On occasional Fridays we talk with Don Carson about themes in biblical theology, essentially the major themes that we see develop throughout our Bibles. We covered the theme of “covenants” last time. In total there are about 20 major themes that really make sense of the Bible for us. And we have covered about half of them on the podcast.
I call Dr. Carson as part of our relationship with our friends at The Gospel Coalition. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition, and also the editor of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, which is the study Bible version of what we’re doing in these occasional Friday podcasts.
Closely related to the theme of covenants is the theme of promise. So, how do the promises of Scripture unfold? And how does Christ fulfill the biblical promises, and the Passover? I asked Dr. Carson to explain.
The Bible makes many, many promises. There was an old chorus I learned when I was a child in Sunday school. “Every promise in the book is mine, every chapter, every verse, every line.” And, of course, that is not true. There are some promises made to people other than me. So, one must read promises in their context. But there are many promises that God gives to human beings generically — all human beings — and other promises that he gives only to his own blood-bought, covenant people, and some promises that he gives to Israel, and some promises that he gives to individuals — to a Davidic dynasty, for example.
But one of the things that is pretty obvious whenever you start tracking out the theme of promise is that it is tied to a lot of things. Now, earlier on in this series I said that one of the things that is remarkable about biblical theology is that although one way of doing biblical theology is to track out particular themes across Scripture — temple and creation and sin and priesthood and promise and sacrifice and so on and so on and so on — what you discover pretty quickly is that they get intertwined. And so, it becomes harder and harder to talk about one without talking about others.
So, for the sake of convenience and for the sake of learning, we might talk about one at a time. But pretty soon it is inevitable that we are talking about several things at once. And nowhere is that more true than in the theme of promise. There is a sense in which we can talk about promise and outline what the Bible says in this regard in five minutes. But one could take twenty hours and still not exhaust the theme at all. In particular, promise is often tied to Messiah. It is very often tied to notions of covenant. It is tied to notions of the Holy Spirit. It is tied to notions of typology and many other things, and I will briefly sidle up to several of those things on the way by today, but the focus is on promise.
The opening round of explicit promise is really in Genesis 3. No sooner has the human race fallen into sin and rebellion where there should be only death, you would think, yet instead we find in Genesis 3:15 what is sometimes called the protoengellion; that is, the first gospel or the first announcement of the gospel, where God says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman” — speaking now to the Serpent — and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise [or crush] your head, and you shall bruise [or strike] his heel.”
I don’t know how many saw the Mel Gibson film on the crucifixion, the passion narrative, but there is an opening scene there that is really quite dramatic. And at one level it is not historical at all, but in visual display it has got it exactly right. There is Jesus praying in the garden with sweat — drops of bloody sweat coming from him — and, in agony, he contemplates the cross and asks his Father if it be possible to “remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). And a snake begins to crawl over him. And slowly Jesus stands up and then he crushes the serpent with his heel. I remember seeing that in the theater and thinking: I wonder how many people in this theater know what text that is alluding to.
So, at the very moment that Christ is crushing the head of the Serpent with his heel, yet, at the same time, there is one sense and one level Satan is striking out to kill Christ himself. And that offspring promise — enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers — is remarkable in that Genesis 3:15 is picked up in Romans 16:20 where it is Christians who are crushing Satan. “God . . . will soon crush Satan under your feet.” That is, the church by its witness to Christ, who has done the supreme crushing, sees Satan increasingly vanquished. And so, there is a sense in which a seedbed promise in the first three chapters of Genesis is being unpacked throughout the rest of the Bible. We have seen that in the creation and fall narrative before. That is, many, many, many themes are found there in douche, as the Latinists say, in seed form, and then the whole thing grows and expands and becomes a massive theme later on in Scripture.
Well, there are more promises. In the last session we looked at covenants and, in particular, the Abrahamic covenant. The Abrahamic covenant is often referred to as the covenant of promise, since in this covenant, Genesis 12, 15, 17, alluded to in Genesis 22, all of which we looked at last time, he promises amongst other things that through Abraham’s seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed and it is not filled out much more than that except in the context.
“Those who share Abraham’s faith also share confidence in the God who gave the covenant of promise.”
There is the anticipation not only of a direct line from Abraham, which is fulfilled in the birth of Isaac and then Isaac’s sons and eventually the patriarchs and then the entire nation until ultimately you come down to Jesus, who is born in the promised line of Abraham as the very first verse of the New Testament makes clear. And what is remarkable is that Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham believed the promise. He believed God’s word. He believed what God said. And this faith was credited to him as righteousness.
And that, of course, is picked up in the New Testament to demonstrate that Abraham becomes, as it were, the prototype, the anticipatory pattern of those who are saved by their faith. They receive the promise of God and respond by faith. It is not as if Abraham earned this promise that in him and in his seed, all the earth, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. But, rather, he received the promise of God.
