“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:7-8
God promises a good relationship with Abraham and his “descendants” (seed) forever, and then he promises to give Abraham and his “seed” the land of Canaan.
There are two important questions regarding this promise. The first is, “What exactly was promised?” and the second is, “To whom was the promise made?”
I. The promise of land.
The first place man lived and walked freely at peace with God was in the Garden. This was fractured when man and creation were cursed by God at the Fall, but God made a promise to Abraham that one day there would be a place where men could live with God again in perfect relationship, but not yet.
God’s promise to Abraham was for a future inheritance. He told Abraham there would be 400 years of slavery before deliverance began. (Genesis 15:1-16) Moses would be the one God raised up to lead Israel out of the slavery he predicted.
Something interesting happens to Moses in Deuteronomy 1. Moses, the Prophet of God, acknowledges that the Lord became angry with the nation of Israel for their lack of trust. (v.32) Then he makes a fascinating comment. Moses says, “because of you the Lord became angry with me also.” (v. 37 NIV) God’s anger burns against the people for their lack of trust. Then, unexpectedly, God’s anger also falls on the Prophet because of the sin of the people. The Prophet of God is forbidden to pass freely through the Jordan River, the river of judgment, into the Promised Land. Instead he is sent up on the mountain to die with the glorious inheritance of his people just in sight across the river. His body is hidden away so that it is never found. (Deut. 34) After his death, the Lord says to Joshua (whose name means “YAHWEH is salvation,” the Hebrew name for Jesus), “Moses my servant is dead, therefore… ARISE!” (Joshua 1:2 NASB, ESV) Joshua commanded the people to prepare themselves, for in THREE DAYS (v.11) they would cross through the Jordan into the land promised to Abraham.
Through Moses and Joshua, the people could see that their Prophet (Old Testament Moses/New Testament Jesus) must go up the mountain (OT Nebo, NT Moriah) and die for the sin of the people, though his body would never be found. Then the Lord says to their deliverer (OT Joshua/NT Jesus) “ARISE.” After three days he leads them safely through the waters of judgment (OT Jordan River/NT Death and Judgment) into their inheritance, the Sabbath rest of God. (OT The Promised Land/NT the final Promised Land)
Moses and Joshua were never able to fully deliver on the promises God made to Abraham. They were types of a future Messiah who would ultimately fulfill the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant.
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God
After crossing the Red Sea, God told his people to look for this final prophet in the future.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.
Just as Moses and Joshua serve as a picture of the death and resurrection of the Messiah, the promised land described in the Old Testament is a picture of the rest we will have in the land after the conquest of of the final Joshua. The rest Joshua provided temporarily in a land centered around a temple building will be realized when God’s people rest in the land of the new heaven and new earth centered around the true temple, the body of Christ. (Rev. 21:22)
The coming of the second Joshua is prophesied in Zecheriah 14.
Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lordmy God will come, and all the holy ones with him.
The promise that God’s people will possess the land was something Israel continued to look to during the reign of David.
“those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land” Psalm 37:9b
“the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace” Psalm 37:11
This promise seemed nearly unimaginable by the time of Jeremiah, but God reminded the people that his promise to Abraham was still trustworthy.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
Then Jesus arrives in the form of a servant and the understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant starts to deepen. Jesus says, “the meek will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
Paul makes the same adjustment in Romans that shows the true borders of the final promised land are actually much greater than the territory described in Genesis.
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. Romans 4:13
Jesus and Paul both refer to the land as the world.
II. Now let’s look at Genesis 17 again and ask, “To whom was the promise made?”
And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. Genesis 17:8
The Hebrew word for offspring is a lot like the English translation, it could be singular or plural. Paul says through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in regard to this promise,
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
According to Paul, the promises of the Abrahamic covenant were made to two people, Abraham and Christ. So the promise for God’s people to dwell at peace with God in the world was made to Jesus, not Abraham’s other offspring, and is meant to be fulfilled in Christ.
These promises were never fulfilled in the Old Testament. While Moses, Joshua, David, and several others did things that looked like the promises were starting to be fulfilled, they were just pictures pointing to the future Messiah’s deliverance and reign.
The promised land where God’s people will live with him in perfect harmony is a promise of a future inheritance.
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
Right now God is being patient. A time is coming when the gospel will have gone out into the whole world, the fullness of the Gentiles will be gathered in, and a last remnant of Jewish people will be saved. (Romans 11) Then the end will come like a flood. Jesus will take control of the world through conquest and he will restore a place for God’s people to live in right relationship with him, fulfilling the very great and precious promises of the Abrahamic covenant.
Until then, Abraham serves as a model of faith. Remember the words from Hebrews 11,
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
Just like Abraham, we are looking forward to a city that is to come, whose temple is the Lord. We will experience the blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant, for the promises given to Christ also come to us as fellow heirs with Christ.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
In the meantime we are to live as strangers and aliens in a land that is not our home.
Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 2:11-12
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
On Jordan’s Stormy BanksOn Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eyeTo Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land,
Oh who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.