In Sydney we can expect lots of promises over the next few months, with a State election in March and a national election in May. Between Genesis and Revelation, the Bible is full of God’s promises. There are thousands of them. This post contains a survey of God’s promises in the Bible in order to determine which one is the greatest. We will see that the promise given to Abraham to bless all nations is the greatest because it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ and it leads to God’s other promises.
Promises in the Old Testament
The best known promises from God in the Old Testament are called covenants. We will summarize five of these that were given to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jeremiah.
After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolized by the rainbow (Gen. 9:13). It was an unconditional promise of God’s protection. God has kept this promise: there hasn’t been another global flood.
Promised nation, land and blessing for all nations
After the tower of Babel, people scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages. And God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and to give them the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:18-21NIV). He also promised that “all peoples [nations]on earth will be blessed through you [Abraham]”. This was an unconditional and everlasting promise (Gen. 17:7-8). The sign of this covenant was male circumcision (Gen. 17:11). So this covenant was a promise of a nation and their own land. God partially fulfilled this part of the promise when David and Solomon were kings over Israel. But the Bible indicates that Israel will be restored again in the future (Rom. 11). The other part of the promise (blessing for all nations) is discussed below under “The key promise”.
After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, at Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). It was conditional on obeying God’s laws, and there were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant (Ex. 31:13, 17). So this third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God. God kept His part of this promise, but Israel failed to keep their part, and so were invaded and driven from Palestine.
When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). This covenant was unconditional. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). And His kingdom is everlasting.
So this covenant was a promise of a dynasty. Because Israel failed to keep their part, the physical dynasty ended. But after a 400 year gap, Jesus established a spiritual dynasty.
We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant that came through Moses. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicted a Babylonian conquest, followed by a 70 year exile and then restoration for Israel (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27; 30-31).
Jeremiah also promised the Israelites a new covenant, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). The nation will be revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today. This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s an unconditional promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth. This covenant was a promise of a future Jewish revival and peace on earth.
That’s five covenant promises. The Old Testament prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.
In about 980BC David prayed for deliverance when facing death (Ps. 16). He finishes with joy because he is assured that he will not die (Psa. 16:9-11). But Peter said that this refers to the resurrection of the Messiah (Acts 2:25-33). And Paul agrees (Acts 13:35-37).
In about 700BC Micah said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah (Mic. 5:2). And about that time Isaiah said that he would be more than an ordinary child because he would be called Immanuel which means God with us (Isa. 7:14; Mt. 1:22-23). Isaiah also taught about the suffering servant (messiah) who would:
– Suffer for our sins to bring us peace and spiritual life (Isa. 53:5).
– Die among the wicked but be buried with the rich (Isa. 53:9).
In about 520BC Zechariah said the messiah would be humble (riding into Jerusalem on a donkey) and victorious (Zech. 9:9-10).
But all the promises in the Old Testament were given to Jews as individuals or as a nation. They weren’t given to Christians or Gentiles like us. But there are promises given to Christians in the New Testament.
Promises in the New Testament
When I looked at the 60 verses in the New Testament that include the Greek word for promise (epangalia, Strongs #1860) and its close derivatives, I found that they involved four main types of promise:
– Promises given to Abraham and his descendants.
– Eternal life.
– The Holy Spirit.
– The second coming of Christ or end times.
We will briefly look at these in turn.
An email says you’ve won a new car or free airline tickets. Or that you can make easy money working from home or from bitcoin. The promise of romance cost a Canadian woman more than $40,000. Some promises are worthless! But God’s promises have lasting value.
Promises given to Abraham and his descendants
These promises involved three topics:
– God keeps His promises. “After waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). God is reliable.
– Jesus was the promised Messiah. We will look at this soon under “The key promise”.
– Salvation (and eternal life) is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earned. As a result of this salvation, all believers are assured of participating in and receiving the remaining promises.
Eternal (spiritual) life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). All believers have eternal life and can look forward to new bodies, the marriage supper of the Lamb and living with the Lord in heaven where rewards are given for serving the Lord.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit indwells a believer when they trust in the good news of God’s offer of salvation. He is God with us on a continual basis—God speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit. He is a great helper and teacher and will remind us of relevant Scripture.
