Whenever I do an overview of the Old Testament, I always try to get people to remember the letters P, P and B. They stand for people, place and blessing. These three things are at the heart of God’s good intentions from humankind. Think of the Garden of Eden. There were people (Adam and Eve), in a place (Eden) and they were blessed (and were to be a blessing to all around them). But because of their sin, we live with a curse rather than blessing. There is toil. We are corrupt. We are all going to die.
But our God is a God of abundant grace. He will not let curse and death have be the last word. He comes to a man in Ur, an ancient city in what is now Iraq. This man had done nothing to deserve God’s favour. His people worshipped other gods (Joshua 24:2). The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you … Then follows the promise that lies behind the whole of the Old Testament.
Promise rooted in kindness
This promise centres on P, P and B (people, place and blessing).
“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Do you remember the tower of Babel? There the people tried to make a name for themselves, with no reference to God. Now God is graciously going to make a name for Abram. From Abram will come a great nation (people), he is being shown the Promised Land (place) and through him all the peoples on earth will be blessed (blessing). This promise will be reaffirmed on a number of occasions in the following chapters, and restated to Abram’s son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob.
But everything seems to be against this promise being fulfilled: Abram and Sarai are well beyond child-bearing age, Canaan (the Promised Land) is occupied by the Canaanites. If this promise is to come to be then it will have to be by the supernatural work of God. That’s the point. The whole of the Old Testament teaches us that the battle belongs to the Lord.
When God makes this promise he is not striking a bargain. He is not saying, ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. Rather, it is as if God is saying to Abraham, “out of the heart of love which is my nature, I want to bless the whole world, and therefore I choose you, Abraham, as my covenant man with whom I will begin.” You and I, as Christians, have been directly blessed by this promise. We have become children of Abraham, not by birth, but by faith. The promise is accompanied by the sign of circumcision.
Faith demonstrated in action
What does Abraham contribute to all this? Nothing! All he does is receive God’s word and believe God’s promise. In so doing he becomes an example of someone who is justified by faith. Genesis 15:6 is a key verse in the Bible for understanding the nature of faith: Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. This verse is repeated three times in the New Testament. Faith is simply putting out an empty hand and receiving what God graciously gives.
But faith changes us. Faith shows its reality is action. Faith calls for a response. Abraham demonstrates the reality of his faith by what he does. It is not his actions that made him right with God—Abraham is counted righteous before God by simply believing. Our good works, our church-going, our prayers can’t put us right with God. But having been put right with God by faith, our lives change.
We see the reality of Abraham’s faith in chapter 22. God calls him to go to Mount Moriah and sacrifice his son Isaac there. What does Abraham do? He believes God’s promises and obeys God’s command. He knows that it is through Isaac that all the blessings would come. He knows that God will fulfil his promise. He knows that God can do anything. He ‘knows that if God calls him to do this, and he is obedient to the command, God has a better plan than any plan than Abraham could see’ (Jackman). Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham reasoned that God could raise Isaac from the dead if he was killed. In Abraham is an example of a person who believes God’s promises and shows that he believes God’s promises by obeying God’s commands. This is the mark of being a justified sinner, that we believe God’s promise, and show the reality of our belief by obeying his commands.
However, Abraham’s faith is not always strong (e.g. Gen.15:2-3). Like all of us, he fails God at times. Twice he lies about his relationship with Sarah, to save his skin. But, at critical times he takes God at his word and believes his promises. Abraham is not portrayed as a deserving man but rather we see him ‘warts and all’ (see Gen. 12:11-20; 20:1-18). ‘The key thing is not the strength or perfection of Abraham’s faith, but the strength and perfection of the God he trusts. Abraham learns that God is utterly reliable and faithful to his word’ (Goldsworthy).
John Stott writes, ‘It may truly be said without exaggeration that not only the rest of the Old Testament but the whole of the New Testament are an outworking of these promises of God.’ Everything that happens in the Old Testament from this point onwards has God’s promise to Abraham in view, and the Old Testament points forward to Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 1:20 we are told that Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of all God’s promises. God’s promises to Abraham are no exception.
But how does Jesus make people, place and blessing true for us? He does so in both in the now and the not yet. Now we are children of the promise, the true seed of Abraham, a part of God’s chosen people (Galatians 3:29). In heaven we will be a part of the people from all the nations of the world that have been blessed through Abraham’s see (Rev. 7:9 and Genesis 22:17). The place part of the promise is a little bit confusing—it is tied up with the Bible’s teaching on rest. Eden was thought of as the place of rest, the Promised Land was associated with God’s rest. Now Jesus calls us to him to enjoy rest (Matthew 11:28-30). So, our place is in Jesus. In heaven God’s people will enjoy rest (Revelation 14:13). With regards to blessing, we now enjoy every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3) and in the New Heaven and New earth we will enjoy the fullness of God’s blessing (e.g. Revelation 22:3).
The story of the Bible does not centre on good and religious people who prove their worth to people and God. It is the story of God acting out of sheer kindness and love. God rescuing idol worships like Abraham and us (idols being all those things that we love more than God). God persisting with us when we fail. And God enabling us to live changed lives.