Why am I writing so much about the seed of Abraham? After all, there are so many other issues that seem to be much more important when it comes to examining the Middle East crisis. Let me be bold enough to say that how a person understands the biblical teaching on the seed of Abraham, determines how much he will grasp the theological implications of the Middle East crisis.
Does the seed of Abraham only relate to Jewish people? Does it include Arabs and Christians as well? Can one support the idea that those who call themselves the seed of Abraham are no longer the “true seed of Abraham” if they refuse to accept Jesus? These are essential questions any student of the Bible must come to grips with. Too many erroneous sermons have been preached in the church concerning the identity of Israel causing confusion among churchgoers.
Unfortunately, this was one of the main issues espoused by Wheaton College NT professor Gary Burge in his recent lecture at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, “The Theology of the Land According to the New Testament.” However, in his lecture Burge hardly referred to the land of Israel but instead set his scope on casting a dubious hue on the identity of the Jewish people as the true seed of Abraham, and consequently no longer legitimate heirs of the Promised Land.
If a person can demonstrate that Jewish people today are not the true seed of Abraham, this teaching goes hand in hand with the belief God no longer has a present covenant with the Jewish people in which He has promised the Jewish people the Holy Land of Eretz Israel.
Burge, like many replacement theologians (the belief the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people), quotes a string of New Testament passages to support his view that DNA (aka Jewish ancestry) no longer matters, but faith is what matters most to God. Since Christians demonstrate true faith in the God of Israel by accepting the Jewish Messiah, then Christians must be the true seed of Abraham.
The next leap in Burge’s theology is to state even though the Jewish people are entitled to a homeland, there are no biblical covenants today that entitle them to this land. Because of their failure to accept Christ, they have forfeited the divine land rights to Israel. What we are seeing today is a secular movement of the Jews returning to the land, but without the blessing of God or the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
The Christian Tradition of Adverus Judeos in Connection with John 8
One of the passages used throughout the history of Christian doctrine to prove Jewish people are not the true seed of Abraham is John 8. In fact, John 8 has been used by medieval theologians to teach that the Jewish people have been spawned by the devil. In John 8:44 Jesus tells the Jewish leaders He is speaking to that their father is the devil.
While Burge has not gone so far as to connect Jewish origins with the devil, he does use this passage to teach the Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus have been replaced by Christians.
Burge’s misinterpretation of John 8 puts him in the camp of those guilty of Adverus Judeos. Adverus Judeos is described in Wikipedia:
“Adversus Judaeos (Greek kata Ioudaious, “against the Jews” or “against the Judeans”) are a series of fourth century homilies by John Chrysostom (deemed a saint by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches) that have been circulated by many groups to foster antisemitism. Steven Katz cites Chrysostom’s homilies as “the decisive turn in the history of Christian anti-Judaism, a turn whose ultimate disfiguring consequence was enacted in the political antisemitism of Adolf Hitler”. James Parkes called the writing on Jews “the most horrible and violent denunciations of Judaism to be found in the writings of a Christian theologian”. His sermons against Jews gave further momentum to the idea that Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus.”
While Burge does not harp on the collective responsibility of the death of Jesus by the Jewish people, his denial of their covenant entitlement to the land of Israel and their replacement as the “seed of Abraham” by Christians is all part of the same tradition of Adverus Judeos.
The Danger of Disregarding the Context of John 8
According to Burge, Jesus carries on a discussion in John 8 with certain Jewish leaders in which He makes a clear distinction between those Jews who are merely “descendants of Abraham” and those who are the “true children of Abraham”. Burge paraphrases Jesus, “If you were children of Abraham, your conduct would be like that of Abraham. But your conduct betrays you.” Jesus continues, according to the Wheaton prof, ” If God were your father, your behavior would be different and not try to kill me.” Therefore by implication, Jewish people who reject Jesus are no longer the true seed of Abraham.
According to Burge’s CATC lecture, Burge wants to make Jesus say to the Jewish people in John 8, “Sure, you were born Jewish and can claim Abraham as your father. Yet you are not living like your patriarchal father who rejoiced when he considered the thought that one of his seed would be the Messiah and bless the world.” And that seed is Jesus, claims Burge – the seed Israel rejected.
The Wheaton professor sounds very convincing, but his exegesis of the text is wanting for a New Testament professor who claims to know the New Testament textual context of his own theology.
First, in John 8 we are observing a dialogue between Jesus and a group of Pharisees (vs 13) that quickly escalates from lack of faith in Jesus as Messiah on the part of the leaders to a conspiracy to kill the Messiah (John 8:59). Regardless of the seriousness of this exchange, I cannot emphasize enough that this encounter is between a select group of Pharisees. Burge did not make a point of saying this. The uninformed listener could have easily concluded this passage refers to all Jewish people who reject Jesus. Anyone familiar with the history of antisemitism in the church is only all too familiar of the change of deicide that has been leveled at Jewish people throughout Christian history. Obviously, Burge did not care enough in his message to make sure his hearers did not apply this passage to all Jewish people and not merely to this select group of first century rabbis and scribes.