The second coming or end times
The second coming of Christ has two stages. The first is when the Lord returns to resurrect believers and take them to heaven, called the rapture. The second is when He returns in great power and glory to rule the earth with justice. Believers are to look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13). This is the eternal state after God has triumphed over Satan and evil.
The Key promise
One of the promises given to Abraham was that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you [Abraham]” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18). This was explained more fully as, “through your [Abraham’s] offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18; 26:4). Jacob was given a similar promise, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you [Jacob] and your offspring” (Gen. 28:14).
Who is being blest in these Old Testament verses? According to Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB), the Hebrew word:
– mishpachah (Strongs #4940) means “people, nation” (Gen. 12:3; 28:14; 28:14).
– goy (Strongs #1471) means “nation, people” (Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4).
Although the same word is used for family, in this context, it’s not just a family or a tribe, but a larger group of people like a nation.
This promise is explained in the New Testament. Peter quoted this promise to unbelieving Jews, “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days [the millennial reign of Christ]. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring [Jesus Christ] all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up His servant [Jesus Christ], He sent Him first to you [Jews] to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:24-26). Peter applies the promise that was made to Abraham to Jesus. Jesus was the fulfilment of the promise. Through Jesus all peoples earth will be blessed. In this instance, “offspring” means Jesus.
Paul quoted this promise to believers who were being influenced by legalistic Jewish Christians, “Understand, then, that those who have faith are (spiritual) children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you [Abraham]’. So those who rely on faith [believers] are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:7-9). Paul says that all believers are spiritual children of Abraham. They are saved by faith like Abraham was and not by good works. This is the gospel message, that both Jews and Gentiles can be saved by faith in Christ. This explains how the nations are blessed through Jesus.
Who is being blest in these New Testament verses? According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the Greek word:
– patria (Strongs #3965) means “nation, people” (Acts 3:25).
– ethnos (Strongs #1484) means “nation, people” (Gal. 3:8).
Although patria is used for family, in this context, it’s not just a family or a tribe, but a larger group of people like a nation.
Paul then explains how this happens, “He [Christ] redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:14). It’s through Jesus Christ. And he says it again, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ” (v.16). In this context “seed” means Jesus. And he says it a third time: Jesus is “the Seed to whom the promise referred” (v.19). Christ is the seed promised to Abraham. And he says it the fourth time: What was promised to Abraham is “given to those who believe” through “faith in Jesus Christ” (v.22). This says that the blessing is salvation through Jesus. Then he says, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (v.29). Christians are Abraham’s spiritual descendants as we share his faith (Rom. 4:1-25).
All those with faith in God are spiritual descendants of Abraham (his offspring or seed) (Rom. 4:13, 16, 18, 9:6-9). This includes Isaac but not his half-brother Ishmael, Jacob but not his brother Esau, and believers but not unbelievers.
The promise of Gen. 12:3 was to bless all nations of the earth in Abram. The promise of salvation through Jesus included Gentiles as well as Jews. The “seed” referred to Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of Abraham (Lk. 3:34). God promised to bless all nations through Christ. It was through Christ that God intended to fulfill this promise to Abraham. The New Testament version of the promise is, “For God so loved the world [nations] that He gave His one and only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
The promise of salvation was meant to be received by faith in Christ. This is evident by hindsight after being revealed by the apostles, although it is not clear from reading the Old Testament alone.
When he was accused of being unreliable, Paul said that “all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:10NLT). This is shown in a schematic diagram. The promise of blessing for all nations was made to Abraham. Jesus was the fulfilment of the promise. Through Jesus people from all nations can be blessed. Here’s how it happens. Those who trust in the work of Christ by faith are saved and delivered from the penalty of their sinfulness. Consequently:
– They enter the new covenant (a special spiritual relationship with God, which is much better than the old covenant).
– They have eternal life, which is spiritual life that endures forever.
– They are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
– They will be resurrected at the rapture and will share in Christ’s second coming to set up His kingdom on earth.
It’s a key promise because it is the original messianic promise (see Appendix A) and it is the source of the other promises. Paul said, “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us [believers] with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ” (Eph. 1:3NLT). The spiritual blessings that we are promised are consequences of our faith in Christ. So they were included in the original promise. The diagram shows God’s plan of salvation over a period of at least 4,000 years: the promise was given to Abram in about 2,000BC, Jesus died about AD 30 and we live in AD 2019. That’s the big picture.
