Few of our Lord’s servants hold a position of prominence equaling that of Abraham. With Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Latter-day Saints consider Abraham the father of the faithful and the exemplary ancestor of those who serve God. Millions of men worldwide have been named after this great patriarch, attesting to the legacy of his life and deeds and to the honored memory in which his descendants hold him.
Abraham’s place in history is well deserved. The books of Genesis and Abraham record his faith and diligence in serving the Lord. (See Abr. 1–2; Gen. 11:26–25:10.) The sacred records show that he committed himself to do all that God commanded, even being willing to sacrifice, in response to God’s command, what was most precious to him—his son. (See Gen. 22:1–18; Heb. 11:17–19.) The Lord chose this faithful man, of all men on earth, to become the father of a covenant people. Through his lineal and adopted descendants, the blessings of the gospel would be made available to all men and women. For us, Abraham is a focal point of our covenant history, and faithful Saints rejoice to be counted among his descendants and seek to follow his example of righteousness.
A covenant is an agreement in which two parties make commitments to each other. Each party takes upon himself, as part of his acceptance of the covenant, certain obligations that pertain to the relationship. In a gospel covenant, we enter into sacred agreements with God, promising to obey his will. In turn, he has promised glorious blessings to us if we obey and serve him.
The patriarch Abraham committed himself unwaveringly to the Lord’s service and was privileged to enter into a covenant with him. The Bible describes the blessings the Lord promised Abraham because of his faith and obedience. The following examples mention four promises:
Promise 1: “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward:
“For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever” (Gen. 13:14–15).
Promise 2: “I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered” (Gen. 13:16).
Promise 3: “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7).
Promise 4: “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18).
Abraham’s and Sarah’s son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, received similar promises and became subject to the same covenants and obligations Abraham had received. (See Gen. 26:1–4; Gen. 28:10–14; Gen. 35:9–12.) In like manner, the covenant was renewed at Sinai with the descendants of these three men, the house of Israel. (See Ex. 19:1–8.) By inheritance, those who descend from that lineage receive the same blessings and enter into the same obligations as their great forefathers. In modern times, the Lord has renewed that covenant with his Saints. (See D&C 84:33–40, 48; D&C 110:12.) Thus, Latter-day Saints today can rightly perceive the covenant of the Patriarchs as being a covenant between God and themselves.
The passages cited above, along with other scriptures, point to four major aspects of the Abrahamic covenant.
The Lord gave the land of Canaan as a blessing to Abraham, his wife Sarah, and his covenant children. Later revelations reveal that the Lord has designated other promised lands—the Americas as an inheritance to the children of Joseph, for example. (See 3 Ne. 15:12–13; 3 Ne. 16:16; Ether 13:8.)
Yet the scriptures clearly state that this promise is conditioned upon the people’s righteous behavior. In the Old Testament, we read that God postponed the promise of the land when his people refused to serve him. First, the ten northern tribes were taken from the land as a result of their unworthiness (see 2 Kgs. 17), and later, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were similarly taken (see 2 Kgs. 24–25). The Lord denied ancient Israel the blessing because its people had failed to earn it, fulfilling the Lord’s word that inheritance in the land could be had only on the condition of faithfulness. (See Deut. 4:25–27; Deut. 28:15, 62–64.)
Since a promised land is the blessing of a sacred covenant, the covenant people can receive it only by fulfilling the stipulations of the covenant. When the scattered tribes of Israel again accept the ancient Abrahamic covenant, the Lord will gather them fully, in peace, to their lands of promise. (See 2 Ne. 6:11; 2 Ne. 10:7–8.)
Perhaps the best-known blessing of the Abrahamic covenant is that of a vast posterity. The Lord promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Today, one can see this promise partially fulfilled in the many millions who look upon Abraham as their ancestor. Millions of Arabs acknowledge Abraham as their lineal parent, as do millions of Jews. More than 8.5 million Latter-day Saints regard him as their forefather, while more than one billion other Christians and Muslims consider Abraham to be their father in a symbolic sense. These figures show the impressive fulfillment of God’s promise to his noble servant.
