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THE COVENANT OF PROMISE.
"Brethren, I speak after the manner of men: Though it be but a man's testament, yet when it hath been confirmed, no one maketh it void, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham were the promises spoken, and to his seed. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many, but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. Now this I say; A testament confirmed beforehand by God, the law, which came four hundred and thirty years after, doth not disannul, so as to make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no more of promise: but God hath granted it to Abraham by promise."—Gal. iii. 15-18.
Gentile Christians, Paul has shown, are already sons of Abraham. Their faith proves their descent from the father of the faithful. The redemption of Christ has expiated the law's curse, and brought to its fulfilment the primeval promise. It has conferred on Jew and Gentile alike the gift of the Holy Spirit, sealing the Divine inheritance. "Abraham's blessing" has "come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus." What can Judaism do for them more? Except, in sooth, to bring them under its inevitable curse.
But here the Judaist might interpose: "Granting so much as this, allowing that God covenanted with Abraham on terms of faith, and that believing Gentiles are entitled to his blessing, did not God make a second covenant with Moses, promising further blessings upon197 terms of law? If the one covenant remains valid, why not the other? From the school of Abraham the Gentiles must pass on to the school of Moses." This inference might appear to follow, by parity of reasoning, from what the Apostle has just advanced. And it accords with the position which the legalistic opposition had now taken up. The people of the circumcision, they argued, retained within the Church of Christ their peculiar calling; and Gentiles, if they would be perfect Christians, must accept the covenant-token and the unchangeable ordinances of Israel. Faith is but the first step in the new life; the discipline of the law will bring it to completion. Release from the curse of the law, they might contend, leaves its obligations still binding, its ordinances unrepealed. Christ "came not to destroy, but to fulfil."
So we are brought to the question of the relation of law and promise, which is the theoretical, as that of Gentile to Jewish Christianity is the practical problem of the Epistle. The remainder of the chapter is occupied with its discussion. This section is the special contribution of the Epistle to Christian theology—a contribution weighty enough of itself to give to it a foremost place amongst the documents of Revelation. Paul has written nothing more masterly. The breadth and subtlety of his reason, his grasp of the spiritual realities underlying the facts of history, are conspicuously manifest in these paragraphs, despite the extreme difficulty and obscurity of certain sentences.
This part of the Epistle is in fact a piece of inspired historical criticism; it is a magnificent reconstruction of the course of sacred history. It is Paul's theory of doctrinal development, condensing into a few pregnant sentences the rationale of Judaism, explaining the198 method of God's dealings with mankind from Abraham down to Christ, and fitting the legal system into its place in this order with an exactness and consistency that supply an effectual verification of the hypothesis. To such a height has the Apostle been raised, so completely is he emancipated from the fetters of Jewish thought, that the whole Mosaic economy becomes to his mind no more than an interlude, a passing stage in the march of Revelation.
This passage finds its counterpart in Romans xi. Here the past, there the future fortunes of Israel are set forth. Together the two chapters form a Jewish theodicy, a vindication of God's treatment of the chosen people from first to last. Rom. v. 12-21 and 1 Cor. xv. 20-57 supply a wider exposition, on the same principles, of the fortunes of mankind at large. The human mind has conceived nothing more splendid and yet sober, more humbling and exalting, than the view of man's history and destiny thus sketched out.
The Apostle seeks to establish, in the first place, the fixedness of the Abrahamic covenant. This is the main purport of the passage. At the same time, in ver. 16, he brings into view the Object of the covenant, the person designated by it—Christ, its proper Heir. This consideration, though stated here parenthetically, lies at the basis of the settlement made with Abraham; its importance is made manifest by the after course of Paul's exposition.
At this point, where the discussion opens out into its larger proportions, we observe that the sharp tone of personal feeling with which the chapter commenced has disappeared. In ver. 15 the writer drops into a conciliatory key. He seems to forget the wounded Apostle in199 the theologian and instructor in Christ. "Brethren," he says, "I speak in human fashion—I put this matter in a way that every one will understand." He lifts himself above the Galatian quarrel, and from the height of his argument addresses himself to the common intelligence of mankind.
