What does a Mesopotamian sheep herder from 4,000 years ago have to do with us? Today, Barry Cooper explains how God’s promise to Abraham reveals the good news of Jesus Christ.
Roughly four thousand years ago, God made a covenant with Abraham, a sheep herder from Mesopotamia. The question is, What does that have to do with you?
In an earlier episode of Simply Put, we talked about the word covenant. A covenant, remember, is a promise, a pact, a vow.
The covenant God makes with Abraham (or Abram, as he’s originally known) is called the Abrahamic covenant. I know—how do they come up with these names? You can read God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12 verses 1–3:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram is promised a great land, a great nation, a great name, and a great blessing that will extend first to him and then to all the families of the earth.
There’s only one small problem with this, as far as Abram is concerned: Abram is childless, and his wife is barren. Where are Abram’s descendants going to come from? He mentions this to God in Genesis chapter 15: “Behold, you have given me no offspring”
And the Lord responds: “Your very own son shall be your heir.”
Even though the fulfillment of this promise looks highly unlikely in human terms, nevertheless Abram believes God’s promise that He would provide a son for him.
And we’re told that through belief in the promise of God, Abraham was counted “righteous.” That is what Genesis chapter 15 verse 6 means when it says Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
This is a stunning moment: God’s revelation that faith in Him is the mechanism by which people are accepted by Him and become heirs of His promises. As Paul says in Romans chapter 4 and Galatians chapter 3, Abraham was justified by faith alone—faith in the promises of God. Promises which found their fulfilment in Christ.
That God operates like this is overwhelmingly good news—not just for Abraham but also for us. So let me say it again: salvation is given to us not because of anything we have done or could do or ever will do, but purely on the basis of what God has done. And we receive the benefits of what God has done simply by trusting Him, as Abraham did.
So here in Genesis, in the very first book of Scripture, in this Abrahamic covenant, is the good news that was fully revealed some two thousand years later in Christ.
We do not, and cannot, produce our own righteousness. We can’t do it any more than Abraham could. But Christ did live a perfectly righteous life. So when we believe Christ, as Abraham believed God, we are declared righteous, just as Abraham was. Second Corinthians chapter 5 verse 21 puts it this way: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God.”
There’s something else about the Abrahamic covenant that is extremely significant. When covenants were made in the ancient Near East, the two parties would kill an animal, cut it in half, and then both of them would walk between the two halves. It was a solemn and symbolic way for each person to say to the other: “If I break this covenant, may the same thing happen to me. May I be destroyed if I don’t keep this covenant.”
But that is not what happens in the covenant between Abram and God. In this covenant, only God passes between the two halves of the animal, not Abram. God is saying to Abram, and by implication to all of God’s people: “This covenant does not depend on your obedience but on Mine. I swear by My own life that this promise will come to pass.”
And as if to further confirm that our righteousness does not depend on our obedience of God’s law, God credits Abraham with righteousness well before He gives Moses the Ten Commandments.
So that’s what the Abrahamic covenant has to do with us.
Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness. If we have faith in Christ, our faith too will be counted to us as righteousness.