Ten generations after Noah God called a weak, fearful, and childless man named Abram to leave the land of Ur and travel to a distant country to receive a blessing (Gen 12:1). There was nothing particularly interesting or worthwhile about this idolater (Josh 24:2), no spiritual, intellectual, or physical trait that that would interest God in him, but the choice was deliberate. By selecting an unfruitful, unfaithful nobody to become the father of the saved, God communicated to the world He’s not reliant upon men to move His plan forward. As He said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). It was solely because He wanted to manifest His graciousness and fidelity that Abram was told: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great, and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee, and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
In light of the fact that Abram was blessed by God (Gen 24:1), had a great name (Gen 24:35), saw those who dishonored him suffering for it (Gen 12:17, Gen 20:18), and had numerous children (Gen 25:4) it may seem like God is speaking about Abram when He makes these seven statements. But even though Abraham lived to see some of these come true, they were not all fulfilled in him, for not all the nations of the earth were blessed in him, and he was not himself a blessing. Given God’s covenant of revelation as a starting point, it’s not surprising then that these words are not ancient vows given to some middle eastern patriarch, but living revelations which give insight to the person and work of Christ. Abram himself understood this, which is why Jesus would say many years later, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day. He saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). It is Christ, not Abram, who fulfills these words. Christ is the head of a great kingdom that spans the whole world (Dan 2:35). He is the blessed one (2 Cor 11:31), the great one (Luke 1:32), our blessing (Eph 1:3). He is the one who blesses those who bless Him and curses those who curse Him (Matt 10:32-33) and through His work are all families of the earth blessed (Rev 7:9).
This naturally raises the question, “How can Abram be a partial fulfillment of these promises if Christ is the ultimate or actual fulfillment?” Answer: Abram is like Jesus. Not in the sense that he had a similar physical appearance or personality characteristics, but in the larger, grander sense. Abram is an earthly copy of the heavenly reality. Just as a shadow isn’t the same thing as the object which casts it, yet has something of its true form, Abram lived the life he did so that by analogy we may have a better understanding of the Son of Man. Thus, by studying Abram, we gain an insight into Jesus that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Christ is the one who left heaven to come to Canaan to receive a blessing. He’s the one who God raised up out of an idolatrous people. He became the Exalted Father of the faithful (Is 9:7). He’s the one who truly ascended Mt Moriah to offer a sacrifice. He’s the one who interceded with God to not annihilate the wicked. Abraham pursing an enslaving army to win back his relatives is the picture that helps us grasp the reality of Christ’s sacrifice.
For this reason Christ is the subject and object of the next revelation given to Abram, “And it came to pass that when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. On that same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘Unto thy Seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates’” (Genesis 15:17-18). The smoke and the fire represent God’s presence, His use of them reveals something of Himself. He is “a consuming fire” (Deut 4:24). He protects His people as a cloud keeps back the hot desert sun. He enlightens minds as a flame gives knowledge of a dark room (Ps 105:39). The children of Israel saw this first hand when God led them as a fire at night and a cloud by day (Ex 13:21-22).
God’s actions also reveal something of Himself to us. His passing through the sacrifice indicates He will come to men through (by means of) a sacrifice. His passing through it alone signifies He alone will be responsible for upholding the covenant.
But it’s not so much what this teaches us about God in general that matters, but what it teaches us about Christ in particular. “To thy Seed have I given this land” indicates three things about the Son of Man: He will come from the line of Abraham, He will rule the world, and He is (not will be but is) more than a man.
From Abrams point of view the world went from the Euphrates to Egypt, so to rule all the spaces between meant to rule not some of the nations, but all of them. In promising this then God is communicating to Abram that the Savior will reign over the whole world (see also Rev 12:5). More interestingly, in saying this God doesn’t use the expected “will give” to inform Abram He’ll make the Son of Man a ruler in the far future, but the unexpected “have given” to indicate the transaction happened sometime in the past. What kind of man is this who enjoys fellowship with God from long ago and yet will still come to earth to be born of a woman one day? Only one who is also more than a man. As Micah would later say, “Out of thee shall come to Me He who is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2). And as Daniel observed, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. And there was given to Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:13-14).
