By Ryan M. McGraw [i]
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
Teachers want their students to write papers with a clearly stated thesis. A thesis statement directs readers to the primary point of everything that follows. If a paper or a book has no clear thesis statement, then we do not know what exactly the author is trying to accomplish. If a thesis statement is present and we lose sight of it, then we will miss the point of the work as a whole and will not profit as much from reading it. Genesis 3:15 is the thesis statement of the Bible: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (NKJV). This passage teaches us that the Lord Jesus Christ is the glorious Seed of the woman who both represented His seed and who defeated the serpent and his seed. Rather than merely expounding Genesis 3:15 in context, this chapter will briefly trace its importance throughout the Bible in four parts: first, the prequel to Genesis 3:15; second, the promise of Genesis 3:15; third, the progress of Genesis 3:15; and fourth, the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. In this verse, the covenant of redemption finds historical expression in the first promise of the covenant of grace.
The Prequel to Genesis 3:15
The covenant of grace and the gospel rest upon the covenant of works in the garden of Eden. In order to understand Genesis 3:15, it is necessary to understand the implications of Genesis 2:15–17 and 3:1–8. These verses present the introduction to the covenant of works, as well as the breach of this covenant by Adam and Eve. Although the term “covenant” is not present here, it is proper to refer to this arrangement as a covenant in the same manner as the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. Unless we understand the importance of this covenant and the manner in which it relates to the human race, we can grasp neither why redemption was necessary nor how it should be accomplished.[ii]
According to Herman Witsius (1636–1708), there are at least four important elements in the covenant of works.[iii] First, the parties were God and Adam, who was the covenant head of the human race (Gen. 2:15). Adam was not simply a private individual. The Westminster Larger Catechism says he was a “public person” who either obeyed or sinned against the terms of the covenant for himself and for his posterity (22). The promises and threats of the covenant were delivered to him, but they affected the entire human race. God gave the ordinances of the Sabbath, marriage, and labor to Adam, but through him, God gave them to all mankind in every generation.
Second, the sanction of the covenant of works was death in every sense, and its promise was life in every sense. When Adam disobeyed the covenant, it appears that the threat “in the day that you eat of [the tree] you shall surely die” did not come to pass immediately (Gen. 2:17). Adam himself lived to be over nine hundred years old (Gen. 5:5)! The “death” threatened in the covenant included being cut off from communion with the triune God, enduring miseries in this life, being incapable of any spiritual good (Eph. 2:1–2), experiencing physical death, and being made liable to everlasting death under the wrath of God. On the other side, the promise of eternal life, which was signified sacramentally through the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9; 3:22), pointed to a life that was the opposite of this death in every respect.
Third, the condition of the covenant of works was perfect obedience to the law of God. In this respect, refraining from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a symbolic test of a whole-souled commitment to the Lord and absolute submission to His authority. Adam had the entire law of God written upon his heart, and even after he fell into sin, the remnants of that law remain upon human beings’ hearts (Rom. 2:12). Under the gospel, the Holy Spirit once again inscribes this law clearly upon the hearts and lives of the redeemed (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:26; 2 Cor. 3:3). By selecting a tree that appeared to be ordinary and “good for food” (Gen. 3:6), the Lord subjected Adam and Eve to the greatest possible test of obedience. Would they obey for no reason other than the authority of the Word of God?
Fourth, the goal of the covenant of works was to magnify the goodness of God, as well as to promote the happiness of the human race. Even sinless people did not deserve anything for perfect obedience to the law of God. If Adam did all his duty, then there is no reason the Lord should consider him as anything more than an “unprofitable servant” (Luke 17:1–10). To the glory of God’s kindness and love, if Adam had obeyed the terms of the covenant of works, then he and all of his descendants would have been confirmed in everlasting life and fellowship with the triune God. Instead, Adam fell and we fell with him (Rom. 5:12). As a result, the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) states, “All mankind by their fall, lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries of this life, to death itself, and to pains of hell forever” (19).
