The Premises of the Promises
Many a preacher has challenged his congregation by asking, “Are you standing on the promises or sitting in the premises?” But think about this: Promises always stand on their premises.
Say that I promise a friend that I will come to his wedding next Saturday. It is my premise or assumption that I will still be alive next Saturday and that I will not be sidelined by something that happens beyond my control. I am presupposing the wedding will go ahead. You could probably add a number of other premises that I am standing upon in making such a promise.
All promises always stand on premises, both about the present and the future. In Genesis 12:2-3 God makes magnificent promises to Abram:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
God’s promises also stand on premises – in this case solid premises, firm ground that will not shake or split open and swallow his promises.
There are three main premises upon which these promises stand:
An assumption about present reality.
An assumption about what God will do.
An assumption about what means God will use to accomplish his purpose.
Premise #1. An assumption about present reality: all people are cut off from God’s life
Ever since the Fall of humans into sin, as described in Genesis 3, we see that the default condition of all people is one of being under God’s curse. This is a state that ends in “death”, hence the chilling refrain of Genesis 5: “and he died.”
In 12:2-3 the word ‘bless’, ‘blessing’, ‘blessed’ occurs five times. In Genesis 3-11 the word curse occurs five times. God’s promise to bless plainly presupposes the whole world is under a curse. God’s promise is concerned with replacing the curse which ends in death with the blessing which ends in life.
You may have watched the TV series Stargate. An alien bridge device acts like a portal enabling you to travel almost instantaneously across the cosmos. Did you know that such portals were located all over the ancient world? We call them temples. Ancient temples connected people to heavenly bodies, like the sun, the moon, planets and stars. Around 2100 BC, not long before Abram was born, during the Third Dynasty of Ur, King Ur-Nammu built a temple-topped ziggurat in the city of Ur. He built it as the meeting place between earth and the moon. The Chaldeans believed the moon was a god whom they called Nanna or Sin. The Chaldeans believed that in this temple people could meet with and communicate with, not the man in the moon, but the moon-god.
Step into the sandals of an ancient person as you read 11:27-32. You read “Ur of the Chaldeans” and think of the centre for worshiping the moon-god. You read Abram’s wife was named Sarai, the name of the moon-god’s sexual partner, Sharrātu, meaning ‘princess.’ With such a name you’d expect her to have children because the moon-god was the god of fertility. Ironically, however, Sarai is barren. You read that Nahor’s wife Milkah, is named after Malkâtu (‘queen’), a title for the goddess Ishtar, daughter of Sin.
But it’s not just a matter of the names of Abram’s family relatives. We read that Terah, Abram’s father, took the whole family to Haran, an even bigger centre of moon-worship, “and settled there.” That’s disturbing! Those same disastrous words “and settled there” are used of those who tried to build the Tower of Babel in Shinar (Gen 11:1). Terah’s family is descended from the blessed line of Shem but it has all the marks of Babel. This family is well and truly cut off from the life of God.
Joshua told the Israelites: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods” (Josh 24:2) [S10]. They worshiped gods associated with the moon-god. No wonder God tells Abram to leave Ur, the Chaldeans and his father’s household. Actually, even before this it’s been hinted that future hopes lie with Abram. Starting with Shem at 11:10 there are 10 generations culminating with Abram, paralleling the 10 generations of Genesis 5 which culminate with Noah. There were 8 persons God saved in the ark from the Great Flood and there are 8 persons named in 11:27-32. Abram, like Noah, brings fresh hope as the head of a new humanity.
Abram’s Dad, was under 145 years old when Abram was told to leave. But the promises God gives Abram stand on the premise that the whole world, including his father’s household, are cut off from God’s life. So before reading the promises we are told in verse 32, that “Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran” (v32). Those words “and he died” are exactly those same words repeatedly stated in the genealogy of Genesis 5. Truly, the whole of humanity is under a curse that ends in death.
Premise #2. An assumption about what God will do: God will bring life to all peoples
The default condition of humankind is that all people are cut off from God’s life. The definitive commitment of God is to radically address this situation, to replace curse with blessing, to death with life. These promises stand on a solid presupposition: that God will make life available to all peoples: “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
50 years ago, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. David Letterman observed, “America is the only country where a significant proportion of the population believes that professional wrestling is real but the moon landing was faked.” Now that’s ‘lunar-cy.’ Neil Armstrong’s famously said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind God said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your family, and your father’s house for a land that I will show you.” When Abraham took that first step of faith, the whole of humanity leapt forward into a new world where blessing, not curse, would now become available. The rest of the world, and even Abraham himself to a significant extent, had no idea how greatly what happened then would change the world forever.
Mitch Hedberg said, “I want to hang a map of the world in my house, and then I’m gonna put pins into all the locations that I’ve traveled to. But first I’m gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won’t fall down.” We might not travel to every part of the world on foot. But we need to travel to every corner of the globe on our knees! Imagine every church had a huge map of the world on a pinboard and stuck a pin in every part of the globe for which the church prayed with intelligence and fervency? If this was the sum of your church’s involvement in overseas mission, the global impact would be massive. The smallest of churches can have an immense impact on reaching the ends of the earth.
God promises Abram, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (S16) Whatever the exact translation here, don’t miss the premise upon which this promise stands. God will make sure that his blessing is made available to all peoples on the face of the earth.
God does not want any person to remain under the death that follows being under his curse. The word curse is primarily associated with death. The word blessing is primarily associated with life. God wants everyone to experience life, that is, the rich and full benefits of living in a right relationship with him; living under his beneficent rule. The following examples emphasise this truth:
“For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32).
“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’” (Ezek 33:11).
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).
