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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Promise (2)

PROMISE.—The NT is full of the idea that in Christ had arrived the fulfilment of a promise made over and over again in preceding ages. The gospel is regarded by all the writers not as an event unexpected and unprepared for, but as the due and natural sequel and climax of God’s dealings from of old. The εὐαγγέλιον is the fulfilment of the ἐπαγγελία. It was, indeed, the strength with which this idea was rooted in the mind of the Jew (‘whose is the adoption and the glory and … the promises,’ Romans 9:4) that made it so hard for him to understand how the Gentile could come within the full scope of the gospel. How could the ‘dogs’ share equally with the ‘children’ (Matthew 15:26 = Mark 7:27)? How could the uncovenanted and un-circumcised be ‘heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3:29)? Whole passages, therefore, in some of the Epistles (esp. Rom. [Note: Roman.] , Gal., Heb.) have to be devoted to showing that the implication of the promise was vaster than any of the forms in which it had been conveyed. There is no literature which is so saturated with the spirit of anticipation as the Hebrew, no nation which has cherished so ardent and irrepressible a belief in its destiny,—‘a people who were looking forwards from a great Past of Wonders to a Future of Good and Glory’ (Mason, Heb. Gram.2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] p. 98). It is in the NT, however, that this note of anticipation becomes dominant. Anticipation, indeed, here gives place to realization. While the NT contains several passages which show kinship with current Apocalyptic literature and its eschatology, and indicate a lingering belief in the mind of the writer that the fulfilment of the promises lies still in the future, the unmistakably prevalent thought of the writers is that in the work of Christ they have already seen the promises fulfilled. The Evangelic records exhibit, each in its own way, the consciousness that Israel’s hopes had found their fulfilment in Christ; and, sober and restrained as is the narrative, one can hardly miss in it the note of jubilant realization. Mt. loses no opportunity of showing that what happened to Jesus was in accordance with ancient prophecy; Mk., while seldom citing Scripture, describes Jesus as beginning His ministry with the declaration ‘The time is fulfilled’ (Mark 1:15); Lk. commences and concludes his Gospel with episodes (Luke 1:45-55; Luke 1:67-69; Luke 2:25-38; Luke 24:25-28; Luke 24:44-47) intended to show how men saw, or failed to see, in Jesus the Christ foreshadowed in the Scriptures, and Jn. (John 5:39) quotes Jesus as stating that the Scriptures bear witness to Him, and notes (John 12:16; John 12:41 etc.) how the reception of Jesus answered to the sayings of the prophets.

It was this aspect of Christ’s appearance—as the fulfilment of an eagerly awaited promise—that occupied most room in the earliest preaching of the gospel. See Stephen’s speech (Acts 7), Peter’s (Acts 2:14-36; Acts 10:34-43), Paul’s (Acts 13:32 ‘We bring you good tidings of the promise made unto the fathers,’ and Acts 26:6). The main line of address taken by the early preachers was always to prove that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9:22, Acts 17:2-3, Acts 18:5; Acts 18:28).

It is to be noticed, however, that Jesus Himself in His public preaching seldom, if ever, adopted this line of appeal. Not even in His more private teaching does He appear to have attached importance to it. When, e.g., John the Baptist definitely inquired ‘Art thou he that cometh?’ (Matthew 11:2-19, Luke 7:19-23), Jesus deliberately appealed not to the correspondence between Himself and the expectations formed of the promised Messiah, but to the effect being at the moment produced by His ministry. When the same question was being discussed between Himself and His disciples (Matthew 16:13-16 = Mark 8:27-29 = Luke 9:18-20), Jesus was not concerned so much about their identifying Him with the One who was to come, by means of signs and tokens which were expected to accompany His coming, as that the conviction should come in an inward and secret way (‘Flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father which is in heaven,’ Matthew 16:17). He objected to being proclaimed as the Christ, not simply because He knew that the people, when persuaded of this, would seek to make Him a king and expect Him to use temporal resources, but because the very tenacity with which His countrymen clung to their stereotyped notions of the promised Messiah would prevent them from gaining a true understanding of the scope and purpose of His mission. He had a sublime contempt for the petty and pedantic way in which the scribes took upon themselves to say how the anticipations of Scripture were, or were not, to be verified, and held their pretensions up to scorn (Matthew 22:41-46 = Mark 12:35-37 = Luke 20:41-44). It was, in short, because His mind was so filled with the larger purpose of God that He assigned little weight to the recognition of that local and national theory which had so much more of patriotic bias and ambitious desire in it than of pure love of humanity. And it was precisely because the priests and scribes, in their blind attachment to their own interpretation of the promise, saw, in His comparative carelessness about the traditional view and His frequent insistence upon a purely spiritual interpretation, a danger to their own designs, that they resolved upon His death.