So, God’s greatest promise is that people from all nations can be blessed through Jesus. Jesus is the fulfilment of the greatest promise. And salvation through Jesus is the fulfilment of the greatest promise. He is the means by which people can come into God’s blessing.
The guaranteed promise
But promises can be broken. Construction of Sydney’s light rail project was meant to go smoothly and be finished before the State election in March, but there were problems, delays and broken promises and now it’s running at least a year late. But God always keeps His promises.
The writer of Hebrews assures us that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Abraham was given a son after waiting for 25 years. Likewise, God will keep His promise of our eternal salvation. Because of this, those who have come into God’s salvation “may be greatly encouraged”. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19). Like an anchor holds a ship safe and stops it being shipwrecked in a storm, our hope in Christ guarantees our safety. The storms of life can lead to doubt and despair if we forget that God’s greatest promise can be our anchor.
Today’s meaning of ancient promises
The Bible was written in ancient times. What do promises written thousands of years ago mean for us today? It was also written over a period of at least 1,500 years. Because of this, the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end (the graph goes up with time). So we should read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation. Let’s look at what the promises we have mentioned above mean to us today.
Protection. This was a promise with Noah and his sons and their descendants and “every living creature on earth” (Gen. 9:8-9). They were the only ones on earth after the flood. So this promise applies to all people and creatures on earth today. We can be assured that the earth won’t be destroyed by a flood or by climate change (a euphemism for the enhanced greenhouse effect). Part of the promise was “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22). It’s an unconditional promise that as long as the earth exists the climate will remain within acceptable ranges for plants to live. Of course the Genesis flood was the greatest climate change event in history.
A nation and a land. Abraham and Jacob were promised that they would have many descendants (the Jews) who would be given the land of Canaan (and they did live there). These were promises for the Jews, so it doesn’t mean that God will give us many children and a house. Those who follow Jesus live under the new covenant and their promised blessings are spiritual, not physical (Eph. 1:3). So the equivalent promise for us is spiritual blessings. That’s the inheritance that we can look forward to – being part of the family of God and having eternal life in heaven.
Blessing for all nations. We have already seen that that the equivalent promise for us is the blessing of salvation through Jesus.
Promised relationship. This was a promise to the Israelites who were to live under the laws of Moses. But that doesn’t mean that we need to obey these laws in order to have a relationship with God. The old covenant wasn’t given to Gentiles like us. The equivalent relationship for us in the new covenant through faith in Christ and His commands in the New Testament.
A dynasty. The Bible says that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David of an eternal dynasty.
Revival. Although the Jews were promised a new covenant, the Bible says that believers enter into it spiritually and enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the good news by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. The Lord’s Supper is a symbol of this new covenant (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?
A messiah. Jesus was the promised Jewish messiah. Because He was rejected by the Jews, salvation by faith in His finished work is now available to all nations.
As the other promises we have looked at were made to Christians, this means that they still apply to us today. So Christians have eternal (spiritual) life; they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; and during the end times they will be resurrected when Christ returns to take them to heaven.
Consequently, we need to be careful in our understanding and application of promises in the Bible (see Appendix B).
Lessons for us
We have seen that God gave Abraham a promise to bless all nations, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and which leads to God’s other promises. Through Jesus all nations can be blessed. The blessing is salvation through faith in Jesus and all that it brings including the Holy Spirit and eternal life.
This is the greatest promise because it’s the source of all God’s promises to believers. Believers have every spiritual blessing because they are united with Christ. The Bible says it’s like an anchor to get through the storms of life. Do we have this anchor to get through difficult times or do we get shipwrecked?
It’s greater than all promises outside the Bible because it’s given by the God who made the universe and continues to sustain it.
In Old Testament times, the physical descendants of Abraham had a special relationship with God, which other people lacked. Likewise, today those who have trusted in Jesus have a special relationship with God that helps them get through life and gives them something to look forward to. What about us? Do we have that special relationship with God? Salvation is a gift to be received by faith.
If we are part of God’s special people today, we receive the blessings of God’s promises. But we don’t know about them unless we read them in the Bible. And we can’t recall them unless we read them in the Bible. So let’s read about them in the Bible so we can appreciate how great and precious they are (2 Pt. 1:4). For example, are we looking forward to Christ’s return to fulfil His promises concerning the future?
