How Paul Applies the Promises Given to Israel to the Gentiles

June 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

One of the big debates circulating right now in Christian theology is Paul and his application of God’s promises of the Old Testament. Specifically, much of this discussion is focused on how Paul applies the promises given to the Israelites in the Old Testament to the Gentiles in the New Testament. Within this discussion includes what is meant by “seed” originally promised to Abraham all the way back in Genesis 12:2.

How Paul Applies the Promises Given to Israel to the Gentiles

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Below I have attempted to outline this debate starting first with the position of Elliott Johnson, Th.D., professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Johnson is a “classical dispensationalist” which means that he sees a distinction between the promises originally given to the Israelites and the promises given to the Gentiles in the New Testament. The second presentation of this topic will be N.T. Wright’s work. N.T. Wright is research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College in Scotland. He is a strong advocate of the “New Perspective on Paul” movement which sees all of the promises of God being fulfilled in the New Testament church. Finally, in section III. you will find a brief exposition of this topic from myself primarily based on the third chapter of Galatians. 

I. Elliott Johnson’s Position on How Paul Applies the
Promises Given to Israel to the Gentiles

A. What Is the Initial Question at Issue? (Gal 3:1-5)

The initial question at issue is how the Gentiles received the Spirit. It was not by chance. It was not by obeying the law. It was not by being perfect. Related to the idea of the nation of Israel being perfect Paul told the Gentiles, “Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live” (Gal 1:4, NLT). Ultimately, the Spirit was given with faith while hearing, not by fulfilling the Law. 1

B. What Is Treated as the Old Testament Paradigm of Blessing? (3:6)

The Old Testament paradigm of blessing was justification by faith (therefore blessed by God). Paul states that the Galatians received the Holy Spirit because “you believed the message you heard about Christ” (Gal 3:5, NLT). Developing his argument further, Paul continues, “In the same way” (Gal 3:6) stating that Abraham believed and God counted him as righteous in the same way that the Gentiles believed God and God counted them as righteous.

C. What Jews Are Sons of Abraham? (3:7)

The Jews who believe in God by faith are true sons of Abraham. “The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God” (Gal 3:7). Those Jews put their faith in God and shared in Abraham’s offspring. However, this is slightly different than what the “seed” of Abraham is. The real sons of Abraham are those who put their faith in God.

D. What Was God’s Purpose for the Gentiles? (3:8-9)

God’s purpose for the Gentiles was that they would be counted righteous because of their faith. “[T]he Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith” (Gal 3:8a). Furthermore, this meant that through Abraham all the nations would be blessed (Gal 3:8b is quoted from Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). Therefore, “all who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith” (Gal 3:9). In this way, God had always intended to use Abraham to bless the world and to use Abraham’s faith (as a means to righteousness) as a model for others (both Jew and Gentile) to follow.

E. How Does God Use the Law to Bring Blessing? (3:10-13)

The curse comes upon those who fail to obey the Law completely which was contrary to a declaration of justification for making a “good attempt.” Those who rely on the works of the Law are under the curse (3:10) for three reasons: (1) the Law demands obedience in all that it commands (Gal 3:10 cf. Deut 27:26), (2) faith is judged in exchange for righteousness (Gal 3:12 cf. Hab 2:4), and (3) hanging on a tree, Christ took the curse of the Law in order to redeem us from the curse (Gal 3:13 cf. Deut 21:23).

F. What are the Two Clauses in Transition? (3:14) What Is the Point of Each Clause?

The two clauses are governed by the Greek conjunction ἵνα which is often interpreted “in order that (of purpose); so that (of result); that (indirect statement).” 2 The first ἵνα clause of 3:14 is a purpose clause stating “that the blessing of Abraham . . . Gentiles.”  The second ἵνα clause is a result clause stating, “that we might receive the Spirit.” Both Jew and Gentile are included in this reception of the Spirit. The purpose was that redemption is for Gentiles which God had originally promised to Abraham (this meant that the Gentiles may be blessed and justified with Abraham as the example.

