(This is the second of a series of articles that first appeared in 1950 in Truth magazine, published by Milwaukee Bible Institute/Worldwide Grace Testimony, now the Grace Gospel Fellowship. These articles have never before appeared in the Searchlight.)
To get the clearest understanding of God’s purpose concerning Abraham and his seed, let us first imagine ourselves in the position of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and read carefully and prayerfully some of the promises made to them.
THE PROMISES TO ABRAHAM, ISAAC AND JACOB
“And I will make of thee a great nation…and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:2,3).
“…Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward:
“For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.
“And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered” (Gen. 13:14-16).
“…Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, so shall thy seed be” (Gen. 15:5).
“And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Gen. 17:8).
“…In blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.
“And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed…” (Gen. 22:17,18).
“And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 26:4).
“And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 28:14).
A PERPLEXING PROBLEM
A simple reading of the above passages must convince the unbiased reader that the Hebrew fathers to whom these promises were originally made could understand them in no other way than that God was to bless and multiply their offspring, give both them and their offspring the land of Canaan and make them a blessing to all the world.
But approximately two millenniums later Paul, by the Spirit, wrote concerning these promises:
“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” (Gal. 3:16).
This statement from the pen of Paul has caused theologians no end of trouble. Elmer Barnes says of it:
“Now no one ever probably read this passage without feeling a difficulty, and without asking himself whether this argument is sound, and is worthy of a man of candour, and especially of an inspired man. Some of the difficulties in the passage are these. (1). The promise referred to the posterity of Abraham at large, without any particular reference to an individual. It is to his seed; his descendants; to all his seed or posterity. Such would be the fair and natural interpretation should it be read by hundreds or thousands of persons who had never heard of the interpretation here put upon it by Paul. (2). The argument of the apostle seems to proceed on the supposition that the word “seed” i.e. posterity, here cannot refer to more than one person. If it had, says he, it would have been in the plural number. But the fact is, that the word is often used to denote posterity at large; to refer to descendants without limitation, just as the word posterity is with us; and it is a fact, moreover, that the word is not used in the plural at all to denote a posterity, the singular form being constantly employed for that purpose….Indeed the plural form of the word is never used except in this place in Galatians. The difficulty, therefore, is that the remark here of Paul appears to be a trick argument, or a quibble more worthy of a trifling Jewish Rabbi, than a grave reasoner or an inspired man. I have stated this difficulty freely just as I suppose it has struck hundreds of minds, because I do not wish to shrink from the difficulty in examining the Bible, but to see whether it can be fairly met.”
This difficulty, stated so candidly by Barnes, has induced many to adopt a system of interpretation which is called the “spiritualization” of the Scriptures. Under this system, for example, the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are reconciled with Galatians 3:16 by giving the former a “spiritual” interpretation, thus changing their obvious meaning altogether. By Abraham’s seed the Church, the Body of Christ, was meant; Canaan refers to heaven, etc.
One outstanding Bible teacher who partially adopts this system boldly states that Galatians 3:16 is “a very simple and direct exegesis of the text in Genesis” and contends that the promises in Genesis predicted the coming of Christ, Abraham’s single Seed! Still, wavering a little, he also says: “In regard to the prophecies of Abraham’s seed, it does seem to me that the Old Testament leaves plenty of room for Paul’s interpretation!”
But one thing should be clearly understood: that if Paul’s words in Galatians 3:16 are an exegesis or interpretation of the text in Genesis then Genesis does not teach the blessing of the world through the nation Israel.
RECOGNIZE THE MYSTERY OR ALTER PROPHECY?
But why change any part of the Word of God to make it harmonize with another? It is all perfectly harmonious as it is. The key to the difficulty is to be found, not in the alteration of prophecy but in a recognition of the mystery revealed through Paul.
Galatians 3:16 is not an exegesis or an interpretation of the promises in Genesis at all, but a commentary on the Holy Spirit’s use of a word, and part of the revelation of the mystery.
Paul writes by revelation, pointing out that in speaking of Abraham’s descendants, God passed over all those words in which the singular and plural forms differ, and chose the word seed which, while singular in form, is used to denote many as well as one.1 He did this because He knew that Abraham’s multiplied seed could never prove a blessing to the world except in Christ. Indeed, the spiritual bankruptcy of the multiplied seed is now being demonstrated while the blessing of the world is wrapped up in Christ. The world will be blessed through the multiplied seed of Abraham, to be sure, but it will be the regenerate seed of the future. Thus the world will be blessed through Israel when she finds her place in Christ. Meantime the blessing is vested in Christ alone and we are called the seed of Abraham only because we are in Christ, who is Abraham’s Seed. And we received this position, not by promise, but by grace. Thus the apostle says:
“But the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise, by faith of2 Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (Gal. 3:22).
“That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ: that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14).
“And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).
But this is a revelation of the mystery, not of prophecy, nor does it for one moment invalidate the plain promises made to the Hebrew fathers.
When a promise, however gratuitous, is made, the promiser has at least one moral obligation toward the promisee: he, the promiser, does not intend to give, of the promise. If he knowingly misleads the promisee to expect something he, the promiser, does not intend to give, he commits an injustice. And thus it is with the promises in Genesis. Surely Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were given to understand that God would bless the world through their multiplied seed,3 and if God did not intend to do this was He not misleading them? He used the word “seed” simply because He knew that all was bound up in one Seed—Christ; that the multiplied seed would some day become a blessing to the world through the single Seed.
That God intends to keep the original promise just as it stands is clear from many passages in both the Old Testament and the New. We quote a few of these, entreating the reader to examine them as prayerfully and carefully as the original promises in Genesis:
“But ye shall be named the Priests of the Lord: men shall call you the Ministers of our God: ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory shall ye boast yourselves.
“And their seed shall be known among the Gentiles, and their offspring among the people: all that see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the Lord hath blessed” (Isa. 61:6,9).
“And it shall come to pass, that as ye were a curse among the heathen, O house of Judah, and house of Israel; so will I save you, and ye shall be a blessing: fear not, but let your hands be strong.
“In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you” (Zech. 8:13,23).
“And all nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land, saith the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:12).
“And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of His glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28).
“For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.
“And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.
“For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.
“As touching the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes”4 (Rom. 11:25-28).
- In the original as well as in English.
- Or, the fidelity of.
- The following passages show how Israelites down through the centuries did understand it in this way: Gen. 32:12; 48:3,4,19; Ex. 32:13; 33:1; Deut. 1:8,11; 9:28; 11:9; 19:8; 27:3; II Chron. 20:7; Luke 1:72-74; Acts 3:25,26.
- Note: Not “for the Father’s sake” but “for the fathers’ sakes,” i.e. the Hebrew fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.