Let’s remember that God’s greatest promise is Jesus and salvation through Jesus.
Appendix A: Is Genesis 3:15 a messianic promise?
You may wonder why I haven’t included Genesis 3:15 as the original messianic promise. God’s judgment of the serpent after mankind sinned was, “14So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15).
This has been called the Protoevangelium, which means the first announcement of the gospel. It has also been called the first messianic prophecy. In this interpretation, the serpent represents Satan and the offspring of the woman represents Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection secures victory over Satan which will be finalized when Satan is thrown into the lake of burning sulfur for eternity (Rev. 20:2, 10).
I haven’t mentioned Genesis 3:15 in this post because:
– I can’t see any direct reference to the statement in Genesis 3:15 anywhere else in the Bible. However, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20) could be an indirect reference. This verse seems to be saying that believers will share in Christ’s victory over Satan. According to the NET Bible, “Rom 16:20 may echo Genesis 3:15 but it does not use any of the specific language of Genesis 3:15 in the Septuagint [the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament]. Paul uses the imagery of God soon crushing Satan’s head under the feet of the church. If Paul were interpreting Genesis 3:15, he is not seeing it as culminating in and limited to Jesus defeating Satan via the crucifixion and resurrection, but extending beyond that”.
– According to the NET Bible, “Many Christian theologians (going back to Irenaeus) understand v. 15 as the so-called protevangelium, supposedly prophesying Christ’s victory over Satan (see W. Witfall, “Genesis 3:15 – a Protevangelium?” CBQ 36 : 361-65; and R. A. Martin, “The Earliest Messianic Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” JBL 84 : 425-27). In this allegorical approach, the woman’s offspring is initially Cain, then the whole human race, and ultimately Jesus Christ, the offspring (Hebrew “seed”) of the woman (see Gal. 4:4). The offspring of the serpent includes the evil powers and demons of the spirit world, as well as those humans who are in the kingdom of darkness (see Jn. 8:44). According to this view, the passage gives the first hint of the gospel. Satan delivers a crippling blow to the Seed of the woman (Jesus), who in turn delivers a fatal blow to the Serpent (first defeating him through the death and resurrection [1 Cor. 15:55-57] and then destroying him in the judgment [Rev. 12:7-9; 20:7-10]). However, the grammatical structure of Genesis 3:15b does not suggest this view. The repetition of the verb “attack,” as well as the word order, suggests mutual hostility is being depicted, not the defeat of the serpent. If the serpent’s defeat were being portrayed, it is odd that the alleged description of his death comes first in the sentence. If he has already been crushed by the woman’s “Seed,” how can he bruise his heel? To sustain the allegorical view, v. 15b must be translated in one of the following ways: “he will crush your head, even though you attack his heel” (in which case the second clause is concessive) or “he will crush your head as you attack his heel” (the clauses, both of which place the subject before the verb, may indicate synchronic action)”.
So, Genesis 3:15 isn’t included in this post as the original messianic promise because its meaning isn’t as clear or as robust as the other promises.
Appendix B: Application of biblical promises
As a result of the findings under “Today’s meaning of ancient promises”, when we read a promise in the Bible, let’s be careful to note:
– The context. Read the chapters and paragraphs of the Bible that describe the context in which the promise was given. Who was it written to? Did they live under the old covenant or the new one? How did they understand the promise? For example, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14) was a promise to the nation of Israel. Under the old covenant, there was a direct correspondence between their obedience and their prosperity, and their disobedience and their hardship (Dt. 28). If they disobey, they will be judged. But if they repent, God will rescue them from the judgment. It doesn’t apply to any other nation because God never promised that if a righteous remnant repents and prays for their nation, that the nation will be saved spiritually or be prosperous. And as noted above, the equivalent promise for us is spiritual blessings (not physical ones).
– The conditions. What conditions need to be satisfied to receive the benefits of the promise?
– The fulfilment. Has the promise been partially or totally fulfilled already? Or has it not yet been fulfilled? Read subsequent portions of the Bible.
– History. Is the promise explained in subsequent portions of the Bible?