He believed the promise even though there were lapses in his faith, as when he slept with Hagar to produce Ishmael. Nevertheless, the promise itself was firm and the Abrahamic covenant fulfillment is spelled out in the New Testament. A passage, for example, like Galatians 3 is no less the fulfillment of promise. In fact, that is one of the words that Paul uses to point out the importance of the Abrahamic covenant.
After the law was given in the time of Moses, many people thought of the regulatory function of the law as defining the relationship between God and his covenant people, the Israelites. But one of the things that Paul makes very clear is that the law was given centuries after the promise. And whatever else the law does — and it does many important things — whatever else it does, it can’t annul the promise.
The promise has a certain kind of priority, speaking in covenantal terms. The Abrahamic covenant has a certain kind of time based and logical priority over the covenant of law. And the distinctive element in the Abrahamic covenant that Paul points to is the fact that it is a promise which is received by faith so that those who share Abraham’s faith are sharing with him in confidence in the promise of God, the God who gave the covenant of promise.
There are many, many other ties along that line. Then let me pick up a few other promise themes in the Old Testament. This is only a small number of them. There are some we don’t have time to track out. The promise, for example, that the Israelites would go in and take over the Promised Land, that God would win over their enemies, that God would protect them, and many, many others.
Eventually there is a promise that the Davidic dynasty would be eternal. The first king of the unified monarchy, Saul, did not last very long — he did not turn out very well. But in 2 Samuel 7, God promises David a dynasty that will not be set aside. Since David had watched what happened to Saul, he was doubtless thinking that even if he remained perfectly faithful himself — and he didn’t — but even if he had, he couldn’t guarantee the behavior of his son and of his son’s son, and of his son’s son’s son. And so, he wondered how long his own dynasty would last.
But God promises in 2 Samuel 7 that the dynasty will last and will be perpetual. And that theme is then taken up throughout the rest of the Old Testament and all the way to the New Testament. There is an expectation of a Davidic King. Now, we will pursue that one a little more when we look at the theme of kingship in a later recording, but what is remarkable is that you turn to the very first page of the New Testament and you read the origin of Jesus Christ: the son of Abraham, the son of David. And the genealogy then takes you back to David (Matthew 1:1).
So, the nature of the promise of God to David issuing in the entire Davidic kingship brings with it a number of other promises, too — ultimately that the Redeemer in the Davidic line would be born in Bethlehem, picked up by the prophet Micah and taught by the Pharisees to Herod and the Magi in Matthew 2. And so, that is another track that runs right through all of Scripture until it is very clear that this new David, great David’s greater Son, is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
Then other Old Testament promises: some are along what might be called typological lines. For example, the institution of the Passover as a feast that looks back on the first Passover when the angel of death passed over all of the households that were daubed with the blood of the Lamb. Yet Paul can come along and say in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
“Christ, the Passover Lamb, sacrificed himself once for all to turn aside the wrath of God from God’s own firstborn.”
So, Christ himself is understood by Paul to be a kind of antitype, a fulfillment of the promise — of that old promise that was not cast specifically as a promise. There is no text that says: Understand now that this Passover Lamb that you are sacrificing is merely a type of a greater sacrifice yet to come. There is no text that says anything quite as explicit as that. And yet, as it is, as the feast is celebrated year after year after year after year after year after year, inevitably people are thinking back to the first Passover.
But they can’t help think — as it is done again and again and again — where is this heading? What pattern is being tracked down here? Where is this trajectory going? And you see its ultimate trace in the ultimate sacrifice of the ultimate Lamb of God who sacrifices himself once for all to turn aside the wrath of God from God’s own firstborn as it were. And thus, one sees the nature of the promise in a pattern that is repeated, a pattern that is sometimes called a type. Now again, we are going to do something on typology a little later, too, but once again we see how these things intertwine.
And there are many, many other promises that we could point to: the promise of priesthood, the promise of God’s ability to turn evil into eternal redemptive good (Genesis 50:20; picked up in Romans 8:28). There is a promise, also, for atonement of sin for the people of God (Exodus 30:10; picked up in Hebrews 9:22). There are the great commandments to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). But these things are picked up and are implanted in the new covenant people of God.
So, there are many, many ways in which the Old Testament takes its point forward, but perhaps we can focus on two or three in particular. There are Old Testament texts that promise the coming of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25–27). God will wash them, his new covenant people — the language of the New Testament is used: his new covenant people — with clean water and pour out his Spirit upon them. And likewise Joel 2 which is picked up by the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16). And those sorts of passages are picked up explicitly in the New Testament.
In Ephesians 1:13, we are told about the Holy Spirit of promise. That is elocution that really means “the promised Holy Spirit.” He is the one who has been promised in the Old Testament and has come in all of the fullness of the expectation under the terms of the new covenant. Similar language is used in John 7:37–39. And in the entire farewell discourse (John 14–16), where the Holy Spirit — sometimes called the Comforter, the Parkletos, the Helper, the one alongside who succeeds Jesus — he comes and is with the disciples and will be with them. And the Christians after the resurrection are told to wait for the promised Holy Spirit who will come upon them on the day of Pentecost (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:1–4).
