The Abrahamic Covenant — Backbone of the Gospel

In “Eternity in their Hearts,” Don Richardson talks about the backbone of Christianity, the Abrahamic Covenant, made by God to Abraham 4,000 years ago and recorded in Genesis 12:1-3. Dr. Ralph Winter, director of the United States Center for World Mission in Pasadena, California, explains that everything before Genesis 12 is just introduction and that the main theme does not get underway until God utters “the promise” or “the promises” to Abraham. This theme, this promise, is the backbone of Christianity because it explains the motivation behind everything occurring in this narrative which is now 4,000 years in the making.

Richardson explains that the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) is not an after-thought of Jesus, but is a continuation of the Abrahamic Covenant, and that He had been preparing His disciples for it for the length of His ministry.

So, there are three points I want to flesh out in this thread, which are made in three different chapters of Richardson’s book (which I strongly recommend you purchase, as it covers how God has prepared minds in other cultures for His message – truly fascinating and eye-opening). 1. Jesus’ Great Commission of all Christians is rooted in and is a continuance of the Abrahamic Covenant. 2. A central goal of Jesus’ ministry was preparing the apostles’ minds to understand the all-peoples perspective of the Abrahamic Covenant and the Great Commission. 3. After Jesus’ ascension, it took a while, but the apostles did eventually grasp and accept the all-peoples perspective of the Abrahamic Covenant and the Great Commission.

1. Jesus’ Great Commission of all Christians is rooted in and is a continuance of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Genesis 12:1-3…

The top line: “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.”


Zondervan NASB Study Bible note on vv.2-3: “In various ways and degrees, these promises were reaffirmed to Abram (v.7; 15:5-21; 17:4-8; 18:18-19; 22:17-18), to Isaac (26:2-4), to Jacob (28:13-15; 35:11-12; 46:3) and to Moses (Ex 3:6-8; 6:2-8). The seventh promise (Ichthus: all-peoples) is quoted in Acts 3:25 with reference to Peter’s Jewish listeners (see Acts 3:12)—Abram’s physical descendants—and in Gal 3:8 with reference to Paul’s Gentile listeners—Abram’s spiritual descendants.”

Richardson muses, “We sense immediately that the God who would speak such words is no petty tribal god. He is a God whose plans are both benign and universal, spanning all ages and cultures. If He retaliates against enemies of Abraham, it is not just to protect Abraham, but also to keep the enemies from extinguishing a fire kindled to warm the whole world!”

Richardson points out that Old Testament events are not limited to the Israelites/Hebrews/Jews:

1. Abraham himself bore witness to Canaanites, Philistines, Hittites and, rather negatively, to Egyptians.
2. Joseph was a son of Abraham who made up for his forefather’s lack of a clear witness to the Egyptian nation! Joseph blessed Egyptians in truly amazing ways.
3. The spies who entered Jericho before it was destroyed became a blessing to Rahab, a Canaanite harlot, and her family.
4. Naomi, a daughter of Abraham, was a blessing to two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.
5. Moses became a blessing to Jethro, his Midianite father-in-law.
6. King David caused even his enemies, the Philistines, to acknowledge God’s greatness.
7. The prophet Elijah was a blessing to a Sidonian widow in Zarephath.
8. The prophet Elisha, likewise, was a blessing to Naaman, a Syrian.
9. Jonah, however reluctantly, became a blessing to the Gentile population of Nineveh.
10. King Solomon was a blessing to the Sabaean “Queen of the South.”
11. Daniel and his three colleagues, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were a blessing to Babylonians.
12. Esther and her uncle Mordecai were a blessing to the entire Persian Empire.
13. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Ezra, Nehemiah and other prophets declared the Word of the Lord to various Gentile nations.

Ichthus: I’m going to add one more (and I’m sure there’s more):
14. In addition to Rahab (see #3) and Ruth (see #4), both Gentile women, in the genealogy of Jesus, there is Tamar, also a Gentile woman, and Bathsheba, “thought to have come from among the Hittites (see 2 Sam 11:3),” (Richardson). Zondervan NASB Study Bible (1999) note on Matthew 1:3 says that “Bathsheba was probably an Israelite (1 Chr 3:5) but was closely associated with the Hittites because of Uriah, her Hittite husband. By including these women (contrary to custom) in his genealogy, Matthew may be indicating at the very outset of his Gospel that God’s activity is not limited to men or the people of Israel.”

Ichthus: see also Isaiah 2:2-4; 56:3,6-7; Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Micah 4:1-5. “There are also more than 300 declarative passages in the Old Testament which amplify God’s oath-sealed promise to bless all nations on Earth (see, for example, Ps. 67 and Isa. 49:6),” (Richardson).

