Chapter 7 of Preaching: A Biblical Theology, posted with permission

The Stewardship of the Covenant of Promise

by Jason Meyer

Paradigm 2

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

Hebrews 11:13

The patriarchs possess no real estate in the book of Genesis. They dwell in tents. “By faith [Abraham] went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise” (Heb. 11:9). They lived like sojourners, not settlers, because they were desiring “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16a). And “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (11:16b). God proclaims that he is the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 3:15). Jesus testifies that God is the God of the living and not the dead. Therefore, when he is not ashamed to be called their God, it means that he is always their God and thus they live today (Matt. 22:32). They are armed with the promise, “I will be with you” (see Gen. 17:4; 26:3; 28:15; 31:3).


Abraham is the first person to be called a prophet in the book of Genesis (Gen. 20:7). He is a prophet of the promise. We will look at his calling (and falling), stewarding, and heralding, and the effects they had.


The narrator introduces Abram in Genesis 11 as the husband of a barren wife and the son of Terah. Genesis 12 opens with God’s call to Abram:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (12:1–3)

The author of Hebrews reminds us that Abraham’s faith in God’s word is on display here: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8).

As I stated above, it is important that Abram is a sojourner throughout the narrative and never a settler. Hebrews tells us that he lived by faith in the Land of Promise “as in a foreign land” (Heb. 11:9). That is, Abraham did not build a city or own part of the Promised Land; he lived in tents with Isaac and Jacob. He saw that the promise pointed toward a city that God would build (Heb. 11:10).

God calls Abram not only to “go to a land,” but also to steward the promises of Genesis 12:1–3, which have sometimes been called the “quad-promise.” The Lord promises land, seed, blessing, and protection. The rest of the Bible plays out the fulfillment of these promises.

Notice that the calling already highlights what will flow from this promise to Abram. In a word, it is “blessing.” In contrast to the five uses of “curse” up to this point in Genesis 1–11, Genesis 12:2–3 uses the word “bless” five times as a reversal of the curse. Through Abram, all the families of the earth shall be blessed (12:3). In contrast to the conduct of the citizens of Genesis 11 (they tried to make a name for themselves), God himself is going to make Abram’s name great. The Lord also promises to protect Abram. God will bless those who bless Abram, but he will curse those who curse Abram.

The divine narration in Genesis makes it clear that Abram has a fall narrative. Abram leaves the Land of Promise and fails to trust God’s promise of protection while in Egypt. Abram fears the Egyptians, and thus he pawns his wife off as his sister for his own protection and so it will go well for him. His plan seems to work: Pharaoh takes Sarai into his house, and the text says that for her sake Pharaoh “dealt well with Abram” (Gen. 12:15–16). Abram receives both flocks and servants. He thus fails to believe God’s promise to bless those he blesses and curse those who curse him. The promise of seed seems to be threatened as Sarai is in Pharaoh’s harem, but God preserves the promise himself by afflicting Pharaoh with plagues. Therefore, Pharaoh tells Abram to “go.” This fall narrative is essentially replayed again in Genesis 20:1–18.

Genesis 16 is another dark spot in the life of Abram and Sarai as they try to fulfill the seed promise in their own strength (the Hagar episode—16:1–16). Abram and Sarai put the seed promise in jeopardy with an Egyptian once again (cf. Gen. 12:10–20), but God brings his promise to pass so that a baby is born to them in God’s strength.


Abraham faithfully stewards the word as a prophet of the promise. There are many other opportunities for Abraham to carry out this calling. God tells Abraham to call his wife Sarah instead of Sarai (Gen. 17:15). We can safely assume that Abraham explained this change to Sarah; he probably did not just start calling her a different name without further comment! Abraham also carries out God’s command to circumcise his household “as God had said to him” (17:23). We can once again imagine that Abraham would have provided some explanation for the men in his household concerning this painful act of obedience. Genesis 18 includes the account of the Lord’s announcing the conception and birth of a son to aged Abraham and Sarah. God speaks to Abraham, but Sarah overhears the conversation and takes part in it (Gen. 18:10–15).

Abraham is the first individual in Genesis described as a “prophet” (Gen. 20:7). God’s words to him bring blessing to others as he prays for Pharaoh so that he “will live” and not fall under God’s word of judgment (20:7). Genesis 22:8 shows Abraham delivering the message to Isaac that “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” Genesis 23:6 reveals the Hittites’ assessment of Abraham as a “prince of God.”

Genesis 24 goes to great lengths to highlight the way Abraham stewards the promises of God entrusted to him by ensuring that the word of promise will be carried over to the next generation. Abraham makes his servant swear by the Lord that he will find a wife for Isaac among Abraham’s people. He tells the servant, “The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there” (24:7).

