Category Archives: Bible Bites [Exegesis]

This category includes all posts that are primarily about exegesis (biblical interpretation), except for posts already included in the Church Chat category.

Every Promise in the Book Is Mine?

“Every promise in the book is mine!” Do you remember that song? Here’s the complete chorus:

Every promise in the book is mine,
Every chapter, every verse, every line,
All are blessings of His love divine,
Every promise in the book is mine!

It’s a catchy little song. I think I learned it in Sunday School years ago. For a much slower version in a gospel style, complete with verses full of Bible promises, check out this performance by the Sensational Nightingales:

It’s catchy, but is it true? Is every promise in the Bible mine?

NO AND YES

The short answer is clearly No. God promised Abraham that he would make his name great (Gen. 12:2), but I have no reason to believe I will become famous like Abraham.  The Spirit through Paul promises that “the woman… will be saved through childbearing,” but I’ll need to let my wife claim that promise (1 Tim. 2:14-15).

Given the proliferation these days of devotional books and digital memes with random Bible promises, it’s important to remember to ask: Is this promise mine?

And yet, the short answer—No—is not the whole answer.

Consider this example: God promised David a son who would become king over God’s people (2 Sam. 7:12-16). I will never have such a son. And yet Isaiah, centuries later, wrote this as he recalled God’s promise to David: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Is. 9:6). The “us” in this verse includes not only Isaiah, who was part of David’s royal line, but also the non-Judean “Galilee of the nations” (Is. 9:1). And we, too, have had a son born “to us”—all we who have Jesus as our King. Handel was right to help us sing this promise!

Paul sums it up neatly: “All the promises of God find their Yes in him”—in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Therefore, as Paul boldly announces elsewhere, “all things are yours” if you belong to Christ (1 Cor. 3:21).

So, is every promise in the book mine? If I belong to Christ, the full answer is clearly Yes. In some way, in Christ, I will benefit from every promise God has ever given—even, I think, from the one about the woman being saved through childbearing, though I’m not exactly sure how.

Both the No and the Yes are important to remember as we read promises in the Bible. Most of us begin our Christian lives with the Yes in full view, eagerly claiming promises. Then many of us “wise up” as we learn a few basic rules of Bible interpretation, and we remind each other—rightly, though sometimes a little smugly—of the No: “To whom was that promise originally given?” we ask.

I tend to hang out in that No camp much of the time, but recently I was reminded to broaden my thinking and simplify my trust in God’s promises. I have the writer of Hebrews to thank, but let me start with Joshua.

“I WILL NEVER LEAVE” WHO?

When Moses died and Joshua faced the gargantuan task of leading the Israelites into a promised land full of giants and walled cities, God gave Joshua a promise: “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Josh. 1:5).

That was a very specific promise, right? God had been with Moses in a unique way. He had given Moses the same promise when he first called him into leadership: “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12). Now God transferred the same assurance to Joshua.

As a Bible interpreter, I would tend to be cautious about using either verse as a proof text for God’s presence with Christians. “Right teaching, wrong text,” I might quip. In both verses, the promise of God’s presence was given to a special individual facing a specific task. At most, I might acknowledge that these verses could apply more narrowly to Christian leaders today, at least if I’m confident they have indeed been called by God.

But the writer of Hebrews has no such qualms. Listen to how he understands God’s promise to Joshua. Writing to God’s people at large, he says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you'” (Heb. 13:5).

His next words draw a conclusion (“so”) from this promise and confirm that he is applying it to both himself and his readers: “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'” (Heb. 13:6). Notice the we: by implication, he means “we [he and his readers] can confidently say” that God has promised to never leave us.

In fact, the writer of Hebrews is so sure that God’s promise to Joshua is also a promise for his readers that he uses it as assurance that a second OT promise, too, is theirs to claim! “Because God has promised not to leave us”—claiming the promise to Joshua—we can confidently say “The Lord is my helper”—claiming an assurance from Psalm 118:6-7. His confidence about one OT promise gives him boldness that he has inherited another, too.

And the author of Hebrews is not just writing to Christian leaders like Moses or Joshua. In fact, if anything he is not writing to leaders, for here are his very next words: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).

So there we have it: You and I, if we are part of God’s people, can claim God’s promise to Joshua: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” This promise in the book is mine.

WHAT ABOUT OTHER PROMISES?

But what about this promise, also given to Joshua at the same time: “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses” (Josh. 1:3)? Again, there is a clear No and a clear Yes.

No, I should not expect all my neighbors in Atlanta to be driven out before me so I can inherit the gold dome of Georgia’s capital building, the rich Buckhead neighborhood, or the new Mercedes Benz Stadium. Nor should I expect a divine inheritance of land if I move to Israel or Palestine.