So, this notion of promise drives Scripture forward. It means that our view of history is not that it goes around and around and around and around as in a lot of Hindu thought where you jump on and jump off by reincarnation with history not necessarily going anywhere. You are just on another cycle, another spiral. And you get on for a ride and get off a ride. And what you hope eventually is that you climb high enough up on the spiral that you reach some sort of blessed state.
But the biblical view is really quite different. There is a beginning called creation, where mankind progresses until we finally get to the last chapters of the Bible, and there is the new heaven and the new earth, or hell itself. And before the new heaven and the new earth and hell is the final judgment. And that final judgment is faced by absolutely everyone, and all of the intervening history between Genesis 1–3 on the one hand and Revelation 20–22 on the other is the unfolding of history under the sovereignty of God to bring about his purposes in line with the promises of God.
So, the notion of the promises of God is tied to our very understanding of history. God fulfills his promises across the trajectory, the axis, of redemptive history. And in this connection, then, it is worth mentioning one other feature of Old Testament promise, I think.
This was taught me when I was a young man in seminary. I have heard John Piper say something very similar that he was taught this when he was in seminary. It doesn’t seem to be mentioned so much these days, but I think it is really a very helpful way of looking at things. For anyone who has done much hill walking or low mountain hiking, you become aware very rapidly that you see a hill in front of you and you think that is the height that you have got to climb. Then when you get to that height you see more height beyond you. And if they are far enough away, you have absolutely no idea of how far those individual peaks are separated. They all look to be on the same sort of flat plain. And yet as you come to them, one by one, you discover there are ravines and valleys and intervening plateaus and so on between one peak and the next peak.
A lot of Old Testament prophecy is cast with that vision of sort of flattened out peaks, so that you can move from promises regarding the return of the people after the exile to Jerusalem to promises about a New Jerusalem — indeed, a new heaven and a new earth—all in the context of one chapter, because from the vista of the prophet who is looking into the future, they are all flattened out. He can’t see how they are separated from one another, so that we who are much farther along the trek and looking back and are aware of the ravines sometimes wonder: Well, that sort of got flattened out.
Why are they lumped together? Why doesn’t the prophet Isaiah make more of a distinction between the return from the exile and the ultimate return of the Lord on the last day? And I think that it is an important element in the very structure of Old Testament biblical prophecy. It is sometimes called prophetic foreshortening. I am not sure that helps anybody or not, but the mountain example helped me a great deal to recognize what was going on in some of these passages.
So, Isaiah 65–66 anticipates a new heaven and a new earth, but it is in a context where there are also more immediate prophecies that are also being fulfilled. But ultimately they are all picked up and even the new heaven and new earth language is picked up by 2 Peter, for example. And it is picked up finally in Revelation 21–22.
There is one more element of promise that I should mention. This one is a little more disputed, but in my view it is pretty important. In Matthew 5:17–20, which is a paragraph that introduces the so called antitheses of Matthew 5 — You have heard that it was said, but I say unto you. You have heard that it was said, but I say unto you. To introduce all of those antitheses, Jesus says in Matthew 5:17 and following: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”
Now it is possible, just barely, to understand “fulfill” there to mean something like to “keep” it. But there are lots of good verbs to use in Greek, as in English, to mean to “keep.” “Fulfill” in Matthew — the verb pladou, to fulfill — is very common. It is used more in Matthew than in any other New Testament book. And without exception — and the other usages in Matthew — the verb to “fulfill” really means to fulfill that which was promised.
So, I am persuaded myself that Jesus is not saying something like: I have not come to abolish the law, but to keep it. And he is not saying something like: I have not come to abolish the law, but to show you its deeper meaning. That is not quite right either. But: I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it; that is, to show all the ways in which it points forward. And, of course, we are familiar with that already in things like the Passover law. The Passover law is part of the law, and it points forward to the ultimate Passover. The sacrifices of Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, point forward ultimately to the ultimate sacrifice. So in that sense, we are already familiar with the notion that law points forward.
“The law ultimately points forward to the utter perfection that the people of God must have before God in Christ.”
But in the antitheses we are dealing with categories that transcend the sacrificial system. And I think that what Jesus is saying is that even what we commonly call the moral law of God given in the old covenant Scriptures itself points forward to the very perfection that is highly characteristic of the new heaven and the new earth, and that comes under the dawning of the new covenant for the first taste, as it were — the new covenant which is consummated when Christ finally returns.
But already Jesus says: You have heard that it was said, but I am telling you this is the way you live now. And what he is demanding is absolute perfection. That is the way Matthew 5 ends. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), because the law ultimately points forward to the utter perfection that the people of God must have before God and which is met, finally, by Christ’s sacrifice, but which is finally displayed in them because they are so transformed, too. There is a sense in which the whole law of God — though it has many, many other functions — has amongst its functions the pointing forward to the perfection that is yet to come.