Who is the blessed offspring of Abraham?

St. Paul's theology regarding the mystical body of Christ - the Church - can be traced back to the apostle's initial encounter with Christ, as in Bertholet Flemalle's Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus. Jesus doesn't ask Paul "Why you are persecuting my Church?" but rather, "Why are you persecuting me?"

St. Paul’s theology regarding the mystical body of Christ – the Church – can be traced back to the apostle’s initial encounter with Christ, as in Bertholet Flemalle’s Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus. Jesus doesn’t ask Paul “Why you are persecuting my Church?” but rather, “Why are you persecuting me?”

We’re familiar with the Church’s teaching on the body of Christ, but how many of us really appreciate what it means to be the body of Christ? In my book, Making Sense of Mary, I explored the surprising implications of this doctrine in prophecies about Christ and His mother. Before we explore one of these prophecies, the seed of Abraham through which all the nations will be blessed, we need to remind ourselves how radical our union with Christ truly is.

There is no better place to start than St. Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:4, 22:7, and 26:14). Paul encounters the risen Lord on his way to Damascus. Jesus says to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus’ words to St. Paul is interesting. Jesus did not say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” or “… persecuting those who have a personal relationship with me?” No. He said, “…why are you persecuting me?” To persecute members of Christ’s body is to persecute Christ, the head. As someone once said, “When you strike the toe, the head complains.”

Our unity with Christ is so radical that Christ associates us with Himself in such an intimate way that he uses the analogy of a head to its body. Christ’s words made a great impact on the saint’s theology. Indeed, no other New Testament writer speaks as much about the mystical body of Christ as St. Paul, and his understanding impacts everything, including Old Testament prophecies. In fact, it’s almost impossible to make sense of some of Paul’s teachings without taking Christ as Head and Body into account.

Take, for example, Paul’s teaching about God’s promise that through Abraham’s offspring (literally “seed”) all the nations will be blessed (Genesis 22:18). Paul is emphatic that the “seed” spoken of in this prophesy does not refer to many descendants, but only to one individual. He makes this point in a very unusual way in Galatians 3:16: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his descendant. It does not say, ‘And to descendants,’ as referring to many, but as referring to one, ‘And to your descendant,’ who is Christ.” This is strange, because in Hebrew, the word for “descendant” (seed) is singular, but it’s a collective singular. It’s singular, but it refers to many. We use the same convention in English; all of the children of Abraham are referred to using the singular “offspring” or “seed,” not “offsprings” or “seeds.”

Scholars have been scratching their heads why Paul would make such a strained point. But given the biblical background of St. Paul and his understanding of how intimate our union is with Christ, our head, it’s not strained at all.

However, Paul doesn’t stop there. Later on, he says the following: “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ … for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).

Wait a second! How many are Abraham’s descendant or seed? In Galatians 3:16, Paul insisted it referred only to one individual, but here he says it refers to many people, those “baptized into Christ.” In fact, the word Paul insists is singular in Galatians 3:16 is also singular in Galatians 3:26-29. Well, which is it Paul? Is Christ alone Abraham’s seed or are Christians Abraham’s seed? Paul’s answer seems to be “yes.” Christ is Abraham’s individual singular seed both as Head and Body.

Why bring up that the “seed” is singular? I think Paul is saying that the singular collective was a good way to express Christ as Head and Body. The singular word expresses only one individual, and yet at the same time it expresses many within that word just as “…we, though many, are one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5). Christ’s union with us is so profound that even biblical prophecies about the messiah have reference to us, the Church. Think about this union the next time you receive Communion (1 Corinthians 10:17).

 Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.