Last Sunday, I spoke at Kilmallie Free Church on ‘The Gospel of Fulfilment’, an introduction to the Gospel of Matthew. We looked at how the ‘bookends’ to the Gospel point to the good news of Jesus Christ as part of a much bigger story, the story which unfolds in the Old Testament. In the first words of the Gospel, Matthew writes:
The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
The genealogy that follows makes a big play on these two Old Testament figures and the fact that Jesus is descended from them. They are picked out by Matthew because God made covenants with (gave promises to) each of these figures. Matthew wants to show in his gospel that Jesus has fulfilled these promises – that Jesus is completing the story. We didn’t have too much time to look at the texts involved, so I’m posting briefly on ‘Son of Abraham’ now – with ‘Son of David’ to follow.
The promises given to Abraham (then Abram) can be found in three parts of the book of Genesis: 12:1-3, 15:1-21 and 17:1-22. In each encounter with God, Abraham is told a little more about what God is promising. When we put them together, we find that there are three main components to what God is promising. On Sunday, I put them under the title of The Covenant Promise of Life:
- A Relationship of Blessing with the Creator (‘I will bless you’, 12:2; ‘I am a shield to you’, 15:1; Abram counted righteous through faith, 15:6; ‘walk before me’, 17:1; ‘my covenant is with you’, 17:4; ‘to be God to you’, 17:7; ‘I will bless her (Sarai)’, 17:16)
- Descendants to Bless the Nations (12:2-3; 15:5; 17:5,7)
- A Secure and Fruitful Homeland (12:1; 15:18; 17:8)
This covenant is an everlasting covenant (17:7), which is important. The biblical scholar David JA Clines has perhaps put the purpose of this covenant and its promises better than anyone, in his definition of the theme of the Pentateuch:
The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment – which implies also the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and a re-affirmation of the primal divine intentions for man.1
The promises have to be understood against the story of Genesis up to that point. God’s good world has descended into violence because of human sin. The relationship between humanity and their creator, the essence of true life, is broken; tribes and clans are at war; survival is difficult, land is precious (read chapters 12-16 to see all this playing out). Against this backdrop, God speaks to Abram, an everyday Chaldean; speaks promises which will change the course of history, which will see the original intentions for humanity recovered through the redemptive power of God.
The promises to Abraham (as re-stated to Isaac and Jacob) are a re-affirmation of the primal divine intentions, not a replacement intention. They affirm God’s intention for humanity to live in a good world, in relationship with their Maker. These are Covenant Promises of Life. It’s fascinating when we get glimpses of this theology in these early narratives, such as in Genesis 13:10, where the fertile Jordan valley is described as being like ‘the garden of the Lord’, a reference to Eden, the primal Secure and Fruitful Homeland.
These Covenant Promises of Life are, to the New Testament writers, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He has come to make these promises a reality. They are not to be ‘spiritualised’. For how this plays out in relation to the promise of A Secure and Fruitful Homeland, see here. As the Old Testament story unfolds, these promises become concrete in the formation of the nation of Israel, who worship Yahweh their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the land of Israel. The family-faith of Abraham becomes political state, securing its borders and seeking to achieve a society of righteousness and peace. God’s promise to Abraham about kings (17:6) is realised. But, it’s a messy, compromised, interim state. The vision is never realised, and any hope seems to ultimately be buried under failure. But, this is the way that the recovery of those original divine intentions for humanity unfolds. It is, to coin a phrase, the Extraordinary in the Everyday. Into that story, at its lowest ebb, comes a baby born as the Son of Abraham, and the Son of David (that’s the next post).
To finish this one, we can see how Jesus is portrayed as the Son of Abraham at the end of Matthew’s gospel. When we turn to the last words of this literary work (Matt 28:19), we find Jesus speaking these words:
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…
After the story that unfolds in the Gospel of Matthew, of Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection, we find him alive, commanding the good news to be taken to all nations. In Jesus, the Son of Abraham, the Covenant Promises of Life are taken world-wide – all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, counted righteous through faith in him. And that’s why we are his disciples. And why we are part of a vast number of disciples, like the stars.
Notes: 1. David J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, JSOTS 10 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1978), 30, emphasis added.