But is it covenant, or testament, that the Apostle intends here? "I speak after the manner of men," he continues; "if the case were that of a man's διαθήκη, once ratified, no one would set it aside, or add to it." The presumption is that the word is employed in its accepted, every-day significance. And that unquestionably was "testament." It would never occur to an ordinary Greek reader to interpret the expression otherwise. Philo and Josephus, the representatives of contemporary Hellenistic usage, read this term, in the Old Testament, with the connotation of διαθήκη in current Greek.9090 See the able and convincing elucidation of διαθήκη in Cremer's Biblico-Theological Lexicon of N.T. Greek. The context of this passage is in harmony with their usage. The "covenant" of ver. 15 corresponds to "the blessing of Abraham," and "the promise of the Spirit" in the two preceding verses. Again in ver. 17, "promise" and "covenant" are synonymous. Now a "covenant of promise" amounts to a "testament." It is the prospective nature of the covenant, the bond which it creates between Abraham and the Gentiles, which the Apostle has been insisting on ever since ver. 6. It belongs "to Abraham and to his seed"; it comes by way of "gift" and "grace" (vv. 18, 22); it invests those taking part in it with "sonship" and rights of "inheritance" (vv. 18, 26, 29, etc.) These ideas cluster round the thought of a testament; they are not inherent in covenant, strictly200 considered. Even in the Old Testament this latter designation fails to convey all that belongs to the Divine engagements there recorded. In a covenant the two parties are conceived as equals in point of law, binding themselves by a compact that bears on each alike. Here it is not so. The disposition of affairs is made by God, who in the sovereignty of His grace "hath granted it to Abraham." It was surely a reverent sense of this difference which dictated to the men of the Septuagint the use of διαθήκη rather than συνθήκη, the ordinary term for covenant or compact, in their rendering of the Hebrew berith.
This aspect of the covenants now becomes their commanding feature. Our Lord's employment of this word at the Last Supper gave it the affecting reference to His death which it has conveyed ever since to the Christian mind.9191 See Heb. ix. 16-18, where so much ingenuity has been expended to turn testament into covenant. "Sweet is the memory of His name, Who blessed us in His will." The Latin translators were guided by a true instinct when in the Scriptures of the New Covenant they wrote testamentum everywhere, not fœdus or pactum, for this word. The testament is a covenant—and something more. The testator designates his heir, and binds himself to grant to him at the predetermined time (ch. iv. 2) the specified boon, which it remains for the beneficiary simply to accept. Such a Divine testament has come down from Abraham to his Gentile sons.
I. Now when a man has made a testament, and it has been ratified—"proved," as we should say—it stands good for ever. No one has afterwards any power201 to set it aside, or to attach to it a new codicil, modifying its previous terms. There it stands—a document complete and unchangeable (ver. 15).
Such a testament God gave "to Abraham and his seed." It was "ratified" (or "confirmed") by the final attestation made to the patriarch after the supreme trial of his faith in the sacrifice of Isaac: "By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven; ... and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."9292 Gen. xxii. 16-18; Heb. vi. 17. In human testaments the ratification takes place through another; but God "having no greater," yet "to show to the heirs of the promise the immutability of His counsel" confirmed it by His own oath. Nothing was wanting to mark the Abrahamic covenant with an indelible character, and to show that it expressed an unalterable purpose in the mind of God.
With such Divine asseveration "were the promises spoken to Abraham, and his seed." This last word diverts the Apostle's thoughts for a moment, and he gives a side-glance at the person thus designated in the terms of the promise. Then he returns to his former statement, urging it home against the Legalists: "Now this is what I mean: a testament previously ratified by God, the Law which dates four hundred and thirty years later cannot annul, so as to abrogate the Promise" (ver. 17). The bearing of Paul's argument is now perfectly clear. He is using the promise to Abraham to overthrow the supremacy of the Mosaic law. The Promise was, he says, the prior settlement. No subsequent transaction could invalidate it or disqualify those202 entitled under it to receive the inheritance. That testament lies at the foundation of the sacred history. The Jew least of all could deny this. How could such an instrument be set aside? Or what right has any one to limit it by stipulations of a later date?
