One of the most contentious issues in modern American Christianity centers on the proper identity of the “seed” of Abraham. The question may be stated this way: Who are the rightful heirs of the covenant promises to the father of the faith? There are two
fundamental approaches to this question, each leading to a diametrically opposite conclusion. Dispensationalists today urge a literal interpretation of the “seed” of Abraham and disparage as “replacement” theology the historical Christian teaching that the promises to Abraham are received by personal faith in Christ irrespective of any particularity of flesh.
The synagogue of the first century similarly boasted in the physical descent of a literal “seed,” claiming “we have Abraham as our father” (Luke 3:8). John the Baptist summarily dismissed the literal interpretation, stating “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). The apostle Paul moreover insisted on a spiritual interpretation of the “seed,” claiming “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). In fact, Paul expressly interprets the “seed” to whom Abraham’s promises were given to refer to Christ alone (Gal. 3:16). The apostle states that all who have the faith of Abraham are blessed with Abraham and are regarded as heirs because they are in Christ, the true “seed” of Abraham (Gal. 3:7–9).
That the true Israel is a spiritual rather than a physical community is a consistent teaching in the Old Testament as well as the New. We are taught this from the very beginning.
The circumcision sign of the Abrahamic covenant was given to everyone in Abraham’s household, whether born of Abraham or purchased for money (Gen. 17:12–14). Thus, from the beginning we are taught that the blessings of the covenant are broader than the physical lineage of Abraham alone. Moreover, neither Abraham’s son Ishmael nor his grandson Esau, who are counted among Abraham’s physical descendants, partook in the blessings of the covenant. Therefore, the covenantal promises to Abraham are at once both broader and narrower than the literal lineage of Abraham, making a strictly literal understanding of the “seed” promise untenable, just as the apostle Paul reasoned.
The spiritual constitution of the true Israel (Ps. 73:1, 1 Kings 19:18, Isa. 10:20–22) is demonstrated many times in the Old Testament. No one could presume upon an Abrahamic lineage to guarantee covenantal entitlement, nor did anyone outside of Abraham’s family need to despair of God’s gospel mercy.
The constitution of Israel according to faith and not flesh is illustrated in a most dramatic manner during Joshua’s battle at Jericho. When Joshua was contemplating the battle, he unexpectedly saw the angel of the Lord before Jericho. Joshua confronted the angel and demanded, “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” The commander of the army of the Lord answered, “No” (Josh. 5:13–14). What an answer to rebuke any partisanship on the part of Joshua! The reason for this unexpected answer is apparent in light of what followed. Rahab the Canaanitess and her household were to be delivered by the covenant whose sign was the scarlet cord (Josh. 2:18–21). Later Achan and his household, who were of the royal line Zerah, Judah’s son, marked with the scarlet cord, were to be cut off (Josh. 7:16–26; see also Gen. 38:24–30). In other words, the natural branch was cut off and the unnatural branch was grafted in.
Similarly, Boaz, Rahab’s son (Matt. 1:5), detected Abrahamic faith in the Moabite Ruth when he was told how she had left her father and mother and the land of her birth to come to a people she had not known before (Ruth 2:11; see also Gen. 12:1). Indeed the spiritual constitution of the true Israel is seen when two Moabite women are named, Orpah and Ruth, but only Ruth is chosen (Ruth 1:14). Likewise, two Hebrew men are cited, the nearest kinsman and Boaz, but only Boaz is named (Ruth 3:12–13). And by this means, Ruth and Boaz become the parents of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, the “father” of Christ. By the principle of a faith that was both broader and narrower than the literal descendants of Abraham, the seed of the true Israel descended from Ruth the Moabitess and Boaz, a Hebrew whose mother was a Canaanite. In sum, David’s paternal grandfather, Obed, was three-quarters Canaanite. And Obed’s Abrahamic line is even more attenuated when Tamar, the Canaanite mother of Judah’s son, Perez, is reckoned in the royal genealogy. Clearly, the particularity of the Gospel and the universality of grace are being taught in the Old Testament just as they are in the New.
Paul is certainly correct, then, in claiming that the promises to Abraham were only ever received through Christ, who is Himself true Israel (Isa. 49:3). Consequently, God’s promises are true, for only those in Christ partake of the promises. Christ, as Abraham’s true seed, is never “replaced.” God is faithful to all His promises to Christ and His people, the Israel of God
Physical Israel stumbled upon the stone that God had appointed (1 Peter 2:7–8). But God was able to raise up children to Abraham from stones (Luke 3:8), and the Lord has done so, fashioning His true temple of living stones chosen from those throughout the world who had once not been His people, but now, by a gospel grace, have been made His people (1 Peter 2:4–10), all who by faith are the sons of Abraham (Gal. 3:7).