Posts Tagged ‘Covenant’

Singularly Collective

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement…” – Then President Bill Clinton’s testimony before the Starr Commission, 1998

In Galatians 3:16 Paul seems to pull a linguistic fast one almost Clinton-ian in magnitude in order to make his point. The Hebrew word zera is translated by the Greek word sperma which is translated into English as either “seed” or “offspring”. These words are “collective nouns” which means that though they are in the singular form, they actually refer to many. “Seed” can be singular as in “I swallowed an apple seed” or it can be collective as in “I believe we got enough seed for next year’s planting” or it can be plural as in “I got a bunch of blackberry seeds stuck in my teeth.” And that goes for zera and sperma in their respective languages also. So how do you know if the word is singular or collective? The only way to tell the difference between singular and collective is by the context. Plural is obvious.

So here’s what Paul says:

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)

There are a handful of places Paul may be quoting from in Genesis, God told Abraham this often. Something else God says to Abraham about his offspring is really important.

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6)

This is very important for two reasons. First, Paul has already cited this verse as proof that we’re justified by faith, not works. Second, the context is abundantly clear that “offspring” is collective and not singular. So no matter how you slice it, Paul is clearly aware of the plurality of Abraham’s offspring.

So what do you think? Is Paul pulling some funny business with words in order to make his point? I don’t believe he is. Though the point seems strained here, Paul is really just following God’s lead. Consider this:

The LORD God said to the serpent…
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14)

Did you see what God did there? He started by talking about “offspring” which sounded like warfare between Eve’s children and Satan’s. But then God switched to a singular pronoun “he”. So we understand it to be a singular person because the context made it clear. Or did it? Consider Romans 16:20 “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” The “your” there is plural, as in ya’ll or you’uns. What it shows is that this is a more complex issue than at first blush. When it comes to these covenant promises, there is a way in which the “seed” is singular and in which it is collective.

So it appears that Paul picked up on the thread of the promised seed, which is Jesus, and he just read Abraham that way. He didn’t quote Genesis 15:5-6, which clearly is talking about a collective seed but rather any of the other places where God makes a promise to Abraham and to his seed and Paul’s explanation is that God’s promise is to Jesus through Abraham. I’ll come back to how the collective can be true at the same time the singular is in a moment.

I think the singular interpretation that Paul uses in 3:16 actually helps in verses 19 & 20, which are a bit confusing:

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

Tim Keller in his brief commentary/study guide, Galatians For You said, “The rest of verse 19 and verse 20 are extremely cryptic…No one is sure what Paul means or how this fits into the argument” but Keller then reassures us that it wasn’t crucial to the rest of Paul’s point. And really, he’s right. I can’t be really certain that the way I’m reading this is best and the rest of Paul’s case is so clear that we’re okay if we leave this cloudy. But I think Paul’s handling of collective nouns earlier in chapter 3 gives us some trajectory to think along when we get here.

The law was given to Moses by the instrumentality of angels. I don’t know what they actually did, maybe they were the ones holding the stone tablets as God used his finger to engrave them with the Ten Commandments. But the angels were there when God gave the law to his intermediary, Moses. God spoke to Israel and they freaked out, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exod. 20:19) But the promise didn’t have an intermediary, God spoke it directly to Abraham. But, according to Galatians 3:16, the promise was to Jesus so wasn’t Abraham the intermediary in that case? Nope, since God is one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there was no intermediary when the Father spoke the promise to the Son. Abraham was not an intermediary, he was simply a witness.

So what about the collective nature of the word “offspring”? That is, of course, true also. And, not surprisingly, Paul answers that for us in Galatians chapter 3 as well. “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” The promise is to Abraham’s Seed, Jesus, and we’re heirs to the promise as we’re in Christ. So the promise is made to singular Seed and collective seed since Jesus is bringing in the gentiles to the promise as well.

A Covenant of Promise

1398675_1681432562083071_642462017829814470_o-960x366

The above quote is from an anonymous 17th century Particular Baptist. “The wha?” you say. In the 17th century there were Baptists who were Calvinists and they were referred to as “Particular Baptists” because they believed in particular redemption rather than the General Baptists who believed that Jesus died for the sins of everyone. Today, we’d call them Reformed Baptists because they believed a lot more Reformed theology than just particular redemption. This chap probably chose to be anonymous because for a while in the 17th century it was illegal to be a Baptist in England.

Anyway, this particular Particular Baptist (sorry) denied that the covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17 was the Covenant of Grace. Now, as far as that goes, I’m fine with it. The two covenants are not the same. However, that doesn’t make the covenant of circumcision a covenant of works either. I would put it in the category of a covenant of promise (Eph 2:12). Here’s why:

In Galatians 3, Paul pits the law against the promise of the covenant of circumcision. You can tell that he has Genesis 17 in mind because in verses 15-18 he cites it when he says “and to your offspring” which he explains is talking about Jesus. According to verses 2, 5, 14 and 4:6 the promise is the Holy Spirit. So Paul’s understanding of the covenant of circumcision is that it promised and pictured the Holy Spirit. That makes a lot of sense biblically since in Deut 30, God promises to circumcise Israel’s heart. In Col 3:11 we are told that we have received Christian circumcision done without hands. In Romans 2:29 circumcision is called “a matter of the heart.” And Paul asked the Galatians in verse 2, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” Since the promise of the covenant of circumcision is the Spirt and we receive the Spirit by faith, not works, the covenant of circumcision cannot be a works/law covenant.