Written, January 2019
Also see: God’s great and precious promises
At a recent wedding the bridal party arrived at the church in a Lamborghini and stretch limousine. And they arrived at the Reception to fireworks and frenetic music and drumming. It was a grand entry. In contrast, although Jesus was announced by angels, His was a humble entry.
At Christmas we remember the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. This was announced when an angel told some shepherds that the Jewish Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. That’s amazing because shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder. And Bethlehem was only a small town. But how would the shepherds find him? And how would they recognize him? So they were given a sign from God to help them.
What’s a sign?
The Greek word semeion (Strongs #4592) means a “sign”. In this context it’s the means by which a person is distinguished from someone else. For example, Judas Iscariot identified Jesus by kissing him (Mt. 26:48). And circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites (Rom. 4:11). Miracles signified an apostle (2 Cor. 12:12). And Paul’s handwriting showed that his letters were authentic (2 Th. 3:17).
They were given an unusual sign to identify the Messiah. Important people like royalty, and a President or Prime Minister are usually characterized by pomp, ceremony, security and publicity. That’s the kind of sign we would expect for the Messiah.
But the angel said, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk. 2:12NIV). So the sign was a baby lying in a cattle feeding-trough! What a humble birth.
So the shepherds were to look for a baby lying in a cattle feeding-trough. Although there would have been other babies in Bethlehem, it would be unusual for one to be lying in a cattle feeding-trough. It was a strange sign.
Jesus was born into the world just like all of us. It was a normal birth (following a supernatural conception). He was a tiny helpless baby. Nothing would have seemed supernatural. Why did God choose to enter the human race like this? So that He could provide for our salvation. Jesus had to be fully human so He could die for our sins (Heb. 2:14-17). He had to become like us in order to save us.
A baby lying in a cattle feed trough
The reason that baby Jesus was lying in a manger was “because there was no guest room available for them” (Lk. 2:7). The last supper was held in the guest room of a house in Jerusalem (Mk. 14:14; Lk. 22:11). According to scholars, the most likely place for a manger in Bethlehem was in a one-roomed peasant house with two levels. People occupied the upper level (Arab. mastaba) and animals the lower one (ka’ al-bet). The animals are housed overnight and fed from mangers built into the floor of the upper terrace or mounted to the walls near the lower level. Presumably there was no cradle in the house, but a manger could perform the same function.
The shepherds were told that they would find the baby in a manger. Shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder and in many homes they would feel their poverty and be ashamed of their low position in society. But in this case, they faced no humiliation because it was probably a simple peasant house like their own with mangers for the animals. That’s why they said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Lk. 2:15). And they hurried off to find Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus.
What a strange way for a Messiah and Savior to enter the world. Even the poorest child would not be found in a manger.
Lessons for us
The Bible says that Jesus gave up His divine glory when He came to earth “by taking the very nature of a servant (slave), being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). And “that though He was rich (in heaven), yet for your sake He became poor (on earth)” (2 Cor. 8:9). He did this (was born, lived, died and rose again) in order to die the death that we deserve. Through what Jesus has done, we “might become rich”. The promise is not for physical earthly riches, but spiritual heavenly riches. It’s forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God, and eternal life. What Jesus did was like an “indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15). As a gift, it has not benefit to us unless we accept it. That’s why the Bible says. “might become rich”, not “will become rich”. Have you accepted God’s gift? Not many Jews recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. Why not recognize Him as your Savior?
Those who follow Jesus are to imitate His humility (Phil. 2:1-8). Our attitude is to be one of unity. mutual love, harmony, humility, sacrifice, and service, rather than being self-centered. Saul was recognized for being tall, Zacchaeus for being short and Jesus for being humble (1 Sam. 9:2; Lk. 19:1-4). But what is our characteristic attitude?
I went to a funeral yesterday, which had been postponed until after the birth of a baby. The safe arrival of a baby can bring joy amidst despair. It is good news. This was particularly true in the days before modern medicine when some mothers and babies didn’t survive child birth. It’s a significant event that is anticipated by the parents and their family and friends. But the birth we remember at Christmas was unique in bringing joy to both earth and heaven. We see that God changes despair into joy.
Joy on earth
At Christ’s birth the shepherds were told, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). This was good news for a nation that despaired for at least 500 years when they were ruled by foreign powers and lacked a proper king (Herod was not a Jew). They were looking for the promised Messiah to lead a rebellion against the Romans and bring them lasting peace and prosperity (Is. 9:6-7; Lk. 23:2-5). They also knew that their Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2, 4; Jn. 7:42).
