To Whom is the Promise Given?
© C. O. Bishop 2/28/15 THCF 3/1/15
Galatians 3:15-18; compare Genesis 13:15-16
We have talked about the Promise of the Spirit, and our need to embrace that Promise. One thing that has always bothered me, in the following few verses, is that, from my human perspective, it always seemed that Paul was playing a little “fast and loose” with the grammar of the promise of God to Abraham, in Genesis. But I know that this is God’s inspired Word…Paul was doing exactly as he was directed. I also know that God is God, and He certainly has the right to comment on His own Word. So how can I resolve the question?
The Septuagint vs. the Masoretic Text
It recently occurred to me that, in modern times, we have always only had two real sources for the Old Testament scriptures: The Masoretic text (which is Hebrew and Aramaic, and the most recent example at about AD 200)— and the Septuagint (a Greek translation from about 140 BC.)
We might think, “Well…maybe a lot was lost in the Translation!” (as is frequently the case in translations), but this question was checked by hundreds of scholars over the last several hundred years, translating (again) the Hebrew into Greek to see if their translation matched the Septuagint; and, the reverse: translating the Greek Septuagint back into Hebrew, to see if it came close to the original language. All these exercises were done for two reasons:
- Believers earnestly want to know what God’s Word really says, and because
- Attacks are frequently made by the enemy and we feel forced to defend the Word of God.
Yes, the translation exercises showed the reliability of the two texts. And, in 1948, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the caves at Qumran, the scholarly elite were filled with Joy; some because they were sure that these texts (including most of the Old Testament, in Hebrew and Aramaic,) would prove the unreliable character of the Bible, and others—believers— because they hoped exactly the opposite. As it turned out, over the years, as these scrolls were painstakingly opened and preserved for posterity, but carefully studied, as well, the scrolls strongly supported the accuracy and reliability of the Bible.
So, What Did Jesus Read? What Did He Quote?
Perhaps the strongest support for the Septuagint is the fact that virtually every single Old Testament quotation in the New Testament, whether quoted by an Apostle or by Jesus Himself, is quoted from the Septuagint… word for word. That is the reason the New Testament (for example) says “a virgin shall be with Child”, when they could have translated the Hebrew to mean “a young girl”. The Hebrew word (“alma”) does mean, “young girl”, but is usually used to mean a young girl who is not married and not sexually active. The translators of the Septuagint understood this, and chose to use the Greek word “parthenon”, which specifically means “virgin”, when they could have used the word “korasion” which simply means a “young girl”.
In light of that, one could either say, from the perspective of an unbeliever, that the translators (all 70 of them) had made a serious error, trying to prove the virgin birth (this was completed 140 years before Jesus was born: the translators had never heard of Jesus), or, still as an unbeliever, that Jesus and all his disciples deliberately chose to use a flawed translation, trying to prove it. Either response relegates the entire New Testament to the trash-heap, as one has to prejudge the translation to be false and prejudge Jesus to be a deceiver.
To a believer, though, this is powerful evidence that Jesus fully approved the Greek translation of His own Word…He quoted it! And so did Paul. If Paul was the only one who used the Septuagint text, we might be tempted to think he was manipulating the meaning, here. But Jesus was very consistent in its use as well, and with similar results. My conclusion is that there are doctrinal points that were not specific enough in Hebrew, and God has made it clear in Greek. It might, in fact, be evidence that the Septuagint is an “inspired translation”. But all we know for sure is that Jesus used it constantly, as did his Apostles.
So, what is the difference? Does it matter which “Bible” Jesus quoted? I think it probably does! Let’s see what Paul had to say:
The Covenant—the Promise
15 Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.
Paul is appealing to human law: he says, if a contract has been signed—an agreement made—you can’t start “adding things later”, or changing the terms of the agreement. Much more so, the covenant of God: God will not change it, because He is Holy and Righteous, and because it is His Word. We cannot change it because we have no authority to do so. Paul points out that it would violate both the principle of Law and of Promise, to alter a covenant after the fact.
16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.
To whom was the initial promise made, in Genesis 13:15? It was made to Abraham, regarding the land. And, in response to Abraham’s faith, it was extended to a lot of people. But the first giving of that promise was made to Abraham “and his seed”. In normal English, I would have interpreted that to mean his offspring, however few or numerous they may have proven to be. In Hebrew that would seem to be true as well—the words in Genesis 13:15 and 13:16 in Hebrew are identical (“zera”…seed.) As far as I can determine, the Hebrew word for “seed” is used the same as the English word—it could be singular or plural, depending upon the context. But in Greek, there are at least three different forms, and just as Jesus did, Paul was quoting the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
But: in the Septuagint, the word for “seed” in verse 15 is specifically singular! I looked up the Greek word used in Genesis 13:15 in the Septuagint, and, as a matter of fact, it is the exact same word that Paul used in Galatians 3:16 (“spermati”). I never would have understood this point without God bringing it to light: in English, the plural for seed is not always “seeds”—we say “I set aside 100 pounds of wheat for seed.” And we would mean that this wheat was being saved for planting, not eating. But Paul points out that, at least in this case, God meant the singular—the promised “seed”—the person of Christ.
But the word used in Genesis 13:16 is a different form of the same word, and is commonly used as a plural or substantive, meaning a large quantity (“sperma”), meaning “seed—and lots of it”. The particular promise of the land and blessing, then, was not initially to the whole family of Israel, but to one single offspring: Christ. The specific promise regarding Abraham’s offspring being so numerous uses a different word form.
There is a third form of the Greek word for seed (“spermasin”) that is specifically plural, referring to a numeric plural. That is the one Paul pointed out that God had NOT used. There is no question that Paul was making a valid point; again, because he quoted the Septuagint.
