Introduction

Cornerstone is a church, not a social club, not just a group of friends (though it is that, too). It’s a church. This first Sunday of 2014, on which we ordain and install a new officer, I feel led by the Holy Spirit to preach about the church.

What is the church? The church is the people of God washed in Jesus’ blood, animated by his resurrection, led by the Holy Spirit, brought together locally[1] under the oversight of local shepherds (elders) and the service of deacons. The church is God’s work, not man’s. The church is a vital part of the Lord’s kingdom. It’s a big part of what God’s doing to redeem the world in Jesus Christ.

But actually, today, in preaching about the church, I’m preaching about the covenant, because you can’t really understand the church unless you understand the covenant in the Bible.

There are all sorts of covenants in the Bible. People in the ancient world made many more covenants — and made a lot more about the idea of covenants — than we do today. That’s why we need to understand what a covenant is.

A covenant is a sacred agreement between 2 parties. It’s bound by an oath. It contains mutual obligations and benefits. It is handed down from generation to generation.

The two main covenants for the church today are the new covenant and the Abrahamic covenant. They are intertwined. Today I want to preach about the Abrahamic covenant in Galatians.

The Abrahamic Covenant (Gal. 3:7–14, 26–29)

Abraham (he was called Abram at the time) was a pagan who lived in Ur, in modern Iraq. Of all the people in the world, God chose (elected) this pagan to be his covenant partner. Why should God choose Abram rather than anybody else? Not because Abram was better or wiser or more righteous or more faithful. God elected Abram to participate in his covenant by God’s glorious, unfettered grace. In the same way, God told the Jews that he chose them because of his grace — nothing more or less (Dt. 9:6).

Know this: election is always according to grace and not works (Eph. 1:1–2:10). God chose us before birth to prove that the only thing that makes us different from everyone else is his grace (Rom. 9:11). This makes sure that man can’t boast. God alone gets the glory.

What are the provisions of the Abrahamic covenant?

Now, God promises Abram that if he would leave his father’s house and follow the one true Jehovah God, that God would give him a multitude of heirs, who would live in a glorious land all their own (they were later called Jews).

More importantly, God promised that God would be a God to this man and his children and grandchildren and his further descendents. He would be their loving and protective God, and they would be his choice people above all people in the earth (Gen. 12, 15, 17).

It’s easy to remember the three things that God promised to Abram: (1) a God, (2) a seed, and (3) a land.

Almost the entire rest of the OT is an account of God’s dealings with this covenant people. He miraculously gave Abram a son when he and his wife were beyond childbearing years. He brought them to a land called Canaan. His great-great-great grandchildren ended up as slaves in Egypt so that God could show his now multitude of Jews his great, loving might on their behalf.

Despite their sin and apostasy he led them into their own land. He gave them his loving law, but they kept departing from him and his law. So he brought hardships on them so they would repent and turn to him and then he’d deliver them. And finally they persisted in sin, so he sold them into exile: they were taken away to Assyria and Babylon.

Eventually at the end of the OT, he started bringing his people back to their land. The OT is one big story of God’s relentless, persevering, sacrificial love for his covenant people, the Jews. They kept abandoning God, but he refused to abandon them. He kept pursuing them.

Throughout all of this, God kept making a promise that he would send a Messiah, a Jewish Savior, who would stop this cycle. He would save his people finally and forever. He would bring salvation and righteousness and deliverance and peace to God’s people.

We know from reading the Bible that this Jewish Messiah was Jesus Christ.

Who are the parties to the Abrahamic covenant?

But when we come to Galatians, we learn something even more striking. We learn that this same Messiah is the true seed of Abraham that God promised that pagan in Ur so many generations before.

Now, what was the problem in the churches in Galatia that led Paul to write all this? False teachers were teaching that you had to act like an ethnic Jews in order to be right with God. You had to keep the Jewish (Mosaic, old covenant) law in order to be in covenant with God. Paul proved from the OT that this isn’t so.

First, he Paul shows that the law came along a long time after God made his covenant with Abram (Gal. 3:17), so obviously you don’t (and didn’t) have to keep the law in order to be part of God’s covenant people.

