Pastor David B. Curtis


Media #312a

Abraham's Seed

Galatians 3:15-18

Delivered 02/06/2005

I want to review what we have seen thus far in chapter 3 before we get to our text for today. In 3:1-5 Paul makes it clear that if you received the Spirit of God through faith in Christ at the beginning, not through works of law, then the only way to go on empowered by the Spirit is by faith, not by works of law. Some of the church members in Galatia had been bewitched into thinking that one starts the Christian life by faith, but completes it themselves by works. Paul says, "You are idiots!" That nullifies grace and dishonors Christ. Not only justification, but also sanctification is by faith, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

Then in 3:6-9 Paul supports this view further with the example of Abraham, and the teaching that the only way to be a child of Abraham is through the faith Abraham had. The blessing of Abraham comes not to those who show their merit through works of law, but to those who trust the promises of God as Abraham did.

Last week we looked at 3:10-14, where Paul makes the same point in a different way. He says that if you do engage in works of law, you are under a curse (3:10). We saw that even the law of Moses taught faith and condemned works. Yet, even though we are all under a curse, which is spiritual death, Christ came precisely to redeem people like us from the curse of the law (3:13). He became a curse for us. And the result, in verse 14, is that instead of a curse we now inherit the blessing of Abraham; that is, we receive eternal life when we trust Christ.

In other words, in all three paragraphs, so far in chapter three, the point has been: you can't become a mature, sanctified Christian, you can't become a child of Abraham, you can't enjoy the promise of the Spirit if you are living by "works of law" instead of by faith in the Son of God. The effort to keep the law as a means of obliging God or man to bless you is a transgression of the law itself and it brings a person under the law's curse (3:10). So the Judaizers are wrong to teach the Galatian Christians to supplement their faith with works of the law, and Paul is using all his efforts in this book to cure Christians of such deadly legalism.

Now in 3:15-18 I think Paul deals with a possible objection the Judaizers may have with his position. I think they may have said something like this: "Well, Paul, we don't agree with you about Abraham; we think it was his works that showed him worthy of the promised blessing. But let's grant you your point that Abraham was justified by faith. Maybe that's the way God wanted to start Israel's history. But there is no way you can escape the fact that 430 years after Abraham, God thought it necessary to add the law through Moses at Mt. Sinai. And if the law, with its 600+ commandments, does not teach that our inheritance comes on the basis of works, what does it teach? When we tell Galatian believers, who have begun with faith, to exert their own efforts now to complete their sanctification through works of law, we are doing just what God did. He gave our people a promise through Abraham, which, you say, was received by faith, and then he added the law to make clear what our part in the process is. So the course of redemptive history shows that our inheritance does come from works of the law. Why else would God have added a law 430 years later if not to make crystal clear that we must go beyond your view of Abraham and exert our own effort and in this way earn our right to the inheritance."

Our text for this morning has to do with the theological content of the Abrahamic covenant and the historical and theological relationship between that covenant and the law of Moses. Paul reminds his readers, with a human analogy, that even wills and contracts made between human beings remained in force until the fulfillment of their terms. Likewise, the covenant God made with Abraham remains in force until God fulfills it completely.

Galatians 3:15 (NASB) Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it.

Notice that Paul calls them "brethren," which is kind of softening the tone a little bit. He opened chapter 3 by calling them "idiots." That was pretty strong. But now he's just trying to get them to think with him, and he affectionately calls them "brethren."

Using a human analogy, he likens God's promise to Abraham to the will that people make. In our world, we call such a document the "Last Will and Testament." The word "testament," in fact, is from the same Greek word that is translated "covenant" in this verse.

When a man writes his last will and testament, he puts within that will his wishes as to what is to be done with his estate. Among other things, he specifies who are to be the beneficiaries. He is under no obligation to include them in the will, and the inheritance is not compensation for what the beneficiaries have done. The fact, nevertheless, is that if they are named in this will, then they are to receive the inheritance.

