Word Study #83 — “The Promise”

The concept of “promise” is closely related to the previous two postings. This is another idea which has been mightily embellished in “accepted teaching”, with little regard for what is actually discussed in the New Testament writings.
It involves one single word-family: epaggelia, epaggelomai, and epaggelma, although the English word “promise” also traditionally occurs, only once each, as a variant translation for homologeo and exomologeo, both usually rendered “confess” (W.S. #68), both describing nefarious behavior , of Herod (Mt.14:7), and Judas (Lk.22:6), as does the use of epaggelomai in Mk.14:11 of the Jewish council.

Classically, both the noun and verb forms originally referred merely to an announcement or edict: a command (Polybius) , or a legal summons (Aeschylus). Only later did they also include “an offer or promise, made of one’s own free will”, or an expectation, including the purported curative property of a potion or drug (Galen). Consequently, even though most of the New Testament uses of the words fall into the category of an offer or a promise, this background should be kept in mind, and should influence our understanding, at least to the extent of serving as a reminder that a “promise” is not a casual or trivial thing, and is not to be taken lightly.

One significant grouping of New Testament references is historical:
–God’s promise to Abraham
1. of descendants (Ac.7:5, Rom.4:13-20, Heb.6:13, 11:11)

2. of the land in which he wandered (Ac.7:5, Heb.11:8-10)

3. of the extension of his blessing to all future faithful (Gal.3:8, 14-18; Gal.4:23,38; Heb.7)
– God’s promise to the people of Israel at the time of the Exodus (Ac.7:17)
– And more generally, “to the fathers [ancestors]”, in which case no specifics of the “promise” are mentioned, except that its fulfillment is connected with Jesus’ resurrection (Ac.13:32,33; 26:6-8, Rom.9:5, 15:8).
A similar theme, with different words, is found in the study of “Inheritance / Covenant” (W.S. #79, 80.)

When we turn to the rest of the New Testament, neither geography nor genealogy figure into any mention of the “promise”. On at least two occasions, Romans 9 and Galatians 3, Paul takes great pains to redefine the concept of “children / heirs of the promise” as intending all who are faithful to Jesus, and no longer necessarily lineal descendants of Abraham. This theme also appears, in less detail, in Eph.2:12, and throughout the letter to the Hebrews.

Jesus himself is recorded as having used the word “promise” only once – Lk.42:49 – when he instructed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for “my Father’s promise”, which he then specifically identified as the coming of the Holy Spirit. Luke quotes that admonition again in Ac.1:1:4.
In his Pentecost sermon, Peter announces that it has been fulfilled (Ac.2:33), in Jesus’ (himself, in this case, not his followers!) “having received the promised Holy Spirit from the Father” after his resurrection and exaltation, and having subsequently “poured out” upon his faithful followers the powers that had just been demonstrated. Peter ends by declaring (2:39) that “the promise is for you all, and for your children, and for all who are far away, whoever the Lord our God will call!”
The only qualifications are (1) a deliberate change in the orientation of one’s life (W.S.#6), and (2)submitting to baptism (Ch.10 of Citizens of the Kingdom), in the name (W.S.#24) of the Lord Jesus, in order that one’s failures [shortcomings] be removed (W.S. #7). He urges them to  “be rescued” (W.S. #5), not from some dreaded future terror, but (v.40) “from this crooked generation”!
In Eph.1:13, Paul expands the understanding of “the Holy Spirit of promise”, explaining that this is the “guarantee”, or “seal” [stamp of ownership], that we have become God’s possession. This is also the idea in II Cor.7:1, which refers back to 6:16-18, where God’s calling to become a part of his family is described. Please note that in both of these, the promise is conditioned upon the response of the ones to whom it is offered!

The promise is related, in Ac.13:23, to Jesus’ own resurrection, and it is his faithfulness (the form is a simple possessive genitive) upon which the faithful may depend (Gal.3:22). Eph.3:6 reiterates the breadth of the reach of the promise: that Gentiles, too, “are to be fellow-heirs, and joint members of the Body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus!”
Notice, please, that this is cast in the present tense! I wonder if this has always been a problem for the faithful? Paul needed to remind Timothy (I Tim.4:8) that the promise is “for life now and in the future”. Please refer to the discussion of “eternal life” in W.S.#28. We do injustice to the text if we confine “the promise of life” (II Tim.1:1, Jas.1:2, II Pet.1:4, I Jn.2:25) exclusively to either the present or the future. Both are crucial to proper understanding.
When Heb.9:15 speaks of an “eternal inheritance”, remember (W.S.#79,80) that an inheritance is received during one’s lifetime, after the death, not of the recipient, but of his benefactor!

Heb.6:10-12 describes the stubborn endurance necessary for “inheriting the promises”, and Heb.8:6 points out that the covenant / will which Jesus mediates [administers] is established upon “better promises” that was the earlier, now-obsolete one (v.7).
It is “after having done God’s will” (an aorist tense), that the promise is received (also aorist – a “done deal”!) . James’ reference to “inheriting the kingdom” (2:5) is very contemporary: he is talking about behavior in the present-day brotherhood!

A few of the references (II Pet.3:4,9) refer specifically to Jesus’ promised return – simply that it is going to happen – no details are given. Most details are derived from the fertile imaginations of commentators! Others, like Ac.26:6, Eph.3:6, Gal.3:14, 22, 29, while not identifying the content of the promise, connect it solidly to Jesus.

There could be no better summary than Paul’s, in II Cor.1:20 – “For whatever God’s promises are, the “yes” is in him (Jesus)!”, and Peter’s “Through him we’ve also been given very great and valuable promises, in order that through these, you all might become sharers of divine nature!”

It’s all about Jesus, folks!
Thanks be to God!

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