Second, according to John 8:31 the discussion only concentrates on whether one is a slave of sin or whether a person has been set free to no longer serve sin. The passage reads: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The biblical interpreter cannot forget Jesus was speaking to Jewish people in John 8 not Gentiles.
The Jewish leaders standing before Jesus were confused. They did not see themselves as slaves of anyone. After all, God set the Jewish people free from slavery in Egypt as celebrated in the Passover. It is clear they had slavery on their minds. They responded to Jesus’ charge of slavery by reminding Him they are descendants of Abraham – part of a people once in bonds but delivered by the God of Israel and slqves no more . . . not even to Rome.
Some biblical scholars suggest the John 8 dialogue may have taken place in the Jerusalem Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 8:2). In verse 12 Jesus claims to be the light of the world against the backdrop of an elaborate traditional procession of lit torches in the Temple confines during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), celebrating Jewish redemption from slavery in Egypt. Jesus’s reference to freedom during the Feast of Booths is appropriate since “freedom from slavery” is what is being celebrated by devout Jews.
Third, Jesus in vv. 34-38 informs the Pharisees that though they are seed of Abraham, they can still be slaves to sin. Just because one is a dsscendant of Abraham does not make that person immune to sin. Erroneously, Rabbi Akiba, a contemporary with Jesus, taught, “even the poorest in Israel must be viewed as free persons by virtue of their descent from Abraham.”
What Jesus corrects here in contrast to Rabbi Akiba is not the fact these Jewish leaders are no longer true children of Abraham (Jesus, in vs. 37 says, “I know you are Abraham’s descendants”). Rather, Jesus’ concern is that these leaders are behaving as those still in bondage to their sins, and they falsely assume because of their lineage to Abraham, God overlooks their sins.
The essence of the dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders is as follows: Jesus is teaching his hearers they cannot count on their lineage of Abraham as an assurance that makes them spiritually free from sin. The same is true for Christians today. Just because a Christian attends church, was raised in a Christian home and reads the Bible is no certainty of having a relationship with God.
The Failure to Behave in Accordance with Father Abraham
Without question, Jesus affirms these Pharisees are descendants of Abraham (8:37). However, Jesus is concerned they have not been set free from serving sin through accepting the salvation offered through Israel’s Messiah Yeshua. If they continue to serve sin, they are acting like slaves rather than family members rightly related to the God of Israel.
Check out the text:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”
According to Burge, a descendant of Abraham who does not accept Jesus is a slave to sin and not a true child of Abraham. Jewish people who do not accept Jesus only have a DNA connection to Abraham. Here is where Burge demonstrates his shortsighted grasp of text.
Where in the John 8 passage does Jesus make a definitive statement that there is now a difference between “sons” and “seed” of Abraham? Where is Jesus saying the DNA crowd has been cut off from all the covenant promises of God while the “true seed of Abraham” – Christians – are the sole recipients of God’s blessings?
All Jesus is saying is that these Pharisees are serving sin since they are plotting to kill Him. He would say the same thing to any religious group. Yet Burge is adding his twist here to make Jesus say there are two classes of the seed of Abraham: seed and sons. And this distinction is nowhere to be found in the Bible.
The Hidden Agenda of Using John 8 to Replace Jewish People with Christians
Burge brings his point to a head: “Jesus implies they may not be sons of Abraham. Faith matters. You can be a descendant of Abraham but not be his son.” Once again Burhe pushes his theological distinction between descendants of Abraham and sons of Abraham based on vv. 39-42:
“Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father. “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me.
Merely being a descendant from Abraham will not free anyone from sin. A person needs a life changing encounter with the Light of the World- Jesus the Messiah. On this point I agree with Gary Burge.
However, the only issue Jesus is making is that the behavior of these Jewish individuals betrays their claims that Abraham is their father. However, Burge argues the text advocates, “You can be descendant of Abraham but not be his true son. Attachment to Jesus exceeds value to attachment of Abraham. If you follow Jesus, says Burge, you belong to Abraham.” This is where Burge’s thinking becomes unclear. Is he claiming Jesus is teaching being a physical descendant of Abraham is no longer important if the Jewish person does not believe in Jesus? Is Gary advocating all the covenants God made with Israel are null and void without faith in Christ?
Burge hammers thus point continually, “They may be the seed of Abraham, but they may not be sons, a descendant but not a son. Their conducts betrays their identity. Attachment to Jesus exceeds the value of attachment to Abraham,. In fact, one who follows Jesus . . . he belongs to Abraham.”
Yes, it is true slaves do not belong to the household. The goal is to become a child of God rather than merely slaves (Luke 15:21-24, 29; Galatians 3:23-4:7).
However, the burden of proof rests upon Burge to prove Jesus is now stating that Jewish persons who don’t accept him are slaves outside the family of God and no longer included in God’s covenants. THIS IS THE KEY POINT THAT MUST BE ADDRESSED.
