(Read Genesis 15)
(Genesis 15:6) SDAs define righteousness as right doing. Here Abraham believed the Lord; God credited belief to him as righteousness. Righteousness is not right-doing. It is nothing less than Christ's perfection, and our belief/faith is what God credits to us as righteousness.
God is telling Abraham that he will inherit the promised land; he is also telling him, a childless man, that his descendants will be so many they cannot be numbered. He also promised Abraham that the promises would be fulfilled for his offspring. But Abraham wanted a sign that these things would be so.
God told Abraham to prepare the sacrifices for the making of a covenant. (These sacrifices were the standard means ancient political parties used to make covenants between themselves.) Abraham prepared the sacrifices and waited for God to appear to make the covenant with him. He waited so long that he even had to guard the sacrifices and chase away the birds of prey that kept swooping down to eat the pieces.
But God never showed up. At sunset Abram fell into a heavy sleep--a sleep that God brought upon him. "A thick and dreadful darkness came over him." Abram felt abandoned by God and depressed. But as he slept in his deep sleep, God finally came to him. God prophesied to Abram and told him that his descendants would one day be slaves. He also told him he'd punish the land where they were slaves, and his people would come out. He even told Abram that his descendants would leave slavery about four generations after they went in. (In ancient times, a generation was the age of a man when his first child was born--in Abraham's case, 100 years old. Hence, Abraham would eventually understand that his descendants would be freed about 400 years after they became slaves.)
And then God did the most amazing thing of all. All day Abram had waited to make a covenant with God. All day he'd fought off the birds, and now, at sunset, God puts Abram into a deep sleep so he still can't participate in the covenant. In ancient times, parties solemnized covenants by walking among the pieces of cut-up sacrifices. This was a practice that meant, "So be it to me if I break this oath with you."
Now, as Abram sleeps, he watches as if in vision as "a smoking oven and a flaming torch" (NASB) passed between the pieces of sacrificial animals. The smoking oven and the flaming torch represented God and Jesus. God and Jesus made the covenant, and Abram did not participate. Abram only believed. God made the covenant, because only God could keep the covenant. God made sure Abram slept so he couldn't inject a human element into the covenant.
God promised Abram that the promised land would be given to his seed. In fact, God promised Abraham many times that his offspring would inherit the land.
Now, as Paul writes to the Galatians roughly 500 years later, he refers to God's covenant with Abraham and points out that because the covenant had been made to Abraham by a promise of God--no human weakness was part of it--that promise still stood.
Paul also uses an old rabbinic tradition to explain who Abraham's seed was. According to William Barclay's commentary on Galatians, The Rabbis loved to erect whole systems of theology on the explanations given to single words. Paul uses that rabbinic tradition to explain the word "seed." He shows that Abraham's Seed was actually Jesus Christ. He argues that since the word "seed", or offspring, is singular, not plural, then the promise was made to a single descendant of Abraham, not to a group of people.
That single person, Paul argues, is Jesus, and in Jesus the whole promise to Abraham finds its consummation. Therefore, Paul explains, we have to find peace with God the same way Abraham did, by faith. Just as Abraham had faith and believed God and it was counted as righteousness, just so we must have faith and believe in Jesus, and our faith will be counted as righteousness. God's covenant with Abraham was the forerunner of his covenant with us. We must accept by faith that God and Jesus have made a covenant with us to break the power of sin and to bring us to the promised land of rest, and the promise will be ours as well.
Paul is using the story of God's covenant with Abraham to show that grace preceded the law. The law was temporary. It came into existence 430 years after God covenanted with Abraham. And, Paul points out, it can't possibly undo the covenant of God's promise.
Paul explains that the law was given to last only until the Seed promised to Abraham would come. The law was only supposed to be in effect until the promise became a reality. Furthermore, the law was only supposed to provide a framework for Abraham's descendents to live in. It was a way to give them an identity, but even more importantly, it was a way to help protect them from rampant sin. With the law, they had to be accountable for their behavior. They couldn't do just anything they wanted, because now there was a legal system that meted out consequences for their misdeeds.
Paul further points out that the law was put into effect by a mediator, Moses. A mediator, he points out, represents two parties: God and Israel. But God, who established the covenant with Abraham and the new covenant, is One. There is not a human element to break the covenant.
When we understand that God's promises have always been the basis of his relationship with us, the Old Covenant law begins to make more sense. God's Covenant with Noah was a promise of God. Noah did not participate in that covenant. It is absolutely dependable because there is no human element in it to break the covenant. God's covenant with Abraham is unbreakable. God promised to send Abraham an offspring that would consummate his covenant with him, and he did. Now, in the New Covenant, Jesus, the Son of God, actually is the covenant. It does not depend on our promises or performance. It depends only on God, only on the miracle of Jesus's gift.
The law is not opposed to God's promises because it is in a completely different category form God's sovereign covenants. It was set up to be temporary. It functioned as a form of government to bring order into the chaos of the undisciplined Hebrew slaves. It existed to help them to become a functioning nation. It introduced guilt so they would search for God and begin to walk in faith.
But the law was temporary because it involved human participation. Every covenant that involved human participation had an end point. Circumcision was to be forever--until the New Covenant made it obsolete. The Old Covenant law was to be forever--until the New Covenant made it obsolete. But whenever God made a promise to humanity without any promise in return, that covenant is eternal. When God makes a promise to us, what God wants in return is belief. He wants us to have faith in him that allows us to believe he will do what he says. For us to think that we have to promise obedience or behavior is arrogant and futile. It's also a slap in the face of God. Our promises have no hope of being secure. Sooner or later we will break them.
God asks us to believe that His promises are all-powerful and trustworthy. The greatest act of love we can give him is to say, "I believe you; please work out your promise in me." And in humility we wait for God to work in us through His Spirit. In love we respond to the truth about ourselves and about his desire for us as he reveals it to us.
This passage in Galatians is telling us that the whole world was a prisoner of sin, a prisoner of the law, until the promised Redeemer came. And now, through faith in our savior Jesus Christ, the promised rest, peace and eternal life are ours.
Grace has always sustained God's people. And now, through the power of the Holy Spirit living in us, we can leave our determined promises and commitments to doing right and being good behind, and we can open ourselves to the love which will transform us. We can believe that Jesus has given us His mind and heart, and we can trust him to change us and to make us what he wants us to be. We can commit to Jesus instead of to being good. His promises are sure; he will complete the work he starts in us.
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