Why did Paul interpret the Abrahamic covenant as containing a promise that Abraham and his offspring would inherit the whole world?

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Answer

We see in Romans chapter 4 that the apostle Paul interprets the promise of inheritance for Abraham and his offspring to include the whole world. And that may surprise us at first. We think of the Promised Land as only a strip of real estate along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. But this is really of a piece of the way Paul understand the Abrahamic covenant to be global, to be worldwide. So often he will talk about the seed, the children of Abraham, including not just his biological descendants but really those who follow in the footsteps of Abraham, that is, the footsteps of faith, who trust in the promises of God. In fact, Paul emphasizes that not only Jew but also Gentile who believe in Christ are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to God's promise — the end of Galatians chapter 3. So when Paul says in Romans 4 that the promises that Abraham's children, by faith, will inherit the whole world, he's really just extending that same understanding, that in a certain sense what we call the Promised Land was just a microcosm of a new heavens and a new earth that God had promised to bring his people into — of course promised through Isaiah's prophecy, Isaiah 65, 66; we hear it echoed in the New Testament. And the preacher, the author to the Hebrews, sees things the same way. He talks about the patriarchs, Abraham and his son and grandson, as looking forward to, longing for not an earthly homeland but a heavenly homeland, something that far outstrips a physical inheritance that God has in store for his people in the new heavens and the new earth.

Answer by Dr. Dennis E. Johnson

Dr. Dennis E. Johnson is Academic Dean and Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.