THE PROMISE & THE PILGRIM
“All the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever.” Genesis 15:3.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying, “The best things come to those who wait!” Well, that’s the way it is for Abram in our text, and that’s the way it is for each of us. The LORD promised him an inheritance some 4,000 years ago. Abram’s still waiting to receive it! The LORD promised him land and descendants. He lived long enough to see a few descendants. However, Abram died and was buried without receiving the inheritance of the land he was promised. So, either the LORD made a promise and failed to deliver, or the promise is still good.
In the following I hope to demonstrate that the LORD’s promise to Abram is still good! The general gist of what we’ll be looking at is: Faithful saints hold fast the good promise of the LORD.
We see then that the LORD said to Abram, “All the land which you see I give to you and your DESCENDANTS forever.” Therefore the LORD has made a promise to Abram AND his descendants or seed. So let us focus for the moment on the promise as it relates to Abram’s descendants.
Now, this is the third time the LORD has come to Abram promising him land and descendants. The other two times are recorded in Genesis 12:1-3 where it says, “Now the LORD had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And again in Genesis 12:7a, “Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.’” This is the third time the LORD has promised Abram land and descendants, and it’s not the last. The LORD confirms this promise to Abram again in Genesis chapters 15, 17 and 18.
If the telephone company or somebody thinks you owe them money they keep on sending you reminders. One time we received a couple of reminders from somebody who got their wires crossed! So you notify them and you get it all straightened out – or so you think, until you get another reminder in the mail! But here’s the LORD for the third time, in the text before us, reminding Abram of His promise to him and to his descendants.
Abram doesn’t even have any descendants, and Lot, his next of kin, has separated from him. However, the promise is to Abram and his descendants, not to his next of kin. Therefore, land was promised to Abram’s descendants.
So we ask: What land was promised to which descendants? Well, Abram’s descendants were promised the land as far as Abram’s eye could see. We take it that he’s on some hill or mountain. And the LORD is telling him to pan all around. Genesis 15:14, “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are – northward, southward, eastward, westward...”
Lot, as you know, lifted his eyes and he saw the well-watered plain of Jordan. He saw what looked like the lush land of Egypt. It was like the Garden of Eden! (Genesis 13:10.) But the LORD didn’t invite Abram to look at rivers, green grass, shrubbery and that sort of thing No! Abram was invited to look at the dust – the dust of the earth! Genesis 15:16, “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.”
I used to have enough trouble counting my homing pigeons when they were flying around! Who could count even a handful of dust, never mind the dust of the earth! This is no: Guess the exact amount of lollies in the jar and you win the prize! No! There was no guessing the amount of descendants. They were to be as the dust of the earth!
In the Hebrew the word ‘eretz’ can be translated either ‘land’ or ‘earth.’ Dust of the land, dust of the earth, eretz – land or earth. The word is used in the first verse of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the eretz.” You wouldn’t translate it ‘land’, would you? So, usually the context determines whether the Hebrew ‘eretz’ is to be translated ‘land’ or ‘earth.’ And we find these words recorded in Genesis 15:18, “On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
As Abram walked the length and breadth of the land, between these two great rivers, what would he have been thinking? He would be thinking: “This is some promise the LORD’s given me and my descendants! The LORD’s shown me the land as He promised. Now He’s saying that we are heirs of this land! That my descendants and I will inherit it!”
No wonder he moved his tent and built an altar to the LORD – Abram’s hit the jackpot! You see the way some people carry on when they win a million bucks. They leap and jump all over the place kissing and slobbering over anyone standing next to them. But hang on a minute. All Abram has at the moment is a promise. All he has is the LORD’s Word! And is that not all any of us has?
