A brief summary of the section. One paragraph should do it.
The Bible is filled with God’s promises to man. So much so that one way to look at the Bible is to consider it as the record of God’s promises and the ongoing story of how He plans to fulfill them. But men and women have responsibilities too, and this is brought out in the notion of covenant, another idea that is closely related and can be considered a useful way of summarizing what the Bible is all about. We’ll start by looking at some of God’s key promises, and then move at the end to a briefer review of the idea of covenant.
The first promise
No sooner had Adam and Eve broken God’s commandment than God immediately provided hope of a way to return to Him. Even the very words that He used to punish them contained within them a kernel of wonderful hope. Addressing the serpent, God said:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) (ESV)
This passage is so famous it has its own special name. It’s referred to as the ‘protoevangelion’, an awkward term which means ‘first-gospel’ – it’s the first clear example of the gospel hope in the Bible, and it is found as soon as Adam and Eve sinned. This makes it very clear that God really does want to save people from their fate of sin and death.
What does the promise mean? It’s a symbolic picture which needs a little unpacking. Note that a distinction is made between two ‘seeds’ or offspring who will be antagonistic to one another – the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. The serpent represents the power of temptation and sin (it was the prompter by which Adam and Eve sinned in the first place), and the results of temptation are often sin, and the result of sin (its ‘offspring’, if you like) is death. Death is ultimately to be destroyed (crushed on the head).
But what of the seed of the woman? We are being told something anomalous here, because of course a woman does not have a seed in the strictest sense. It is the man who produces seed which fertilizes the female egg, but here a seed of a woman is spoken of and no man is mentioned. This is a reference to the future coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. While he was born of a woman, no human father was involved in his conception, so he is the only person who could be truly called the ‘seed of the woman’ in that sense. While there will be constant antagonism between human offspring in general and the challenges of temptation, sin and its consequences, one day a special offspring is promised who will crush sin. Jesus himself will be bruised in the process (his victory over sin did involve his sacrifice and death for three days – a temporary ‘injury’ just like the bruise on the heel described in Genesis 3.
The early chapters of Genesis contain other promises (God’s promise to protect Cain, the promise to Noah that the earth will never be flooded again), but it is when we come to Abraham and his descendants Isaac and Jacob that the concept of God as a promise-maker really kicks in. God’s promises to Abraham are absolutely pivotal to the Bible’s message. In the New Testament we are told that believers in Jesus inherit the same promises that God made to Abraham. If they show faith like Abraham, then they will effectively be Abraham’s children, spiritually speaking, and will be blessed with the promises God made. Nowhere is this put clearer than in the following passage:
“And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:15) (ESV)
This verse and others like it make it abundantly clear why God’s promises to Abraham are so critical. But what did God actually promise Abraham. There are a number of aspects:
- That God would give him a son and ultimately make him a great nation (several nations in fact). This has literally come true (he is the ancestor of the Jewish race and Arab races also), and it is also spiritually true, as Paul just explained in Galatians.
- That God would give him a land which he would inherit for ever. Since Abraham received hardly any of the land in his own lifetime, this was implicitly a promise that God would one day raise him from the dead and set up His kingdom upon the earth (as other passages explain).
- That God would bless him abundantly, and that Abraham himself would become a source of blessing for other people and nations in the world. Christ is descended from Abraham (as the very first verse of the New Testament explains), and he is the channel through which that blessing can be realized.
- The God would be with Abraham and his descendents; that He would look after them and be their God.
- That Abraham would have a special descendent, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Various aspects of these promises are made to Abraham not once, but repeatedly throughout his life – you can read about them on about six or seven occasions in Genesis 12-25, and they are repeated again to Isaac and Jacob. That is a measure of their importance. It is as if God is deliberately setting out to define Himself as a God who makes promises. It is almost as if He can’t help Himself – He wants so much to give these good gifts and blessings to His children. The rest of the Bible is the unfolding history of the development and fulfillment of those promises first laid out in Genesis.
Promises to David
Another critical group of promises are those made to King David. God tells David that a son of his will sit on his throne in Jerusalem and ultimately reign for ever. This son would be unique, unlike any other king who has preceded him, and would have a special relationship with God as his son.
“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. E shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son…” (2 Samuel 7:12-14a) (ESV)
So these prophecies are a very clear prediction of the Lord Jesus, focusing on his role as king and on his special relationship with God as his father. Whereas with Abraham the emphasis was on land, nation, descendents and blessing, with David the message of God’s promises takes a further step by concentrating on Jesus as future king on David’s throne, a king with a unique status as Son of David and Son of God, and a king who will reign for ever. These are remarkable prophecies, made hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.