When a man amongst ourselves bequeaths his property, and his will is publicly attested, its directions are scrupulously observed; to tamper with them is a crime. Shall we have less respect to this Divine settlement, this venerable charter of human salvation? You say, The Law of Moses has its rights: it must be taken into account as well as the Promise to Abraham. True; but it has no power to cancel or restrict the Promise, older by four centuries and a half. The later must be adjusted to the earlier dispensation, the Law interpreted by the Promise. God has not made two testaments—the one solemnly committed to the faith and hope of mankind, only to be retracted and substituted by something of a different stamp. He could not thus stultify Himself. And we must not apply the Mosaic enactments, addressed to a single people, in such a way as to neutralise the original provisions made for the race at large. Our human instincts of good faith, our reverence for public compacts and established rights, forbid our allowing the Law of Moses to trench upon the inheritance assured to mankind in the Covenant of Abraham.
This contradiction necessarily arises if the Law is put on a level with the Promise. To read the Law as a continuation of the older instrument is virtually to efface the latter, to "make the promise of none effect." The two institutes proceed on opposite principles. "If the inheritance is of law, it is no longer of promise" (ver. 18). Law prescribes certain things to be done,203 and guarantees a corresponding reward—so much pay for so much work. That, in its proper place, is an excellent principle. But the promise stands on another footing: "God hath bestowed it on Abraham by way of grace" (κεχάρισται, ver. 18). It holds out a blessing conferred by the Promiser's good will, to be conveyed at the right time without demanding anything more from the recipient than faith, which is just the will to receive. So God dealt with Abraham, centuries before any one had dreamed of the Mosaic system of law. God appeared to Abraham in His sovereign grace; Abraham met that grace with faith. So the Covenant was formed. And so it abides, clear of all legal conditions and claims of human merit, an "everlasting covenant" (Gen. xvii. 7; Heb. xiii. 20).
Its permanence is emphasized by the tense of the verb relating to it. The Greek perfect describes settled facts, actions or events that carry with them finality. Accordingly we read in vv. 15 and 17 of "a ratified covenant"—one that stands ratified. In ver. 18, "God hath granted it to Abraham"—a grace never to be recalled. Again (ver. 19), "the seed to whom the promise hath been made"—once for all. A perfect participle is used of the Law in ver. 17 (γεγονώς), for it is a fact of abiding significance that it was so much later than the Promise; and in ver. 24, "the Law hath been our tutor,"—its work in that respect is an enduring benefit. Otherwise, the verbs relating to Mosaism in this context are past in tense, describing what is now matter of history, a course of events that has come and gone. Meanwhile the Promise remains, an immovable certainty, a settlement never to be disturbed. The emphatic position of ὁ Θεός (ver. 18), at the very end of the paragraph, serves to heighten this effect.204 "It is God that hath bestowed this grace on Abraham." There is a challenge in the word, as though Paul asked, "Who shall make it void?"9393 Comp. Rom. viii. 33, 34; Acts xi. 17; 2 Cor. i. 21, for a similar emphasis.
Paul's chronology in ver. 17 has been called in question. We are not much concerned to defend it. Whether Abraham preceded Moses by four hundred and thirty years, as the Septuagint and the Samaritan text of Exod. xii. 40, 41 affirm, and as Paul's contemporaries commonly supposed; or whether, as it stands in the Hebrew text of Exodus, this was the length of time covered by the sojourn in Egypt, so that the entire period would be about half as long again, is a problem that Old Testament historians must settle for themselves; it need not trouble the reader of Paul. The shorter period is amply sufficient for his purpose. If any one had said, "No, Paul; you are mistaken. It was six hundred and thirty, not four hundred and thirty years from Abraham to Moses;" he would have accepted the correction with the greatest goodwill. He might have replied, "So much the better for my argument."9494 We gain nothing, and we may lose much, in "trying to settle questions of Old Testament historical criticism by casual allusions in the New Testament." (See Mr. Beet's sensible observations, in his Commentary ad loc.) It is possible to "strain out" the "gnats" of Biblical criticism, and yet to swallow huge "camels" of improbability.
