The mystery! From the beginning of the world it has been hid in God. God gave all kinds of evidence regarding the mystery in the Old Testament. The pieces of the puzzle were all there. But the mystery was not solved by the sons of men then. They could not assemble the facts, even though they had them all. This is true because that mystery takes a work of God through His Spirit. Today that mystery has been revealed to the church in the New Testament by the holy apostles and prophet: “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (). That is the mystery revealed to us!
Now that we know the mystery, we can discover all the evidence of a universal church in the Old Testament too. In our last article we considered the prophecy of Noah concerning Shem and Japheth. In this article we will examine another piece of evidence given in the Old Testament: the covenant with Abraham. There is an important aspect of the covenant that is far too often overlooked. It is recorded for us in Genesis 17—no, not verse 7—but, “As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.” These words to Abraham reveal that when God established His covenant with Abraham, God already had in view His universal church, that is, a church that included all nations and peoples of the earth. That universal body of the church was viewed by God in Abraham!
This truth is often overlooked because of the focus that is placed on, a verse we have been made to memorize from childhood: “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” Oftentimes we harbor the mistaken notion that God’s covenant with His people is the whole of this verse. God’s covenant is His friendship established only in the line of the generations of the church. In the Old Testament the covenant is defined as God’s friendship with Abraham and his natural seed, the Jews. In the New Testament the covenant is this: God’s friendship established with believing parents in the church and their natural seed. This sounds orthodox enough! But the error in this idea is that we include in our definition of the covenant those with whom God establishes His covenant. We include more in the definition of the covenant than we should.
The covenant is simply this: the intimate union of love and fellowship God enters into with His people in Christ. It is that relationship of friendship in which God is our God and we are His people. In that covenant God inseparably binds believers unto Himself. He becomes their Father and they His children for Christ’s sake. That is the covenant. The covenant is a relationship—nothing more.
But attached to the covenant are promises. The promise to which believing parents of the church cling is that God will save their children in their generations. He promises to be a God unto them too. He promises to enter into that intimate relationship of friendship with them as well as with us as believing parents. God does not promise to be a God to every one of our children of course. God is not a friend to every child born to believing parents within the sphere of the church. To say so would deny the plain teaching of Scripture. But that God does not establish His covenant with every child born into the church does not make God’s promise null and void. God by His grace alone saves in the generations of the church.
Though believing parents cherish this particular promise of God to them and His church, they may not overlook another promise to Abraham. “And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly . . . . As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations” (). This promise to Abraham is that He will establish His covenant also with all the nations and peoples of the earth. God repeats this promise later. Notice : “Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.” This particular promise of God’s covenant brings joy and hope to God’s saints on the mission field, since they cannot, oftentimes, trace their lineage to believing parents.
Just as the promise that God saves in our generations does not include every one of our children, the same is true of this particular promise to Abraham. Peter’s instruction on the day of Pentecost rings true in both instances.: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” The promise is to the children of believing parents. The promise is also to those who are afar off. But the key phrase here is: even as many as the Lord our God shall call. When God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, this promise does not mean that those entire nations would be saved with Abraham. God never refers in His promises to the natural seed. His promise is always and ever to the spiritual seed of Abraham—those characterized by faith. The same is true from among the nations of this earth. Abraham would be the father of believers out of every nation of this world. And in him, therefore, all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
With each new generation God prunes from the vine of His church those who do not belong to His covenant. The natural but carnal seed born to believing parents in the church, but who, though being outward members of the church, never were chosen by God and saved in Christ; the natural seed who never were a part of God’s intimate life of love and fellowship—these are cut off by God from the church on account of unbelief. God prunes them from the church. With each new generation God, in turn, grafts into His church new converts, who become partakers of God’s love and fellowship with the saints. These are grafted in from all over the world. This church was already viewed in Abraham, therefore, as a universal body of people who would be blessed in Abraham—in Abraham! He is the father of a universal church—not just a church chosen out of Israel, but from all over the world!
Maybe it was not evident right then, or for many years afterwards, but it was true! Abraham is the father of New Testament believers from all nations ().
How is this possible? How is it possible that God saw in Abraham already a church made up of all peoples and nations of the earth? How can we say that, way back in Old Testament times, hundreds of years before Pentecost and the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh, Abraham was the father of a church made up of Jews and Gentiles from all nations? Because of the seed of Abraham. This is the seed referred to in the promise repeated in: “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” Who is this seed? Paul explains in : “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” Abraham and all the covenant line were viewed by God in the one central seed of the covenant, the one in whom all the promises of God are yea and Amen ( ), Jesus Christ.
All those bound together with Christ by a true and living faith are bound together with Abraham. All believers are Abraham’s seed.: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” This gives us a much broader picture, then, of the covenant line. Never may the church institute in any given age or location consider itself to be the only seed of Abraham. This was the error of the Jews, of the Pharisees, and the elders of the people. They thought that they alone were the recipients of the covenant blessings because of their natural ties to Abraham. They felt themselves superior to the Gentile nations. They forgot about the truth that God’s covenant is always a covenant of grace. This is why John the Baptist was so vehement in his condemnation of the Pharisees: “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” ( ).
The point is that this account of God’s establishment of His covenant with Abraham so long ago is but another piece of the mystery that is now revealed to the New Testament church. The saints in the Old Testament were given to know of this covenant, but were not given to know how this covenant with Abraham and his seed was going to include all the nations of the earth. We now know. We are given the full picture. We know that God not only saves in the line of the generations of believers in the church, but He also, with each new generation, grafts others into the line of the church. We know that we are not the only ones with whom God establishes His covenant in this world! We know that we belong to a universal church in which all the nations of the earth are blessed! Now, we need to learn from this knowledge.
We need to learn from it, first of all, that the place God has given us in His covenant, be that in the generations of believers or newly grafted in, is all of grace! Just because I can trace my lineage back into the generations of the church does not make me any better a believer than that person newly grafted in. The sentiment conveyed to the saint who has been recently grafted into the church, and who might feel at a disadvantage to those born and raised in the covenant line, is not a haughty: “Well, now you have attained!” It is, rather, God has chosen you from eternity as a member of His church. He has known you in Abraham since the time He has established His covenant. You are, in your new place in the church, just as important and necessary to the church as the one who was born and raised there!
On the other hand, just because I am a new believer in the church does not mean I may despise those who have long been in the church as stuffy and obsessed only with human traditions. We have much to learn from them too. We may never view the safety and security found in the sphere of the covenant as if that is a bad thing that will only lead to complacency. The long and fruitful heritage of the church is a blessed gift!
In the second place, we learn that the church today, as difficult as it may be, may never ignore the mandate of Christ to preach the gospel to every creature! God fulfills His covenant with Abraham by gathering in the nations through the mission work of the church. There are still many in our world that have not yet heard the gospel. There are countless more that have heard the gospel in their generations and need to be called back unto repentance and faith. The church has a never-ending task to proclaim the truth of God’s Word in order that indeed the promise of the covenant with Abraham might be fulfilled, “in thy seed [Christ] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed!”
What a blessing to have the mystery of the church revealed to us today! We pray for the children of Abraham.