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No. 115: The Blessing of Abraham

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 115
Copyright (c) 1999 Biblical Horizons
March, 1999

According to Galatians 3, Abraham heard the gospel when the Lord promised that "all the nations shall be blessed in you." Paul quotes here from Genesis 12:3, but the context puts an odd slant on the Old Testament text. Galatians 3 starts with a series of rhetorical questions about the Galatians’ receipt of the Spirit (vv. 1-5), and the first section of the chapter ends with a reiteration of this theme (v. 14). Thus, verses 1-14 are focus on the question of how the Galatians received the Spirit. What does the promise of international blessing have to do with this? More pointedly, verse 14 implies that Abraham was promised the Spirit: Jesus endured the curse of the tree "in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." "We" here refers, as elsewhere in Galatians, to Jewish believers (cf. 2:15-17), so that the blessing of Abraham to the Gentiles is connected with the gift of the Spirit to Israel. In Galatians 3, the gospel preached to Abraham was the good news that the Spirit would be poured out on Israel, and, in conjunction with this, blessing would flow to the nations.

But what does the Abrahamic promise have to do with the Spirit? One searches in vain for any explicit reference to the Spirit in the Genesis account of Abraham’s life. It might be argued that Paul is using "promise to Abraham" in a broader sense; instead of referring to something specifically said to Abraham, he has in view the accumulated promises to Israel, beginning with Abraham and climaxing with the prophets. This interpretation, however, severely weakens the force of Paul’s claims. He says that this promise was pre-preached (proeuaggelo) to Abraham himself, and this is crucial to Paul’s argument, since he is insisting that Abraham’s trust in the promise is a paradigm for the Galatians (vv. 6-7). Moreover, Paul connects Genesis 12:3 fairly directly with the promise of the Spirit. For Paul, the promise that the nations will be blessed is a promise that the Spirit will be poured out. When the Lord promised that Abraham’s seed would bring blessing to the nations, the Spirit was implicitly promised as well.

How is this the case? Several features of Luke’s account of Pentecost clarify and deepen this line of thought. As Sinclair Ferguson points out in his fine book The Holy Spirit (Contours of Christian Theology [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996]), Acts 2 is modeled on Genesis 10-11. Like Genesis 10, Acts 2 contains a "table of nations" (vv. 9-11), and like Genesis 11, Acts 2 records a miracle of language. These parallels serve, of course, to highlight the contrast between Babel and Pentecost. While the diversity of tongues at Babel divided and disrupted the nations, the diversity of tongues at Pentecost had the opposite effect of joining all nations into one people. The gift of the Spirit thus implies that all tribes and tongues will confess Jesus as Lord; the outpouring of the Spirit is for the purpose of gathering of the nations. Further, in Genesis, the call of Abraham and the promise that the nations will be blessed through him follows immediately after the division of the nations (Genesis 12:1-3), so that, as many commentators have pointed out, the call of Abraham is Yahweh’s solution to the problem of Babel. That is to say, the promise is Abraham’s seed will unite the nations in blessing. Pentecost thus fulfills the promise to Abraham, namely, the reversal of the curse of Babel and the restoration of harmony among nations under the rule of Abraham’s Seed — through the outpouring of the Spirit.

Taking a wider perspective, throughout the Old Testament, the promise of the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit on Israel is one stage in a sequence of events that invariably includes the judgment and/or conversion of the nations. Joel 2:28-32 comes immediately after a prophecy Israel’s restoration from a devastating locust plague (2:18-27) and immediately before a prophecy that the nations will be judged and harvested (3:1-17). The outpouring of the Spirit promised in Ezekiel 36:26-27 comes in the middle of a prophecy of Israel’s return from exile, the reunion of Israel and Judah, the rebuilding of the temple, and opening of a spring in Jerusalem whose living water flows to the ends of the land. In Isaiah 32:9-20, the reversal of Israel’s fortunes occurs with the outpouring of the Spirit, and part of the promise is that Israel will live in peace and security (vv. 17-18), which obviously means that Israel’s enemies have, in one way or another, been taken care of. Zechariah’s promise of a Spirit of grace and supplication (12:10–13:1) leads into a promise of victory over all enemies and the gathering of the nations to the Feast of Booths (14:1-21). When the apostles announce that the promise of the Spirit has been fulfilled, this element of Israel’s hope cannot be isolated from the other aspects of that hope. To say that the Spirit has been poured out means that Israel is being restored to fertility and life and that the nations are being gathered to Zion. The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit to Israel is the firstfruits of the harvest of nations.

