

Abraham was also promised a new homeland: ‘The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your seed after you …’ (Gen. 17: 8).

In the phrase ‘I will give … to you and to your seed,’  the Hebrew text renders ‘you’ in the masculine singular form. The land was promised to Abraham (personally) as an Eternal Possession. The Lord God promised the same to Isaac and to Jacob (Gen. 26: 3, 35: 12).  Yet none of them received their inheritance.

From this the ancient rabbis derived their belief in the resurrection of the dead:

MISHNA.  Rabbi Simai said, “Whence do we learn resurrection from the Torah? From the verse, ‘And I also have established my covenant with them [the Patriarchs] to give them the land of Canaan: ‘you’ [collectively] is not said, but to give them [personally]; thus resurrection is proved from the Torah” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, 98b).

A footnote in the Soncino edition adds: “The promise [to give the Land to the original heirs] could be literally fulfilled only by the Patriarchs’ resurrection.”

The apostle Paul affirms: ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable’ (1 Cor. 15: 50). The promise of an Eternal Possession cannot be fulfilled in the mortal world, not even if Abraham’s descendants returned to the Land and live there in successive generations in peace and security for a thousand years.

Abraham believed in the resurrection of the dead (Heb. 11: 19). Jacob and Joseph gave instructions for their mortal remains to be carried from Egypt and buried in the Promised Land.  According to Rashi, the greatest of the Rabbinic commentators, Jacob knew that Messiah will resurrect the righteous to possess the Land of Promise (Commentary on the Pentateuch, Genesis 47: 30). The prophet Daniel was told during exile in Babylonian:  ‘As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance’ (Dan. 12:13).

Abraham’s homeland is first demarcated in Genesis 13 (verses 14 and 15) and then extended in Genesis 15 (verses 18 to 21). The tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh later settle beyond this territory on the other side of the Jordan (Josh. 22: 9). Ultimately, the apostle Paul informs us, Abraham is heir to the whole world (Rom. 4:13).  We, also, who remain faithful to the Messiah, are ‘heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ’ as we patiently await the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8: 17, 23) into ‘the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness’ (2 Pet. 3: 13).  This will happen when Messiah returns in glory, having destroyed all dominion, authority and power (1 Cor. 15: 24), when also the perishable will be clothed with immortality (1 Cor. 15: 54).

At the end of Hebrews 11 we read: “None of them, [the patriarchs and men of faith through the ages], received what was promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Heb. 11: 39-40).

the promise fulfilled

The apostle Paul proclaims to the Jews in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch: “We tell you the good news:  what God promised our fathers He has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (Acts 13: 32-33). The fulfilment is in the past tense.

The Lord Jesus defeated sin and death, and the sure and certain resurrection of the Patriarchs and their faithful co-heirs through all generations secures the promise of the Land as an Eternal Possession.