I remember as a new Christian trying to come to grips with eternal life. “Wow! I’ve got eternal life. So, this means... what does it mean?” I remember thinking, “What good is this eternal life? I still have to die!” Then I began to understand what Jesus was on about where He says in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” So it’s the PROMISE of eternal life I have. And who’s the One who’s making this promise to me? Well, it’s the same LORD who made the promise to Abram and his descendants. And what did the LORD promise Abram and his descendants? Genesis 13:15 again, “All the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever.” Take note at this point, the word ‘descendants’ may also be rendered ‘seed’ as in one or many. However, since we’re focusing on the promise, we need to ask to whom was this promise made? In other words: Who are the descendants of Abram? We take it that at this point in time Abram didn’t know. He didn’t know because he didn’t have any descendants at this time. And we find in the chapters up ahead that Abram first off thinks that one of his servants will have to be counted as his offspring. Then the LORD tells him that Abram himself will be the father of a child. So he gets tangled up in the mess with Sarah’s servant Hagar. Then the LORD tells him that his, up till then, barren wife Sarah is going to bear his child. But for now all Abram has is the LORD’s Word he will have descendants like the dust of the earth. And in 1 Kings 4:20-21 we read, “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking and rejoicing. So, Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the River [i.e., the Euphrates] to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt.”
So we see that, at the time of David and Solomon Abram’s descendants are innumerable. They are living in the tract of land promised to Abram and his descendants. And apparently, it was much the same again during the inter-Testamental period. But, were all those people really the ones to whom the promise of the land was made? Remember, the promise was made to Abram and his descendants.
Was Rahab the harlot who was rescued from Jericho a descendant of Abram? Was Ruth the Moabitess, who married Boaz, a descendant of Abram? Well, according to the Apostle Paul both Rahab and Ruth were descendants of Abram. He says, for instance, in Galatians 3:29, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
It’s true that Jesus says to some Jews who were claiming to be Abram’s descendants in John 8:37, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants.” But He was talking about descendants as to flesh. For Jesus went on to say to these same men, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do [etc.]” John 8:44. Therefore, their real father was the devil – not Abraham!
“When [John Baptizer] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father. For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” Matthew 3:7-9.
Paul in Romans chapters’ 3 and 4 goes to great lengths to tell the Jews their fleshly decent counts for nothing In Galatians 3:7 he says, “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abram.” Both Rahab and Ruth were of faith – as were all the Old Testament saints. So, to cut the long story short, the descendants who receive the promise of the land are only those who believe along with Abram, the father of all believers Romans 4:11;16.
Right then, if the LORD is giving the land to Abram and his descendants and we Christians are his descendants, then the land is ours, right? Does this mean that all Christians should start chartering airplanes to the land of Israel? Should we go there and demand that the present Christ-denying occupants give us our promised land? If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re missing something – something very important! Hopefully it’ll become even more clear to you as we move into our second point. But just before we move on, let me recap what we’ve looked at.
The LORD has made a promise to Abram. He has promised him descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth. We’ve taken note that the New Testament stipulates that Abram’s descendants are like him – believers! That Abram is the father of the faithful, therefore it is faith and not race or ethnic origin that makes a person a descendant of Abram! It’s faith not flesh that counts with God!
And we’ve seen, in particular, that the land was promised to the descendants of Abram – you, me and every believer that has ever lived or will live. So let’s move on.
The land was ALSO promised to Abram. Yet Abram never took possession of the land, did he? But look at what the LORD says to Abram in Genesis 13:15, “All the land which you see I give to YOU.” Look also at Genesis 13:17, “Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to YOU.” But Abram remained a pilgrim, sojourner in the land until his dying day! In fact Abram had to buy a field with his own money as a place of burial! So, in order to help us understand what’s really happening here, we need to bring the rest of Scripture to bear on this text.
Now, this is what we’re doing: We’re trying to understand what the LORD has in mind here. We are NOT trying to see how well Abram understood the LORD’s promise. We have the benefit of the rest of Scripture to help us understand this promise. However you might be surprised at how much Abram had grasped already.