This has great importance for you personally. Are you convinced of your original sin as well as your actual sin? In other words, have you recognized that you not only have a bad heart and a bad life (in light of God’s law), but that you have a bad representative in Adam? All people are either in Adam or in Christ (1 Cor. 15:22). If you are in Adam, then you will die, but if you are in Christ, then you will be made alive. Be convicted of the sinfulness of your nature and the guilt that is upon you by virtue of the covenant of works. You may not immediately like what the Bible says about human nature, but can you not see the effects of Adam’s fall in the world around you? Does not your very tendency to reject what the Word of God says about your sinful nature illustrate the truthfulness of what it says? The Bible itself explains why you do not want to believe the Bible. Moreover, unless you understand how Adam represented you in the covenant of works, you cannot understand how Christ can represent you in the covenant of grace.[iv] The covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand or fall together, and both hold a place in God’s eternal plan in the covenant of redemption. Christ redeems people from the covenant of works because of the covenant of redemption and by means of the covenant of grace.
The Promise of Genesis 3:15
Most people complain about the idea that they were represented by Adam because they find it unfair that they had no choice in the matter. But who could complain that Christ represents them when they receive through Him all that Adam lost for them? Genesis 3:15 contains the first promise in human history of the coming of Jesus Christ and of His relationship to His people. If Genesis 2:15–3:9 introduces the problem the gospel addresses, then Genesis 3:15 provides the answer to that problem in summary fashion. This short verse encapsulates the entire Bible! Behold here the sum and substance of redemption in Jesus Christ and of His glory as the Christ! This promise has two parts centering upon the two seeds the passage mentions.[v]
The first part of the promise contains the defeat of the serpent and the enmity (animosity) between his seed and the godly seed. When mankind fell, we came into bondage to sin and a willing subjection to Satan (John 8:44; 2 Tim. 2:26). This verse promises that Christ would defeat Satan and that the damage Satan inflicted on the human race would be undone. This does not mean that Christ would pay a ransom for His people to Satan; rather, it means that Christ would gain absolute victory over him by reversing the ruin that he introduced into creation. Neither does it mean that human beings are not responsible because the devil “made them” act against God’s law. It means that the effects of Adam’s and Eve’s fall would be nullified eventually in the elect and in the created order. However, the text not only addresses the serpent personally, but it also refers to his seed or offspring. This means that the entire human race is not under the dominion of Satan, but that there is a division between his people and those who are called the “seed of the woman.” God cursed Satan’s “seed” along with him, and there would be continual conflict between his seed and the “seed of the woman.”
The second part of the promise parallels the first. Just as the serpent (Satan) represents an entire class of people, so the seed of the woman is both collective and individual.[vi] In the first instance, “seed” is collective. In the last part of the verse, the “Seed” of the woman is described by a masculine singular pronoun.[vii] There would one day be a conflict between an individual “Seed” of the woman and Satan himself. In this verse some theologians have seen justification for the continual conflict between the people of God and the unbelieving world. Others have asserted that this passage refers to Christ and not to His people. Instead, we must view this verse as including Christ and His church.[viii] The biblical doctrine of union with Christ solves all difficulties at this junction.[ix] What Christ has done, He did for His people. In all of their afflictions, He was afflicted (Isa. 63:9). In Him, all of His people will be made alive because He lives (John 14:19). He took their sins upon Himself, and He imputed His righteousness to them (2 Cor. 5:21). The kingdom of God is His, and He makes His people a kingdom of priests who share His inheritance (Ex. 19:6; Rom. 8:17). The New Testament clearly reveals this principle of union with Christ, but it is fundamental to the Old Testament descriptions of the relationship between the Messiah and His people as well (see Isa. 53; Jer. 23:6; and 33:16, where “the Lord our Righteousness” applies both to Christ and to His people). Genesis 3:15 is the first time that the Scriptures reveal union with Christ.
The text then adds that the serpent would “bruise” Christ’s heel, and Christ would “bruise” the serpent’s head. This translation is somewhat awkward because at first glance it appears to indicate that the serpent and the seed of the woman would simply annoy or inconvenience one another. However, the idea conveyed is closer to a serpent biting the heel of a man and spreading poison through his body while the man is in the process of crushing the serpent’s head, thus killing him. C. F. Keil (1807–1888) concluded, “However pernicious may be the bite of a serpent in the heel when the poison circulates through the body… it is not immediately fatal and utterly incurable, like the crushing of a serpent’s head.”[x] This conflict is between individuals rather than between two groups. The basic idea is that the Messiah would destroy the serpent at great personal cost to Himself. Though the text falls short of the unveiled clarity of the New Testament, the reference is ultimately Christ’s cross. Christ died for His elect, but He rose from the dead. Christ utterly defeated Satan though he still remains active in this world until the day of judgment (Rev. 20:7).[xi] As we shall see, this contest was not between equal parties, but between the Son of God, who is mighty to save, and a rebellious creature that was finally put in his place.