Paul notes here that even in the case of a human will, once it has been confirmed or validated, the terms therein cannot be altered. After the death of the testator, its instructions must be carried out in every detail. The implication is that the testament of God, who is infinitely more trustworthy than man, is all the more dependable and unchangeable. Paul sets this up as an illustration of why the Mosaic law must not be interpreted as an annulment or alteration of the terms of the Abrahamic covenant.

The point is that nothing which came after this legal arrangement with Abraham would change the original covenant that God made with him. Both the Gentile Christians in Galatia along with the Judaizers would have understood this illustration. They would have concluded that the blessing, which was given to Abraham by God, was received by Abraham by faith as he believed in the promises of God.

This "irrevocable trust agreement" that God made with Abraham is described in terms of the beneficiary of the trust (v. 16), the date of the trust (v. 17), and the condition for inheritance (v. 18). Our study of these terms of the Abrahamic covenant will enable us to appreciate the gracious, unconditional nature of God's love for us.

The Beneficiary of the Trust

Galatians 3:16 (NASB) Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ.

Now, as to the promises given to Abraham, the Judaizers would argue that they were only given to Israel since they were the seed or descendants of Abraham. Therefore, since Abraham was later instructed by God to be circumcised, along with his family, the Judaizers' reasoning was that to be a true Christian, who has accepted the Messiah who came through the Jews, everyone must be circumcised to lock in their salvation.

Following that line of argument, Paul says, "God specified in His will that the beneficiaries were to be Abraham and his seed." The apostle calls particular attention to the word "seed," as distinguished from "seeds." And that singular seed that God had in Christ, not all the blood descendants of Abraham.

Let me tell you what I see this verse as saying and then try to explain why. Paul is saying that the primary recipients of the Abrahamic covenant were Abraham and Christ. This, of course, would include all who are in Christ - believers. This promise is not realized in the Jews, but Christians. Apart from Paul's divinely inspired commentary, how many of us would have understood that Abraham's seed was Christ? Please listen: When the New Testament authors comment on an Old Testament passage, they do not give an interpretation, but THE interpretation. The New Testament interprets the Old. The Old Covenant was a veiled representation of the New Covenant.

It is in the New Testament that we learn that the material things of the Old Covenant were types and shadows of spiritual counterparts found in the New Covenant. We are to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. We must understand that the last 27 books are a divinely inspired commentary on the first 39 books.

Milton S. Terry, in his book Biblical Hermeneutics writes: "It is of the first importance to observe that, from a Christian point of view, the Old Testament cannot be fully apprehended without the help of the New" (p. 18).

After Pentecost, the birth date of the Church, the Holy Spirit unlocked the previously hidden truths of the Old Covenant:

John 16:12-13 (NASB) "I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.

As we shall see, the interpretations that the New Testament authors provide are often very different than the prevailing teachings of today. For example, let's look at an Old Testament prophecy and its New Testament fulfillment:

Malachi 4:5 (NASB) "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.

Without the New Testament, we would understand this to refer to a second coming of Elijah before the second coming of Christ. This is how the disciples saw it. As they had experienced the vision on the Mount of transfiguration, they asked Jesus:

Matthew 17:10 (NASB) And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"

They understood that Elijah was to show up before the parousia of the Lord. But according to Jesus, they missed his coming:

Matthew 17:11-12 (NASB) And He answered and said, "Elijah is coming and will restore all things; 12 but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands."

The disciples knew the prophecy about Elijah, but they didn't understand that Elijah was a type that saw its fulfillment in John the Baptist. The prophecy of Malachi was actually fulfilled, but it was not physically fulfilled. John came in the Spirit of Elijah. Speaking to Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, the angel said:

Luke 1:17 (NASB) "And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

The Jews expected the reappearance of the literal Elijah, and John replies to that mistaken notion in:

John 1:21 (NASB) And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said^, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No."

Jesus is telling them that if they want to understand the second coming of Elijah, they have got to look at the spiritual.

Matthew 11:13-14 (NASB) "For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 "And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come.

So we see that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord. If Christ had not taught us that John was the Elijah to come, would Christians still be looking for Him?