Always keep in mind that the LORD revealed His promise to Abram in one lump sum as recorded in Genesis 12:1-3. Then as a preacher expounds and opens up the Scriptures to his congregation each week, so the LORD opened up the understanding of Abram to what He has already said. The word of promise remains the same but under the LORD tutelage Abram’s understanding grew by instalment. Like every other believer, Abram would grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – so far as He had revealed Himself at that time. But as I said, we’re not trying to see how deep an understanding Abram had of God’s Word. Rather we’re seeking to understand what the LORD means by the promise of land and descendants.
The promise was made to Abram and we Christians today testify that we are Abram’s descendants. Abram lived to see the birth of Isaac and other children. But you wouldn’t say he saw descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth. And neither did he receive the land the LORD promised him. Speaking of the land listen to what Stephen says about in Acts 7:5, “And God gave him [i.e. Abram] no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abram had no child, He [the Lord] promised to give it to him [i.e. Abram] for a possession, and to his descendants after him.”
Just think about that for a moment. We see that Abram was to receive this land, and the LORD promised it to him and to us. Therefore the question we need to answer is this. How or when is our father Abram and we his descendants supposed to receive this promised land?
I was at a funeral where a man said that he was not going to miss his friend who had just died. He said that he wouldn’t miss his friend because his friend would be with him always in his heart. Is this how Abram was going to inherit the promised land? Was Abram carried around in the bosom of his descendants? Is this what the LORD meant when He promised the land to Abram? Is this what the LORD means when He promises the land to us? What do you think?
Look again at the words of Genesis 13:15, “For all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants FOREVER.” So, that word FOREVER sounds like a long time, doesn’t it? But did Abram ever possess the land even for five minutes? No! Have any of us possessed the land for any length of time? No! So there must be more going on here than the naked eye can see!
Look at Abram. He was a pilgrim, wasn’t he? Like the words of the hymn:
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven, feed me till my want is o’er.
Abram was a pilgrim in a barren land! His nephew and fellow believer Lot, well, he spied the well-watered plains of Jordan. He rushed off to the place that was lush like the land of Egypt – like the Garden of Eden. But Abram was to walk the length and breadth of a barren land looking at and counting particles of dust. This was the land which couldn’t support Abram and Lot and their herdsmen! As Abram looked at the dust he surely must have wondered how this land would ever support a multitude like the dust of the earth! How would this land ever feed them? It couldn’t even sustain a bunch of herdsmen and their livestock! So Abram must have had a few questions running around in his head. Not the least of which was HOW was he supposed to possess the land forever. I mean it’s all very well for the eternal God to say to Abram, “I’m giving you some land FOREVER.” “Oh! That’s nice, but it’s just a pity that I won’t be able to live forever to enjoy it forever!” At least Abram got to see it for a few years – but what about you and me? When you look at a passage like this you’re thankful you’ve got the whole rest of the Bible.
So, as we begin to tie things up into a nice big bow, let’s shine some New Testament light onto the subject. Speaking of the Old Testament saints (including Abram) the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says in 11:13, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Hebrews 11:13.
So Abram died along with Isaac and Jacob after him without receiving their inheritance. But as a sailor catching a glimpse of land in the days of the old wooden ships, so Abram saw the substance of God’s promises in the far off distance – “Land ahoy!” So rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub, Abram, Isaac and Jacob have yet to inherit the promised land – the land they saw far off in the distance. So, when then are they and we for that matter, supposed to inherit this land? Well, fist let’s see if we can get a better idea of the length and width of this our inheritance.
Is our inheritance that piece of land which runs between the River Nile and the Euphrates? David in Psalm 37 mentions a couple of times, verse 9b, “Those who wait for the LORD, they shall inherit the earth.” And then in verse 11, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” And also in Psalm 25:13, speaking of the man who fears the LORD he says, “His descendants shall inherit the earth.” However, the word for “earth” (eretz) in these instances may also be translated “land” which is how the New International Version renders it in each case.