G. How Did God Bring Inheritance to the Jews? (3:15-18)

God brought the inheritance to the Jews through Jesus (not Abraham, Isaac, or David). This inheritance was given to Abraham and “his child. . . . and that, of course, means Christ” (Gal 3:16). After Jesus’ ascension to heaven that inheritance is now received by the Spirit through faith.

1. What Was the Point of the Promise?

The point of the Promise is that it was a promise and not a condition under the Law. It was a covenant grant cut as an unconditional promissory agreement. “Serve me and live a blameless life. I will make a covenant with you” (Gen 17:1-2). This inheritance was a promise and still is a promise that “God graciously gave it [promise] to Abraham as a promise” (Gal 3:18).

2. Would a Law Covenant Annul the Promise?

The Law Covenant given 430 years later did not annul the Promise Covenant. “The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise” (Gal 3:17). Instead the two promises work together. The Law Covenant and Abrahamic Covenant do not compete (even though it might appear that way), but they worked together because neither gave life.

H. What Is the Point of the Law in Providing Inheritance? (3:19-25)

The Law was ultimately given to tutor Israel. In this way it was supposed to help Israel recognize and receive the seed to whom the Promise was made. Additionally, the Law was given to show the Patriarchs their sins as Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph’s generations continued to violate God’s expectations (3:19). Furthermore, the Law was an agreement between two parties with Moses as mediator. “Now a mediator is helpful if more than one party must reach an agreement. But God, who is one, did not use a mediator when he gave his promise to Abraham” (3:20). In this manner God imitates, Moses mediates, and Israel responds. The Law was to confront Israel with their transgressions not in a contradictory way, but complementary (3:21). The Scripture placed everyone as “prisoners of sin” (3:22) and the promised life of freedom is given to those who are “believing in Jesus Christ” (3:22). Finally, the Law was given to tutor Israel to recognize that their justification was by faith. “Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed” (3:23). This was guarding the Jews until faith and the Holy Spirit became their tutor to bring them to Christ.

I. How Do Gentiles Become Sons of God? (3:26)

By receiving the Gospel—faith in Jesus Christ—the Gentiles become heirs in partnership with Christ having been baptized into Christ. “For you all are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:26). Simply, faith in Jesus is the means by which Gentiles become sons of God. Looking back on Gal 3:1-5 Paul writes to the Jews saying “you” received the Spirit by believing the message about Christ (3:2, 5). Now, in Gal 3:26 “you” is applied to the Gentiles as the ones who now are sons of God by also believing the message of Jesus Christ. What was true for the Jews being justified by faith (3:24-25) also applies to the Gentiles.

J. How Is Diversity of Peoples Brought to Share as One in Christ? (3:27)

Christ has provided an avenue for “all” (3:27) peoples to be brought together via Christ’s baptism. They are grown sons and heirs in inheritance. They have “put on” Christ; “all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.” They have been “baptized into Christ” and identified with him as partner.

K. How Are Gentiles the Seed of Abraham? (3:28)

The new partnership has replaced the old partnership. The Mosaic Covenant partnership involved distinctions in privilege not present in the present partnership. Ultimately, Gentiles are the “seed of Abraham” because they have “been united with Christ in baptism” (3:26). Since Jesus was the “seed” (singular) which would bless the nations, the Gentiles are the seed of Abraham because they have been blessed through Jesus.

1. How is “Seed” Used in 3:16?

Seed is used in 3:16 to refer specifically to Jesus. “God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say ‘to his children,’ as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says ‘to his child’ – and that, of course, means Christ” (3:16). Therefore, Jesus is the “seed” in a singular sense.