It is true, of course, that Jesus commonly used one term at least which in the current phraseology of the time was closely associated with the temporal and literally-understood fulfilment of the ‘promise.’ He constantly proclaimed the advent of the Kingdom of heaven or the Kingdom of God. But whatever critical view be held of the records, and leaving undecided the question whether Matthew 24 and other similar passages which contain a considerable eschatological element are to be taken as representing a part of the actual teaching of Jesus, or rather His teaching as coloured by passing through minds steeped in the ideas of Jewish eschatology, it is sufficiently evident that Jesus habitually used the expression ‘Kingdom of heaven’ in a different sense from the ordinary and popular one, and preferred to divest it of the usual patriotic and eschatological associations. The locus classicus is the Sermon on the Mount beginning with the Beatitude, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ The ‘promise,’ as Jesus gives it here in sevenfold form, is a promise to the spiritually-minded of a spiritual grace, having no reference whatever to Messianic considerations, and this holds good even if the alternative form in which the Beatitudes are given in Lk. is held to be the earlier. Jesus, in the most royal and absolute fashion, gave assurances to His disciples, but these, in the Synoptics hardly less than in the Fourth Gospel, are assurances not of any kind of material benefit, but of spiritual grace,’ e.g. ‘Thy Father which seeth in secret shall recompense thee’ (Matthew 6:4 also vv. 6, 8); ‘He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it’ (Matthew 10:39; Matthew 16:25); ‘I will give you rest,’ and ‘Ye shall find rest to your souls’ (Matthew 11:28-29); ‘I will make you fishers of men’ (Mark 1:17, cf. Luke 5:10); ‘Your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High’ (Luke 6:35); ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32).

It is true, of course, that there are some passages in which the assurance of blessing includes material benefit: e.g. ‘All these things (i.e. food, clothing, etc.) shall be added unto you’ (Matthew 6:33); the reply to Peter that those who for Christ’s sake have forsaken earthly advantage ‘shall receive a hundredfold, now in this time, houses,’ etc. (Mark 10:30 = Luke 18:29 = Matthew 19:29); but the very connexion in which such passages occur shows in each case that Jesus attaches importance only to the spiritual blessing; better forego all earthly profit whatever than miss this (Matthew 10:39; Matthew 16:25-26, Luke 12:20-21). Anything like requests for a promise of personal advantage He sternly discourages (Matthew 20:20-23 = Mark 10:35-45).

Generally the promises of Jesus to His disciples may be classified as follows: (a) particular assurances to individuals: to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), to the woman in the house of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:13 = Mark 14:9), to Nathanael (John 1:51), to Peter (Matthew 16:18 = Mark 9:1 = Luke 9:27, cf. Matthew 18:18), to Peter again (John 13:7 and John 13:36), also Mark 9:1 = Luke 9:27; (b) assurances about the prevailing nature of prayer and the power of faith (Matthew 7:7; Matthew 18:19, John 14:13-14, Matthew 17:26; Matthew 21:21-22, Mark 11:23-24, Matthew 18:18); (c) assurances of His continued presence and of their support and ultimate triumph (Matthew 10:19 = Luke 12:12, Matthew 28:20 [Mark 16:17-18], Matthew 10:32; Matthew 10:39; Matthew 10:42; Matthew 13:43; Matthew 16:25; Matthew 19:28, Luke 6:38, John 6:40; John 6:44; John 6:54; John 8:51; John 11:25; John 14:22; John 16:20). It is to promises of this kind that James refers in James 1:12 ‘the crown of life which the Lord promised to them that love him,’ and in James 2:5 ‘heirs of the kingdom which he promised to them that love him’ (cf. 1 John 2:25); (d) the outstanding promise, however, is that of the Holy Spirit, and this is the one promise which is most explicitly recorded as made to the disciples (John 14:16; John 14:26; John 15:26; John 16:13 etc.), and is directly recalled at the foundation of the Christian Church: ‘He charged them … to wait for the promise of the Father, which, said he, ye heard from me’ (Acts 1:4; cf. Acts 2:23). And this promise may be said practically to include and interpret almost all the foregoing.

Literature.—Denney in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iv. 104; Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics? (1907), 295; Somerville, Precious Seed (1890), 233; Spurgeon, Twelve Sermons on Precious Promises.

J. Ross Murray.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Promise (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/promise-2.html. 1906-1918.

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