Premise #3. An assumption about what means God will use to accomplish his purpose: God will bring life to all peoples through his people
The promises assume the default condition of all people (under a curse, cut off from God’s life) and the definitive commitment of God (to replace the curse with blessing and bring life to all peoples). They also presuppose that God will accomplish this purpose through his people – Abram and the great nation that will develop from him. We can speak of the diffusive community of God’s people, with the diffusion or dispersion of blessing and life being spread to all peoples on earth through a very particular means.
Think back to the Tower of Babel incident (11:1-9). People attempted not only to create a great nation, but also to achieve a great name for themselves. There were no other humans to observe this – they were all at Babel. This was an attempt to impress God; to induce him to change his mind and allow them to settle in this one centre instead of filling the earth. Their building of the tower, a ziggurat, represents a human attempt to manipulate God and cause him to be the kind of God and act as the kind of God people want him to be. So, the great name God promises to give to Abram is not primarily a case of achieving fame.
Can you think of anything God ever does in the Bible which is completely independent of human agency? There may be some exceptions that come to mind, such as the bringing of the Great Flood, but these exceptions are very few and far between. With rare exceptions, God virtually does nothing in this world that is independent of human agency. He almost always accomplishes his purposes through human beings.
It is the very nature of the problem which necessitates this particular methodology, as limited and inadequate as it may appear. God’s creation purpose pinnacles in the creation of people to image him. At creation itself God’s purpose is the exercise of his rule over the earth through human agency. This is not mere delegation. The idea is that as people live in tune with God then his rule and power is channelled through them, enabling them, wherever they find chaos, to bring order and life to the world.
God is a faithful Creator. God will not give up on his creation purpose. He is still committed to bringing his rule over this world through people who image him. This involves creating a new humanity. As is constantly the case in Scripture ‘new creation’ is not the bringing into being of something absolutely and entirely new. It is rather the radical transformation and renewal of that which already exists. So it is that the creation of a new humanity involves the transformation and renewal of fallen human beings, always in community.
Think of the implications of this for dealing with the problem of evil, which, by the way, is precisely the context we are dealing with in our passage. Given what we know about God and how he works in this world, what is wrong with the way non-Christians often think about the problem of evil and how God should act? Non-Christians often assume that if God is all good and all-powerful that he would just intervene to address evil, independent of human agency. This is argued both with respect to atrocities committed by humans against humans and also with respect to the suffering resulting from natural disasters.
What human agency does God use in our world to address the problem of evil - both personal and collective moral evil and natural 'evil'? The church, God’s people, with possible exceptions (e.g. the use of Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel). What human agency does God promise to raise up through Abram to address the problem of evil and bring blessing instead of curse to people? The “great nation.”
Since fallen humanity is subject to curse and death, then ‘the great nation’, as a people experiencing blessing and life, is necessarily a new humanity. God’s command to Abram echoes his commands at creation and God’s blessing of Abram recalls God’s blessing of Adam. Abram is the new Adam, the head of a new humanity which will bear the image of God, as God’s rule and therefore God’s blessing is mediated through Abram and the great nation developed from him.
To us ‘nation’ refers to France or Thailand or Iran or Australia: nation-states with sophisticated political, economic, legislative, law-enforcement, educational, military, and social systems. The Hebrew word for ‘nation’ (goy) does not mean this. All God promises Abram is the development of a community of peoples under common rule. Israel was the first historical expression of this great nation – at first with no monarchy and no standing army. Also, the word goy does not refer to any particular ethnic group. The Abrahamic great nation is not ethnically defined. In Romans 4, Paul stresses Abram was not circumcised when he received these promises. Ethnically, he was a Chaldean, a Mesopotamian, now modern Iraq. Abram was never an ethnic Jew.
God’s way of dealing with evil in the world and replacing curse with blessing is to work through his people. Bees pollinate 80% of the world’s plants including 90 different food crops. Apparently, one out of every three or four bites of food we eat is thanks to the bees. We, God’s people, are the bees of this world. Just as bees spread the blessing of pollen all over the world, so God wants to use his people, this church, to spread the blessing of life to people all around us.
If all God’s people were pure – which they are not – and if all of fallen humanity welcomed the church with open arms – which is far from being the case – then the problem of evil would be solved. Not just personal and collective moral evil, but natural evil as well. Yes, natural evil as well - deaths and suffering due to natural disasters. Paul tells us that this is precisely why the present creation order is ‘groaning’ as it awaits the time when the new humanity will fully come into being (Romans 8). When there is a perfected new humanity which truly images God, then God’s rule in, with and through them will bring order, peace and life to the created order. At one and the same time we hear one who is fully human and fully God rebuke the storm with the words, “Be still!” When the new humanity if fully in sync with God chaos will be brought into order.
In the meantime God is continuing to bring this new humanity into being and to shape it in accord with his purpose. You might use a recipe to guide you as you prepare a meal. You might use a knitting pattern to knit a jumper. Or you use a blueprint to design something or even build a house. Before God develops the great nation through which he will make blessing available to all peoples on earth he first establishes the recipe, the pattern, the blueprint, the template. Abraham himself becomes that recipe, that pattern, that blueprint, that template. He is the model of what it means to be someone who pleases God by living a life of faith-obedience. Hebrews 11 reminds us that Abraham was exercising faith when he took God at his word and therefore left his land, his people and his father’s household. But the Abrahamic narratives in Genesis make it very clear that it was going take a lot of time and some very testing circumstances for God to shape and mould Abraham into the template God needed him to be.
Each local church, as a royal priesthood and holy nation, is a microcosm of ‘the great nation’ which God made from Abraham. Why does this church exist? Not to pay someone to preach and minister to it. Your church exists first and foremost as the human agency God uses to bring blessing and life, eternal life, to people all around us who live under God’s curse and, as it stands, have nothing else to look forward to other than death, both physical and eternal.