Teaching Our Students the Promises of God
We would like to extend a warm welcome to Rooted 2021: The Promises of God.
A rainbow arched across a glistening sky, proclaiming God’s promise never to destroy the earth. A baby named laughter snuggled in his elderly mother’s arms, fulfilling God’s promise to give Abraham and Sarah a son. A good and broad land flowing with milk and honey, making good on God’s promise to abundantly meet Israel’s needs. An empty tomb, accomplishing God’s promise to atone for our sins and restore us to abundant life. A new heavens and a new earth, manifesting God’s promise to dwell forever with His people.
Now more than ever, when there seems to be no solid ground beneath our feet, we stand on the promises of God. In Christ we receive a new heart and a new spirit, becoming citizens of a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Join us as we celebrate the One whose promises to us are trustworthy and true: For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 1:20 NIV)
The promises of God are a gift of unimaginable beauty and stability in a world that often feels like it is trending towards chaos and disappointment. However, if we are not trained to read them rightly, the promises in Scripture can be more life-draining than life-giving.
Our natural tendency as sinners is to read into God’s promises how we think they should best be fulfilled. For students, this may mean they interpret the Bible to promise financial blessings, getting the starring role in the play, making the team, or dating the person who their eye has been set on for some time. When these things fail to come to fruition, they will wonder how God could fail them so immensely. Did he not promise them in his word?
When the promises of God are misread and misappropriated, our students are actually cutting themselves off from the scope and power of all that God has for them. God has given us his promises throughout the scriptures so that we may hold on to him over the course of this life until we are delivered to him. They are powerful resources that we cannot live without.
As ministers, we must constantly be pointing these students to these promises, but we must also be teaching them how to understand them correctly. We must help them to see the promises of God, not through their own eyes, but through the eyes of scripture. We must show them how God’s promises function in the Bible and how God’s people relate to these promises.
Laying the Groundwork
First, the promises of God are directly tied to who God is. To hold on to the promises of God in our lives is to hold on to his character. Therefore, a promise from God is surer than any sort of proof. Basing our decisions and futures on probabilities – even really good probabilities! – does not compare to the assurance of a promise from the God of the Universe. He is sovereign over all things, and he has promised us good things.
Second, God gives us promises so that we can cling to them. God has undertaken the work of making us his people, and therefore, he has committed himself to act in a certain way. When this unchangeable God commits himself to us in this way, we can cling to these promises with clenched fists. We can pray confidently. We can serve boldly. We can suffer without losing hope. We have an assurance that God is working out all things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).
Seen in light of these two things, we can approach the promises of God with a confidence that is grounded in the person of God rather than our ability to believe. The promises of God are not uncertain expectations but sure grounds on which we can base our lives. From here, we are rightly oriented to seek to understand exactly what God communicates in his promises.
The first step in rightly interpreting the promises we encounter in scripture is to first think contextually. This step answers the question: what did this promise mean to a given people at the time it was given? By first answering this question, we avoid the pitfall of importing meaning into a promise that might not have been actually intended by the promise itself.
Let’s consider Jeremiah 29:11. This verse has become a favorite verse of many people because of its wonderful promise that God’s plans for our future are filled with blessing and hope. However, if we abstract the verse from its context, we can take it to mean that no harm can befall the people of God in any way. But that raises a question: what happens when I do fail or suffer or my future doesn’t go the way I planned it? Has God failed? These are important questions, and understanding this verse in context helps us to answer them.
This promise was given to a people in exile in Babylon. While false teachers were lying to the exiles saying their captivity would be over soon, God tells Jeremiah his people will be in Babylon for 70 years. Only after that time will God restore them to the land. So, yes, God’s future plans for his people were good plans of great blessing, but there were still years of suffering in exile ahead of them. As they waited they could have confidence that when suffering did come, they could cling to God’s promises as they awaited their fulfillment.
This is important for students to understand as we teach them the promises of God. If we teach them to read every promise without context, they will be confused and hurt when the promises fail to play out the way they expect. Understanding the original context will help students to see how this promise is meant to be read and experienced by his people, though that might not be the way they originally thought.
Thinking in Light of Redemptive History
The second step in rightly interpreting scripture is to think of the promises in light of redemptive history. How does this promise progress across the whole testimony in scripture? How does it develop? How is it fulfilled in Christ? By answering, we avoid the pitfall of transferring aspects of a promise that temporal and specific to that people to ourselves today in an inappropriate way.
Let’s consider the fundamental promise of scripture, “I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Gen. 17:7, Ex. 6:7, Jer. 31:33). This declaration beautifully develops across the whole course of the Bible. This promise is given to Israel marked them off from other nations as God’s special people. If we read this without seeing how it develops, we may wrongly interpret this promise to mean that God will mark us and our current nation off in a similar way. We may fall into seeing our political party or a certain candidate as essential to setting up God’s kingdom on Earth.
However, when this promise is read with the full scope of scripture in mind, we see that in light of Christ’s work, God now marks off his people by dwelling within them (Eph. 2:21). All of God’s people are a chosen race and holy nation (1 Peter 2:9), fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household (Eph. 2:19). This promise is not merely for Israel of old nor for our nation today. Rather, this promise is for God’s special people across all time. He has promised to be God to his people, and that is accomplished through Christ’s purchasing of this people.
Reading the promises of God as they are given, developed, and fulfilled will give our students a wonderful vision for how all of scripture speaks to them now in light of Christ. Promises that once seemed outdated or inapplicable now have life breathed into them from Christ. Rightly understanding the development of a promise across scripture will help students to see all that God intends for them in his promises.
Finally, we must interpret the promises given in scripture eschatologically. By this I mean, we must always have an eye towards where this promise is ultimately headed. Let’s again look at the fundamental promise, “I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Revelation 21:3 gives us a vision of the New Heavens and New Earth, and then God declares from the throne, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Ultimately, this promise, first given all the way back in Genesis, has been heading to this place! This promise is ultimately realized when all of God’s people dwell in his presence for all eternity.
At times, when our students read a promise, they will be tempted to may want to interpret it for the way it may be fulfilled in their life in the here and now. It will be easy to settle for interpretations that promise immediate benefit without seeing the full picture. In teaching them to read a promise with its eschatological ending in mind, we will help them to see that, though the promise may not come the way they necessarily expect, it offers a sure hope that they can strive for and base their life on.
The Hope and the Who of Promises Are One
The promises of God, in the form of covenants, form the very backbone of scripture. They are a gracious gift to us that offers us a hope that we cannot live without. However, when misunderstood, these promises can wound our students in consequential ways. Instead of seeing God as a good and caring Father, our students misperceive God as cruel and unfaithful when they fail to read a promise within its immediate, redemptive, or eschatological context. Because God is so intimately involved in his promises, misreading them actually warps our view of who God is. We are not only missing the hope of the promise but the who behind the promise. These deep wounds in the face of suffering, depression, or disappointment may permanently set them against the God they think has failed them.
But when read rightly, these promises will jump off the page with a testimony that changes everything: God desires for us to be his people. He has sent his Son to die on the cross in our place to make us his people. By faith, we are forgiven of our sins and are made his people. When Jesus returns, he will take us up to heaven where we will eternally rest in the presence of God, and he will be our God and we will be his people.
The hope and the who of gospel promises are beautifully one: God himself. He is the God who promises, and he is the God who delivers on his promises.