One of the primary areas of disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture is the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the implications that flow downstream from this, such as: Israel vs. the Church, infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism, and the Future of ethnic Israel. The tipping point in each of these debates, and the key to unraveling the continuity/discontinuity issue between the Old and New Covenants, is the meaning and significance of the Abrahamic Covenant.
On the one hand, finding too much continuity between the Old and the New Covenants, results in a continuation of the practices regarding infants, i.e. infant circumcision under the Old is continued under the New by means of the practice of baptism. Additionally, this view collapses Israel and the Church and sees them as a (near) continuous unit. On the other hand, finding too much discontinuity between the Old and the New, results in two distinct purposes and plans of redemption for the people of God, namely Israel under the Old Covenant and the Church under the New Covenant . Historically, the distance between these two views has been approached from a variety of angles with a myriad of different solutions, each of which must reconcile what to do with the Abrahamic Covenant.
Keep in mind, when we are mentioning the Abrahamic Covenant, we are referring to the progressive unfolding of the covenant that God makes with Abraham, which begins in Genesis 12 and is woven throughout Genesis until around Genesis 22. While there are many passages which one could examine to arrive at a solid conclusion on the issue of how to interpret this covenant, one passage of particular interest occurs in John 8, within the context of Jesus’ dialogue/sermon with the Pharisees and those who claimed to believe in Him. We pick up the debate in verse 31
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Here, the dialogue centers around Jesus’ statement that the truth is freeing. It’s rather obvious that He is not talking about being in physical captivity, as the Jews assume, rather He is talking about being enslaved by sin. The truth, says our Lord, will set one free from this enslavement. The reply by the Jews assures us that they do not have the ears to hear what Christ is saying, because they immediately state their heritage with Abraham, followed by an affirmation of their physical freedom.
Though He certainly did not have to clarify His statements, our Lord condescends to the Jews misunderstanding with the following
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
With this, we have a crystallizing statement that Jesus is not talking about physical slavery, rather the slavery to sin. The contrast in the dialogue is between Jesus’ spiritual analogy of slavery and the Jews physical concept of slavery. Next, Jesus addresses their claim to Abraham
37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
Jesus affirms the statement that the Jews are the offspring of Abraham. Remember that their statements were affirming physical realities: 1. We’ve never been enslaved 2. We have Abraham as our Father. Remember too that Jesus was talking spiritual realities. In verse 37, He affirms their physical relationship with Abraham, yet in verse 38, He goes back to the spiritual, “you do what you have heard from your father.” The following verses add clarity
“39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.”
Notice again that the Jews assert that Abraham is their father. Clearly they recognize that in verse 38, Jesus is talking about a different father. Our Lord’s next statement is the focus of our post and serves to highlight the duality with Abraham
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.”
After previously affirming the Jews relationship with Abraham, Jesus (who we may be reminded was Himself a Jew) now questions their relationship with Abraham by focusing on their deeds, or works. Either Jesus has forgotten what He said earlier or He’s confused right? What gives?
Well certainly He’s neither. How can one’s works determine whether or not you have a physical ancestor in Abraham? Clearly, Jesus is now back to an emphasis on spiritual realities. The works that Abraham did were the results of the “obedience of faith” (see Genesis 15:6; 22:12, 16-18; Romans 4:3ff; James2:23ff). Again, Jesus references another father in contrast to Abraham. Let’s finish out this section of the dialogue and then summarize what we’ve seen
They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.”42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
The above passage is an important conclusion because for the first time we see the Jews finally grasping the spiritual realities that Jesus has been discussing. They assert that yes, Abraham is their physical ancestor, but God is their true Father. Jesus immediately debunks this superficial claim by again looking to the fruit in their lives and seeing a lack of love for Himself. In contrast to their claim of God as their Father, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter by stating they have the devil as their father.
- The Jews claim and Jesus affirms their physical relationship with Abraham.
- Jesus presents a paradigm wherein the Jews do not have a spiritual relationship with Abraham.
- The Jews claim and Jesus denies their spiritual relationship with God as their Father.
- Jesus presents a paradigm wherein the Jews have the devil as their spiritual father.
So what does all this contribute towards understanding the Abrahamic covenant?
In the context of this dialogue, Jesus presents a duality with respect to Abraham, that he has BOTH physical AND spiritual descendants. The physical covenant with Abraham was marked by circumcision. The “spiritual covenant” more properly called the Covenant of Grace, was marked by faith and obedience, the evidence of a circumcised heart. All of Abraham’s descendants were to be marked by physical circumcision, remarkably, this included both Ishmael and Isaac, as well as the servants in Abraham’s house. All of Abraham’s spiritual descendants are marked with heart circumcision.
17th Century Baptist, Nehemiah Coxe summarizes this duality in Abraham with the following words,
“Abraham is to be considered in a double capacity: he is the father of all true believers and the father and root of the Israelite nation.”
While the physical and the spiritual seed of Abraham at times had overlap, as in Isaac not Ishmael and Jacob not Esau, and the promises to Abraham, both physical and spiritual had overlap, nevertheless recognizing and maintaing this duality is critical to understanding the relationship between the Old and New Covenants.
One final note for consideration, both the seed and the promises given to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” Galatians 3:16 This fulfillment in Christ reaches its pinnacle through His death on the cross, shedding His own blood for the inauguration of the New Covenant*, see Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:6-13.
(*essentially this is the fulfillment of the Covenant of Grace that we mentioned earlier).