The ultimate realization of the Lord’s promise, however, will come in a different way. Modern revelation testifies of a heavenly fulfillment:
“Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins … which were to continue so long as they were in the world; and as touching Abraham and his seed, … both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them” (D&C 132:30).
The Abrahamic promise of countless descendants pertains to the eternal world as well as to descendants on earth. (See Bruce R. McConkie, The Millennial Messiah, The Second Coming of the Son of Man, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1982, pages 262–64, 267.) Even with our understanding of exaltation, eternal families, and the nature of God and his work, we can scarcely envision the magnitude of that promise the Lord made to Abraham.
Among the promises of the Abrahamic covenant is the one whereby faithful heirs will possess the gospel and the power of the Lord’s priesthood. Covenant descendants of Abraham and Sarah have a right, by virtue of their inheritance, to these blessings. However, as with other covenant blessings, they actually realize the blessings of their birthright only on the basis of personal worthiness.
A key passage of scripture teaches us about that right: “In thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Abr. 2:11). Thus, the priesthood will continue with Abraham’s and Sarah’s descendants. Though there have been periods of apostasy in which the gospel and the priesthood were not available to the world, they remained hidden with Abraham’s lineage until the Restoration, when they were revealed anew:
“Thus saith the Lord unto you, with whom the priesthood hath continued through the lineage of your fathers—
“For ye are lawful heirs, according to the flesh, and have been hid from the world with Christ in God—
“Therefore your life and the priesthood have remained, and must needs remain through you and your lineage until the restoration of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy prophets since the world began” (D&C 86:8–10).
The scriptures teach that through the covenant family of Abraham and Sarah “shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal” (Abr. 2:11). Foremost among the blessings that the family of Abraham brought about is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, who was a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, blesses all people through his atonement. Because of him, all will be saved from the bands of death through resurrection; and all but the few who commit the unpardonable sin will receive an eternal inheritance in a degree of glory.
The second aspect of the Abrahamic ministry of salvation is this calling that Abraham’s covenant children have received: to take the gospel and its blessings to the rest of God’s children. The Lord has called the house of Israel to carry the gospel to the world. He explained the following to Abraham concerning his descendants: “In their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations” (Abr. 2:9).
Since the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when gospel blessings have been on earth they have been made available through the house of Israel. Thus, Abraham’s and Sarah’s descendants are a chosen people. They are chosen not because they have an easier path to salvation, or because God loves them more than other people. They are chosen to service, in the same sense that individual Latter-day Saints are chosen for callings in the Church. If we consider the house of Israel’s chosen status as a calling to serve—like any other calling in the gospel—then we can keep the calling in proper perspective.
The Abrahamic covenant blesses those who are not of Abraham’s lineage in a very direct way. The house of Israel is the family of the Lord’s Saints. According to the scriptures, those who accept the gospel and join in the Abrahamic covenant become members of the family of Israel, even if they are not Abraham’s literal descendants. The Lord taught Abraham concerning the nations of the earth who would not be his physical offspring:
“I will bless them through thy name; for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father” (Abr. 2:10).
Paul taught the same doctrine about non-Israelites being adopted into the family of Abraham: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek [in other words, neither Israelite nor non-Israelite], there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
“And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29).
The principle of adoption brings those who are not Abraham’s descendants but who accept the gospel into his family. The Lord accounts them heirs of the covenant with its blessings and obligations; they become members of the house of Israel. (We learn of our lineage through a patriarchal blessing.) We thus make no distinction between the literal seed of Abraham and his heirs through adoption, for they are “all one in Christ Jesus.”
In the last days, the Lord has called the covenant children of the ancient patriarchs “a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel” (D&C 86:11). The twofold missionary calling of the latter-day children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is (1) to gather others of the house of Israel back to the covenants that God made with their forefathers and (2) to gather all others who desire to become one with them.
The Lord has restored the gospel in modern times for the blessing of all people. Every faithful man and woman can receive its blessings to the fullest degree, by accepting baptismal and temple covenants and by living righteously. Privileged as we are to live when covenant blessings are available among the Lord’s Saints, we have a marvelous opportunity and a great responsibility to make those blessings available to all our Father’s children.