For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law…
I. THE PROMISE, "that he should be heir of the world," was made not entirely to Abraham, but to his seed also (ver. 16). This promise included —
1. Both the earthly and the heavenly Canaan, for —
(1) Abraham and the other believing patriarchs so understood it (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16). But no promise of it is to be found unless it was couched under that of the earthly Canaan as a type. The whole of the gospel revelation was then, and for many ages afterwards, under the veil of figurative language, and of typical rites, objects, and events. But that the promise was given was manifest from the passages from Hebrews just quoted, and also from Hebrews 6:12.
(2) Believers in all ages are called heirs according to the promise of inheritance given to Abraham (Galatians 3:18, 10; Hebrews 6:17-20).
2. But the word "world" means the whole inhabited earth that was to be the possession of Abraham's seed; and the possession of Canaan was but a small prelude to it. There is an obvious difference between a right and actual possession. The whole earth may be, by the gift or promise of God, the property of this seed, although they may not be for a good while invested with the actual possession of it. The view of "the promise," therefore, must be understood of the seed, collectively considered. Were we speaking of the wars in any former period of British history, we should say, without hesitation, "We were successful in such a battle." So we may, with perfect propriety, say that the promise spoken of is to us because it shall be verified to the seed of which we are a part. The following scriptures countenance this view of the promise (Psalm 2:8; Psalm 72:8; Daniel 7:27; Isaiah 54:3). When "the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea," and thus the declaration be fulfilled, "in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed"; then the promise, that Abraham should be "the heir of the world," shall be fully verified, the whole earth becoming the possession of his seed — the people of God.
II. In considering the extent of the promise, I have necessarily led you to anticipate my view of THE SEED HERE SPOKEN OF. Of this we have a plain infallible interpretation (Galatians 3:16). That the name "Christ" is sometimes used as inclusive of His people, the Head being intended to express the whole body connected with it is evident from 1 Corinthians 12:12. It is so used in Galatians. For while Christ is here said to be the Seed, to whom the promises were made, it is said that believers are "Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise." And the reason of their being so called is their being "all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28, 29). The passage before us likewise makes the same thing evident. The seed, in this verse, is that of which Abraham is the father, in the spiritual sense, even the seed spoken of in vers. 11, 12 consisting of "all them that believe." These passages show, then, that the promises contained in the Abrahamic covenant —
1. Were both made to the same seed: "To Abraham and his seed were the promises made." There is no hint of the distinction that the temporal promise was made to the fleshly seed as such, and the spiritual promise to the spiritual seed as such. But the promises of that covenant, without difference, are declared to have been made, "not to seeds as to many, but as of one, 'and to thy Seed' which is Christ."
2. And if this be a just view of the matter, it follows that these promises were made on the same footing. None of them were given on the ground of law or personal obedience, but all by grace (Galatians 3:16). Which leads us to consider —
III. THE GROUND ON WHICH THE PROMISE RESTS. The inheritance must certainly mean, in the first instance, the earthly inheritance; that which is literally specified in the promise. And it must have continued to be held not by law, but on the footing of the original grant made to Abraham and to the one seed here mentioned. The heavenly inheritance is admitted to be entirely a matter of free promise, and never can become, as to us, a matter or right on the ground of personal obedience or of law. Now, if it was otherwise with the earthly inheritance, the type fails in one of the most important and striking points of resemblance. But we are not left to inference. Recorded facts appear in perfect harmony with the apostle's statement.
1. What was the reason why the Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness till the rebellious generation was consumed? It was unbelief (Hebrews 3:18, 19; Hebrews 4:2) which amounted to a rejection of the Word of God and a rejection of God Himself, as the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
2. The Israelites are, indeed, spoken of as continuing to hold the land of Canaan in possession through obedience; but by this obedience we must understand "the obedience" of faith, that is, obedience springing from and evincing faith, for, "if the inheritance be of the law it is no more of promise"; and "if they who are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect." These expressions stand in perfect opposition to the idea of the land of Canaan being ever held as the reward of legal obedience. Many passages, accordingly, describe the obedience required of Israel as being inward and spiritual subjection, manifested by outward (Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Deuteronomy 6:1-19). And such subjection is the fruit and evidence of faith.
3. The reason why the Jews were, with such awful judgments, at length cast out from the Land of Promise, and now continue "a proverb, and a bye-word, and a hissing among all nations," corresponds with these ideas. It was unbelief — rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 11:20, etc.; Luke 19:41-44; Matthew 23:34-39; 1 Thessalonians 2:15, 16; Acts 3:23, etc.). The curses which Moses so many hundred years before had denounced against them, if they should prove disobedient, were verified on account of their unbelief. Thus it appears that the promise was originally "through faith" — that it was as professors of Abraham's faith that the Israelites entered on the possession of Canaan — that the possession was continued through "the obedience of faith" — and that, on account of the opposite disobedience, judgments were threatened and inflicted. By faith the inheritance was obtained; by faith it was held; and by unbelief it was lost.
(R. Wardlaw, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.