Why does this matter?
To Whom Was the Promise Given?
The initial promise, of course, was to Abraham. But the portion that said, “…and thy seed…” used the specifically singular word for “seed”, and, as we see in Galatians, that particular seed was not in reference to Isaac (who wasn’t born yet), but to Christ.
Since I do not easily read Greek, but rather have to look up every word, as a rule, I would not have caught this detail. And since I don’t even own a copy of the Septuagint, but had to find a copy on the internet that I could read and compare to the Greek New Testament (which I do own), I definitely never would have known that there was a detail I was missing without God commenting on His own Word and showing us something special.
So why is that so special? Because, if the Jews had been correct in assuming that all of the promises were to them because they were Abraham’s offspring, then those promises could not be applied to me unless I became a Jew. In fact, even then they would not apply, because I am not his offspring at all, by nature, and becoming a Jew would not change that. But…if, as Paul states, the promises were to Christ, then they can be applied to me, if I am in Christ.
The promise is both narrowed and broadened in that one explanation: it is narrowed from “all the Jews” to “just the Messiah”. It is broadened from “only the Jews” to “anyone and everyone who places his or her trust in the living Christ.” Paul underscores this “positional truth” in another passage; 1st Corinthians 15:22—“all in Christ shall be made alive”. If you are “in Christ” then the promises will be to you.
Are there specific promises given only to the Jews? Yes, I believe there are. I do not believe that the Church has “replaced” the Jews in the plan of God. Their promises are virtually all physical, earthly blessings. Ours are, without exception, spiritual, heavenly blessings. And a Jew who embraces Christ steps into a new relationship. Just as the Levite, who had no inheritance in the land, but whose inheritance was the person of God and the priesthood of God, the person whose life is hidden in Christ trades the earthly and temporary for the heavenly and eternal.
So; the question Paul is exploring here continues to be the relationship of Law to Promise—Law to Grace—Law to faith. His answer comes in the form of a question: “Which came first?” The answer is that the Promise came 430 years before the Law. His conclusion is that the Law could not change the Promise. By choosing to trust in Christ and his finished work at the Cross, we sidestep the curse of the Law, and embrace the eternal Promise of God. Paul goes on:
17 And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.
Paul argues that, if the Law changed the promise in any way, then the promise is broken. But God does not break his promises, and the Law, coming far later, has no authority to change or set aside the promise.
By the way, remember that the Promise was an entirely one-sided covenant made by God…there was nothing for Abraham to do: no further conditions to meet. He had already been declared righteous by God. How? By Grace, through faith; and God made the unconditional covenant of the Promise, with no way for Abraham to fail.
Remember we have talked about how a serious, binding covenant between two Jews was made? The two parties brought a sacrifice, and split the pieces of that sacrifice, and together walked between the pieces of the sacrifice, calling God as their witness that they were bound by the terms of the contract.
But in Genesis 15, God did not allow Abraham to walk with him between the pieces of the sacrifice. He allowed Abraham to see, but not participate, as He himself walked alone through the sacrifices. Does that sound at all familiar? Doesn’t it strike you as significant that Jesus walked alone through all the trial of Gethsemane, the trial and the Cross? Alone, into the Grave, alone in the Resurrection and the Ascension…but invites us to join Him there, by faith? He has invited you to see, but not to participate, beyond faith. You do NOT earn your salvation in any way.
God bound Himself to the Covenant…there was nothing for Abraham to do, to fulfill “his part of the agreement”. It was entirely one-sided! There was no way that Abraham could fail, somehow negating the promise. The condition (Faith) had already been met. Abraham had already been declared righteous, and the Promise was secure. Does that sound familiar? We have already been saved by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8, 9). Peace with God has already been established (Romans 5:1) and the promise is eternally secure.
18 For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.
If the inheritance was somehow switched over to being accessible through the Law (instead of promise) then the promise would have to be set aside…and it was not. The Law and the Promise are not working at cross-purposes. They are working together.
Paul first points out what is common knowledge—that the Promise was given apart from Law. He pointed out that Abraham had the promise nearly half a century before Law was introduced. Then he concludes that inheriting the promise is also not connected to Law, but to Grace and Faith, just as it was in Abraham’s case.
If you want the promise of God to be applied to your life, look to the one who inherited them all…Jesus! If you have received Him as your savior, then the Promises are already yours, because you are in Christ. But, how do we experience them?
On a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis, we experience the full blessing of God through faith and obedience. We regain fellowship through confession (1st John 1:9), and maintain it by simply walking by faith (1st John 1:7). As the Holy Spirit points out things in our lives that He wants to change or eliminate, we can say, “Amen, Lord”, and give those things to Him as an act of Worship, or we can scream, “NO! That’s my favorite!” and cling to our own way. As we give our lives over to Him, bit by bit, we grow closer to Him; we understand more of His perspective, and we learn to walk more consistently.
A baby learning to walk is very unstable. But eventually he or she learns to walk reliably, and seldom stumbles. This happens through practice, as the child grows stronger and gains a better sense of balance. We can do this, too! We can:
- Practice confession and obedience—that is how we regain fellowship and walk with God. And it takes perseverance and practice.
- Feed on the Word of God to grow stronger and healthier.
- Pray for God’s leading, so that we will be sensitive to His Word.
- Fellowship with other believers. This is how we learn the joy of walking with God.
Press on, my friends! It is worth it, every step of the way!
Lord Jesus, we ask that we may partake in the Divine Nature through the Promises available to us in You, as we fellowship with You and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Make us the Men and Women of God you have chosen us to be. We pray these things so that we might be to your honor and glory.