Connected with this idea of a ruler who would come from his own body, Abram was given a third and final word from God (Genesis 17:7-8), “I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy Seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy Seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy Seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
This last covenant initially looks more confusing than the others because God is speaking to both Abraham and Christ at the same time, revealing different things depending on which point of view is being taken. It is however, not too difficult to sort out if the ideas are taken in turn.
Firstly (and most plainly) the phrase “I will establish My covenant between Me and thee” indicates God is speaking to Abraham about how He will do good to him in the future. Abraham was not to understand the promise to inherit “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” as an immediate physical promise, because he never received an inheritance in the land (Acts 7:5). Instead the promise was for a new and better home “a city whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10)—which makes this promise even more spectacular. That it is “an everlasting covenant” means if Abraham didn’t know there’s an eternal life waiting for him after death, he does now. That God promises “to be a God to thee” indicates this afterlife will not be one of torment, but will be one where he is with God, under His care, and around His goodness. Likewise the phrase “and to thy Seed after thee” indicates both that the coming Savior will live forever, and that He will enjoy the blessings of God’s loving kindness for eternity. Taken alongside the previous promises this indicates the Son of Man will not only avert judgment on all mankind by reconciling God to them, but He’ll also bring some men to heaven by reconciling them to God.
[As an aside, it should be mentioned that in the same way Abraham is blessed because he’s the shadow of Christ, this prophecy has a shadowy, physical fulfillment as well. God’s drawing Abraham’s family toward Himself is so powerful that it causes even those who die in their sins thousands of years later to feel something of it. This is why even though the Jews in Jesus day had by in large turned away from God, they were still “beloved for the fathers’ sake” (Rom 11:28) and why they as a people inherited the land of Canaan as a possession (Josh 21:45)]
The second element may not be as immediately obvious as the first, but it should be evident that if God forged a covenant with Himself to manifest His attributes to creation before time began then these words must not only be given to Abraham but to Christ as well. “I will establish my covenant between Me and thy Seed” means God’s oath here is not just with Abraham, but with the Son of Man. As the New Testament confirms, “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many; but as of one—‘And to thy seed,’ which is Christ” (Gal 3:16). In both senses then this covenant doesn’t conclude at the birth of Christ but begins when He finishes His earthly work and sits down at the right hand of God. When seen from Abraham’s point of view it teaches us about Christ’s birth and redemptive work, and when seen from Christ’s point of view it teaches us that the whole of human history is bent around Him, that He will inherit everything as an everlasting possession, that He will rule forever, and that He will be glorified over all. Therefore both the salvation and the kingly reign elements of this covenant are everlasting ones, and have not diminished with time.
At this point we have enough information to put together the full picture of the gospel, the good news about salvation. We know that because our forefather Adam sided with Satan each one of us are guilty of rebellion against a holy God and deserve to be punished. Unfortunately we are powerless to avert this wrath, but fortunately God is gracious and has promised to send a man to save us from it. This Savior will be born of a mother but not a father, will come with the announcement of thousands of His holy ones, and will bring with Him a word of peace. He will be bruised by Satan, crushed by God, and sacrificed like a lamb, but will ultimately be victorious over death and successful at bearing our curse away. Because of His work God will be good to all men, having been reconciled to them, and through His work the elect will be with God forever, having been reconciled to Him. We know this Savior will be born of the line of Abraham into the land of Canaan where He will rule the world as a blessed father, and that that although He’s truly man He’s also more than a man, because there were no men in the beginning with God. For all this we can confidently say Abraham knew the gospel, which is why Paul said, “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, ‘In thee shall all nations be blessed’” (Gal 3:8).
Consider that for a moment. By nature we possess neither worth nor dignity, having turned our back on God and ruined everything He gave us, and yet in spite of this He has not abandoned us like we deserve. The God who out of His delight teaches us to see, sit, run, and dance did so knowing we would repay Him with betrayal, still sent His only son to trade places with us. Yes it was He who sovereignly condemned us to misery in the first place, but it was also He who arranged the worst suffering to fall on Himself.