The Progress of Genesis 3:15
To borrow an illustration from Ezekiel 47, Genesis 3:15 is like the small trickle of a stream that, as history unfolds, becomes a mighty river eventually spilling into the vast ocean of Scripture. This is true in the lives of Adam and Eve, the covenants of God with His people, and the genealogies dispersed throughout the Bible.
Surprisingly, after receiving the curse of the covenant of works, Adam named his wife “Eve” because she was the mother of all the living (Gen. 3:20). We might have expected him to name her the mother of all who are dead, since their sin brought death to mankind in every sense of the word. Eve’s name expressed Adam’s faith in the promise of Genesis 3:15.[xii] When Eve bore her first son, she expressed this same faith, speaking as though she expected the first child born into the world to be the great Seed (Gen. 4:1). Even after Cain became the first human murderer (Satan was the first murderer), she expressed her faith in Genesis 3:15 again by naming her next son Seth: “For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew” (Gen. 4:25). Remarkably, Adam and Eve emphasized the individual aspect of Genesis 3:15 above the collective one. The rest of Genesis clarifies the collective side of the promise by sifting through human families. The Seed of the woman would come, but He would come through a continually narrowing family line. In light of Genesis 3:15, we must conclude that Moses intended for us to understand that the rest of mankind, such as the Ishmaelites, belonged to the seed of the serpent rather than that of the woman.
The narrowing of the promise concerning the Seed of the woman and His people coincided with the expansion of God’s covenant of grace. Genesis 3:15 does not use the term “covenant,” but like the covenant of works and the covenant of redemption, its character is covenantal. This becomes clear later as the two seeds divide explicitly along covenantal lines. In the Noahic covenant (Gen. 6–9), the seed of the woman was limited to eight people, while everyone else in the world was the seed of the serpent. God demonstrated the effects of man’s fall, His just judgment upon sinners, and the fact that He would redeem the seed of the woman (collective) just as Noah and his family were saved by the ark (1 Peter 3:20–22).
The corporate and individual aspects of Genesis 3:15 were more explicit in the covenant with Abraham. In Genesis 12:3, God tells Abram that in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Genesis 22:18 has a clear verbal link to Genesis 3:15: “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Both of these chapters stress that either the blessing or the curse of God will rest upon the people of the earth based upon their relationship to Abraham and to his “seed.” Moreover, in confirmation of the continuation of Genesis 3:15 in Abraham’s family, God gave him circumcision to be a sign and seal of the covenant of grace (Rom. 4:11). He said, “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).
The promise of Genesis 3:15 progressed further under Moses. God separated the children of Abraham into a nation—and a church—separate from all of the other families on the earth. He signified redemption by delivering them out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage with the same spiritual significance that the ark had in the time of flood (1 Cor. 10:1–4; see also 1 Peter 3:20). This covenant, like other covenants in Scripture, included believers and their children (Deut. 29:15). The law reminded Israel of the broken covenant of works, but it was presented in the context of the covenant of grace. The Israelites were the seed of the woman, and the Canaanites were the seed of the serpent. The Old Testament sacrifices demonstrated that the Great Seed, or Messiah, would be a priest. Deuteronomy 18:15 showed that He would be a prophet (see Acts 3:22; 7:37–38), and Moses typified Christ as a ruler (king) and as a mediator between God and the people.[xiii]
The covenant with David is the last major Old Testament progression of Genesis 3:15. God promised David a succession of sons who would sit upon his throne, as well as one great Son who would sit upon His throne forever (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89). Under Moses the collective aspect of Genesis 3:15 became prominent in the nation of Israel, but under David the individual Seed of the woman once again received greater emphasis.
