The Second Messianic Prophecy
“I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
In the midst of the seven “I wills” of God for Abram, there is a promise of blessing that goes so far beyond these material promises that it deserves to be considered by itself. It is a second prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ. Following Adam and Eve’s fall, the first messianic prophecy occurred in the midst of God’s judgment on Adam, Eve, and the serpent. In it God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). In this second prophecy, God speaks of the work of the Deliverer not so much as a conquering of Satan and a defeat of his works as a spiritual blessing to come on all peoples of the earth. It is a potent but brief statement: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3).
How did Abram react to this promise? We are not told of any specific reaction to this part of God’s total revelation to him, but we can imagine that Abram’s reaction was similar to David’s when David was told that God would build him a house and that a descendant of his would sit on his throne forever. David marveled and said, “Is this your usual way of dealing with man, O Sovereign Lord?” (2 Sam. 7:19). David knew that what the Lord was promising was not possible for mere human beings and must therefore involve the coming of the Messiah. Abram also must have perceived God’s promise of blessing to the nations to be in this category.
God had said, “I have given you many material blessings, including a land of your own, descendants that will increase to be a great nation, fame for you, and the promise of future blessing and prosperity. But this is not enough. In addition to these physical blessings, I am going to distinguish you with a spiritual blessing that will overflow from you to all the families of the earth.” Abram, who was no dunce in spiritual things, must have reasoned, “If all the families of the earth are to be blessed through me, then this blessing must not depend on me as an individual, since I will not live to see those human families. Besides, I need blessing myself and cannot be the source of my own blessing. This promise must refer to one who will be born from my posterity. He will be greater than I am, since he will be a source of blessing himself. He must be God and not a mere human being, though he will have to take a human body and nature so that he will truly be my seed.”
Because of this reasoning, Luther felt that the promise of God in Genesis 12:3 foretold not only the redemption of the race but even the incarnation of Jesus. He said that it should be written “in golden letters and should be extolled in the languages of all people,” for “who else … has dispensed this blessing among all nations except the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ?”
The Gospel in Advance
From time to time in our study of the Old Testament we come to a text so important in the entire scheme of redemption that it is picked up and explained, sometimes at length, in the New Testament. This is the case with Genesis 12:3. This verse and the ideas it suggests are picked up by Paul in Galatians in his lengthy treatment of justification by grace through faith; Galatians, therefore, becomes an authoritative commentary on it, and from what Paul says we see that Luther was right and that our reasoning about Abram’s perception of the promise is in the right direction. Indeed, the verse contains even more than I have suggested.
Paul’s first reference to Genesis 12:3 comes in a section in which he is contrasting the gospel of justification by faith with the contrary “gospel” of certain false teachers. They taught that one could not be saved merely by what God has done, that is, by believing it. It was necessary to have works too. Particularly, they said, it was necessary to be circumcised (thus becoming a member of the Jewish nation) and to keep the law. Paul replied that it was not necessary to become a physical member of the Jewish nation and that, while good works would necessarily flow from a life that had been transformed by God, works themselves did not enter into justification. It is all by grace. In proving this, his chief example is Abram.
“Consider Abraham,” he says. “ ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:6–9).
This discussion centers around Genesis 15:6 (which says that Abram believed God and that it was credited to him as righteousness) and 12:3 (which says that the blessing of God for Abram was for the nations too). Moreover, Paul calls this the gospel. Genesis 12:3 and 15:6 were early announcements of it. Here two thoughts are prominent. First, it is a gospel of salvation through faith, the chief point that Paul is making in these chapters. Second, it is for all nations, that is, for Gentiles (who come as Gentiles and remain Gentiles) as well as for Jews. This is surely good news (the meaning of “gospel”) and must have been so for Abram just as it is for people today.
After introducing the experience of Abram, Paul goes on to say that God’s promise to Abram involved the redemption of many people. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:13–14).