2. How Does this Relate to Sons in 3:7?

Gentiles are the seed of Abraham because they have received the inheritance by faith, just as the Jews did first. Therefore the process was the same. For “the real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God” (3:7). Just as the Jews were not saved by the Law, but instead by their faith in God, so the Gentiles now can receive that same inheritance by faith in Abraham’s seed, which is Jesus.

3. How Are Jews and Gentiles Seed of Abraham in the Same Sense and in a Different Sense?

Jews and Gentiles are the seed of Abraham in the same sense that they both can receive the inheritance and the Spirit by belief in Jesus Christ. The sense in which they are slightly different is that the Jews are the literal and physical “seed” of Abraham. The Jews directly share Abraham’s DNA. However, Gentiles do not share the literal and physical heritage of being the “seed” of Abraham in the sense of sharing DNA.

II. N.T. Wright’s Position on How Paul Applies
the Promises Given to Israel to the Gentiles

A. What is the Initial Question at Issue? (3:1-5)

Wright does not see the text of Galatians 3 to be about the theological contrast between grace and law. Nor is it about the psychological contrast between the struggle to please a legalistic God or enjoying the underserved pleasure of a gracious God. Instead, Wright believes that Paul’s concern was for the single family in a context of Messiah-based (to come) people of Abraham alongside with the crucified-Messiah community formed by the Torah(N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, book 3, “Paul’s Theology” in the series, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 4 [Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press, 2013], 863).

B. What is Treated as the Old Testament Paradigm of Blessing? (3:6)

[I was unable to find N.T. Wright’s direct comments on this verse.]

C. What Jews Are Sons of Abraham? (3:7)

Wright affirms that the “family” is a covenant family of the world which is the family of faith. This family of Abraham are all of those who belong to the Messiah—Jesus—and belonging to Christ they make up one family. This family is “all one” in him (Christ) having no distinctions of ethnic origins, gender, or social status (861).

D. What was God’s Purpose for the Gentiles? (3:8-9)

[I was unable to find N.T. Wright’s direct comments on these verses.]

E. How Does God Use the Law to Bring Blessing? (3:10-13)

Wright believes that the Law had potential to block the promises to Abraham; however the Messiah’s death has taken care of that problem (p. 862). Some writers attempt to state that the Law was “negative,” which Wright believes is incorrect. Instead, the Law had a specific job to perform at the “key intermediate stage in the divine purpose” (p. 866). Therefore, the Law was never a means by which the Abrahamic Covenant would be accomplished (Ibid.). It is important to note that Wright interprets Paul talking about the Gentile believers and the Jewish believers under the Law. Wright is not differentiating between the two groups. In fact, the only difference in this passage, according to Wright, is the “routes by which these two groups came into the one, single family” (p. 864). Wright believes that the Gentiles were brought into that single family from the outside while Jews (who were to some degree already within the covenant) were renewed by the gift of the Spirit.

F. What Are the Two Clauses in Transition? What Is the Point of Each Clause? (3:14)

Wright sees the first clause of 3:14 stating that getting rid of the “curse” enables the Abrahamic blessing to flow to the Gentiles (p. 867). The second clause, according to Wright, uses the word “we” to refer primarily to the Jews who also come into the new covenant relationship by faith (p. 867).

G. How Did God Bring Inheritance to the Jews? (3:15-18)

Wright shares that he believes the points of 3:15-18 are (1) God promised Abraham a singly family, not two families, and (2) the Law threatened to create two families (p. 868). Therefore, the “inheritance” of v. 18 is to be seen in its different shades of meaning landing on the idea that both Jews (Abraham’s direct decedents) and Gentiles are God’s children (p. 874).

1. What Was the Point of the Promise?

The point of the promise, according to Wright, is that if you belong to the Messiah, then you inherit the promise, and therefore will be part of Abraham’s family.

2. Would a Law Covenant Annul the Promise?

Wright states adamantly that the Law Covenant cannot annul the promise made to Abraham (p. 869). The promise God had made to Abraham takes precedence over the Law and therefore the Abrahamic promise is not affected by the Law (p. 862).

