“Heirs according to Promise” (Gal 3:29)
Paul claims, “All the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus]” (2 Cor 1:20), but is he referring only to NT promises or OT promises as well? After citing a list of OT promises later in the epistle (6:16–18), he urges the Corinthians to pursue holiness “since we have these promises” (7:1). For Paul, both OT and NT promises belong to Christians, but only in Jesus. What follows are five principles that shape how the NT authors relate OT promises to Christians.
1. Christians Benefit from OT Promises Only through Christ
In Galatians 3, Paul confronts claims that for Gentiles to become full inheritors of God’s OT promises, they need to submit to circumcision and the Mosaic law. In contrast, the apostle asserts that, while the old-covenant law served as a “guardian until Christ came … , now that [the age of] faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (3:24–25). Furthermore, he stresses that only identifying with Christ Jesus by faith secures inheritance rights for Jew and Greek alike. All must receive “adoption as sons” (4:5).
Apparently with the promise of “lands” (plural) in Genesis 26:3 in mind, along with an allusion to 22:17–18, Paul says, “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” (Gal 3:16). Paul recognizes that Genesis places the hope of the world not on a people but on a person––not on a corporate Israel but on a representative, royal, messianic Deliverer. And now that this offspring has come, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (3:29). For Paul, only in Christ Jesus can anyone inherit the OT’s promised blessings. This is what Paul means when he declares that in Christ all of God’s promises find their “yes” (2 Cor 1:20).
Figure 1. OT Promises Reach Believers Only through Christ
2. All Old-Covenant Curses Become New-Covenant Curses
With a heart full of hope, Moses wrote: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring…. And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you” (Deut 30:6–7). Notice here that in the age of new-covenant heart circumcision, Yahweh will take Deuteronomy’s curses (see table 1) and pour them out on the enemies of God’s restored community. This suggests that the old-covenant curses become new-covenant curses, which Yahweh brings not on the members of the new covenant but on their enemies. As in the Abrahamic covenant, where Yahweh promised to curse anyone who dishonored the patriarch and those he represented (Gen 12:3), so will Yahweh confront those who spurn his new-covenant community.
1. Yahweh’s presence / favor / loyalty (Lev 26:11-12)
2. Confirmation of the covenant (Lev 26:9)
3. Be a holy people to Yahweh (Deut 28:9)
4. Rains in season (Lev 26:4; Deut 28:12)
5. Abounding prosperity and productivity:
a. General (Deut 28:12);
b. Fruit of the womb (Lev 26:9; Deut 28:4,11)
c. Fruit of the livestock (Deut 28:4,11);
d. Fruid of the ground (Lev 26:4-5,10; Deut 28:4,8,11)
6. General and unspecified (Deut 28:2, 6, 8, 12-13)
7. Peace and security in the land with no fear:
a. General (Lev 26:5-6)
b. From harmful animals (Lev 26:6);
c. From enemies (Lev 26:6)
8. Vicotry over enemies (Lev 26:7-8; Deut 28:7)
9. Freedom from slavery (Lev 26:13)
10. Global influence and witness (Deut 28:1,10,12)
|1. Anger and rejection from Yahweh (Lev 26:17,24,28,41; Deut 4:24-25; 29:20,24,27-28; 31:17-18,29; 32:16,19-22,30)
2. Rejection and destruction of the cult (Lev 26:31)
3. War and its ravages:
a. General (Lev 26:17,25,33,37; 28:25,49,52; 32:23-24,30,41-42);
b. Siege (Lev 26:25-26,29; Deut 28:52-53,55,57);
4. Fear, terror, and horror (Lev 26:16-17,36-37; Deut 28:66-67; 32:25);
5. Occupation and oppression by enemies and aliens (Lev 26:16-17,32; Deut 28:31,33,43-44,48,68; 32:21);
