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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).
Since the Napoleonic era and the heroic exploits of Admiral Lord Nelson in the early 19th century, every rope in the British Royal Navy has carried an identifying mark.
A single scarlet thread is woven into the smallest heaving lines and the thickest hawsers. A purposeful continuity unites those maritime ropes, no matter what their size or function.
In the same way, there is a distinguishing “scarlet thread” that runs through both Old and New Testaments. The Bible is an enormously complex book – we can even describe it as a library of 66 volumes – which features hundreds of characters and subplots. But there is also a purposeful continuity – a storyline that draws together all the disparate parts.
It’s called the Promise.
God makes a promise to a man named Abraham, which includes a promise to Abraham’s descendants (who will become the Jews), who will ultimately bring to the whole world a Promised Person – the Messiah, or Anointed One, whom Christians have identified as Jesus of Nazareth.
We have good reasons to believe that the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the oldest of all his known correspondences. This is one of his first attempts to explain to a pagan culture that the creator, in order to start healing a seriously broken world, has rolled up his sleeves and gotten down into the grime and sweat of space and time.
So where does Paul start? As we see in our “3:16” verse, he starts with Abraham – for the simple reason that this is where God started.
The Jewish storyline, in other words, is really humanity’s storyline – something that wasn’t fully revealed until the time of Jesus.
The closer we look at this storyline, the more we discover that the Bible is not a book about people looking for God. Scripture is not the collective spiritual journal of several hundred deceased Middle Easterners. We don’t see any evidence, for example, that Abraham was searching for spiritual significance. God was searching for him.
From the opening chapters of the Bible, we find ourselves asking, “How in the world is God going to redeem humanity?” The answer is, “Slowly but surely.” God will reveal his power, his love, and his character to the descendants of Abraham so they can present to the world, as a gift, a two-thousand-year record of what it is like to know him. As C.S. Lewis puts it, God hammered into the heads of the Jews what kind of God he was, and the Old Testament is the account of the hammering process.
That’s the heart of the Promise.
God’s promise to Abraham is an unconditional covenant. That means Abraham doesn’t have to be good enough, smart enough, tall enough, or enough of anything to deserve God’s love. Abraham is simply blessed – blessed to be a blessing to everyone else on earth.
God’s promise of physical descendants appears to be a non-starter, however, since Abraham and his wife Sarah have never been able to have children. Yet even though he’s already celebrated his 100th birthday, his greatest personal dream finally comes true: He gets to shop for diapers. And not just for himself.
As the Promise unfolds, we follow the scarlet thread through some truly strange and difficult stories. God’s people often seem unworthy of the name. The pathway to that special Promised Person is like a funnel that grows ever narrower – from Isaac to Jacob to Judah, one of the original 12 tribes of Israel. Eight hundred years later it is David, a descendent of Judah, who becomes Israel’s most famous king.
For the next thousand years, God’s people wait. They wait for a particular Son of David who will one day come and fulfill the entirety of the Promise that God made to Abraham.
Who would have suspected that the bearer of the Promise would be laid in a feeding trough when he was born, and wouldn’t even be recognized by most of those he came to save?
In the end, of what value is Galatians 3:16?
This verse is a trust-builder. It reminds us that despite everything we see and experience in our not-yet-redeemed world, there remains a discernible rhyme and reason. In the midst of a devastating earthquake in Turkey, 611 mass shootings in America during the first 81 days of 2023, chaos and incivility in our public discourse, a war that rages on in Ukraine, and the fear of global bank failures, there is still purposeful continuity – a storyline that has characterized human history since its earliest days, and that remains anchored on God’s original Promise.
We’ve noted before an illustration proposed by British author Vaughan Roberts.
Imagine walking along a beach. Looking out to sea, you notice a young woman swimming not far from the shore. To your horror, you can also see something else. There is a shark rapidly closing in on her. You shout. You wave your arms. Other people seem to be completely unconcerned.
As you run down the beach in an effort to recruit some help, you suddenly see a large black chair with one word written on the back: DIRECTOR. The man sitting in that chair is shouting instructions through a megaphone. You’ve stumbled onto the set of a movie. The director has everything in control.
Even when things seem grim – even when history seems to be running off the rails, whether on the pages of Scripture or the front page of your favorite news source – God is still God.
The scarlet thread of the storyline is still weaving its way through human events.
And by God’s grace, you and I have even been invited to be part of the story.
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