Images of the Savior (6 -- The Promise Made to Abraham)
Of all the promises and foreshadows of the coming of Christ and his accomplishing his mighty work of redemption, there is none in all the Old Testament that is more foundational than the promise made to Abraham, when God called him out from the land of his people and brought him into the land of Canaan, and there entered into a solemn covenant with him, promising to be his God and his exceeding great reward. This calling and promise was so monumental as thoroughly to govern the course of redemptive history from that point on, and to shape forever afterward the nature and substance of the blessings which the promised Christ's redemption should provide. Thus it is that, at the conclusion of the history of God's redeeming his people, the final proclamation, sealing up every blessing and fulfilling every promise, will come in these words: â€œBehold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and he shall be God with them, their Godâ€ (Revelation 21:3). This is a conclusion that was most explicitly marked out in the calling of Abraham, and serves only as the actual accomplishment of all that was promised at that time; and at the heart of that promise, we see Christ himself, who should become â€œImmanuel,â€ that is, â€œGod with us,â€ and so provide in himself the substance of every good thing which God had covenanted to give to Abraham and his offspring. It would certainly behove us, therefore, to look in more detail at this monumental occasion, in which the promise of a conquering Seed takes on a history-shaping clarity and significance.
But first, we must take note of the world-context in which the calling of Abraham took place, as the black and hopeless backdrop against which the jewel of free and surprising grace shines with a more splendid luster. For soon after God had covered the world in the floods of his wrath, saving only one family and promising through him to bring his promised blessing and Messiah, the entire world had again abandoned God, and men were attempting to seize upon the blessings which it awaited the Messiah to bring, through their own joint power. Thus they banded together against God and his Messiah, and built a mighty city and tower, namely Babel, which is precisely the same designation as Babylon. Now, in this action, they were manifestly attempting to seize by their own strength those things which they had once lost, and which God had promised to bring about again through the Seed of the woman. Men had lost their paradise, the Garden in Eden; and now they were attempting to build a tower up to heaven. They were attempting to extend their sway over all the earth, and rule the world. In short, they were attempting to do all that God had intended for mankind to do, and all that he had promised he should accomplish in and for them, but not in submission to God and in allegiance to his coming King, but by banding together against them (cf. Psalm 2). Thus had the Serpent struck again, whispering into the ears of mankind quite the same lie that he had first told Eve. But once again, God would judge mankind, scattering them from the proud unity of their presumption, by confusing their languages. We must observe, then, how great a reversal the Messiah would one day accomplish when, through his own great work and power, he should actually perform all those things which mankind had tried and failed to do! For by his Spirit, all those who had been confused in their languages and scattered abroad would be gathered together again as one man, singing with one joint song of praise, climbing up into heaven itself, from which the men of Babel had been cast down, and ruling over all the earth. The first taste of this occurred on the day of Pentecost, when Christ sent his Spirit to empower his apostles to speak the gospel in the tongues of all the nations of the world (Acts 2:1-11); and ever after, the same reality has been growing by slow degrees, and will finally culminate in the throne room of heaven, when all the nations shall be joined together in worship and unity of heart (Revelation 5:9-14). And at this time too, the world city Babylon, which has still remained the center of devilish opposition to Christ throughout many centuries of world history, despite being scattered across the earth, will finally be judged and defeated (Revelation 18). Thus wonderfully did the Messiah accomplish what all the world, joined fast together in one evil purpose, failed at all to accomplish!
But now, we must return to Abraham, to see how God would go about accomplishing this mighty act: and we see that God's mighty plan of universal grace and victory should come as an act of free and sovereign grace, by his unsolicited stepping down into human history to snatch out one man and his family from the midst of a world of depravity and wrath, and to make him instead an heir of all good things. And so does he ever work, even today reaching down and plucking up sinners, idolaters, murderers, thieves, and whores from the city of Babel, and making them instead the heirs of all good things in Christ, in whom all the promises of God are â€œyesâ€ and â€œamenâ€ (2 Corinthians 1:20)! But let us reflect a little further on the nature of the good things that God promised to Abraham, when he called him out from his land and people.
First, God promised Abraham the land which he would later show to him. This promise arose from man's loss, when he was driven out from Eden, where God had dwelt with him; and from his failure at Babel, when he banded together with other men to ascend into heaven, but they were cast down and scattered instead. Its first, shadowy fulfillment came in the land of Canaan: for there, God did indeed meet with Abraham again, there Abraham often called upon the name of the Lord (e.g. Genesis 12:7-8; 13:3-4), and there would one day stand the tabernacle and the temple, where God's name and glory should dwell (cf. Deuteronomy 12:11; 1 Kings 8:10-11). But its ultimate fulfillment would come only through the Christ, who should truly bring down the presence of God to men in his own body (John 1:14; 2:18-22), and bring them back to the place where God should forevermore dwell, in the New Jerusalem, which is the antitype of the old (Galatians 4:25-26; Hebrews 13:22; Revelation 21:1-4). And so Abraham, although he walked in the land of Canaan, refused to accept that land alone as his promised inheritance, but looked ahead to Christ's day and rejoiced (John 8:56), for he awaited a different land and a different city, whose builder and maker was God (Hebrews 11:9-10).