Where in the New Testament does this distinction exists between sons of Abraham and the seed of Abraham? Nowhere. In fact, the New Testament uses “seed”and “children” interchangeably as in these two passages: Galatians 3:29 says “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, [not sons] and heirs according to the promise.” Then Paul calls Christians “children [sons] of Abraham” in Galatians 3:7; “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.”
Now we ask what terminology is used in the New Testament to refer to Jewish people?
In regard to Jewish people in the New Testament, they are addressed as seed of Abraham according to Jesus in John 8:37 and children of Abraham (even though they do not believe in Jesus) in Acts 13:26: “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent.” Burge is clearly wrong on his false distinctive between the descendants of Abraham and the children of Abraham as being two different groups.
The Consistency of Terminology Referring to Jewish People in the NT
As the Wheaton professor continues to attempt to prove Christians are the true seed of Abraham, he quotes a few other verses to prop up his position.
In Romans 9:8 Paul writes concerning Jewish people, ” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” The context is in a discussion about the blessing of God towards Jewish people. Paul is making the point that Jewish people should not assume physical descendency to Abraham is enough; one must become a child of God through faith in the Messiah.” Nothing is said here about Gentiles since the context is about Jewish people.
For the sake of argument Paul is teaching about the doctrine of the Jewish remnant of true followers of Jesus. Listen to these verses in Romans 11:1-5:
I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. . . . at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.
Paul teaches that God always keeps for himself a remnant of true followers within the nation of Israel. They are the “spiritual Israel.” The church is not the true Israel. Gentile believers do not become spiritual Israel upon accepting Jesus. That is a outright lie and a false doctrine often espoused from evangelical pulpits.
The true spiritual Israel consists of Jewish followers of Yeshua – messianic Jews. However, because there is a spiritual Israel does not cancel out the fact there is a physical Israel still related to God through the biblical covenants.
The real kicker comes for Burge in Romans 9:3-4 where Paul, using the Greek present tense refers to Israel still enjoying the blessing of sonship , “the people of Israel. Theirs IS the adoption to sonship.” In God’s sight the nation of Israel still enjoys the title as God’s firstborn son first mentioned in Exodus 4:22: “Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son.” Israel is called God’s son repeatedly throughout the Jewish scriptures as in Jeremiah 31:9:
They will come with weeping;
they will pray as I bring them back.
I will lead them beside streams of water
on a level path where they will not stumble,
because I am Israel’s father,
and Ephraim is my firstborn son.
The bottom line is that Israel always retains its value to God as His son – the object of His covenant promises. But their usefulness to Him changes when they refuse to get with the program and accept His Son. Yet there is always the hope of Israel returning to the full enjoyment of spiritual sonship.
Further in the New Testament letters Paul defines sonship as the blessing of being free from sin and having nothing to do with being the true children of Abraham. We read in Romans 8:15 in a section addressed to a largely Gentile church: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'”
The Summary of the Teaching of John 8
In looking at John 8 we conclude several things:
- Jesus was not speaking to the entire nation of Israel, but to a certain group of Jewish leaders. He did not make these pronouncements on the nation but only to these first century spiritual leaders.
- Jesus was not redefining the identity of Jewish people and making a distinction between “Abrahams’s seed” and “Abraham’s children.” In Acts 13: 26 Paul still calls unbelieving Jewish people “children of Abraham.”
- Jesus is saying that those who come to God by faith as opposed to works or by physcial descent alone are most like Abraham and are therefore his “seed.” Galatians 3:7 says, “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.”
- The distinction made by Paul about the children of faith being the “true seed of Abraham” does not mitigate the promises made to Abraham about his physucal descendants. The concept of being the “true” seed of Abraham does not eliminate God’s promises to the Jews as described in Romans 11: 28-29:
“As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
- God still blesses israel through His covenant promises despite their unbelief towards Jesus. The covenant blessings of the land and God’s preservation of the nation of Isrel are not taken away from Israel. However, the spiritual blessings of salvation and redemption found in knowing the Messiah are not experienced by Jews or gentiles who do not know Yeshua.
- Burge does not read further in the John 8 passage where Jesus calls the Jewish leaders who want to kill him, “the children of their father, the devil.” Read these very difficult words in John 8:44:
“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him.”
If Burge wants to apply the John 8 passage to all Jews as he has been doing with the previous verses, then is he willing to apply the teaching of Satan as the father of these Pharisees (due to their conduct) to all Jews who reject Christ? Jesus is telling this group of Pharisees – not all Jews throughout history – that since they are willing to kill Him they do not clearly love the one sent by the Father (John 8:42) but want to destroy Him.
- Finally, the distinction between Israel and the church continues into eternity. Revelation 21:12 speaks of the gates of heaven having the names of the twelve tribes inscribed on them. While physical descent as the seed of Abraham will not help one gain access to heaven, physical descent is still important. In Revelation 7:4 John the Apostle says, ” Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.” How in the world will 144,000 Jews from the twelve tribes of Israel be found if physical descendency is not important and now the Church is the Nw Israel? Where are the twelve tribes in the Church?
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