When Paul says in Galatians 3:16, "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed, that is, Christ," he is giving us the divinely inspired commentary of the Abrahamic covenant. The importance of this verse cannot be over stressed.

Galatians 3:16 (NASB) Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ.

What promises is he talking about? This is a reference to the Abrahamic covenant and the promises God made to Abraham. Before we go further, let's make a distinction between a promise and an agreement. An agreement made between a parent and child would involve responsibilities and consequences that would be agreed on ahead of time. Agreements can be both positive and negative. Here is an example of a positive agreement: "If you do your homework, I will read you a story." An example of a negative agreement could be: "If you don't eat your peas, you can't have dessert." But in either case, each side has a responsibility. An agreement is made ahead of time with certain consequences to follow.

Promises are different than agreements; A promise is based on one person: the parent expresses love from his or her heart to the child. For example, let's say that I promised my grand-children that on Saturday I would take them out to get ice cream. I made that promise to them simply because I loved them. No conditions were involved, they did not have to do anything; they did not have to contribute anything to help me keep my promise. Based on my love for them and my desire to bless them, I promised them that I would take them for ice cream.

Children can tell the difference between agreements and promises. Even preschoolers can tell the difference between agreements and promises! They react with a sense of outrage if you try to change a promise into an agreement. Having promised to take my grand-children to get ice cream, I cannot later add conditions to that promise, conditions such as, "We are NOT going to go to get ice cream on Saturday if you are NOT good all week." They will very quickly remind me, "You promised we could go. You promised!"

Let's look at God's promise to Abraham and keep in mind that they are not agreements, they are promises. Abraham was raised in an idolatrous culture. There was no particular reason to commend him as he grew up in Ur of the Chaldees, except that at a certain moment in his life, the Lord God, who made everything, spoke to him and began a process that went on all through Abraham's life. God made extraordinary promises to him, based on nothing except His own love. The first of these promises is found in Genesis 12, in these words:

Genesis 12:2-3 (NASB) And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

Do you see any "if's" in God's word to Abraham? This is not an agreement, it is a promise. You will read in vain in Genesis 12 - 15 to find anywhere where God says "If you will do...then I will do..." In other words, there were no conditions. To understand that this was a one-sided covenant, turn to Genesis 15:

Genesis 15:5-6 (NASB) And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." 6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

God took Abraham outside his tent at night and showed him the starlit sky. This was not the same sky that we see at night, which is adulterated with all the diffused light of a modern society. No, this was a brilliant, magnificent sky. God told Abraham to count the stars in that sky and said to him, in effect, "If you can count the stars of the heavens, then you will have some idea of what your eternal influence will be. There will be children born to you as innumerable as the stars in the heavens." What God was promising Abraham at this point, I believe, was an influence on eternity that would be immeasurable and would never end.

Genesis 15:7-18 (NASB) And He said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it." 8 And he said, "O Lord GOD, how may I know that I shall possess it?" 9 So He said to him, "Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. 11 And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. 12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. 13 And God said to Abram, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 "But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 "And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. 16 "Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete." 17 And it came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates:

"The Lord made a covenant," in Genesis 15:18 is literally: "the Lord cut a covenant." Here we see that God cut a covenant with Abraham. He cut it in a way that was familiar to the people of the ancient Near East, but very unfamiliar to us. They would take a heifer and a ram and a goat, they would split the animal in half and lay the halves opposite one another on an incline, so that the blood would flow down and puddle in the bottom of a little valley. Then the stronger of the two that were entering into the covenant would go first and would walk through the blood. The blood would splash up on his ankles and legs, and it was symbolic: "If I fail in any way to keep the covenant, this is what you may do to me." That was the symbolism.

After that one would walk through the blood, the weaker of the two would then walk through the blood with the same symbolism: "If I fail to keep the covenant, this is what you may do to me."

Jeremiah makes reference to this same practice of a covenant made by cutting animals and repeating the oath:

Jeremiah 34:18-20 (NASB) 'And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not fulfilled the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts-- 19 the officials of Judah, and the officials of Jerusalem, the court officers, and the priests, and all the people of the land, who passed between the parts of the calf-- 20 and I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. And their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth.