The servant shares this message with Rebekah (Gen. 24:27) and her household (24:33–41). They all attribute the situation to the Lord and order that the arrangement be carried out “as the LORD has spoken [davar]” (24:51).


Many effects flow from Abraham’s faith-filled stewardship of the word. He and Sarah receive Isaac as a miracle baby; then they get him back after Abraham passes the test of faith. God sovereignly brings about what he promised to Abraham, but God also chooses the means to this end by his very choice of Abraham as a servant of his word. Abraham is also instrumental in ensuring that Isaac will continue the legacy of faith in God’s promise. God’s electing call to Abraham involves Abraham’s commission not only to keep the way of righteousness, but also to instruct others in the way of righteousness: “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19).


The depiction of Abraham’s faith in Genesis and later apostolic commentary deserve a much more detailed look. Abraham was a man of faith in God’s word. We have already seen in Hebrews an assessment of Abraham’s faith described in Genesis 12. Genesis 15 is another notable example. God promises Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the sky. The next verse says that Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (15:6). This verse informs the reader of Abraham’s faith in God and his promise and the result of this faith: Abraham is considered righteous in God’s sight.

Apostolic commentary makes it clear that Abraham believed God’s word, especially the life-giving, resurrecting power of God through his word. Genesis says that the object of Abraham’s faith was “the LORD” (Gen. 15:6). One must not make the mistake of thinking that this faith was in God as an abstract philosophical construct. Paul observes that the object of Abraham’s faith was God as he revealed himselfthrough his word. Romans 4:20–21 offers inspired commentary on the substance of Abraham’s faith. “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Did you catch the substance of Abraham’s faith? He believed that God was able to do what he had said. The focus remains squarely on the power of God contained in the word of God. His words are trustworthy because he is almighty. He is able to do what he says he will do. Abraham looked away from the inability that glared back at him like an ugly reflection in the mirror. He looked at his life and saw a dead body and a wife with a dead womb and then he looked at God.

C. S. Lewis saw this same dynamic.1 He postulated an intricate connection between an action and the object that produces the action. Everything hinges upon keeping your eyes fixed on the object. Figure 5 presents some examples.

Figure 5. Sample human actions and their divine objects

Human Action

Divine Object


the God of love (we love because he first loved)


the God who is faithful to do what he says


the God of endurance


the God of hope

If one’s gaze remains fixed in the right place (object), the action will follow. Almost the minute one’s gaze turns to consider the action, both the action and object vanish together. Abraham did not allow his gaze to stay fixed upon the absurdity that his dead body and Sarah’s dead womb were to produce an incalculable output of descendants. He had learned something about the life-giving power of God. He found a living hope as he looked away from his hopeless inability and fixed his focus firmly on God’s almighty ability. In fact, the life-giving power of God through the word of God is on display here again according to Paul. The apostle informs us that Abraham believed specifically in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). This God, as Genesis 1–2 so powerfully has shown, has the power of life and death in his word.

Despite the unbelief of Abraham and Sarah, the Lord will fulfill his promise of seed. The reader cannot miss the cause-and-effect nature of the pronouncement of fulfillment in Genesis 18: “The LORD said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year [cause], and Sarah your wife shall have a son [effect]’ ” (18:10). Sarah responds with incredulous laughter (18:12). The Lord’s rebuke is striking in form. He frontloads the promise with a focus on the almighty power of God and the result that follows: “Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you [cause], about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son [effect]” (18:14).

Later commentary on this story reveals that Sarah must have responded well to this rebuke because the author of Hebrews highlights her faith in the trustworthy nature of God and his word: “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age,since she considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11).

The Lord fulfills his promise exactly according to his word in Genesis 21:1. The stress falls on the reliability of God’s word: “The LORDvisited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him” (21:1–2).

Genesis 21 also reveals that the Lord will carry out his promise through Isaac because “through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (21:12). Thus, it is all the more dramatic when God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son in the next chapter. Abraham believes the seed promise so much by this point that he is willing to obey the Lord’s command to sacrifice his son. Listen to the author of Hebrews again:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Heb. 11:17–19)

Did you catch the focus on the Creator’s life-giving power again? Where did Abraham learn this resurrection kind of faith? A comparison of Paul and Hebrews is instructive at this point concerning the faith of Abraham (fig. 6).

Figure 6. Abraham’s resurrection faith according to Paul and Hebrews

Abraham’s Faith (Paul)

Abraham’s Faith (Hebrews)

“God . . . gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).

“God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb. 11:19).