This is very important, though Abram might not have understood much of it during these early stages of God’s dealing with him. It is important for this reason: The blessing promised is not some general blessing that might pertain to physical needs or even spiritual needs yet undefined; it is a specific blessing that deals with the problem we all face as creatures of a holy God. We have rebelled against God, and this has brought us under his curse—called by Paul “the curse of the law.” We are under judgment. We are not in a right relationship to God. Moreover, sin has tightened its tentacles around us, so that we are unable to escape from its grasp, even if we want to. What we need is a Redeemer, one who can deliver us from the wrath of God and free us from sin’s bondage. This is the content of the blessing given to Abram. It is what Jesus accomplished.
What is redemption? The concept of redemption is drawn from the world of commerce. It signifies the setting free—by the payment of a price—of something that has been held in bondage. We know the idea in connection with pawn shops. An object is left in a pawn shop in exchange for a certain amount of money. Later it can be redeemed or reclaimed by repayment of the money plus interest. In ancient times redemption referred primarily to release from slavery, but the same idea was involved. The slave was set free by someone’s paying the price of his redemption. Therefore, when Jesus is said to have become our Redeemer, this means that he delivered us from the bondage of our sin at the cost of his life—because he loved us.
To many contemporary biblical scholars the idea of costly redemption is controversial. They would argue, “If God saves us on the basis of a cost or price, whatever that may be, our salvation is not free, and therefore it is not of grace. Since we all know that we are saved by grace, this understanding of redemption must be wrong. To be biblical we must think of redemption, not as achieved by payment of a price, but simply as deliverance.”
We can find passages in Scripture that seem to support this. For example, when the Emmaus disciples were making their way home after the Resurrection and Jesus appeared to them, they used the word redeemed in expressing their disappointment. Jesus had begun to interrogate them. He said, “You look sad. Why is that?”
They answered, “Because of the things that happened in Jerusalem over this weekend.”
“What things?” He asked.
They replied, “Don’t you know what happened? There was a great prophet. His name was Jesus. He came from Nazareth. He did mighty acts among the people. He was a great teacher. In these last days he was taken by the rulers of the people, tried, condemned, and crucified. He’s dead. And you know, we had hoped that it was he who should have redeemed Israel” (cf. Luke 24:17–21, italics mine). Jesus was redeeming Israel. But they were not thinking in terms of spiritual redemption. They were thinking of a political deliverance only. What they meant was, “We had hoped that this was the Messiah who would drive out the Romans.”
If I were playing the part of the Devil’s advocate, I could take that use of the word and say, “You see, in New Testament times the word redemption no longer had the meaning that is sometimes given to it by conservative theologians. It means ‘deliverance’ only.” But if I said that, I would be wrong. One thing wrong with that idea is that the Emmaus disciples quite obviously misunderstood what Christ had come to do. We know this because Jesus then began to unfold for them out of the pages of the Word of God the things that concerned himself. He showed that it was necessary that he should “suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins [would] be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:46–47). That from the mouth of our Lord is the true interpretation of redemption.
This incident, however, is not the only evidence for insisting that the concept of price is involved in the biblical view of redemption. First, the matter of cost is an Old Testament idea. For example, there are the words gaʾal (“redeem”) and goʾel (usually translated “kinsman-redeemer”). What was a kinsman-redeemer? Jewish law contained the principle that property should remain within a family, if possible. To be deprived of property was to be deprived of one’s share in the land, one’s inheritance. It was disastrous. So provision was made in the law of Israel whereby one who had lost his property could receive it again through the obligation placed on a kinsman. This meant that if one fell into debt and his land was sold to pay off the debt, it would be the duty of the closest kinsman to buy the land back at some time and thus restore it to the family. The person who performed this service was called the kinsman-redeemer; the process was called redemption. Boaz did this in the case of the property that had belonged to the husband of Ruth. In this case a closer kinsman had declined to fulfill the obligation. Boaz, by prior arrangement with the closer kinsman, undertook the role of the kinsman-redeemer himself.
Another Hebrew word related to the idea of redemption is kopher, which means “a ransom price.” Suppose you are a farmer and have a bull that gets loose, wanders down to your neighbor’s farm, and kills one of his workers. Under Hebrew law, that was a crime for which the animal could be killed. If there was negligence, it is conceivable that the owner would have to forfeit his life for the one taken. There would not be much advantage to anyone in that, however. So there was an arrangement whereby if the man who owned the animal could settle on a price with the relatives of the man who had been killed, he could redeem either himself or the animal. The price of redemption was the kopher.