“Moving forward now to the New Testament, do we find God still adhering to His ancient commitment to both the top and bottom lines, or drifting from it?” (Richardson). See Galatians 3:8, 14, 16, 19, 29. “We Christians have generally failed to appreciate the fact that Paul and the other apostles saw the Abrahamic Covenant as basic to everything Christ came to accomplish,” (Richardson). See Acts 3:22-26; Eph 3:6; Rom 16:25-26; Col 1:25-27; Rom 15:8-9; Rev 5:9-10; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6 [“God will pursue His ancient purpose to the very end,” (Richardson).]

But “do the four Gospels reveal that [ Jesus ] manifested awareness of the covenant as foundational to His ministry? Read on…

2. A central goal of Jesus’ ministry was preparing the apostles’ minds to understand the all-peoples perspective of the Abrahamic Covenant and the Great Commission.

For warm-up, see Luke 1:54-55, 72-73,78 [“references to people ‘living in darkness’ and in ‘the shadow of death’ were commonly understood by Jews as designating Gentiles, see Matt 4:15-16,” (Richardson)]; 2:30-32; 3:4,6,8-9.

In claiming to be “I AM” (Ex 3:14) of the Jews, Jesus was claiming to be the God who made and keeps the Abrahamic Covenant (John 6:35; 8:12; 9:5; 10:7,9; 10:11,14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1,5; Matt 27:43; Mark 14:62; John 8:24,28,58; 13:19; Rev 1:8, 17-18).

Jesus honored the Gentile region of Galilee with His first public sermons. “Mathew, one of Jesus’ disciples, recorded this fact as a fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s comment about ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’: ‘The people living in darkness have seen a great light: on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned’ (Matt 4:15-16; see also Isa 9:1-2). / ‘Large crowds form Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed’ Him, Matthew comments (4:25). ‘News about Him spread all over Syria, and people brought to Him all who were ill…and He healed them’ (v.24).” (Richardson)

“Consider, for example, how compassionately Jesus exploited the following encounters with Gentiles and Samaritans to help His disciples think in cross-cultural terms … Surely Jesus’ example of compassion for a Roman centurion (Matt 8:5-13), a Syrophoenician mother (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:26-30), a Samaritan leper (Luke 7:11-19), a Gadarene demoniac (Matt 5:1-20), a Syrian general like Naaman and the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4:23-30), the men of Nineveh who repented (Matt 12:41), and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who perished without a clear call to repentance (Luke 10:13)—must now prove sufficient to melt prejudice from their hearts, replace that prejudice with ‘peoples consciousness,’ and send them on their way to the ends of the earth!” (Richardson). Ichthus: Richardson also mentions Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-34), Jesus’ mention of the “Queen of the South” (Matt 12:41-42), Jesus’ driving out the moneychangers from the Court of the Gentiles, defending our right to have our spiritual need represented in it (Matt 21:12; Mark 11:17-18; Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11), Jesus’ parables which are world-centered (all peoples), not just Israel-centered (see pp. 165-172, and see also Matt 13:24-30,33, 36-43; 21:18-20, 33-43; Deut 32:21; Rom 10:19; Mark 12:12), Jesus’ run-in with Jewish leaders trying to pit Him against Gentiles (Matt 22:17; Luke 21:24; 20:26), when Greeks sought audience with Jesus at a feast at Jerusalem (John 12:32), and his defense of Mary’s anointing Him (Mark 14:9).

“Meanwhile Jesus, though still ministering blessings to Jews on every hand (as required by the ‘top line’ of the Abrahamic Covenant), kept informing His disciples that they themselves must shortly minister to Gentiles as well. Once, for example, He sent them out on a training mission explaining that although at the moment He was sending them, not to Gentiles or Samaritans, but to ‘the lost sheep of Israel,’ later they would be ‘brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles!’ (Matt 10:5-6,18, emphasis added). / Jesus most likely placed this temporary restriction upon His disciples, not to encourage disregard for Gentiles and Samaritans, but because His disciples were still spiritually and mentally unprepared to undertake a cross-cultural mission,” (Richardson).

“Elsewhere Jesus forewarned His disciples that the end of the age could not happen until the gospel had first been ‘preached to all nations’ (Mark 13:10),” (Richardson). Ichthus: see also Matthew 24:14.

“The crucifixion, meanwhile, took place in that same ‘region of Moriah’ where Abraham—1,900 years before—once stood prepared to offer his son, the innocent Isaac, at God’s command. This time, however, there was no ‘ram caught in a thicket’ to take the place of the innocent Son. Instead, the ancient prophecy—‘in the mountain of the Lord it will be provided’—was fulfilled. / And Jesus was that provision. John, one of His disciples, later realized the significance of what happened that day, and wrote: ‘Jesus Christ, the Righteous One,…is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:1-2). / This, then, was the first of the blessings which Abraham’s singular Descendant would share, not only with Jews like John, but with ‘the whole world’!” (Richardson)

Jesus explained it all to his bewildered disciples, after His resurrection, but before His ascension. “‘Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise form the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’” (Luke 24:45-48). But He still has not commanded them to go.

