Theology Tuesday- Covenant Theology #6
Last week, we analyzed the covenant with Noah. Today, we see how the covenant with Abraham continues to reveal the larger purposes of God in the covenant of grace.
In Genesis 12, God speaks to the great-great-great-great (9 greats in all) grandson of Noah, a man named Abraham. God tells Abraham to go to a land that God will direct him to, and that He will make Abraham into a great nation, and that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him. It’s quite a calling, especially for a 75-year old man whose wife is barren and therefore has no children.
God will speak to Abraham two more times to fill in the details of His covenant. In Genesis 15, God explicitly tells Abraham that he will have a son and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. In an earlier post, we looked at Genesis 15:12-21 where God ‘cuts’ the covenant with Abraham by having Abraham cut up some animals and arrange a walkway between their carcasses. God then causes Abraham to fall asleep, and God passes through the pieces alone. By this, God was indicating that He would take the deadly consequences of humanity’s breaking of the covenant. This is another foreshadowing of the work of Jesus on the cross.
In Genesis 17, after 24 years have passed with no son born to Abraham and Sarah, God repeats His promise to Abraham that He will make him the father of a multitude of nations, and that Abraham’s offspring will be given the land of Canaan as the land of promise. In Genesis 17:9-14, God gives a covenant sign to Abraham and to his offspring- circumcision. In order to be included in the covenant, all the males of a household had to be circumcised, starting with boys who are eight days old. Now, why did only men get the sign of the covenant? Again, we see the headship principle- that in the Old Testament covenant, men represent women. But, why include infant boys in the covenant sign? To include them in the covenant as soon as possible. Original sin starts at birth, why should the covenant of grace not start at birth? But notice that the sign of the covenant is for both young and old- born into the faith and converting to the faith.
Interestingly, Colossians 2:11-12 tells us that after Jesus came that circumcision gave way to baptism as the sign of the covenant: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Circumcision was a bloody sign, showing (quite graphically) that sin needed to be cut off from us in order for us to be made holy and acceptable to God. But because Jesus shed His blood, we no longer need a bloody sign. Now, we are to baptize people to symbolize the cleansing from sin that we need. And now, happily, baptism is more inclusive, not less inclusive than circumcision. Women are baptized, and we Presbyterians (and Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, and Orthodox) believe that infants should be baptized, too, to continue to receive the sign of the covenant.
There are three stages of fulfillment to God’s promises to Abraham. The promise of descendants was first physically fulfilled when 90-year old Sarah finally gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 22 tells the fascinating story of how God almost destroyed the child of promise, but we don’t have time to look at that story). The promise of the land was fulfilled when Israel took the Promised Land starting in the book of Joshua. Joshua 21:43-45 says that, “The Lord gave Israel all the land which he had sworn to their fathers.” Now, this land, the land of Canaan, is not the most beautiful or most protected land in the world. But, what it was was the crossroads of the ancient world. As Michael Williams writes, “God’s choice of Canaan as a land for Abraham was intentional and central to the redemptive mission for which Abraham was chosen. What was important about this particular piece of real estate was its geographic relationship to other lands. It was a doorway to the world, on the way to everywhere else… When Israel finally entered the land under Joshua, it was beginning its mission in earnest” (Far As the Curse Is Found, 115). That mission was to evangelize the world.
The greater second stage of fulfillment of those promises of land and offspring came in Jesus Christ. For, in Christ the great evangelist, the covenant was extended to all people groups, not just Israel, whether physically descended from Abraham or not. As Romans 4:11 says, Abraham “is the father of all who believe.” And so, we can see how, in the church, Abraham’s descendants really begin to be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And we are sent by Jesus to make more spiritual descendants of Abraham: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
And the third stage of fulfillment is coming, when Christ returns and sets up His kingdom on earth as the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21). The land of God’s people will not just be Canaan, it will be the whole world. Only by seeing the future fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham can we see how, in him, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”