6. Agricultural disaster and non-productivity:
a. General (Lev 26:20; Deut 28:17-18,22,40; 29:23);
b. Drought (Lev 26:19; Deut 28:22-24);
c. Crop Pests (Deut 28:38-42)
7. Starvation / famine (Lev 26:26,29,45; Deut 28:53-56; 32:24)
8. Illness, Pestilence, and contamination (Lev 26:16; Deut 28:21-22,27-28,35,59-61; 29:22; 32:24,39)
a. Of holy places (Lev 26:31);
b. Of cities and towns (Lev 26:31,33);
c. Of the land (Lev 26:32-35,43; Deut 28:51; 29:23)
10. Destruction by fire (Deut Deut 28:24; 32:22)
11. Harm from wild animals (Lev 26:22; Deut 32:24)
|12. Decimation and infertility:
a. Of family (Lev 26:22; Deut 28:18,59);
b. Of cattle (Lev 26:22; Deut 28:18,51);
c. Of population generally (Lev 26:22,36; Deut 4:27; 28:62; 32:36)
13. Exile and captivity:
a. Of the people (Lev 26:33-34,36,38-39,41; Deut 4:27; 28:36-37,41,63-64,68; 29:28; 30:4; 32:26);
b. Of the king (Deut 28:36)
14. Forced idolatry in exile (Deut 4:28; 28:36,64)
15. Futility (Lev 26:16,20; Deut 28:20,29-31,33,38-41)
16. Dishonor and degradation (Lev 26:19; Deut 28:20,25,37,43-44,68)
17. Loss of possessions and impoverishment (Deut 28:31)
18. Loss of family (Deut 28:30,32,41; 32:25)
19. Helplessness and stumbling (Lev 26:36-37; Deut 28:29,32; 32:35-36,38-39)
20. Psychological afflictions (Deut 28:20,28,34,65-67)
21. Lack of peace and rest (Deut 28:65)
22. Denial of burial (Deut 28:26)
23. Becoming like the cities of the plain (Deut 29:23)
24. Death and destruction (Lev 26:36,39; Deut 4:26; 28:20-22,44,48,51,61; 29:20; 30:15,18-19; 31:17; 32:25-26,35,39,42)
25. General and unspecified (Deut 4:30; 28:20,24,45,59,61,63; 29:19,21-22; 31:17,21,29; 32:23,35)
26. General punishment, curse, and vengeance (Lev 26:41,43; Deut 28:16,20-21,27; 30:19; 32:35,41,43)
27. Multiple punishments (Lev 26:18,21,24,28)
1. Renewal of Yahweh’s presence, favor, and loyalty (Lev 26:42,45; Deut 4:29,31; 30:3,9)
2. Renewal of the covenant (Lev 26:42,44-45; Deut 4:31)
3. Restoration of true worship and ability to be faithful (Deut 4:30; 30:6,8)
4. Population increase (Deut 30:5,9)
5. Agricultural bounty (Lev 26:42; Deut 30:9)
6. Restoration of general prosperity, well-being, and wealth (Deut 30:3,5,9; 32:39)
7. Return from exile and repossession of the land (Deut 30:3-5)
8. Reunification (Deut 30:3-4)
9. Power over enemies and aliens (Deut 30:7)
10. Freedom and restoration from death and destruction (Lev 26:44; Deut 30:6; 32:39)
Table 1. Mosaic-Covenant Blessings, Curses, and Restoration Blessings
The NT displays new-covenant curses as warnings against permanently falling away from Christ and against all who oppose God and his people (see Matt 25:31–46; Luke 6:20–26; 2 Tim 2:12; Heb 10:26–27). Those in Christ will not experience curse in a punitive way, for Christ bears upon himself God’s curse against all believers (Gal 3:13). While Christians still experience the Lord’s fatherly discipline, no level of earthly discipline or consequence calls into question the eternal security of any believer (Rom 5:9). Instead, new-covenant curses serve as a means of grace to those in Christ to generate within them reverent fear of God leading to greater holiness (cf. Lev 26:18, 21, 23, 27; Rom 2:4; Heb 12:11).
3. In the New Covenant, Christians Inherit the Old Covenant’s Original and Restoration Blessings
As already noted, Paul uses a string of OT promises to motivate Christians to “not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14). Significant here is the first citation: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (6:16). Paul here combines citations from an original old-covenant blessing (Lev 26:11–12) and a restoration blessing (Ezek 37:27). Table 2 compares the texts.