But Yes, for Paul says “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world” belongs “the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:13, 16). Or, as Jesus put it, “the meek… shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). So, yes, this promise in the book is mine, too.

The same No and Yes apply to many other Bible promises you might consider, including famous ones like Jeremiah 29:11 (“I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you…” NIV). In each case it is important to consider the original nature of the promise, identifying its original recipients. Then reconsider the original promise in light of Christ’s coming: how might his coming  have shaped the promise’s ultimate fulfillment and audience? Who will now enjoy its benefits, and how?

That, admittedly, can be complicated.

If you want a simpler question, try this one: What does this promise—no matter to whom originally given—tell me about God’s nature and his heart toward his people? Then rest assured that God’s heart toward you—if you belong to Christ—is no less generous. Even if you aren’t sure exactly if or how to rightly “claim” a given promise, let it assure you of God’s heart toward his people. God’s plans are, indeed, to “prosper” his people who seek him with all their heart (Jer. 29:12-13), even if that prospering does not involve us being returned to Israel after 70 years of exile in Babylon.

“Claiming promises” is a practice that has gone badly off the rails far too often, resulting in heresies such as the prosperity gospel and the American civil religion that considers America a “city upon a hill.”

And yet…

“Every promise in the book is mine.” It requires some explanation and a few caveats. But in some ultimate way, in Christ, it is true. Go ahead and sing it, if you’d like.

Now all we need to do is fix the last word and make it plural. “Mine”? Really? Aren’t we western Christians individualistic enough already? “Every promise in the book is ours” would be much better, except that “ours” isn’t very euphonious. Any poets to the rescue?


What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below. And thanks for reading.


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God “Was Able”? Or “Is Able”?

In this post I’m doing a dangerous thing—questioning grammatical details in English Bible translations when I am only a second-year Greek student. So please take this post with a grain of salt. If you are a Greek scholar and you see I am missing something, please let me know and I’ll happily correct this post. Meanwhile, since blogs are good for thinking out loud, here goes!

[Edit: I’ve received responses from a couple people who know Greek better than I do, including my Greek teacher, Joseph Neill. Here is part of what he wrote:

Could it be translated as “God is able”? Yes, but the grammar does not require it; in fact, it leans the other way I think. But based on God’s nature and the greater context (4:23 especially), it is right for us to understand from this passage that not only was God able, but God is able. (Context might lean this way.) So, if this is what Paul had in mind (God is able), I think he would have said exactly what he did say. But then again, if he did not have all this in mind (but rather God was able) he would have still said it exactly how he did say it. =)

Later: I would need to study and think more about it to be sure I got it right, especially the part that suggested Paul  could mean either was or is (in English thought) and he would have worded it the same either way. I would like to find examples that conclusively prove this hunch of mine.

See this comment below for his full response, as well as similar thoughts in comments from Marlin Sommers.]

Today I continued reading through Romans in Greek for the first time. Near the end of chapter four, I noticed something interesting:

ὃ ἐπήγγελται δυνατός ἐστιν καὶ ποιῆσαι. (Rom. 4:21)

A hyper-literal translation might read something like this:

What [he] has promised, able [he] is also to do.

Here is the same clause in some popular English translations:

What he had promised, he was able also to perform. (KJV)

What He had promised He was also able to perform. (NKJV)

What God had promised, He was able also to perform. (NASB)

What God had promised, he was also able to do. (CSB)

What God promised he was also able to do. (NET)

God was able to do what he had promised. (ESV)

God had power to do what he had promised. (NIV)

Do you see the difference? The Greek uses a present-tense verb (“is” ἐστιν), but these English translations use past-tense verbs (“was” or “had”). The Greek seems to say “he is able also to do,” while the English translations say “he was able also to do.”

Why might these English translations do this?

Here’s one possible explanation: Some Greek writers frequently insert “present tense” verbs into narratives of past events. But they do this without intending to imply that the action is happening presently. This is sometimes called the “historical present.” In other words, the Greek “present tense” does not neatly match English present tense verb usage, sometimes being used instead for other rhetorical purposes. (Hence my scare quotes around “present tense” above.)

You can see this in a translation such as the NASB, which marks these verbs with an asterisk. Here’s a random example from Mark:

As they *approached Jerusalem… He *sent two of his disciples, and *said to them… (Mark 1:1-2)

Is the same thing happening here in Romans 4:21? I doubt it. This use of the Greek “present tense” is usually found in narratives—in stories. This passage is not a story but rather a discussion about a story. Steven Runge, who discusses the “historical present” in depth in his recent book Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, does not appear to include even one example of the “historical present” from any of Paul’s letters. Almost all of his examples come from the Gospel narratives.