Given that God’s created us in order to reveal His mercy, the only response He can tolerate from us is belief—and only belief. If God has said Christ will save, then He will save. If God says He will bring us up out of the pit by His own power alone, then that’s what will happen. That’s it. No good deeds of ours need to be added to this plan, no bartering, scheming, or tainted works of righteousness will be accepted. Not only are human works totally unnecessary, but they have the unhappy effect of getting in the way of seeing God’s covenant of revelation in its fullness. If He has to share His glory with us then we will see less of Him, and if we see less of Him we will in turn be more miserable than we would be otherwise. Therefore salvation is by belief, that it may be of joy. This is why when the crowds asked Jesus what they must do to be saved He said, “This is the work of God, that ye believe in Him whom He hath sent” (John 6:29).
This creates something of a problem however, for if salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone apart from human works, then how can anyone be righteous? The answer is they don’t actually have to be righteous, it’s enough for God to count them as righteous. This is called justification, and it’s an objective once-for-all-time divine pronouncement freely proceeding from God which declares the person to be no longer guilty. Because Christ died on behalf of sinners, God can reckon His righteousness to men and thus remove His wrath from them. As it is written, “being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). In this Abraham is our forerunner, because he was the first to hear the full message of the gospel and accept it, and thus the first to be justified. “What do the Scriptures say? Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness” (Rom 4:3). Abraham heard the promises, believed that the Christ would deliver him from sin, and saw the joy of salvation that comes apart from works.
In response to his faith, God also gave him the sign of circumcision. As Romans 4:11 says, “He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised.” Yet even though it was a sign and seal of faith, it was not the sign of his own personal faith, but of the coming work of the Savior on which his faith was grounded. Circumcision represents God’s promises to send Christ, not man’s acceptance of those promises; the One who would save, not the moment of salvation. It may seem trivial, but it’s vital to grasp that in the same way the rainbow pictures the work of Christ for all men, circumcision showed the saving work of Christ coming to those who believe. But whereas God put Noah’s sign in the sky to indicate He’d do something cosmic and universal, He put Abraham’s sign on his flesh to indicate the Son of Man would also do something personal. Consider the nature of the signs themselves. The rainbow is the symbol for the Noahatic covenant because it’s objective in every respect and can neither be touched nor influenced by men—just like how God is going to use His Promised One to make a sacrifice in a way that makes human participation impossible. But in the Abrahamic covenant God had His servants place the sign of the covenant on their flesh to show that men are reconciled to God when they believe. As it is written, “This is My covenant, which ye shall keep… every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt Me and you. And he who is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he who is born in the house, or bought with money from any stranger who is not of thy seed” (Gen 17:10a, 11-12).
To head off the potential misunderstanding that circumcision represents a subjective faith possessed by Abraham, God commanded it to be put on both the adults and infants in his house. To prevent the misunderstanding that it was merely a marker for the physical lineage of Christ, strangers and those bought with money were also to receive the sign.
It may be asked then, “If the sign is indicative of the objective nature of justification then why was Abraham to perform the work himself? Why not give the sign in such a way that made human action irrelevant?” The answer is, in doing this God shows men they’re now welcomed to share in His work and reciprocate His faithfulness. Each new revelation builds on the previous one, painting a fuller picture of who God is, and consequently each new covenant inspires a better and more perfect response from men. In the garden we were only secondarily involved in the promise to Satan and only asked to watch. During the flood we were directly involved and asked to reflect, but in Abraham men are asked to take a small but active part in bringing the covenant of revelation to pass. God is growing humanity by degrees, taking us from an inert and selfish babyhood to the limited capabilities of childhood that we could better understand Him. By involving us more in each successive covenant we are enabled to see His glory better, and by this point in history Gods manifested perfections have dawned to such an extent that seeing them now positively compels a response. Thus each successive covenant has revealed more of who He is, and so has inspired a greater, more active, more perfect faith in men.
This is going to become an essential component in understanding the covenant at Sinai, but before going there let’s skip ahead to the promise made to David and finish developing the thought of Christ as King.
Next: The Davidic Covenant