In addition to the stages of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament, the biblical genealogies in both the Old Testament and in the New Testament illustrate the principles set forth in Genesis 3:15. Genealogies are one of the most difficult portions of Scripture for people to read. Have you ever considered why God in His infinite wisdom chose to place so many lengthy genealogies in His holy Word? The biblical genealogies illustrate the progress of Genesis 3:15. In Genesis, the primary narrative traces the line of the seed of the woman, but the interspersed genealogies (such as that of Esau in chapter 36) show in brief where the seed of the serpent broke away. By the time you read 1 Chronicles, the inspired author presents nine chapters of genealogies. This brings readers “up to speed” concerning the separation between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent in human history.[xiv] God’s people must read Chronicles in light of His overarching redemptive plan. Matthew 1 sets forth Christ’s Hebrew lineage, emphasizing His descent from Abraham and David.[xv] Luke 3:23–38 traces Jesus back to Adam and, ultimately, to God as creator. This simultaneously contrasts Christ with Adam, and it reminds us that He is the Great Seed of the woman through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed.[xvi]
The Fulfillment of Genesis 3:15
The thesis statement of the Bible, Genesis 3:15, comes to full fruition in the New Testament. Here we behold the glory of God’s plan and the glory of the Christ of Genesis 3:15. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, believed that Christ’s coming fulfilled God’s promise to David and His oath to Abraham (Luke 1:69, 73). Jesus Christ is the seed of Abraham through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gal. 3:16). Through His death on the cross, He “destroyed” him who had power over death, that is, the devil (Heb. 2:14). Christ did not abolish Satan’s existence or halt his activity in this world entirely. But in His people, Jesus is undoing the damage that Satan had done through man’s fall. The usurping “ prince of this world” is cast out (John 12:31), he is bound so that he should no longer deceive the nations (Matt. 12:29; Rev. 20:1–3), and his former subjects are being transferred out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13). This is why the angel said to Mary, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus [Jehovah Saves]: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Is this not the glorious fulfillment of Genesis 3:15? Behold, the Seed of the woman crushing the head of the serpent on the cross! All of humanity is divided into the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman by their relationship to Jesus Christ. Behold the glory of God’s covenant of redemption revealed in the covenant of grace in human history! Behold the glory of the Christ of Genesis 3:15!
Consider the following practical conclusions in light of the place of Genesis 3:15 in the Bible. First, Genesis 3:15 places you into one of two categories. You belong either to the seed of the serpent or to the seed of the woman. To which group do you belong today? Unless you have by faith laid hold of Jesus Christ as the Great Seed of the woman who has crushed the head of the serpent on the cross, then you belong to the seed of the serpent. If you are the serpent’s seed, then you will suffer the serpent’s fate and share in his defeat at the hands of Christ. Why will you remain among his seed? Is Satan not a poor master? Does he not pay you poor wages for your sin? Won’t your sin ruin you? Be convicted of a broken covenant of works. Recognize that the triune God has given you an ultimatum. You must either perish with the seed of the serpent under the wrath and curse of God, or you must inherit eternal life through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your heart in rebellion (Heb. 3:7–8, 15).
Second, Genesis 3:15 presents the unified message of the entire Bible. This message is that the Lord Jesus Christ alone gains victory over sin, death, and all of the effects of the fall for His people. The person and work of Jesus Christ is the thesis statement of the Scriptures. If you lose sight of Genesis 3:15 when you read the Bible, then you will fall into errors such as pitting the Old Testament against the New or identifying contradictory schemes of thought in various parts of the Bible. Genesis 3:15 ties the message of Scripture together into a unified whole. It is the thesis statement in light of which all the details of the Word of God stand in harmony. Read your Bible with this passage in view and you will read well and profitably.