Another possible explanation for the English translations here is that they switch from present to past in order to match the other half of the clause: “what he had promised.” But there, too, the Greek seems to carry more of a present tense: “what he has promised.”

(The weeds: The Greek verb here, ἐπήγγελται, is a perfect tense-form. The perfect tense-form is often understood as describing a present state that is the result of a past action. Though it was dying out in the Greek Koine of the NT era, there was also a pluperfect tense-form that is basically a past version of the perfect tense-form: “had promised” instead of “has promised.”)

In summary, it seems to this second-year Greek student that neither half of the clause clearly carries a past tense sense. The first half (probably) depicts a present state (“what he has promised”) and the second half (more clearly) asserts a present reality (“he is able also to do”).

This brings me to my third and best working explanation: The English translations above do not follow the Greek as closely as they could. Interestingly, I am not alone in my assessment. There are a few English translations that agree with me, some old, some recent:

What He hath promised He is able also to do (YLT “Young’s Literal Translation)

Whatever things God hath promised, he is mighty also to do. (Wycliffe)

What he has promised he is able also to do. (Darby)

What God has promised, He also is able to do. (TLV “Tree of Life Version”)

God is able to do whatever he promises. (NLT)

Similarly, though I haven’t found any commentaries that directly address this translation question, several appear to indirectly affirm my conclusions. First, a comment from Moo:

It is Abraham’s conviction that God is fully able to do whatever he promised that enabled his faith to overcome the obstacle of the tangible and visible “facts.”1

And, better, a direct translation by Schreiner, followed by commentary:

Abraham grew strong in faith “by being fully assured that God is able to do what he had promised” (πληροφορηθεὶς ὅτι ὃ ἐπήγγελται δυνατός ἐστιν καὶ ποιῆσαι…)… He surely has the power to accomplish what he has promised.2

[Edit: In his 2018 revision of this commentary, Schreiner interprets Romans 4:21 as even more clearly expressing the timeless nature of God’s ability. His translation now reads: “by being fully assured that God is able to do what he promised” (instead of “had promised”).  And his comment now reads: “He surely has the power to accomplish what he promises” (instead of “has promised”). See page 246.]

In sum, I give Darby top marks for following the Greek most closely: “What he has promised he is able also to do.” And I give the NLT top marks for best expressing the timeless truth that Abraham grasped: “God is able to do whatever he promises.”

Whether or not I am right in the above, this I do know is true: My own faith, like Abraham’s, will be strengthened only if I am confident that God is able—past, present, future, always able—to do everything he has promised.

This timeless nature of God’s power is expressed clearly even in English translations several verses earlier in Romans 4: “The God who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17 CSB).

John Toews puts it this way:

More is said about God than about Abraham’s faith. The character of the God “faithed” determines the character of the faith exercised. The point of the text is that the fulfillment of the promise is based on the power of God. Even more important than Abraham’s faith is God’s faithfulness.3

What a mighty God we serve!


Greek scholar or not, share your insights in the comments below. And thanks for reading.

  1. Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 286. Emphasis added.
  2. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 238-39. Emphasis added.
  3. John E. Toews, Romans, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2004), 123.

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I and my Wife and Paul’s Grammar

“I and my wife are thankful God answered our prayers and gave us children.”

Yes, “I and my wife.”

Now, grammar grumps, cool your fingers and curb your complaints. 🙂 I claim divine precedent for putting myself before my wife. Or at least scriptural precedent. Or at least Pauline precedent.

Oh, and I’m not relying on mere gender doctrine, either—which would actually tell me to put myself last. I have better justification for my grammar.

In 1 Corinthians 9:6, Paul wrote, “Is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?”

Except that isn’t what he actually wrote.

This is what he actually wrote: “μόνος ἐγὼ καὶ Βαρναβᾶς οὐκ ἔχομεν ἐξουσίαν μὴ ἐργάζεσθαι;”

In Greek: “ἐγὼ καὶ Βαρναβᾶς” (“I and Barnabas”)

In English: “Barnabas and I”

That’s how the ESV “corrects” Paul’s good Greek grammar to make it good English grammar. The KJV and about a dozen other English translations retain Paul’s order, but most read like the ESV.

Surprisingly, however, here is the NIV: “I and Barnabas.”

Wow! I see no semantic reason for retaining the Greek order of these words, and the NIV places a high priority on using normal English language conventions. Yet here they are more hyper word-for-word than the ESV. What gives?

At any rate, there you have it: Both Paul and the NIV give me permission to put myself first.

I and you will just have to get over it.


Do I really want to read your comments on this one? Share them below if you feel you must.


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