Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring.
It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one,
“And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
— Galatians 3:16 —
Who is Abraham’s offspring? Or is it, Who are Abraham’s offspring? Is it one or many? Or both?
In the Bible one of the most important realities to grasp is how the Bible presents itself. In other words, because Scripture is the inspired interpretation of God’s actions in the world—even as God’s Word is itself a divine action—it is vital to see how God’s earlier revelation prepares the way for his later purposes.
Sometimes this is called an “eschatological” reading of Scripture. That may sound complicated, but it’s not. Eschatology means “the study of last things” (eschatos = last), and most of the time people immediately jump to what they perceive are the “last things” in the Bible. However, if we consider that God stands outside of time and created all things for the purpose putting them under his Son’s feet (see Ephesians 1:10), then we must read the Bible as one unified-but-unfolding plan of redemption.
In this way, eschatology doesn’t begin in Revelation, or Daniel, or Zechariah, it begins in Genesis. And from Genesis to Revelation, God is working all things for the purposes of his people—the offspring of Abraham.
But who is/are Abraham’s offspring?
Abraham’s Four Seeds
While it may sound funny, Scripture speaks of Abraham’s offspring in four ways. Because the whole Bible is organized by a series of divine covenants, this is not too surprising. The one Creator God has interacted with his people in various ways over time—the specifics of these “interactions” are what the Bible calls covenants.
Under the old covenant, God required (and provided) animal sacrifices for atonement. But when Christ came as the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29), Jesus fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets. This is just one of many differences between the covenants.
From the development of the covenants in the Bible, some may assume God has changed his plans over time. Others stressing God’s unchanging ways may argue God has one covenant administered through various stages over time. For all readers of the Bible, however, we must put together the fact that one God has related to his people in divergent ways—i.e., the new covenant is not the same as the old. Again, the best way (I believe) to understand this is to follow the line of covenants from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Israel (and Levi) to David and then to Jesus.
From this reading of the covenants, we learn how the early covenants point to and prepare the way for later covenants, and ultimately terminate in the covenant Christ mediates. Moreover, we see that God’s initial promise to Abraham is fulfilled and expanded—first in Israel but then in Christ, the son of Israel who is greater than all previous covenant mediators.
From this reading of Scripture, we discover how the promise of offspring to Abraham has multiple fulfillments. Illustrating this point, the ESV Study Bible provides this helpful chart (p. 79):
|Natural, physical offspring||Physical descendants of Abraham||Ishmael, Isaac, the sons of Keturah (and by extension Esau, Jacob, etc.)|
|Natural, yet special offspring||Physical descendants of Abraham especially tied to God’s elective and saving purposes||Isaac (by extension Jacob and the entire nation of Israel)|
|Promised offspring||The true, unique offspring of Abraham||A distinctive line of offspring, starting earlier with Seth and continuing through Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Israel, and David, culminating in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16)|
|Spiritual offspring||Those united with Christ (the promised offspring)||Jews and Gentiles who trust in the Messiah [Gal. 3:26–29]|
Follow the Storyline
If we let the storyline of Scripture speak, we can see how each “offspring” relates to the other. First and foremost in the historical context of Genesis, Abraham’s natural offspring are given to him. These are the ones who grew up in his house and who were circumcised under his covenant (17:22–27). This would include Ishmael and later Isaac and also all the sons of Keturah.
Second, Isaac and the family that comes through his son Jacob is the second “seed.” In distinction from the other natural sons, Isaac as God’s promised son comes as a divine gift and not just natural procreation. Indeed, while Ishmael is blessed because of his relationship to Abraham (Gen. 16:10–12; 17:20), his blessing is not the same as that of Isaac (see Gal. 4:21–31). Isaac is the one through whom the second seed of Abraham comes. We might call this the national seed of Abraham.
Indeed, because Abraham’s blessing (12:1–3) is passed to Israel by means of God’s choice of Isaac and then Jacob (cf. Rom. 9), this second seed relates to the ethnic people of known as the Jews. In this way, the second seed is the physical offspring of Abraham, but it is also a special seed—an elect people or nation. Under the Old Covenant this nation had the peculiar honor of having God’s law, God’s promises, and God’s presence, but it’s greatest blessing came from being the nation to whom the third seed would come.
Third, Galatians 3:16 indicates that the promise to Abraham is singular: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” While Israel was God’s chosen people; he chose them en masse in order to bring his one Son. Therefore, while there are other seeds of Abraham, Jesus is the seed (sing.) of Abraham. He is the one to whom Israel was instructed to look, and he is reason why Israel existed as God’s chosen people in the first place.
Indeed, recalling the eschatological reading of Scripture: Christians read the story of Scripture in chronological order, but God does not. He declared the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:9–10), and he chose Israel for the purpose of bringing Christ to the nations. Certainly, Israel had a unique and privileged position among the nations (Exod. 19:4–6; Rom. 3:1–8), but the greatest blessing to them was their proximity to the Christ (Rom. 9:5). Therefore, the status of Israel always depended upon their personal response to the coming Christ, which bring us to the fourth seed—which both predates and follows the third seed in redemptive, even as it totally depends upon Christ for its place in God’s kingdom.
Fourth, those who are “in Christ” are the spiritual seed of Abraham. This is what Galatians 3:26–29 teaches, and in relationship to the other seeds, we can see why Paul says not every son of Abraham is a seed (Rom. 9:6–7). His ostensible contradiction is not a contradiction at all. Rather, it explains the relationship of the four seeds. Only those who are in Christ are truly Abraham’s offspring.
Tragically, many physical sons of Abraham, even those chosen by God in the flesh, are not spiritual sons of Abraham. In other words, only those who have faith in Christ (by the Spirit) are sons (or daughters). Amazingly, this is true before Christ and after: in Israel there was a remnant who looked through the promises to place faith in the coming Christ; then after Christ came there were Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles who placed faith in Christ. Together, these are the seed of Abraham—in the fourth sense—children of God according to their faith in Christ.
Letting the Whole Bible Speak
All in all, when we look at each “seed,” we learn something about the story of the Bible. But ultimately, it is the third and fourth seeds that are most important. To be sure, the second seed takes up most of the pages in Scripture, but that second seed was always chosen for the purpose of the third seed. And nestled within the second seed, even before the coming of the third, was the fourth.
I know that sounds a bit odd, but go back to the chart above. Keep your eyes on the storyline of Scripture, and watch how the historical figures in the Old Testament bear witness to the coming Christ. In Scripture, all things are directed towards him, and thus only as we place faith in him, do God’s people find their blessing, as children of Abraham.
This is how the Scripture explain God’s purposes in time, just as Paul puts in Galatians 3:23–29.
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Indeed, as we read Scripture may we learn how to tell the time. And most important for setting our watches is learning to see how God is at work over the different covenants of Scripture.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds