Chapter 3

Discerning God's Promises

If you want to stand on God’s promises, you need to be sure you are on solid footing. Our spiritual lives must be founded on what God has said, not merely on what we wish he had said or what we think he might have said. We need to be sure we are not misquoting the Lord when we claim a biblical promise for ourselves.

Know the Context

A basic rule of interpretation that applies to the whole Bible also applies to our interpretation of biblical promises: know the context. This involves two aspects. First consider the context of the immediate setting by looking at the surrounding verses. Does the interpretation fit the context?

Second, weigh the context of the promise by considering how the passage relates to the entire Bible. God does not contradict himself. The interpretation of the promise must be in harmony with all of Scripture. This step requires a growing knowledge of the Bible and a dependence on the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding of it.

Without these two steps of careful discernment, we may simply miss the point of what God has said. Or we may understand a biblical promise accurately but fail to see that God gave the promise to someone else in a particular situation. Many people quote Bible verses as promises to them as individuals when in fact the promises were given to specific people in the Bible, to a nation, or to people of a certain time period.

Identify the Audience

Proper interpretation also includes knowing who the promise was given to. Some of God’s promises are to everyone, some are to all who believe in Christ, others are to a group of people (Israel, other nations), and still others are to individuals.

When you read the Bible and come across a statement that sounds like a great promise, you shouldn’t immediately claim it for yourself, even though it may be tempting to do so. Perhaps you are unemployed and having a hard time making your savings stretch, and you open your Bible to the place where God gives a beautiful promise about being prosperous and living in a land flowing with milk and honey. You might get excited if you didn’t read further to learn that the promise was given specifically to Israel prior to occupying the Promised Land.

The author of Psalm 145 recognized that while some of God’s good promises apply to all people, other promises apply only to a select person or group: “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. . . . You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. . . . The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them. The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy” (vv. 9, 16, 18–20).

Before we can claim one of God’s promises, we need to know if the promise given included us.

God’s promises to all people

A few of the promises that apply to all inhabitants of the earth include: salvation to those who believe and condemnation to all who reject Christ (john 3:16–18); history that will culminate according to God’s master plan (daniel 7–12); a day of judgment for believers (2 corinthians 5:10) and unbelievers (revelation 20:11–15); a promise that God’s character will not change (james 1:17); rewards for all who diligently seek him (hebrews 11:6); and the certainty that everything he says will happen will happen (matthew 5:18; 24:34–35).

God’s promises to believers

God’s promises both conditional and unconditional are numerous. He equips us with all we need to live on earth as his beloved creatures. He promises to provide power for living (ephesians 3:20) and strength to do his will (philippians 4:13) by giving us spiritual gifts (1 corinthians 12). He will not only provide for our physical needs, he will give us mercy and grace in times of need (hebrews 4:16) and all we need to live for him (2 peter 1:3–4). He promises to give us wisdom when we are tested (james 1:5), as well as a way to defeat temptation (1 corinthians 10:13). He will free us from sin’s grip (romans 6:22) and provides the ability to make Satan flee (james 4:7). He will also forgive our sins (1 john 1:9) and give us peace of mind (philippians 4:7).

He assures us that we have access to him through prayer (ephesians 3:12), that he will provide help in our praying (romans 8:26), and that he will answer our prayer (matthew 7:7–11; 1 john 5:14–15).

When our lives come to a close, we are assured of salvation (john 10:29), eternal life (john 3:16; 5:24) with a home in heaven (john 14:1–4), and rewards for service (2 corinthians 5:10). And when the time comes, God promises us resurrection to glory (1 thessalonians 4:16–17).

When the time comes, God promises us resurrection to glory.

God’s promises to specific individuals

Many biblical promises have application only to one individual or a specific group. God promised to rescue Noah and his family (genesis 7:1), to give Abraham an abundance of descendants (genesis 12:1–3; 15:1–6), and to provide his chosen people with a land of “milk and honey” (exodus 3:8). He gave Moses miraculous signs (exodus 4:1–17), Joshua a dry path to cross a river (joshua 3), and Gideon victory over the enemy (judges 6:16). Later he promised King David a son who would be qualified to build the Temple (2 samuel 7) and King Solomon great wisdom and wealth (1 kings 3:10–14).

He answered King Hezekiah’s prayer by promising him healing and a longer life (2 kings 20:5–6). Many years later, he promised Mary she would conceive a child in a supernatural way (luke 1:26–38).

Even though some promises were given to specific people, the principles behind these promises can in some cases apply to us, and in other cases cannot. If the promise reflects an unchanging characteristic of God and how he relates to us, then we can reasonably assume that because he is unchanging he will continue to reflect that promise in relating to other people. For example, when the Lord told the apostle Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness,” he was addressing a specific situation in Paul’s life—the “thorn in my flesh” of 2 Corinthians 12:7–10; yet that truth applies to all people who recognize their weakness and reach out to God for strength.

An example of a promise that we can’t rightfully claim is the one given to Joshua when the Lord said, “I will give you every place where you set your foot” (joshua 1:3). That might sound like a great promise to claim if we are looking for a home and don’t have enough money, but we would be out of order to do so. Yet that promise could legitimately remind us that God can give us anything he in his wisdom and power chooses to give us—including a home we can afford.

God’s promises to Israel

The history of God’s chosen people, Israel, has been one of repeated promises and the people’s failure to benefit from God’s gracious offers. The entire Old Testament—the books of Moses, the Writings, and the Prophets—are full of promises. These come in the form of assurances of God’s love and care for his people, as well as prophetic statements about the future of Israel and the surrounding nations. A few of the many promises to Israel are: possession of the land of Canaan (genesis 13:14–17); the Law’s blessings and curses (deuteronomy 28); judgment, exile, restoration (the Prophets); and a Messiah (isaiah 52–53).

Expectations and Emotions

At times we may fall into the trap of thinking that God will keep his promises in the way we expect. We might assume that he will do something in an obvious or immediate manner rather than in a method that becomes apparent over time. We may expect him to change our external circumstances and environment when what he really wants us to see is that his promises can be fulfilled through inner changes in us.

God is into long-range planning. We see only the surface, here-and-now events, and we do not know how God is working behind the scenes to fit the pieces together to form an overall pattern. The ways God has acted in the past, though, show that he fulfills many promises in stages or in unexpected ways.

Our emotions have a way of taking over our lives. Wrong emotions can overrule right thinking. If we have been hurt, we may blame God for not doing what we believe he promised. The death of a loved one can cause us to lose perspective if we allow our feelings to override the truth about God. A failed romance or marriage can trigger doubts. Personal rejection, failure, loss of a job, physical pain, or injustice can stir up feelings against God that become stronger than any force of reason.

Our Promise-keeping God

In 1967, two little boys accompanied their missionary parents as they traveled on the freighter African Lightning. It was the most economical way for them to return to the mission field. En route, the family befriended the ship’s engineer. One day he told the boys of his own son, now a teenager, who no longer played with his GI Joes. He promised to send them to the boys when he returned to his home in New York.

The boys’ father didn’t want to say anything, but he doubted the action figures would ever arrive. The return voyage would be too long; the chief engineer would forget; the family’s destination was too remote. Surely, something would interfere with the fulfillment of that promise.

And then one day two GI Joes arrived in a package at the mission station. The boys were overjoyed! That chief engineer had kept his promise.

It’s almost natural for us to be skeptical about someone keeping a promise, because we know that even the best of us are fallible and flawed. Yet when we keep our promises, we honor our promise-keeping God.

We may forget the evidence of God’s faithfulness in our lives. We may fail to recall how he has fulfilled his promises to us in the past. As a result, we can lose confidence in his ability to be faithful in the future.

But we have a God who never fails. Jesus gave this assurance to those who trust him: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (john 10:27–30).

Nothing can separate us from the love of God. As he said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (hebrews 13:5). That’s a promise we can always count on.