Jesus Personally Ratified the Abrahamic Covenant

Note: This article is part of a series on Old Testament Christophanies.  For important background information, see An Introduction to Old Testament Christophanies–with Justin Martyr.

The Covenant Keeper

It is in Genesis 15 where the all-important Abrahamic Covenant is ratified.  Back in Genesis 12 the provisions of the covenant are given, including that the Lord would make Abram a great nation (vv. 1–3).  But by the beginning of chapter 15, Abram was yet to sire an heir even though he and his wife Sarai were old.  Abram voiced his concern to the Lord, and the Lord responded by promising him as many descendants as there are stars in the heavens (v. 5).  Abram’s response changed everything:

Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.  (Gen 15:6)

It was this singular act of faith that was the basis for why the Lord chose Abram to become the great patriarch of God’s people.  It wasn’t the promise itself that Abram believed in, but the Promiser.

Now look at how the targumim handle Genesis 15:6:

And he believed in the Word of the Lord, and He reckoned it to him unto justification.  (Onkelos)

And he believed in the Lord, and had faith in the Word of the Lord, and He reckoned it to him for righteousness, because he parleyed not before him with words.  (Jonathan)

Astonishing!  Abram placed his faith in the Word of the Lord, the Son of God.  And when he did so, the Lord credited it to him as righteousness.  Simple as that.  None of Abram’s works earned, or helped to earn, him righteousness.  Rather, it was his faith in the Lord that led to the Messiah’s righteousness being imputed upon him.  It is no wonder that Paul looked to Abraham as his cardinal example of one who was saved by grace through faith alone (Rom 4; Gal 3:6–14).

Abraham did indeed become the father of many nations, including the descendants of the sons of Isaac [the Israelites through Jacob and the Edomites through Esau]; the generations of Ishmael; and the descendants of the sons he sired with his second wife Keturah.  Abraham’s children also include all those who have placed their full trust in the Lord Jesus (Rom 4:11; Gal 3:7, 29; cf. Matt 3:9).  They may not physically descend from their forefather, but more importantly, they take after him by following his example.  Abraham was blessed with so many children, both physical and spiritual, that they are as difficult to count as the dust of the earth, as the sand on the seashore, and as the stars in the heavens (e.g., Gen 13:16; 15:5; 22:17; Heb 11:12).

A Flaming Torch

The Lord told Abram that He had brought him out of the Ur of the Chaldeans to the land that He had given him.  Abram asked how he could know that he would possess it.  The Lord then instructed the patriarch to bring Him a three year old heifer, a three year old female goat, a three year old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.  Except for the birds, each of them were cut in half and the pieces were placed opposite one another, so that there were two parallel rows of slain animals (vv. 7–10).

What a most unusual scene this is to us in the modern era, but to Abram the meaning was clear.  The idea is that the two parties entering into a covenant agreement would walk through the rows.  If either party was to break the agreement, then they too would be severed as the animals were.  There is a similar ceremony referred to in Jeremiah 34:18–20, where various leaders and people in the land entered into a covenant by passing through the halves of a calf.  They didn’t honor their commitments, and so God handed them over to their enemies—their bodies to be feasted upon by birds and beasts.  The covenant breakers were cut down, just as the calf was.

It is easy to understand why English translations along the lines of “make a covenant” are often based on the Hebrew kārat berît, which literally means to “cut a covenant.”  Even today we may metaphorically say that we are “cutting a deal” when entering into a contract or agreement.  But the ancient covenants of the east quite often involved the actual spilling of blood.  And life is in the blood (Lev 17:11).

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep (v. 12), similar to the one the Lord brought upon Adam so that his rib could be removed to create Eve (Gen 2:21).  When the sun had set, it became very dark, and what appeared to be a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the animal rows (v. 17).  Familiar imagery was used to describe the unfamiliar—the glory of the Lord burning brightly from His presence.  The Lord personally appeared to complete the covenant ceremony.  Now, even if Abram or his offspring were to break the covenant, then the Lord alone would suffer the consequences.  The Lord would be cut.  And so He was—on the cross.  You see, it was Jesus who walked through the bloody pieces, laying the foundation for His redemptive death.  Abram placed his full trust in the Lord, and in response, the Son caused the patriarch to fall asleep so that He could place the entirety of the covenant’s burden upon Himself.

The Genesis 15 Christophany/Messiahophany is especially helpful in underscoring how the Abrahamic Covenant is the root from which the New Covenant grows (Rom 11:16–18).  Both are so plainly unconditional.  Regardless of what Abraham and the children of the promise did—or will do—the covenant couldn’t be nullified.  For the Lord Himself took on all the responsibility.  Abraham’s descendants broke the covenant, but it was the Lord alone, Jesus Christ, who was pierced.  He spilled out His blood, giving His life for those who broke the covenant.  He became the Savior of Israel, and therefore, the Savior of the world.  Through Abraham’s seed, the world was truly blessed just as the Lord promised him.  Jesus bore the punishment for mankind, becoming a curse (Gal 3:13) and switching places with the sinner (2 Cor 5:21) who trusts in Him with the same simple faith that Abraham held.

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