Then, Paul said that God got into covenant with Abraham while Abram was still a Gentile, precisely so that this covenant would include all the nations of the earth (Gal. 3:7–8). Paul is saying that God made a covenant with a Gentile, not a Jew, so that all nations, not just the Jews, could be in covenant with God.

But then Paul says something yet more amazing: the true seed of Abraham is none other than Jesus Christ! All along, when God was making promises to Abraham, he was making promises to and about his own Son, Jesus. God the Father would be a God to his Son Jesus. He would give his Son a multitudinous seed. He would give his Son a huge land to inherit.

And this shows what was so false about the teaching in Galatia: you get into covenant with God, not by being an ethnic Jew, not by keeping the law, but by becoming one with the seed of Abraham. And how do you do that? By faith (alone) in Jesus Christ. And when you become one with Jesus, you get all the glorious covenant promises give to Abraham (Gal. 3:29).

Lessons for the Church

Now, what are some implications for the church? For one thing, God’s glorious promises to the Jews are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus was a Jew. Do you ever wonder why the Gospels make so clear that Jesus was born as a Jew? Why? Because they want us to know that Jesus is the seed of Abraham. He is the covenant heir. Jesus is the inheritor of the OT promises.

If we misunderstand stand this, we’ll be led to one of two errors. Maybe we’ll think that God has erased the Jews, and they no longer have a part in God’s plan.[2] But this is false. Paul makes clear in Romans 11 (start in verse 1!) that one day as the Gospel overwhelms the earth, and as many Gentiles are converted, their salvation will provoke the Jews to jealousy. The Jews will say, “Wait. How can all you Gentiles get what was first promised to us?” And God will open their eyes to the Messiah, and a mass of Jews will turn to Jesus Christ. God is at work today among the Jews, bringing a number to the Messiah that most of them rejected 2000 years ago. And one day a multitude, more than man could number, will come to Messiah.

By the way, this is why we can be optimistic. The greatest days for the church are ahead, not behind, according to Paul in Romans 11. We might think the world looks bleak, but the blazing light of the gospel can dispel the inkiest darkness. And one day it will. And the Jews will be a big part of that gospel success.

Second error: we might think that God has two covenant plans, one with Jesus and the Gentiles, and one without Jesus but with the Jews. Yet Paul makes clear: there is no covenant plan apart from Jesus Christ! God is bringing both Jews and Gentiles and all another classes of people to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:27–28). God doesn’t have two covenant plans. He has one covenant plan, one covenant seed, one covenant people, all in Jesus Christ. Nobody gets to be right with God without faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only way.

And then a final lesson: if there is one people of God, the teachings of the Bible to God’s people apply to all of God’s people.

You might wonder why I preach from the OT. Some preachers almost never preach from the OT (Axel and I were talking about this last week). They think that the OT was written to the Jews but the NT is written to the Gentiles. But Paul taught just the opposite. He says that the OT was written specifically for us Gentile Christians (1 Cor. 9:9–10)!

Why is this? Because Jesus is the covenant seed of Abraham. All of the OT covenant promises are fulfilled in him. When we become part of Jesus by faith, we inherit all of the covenant promises. Understand that the issue is never Jews or Gentiles or even the church as such. The issue is always Jesus Christ and our union with him.

When we read the Psalms and God’s glorious promises to Israel, we’re reading promises to Jesus Christ.[3] When we become part of him, by faith, those promises become ours (Gal. 3:28).

This is why the whole Bible is for all of God’s people. We can read it and love it and believe it and live by it and die by it, because we are God’s one covenant people who have been washed by the blood and saved by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the true seed of Abraham. And we inherit all the promises by faith in him.

There is a single people of God: all of those who have placed faith in the Jewish Messiah.


[1] We sometimes hear about the “invisible” or “universal” church, but the fact is that in almost every case in the Bible (maybe every one), the church (ekklesia) refers to a locally assembled community of saints.

[2] Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

[3] This is equally true of the OT curses. For example, the book of Hebrews makes clear that if new covenant Christians turn away from Jesus Christ, they’ll be cursed (Heb. 10:29). This doesn’t mean that God’s eternally chosen ones will forfeit their election. It means that if we are enrolled among God’s people but abandon faith in his Son, we cannot be saved.