As Abram is either asleep or perhaps still groggy from the deep sleep he had been under, he sees God do an amazing thing: pass through the animal parts all by Himself, while Abram watches on the sidelines.

God, represented by the smoking oven and the burning torch, passed through the animal parts by Himself. As Abram watched, God showed this was a unilateral covenant. Abram never "signed" the covenant, because God "signed" it for both of them. Therefore, the certainty of the covenant God makes with Abram is based on who God is, not on who Abram is or what Abram does. This covenant cannot fail, because God cannot fail. Abram cannot break a contract he has never signed!

By entering into this contract, there is a sense in which God was saying, "If I don't keep My word, let Me be put asunder." God was putting His Deity on the line as a confirmation of His oath to Abram.

Genesis 15:18 (NASB) On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates:

By quoting the specific geographic boundaries that Abram's descendants will inherit, God makes it plain that Abraham's physical descendants will reap the benefit of this covenant. Israel will inherit real land. But their inheritance of the land was only a type.

With this background on the Abrahamic covenant, let's go back to:

Galatians 3:16 (NASB) Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ.

Paul, under inspiration of God, says, "The promises were given to Abraham and his seed." The Hebrew word used in Genesis 15 for "seed" or "offspring" is zera, which is a collective singular that can refer either to one descendant or many descendants. An English collective singular, for example, is "sheep" - that can refer to one sheep or many sheep. Paul explained that the seed God had in mind in Genesis 13:15 and 17:8 was the one descendant, Christ.

The term seed not uncommonly denotes all the descendants of some great ancestor, but it is not normally used of one person. Used in this way, it points to the person as in some way outstanding; the seed is not simply one descendant among many, but THE descendant.

The Abrahamic Covenant is based upon the very first promise in the Bible. This covenant was foretold in the garden of Eden, as God declared to the Serpent:

Genesis 3:15 (NASB) And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel."

The word "seed" here is the Hebrew word zera`, and it's the exact same word used by God to tell Abraham that the promise was given to his seed, his offspring. Both the seed in Genesis 3:15 and the seed in Genesis 15:6, in reference to the seed of Abraham, is describing not many seeds, or many descendants, but one seed; Jesus Christ Himself.

Actually, even before Christ became flesh, the New Testament reveals that He is the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. In Luke 1 we read about the birth of John the Baptist. When he was eight days old, he was circumcised and was given the name John. At that point, his father, Zacharias, filled with the Holy Spirit, sang a song of praise. And this is what he sang in the first of that song:

Luke 1:68-73 (NASB) "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant-- 70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old-- 71 Salvation FROM OUR ENEMIES, And FROM THE HAND OF ALL WHO HATE US; 72 To show mercy toward our fathers, And to remember His holy covenant, 73 The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,

Knowing that his son would introduce Christ to the people, he praised God for performing the "the oath which he swore to Abraham our father."

Why does Paul qualify the word "seed" here? Well, one reason is that the word "seed" in the Greek can be used the same way we would use it in English. If you go to the store to buy seed for your garden, you're not talking about one individual seed, but a packet of seed which contains many seeds.

However, if you were going to the store to buy seed, and you only had one seed in mind, you would make that distinction. And that's what Paul is doing here. When he says that the promise was given to Abraham and his seed, he is making that distinction of a special kind of seed; a seed or descendant who would be found in one person.

We have to realize that Paul's definition of seed contradicts the Jewish nationalistic interpretation of this term. Jews were convinced that the term seed referred to the physical descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people. Therefore, they believed it was absolutely necessary to belong to the Jewish nation in order to receive the blessings promised to Abraham.

Paul is just as exclusive as his Jewish counterparts, but his exclusivity is not based on ethnic identity. Since Christ is the heir of the promises, all those, and only those, who are in Christ by faith are beneficiaries of the irrevocable trust agreement God made with Abraham:

Galatians 3:29 (NASB) And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

It is an amazing thing that Paul deliberately seems to contradict a fundamental assumption in the statement of Genesis 15:5 ["And he brought him forth...and said, 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"] that the word "seed" should be taken to mean many seeds. He pointedly declares, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that the proper interpretation of "seed" is numerically singular - and that the meaning is that the Christ is the singular seed who would be like the stars of heaven.