II. Ver. 16 remains for our consideration. In proving the steadfastness of the covenant with Abraham, the Apostle at the same time directs our attention to the Person designated by it, to whom its fulfilment was guaranteed. "To Abraham were the promises spoken, and to his seed—'to thy seed,' which is Christ."
This identification the Judaist would not question. He made no doubt that the Messiah was the legatee of the testament, "the seed to whom it hath been promised." Whatever partial and germinant fulfilments the Promise had received, it is on Christ in chief that the inheritance of Israel devolves. In its true and full intent, this promise, like all predictions of the triumph of God's kingdom, was understood to be waiting for His advent.
The fact that this Promise looked to Christ, lends additional force to the Apostle's assertion of its indelibility. The words "unto Christ," which were inserted in the text of ver. 17 at an early time, are a correct gloss. The covenant did not lie between God and Abraham alone. It embraced Abraham's descendants in their unity, culminating in Christ. It looked down the stream of time to the last ages. Abraham was its starting-point; Christ its goal. "To thee—and to thy seed:" these words span the gulf of two thousand years, and overarch the Mosaic dispensation. So that the covenant vouchsafed to Abraham placed him, even at that distance of time, in close personal relationship with the Saviour of mankind. No wonder that it was so evangelical in its terms, and brought the patriarch an experience of religion which anticipated the privileges of Christian faith. God's covenant with Abraham, being in effect His covenant with mankind in Christ, stands both first and last. The Mosaic economy holds a second and subsidiary place in the scheme of Revelation.
The reason the Apostle gives for reading Christ into the promise is certainly peculiar. He has been taxed with false exegesis, with "rabbinical hair-splitting" and the like. Here, it is said, is a fine example of the art, familiar to theologians, of torturing206 out of a word a predetermined sense, foreign to its original meaning. "He doth not say, and to seeds, as referring to many; but as referring to one, and to thy seed, which is Christ." Paul appears to infer from the fact that the word "seed" is grammatically singular, and not plural, that it designates a single individual, who can be no other than Christ. On the surface this does, admittedly, look like a verbal quibble. The word "seed," in Hebrew and Greek as in English, is not used, and could not in ordinary speech be used in the plural to denote a number of descendants. It is a collective singular. The plural applies only to different kinds of seed. The Apostle, we may presume, was quite as well aware of this as his critics. It does not need philological research or grammatical acumen to establish a distinction obvious to common sense. This piece of word-play is in reality the vehicle of an historical argument, as unimpeachable as it is important. Abraham was taught, by a series of lessons,9595 Gen. xii. 2, 3; xv. 2-6; xvii. 4-8, 15-21; xxii. 16-18. to refer the promise to the single line of Isaac. Paul elsewhere lays great stress on this consideration; he brings Isaac into close analogy with Christ; for he was the child of faith, and represented in his birth a spiritual principle and the communication of a supernatural life.9696 Ch. iv. 21-31; Rom. iv. 17-22; comp. Heb. xi. 11, 12. The true seed of Abraham was in the first instance one, not many. In the primary realisation of the Promise, typical of its final accomplishment, it received a singular interpretation; it concentrated itself on the one, spiritual offspring, putting aside the many, natural and heterogeneous (Hagarite or Keturite) descendants. And this sifting principle, this law of207 election which singles out from the varieties of nature the Divine type, comes into play all along the line of descent, as in the case of Jacob, and of David. It finds its supreme expression in the person of Christ. The Abrahamic testament devolved under a law of spiritual selection. By its very nature it pointed ultimately to Jesus Christ. When Paul writes "Not to seeds, as of many," he virtually says that the word of inspiration was singular in sense as well as in form; in the mind of the Promiser, and in the interpretation given to it by events, it bore an individual reference, and was never intended to apply to Abraham's descendants at large, to the many and miscellaneous "children according to flesh."