But what about what Jesus says in Matt. 5:5? Even the NIV renders it, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” But alas! the Greek word for earth there is sometimes used for “land.” So maybe we should charter some planes and boats and trains to the Middle East and claim our inheritance! But hold the phone! Let’s ask the Apostle Paul to help us. Romans 4:13: “For the promise that he would be the HEIR of the WORLD was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith” Romans 4:13. So faithful Abram and his faithful seed – even you and even me – are HEIRS of the WORLD!
But wait a minute! Does that word “world” really mean “world” or does it really mean “land”? Well, the NT Greek word Paul uses is Cosmos, the same word used by Jesus in John 3:16 “For God so loved the WORLD (Gr. cosmos)…” And I’ve yet to see any Bible commentator translate the word cosmos as “land.” For God so loved the LAND? No, He loved the cosmos! And as Paul uses it in relation to Abram it means the earth! So the LORD has promised Abram and us the world – the universe!
So, here’s the tricky bit, how or when are we and Abram supposed to receive the earth or the world? Abram’s been dead for 2,000 years or something! So the LORD’s going to have to resurrect Abram, isn’t he? The LORD’s going to have to raise Abram from the dead in order to present him with the earth. And if you don’t think that Abram believed in the resurrection of the dead, then ask yourself what Abram was doing placing Isaac on an altar as a sacrifice? Hebrews 11:19 says Abram was, “Accounting that God was able to raise him [Isaac] up, even from the dead.” Abram’s body crumbled back to the dust, so did Isaac’s and Jacob’s after him. Your body, my body, all our bodies are going to crumble back to the dust, aren’t they? All of the children of Abram sleep in the dust – so will we! But what does the Prophet Daniel say? Daniel 12:2, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to everlasting shame.” And what does John Baptizer say to the Pharisees and Sadducees? “Do not say to yourselves, ‘We have Abram as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” Matthew 3:9b.
But none of this makes any sense without Christ. Christ is THE true descendant of Abram, isn’t He? Those words of the Lord’s Apostle Paul, Gal. 3:16, “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ.” But again, Galatians 3:29, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
If we belong to Christ then whatever belongs to Him belongs also to us. Therefore the promise of the earth is made to us in relation to Christ. Only those who trust in Christ, as did believing, Abram will receive their inheritance in Christ. And doesn’t Psalm 2:8 say that the nations are His inheritance and ends of the earth His possession? And where do the nations live? In Palestine? Between the two great rivers? No! The nations are scattered over the whole face of the earth like dust – Christ’s inheritance – Abram’s inheritance – our inheritance!
And Christ’s resurrection guarantees Abram’s resurrection and our resurrection and secures our inheritance. And it’s through the spread of the Gospel as the poured out Spirit applies it, that the LORD raises up the children of Abraham from the dust of the earth. As the flood waters in Noah’s day were God’s poured out judgment upon the earth, so the Holy Spirit in our day is God’s poured out blessing upon the earth! So this means that even those dry and parched nations will yet turn to the LORD, for they, and all the ends of the earth belong to Him! This was the promise the LORD made to Abram when He said, “All the land which you see I give to you and your DESCENDANTS forever.” The whole world and everything in it is ours in Abram’s Seed – Jesus Christ.
God has promised that faithful Abram and his faithful offspring, even you and me, will inherit the earth. He has given His promise to pilgrims. The promise given Abram is the promise given us. We are the heirs of the world. The meek SHALL inherit the earth. So, even though Abram’s body, like ours, was made of dust and crumbled back to dust, the promise of God remains. So like Abram our father, we look forward to that day when all the graves shall open up! As Jesus Christ says, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves shall hear His voice and come forth.” John 5:28.
Oh what a day that’s going to be! And father Abram is going to look into the faces of all his children, including your face and mine. But he won’t be able to number us. We’ll be as numerous as the dust – the dust of the earth – the earth we’re inheriting forever!
We’ve seen then that the LORD’s promise to Abram is still good. And that we too, like our father Abram, should hold fast the good promise of the LORD, because the best things come to those who wait. Therefore, wait on the Lord Jesus Christ!