As a child my daughter Michelle loved Enid Blyton’s series The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. One bedtime as I read to her we came within a few chapters of the end of the book. She begged me to read on, but I insisted that it was time for her to be tucked in and to go to sleep. “Promise me you’ll read the rest of the chapters tomorrow night,” she pleaded. “I promise,” I said with a smile. Next evening there was a faculty meeting that was prolonged and went on until dark. Michelle was sound asleep when I got home. Next morning as I was eating my breakfast a very irate child confronted me: “You didn’t keep your promise; you lied,” she blurted out.
“I didn’t lie,” I explained, “I was unable to keep my promise due to other circumstances.” Unpersuaded by my subtle distinction, she emphatically repeated her charge. “You broke your promise, you lied,” she said and stomped off. I went to work that morning with a heavy heart and regretting that I had not left the faculty meeting earlier. Michelle has forgotten this incident and now, with three children of her own, was quick to forgive me when I recently shared with her how her dad had once disappointed her childhood trust in him.
The God who Cannot Lie
Mercifully, God’s promises are more trustworthy than mine. “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things [the promise and the oath] in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may be greatly encouraged” (Hebrews 6:17,18, NIV)1. So God keeps His word. Or if you like, He remembers His covenant, that is, His sworn promise. That’s what a covenant is—a sworn oath or promise.
Notice the parallels in the following passages (italics added): “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham” (Luke 1:72–75); “the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance’” (Psalm 105:9–11).
God’s Promises to Abraham
God made four promises to the childless and aged Abram and Sarai. First, that they would have their own son, and so Isaac was born, and more than that God “brought him [Abram] outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them’. Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants [seed] be’” (Genesis 15:5). That’s God’s promise, and then came the result: “But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific [in Goshen, Egypt]; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). “The LORD your God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:10). Thus God kept His promise, for He is the God who cannot lie.
Secondly, God promised Abram that “all the land [of Canaan] that you see I will give to you and to your offspring [seed] forever” (Genesis 13:15). Abram trusted God’s promise of an heir (Genesis 15:6), but now he wavered at the assurance that he and his seed would possess the land of Canaan. It was then that God confirmed His promise with a binding covenant. “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants [seed] I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates . . . ’” (Genesis 15:18–21).2
It took several centuries but finally the promise was realised: “Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there” (Joshua 21:43). Hence again God kept His promise, for He is the God who cannot lie.
Thirdly, God promised Abraham “to be God to you and to your offspring [seed] after you” (Genesis 17:7); “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7); “I will walk among you, and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:12). Patrick Miller notes that this promise of a special relationship between God and Israel is the “heart of the covenant”.3 And it too came to pass: “Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 27:9); “yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants [seed] after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today” (Deuteronomy 10:15; 29:12–13, italics added). So once more God kept His promise, for He is the God who cannot lie.
Fourthly, God promised Abraham that through him and his seed all nations would be blessed: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12.3; Acts 3:25); “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” [Abraham]” (Genesis 18.18); “and through your [Abraham and Isaac] offspring [seed] all nations on earth will be blessed” (22:18; 26:4 NIV); “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you [Jacob] and in your offspring [seed]” (Genesis 28:14).
It is this fourth element of God’s promise to Abraham that attracts Paul in Galatians. “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed,” Paul argues. “Scripture,” he notes “does not say ‘and to seeds’, meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed’, meaning one person, who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16 NIV). Of course “seed” is a collective singular referring to the whole nation, as is clear from the images used, that is, “stars of heaven”, “sand of the seashore” and “dust of the earth”. Paul is ignoring the context of Genesis 17, which uses “seed” six times, and concentrates on the word “seed” itself, which allows him to apply the term to Jesus.
“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you’ (Galatians 3.8).” Note that the “gospel” here focuses on the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26–29 NIV, italics added). “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11 NIV). This inclusiveness is a crucial part of Paul’s gospel and yet we still struggle to accept it.
Christ died a cursed death in order that in Him “the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). This was not revealed to past generations but is now made known “that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6). This blessing of the Gentiles or nations is a crucial part of God’s promise to Abraham and his seed—and the Sinai law, “which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise” (Galatians 3:17). The Abrahamic-Mosaic covenants separated Jew from Gentile, but the gospel of Christ unites them and thus fulfils the fourth promise that all the nations would be blessed in his seed, for He is the God that cannot lie.
Every year on Australia Day (January 26) thousands of foreign-born and speaking persons are granted Australian citizenship with all the privileges and responsibilities therein pertaining. This is an incredible gift that is undeserved and unearned. Nevertheless, to honour the gift, each recipient must observe the laws of the land. However, being an Australian citizen requires an ethos that cannot be defined by law, indeed goes beyond the law. So it is with the gift of being welcomed into the kingdom of God. The fruits of the Spirit are not against the law, but nor are they limited by it: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law [Mosaic or otherwise] against such things” (Galatians 5:22,23).
So “is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not!” (Galatians 3:21 NRSV slightly modified); but neither is the law identical with nor able to implement the promise. If the law could give life, then being right with God would have been through the law, but that is the preserve of Christ alone: “For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’. For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen’, to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1:20, italics added).
Part two is coming in the November 6 issue of Adventist Record.
Dr Norman Young is adjunct professor at Avondale University.