God revealed to two elderly people that baby Jesus was the promised Messiah. Simeon could now die in peace (Lk. 2:29). Anna thanked God and told others who were looking forward to being freed from foreign domination (Lk. 2:38).
But the good news was not restricted to Jews in Israel. Gentile astrologers from east of Israel came to worship “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:1-2).
On 22 July 2013 a son was born to Prince William and Kate Middleton The birth of an heir to the throne, such as Prince George, brings joy to a nation. Because Christ’s was a royal birth, there was joy in Israel. But what made this event different to the birth of Prince George?
Joy in heaven
Prince George was given a family name. Jesus was also given a family name (the same as Joshua: “Jesus” is from Greek, while “Joshua” is from Hebrew), but it was “because He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). The Jews wanted to be delivered from Roman rule. But instead they are promised to be saved from their sins!
There was also joy in heaven at Christ’s birth – the angels praised God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). They also declare that Christ is the source of peace on earth. This peace is available to those who repent of their sins and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That’s how people are saved from their sins. This joy continues today because there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and turns to God (Lk. 15:7, 10).
From despair to joy
Through the birth of a baby, God changed the Jewish despair into joy. However, Jesus wasn’t only a Savior for the Jews, but for all the people of the world (Jn. 3:16; 4:42). Through Jesus joy is available to those who accept His gift of salvation and this joy extends to heaven.
Do you realise the significance of Christ’s birth? The significance of His life, death, resurrection and ascension? Have you caused rejoicing in heaven? Let’s remember these things at Christmas (Lk. 2:19).
Remember God can change despair into joy.
Written, December 2013
About 4,000 years ago Abraham received some special promises when God spoke to him. The bible contains many other promises as well and in this article we look at some key promises given for Christians today. As Abraham had to listen in order to hear God’s promises to him, we should read the Bible to know God’s promises for us.
A survey of the New Testament
The Greek word for promise is “epangalia” (Strongs #1860). This article is based on a survey of every occurrence of this word and its close derivatives in the New Testament that relate to God’s promises—this was 60 verses, which are all referenced below. I am assuming that these verses indicate God’s key promises for Christians living between the day of Pentecost and the rapture. We will look at the context of these verses to help discover—what message did they convey to those of the early church and what is their message for us?
The topics that relate to the word “promise” in these verses are listed in the table below. It is interesting that half of the verses relate to promises given to Abraham and his descendants—the majority of these being in the books of Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. This is not surprising as a majority of the early Christians were Jewish and the Old Testament was the only Scripture that the early church possessed. Therefore, God often used illustrations from the Old Testament. Also, these books deal with topics of those times, such as the fact that justification by faith and not works is taught in the Old Testament, and with the trap of legalistic Judaism.
Key promises mentioned in the New Testament
|Given to Abraham and his descendants||32||53|
|Second coming or end times||6||10|
|Children of God||1||2|
|All God’s promises||2||3|
Old Testament promises mentioned in the New Testament
The greatest occurrence of the word “epangalia” in the New Testament relates to the promises given to Abraham and his descendants (Acts 7:5,17; Rom. 4:20-21; 9:4, 8, 9; Gal. 3:16; Eph. 2:12; Heb. 6:13; 7:6; 11:9,13,17,33). The three main messages in these passages are summarized below:
Firstly, God keeps His promises—Isaac was born “as the result of a promise” (Gal. 4:23NIV). “And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). This happened because of Abraham’s faith and God’s power (Heb 11:11).
This was an important message for the early church, particularly in times of persecution. They knew that their sins had been forgiven and they had a home in heaven. This gave them hope and security. It is also important for us during difficult and disappointing times—if we can’t trust in God, who can we trust? No-one. In a post-modern world, characterized by change and instability, it can be difficult to trust in God. When our faith is weak we act as though God is a part of creation; but of course God is not like us—He is reliable and always keeps His promises.
Secondly, Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 13:23,32; 26:6; Heb. 11:39). Paul wrote, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs” (Rom 15:8). The remainder of this sentence says Christ came so that the Gentiles would also praise God. When sinners put their faith in Christ, they share in the promises given to Abraham (Gal. 3:29; 4:28).