Where did Abraham’s life-out-of-death type of faith develop? Abraham simply applied the lesson he learned from the birth of Isaac in Genesis 21 to the call to put Isaac to death in Genesis 22. If God showed that he can give life to dead bodies and wombs and call the not-being into being as he did in Genesis 21, then surely he could do it again in Genesis 22. Abraham had put the seed promise in jeopardy many times on his own, and yet God proved faithful to preserve it. This time it looked like God was putting the seed promise in jeopardy, but Abraham had come to trust the faithfulness of God and the trustworthy nature of his promises. Abraham’s faith was in the life-giving power of God, the Creator of all things. This life-from-the-dead faith stands in significant parallel to the light-out-of-darkness reality on display in Genesis 1. The Creator that gives life through his word and calls the not-being into being was able to raise Isaac from the dead.

Therefore, do not miss the link between Abraham as a man of faith in God’s word and Abraham as a steward of God’s word. Abraham is like Noah. He believes God’s entrusted word, and thus he heralds God’s entrusted word to others.



The patriarchal narratives help the reader distinguish between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Ishmael and Esau are sons of Abraham, but still the seed of the serpent. Isaac and Jacob are true stewards of the promise of seed.

Hebrews 11 mentions that Isaac and Jacob were “heirs with him [i.e., Abraham] of the same promise” (11:9). Genesis 26 shows that faith in God’s word of promise remained firm in the family of Abraham, which even outsiders to the promise came to acknowledge. The Philistines recognized that Abraham’s son Isaac had a special relationship with the Lord, and so they urged Isaac to make a covenant with them (26:28–29). Isaac speaks a prophetic blessing over his sons Jacob (Gen. 27:27–29) and Esau (27:39–40). The author of Hebrews highlights Isaac’s faith at work in this activity: “by faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau” (Heb. 11:20). This statement is likely a commentary on Isaac’s faith in the word of blessing as recorded in Genesis. Isaac asks Esau who the person was that came in his place and received the blessing (Gen. 27:33). He even adds an emphatic statement of faith in the effectual nature of the blessing: “Yes, and he shall be blessed” (27:33).

Stewardship of the word continues as a theme in the rest of the Jacob narrative. Jacob speaks to his wives concerning God’s hand at work to protect and preserve him (Gen. 31:5–13). His wives respond by saying, “Whatever God has said to you, do” (31:16). Laban also relays a message from God to Jacob: “But the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad’ ’’ (31:29). Jacob and Laban make a covenant and call on the Lord to be a witness and judge between them (31:49–50, 53). God speaks to Jacob, instructing him to build an altar to the Lord (Gen. 35:1) and then Jacob conveys the message to his household (35:2–3).

Apostolic commentary highlights God’s sovereignty in creating children of the promise (Rom. 9:6–9). Man has the power to create children of the flesh, but only God can create children that are born in the line of promise. In fact, Paul says that the word of promise itself creates children like Isaac (9:9).

In the same way, God makes a distinction between the sons of Isaac. We are surprised to find that the older child, Esau, is rejected in favor of the younger, Jacob. Apostolic commentary once again highlights God’s choice. Someone could argue that God chose Jacob because he knew beforehand that Esau would despise his birthright and marry foreign wives. Paul eliminates that possibility by stressing that Rebekah was told while they “were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad” that “the older will serve the younger” (Rom. 9:11–12). Apostolic commentary makes it clear that God made this decision “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (9:11). Prophetic commentary on the narrative confirms this same point: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Mal. 1:2, 3; cited in Rom. 9:13). The word of promise creates children in the line of promise. God sovereignly appoints Isaac and Jacob as “seed.” Isaac and Jacob are true seed and true stewards, but their fall narratives show that they are not the promised seed.


Isaac and Jacob are part of the line of promise, but they are not the promised seed that will crush the serpent, as their fall narratives make plain. Isaac repeats the fall narrative of Abraham by making Abimelech think that Rebekah is his sister (Gen. 26:6–11). Jacob lives up to the meaning of his name (he cheats or grasps the heel). Esau says it well: “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Gen. 27:36). Jacob and his relative Laban take turns tricking each other in the narrative that follows (Genesis 28–31).


Esau is an example of a false steward of the promise to Abraham. The author of Genesis documents how Esau comes to lament that Jacob stole both his birthright and his blessing (Gen. 27:36). What Esau fails to note in this accusation is that he “despised his birthright” long before this point because he sold it to Jacob for a bowl of soup (Gen. 25:33–34). He also did not show any remorse after selling his birthright. Rather, he “ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright” (25:34).