Paul's interpretation of the Promise has abundant analogies. All great principles of human history tend to embody themselves in some "chosen seed." They find at last their true heir, the one man destined to be their fulfilment. Moses, David, Paul; Socrates and Alexander; Shakespere, Newton, are examples of this. The work that such men do belongs to themselves. Had any promise assured the world of the gifts to be bestowed through them, in each case one might have said beforehand, It will have to be, "Not as of many, but as of one." It is not multitudes, but men that rule the world. "By one man sin entered into the world: we shall reign in life through the one Jesus Christ." From the first words of hope given to the repentant pair banished from Eden, down to the latest predictions of the Coming One, the Promise became at every stage more determinate and individualising. The finger of prophecy pointed with increasing distinctness, now from this side, now from that, to the veiled form of the Chosen of God—"the seed of the woman," the208 "seed of Abraham," the "star out of Jacob," the "Son of David," the "King Messiah," the suffering "Servant of the Lord," the "smitten Shepherd," the "Son of man, coming in the clouds of heaven." In His person all the lines of promise and preparation meet; the scattered rays of Divine light are brought to a focus. And the desire of all nations, groping, half-articulate, unites with the inspired foresight of the seers of Israel to find its goal in Jesus Christ. There was but One who could meet the manifold conditions created by the world's previous history, and furnish the key to the mysteries and contradictions which had gathered round the path of Revelation.
Notwithstanding, the Promise had and has a generic application, attending its personal accomplishment. "Salvation is of the Jews." Christ belongs "to the Jew first." Israel was raised up and consecrated to be the trustee of the Promise given to the world through Abraham. The vocation of this gifted race, the secret of its indestructible vitality, lies in its relationship to Jesus Christ. They are "His own," though they "received Him not." Apart from Him, Israel is nothing to the world—nothing but a witness against itself. Premising its essential fulfilment in Christ, Paul still reserves for his own people their peculiar share in the Testament of Abraham—not a place of exclusive privilege, but of richer honour and larger influence. "Hath God cast away His people?" he asks: "Nay indeed. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham." So that, after all, it is something to be of Abraham's children by nature. Despite his hostility to Judaism, the Apostle claims for the Jewish race a special office in the dispensation of the Gospel, in the working out of God's ultimate designs209 for mankind.9797 Rom. xi. Would they only accept their Messiah, how exalted a rank amongst the nations awaits them! The title "seed of Abraham" with Paul, like the "Servant of Jehovah" in Isaiah, has a double significance. The sufferings of the elect people made them in their national character a pathetic type of the great Sufferer and Servant of the Lord, His supreme Elect. In Jesus Christ the collective destiny of Israel is attained; its prophetic ideal, the spiritual conception of its calling, is realised,—"the seed to whom it hath been promised."
Paul is not alone in his insistence on the relation of Christ to Abraham. It is announced in the first sentence of the New Testament: "the book of the generation of Jesus Christ, son of Abraham, son of David." And it is set forth with singular beauty in the Gospel of the Infancy. Mary's song and Zacharias' prophecy recall the freedom and simplicity of an inspiration long silenced, as they tell how "the Lord hath visited and redeemed His people; He hath shown mercy to our fathers, in remembrance of His holy covenant, the oath which He sware unto Abraham our father." And again, "He hath helped Israel His servant in remembrance of His mercy, as He spake to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever."9898 Luke i. 54, 55, 68-73. These pious and tender souls who watched over the cradle of our Lord and stood in the dawning of His new day, instinctively cast their thoughts back to the Covenant of Abraham. In it they found matter for their songs and a warrant for their hopes, such as no ritual ordinances could furnish. Their utterances breathe a spontaneity of faith, a vernal freshness of210 joy and hope to which the Jewish people for ages had been strangers. The dull constraint and stiffness, the harsh fanaticism of the Hebrew nature, have fallen from them. They have put on the beautiful garments of Zion, her ancient robes of praise. For the time of the Promise draws near. Abraham's Seed is now to be born; and Abraham's faith revives to meet Him. It breaks forth anew out of the dry and long-barren soil of Judaism; it is raised up to a richer and an enduring life. Paul's doctrine of Grace does but translate into logic the poetry of Mary's and Zacharias' anthems. The Testament of Abraham supplies their common theme.
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