H. What Is the Point of the Law in Providing Inheritance? (3:19-25)

Wright likens the Law to a babysitter—a hired hand—who kept his eye on the younglings, kept them out of trouble, and took them to and from school. Wright directly denies that the Law was a “tutor,” “teacher,” or “schoolmaster” (p. 874). Wright’s other miscellaneous references to the Law further explain his view of the Law and its relation to inheritance. First, the Law was not given as a means of inheriting the Promise. In effect its purpose was negative (p. 862). Secondly, the Law was necessary (Ibid.). In addition, the Law was never designed to be permanent (Ibid.). Fourth, the Law was added because of the transgressions and sins of  Israel. (pp. 870-871). Lastly, the Law offered life, but it did not give life (p. 871).

I. How Do Gentiles Become Sons of God? (3:26)

For Wright, the identifying mark of God’s people—the one seed of Christ—is the faith of the people in Christ (p. 544). With the new event of the Messiah, through faith in him, the Gentiles therefore become sons of God (p. 874).

J. How Is Diversity of Peoples Brought to Share As One in Christ? (3:27)

Wright affirms that there are ethnic and of course gender distinctions that still exist even though we are “one in Christ.” But these differences do not count in the fact that all people are part of Abraham’s family. In this way, the family of God is a “seed” as one whole body together (p. 875). Indwelt by the spirit of God, we are all the Messiah’s people (p. 543). In other words, those who are one in Christ are all indwelt by the spirit of God (p. 543), participated in Christ’s death, and joined Christ in his resurrection (p. 544).

K. How Are Gentiles the Seed of Abraham? (3:28) How Is ‘Seed’ Used in 3:16? How Does This Relate to Sons in 3:7? How Are Jews and Gentiles the Seed of Abraham in the Same Sense and in a Different Sense?

The “seed” of Abraham is seen by Wright as one body and one family of peoples. In this way, Wright does not see “seed” as referring to one person—Jesus Christ—but instead to the whole family of God who are now one. According to Wright, “Abraham has one family, not two” (p. 539) which consists of all who believe in Jesus the Messiah.

III. My Position on How Paul Applies the Promises
Given to Israel to the Gentiles

A. What is the Initial Question at Issue? (3:1-5)

The initial question at issue in this text is how believers received the Holy Spirit (3:2) and were counted as righteous (3:5). Paul is attempting to address how it is that both Jews and Gentiles came to be counted as righteous.

B. What is Treated as the Old Testament Paradigm of Blessing? (3:6)

The Old Testament paradigm of blessing is seen as Abraham believing and being counted as righteous because of that belief. “In the same way, ‘Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith’” (Gal 3:6).

C. What Jews Are Sons of Abraham? (3:7)

As a result of Abraham being the example of one who believed and was counted by God as righteous because of his faith Paul states, “The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God” (Gal 3:7). This was contrary to keeping the Law of Moses or the numerous additional laws and rules created by the first century Pharisees. Additionally, as faith is what made someone the “real child” of Abraham, Paul did not completely abandon distinctiveness or uniqueness of people groups and ethnicities, as will be discussed in letters “I” and “J” below based on Gal 3:26-27.

D. What was God’s Purpose for the Gentiles? (3:8-9)

God, in his original plan, “looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith” (3:8a). Therefore, God’s purpose was for the Gentiles was for them to be blessed, but that blessing would be through Abraham. That original plan of God in the Scriptures is most clearly seen in Gen 12:3b, “All the families on the earth will be blessed through you [Abraham],” 18:18b, “All the nations of the earth will be blessed through him [Abraham],” and 22:18a, “And through your [Abraham’s] decedents all the nations of the earth will blessed.” God’s plan was that Jesus (the eventual seed of Abraham) would be the one to provide blessing for the Gentiles.