When God established the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12 and then expanded upon it in Genesis 15 and 17, what was Abraham thinking? What did he understand? What sort of fulfillment was Abraham looking forward to when he was given the word of promise concerning the land? What did he expect? Did he look for an earthly fulfillment? Did Abraham just see the type or did he see past the type to the anti-type? According to God's Word in the book of Hebrews, Abraham was looking past the type to the anti-type, he was looking for a heavenly city:

Hebrews 11:9-10 (NASB) By faith he [Abraham] lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; 10 for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith he dwelt in the land of promise. By faith in God's promise of a heavenly city he lived as a pilgrim on the earth. He knew the earth wasn't his home, so he never tried to make it his home. The city Abraham was looking for was the heavenly Jerusalem. The writer relates:

Hebrews 12:22-23 (NASB) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,

From these verses we can see the different description of the same entity; the city, the kingdom, the heavenly Jerusalem, the church, and Mount Zion. These all have their fulfillment in the New Covenant as established in the first century. This was in contrast to the old, physical, earthly city of Jerusalem.

Abraham was looking for the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem spoken of in:

Revelation 21:1-3 (NASB) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them,

According to Galatians 4:22-26, the New Jerusalem is the New Covenant. Abraham was a pilgrim in the promised land, because he perceived it to be but a pointer as it were to a far more substantial heavenly country. Abraham was given the promise of an earthly inheritance, and yet he looked forward to a heavenly one.

The Date of the Trust

Galatians 3:17 (NASB) What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.

So 430 years after the Abrahamic Covenant was given, an additional arrangement was instituted by God. This time God made an agreement, not a promise, with Israel. This agreement demanded certain responsibilities of each party to the agreement. There were consequences involved, and each side had to uphold its part. But that agreement was made at a much later time than the promise, that was given to Abraham, thus it could have no effect on that promise. The promise and the agreement cannot be mixed together with one another, because they accomplish different results. Thus, the fact that the Law came later cannot invalidate the great, life-giving promise that was given originally. That is the argument of these verses.

The Mosiac covenant does not invalidate the Abrahamic covenant - God's promises in the Abrahamic covenant still stand.

The Condition for Inheritance

Galatians 3:18 (NASB) For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.

"The Law" here is a reference to the Mosaic covenant. This was not a promise, but an agreement:

Exodus 19:5 (NASB) 'Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine;

This is not a unilateral covenant like the Abrahamic covenant, this is a bilateral covenant, it is conditional. Notice carefully the "if" and "then."

If the inheritance is based on law, then it is conditional and is not a promise. But God gave the inheritance to Abraham as a promise - therefore it is unconditional.

The word "granted" here is the Greek word charizomai, which is based on the Greek word charis - grace. God's giving to Abraham was the free giving of grace. The word is also in the perfect tense, showing that the gift is permanent.

Paul is concerned to demonstrate the unconditional nature of the promises made to Abraham. He points out the incompatibility between receiving the inheritance as a gift on the basis of a promise and receiving it as a payment for keeping the law: The categories of payment and gift are mutually exclusive. Since the gift character of the promised inheritance is clearly established, the inheritance cannot be received as a payment for keeping the law. This logical argument is developed by Paul to drive home his rebuke for the foolish error of viewing something as a payment which had already been received as a gift.

Have God's promises to Abraham been fully fulfilled? Those theologians who are yet looking for a golden age for national Israel do not think so. But Paul makes it abundantly clear that the promised descendant of Abraham is Christ. And it is through Christ, through faith in His subsitutional death that people from all nations will be blessed.

Believers, we have inherited the promises that God gave to Abraham. We have been blessed in Christ, we have received the inheritance - everlasting life.

So what exactly is the purpose of the law? We'll find out next week.

Continue the Series

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