As already mentioned a majority of the early Christians were Jewish. When they realized that Jesus was the Messiah, they converted from Judaism to Christianity and this truth about Jesus would have featured in evangelism to the Jews. For example, on the day of Pentecost Peter proclaimed, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” and Stephen told the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, “you betrayed and murdered the Messiah”.
The message for us is that all God’s promises are fulfilled through Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20). Paul writes that we are blessed with every spiritual blessing because we belong to Christ. The promises in the Old Testament look ahead to Christ and those for the future rely on His great sacrifice for the sin of the world.
Finally, God’s promise of salvation (and eternal life) is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earnt. In Romans 4 Paul shows how the gospel is in harmony with the Old Testament—God accepted Abraham because Abraham had faith in Him (Rom 4:13-14)—“The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16). The Old Testament law was only a temporary measure until the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:17-19, 21-22). So, eternal life is guaranteed to those who have faith in God like Abraham did (Heb. 11:11).
The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews in the times of the early church. They endeavored to live in strict accordance with the Old Testament law as interpreted and amplified by the scribes and their tradition and they believed in salvation by works. Consequently, the message of salvation by faith and not works was a vital distinction between Christianity and Judaism.
This truth is also important for us as it is fundamental to the Christian faith. Salvation is a gift that God promises to those who receive it by faith. There is no way we can earn our salvation. As a result of this salvation all believers are assured of participating in and receiving the remaining promises.
The second most prevalent topic associated with the word “epangalia” in the New Testament is that of eternal life. When we accept Christ as Savior, we receive eternal life which is valuable now and when we get to heaven. Eternal life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). Eternal life is one of the “better promises” in the new covenant that came though Christ (Heb. 8:6). It is shared by all believers—there is no distinction based on race or any other difference between believers (Eph. 3:6).
As Paul wrote concerning “a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time”, people who followed God in Old Testament times will be included in those who share eternal life (Tit. 1:2).
Heaven, the place of eternal rest is still available to all who believe in Christ (2 Tim 1:1; Heb 4:1; 6:17). It is an “eternal inheritance” for all those who have been freed from the penalty of their sins by Christ’s death (Heb 6:12; 9:15; Jas. 2:5). All believers have eternal life and are looking forward to new bodies, the marriage supper of the Lamb and living with the Lord.
Heaven also includes rewards given at the judgement seat of Christ for service done for the Lord. For example, those who persevere under trials are promised “the crown of life”, which may be a deeper appreciation of eternal life in heaven (Jas. 1:12).
As God promises eternal life as a gift to sinners who receive it by faith it is guaranteed to all believers (Rom 4:16). We can be confident of this based on God’s Word, because we can’t earn salvation by good works.
Some in the early church thought Jews were privileged and so they looked down on Gentiles. But the fact that they both had eternal life and were indwelt by the Holy Spirit illustrated that there should be no barrier between them—Christianity is multinational! The same applies today—we should accept all true Christians as Christ would—regardless of differences in race, in status, or in gender.
The Holy Spirit
The word “epangalia” in the New Testament is also often associated with the topic of the Holy Spirit. Before His ascension, Christ promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come as had been promised in the Old Testament (Is. 44:3; Ezek. 36:27; Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:4). The Holy Spirit is God and He gives believers a divine power. This happened initially on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33). This promise was for all believers, whether they were Jews (“you and your children”) or Gentiles (“all who are far off”) (Acts 2:39).
The Holy Spirit indwells a believer when they trust in the good news of God’s offer of salvation—“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph. 1:13). This pattern—hearing the message, believing it, and then receiving the Holy Spirit—was evident when Peter spoke at Cornelius’ house. The gift of the Holy Spirit is part of the blessings that were promised to Abraham (Gal. 3:14).
These verses also teach that the Holy Spirit is a sign that we belong to God and that He will protect us and will keep His promises.
This promise is equally important to the early church and to us. The New Testament is full of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and they are instructed to “be filled with the Spirit”. He is God with us on a continual basis—God speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit. He is a great helper and teacher and will remind us of relevant Scripture.