E. How Does God Use the Law to Bring Blessing? (3:10-13)

God uses the Law to bring blessing by showing that everyone is cursed because of the Law because they are not able to obey it completely, “But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of Law” (Gal 3:10). As the Law showed that every person was cursed under the Law (because no one person could obey it perfectly), it therefore showed Jews that there was a need for someone else to place them in right standing with God.  “But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” (3:13). In this way, the Law provided the need for someone else to help Jews be right before God. That righteous standing is provided to those who believe in Christ as the one who now brings blessings to believers.

F. What Are the Two Clauses in Transition? What Is the Point of Each Clause? (3:14)

The two clauses in transition are (1) “Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham” and (2) “so that we who are believers might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith.” (Gal 3:14, emphasis mine). Both of these clauses are introduced with the Greek conjunction, ἲνα which is often translated “in order that (of purpose); so that (of result); that (indirect statement).” 3 The NLT starts the first clause with the preposition “through” based on the ἲνα conjunction next to the Greek preposition, εἰς, which is often translated as “into” or “to.” 4 This construction led the NLT text to be translated with the word “through” and implies the means by which God had blessed the Gentiles, which is Christ. The second clause of 3:14 also begins with ἲνα. But it is translated by the NLT as “so that” and implies the result of the first clause, which is that believers receive the Holy Spirit through faith.

G. How Did God Bring Inheritance to the Jews? What Was the Point of Promise? Would a Law Covenant Annul the Promise? (3:15-18)

The inheritance was provided to the Gentiles through the seed of Abraham which was Abraham’s child and not his children. “God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say ‘to his children,’ as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says, ‘to his child’—and that, of course, means Christ” (Gal 3:16). That inheritance was provided to the Gentiles through Christ, the seed of Abraham. The point of the promise is that it was given as an “irrevocable agreement” (3:15) that could not be received by keeping the Law (3:18). Furthermore, the fact that the Law Covenant was given 430 years after the Promise could not annul that original promise as given in Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14.

H. What Is the Point of the Law in Providing Inheritance? (3:19-25)

The Law was provided “alongside the promise to show people their sins. . . . designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Gal 3:19). With the temporary Law, Moses was the mediator between God and his people as a means to help the people ensure they stayed faithful to God (Gal 3:19). With Moses as mediator the Law guarded and protected believers before the way of faith was revealed. “The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith” (Gal 3:24, also see 3:23). But “now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian” (Gal 3:25). In this way, the Law showed the Jews their sins and protected them until the way of faith was made available to them.

I. How Do Gentiles Become Sons of God? (3:26)

With the way of faith now available to both Jews and Gentiles as a result of Christ, all persons are “children of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26), the promised one and the seed of Abraham.

J. How Is Diversity of Peoples Brought to Share As One in Christ? (3:27)

It is through the baptism in Christ that all people are brought to share as one in Christ. “And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes” (Gal 3:27).

K. How Are Gentiles the Seed of Abraham? (3:28) How Is ‘Seed’ Used in 3:16? How Does this Relate to Sons in 3:7? How Are Jews and Gentiles seed of Abraham in the Same Sense and in a Different Sense?

Gentiles are the seed of Abraham because of their faith in Christ and baptism with him (Gal 3:26-27). Jews are the direct “seed” of Abraham in a different manner than Gentiles because Jews share Abraham’s direct lineage (DNA). Gentiles are the seed of Abraham because Christ was the “seed” of Abraham (Gal 3:16), and when Gentiles believe in Christ they are joined with the Jews as sons of God because of their faith (Gal 3:7).

Notes:

  1. Elliott Johnson, “Acts and the Pauline Epistles,” unpublished class notes for BE106A (Dallas Theological Seminary, Spring Semester, 2015).
  2. A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, revised edition, prepared by Barclay Newman, United Bible Societies, 2010, 88.
  3. A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, revised edition, prepared by Barclay Newman, United Bible Societies, 2010, 88.
  4. Ibid., 55

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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