Peter’s sermon at Pentecost suggests a Trinitarian background to this Spirit-nations connection. The resurrection of Jesus, Peter says, fulfills the promise of Psalm 16:8-11 that "thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow thy Holy One to undergo decay" (vv. 25-32). And, having been raised to the right hand of God, Jesus receives the Spirit and pours Him out upon His disciples at Pentecost. Peter supports his teaching that Jesus has ascended to receive the Spirit by quoting Psalm 2 (Acts 2:34-35), a Psalm that applies to Jesus, since He, not David, sits at the right hand of Yahweh. Psalm 2 also says that the Lord at the Father’s right hand receives the nations as His inheritance and the ends of the earth as His possession. Peter alludes to this by quoting the clause "until I make thine enemies a footstool for thy feet" (v. 35), but the whole Psalm is in view. Thus, the sequence of thought is: 1) Jesus has ascended to receive the Spirit, and 2) this fulfills the promise that the Christ would ascend and receive the nations. For Peter, the Father’s gift of the Spirit to the Son is the gift of the nations, since the outpouring of the Spirit on Israel will turn the nations into a footstool for His feet. Daniel 7’s vision of the Son of Man ascending to receive all authority and power and dominion of all kingdoms under heaven can be glossed as: The Son of Man ascends to receive the Spirit.

Acts 2 thus provides exegetical support for Wolfhart Pannenberg’s suggestion that there is a mutual exchange of lordship between Father and Son within the internal life of the Trinity. Combining Matthew 28:28, Luke 10:22, Matthew 11:27 (which teach that the Father has given dominion to the Son) with 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 (which teaches that the Son will deliver the kingdom to the Father), Pannenberg points out that in the economy of redemption we see a "handing over of rule to the Son and its handing back again to the Father." Relations between Father and Son in redemptive history, however, reflect the eternal relations of the Trinity. Thus, "the handing over of the power and rule of the Father to the Son is . . . to be seen also as a defining of the intraTrinitarian relations between the two, as is also their handing back by the Son to the Father." The lordship of the Father does not exclude the lordship of the Son; on the contrary, the Son’s "lordship is consummated when he subjects all things to the lordship of the Father and all creation honors the Father as the one God" (Systematic Theology [3 vols.; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991], 1.312-313). From the perspective of the blessing of Abraham, Pannenberg’s point is simple a restatement of the Augustinian view that the Spirit is the gift exchanged between Father and Son. Within the internal life of the Trinity, the gift of the Spirit from the Father to the Son, which the Son returns in love to the Father, is the gift of dominion and lordship, of power and glory. Once creation and history are introduced into this picture, the exchange of the Spirit is also the exchange of lordship over the nations.

An Additional Note

by James B. Jordan

While it is surely correct that the Spirit is not mentioned in the Abraham narrative, there is a text in Genesis that links the Spirit to the promise of the nations’ conversion. Genesis 12:3 states that through and in Abram, "all the families of the earth will be blessed." In Genesis 17:5, when the promise is reiterated in grander terms to the renamed Abraham, God says, "I will make you the father of a multitude of nations." The sons of Abraham by Hagar and Keturah provide a short-term fulfillment of this promise (Genesis 25), but only a down-payment. (Prophecies usually have a near-fulfillment, which is a pledge of a greater fulfillment to come in the farther future.)

In Genesis 45:8, Joseph, great-grandson of Abraham, says that "God has made me a father to Pharaoh." Joseph has already been pictured as one who brings blessing not only to his brothers, but before that, to the nations of the world, as all the world came to obtain food from him (Genesis 41:57).

Now, is there mention of the Holy Spirit in all this? Yes there is, but many translations obscure it. When Pharaoh recognized Joseph as a wise man, and put him over all Egypt, he said: "Can we find a man like this, in whom is (the) Spirit of God?" (Genesis 41:38). Some translators are loath to believe that the Pharaoh was truly converted, and so soften this to "in whom is a divine spirit." But the Hebrew is clear: The Spirit of God is in view.

Thus, the bestowal of the Spirit upon Joseph, a son of Abraham, is connected to the conversion of the gentiles — exactly as Paul states it in connection with the Greater Joseph and the Jews of his day.