Second coming or end times
The second coming of Christ and other future events are also often associated with the word “epangalia” in the New Testament. The book of Hebrews was written for those struggling with leaving Judaism for Christianity, who were encouraged to preserver until they received the reward that God had promised (Heb. 10:36). This reward is explained in the next verse as being when Christ returns to take Christians to be with Himself at the rapture. It is important that our present circumstances do not cause us to forget about the wonderful future that God has promised us—“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:23). God is reliable and will keep His promises.
Scoffers say, “Where is this ‘coming’ He promised?”—they do not believe that God is coming to judge the world (2 Pt. 3:4). So, why has there been a long delay in the coming of God’s judgement? The reason is that He is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). He is giving people every opportunity to be saved. He waited 120 years before He sent the flood and has waited thousands of years before destroying the world with fire.
God has promised many awesome demonstrations of His power after He takes the believers to be with Himself during the rapture (Heb. 12:26). But, believers are to look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pt. 3:13). This is the eternal state after God has triumphed over Satan and evil.
This expectation can help believers through life’s struggles—whether they live in the first century or today. It gives them an eternal perspective.
Children of God
The promises of 2 Corthinians 7:1, mentioned in the previous verses, include that believers are “sons and daughters” of God the Father and that God welcomes those who stand against evil. There are two relationships here: between a child and a parent and between siblings. As a result of this promise, we receive blessings from God and from one another.
A parent has special care for their child who they nurture and encourage from infancy to adolescence and then to adulthood—that’s how God cares for us. Meanwhile a child is to obey their parents—and Christians are to obey and imitate God.
Although siblings can be rivals, they share a common family and the same parents. As a consequence of this relationship, most of us help and care for others in our family. Likewise believers, who follow the same Savior and share the same destiny, should care for one another.
The illustration of being children of God applies to the early church and to today. All believers need to appreciate they serve a loving Father. However the situation regarding relationships between believers has changed in the past 1,900 years. The early church was small and all believers fellowshipped with one another, except when dictators such as Diotrephes had their way. Today there are different Christian denominations and we need to remember we are children in a global family comprising believers from all Christian denominations, not just the one we happen to support. The Bible emphasises that God has no favorites, nor should we.
All God’s promises
The remaining instances of the word “epangalia” in the New Testament are two verses that relate to all of God’s promises. We mentioned earlier that all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).
God has given us everything we need to live for Him including “His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pt. 1:4). It is estimated that there are at least 30,000 promises in the Bible. They are “very great” because they help us do such things as:
- “participate in the divine nature”—as we appreciate what God has promised, we become more like Him, and
- “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”—God’s promises can help us resist temptation—when temptations come we should claim the promises.
Application to us
These promises can have a strong influence on our lives when we remember:
- We follow a God who keeps His promises—look back at history. Our God is reliable and trustworthy.
- All of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ – Christ has “better promises” than any others in the world because they are given by the God who made the universe and continues to sustain it.
- Salvation is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earnt—this is a fundamental of the Christian faith.
- The Holy Spirit is God with us on a continual basis—we should be more aware of His presence as all our power to live for Christ comes from the Holy Spirit.
- We are children of God—we have a global family and should welcome fellowship with other believers. The early church was not restricted to a small community—it witnessed in Jerusalem, then Judea the southern section of Palestine, then Samaria in central Palestine and then to the ends of the earth. Like evangelism, our fellowship should spread out across the land. Paul had to be reminded by the Lord when he was in Corinth; “I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city”. We need to be aware of other believers in our community who are also a part of the body of Christ and not avoid them or isolate ourselves from them.
- We should be looking forward to Christ’s return to fulfil His promises concerning the future. This includes eternal life in heaven and seeing Jesus exalted to the highest place and seeing every knee bow before Him and hearing every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and singing together with all creation, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
- God doesn’t reveal His promises to us unless we read them in the Bible—so we need to: read them, understand them, meditate on them, and store them in our memories. If you have trouble sleeping at night, then be like the psalmist who wrote, “I lie awake at night thinking of your promises” (Ps. 119:148). Then we can say, “I have hidden your word in my heart” (Ps. 119:11). As a consequence you will realize that they are great promises and they will become precious to you, and The Holy Spirit will recall them when you need refreshment and encouragement—“Your promise revives me; it comforts me in all my troubles” (Ps. 119:50).
Written, March 2003
Also see: God’s greatest promise