“Who are the children of Abraham?” It seems this was a question under discussion in the ministry of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8), as well as that of Jesus (John 8:39), but although there are implications in the Gospel narratives, Paul defines the doctrine more vividly than what is found in the Gospel accounts. For Paul, Abraham’s children are those who believe God, just as Abraham believed God. They are not necessarily, in the spiritual sense, those who are physically descended from Abraham, although his physical descendants must ultimately be dealt with. The question is, however, where did Paul get this idea, since he was never one of John’s or Jesus’ disciples?
When Paul went into Arabia after his spiritual transformation, he must have had a lot of unanswered questions. Make no mistake, Paul was never **converted** to Christianity in the manner in which we ordinarily understand the word. The word conversion implies a change in one’s understanding about a particular idea. Paul wasn’t searching for understanding when he had his heavenly vision. In a moment’s time he came under the conviction that he was wrong not only in what he was doing but also in his thinking, but where had he gone wrong? This is not defined, but Paul had to have sought answers. He needed clarity, if he was to preach this Gospel. How does God normally give us understanding? According to Paul, God brings us through certain circumstances which are designed to give us the clarity we seek in the thing over which we are perplexed (2Corinthians 1:4). How can we comfort others who are going through difficult times? We comfort them, because God brought us through similar trying times, and we were comforted by God in the process. Drawing from our experiences, therefore, we are able to comfort others.
Likewise, Paul may have been transformed by his heavenly vision, but this vision didn’t even begin to answer the questions he must have had about “Where do I go from here?” “Who am I and how do I fit into God’s plan in this new “Jewish” movement?” Sure he was told he will go to the gentiles, but how? These are perplexing questions for one who just had his entire life turned upside-down. He couldn’t go to the Apostles immediately after his heavenly vision, because, first of all, they weren’t sent to the gentiles, so how could they advise him? Secondly, they were slowly led to believe in Jesus as the Messiah over a period of years. Certainly, they doubted it all at his death and were changed by his resurrection, but the point is, they were able to derive their clarity of thought from their past experiences with Jesus. Paul had no past with Jesus. For Paul, everything had become new in a single moment in time.
When Paul went into Arabia, perhaps even to Sinai, he must have considered the Nabataeans. They were the children of Abraham through Ishmael. Could they be considered a blessing for all nations (Genesis 12:3)? Well, they were currently at war with Antipas and his armies. Antipas certainly didn’t see Aretas, the king if the Nabataeans, a blessing. So, what is meant by the seed in which all nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:7)? Could the Jews be meant? Certainly, many gentiles became ‘God-fearers’ and began worshiping the God of Abraham through the Jewish presence throughout the Empire, but many, if not most, gentiles didn’t trust the Jews. So how could they be considered the method through which all nations would be blessed in Abraham? Abraham had other sons, too, besides Ishmael and Isaac (Genesis 25:2), six more to be exact. So, what does this “seed” mean (Genesis 12:7)? It can’t refer to all of Abraham’s children, since they were not then nor ever were a “blessing” to all nations, and therefore were not the inheritors of the promises made to Abraham.
Paul makes the very odd argument in Galatians 3:16 that the reference is not to “seeds” plural but to “seed” singular. Only in Galatians 3:16 is seeds (plural) used to refer to many. In every other place the singular seed is used to refer to any number of offspring. Nevertheless, the point Paul makes is very logical. Since the word seed cannot refer to all of Abraham’s descendants, it must be defined as something less than all, and we can narrow it all down to a single person—Jesus, himself. He is the son of Abraham—the single Seed—if you will, through whom all nations of the world will be blessed. Furthermore, just as Abraham believed and it was counted unto him as righteousness, so too, those who are to be blessed in this Seed are blessed and made righteous through faith—or trust—in him through whom the blessing comes. In other words, the children of Abraham are defined as the children of faith.
This idea is a very fundamental insight into Paul’s theology. He uses this argument in his very first letter—Galatians. It must have had its source in his very first contemplations and the resulting inspirations in Arabia. It is the very foundational doctrine for going to the gentiles, for in Christ (whom we receive by faith) there is neither Jew nor gentile, man nor woman, slave nor free, cultured nor uncivilized, citizen nor foreigner (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). All are alike in their standing before Christ, and all are the sons of Abraham through Abraham’s Seed—who is Jesus—and the sons of God through our trust in Jesus as our Messiah!