It’s perhaps no surprise given the importance of these promises to David, that the first verse of the New Testament should point out not only that Jesus is the son of Abraham, but also that he is the son of David. The early chapters of the New Testament quickly go on to explain that he was also the son of God.
There are many other important promises of God in the Old Testament, but most of them tie in somehow or other to those essential elements we have considered in the promises to Abraham and David. Here are some examples:
- To Moses (the greatest Old Testament prophet and the giver of the Law), God promised that He would one day raise up a prophet like Moses, yet even greater. Moses spoke with God ‘face to face’, as it were, yet the relationship between God and this new prophet, not to mention the effectiveness of his work, would be even greater (Deuteronomy 18:21).
- To the Jews God promised both blessings and punishments according to whether or not His people obeyed Him. More on this LINK[here].
- In the prophets, God reiterated His message of judgment or blessing (according to the behaviour of His people), but He promised that even in spite of themselves He would one day cleanse and restore them, and establish His kingdom upon the earth. Prophets like Isaiah provide some wonderful glimpses into that amazing future time when Jesus will return and all things which are wrong with the world will be put right. Take a look at Isaiah 35, for instance.
And the promises continue into the New Testament. The New Testament both shows how God has and will fulfill His promises of the Old, and it also extends them and makes them more specific. Jesus promises to be with his followers in everything they do, just as God had promised to be with characters like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Jesus promises that He will come again to judge the world and to set it in order. In fact, the very last promise of the Bible is one spoken on Jesus’ lips – the promise that He will come back to the earth again.
The framework of Bible promises that we have considered centering around the work of Jesus and God’s future kingdom can be extended by thinking of the notion of covenant. A covenant is usually made between two parties, and it has contractual terms (both positive and negative) associated with it.
Unfortunately, man has had a habit of breaking his side of the agreement. The notion of covenant is there implicitly in the garden of Eden – but Adam and Eve break their side of the terms. God made a covenant with His people on Mount Sinai when they signed up to be His people, but though they promised to obey God, their subsequent history showed them constantly reneging on that promise. In the end things got so bad that God had to temporarily break-off His side of the covenant also by sending His people into captivity in Babylon.
Other important covenants were made with Noah, with Abraham (the covenant of circumcision for the Jews), and with David. One of the highly interesting and encouraging aspects of this is that on some occasions God emphasizes that He will keep His side of the bargain, even if we break our part through sin. In spite of ourselves, God still wants to save us and give the things that He has promised. And He has provided the means for this to happen by the most special covenant of all: the New Covenant, spoken of in the New Testament.
The New Covenant
We can broadly think of the Old Covenant as being the state of affairs in the Old Testament (that’s why it has that name – the word ‘testament’ is related to the concept of ‘covenant’, of course). In that world, God’s people knew what they had to do in order to maintain a relationship with God – keep His commands as enshrined in the Law of Moses, and offer appropriate sacrifices. The problem was that they always failed to keep it, and the sacrifices became an end in themselves.
The New Covenant, enshrined in the New Testament and the work of the Lord Jesus is different because its basis is not in our ability to keep it. Instead it is based on God’s free gift of life and forgiveness. What we have to do is believe in God and in the sacrifice of Christ. If we believe in God, then we become just like Abraham (because that was what was distinctive about him), and God is pleased to bless and forgive us.
In Bible times, it was often the case that an animal sacrifice was made to authenticate or ratify a covenant. In that light, it’s interesting the the New Covenant centres around Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin. Before his death as he shared the Last Supper with his disciples, he said: “This is the blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for the remission (= forgiveness) of sins.”
There is perhaps one final covenant to mention. The rite of baptism is a kind of act of covenant-making. In the Bible, baptism is something undertaken by responsible believers (as opposed to babies) who repent from their sins and want to commit to a new life in Christ. This is a promise that they make in faith, and in return God’s promise is that, if they remain faithful, by God’s grace He will forgive all their sins and ultimately give them a place in His kingdom. That kingdom will be the ultimate fulfillment of all the many promises and covenants that God has made throughout the Bible. At the end of the day, what God wants is a people who will serve Him willingly and be part of His special family in the kingdom that He is preparing. This is the essence of what God’s promises and what His New Covenant in Christ is all about.