Third, consider that every promise of the gospel has included believers and their children (or seed). Even the covenant of works included Adam and his posterity, albeit in a special way that imputed his original sin to his offspring. The only other comparable relationship is that of Christ to His people. Even though parents cannot pass regeneration and salvation down to their children, God has always included their children (at least externally) among the seed of the woman. Noah’s children were saved from the flood because they were counted among the seed of the woman, even though Ham and his children later proved to belong to the seed of the serpent. In every administration of the covenant of grace and in every expansion of Genesis 3:15, God entered into covenant with believers and their children. Abraham was justified by his faith and his children were included within the covenant of grace, unless they later demonstrated that they belonged to the seed of the serpent instead. God brought about His glorious plan of redemption through families. The children of believers have always been members of the visible church and counted among the seed of the woman. God will always regard them as such until Christ returns. We should baptize our children even as Abraham circumcised his children. We do not baptize them because they are regenerate. We baptize them because baptism, like circumcision, is a sign of membership in the church by virtue of the covenant. Let us beware that we do not stand against God’s dealings with His people from the beginning of time by acting as though God’s promises do not belong to our children. Peter once told us the exact opposite (Acts 2:39). Our children do not inherit our salvation; they inherit the promises of God in a peculiar manner. God has always included households in the administration of His covenant and He still does so today (Luke 19:9; Acts 16:15, 34).
Fourth, every blessing from God to your soul comes only through union with Christ. Without Christ, you are without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). In Christ, God has blessed you with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3). What Christ did, He did for His people. Just as a husband and wife become one flesh in marriage while retaining their individual identities, so believers become one with Christ and share in all of His benefits (Eph. 5:21–33). What is true of the Seed (singular) is true of the seed (collective). Believer, take comfort from the fact that all that Christ has done, He has done for you. Be thankful that in Christ you have all that is necessary for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Union with Christ is why the Scriptures so often speak about Christ and His people interchangeably. Genesis 3:15 is the key to understanding your Bible as well as the key to understanding your salvation. The substance of hope in Christ rests upon this promise. Rest upon it by faith, and marvel at the Christ of Genesis 3:15.
[i] This article is chapter two of my recent book, Christ’s Glory, Your Good: Salvation Planned, Promised, Accomplished, and Applied (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013). [More Info]
[ii] Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) wrote, “Acquaintance with this covenant is of the greatest importance, for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works, will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus.” The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999), 1:355.
[iii] I am summarizing here pages 50–103 of Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man, trans. William Crookshank (1803; repr., Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).
[iv] See J. V. Fesko, Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1–3 with the Christ of Eschatology (Fearn, Ross-Shire, U.K.: Christian Focus, 2007), 31.
[v] Here I am indebted, with some modifications, to Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, ed. James T. Dennison (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2001), chapter 4.
[vi] Commentators differ widely on this passage. For example, Calvin denied that the “seed” referred to Christ. Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 1:170. Vos placed the primary emphasis on the collective meaning, making the messianic meaning secondary. Fesko regards Christ as the primary referent of “seed” (Last Things First, 140–42). Keil very carefully argued that the “seed” is both collective and individual. C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch, trans. James Marin (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1866), 100–101. Thomas Goodwin has also elaborated this view. See Jones, Why Heaven Kissed Earth, 192–95.
[vii] Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on Pentateuch, 101. The “it” in the KJV likely reflects the collective reference.
[viii] The best treatment that I have read concerning the individual and corporate meaning of this passage is from the Westminster divine John White (1575–1648), A Commentary upon the First Three Chapters of the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (London, 1656), 162–200.
[ix] For a brief treatment of union with Christ, see John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), chapter 9.
[x] Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on Pentateuch, 100.
[xi] See Cornelis P. Venema, The Promise of the Future (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 315–27. In addition, the New Testament speaks of Satan as “bound” during Christ’s earthly ministry (Matt. 12:29), “destroyed” by the cross (Heb. 2:14), and cast out of this world (John 12:31). Satan is still active in the world, but he is a defeated foe who no longer deceives the nations of the world to the extent that he once did.
[xii] See Fesko, Last Things First, 137.
[xiii] These three offices restored what Adam lost. See Fesko, Last Things First, chapter 1.
[xiv] Richard Pratt alludes to Genesis 3:15 and its expression through the Abrahamic covenant in his treatment of this section. 1 & 2 Chronicles: A Mentor Commentary (Fearn, Ross-Shire, U.K.: Christian Focus, 2006), 86.
[xv] Leon Morris added that Matthew seemed to depend upon 1 Chronicles 1–3, thus strengthening the connections that I have made here. The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 21.
[xvi] See I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 161. Surprisingly, neither Morris nor Marshall noted that Christ’s lineage followed in the vein of previous expansions of Genesis 3:15.