Second, God promised Abraham a seed, and specifically, that he would be the father of many nations. This promise arose from man's loss as well, when instead of multiplying and filling the earth in unity and love, and ruling over it in joy and righteousness, men began to multiply with evil intent, and were disunited, and hated and killed each other; and it arose from man's failure in Babel, when men attempted to be joined together as one nation opposed to God, but were scattered and frustrated in their purpose. The first, shadowy fulfillment of this promise came in the birth of the nation of Israel, the children of Isaac, Abraham's seed of divine and miraculous origin, and likewise in his fathering many nations in the Arabic world (cf. Genesis 25:1-4, 12-18); but ultimately, it would be fulfilled only in the birth of Christ, who would come from Abraham's line, and gather together in himself the elect from every nation so that Abraham would truly become the father of all who should be in Christ by faith (Romans 4:16-18; Galatians 3:7, 28-29). And this ultimate meaning, of Abraham's fathering many multitudes through his being given one Seed in whom many multitudes would come together as one body, was foreshadowed from the beginning by the singular usage of that term, God having promised to give Abraham a â€œSeed,â€ and not â€œseedsâ€ (Galatians 3:16).
Third, God promised Abraham a blessing, and that all the nations of the world would be blessed in him. This promise likewise arose from man's loss in the Garden, when mankind received a curse for their rebellion, instead of a blessing; and also from man's failure in Babel, when they tried to wrest from God, as by force, the blessings of heaven and dominion over the earth, but received instead his wrath. But to Abraham, by his free act of grace, God promised the blessing that all men had forfeited. Now, this blessing was promised to Abraham, but also said to be in Abraham, and for all the nations; by which phrases we must acknowledge that the blessing of the earth and heaven and the presence of God â€“ yes, and every good thing that man had ever lost â€“ was in some sense in Abraham, and yet was greater than him, and should be both for him and for all the world. This is because in Abraham was the Seed who should be greater than he, the One who is before Abraham was (John 8:58), and the One who, arising from Abraham's line, should bless Abraham indeed, and bless all the nations of the world together with Abraham. And thus it was as well that, when God gave Abraham his promised child, Isaac, he did not say that â€œIsaac is your seed,â€ but rather that â€œin Isaac shall be called to you a Seed,â€ that is, the promised Seed who will bring a blessing is in Isaac, and will come through Isaac, but is not Isaac himself, except as a type and figure.
So in the calling of Abraham, we see God's promise of a coming Savior most wonderfully intensified and strengthened and made more clear; and this was not just in the nature of the promise itself, but also in the manner in which that promise was confirmed and signified. For after Abraham had received the promise, God not only reaffirmed it in words and visions many times (e.g. Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1; 21:12; 22:16-18), but he also confirmed it in at least two other very significant ways. First of all, he established a sovereign and irrevocable covenant with him, to give him those promised blessings indeed, at which time he passed alone through severed animal halves, in a symbol taking upon himself the full responsibility for fulfilling his promised obligations, at the pain of his own death (Genesis 15). Thus was Abraham assured that, even if it should mean that God himself would have to die to make it so, the blessings he had sworn would come indeed, and his promise he would fulfill. And ah, how admirably did God in fact fulfill those staggering promises to Abraham and all his seed, by sending his own Son to die in order that his word might not fail!
And then, we see the certainty of the promises signified in this, the institution of the sacrament of circumcision (Genesis 17). In this symbolic ritual, God foreshadowed the death of his Christ through a bloody cutting off of the flesh of the foreskin, the organ through which the promised Seed would come from Abraham. Because the foreskin of Abraham was cut off, the blessing to Abraham was sealed; and because the Seed of Abraham would one day be cut off for the people, his blessing would be won forevermore. And further, just as this cutting off took place in Abraham himself, and likewise in all his offspring, the thing was signified that, unless he partook in himself of the cutting off of the Messiah, he would not at all be an heir of the promised blessing. And so, for many generations, the sons of Abraham were cut off, in a figure, to signify their participation in the bloody death of Christ, and the death of their hard and wicked heart in his own death to sin, and so were assured of the benefits of that death, which is the manifold and wondrous blessing of Abraham. And ah, how sweet it is to think that we today have been circumcised with the true circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2:11-12), we have died with him to sin (Romans 6:1-4; Galatians 2:19-20), we have been raised again to new life (Colossians 3:1), and have been made his fellow-heirs of life and blessing (Romans 8:16-17)! Ah, brothers and sisters, how great a promise was made to our father Abraham, for the promise entailed only the Seed first sworn to Eve, who is Christ, our true and lasting blessing! Let us come to him in faith, for all the promises of God are fulfilled in him (2 Corinthians 1:20), and in union him we are made complete (Colossians 2:9-10), and brought in to the people of God's eternal good pleasure.