For the first time I can recall, I recently received questions via our church comment cards about the non-sermon Bible reading. It was Galatians 3:15-25! Normally questions are from the sermon passage—things the preacher has not covered or were not clear on. But it’s good to be attentive to the other Bible reading too!
However, I want to encourage people to see if they can answer their questions for themselves, rather than just asking the pastoral staff. (I still answered the questions though as worked examples!)
How I answer questions like the ones asked
- Have I looked closely at the words and grammar of the passage to understand it as much as I can? Would reading the passage in another good English translation help (e.g. ESV or Holman Christian Standard Bible)?
- Is there anything in the wider context (e.g. the chapter before or after) that might help?
- Are there any cross-references in the centre margin of my Bible that would help me understand the bit that’s confusing me?
- Does my New Bible Dictionary say anything helpful on the meaning of a particular word that is unclear to me?
- Does my New Bible Commentary, or my ESV Study Bible (possibly the best study Bible around at present) say anything helpful on that part of the passage? (This is No. 5 on the list and not No. 1 because you don’t want to get spoon fed from an ‘expert book’ any more than you should want to be spoon fed by your trained pastor!)
If all that still does not help, then you could ask your pastor.
Actually, I don’t mind being asked directly, but I really want to encourage good Bible reading habits for yourselves.
This is one good reason to bring your own Bible to church. The pew Bibles do not have cross references, which are your most important help.
Perhaps the following would be good things to ask for as a gift for your birthday or Christmas, if you don’t already have them:
- A good cross reference Bible
- A good study Bible, like the ESV Study Bible (which will also have cross references)
- The New Bible Dictionary and the New Bible Commentary.
Time for a worked example.
Question: In Galatians 3, what does “the seed” mean?
The word ‘seed’ is mentioned in Gal 3:16 three times:
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. (Gal 3:16 NIV)
The first time it gives you an Old Testament context; we are talking about promises given to Abraham and to his seed.
The second time it makes a point that the singular is used, not the plural.
The third time it identifies who the one seed ultimately was referring to, namely Christ.
Okay, but what is the seed? Other versions like ESV and HCSB don’t really seem to help.
The first cross reference in my NIV for the first time seed occurs takes me to Gen 17:19, which talks of God giving Abraham a son, and establishing an everlasting covenant with him. So perhaps seed has something to do with offspring or descendants? But maybe it’s still not crystal clear.
Where the last quote “and to your seed” (clarifying that it’s singular) occurs near the end Gal 3:16, there’s a footnote and a cross reference! In both cases I am referred to Gen 12:7, 13:15, 24:7 (and also 17:7, 8 and 10).
When I look up Genesis 12:7 in the NIV I read,
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring[a] I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.
a. Genesis 12:7 Or seed
Aha! The footnote tells me that ‘seed’ means ‘offspring’. So it confirms what I was starting to think, that in Galatians 3, that ‘seed’ must also mean descendants or offspring.
When I look up Gen 13:15, I discover God promises to give the land “to you [Abraham] and your offspring forever”. And the next verse, Gen 13:16 makes it clear Abraham’s offspring will be very plentiful, as hard to count as “the dust of the earth”.
So maybe seed can be singular or plural/collective. Offspring has the same property—it can be singular or collective.
Let’s check the New Bible Dictionary. Yes, there’s an entry for ‘seed’. After first giving the literal biological meaning, the next paragraph supplies a second meaning, “The progeny of the species Homo Sapiens was also regarded as ‘seed’ (Gn. 3:15, 13:15). Thus the seed of Abraham constituted Isaac and his descendants…”
Lastly, what about the New Bible Commentary or ESV Study Bible? Well, I didn’t have a copy at hand. So here’s what I say instead…
In summary, Paul is picking up on the fact that the word ‘seed’ can be both a singular and a collective noun. It can refer to the one seed of a Kurrajong tree that I planted in a pot and hoped would germinate. Or it can refer to the seed that my father-in-law stores in his silo. In that case, clearly I am talking not about a single seed, but of thousands of seeds to sell and also to use in planting his crop next season.
Paul notices that Genesis records the promise going to Abraham and his seed. But was it singular or plural back then?
Well, both. Abraham had two sons—Ishmael unfaithfully by his concubine, and Isaac, believingly by his wife. But Genesis identifies only one son, legitimate Isaac, as the seed—singular.
However, the land is given to the seed (offspring) forever, but we know Isaac died and did not personally continue in the land forever. And Gen 13:16 makes it clear Abraham’s offspring would be numerous (very plural), referring to the many Israelites that eventually came from Abraham, via Isaac, and then his son, Jacob/Israel, and his twelve sons, who began the twelve tribes of Israel.
With the inspiration of God’s Spirit, Paul makes the point that, in the end, the hopes raised by the promises made to Abraham and his seed were not fulfilled by all his plural Jewish descendants (who all stumbled with sin and died). Instead the hopes of the promises to Abraham were only properly fulfilled by one particular seed (i.e. descendant or offspring) of Abraham, namely Jesus, who is the only one who never sinned and lives forever. Only he can take us to the promised land of heaven!
In other words, Paul says that even way back in Abraham’s day, God knew his promises were directed towards the coming of his Son, whom he would cause to be born into the family tree of Abraham.
I repeat: I am not doing this step by step answer to belittle the question asked, but to equip you to think for yourselves. You could do this process for yourself.