beautiful land with a mountain at twilight

GOD's promises to Abraham are an important component of the narrative of Scripture.

It is, after all, a result of these promises that Israel arises as GOD's chosen people. And the entirety of Scripture concerns GOD's people and their struggle against evil and the unfolding of GOD's plan of redemption.

GOD did not reveal to Abraham the full details regarding these promises in a single conversation.

Instead, GOD gave Abraham initial promises and filled in the details over time. In fact, while he was alive on the earth, Abraham never was fully given the story of what would happen.

Within these details of GOD's promises, we learn a very important biblical principle—one that is often overlooked and as a result leads to future erroneous conclusions about other prophecy within the Scriptures.

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Welcome to part 4 of my series on rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these articles build on each other, if you've not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts before continuing here.

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Let's take a fresh look at the details of GOD's promises to Abraham and expose a key observation which will be important to our future journey together.

Quick Recap

Before jumping into today’s post, let’s briefly recap the key conclusions we’ve covered thus far.

  1. We began with an overview of the reason for this series: I have some conclusions I am excited to share with you, but in order to do so without people freaking out, we must take a journey through the Scriptures together.

  2. Humanity’s most basic problem is our struggle to “go beyond” that which we can sense physically. This shortcoming leads to our biggest problem, a failure to see GOD as He really is, leading to idolatry.

    The big picture of Scripture is more broad than we typically hear explained. It is the story of the unfolding of GOD using the spiritual to supersede and replace the physical. Virtually everything in the Bible has a physical shadow and a spiritual substance. And the physical always precedes the spiritual.

    Where people often trip up in understanding Scripture is by failing to recognize when GOD is using physical language to metaphorically refer to spiritual events and things. In Gal. 4, Paul explains this principle using Hagar and Sarah to represent the old and new covenants. In future posts, we will examine specific instances where people often trip.

  3. Since idolatry is humanity’s most impactful problem, it is helpful to understand the evolution of idolatry. When we think of idolatry today, we often think just about bowing before carved images, but idolatry is very much alive and well today, even among “Christians.” When a person imagines or ascribes false characteristics to GOD, they have, in essence, invented and worship their own god.

    Idolatry is a huge part of the narrative of Scripture and of the demise of Israel. Thus, it is an important foundational topic.

On to Today’s Post…

Within a few generations after the worldwide flood, humanity had again fallen away from GOD into idolatry.

As most Bible students know very well, in time, GOD called Abram (Abraham) from Harran to a different land, with the promise of specific blessings. In their first encounter, we read:

1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

2 “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.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
(Gen. 12:1-3 NIV)

So, to recap, GOD’s initial promises to Abraham were:

  1. I’ll show you a land.
  2. I will make you a great nation.
  3. Your name will be great.
  4. You’ll be a blessing to everyone.
  5. You’ll be blessed and protected.

Once Abraham arrived in Canaan, GOD appeared to him there and said:

“To your offspring I will give this land.”
(Gen. 12:7b NIV)

This is why the land of Canaan is called the Promised Land.

Over the course of time, GOD repeated the promises to Abraham multiple times, providing a bit of new detail on each occasion. For example:

14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”
(Gen. 13:14-17 NIV)

Here, GOD was more specific about this promised land:

  1. It encompassed everything Abraham could see.
  2. It would be given to him and his descendants.
  3. They would possess the land forever.

Forever, GOD?

That’s what He said.

Interesting.

More on this in a moment.

A few chapters later, we read:

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
(Gen. 17:1-14 NIV)

Expounding again, this time GOD promised:

  1. Kings would come from Abraham.
  2. The covenant would be everlasting—no end.
  3. The whole land of Canaan would be his and his descendants’ forever.
  4. That GOD would be Abraham’s descendants’ God.

Also, on this occasion GOD gives circumcision as the sign of His covenant with Abraham.

The next elaboration comes on Mt. Moriah as Abraham had sacrificed Isaac upon the altar to GOD. It says:

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
(Gen. 22:15-18 NIV)

Here, GOD promised Abraham:

  1. He would bless him.
  2. Abraham’s descendants would be innumerable.
  3. Abraham’s descendants would take the cities of their enemies.
  4. Through Abraham’s descendants all nations of earth would be blessed.

Promises Physically Fulfilled ... well, Partially

In time, GOD fulfilled His original promises (of Gen. 12) to Abraham physically.

  • Abraham physically fathered Ishmael and Isaac and their descendants grew into many nations.
  • The Israelites became a great nation and took inheritance of the promised land.
  • All people were blessed by Jesus physically descending through Abraham’s lineage.

And yet certain aspects of GOD’s promises were not actually fulfilled physically. For example:

  • Abraham personally never physically received the land of Canaan (see Gen. 13:15). He was only a nomad living in a foreign country (see Heb. 11:9).
  • Physical Israel did not possess the land of Canaan forever (see Gen. 13:15; 17:8). They were cast out due to disobedience.
  • The physical descendants of Abraham did not maintain a never-ending covenant with GOD (see Gen. 17:7). They broke the covenant repeatedly and GOD divorced them and ended the original covenant with them, replacing it with a new covenant.
  • Physical circumcision—the sign of GOD’s covenant with Abraham’s physical descendants—did not continue forever (see Gen. 17:12). It was fulfilled in Jesus and replaced by circumcision of the heart.

But GOD did keep His word to Abraham.

Promises Spiritually Fulfilled

Though GOD didn’t explain it at the time, GOD’s promises to Abraham had spiritual as well as physical aspects.

For example, in the Roman letter, Paul explained how GOD fulfilled the promise to bless all nations through Abraham. Writing to a mixed Jew and Gentile Christian audience, Paul said:

28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. ...

16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
(Rom. 2:28-29; 4:16-18 NIV)

Being a descendant of Abraham, Paul says, is not about physical lineage but faith, having their hearts circumcised.

In other words, the true descendants of Abraham are spiritual children having the faith of Abraham, not by mere physical birth.

Likewise, regarding the promised land, the writer to the Hebrews shows that Abraham and his true descendants receive a spiritual, heavenly country, a city designed and built by GOD Himself:

8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
(Heb. 11:8-16, 39-40 NIV)

This spiritual country is the same place Paul referred to in Gal. 4:26 (“the Jerusalem that is above”) which I discussed in post 2.

The aspects of GOD's promises to Abraham that were fulfilled physically were shadows. The ultimate fulfillment was always spiritual in nature.

This principle is vital to proper understanding of the biblical narrative and our future journey.

I cannot overemphasize this.

And likewise, missing this principle in specific texts leads us—and has led past generations of seekers—to erroneous conclusions and doctrines. And these misunderstandings have had an incredible impact upon human history, which I intend to make clear as we progress.


Continue to the next post, where we look at this shadows-and-substance concept as it relates to Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

Got comments or questions? Drop them below.

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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