STUDY TWENTY-ONE: ABRAHAM IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
© Rosemary Bardsley 2013
The genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 include Abraham in the human ancestry of Jesus Christ. The New Testament quite quickly moves from this fundamental and simple connection and introduces a range of deeper and far reaching connections between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Abraham.
A. THE BASIC COVENANT CONNECTION
At the beginning of his Gospel Luke introduces the Covenant connection. Mary, rejoicing in the angel’s announcement, understands that the child she will bear comes in fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants:
‘He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful to Abraham
and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers’ [Luke 1:54,55]
Zechariah, similarly sings in praise of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises:
‘He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), …
to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham …’ [Luke 1:69-73]
B. JESUS CHRIST – THE PROMISED SEED OF ABRAHAM
Peter, in his sermon in Acts 3, connects Jesus Christ to the Covenant promise [Acts 3:13,25,26]. Stephen does likewise, tracing the history of the Covenant people from Abraham through to his current audience [Acts 7:2-53], who had rejected and killed the promised seed of Abraham.
In Galatians 3 Paul emphasises that Jesus is the promised ‘seed’ (singular) through whom the Covenant promises made to Abraham are fulfilled:
‘The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.’ [Galatians 3:16].
‘[The law] was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.’ [3:19].
C. THE COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM IS NOT SUPERSEDED BY THE SINAI COVENANT
Because of the dependence of the Jews on both their circumcision and their possession of the Law, Paul found it necessary to stress that the covenant with Abraham is not superseded by either circumcision or the Law. Both of these came after the declaration of the Covenant with Abraham; of particular significance in this is its promise/blessing of righteousness credited by faith [Genesis 15:6]. Paul’s point is that the Covenant which came first cannot be annulled or put aside by that which came later. The Covenant with Abraham stands, because it came first. The Sinai Covenant [the Law] was never intended to replace, but rather to serve the Abrahamic Covenant.
Paul deals with this in both Romans 4 and Galatians 3 and 4. While doing so he uses Sarah and Hagar and their sons in an allegorical fashion to contrast: that the Covenant with Abraham with its focus on faith, promise, miracle and freedom, with the Sinai Covenant with its focus on law, human works, natural ability and bondage.
The Covenant with Abraham, says Paul, proclaimed justification by faith: before ever Abraham was circumcised, and before ever the Law was given. This will never be superseded. Justification (righteousness) always was and always will be, by faith, not by works. In Romans 9:30 – 10:4 Paul points out that the reason Israel missed out on ‘righteousness’ is that they pursued it by works, not by faith [9:32]. ‘Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness’ [10:3]. Because they were intent on establishing their own righteousness they would not, could not, accept Jesus Christ; rather, they ‘stumbled over’ him.
D. THE REAL CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM
Both Matthew and Luke introduce the question of the real children of Abraham. John the Baptist, challenging a Jewish audience with a baptism of repentance, reads their minds and says ‘… do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.’ [Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8]. This is the first intimation the New Testament gives us that there is something about being a ‘child of Abraham’ that is not a matter of physical descent.
John records a conversation between Jesus Christ and a group of Jews [John 8:31-47], in which they respond to his teaching that they needed to be set free, by claiming to be ‘Abraham’s descendants’ [8:36] and that Abraham was their father [8:39]. Jesus on the one hand, acknowledges their physical descent from Abraham [8:37], but denies that they are Abraham’s children [8:39-40], because they do not do what Abraham did. In the discussion that follows the Jews make an even stronger claim – that God is their Father [8:41] and Jesus makes an even stronger denunciation – that, in fact, the devil is their father [8:42-47]. These rather forceful words of Jesus prepare us for the truths that the Apostle Paul teaches in his letters.
Included in the Gospel record is Jesus’ teaching in which he commends the faith of a Roman [Gentile] centurion and states that ‘many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’ [Matthew 8:11], while the ‘subjects of the kingdom’ will be thrown out [8:12].
This inclusion of believing Gentiles along with believing Jews in the people of God as the spiritual descendants of Abraham, and the exclusion of the unbelieving Jews even though they are the physical descendants of Abraham, is a major emphasis of Paul.
Task #1: What do these verses teach about who are and are not children of Abraham?
Romans 4:13-17, 22-24
Galatians 3:6-9, 14
E. JESUS CHRIST - THE JOY OF ABRAHAM
There is a deep reality expressed in the New Testament which is very easily missed: that Abraham was looking forward to the coming of Jesus Christ.
Abraham knew that he would never occupy the land that God had promised to his descendants; God had told him this [Genesis 15:12-20]. He did not expect to possess Canaan. On the contrary, he ‘was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.’ [Hebrews 11:10].
Hebrews goes on to say: ‘All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own …they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them’ [11:13-16].
In John 8:56 Jesus made a startling and radical statement to his already offended Jewish hearers: ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.’
Abraham rejoiced because of Jesus Christ. Abraham saw the ‘day’ of Christ. And here we are dealing with a reality that rarely enters our thoughts. But it is a reality nonetheless.
F. ABRAHAM – STILL LIVING
The clear testimony of the Gospels is that Abraham is still alive – that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Task #2: How do these texts teach that Abraham is still living?
Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:28
Matthew 22:31,32; Mark 12:26; Luke 20:37,38
This has been a very quick and incomplete overview of the New Testament teaching on Abraham and God’s Covenant with Abraham. James, for instance, points out the correlation between his faith and his works; we have not looked at that. And some things that we have looked at, we have done so only briefly.