Abraham’s Covenant Family

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There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28–29).

January 3, 1998, Tom Osborne, head coach of the University of Nebraska football team, announced his retirement. As a University of Tennessee fan, I was glad to see this noble adversary take his leave. The night before, his Cornhuskers had defeated the Tennessee Volunteers 42–17 in the Orange Bowl. In speaking about his age and stepping down, he told a story about visiting a friend of his at a retirement center in Nebraska. Coach Osborne had become lost while looking for his friend’s room. He saw a lady that obviously lived there and asked her for directions to find his friend. She thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t know what to tell you. But if you go back there to that desk, they will not only tell you where you live, but they will tell you who you are.”

There is an identity crisis in the church today. Many Christians do not understand who they are and why they are who they are. 

We have a great heritage that can be traced to ancient times. Paul said to us: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). In the verses immediately preceding, Paul had used the word promise seven times and the word covenant twice. Who are we? We are heirs of God’s promise, sealed by a covenant. Sometimes people will search out their ancestors in an effort to discover who they are. They lay out a genealogy that reaches back five or six generations. Christians can trace our lineage to thousands of years ago!

In Genesis 12 God came to Abram and promised to give him land, make his descendents into a great nation, and bless all the earth through him. Years passed and Abram had no children, no heirs. He still had no land to call his own. It was ludicrous to think that he would be the father of a great nation (Now don’t lose interest here; if you are a Christian, this is your lineage). Abram became perplexed that these promises of God had not yet been fulfilled. He asked God how he could be sure of these promises. God answered Abram with a dramatic, gracious, and convincing covenant.

In Genesis 15 God used a common but graphic ceremony to seal His promises to Abram by covenant. He told Abram to cut into pieces a heifer, a female goat, a ram, and also to place with them a slain turtle dove and pigeon. He caused a deep sleep to fall upon Abram. God then gave Abram a powerful vision in which He passed between the pieces of the slain and torn animals.

Abram knew what God was doing. He had taken part in similar ceremonies. This is the way important contracts were sealed in his culture. If two people agreed to certain terms, instead of signing documents they would both pass between parts of animals that had been killed and hewn. They were declaring, “May this be done to me if I do not fulfill my promises.” God passed through the carnage of the dissected animals. It was a unilateral covenant. Only God passed through those pieces. He was saying to Abram: “May this be done to me if I do not fulfill my promises to you.”

Maybe this would be a more effective way of making a covenant today. Maybe we need more serious drama instead of a dull written document. Maybe we need to apply this to the painter who agreed to paint your house. He was supposed to have it done a month ago. He was supposed to show up on four different occasions and hasn’t shown up but once. Maybe you should invite him over, kill several animals and then walk between the pieces and have him say, “May this be done to me if I don’t show up tomorrow and finish this job.”

Paul was saying to the Galatian Christians (Jews and Gentiles): “You are heirs of that covenant God made to Abram.” Why were they heirs? Was it because of what they had done? Was it because they were morally obedient? Some men had come to the Galatian churches preaching that obedience to the laws of Moses were necessary for salvation. Paul brilliantly pointed to their great heritage from ancient times and asked, “Are you heirs of Abraham through your obedience to the law or are you heirs of Abraham through faith in the promise of God?” Do you see it? Paul was saying to these first- century Christians: “Your legacy is rooted, not in the Law, but in promises God sealed by covenant one evening two thousand years ago.” Folks, evil would have us invert God’s purpose for the Law. Those who would say we are children of Abraham through the Law are really illegitimates. True heirs are children of promise.

His children gather around the earth. I love this scene: Male and female, old folks and children, rich and poor, red, brown, black, yellow, and white — there is no prejudice between them, as they are all siblings. They are Abraham’s legacy, his heirs by covenant. They are one in his great promised descendant, Jesus, the Messiah through whom all the earth is blessed.

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