“And here is the wording of the command which the Abrahamic Covenant had already foreshadowed for 2,000 years, and which Jesus for three long years had been preparing His disciples to receive: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt 28:18-20).” (Richardson)

“Still later, moments before He ascended back into heaven from the Mount of Olives (near Bethany), He added a further promise: ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…’ Then followed Jesus’ famous formula for the exocentric progression of the gospel: ‘…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).” (Richardson)

Richardson’s cliff-hanger to the chapter reads, “Jesus’ all-out effort to change 11 clannish Jews into cross-cultural apostles floated belly-up in defeat, until… Ah, but let us not get ahead of our story!”

3. After Jesus’ ascension, it took a while, but the apostles did eventually grasp and accept the all-peoples perspective of the Abrahamic Covenant and the Great Commission.

“Hundreds of millions of Christians think that Luke’s Acts of the Apostles records the 12 apostles’ obedience to the Great Commission. Actually it records their reluctance to obey it,” (Richardson).

Of the filling with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the audience being the Jews of the Diaspora (the scattering), returning from “at least 15 different regions of the Near and Middle East…gathered in Jerusalem for a feast called Pentecost,” Richardson writes, “Seen in the context of Jesus’ ministry and His clearly articulated plans for the whole world, the bestowal of that miraculous outburst of Gentile languages (despite a common knowledge of Hebrew and/or Aramaic) could have only one main purpose: to make crystal clear that the Holy Spirit’s power was and is bestowed with the specific goal of evangelization of all peoples in view!”

Jerusalem down (Acts 5:28; 6:7) – the rest of the world to go.

“By the end of the seventh chapter of the book of Acts we find, however, that all of the apostles and their thousands of converts are still clustered in Jerusalem. … God’s solution was very simple, if painful: He scattered the Christians through persecution”–but “even persecution could not dislodge the apostles from home base” (Richardson) (see Acts 8:1). It was Philip (not the apostle, see Acts 6:1-5), a “layman”, who had broken Samaritan ice for the apostles (namely, Peter and John; see Acts 8:25). And it was Philip, the layman, who witnessed to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:25-40) who was reading Isaiah 53:7 (but see also the “strongly cross-cultural directive found in” Isaiah 18:2,7). “…in Acts 9:32 to 11:18, we find Peter again following in Philip’s footprints…” and God sets him up with a Roman centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10-11:18). Peter’s words in Acts 10:43, spoken to Cornelius’ and his family, sum it up well: “All the prophets testify about Him that everyone [the word “everyone” is unqualified] who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name” / “And at that moment the Holy Spirit overwhelmed Peter’s wistful Gentile audience just as He overwhelmed believing Jews on the day of Pentecost and outcasts of Samaria who were awakened first by deacon Philip’s ministry,” (Richardson). Peter had to defend himself to his Jewish-Christian critics (Acts 11:1-18) – and it looks like they finally started to understand. But apparently Peter had only partially-digested this lesson, as he and Paul have a disagreement concerning legalism, in Galatians 2:11-21.

But, for a number of possible reasons, the apostles suffered “headquarters fever” – sending out Barnabas as a deputy to Antioch. It was for the purpose of filling in where the other apostles were lacking that Jesus converts Saul/Paul (Acts 9) for the cause (Acts 13:2-3; Gal 2:6-7,9). At least the first apostles were not opposed to sending out others in obedience to the Great Commission, even if they themselves found it hard to do.

“Paul and Barnabas were fully assured that Gentiles who believe become ‘heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus…and are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit’ (Eph 3:6; 2:19,22).” (Richardson) / “Paul would even dare to say, as he wrote later in his epistles, that in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…[but those who believe] are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28). For Christ ‘has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph 2:14). See also Acts 13:46-47; 14:27.

After one of the church councils wherein Peter affirms, lesson learned, that “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:9-11) and James adds that “[Peter] has described to us how God at first showed His concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for Himself” (v.14), continuing with “The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent…that the remnant of men may see the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name’” (vv.15-17), –“it is possible that some of the original apostles, Palestine-bound—at least until that conference—finally began to open their eyes at this point to the possibilities of ministry among faraway Gentiles.” (Richardson) Richardson gives examples of how far certain apostles (John, Peter, Thomas, Andrew) ventured out, and some possible factors which may have contributed to their out-reaching.

Richardson’s conclusion to the book includes, “We hold in our hands the possibility of bringing God’s 4,000-year-old promise to final fruition.” (Ichthus: refer to Mark 13:10, Matthew 24:14 and 2 Peter 3:9.)

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