What of the fact that it can be broken (Gen 17:14) which our anonymous Baptist cited in his quote? The way a child is said to have broken the covenant if he was not circumcised. This helpless infant is not relying on his own works but the faithfulness of his father. Since we receive Christian circumcision in the same way, while we were helpless and by the faithfulness of our Heavenly Father, this condition pictured God’s grace.

What of God’s command to Abram “walk before me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1)? Isn’t that a law of the covenant of circumcision? No, it isn’t. God explained why he required this of Abram, “that I may make my covenant with you” (Gen 17:2) and then immediately says “Behold, my covenant is with you.” (Gen 17:4) so Abram had already met those requirements. How? He’d met them the first time God established this covenant: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6). This covenant of circumcision was a gracious covenant.

What of Galatians 5:3 which says that if you’re circumcised you’re under obligation to keep the entire law? That cannot be speaking of Genesis 17 since Paul has already contrasted that covenant with the law in chapter 3. Also, when Abram entered the covenant of circumcision, the law had not yet been given. Abram couldn’t have been under obligation to keep the entire law since it would be another 500 years before God would give it. In Galatians 5, Paul is talking about the Mosaic covenant which was a law/works covenant.

The Israel of God

Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children…But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:21-25, 30-31)

Paul is saying here, via allegory, that Jerusalem as it was in his day was cast out. He said that Jerusalem was Hagar and then cites scripture that says Hagar and Ishmael were rejected.

And if you consider the context of the quote from Genesis 21 what God told Abraham to do was follow the wishes of his wife Sarah “for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This promise of offspring, according to Galatians 3, is the promise of Jesus and the promise was given in the form of a covenant. The blessings of the covenant would come through Isaac, not Ishmael therefore Ishmael was to be cut off and sent away. So what Paul is saying in chapter 4 through this allegory is that Jerusalem was cut off from the blessings of Abraham’s covenant. That doesn’t mean that God is going to completely ignore Israel any more than he was abandoning Ishmael. God promised Abraham “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” (Genesis 17:20-21)

The covenant doesn’t belong to national Israel because they rejected the promised Offspring and choose instead to remain under the law. God may still bless them, indeed history seems to show that he is still watching over them, but the covenant is with Sarah and her children. This is why at the end of the letter to the Galatians when Paul picks up the pen himself, he says “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:16) The rule is a rejection of circumcision and blessing is upon those who agree with that and the Israel of God, that is, the offspring of the free woman, the church.

This is really just a fragment of a larger discussion on the covenant and the place of Israel in it. This little post doesn’t say all that is to be said on that subject. Consult a theologian before using this post.

Invisible Links

Nothing in the modern mind encourages us to see the invisible links binding together all of life. We have no sense that we live in the presence of a loving Father and are accountable for all we do… This is my Father’s world… Everything you do is connected to who you are as a person and, in turn, creates the person you are becoming. Everything you do affects those you love. All of life is covenant. – Paul Miller, A Praying Life

Circumcision Type

While doing some research for my exegetical paper on Colossians 2:11, I came across this material in Benjamin Keach’s Preaching from the Types and Metaphors of the Bible. Keach was a signatory of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (a daughter of the Westminster Confession) and has a catechism attributed to him (though there is some question about who authored it). I liked the guy right off the bat because he argued for congregational singing amongst the Particular Baptists in England. Also, he was listed as the pastor at Horse-lie-down, Southwark. I guess a more contemporary spelling would be “Horsely Down” but the old one is more fun.

Anyway, here’s the quote:

I. Circumcision was the cutting off the foreskin of the flesh; signifying the cutting off of the lusts of the heart and life, or parting with the corruption of nature, which rebels against the Spirit, Col. ii. 11
II. Circumcision puts the body to pain. So those who come under the Circumcision of the heart, are sensible of much spiritual pain upon the account of sin, Gen. xxxiv. 25.
III. As that part cut off was never set to the body again, but was taken away, so in this spiritual Circumcision, sin must not be parted with for a time only, but must be cast off for ever.
IV. The Circumcised person was admitted in the Church and family of God. So he that is spiritually Circumcised becomes a fit person for baptism, and so to be admitted into the Church of God.
V. Such who were not Circumcised, were not to be admitted to the privileges of the Church, and outward worship of God. So the Uncircumcised in heart and life ought not to be admitted unto the spiritual privileges of the Gospel, and communion of the saints.
VI. The Uncircumcised person was looked upon by God’s people as a hateful person; see with what contempt David beheld Goliath upon this account, “This Uncircumcised Philistine,” &c., 1 Sam. xvii. 36. So those who are not Circumcised in heart, are hate to God.
VII. Circumcision was a sign of the righteousness of faith: so the spiritual Circumcision of the heart, i.e. putting away the body of sin, &c., is a sign of the truth of grace, and of an interest in the righteousness of Christ Jesus.

I think I’m going to put this in the conclusion of my exegetical paper. :)