|2 Corinthians 6:16 (ESV)|
|What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”|
|Leviticus 26:11-12||Ezekiel 37:27|
|NETS(translation from the Greek Old Testament)||NETS(Translation from the Greek Old Testament)|
|If you walk by my ordinances and observe my commandments and do them …I will place my tent [Lit., “covenant”] among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk about among you and will be your God, and you shall be for me a nation.||And my encamping shall be among them, and I will be a god for them, and they shall be my people.|
|ESV(translation from the Hebrew Old Testament)||ESV(Translation from the Hebrew Old Testament)|
|If you walk in my statues and observe my commandments and do them, …I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall no abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.||My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.|
Table 2. Paul’s Use of the OT in 2 Corinthians 6:16
Note that whereas the Greek of Ezekiel 37:27 reads “my dwelling shall be with them,” Paul’s wording is “I will make my dwelling among them.” This difference suggests that the apostle is either quoting from memory or supplying his own rendering directly from the Hebrew. Regardless, the second half of the promise parallels closely the Greek translation. What is missing in Ezekiel, however, is any mention of God’s “walking” among his people, and this suggests that, along with Ezekiel 37:27, Paul also has in mind the original Mosaic-covenant blessing of Leviticus 26:11–12.
Two conclusions follow from how Paul applies OT promises in 2 Corinthians 6:16: (1) The restoration blessings of the old covenant include all the original blessings but in escalation and without the chance of loss. (2) Through Christ, the original old-covenant blessings and the restoration blessings have direct bearing on Christians. Paul draws together both texts, suggesting not only their close tie in the OT but also that, along with the new-covenant restoration blessings, the original old-covenant blessings do indeed relate to believers.
4. Christians Already Possess All Blessings of Their Inheritance but Will Enjoy Them Fully Only at Christ’s Final Coming
Paul once prayed, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing …. In him you also … were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:3, 13–14). Most scholars believe that “every spiritual blessing” here refers to all the blessings that Christ’s Spirit secures for the saints, including election, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, sealing, and all that we will enjoy when we gain our full inheritance (cf. 2 Cor 1:20, 22; 1 Pet 1:3–4).
All these blessings fulfill the OT’s end-time hopes associated with the promises of new-covenant restoration (e.g., Deut 30:6; Isa 53:11; Jer 31:33–34; 32:40; Ezek 36:27; Dan 9:24). Yet while all God’s promises already find their “yes” for those in Christ (2 Cor 1:20), a Christian’s full enjoyment awaits the coming inheritance—truly now, fully later. As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 1:22, “[God] has put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
5. All True Christians Will Persevere and Enjoy Their Full Inheritance
Like other NT teachers (e.g., Matt 5:8; 2 Cor 7:1; Rev 21:27), the author of Hebrews emphasizes that “without [holiness] no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). Persevering fruitfulness is a necessary condition to enjoy the future inheritance, for future judgment will be in accord with (though not based on) deeds we do in this life (Matt 16:27; Rom 2:6; 2 Cor 5:10; 1 Pet 1:17; Rev 2:23; 20:12). Thus, Paul can stress, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13).
These things stated, Paul clarifies that this new-covenant call to persevere is not like the old covenant’s call to obey (Lev 18:5). Speaking predominantly to the unregenerate, the old covenant charged Israel to pursue righteousness (Deut 16:20), and it declared that they would only secure life and be counted righteous if they met all the covenant’s demands (6:25; 8:1). Yet for Paul, “the very commandment that promised life proved to be death” (Rom 7:10). Paul can thus declare that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4), because by Christ’s perfect obedience, God frees believers from sin’s power (5:18–19; 8:1; Col 2:14), declares us righteous (Rom 5:9–10; 2 Cor 5:21), and enables us to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4, 17, 22). In doing so, God generates persevering faith, hope, and love and thus makes certain the endurance of all new-covenant members.
The NT authors were guided by at least five principles when they related OT promises to Christians: (1) Believers benefit from OT promises only through Christ. (2) Old-covenant curses become new-covenant curses. (3) As part of the new covenant, Christians inherit the old covenant’s original and restoration blessings. (4) Christians already possess all blessings of their inheritance but will enjoy them fully only at Christ’s final coming. (5) All true Christians will persevere and enjoy their full inheritance. The next post will overview four ways Christ serves as a lens for claiming OT promises as Christians.
¹John Piper, “Isaiah 41:10: Are the Old Testament Promises Made to Us?,” Desiring God, accessed 21 February 2017, http://www.desiringgod.org/labs/are-the-old-testament-promises-made-to-us.
²“Curses” and “Restoration Blessings” are adapted from Douglas Stuart, “Malachi,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, ed. Thomas Edward McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 1259–60.
This blog series summarizes Jason S. DeRouchie’s forthcoming book, Delighting in the Old Testament: Through Christ and for Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024). You can pre-order your copy here.