The author of Hebrews goes further in warning his readers about false stewards like Esau. The writer warns that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). Esau proves the truth of this warning as a negative test case. He is a fearful example of someone “sexually immoral and unholy”: “See to it . . . that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (12:15–17).

The author of Hebrews is commenting on the Genesis narrative. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup (Gen. 25:33), but he later showed a desire to have Isaac speak a blessing over him (Gen. 27:34). Jacob and Rebekah tricked Isaac so that Jacob received the blessing, echoing the Abrahamic promise,

Cursed be everyone who curses you,

and blessed be everyone who blesses you! (27:29)

When Esau realized Jacob had tricked him, he “sought it [i.e., the blessing] with tears” (Heb. 12:17). This phrase from Hebrews 12 is commentary on these words from Genesis 27:

As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” (27:34)

Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. (27:38)

Isaac commands Esau to take a wife from the daughters of Laban and reiterates the Abrahamic blessing over his life (Gen. 28:1–4). Esau shows contempt for the Abrahamic line of promise by marrying foreign wives, even from the family of Ishmael (28:8–9), when he sees that it would grieve his parents. Two families of false stewardship (Ishmael and Esau) become fused together.


Genesis 38 makes it plain that Judah is not the promised one, but it does highlight God’s sovereignty in overcoming threats to the seed promise. Judah fails to give Tamar one of his sons after the first two die. Tamar resorts to deceit, tricking Judah into thinking that she is a prostitute. He sleeps with her and (unknowingly) provides a replacement seed for the line of promise. When Tamar reveals that Judah has actually slept with her, he confesses that she is more righteous than he. Tamar actually believes more in the seed promise than Judah does. God, however, overcomes this threat to the seed promise. Genesis 49 shows that the promised one will come from the line of Judah.


Genesis 48–49 offers the most sustained prophetic message in the book of Genesis. Jacob first blesses Joseph’s two sons (Gen. 48:15–20) and his own twelve sons (Gen. 49:1–27). The author of Hebrews once again highlights the faith of Jacob in this prophetic stewarding and heralding: “By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff” (Heb. 11:21). Jacob demonstrates faith not only in the Abrahamic promise of Genesis 12, but also in the prior promise of Genesis 3:15 because Judah will have his hand on the “neck of his enemies” (Gen. 49:8). The content of this prophetic blessing has an unmistakably messianic component because of the reference to the lionlike (49:9) figure from the tribe of Judah. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (49:10).


Joseph features prominently as an interpreter of dreams and visions from God. He shares his dreams with his brothers (Gen. 37:5–7, 9). Outsiders of the promise continue to recognize God’s hand upon the line of promise. Potiphar realizes that the Lord is with Joseph (Gen. 39:3), and this captain of the guard makes Joseph an overseer in charge of his household (39:4–6). The Lord also reveals to Joseph the correct interpretation of dreams for the cupbearer (Gen. 40:9–15), the baker (40:16–19), and Pharaoh (Gen. 41:25–36). As a result, Pharaoh too realizes that the Lord is with Joseph, and so he sets Joseph over all of Egypt (41:37–45). Joseph reveals the outworking of God’s plan and purpose (Gen. 45:7–9; 50:19–21).

The narrator stresses the life-sustaining impact of stewarding and obeying God’s word. God reveals the seven years of abundance and seven years of famine, and Pharaoh believes Joseph’s stewarded words. Pharaoh’s plan to make Joseph steward over Egypt leads to the sustaining of life for both Israel and Egypt (Gen. 42:2; 45:5) through Joseph’s obeying God’s life-giving word. Joseph remains a faithful steward of God’s promise to Abraham even at the end of his life. The author of Hebrews once again highlights his faith as a steward and herald: “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones” (Heb. 11:22; cf. Ex. 13:19).


A good summary of the faith of every believer with respect to God’s word appears in the commentary on the faith of the patriarchs found in Hebrews 11:13. The author of Hebrews stresses once again that the patriarchs did not experience the fullness of the things promised to them in their day (those things remain unseen at least in part). But the patriarchs did see them in part (from a distance) and welcome them. “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13).

Did you note the beautiful picture of seeing and welcoming the unseen? We all live in the gap between what was promised and what we see. God has to bridge the gap. We cling to what God says even when we do not see it. Faith opens up the door of our hearts and says to God’s word, “Welcome, please come and stay.” Your experience of the word can grow if you see the promises and welcome them into your heart while refusing to fixate on the gap between what you read in the word and what you see in your world. Anxiety comes from comparing your situation with your abilities; faith comes from comparing your situation with God’s abilities.


1 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995).

Chapter 7 of Preaching: A Biblical Theology, posted with permission