The point is that the idea of redemption by price is firmly fixed in the Old Testament cultural world, and it would be natural for the New Testament writers, most of whom were Jews, to think of redemption in the same way.
Second, we find the idea of a price not only in Old Testament culture but also in New Testament culture. The most important Greek word for redemption is luo (“to loose”). It can mean redemption or deliverance. As time went on and the word group developed (as many basic word groups did), some of the derivatives came to mean “deliverance by the payment of a price.” First came the noun lutron, which means the “ransom price.” It described, for example, the price one paid to set a slave free. From lutron another verb developed—lutroo, which always meant “to deliver by the payment of a price.” From this came the word for “redemption,” lutrosis or apolutrosis. These words usually suggest a cost.
We find the same idea in the secular culture of this period. For example, Adolf Deismann’s Light from the Ancient East and Leon Morris’s Apostolic Preaching of the Cross show that the ancient Greek world had a standard formula for the manumission of slaves. The formula clearly reveals that a price was paid to one of the gods or goddesses so that a slave might be set free: “—pays to the Pithian Apollo the sum of—minae for the slave—on the condition that he [she] shall be set free.” This formula occurs so frequently that it is evident that the idea of delivering a person from slavery by the payment of money was common in the ancient Greek world.
The third reason why we must retain the idea of a price in discussing redemption is that the key New Testament texts all refer to it. For example, Jesus says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28, italics mine). What is he talking about here? Obviously he is saying that he is going to buy us out of our slavery to sin at the cost of his life. Titus 2:14 notes that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (italics mine). What does this verse mean when it says he gave himself for us? It does not mean that he gave himself for us in the sense that he lives for us, though that is also true. It means that he gave his life that we might be redeemed. Finally, the text that is perhaps the clearest of all is 1 Peter 1:18–19. It says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” In this verse the idea of Christ’s life being the cost of our redemption is inescapable.
Fourth, the luo word group (luo, lutron, lutroo, lutrosis) is not the only word group the New Testament uses for the idea of redemption. The words agorazo (which means “to buy in the marketplace”—it is based on the Greek word agora, which means “marketplace”) and exagorazo (which means “to buy out of the marketplace” so that the one purchased might never have to return there again) speak of redemption also. Together these words describe how Jesus entered into the marketplace of sin and at the cost of his own life purchased us to himself so that we might be brought into the glorious liberty that is ours as children of God.
I do not mean to suggest that Abram perceived all this in his day, certainly not at this early stage of God’s dealing with him. But whether he perceived it or not, this was nevertheless the substance of the promise, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” As Paul says, this was an announcement of the gospel according to which the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, would one day come to earth to give his life for the redemption of his people.
Our Blest Redeemer
Paul makes one more point in his interpretation of Genesis 12:3 in Galatians: The one who should come was Christ. “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed,” he writes. “The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
This seems repetitive in terms of our earlier discussion, for in discussing redemption we have assumed that Jesus was the one who did this work. Indeed, Paul makes the same assumption. Why then is this additional point made? It is to show that only Christ could have done what was needed. We stand under the curse of the law and of God’s wrath. We are bound by sin. We need a Redeemer. But where is such a Redeemer to be found? Can Abram save us? No, Abram is himself bound by sin and needs deliverance. Can David save us? Can Isaiah? Can Mary? No, none of these can do what is needed, for each is also a sinner and needs a Savior. Mary confessed this. When she met her relative Elizabeth she exclaimed, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47). The Redeemer is Jesus, born of the seed of Abram according to the flesh but “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Abram may not have understood all that Jesus, the Redeemer, would do, but he understood enough to look ahead in faith to this one. Only Jesus could do what was needed.
One of the hymns we sing has phrased it this way:
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in.
O dearly, dearly has he loved,
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.
By trusting in Jesus as our personal Redeemer we show ourselves to be true children of Abraham, and we enter into the real spirit of the second messianic prophecy.
An Expositional Commentary Volume 2 Genesis 12–36
James Montgomery Boice