James Patrick’s Blog

October 27, 2009

Promised Land in the New Testament – summary [I&NC #14]

One of the possible ways of reading the numerous Old Testament prophecies about a Jewish return from exile is to see it all as having happened already in the return from exile in Babylon [see  the first post in this series].  Jesus arrived over five hundred years after that return, so His teaching and the teaching of His apostles, contained in the New Testament, should reveal to us whether or not they considered those prophecies of return to have already been fulfilled.  As will be clear below, they actually not only believed the nation of Israel to be still in a condition of spiritual ‘exile’ that denied them secure and permanent dwelling in the land, but they also knew that the Jewish people would again be cast into exile.  This exile to all nations (not just Assyria, or Babylon) would be a far greater exile than the first one, but even this one would eventually be finished.  To fulfil His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God would finally bring the Jewish people back to the land of promise very shortly before the return of Jesus.

1.  The conquest of the land under Joshua was not the ultimate fulfilment of the inheritance promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Paul clearly taught that the Law of Moses had actually made the Jewish people ‘slaves’ to sin, and as slaves rather than sons they were not permitted to inherit (Rom 7:1‑25; Gal 3:23–4:7; 4:21‑31).  Hebrews taught further that if Joshua had given the Israelites ‘rest’ in their land, David would hardly have written to a later generation warning them that rebellion would disqualify them from entering God’s ‘rest’ (Heb 4:1‑11).

2.  Even in Jesus’ generation the nation was considered to be in an ongoing condition of exile.

Jesus taught His people using parables in order to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah that the nation would “keep on hearing and will not understand… keep on seeing and will not perceive” (Mat 13:13‑15; cf. 11:5).  Isaiah was told that his prophetic task was to harden the eyes, ears and hearts of the Jewish nation until the fulfilment of the curse of exile (Isa 6:9‑13; cf. 32:1‑4; 34:16–35:6).

3.  Jesus decreed another greater exile on the Jewish nation, a final one that would complete God’s judgement against the sins of all previous generations of Israel.

In fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy to the Levites of his generation after the Babylonian Exile (Mal 3:1‑6), Jesus arrived four hundred years later as the appointed judge of the nation.  In response to their sin and hard-heartedness He delivered the verdict that the nation was unforgivable (Mat 12:31‑45; 23:1‑28).  To prove that they were more wicked than any previous generation, He would send them further messengers whom they would persecute, and therefore God would be justified in bringing on that generation the complete punishment for the sins of both them and all their fathers (Mat 23:29‑36; Luke 11:49‑51; cf. Isa 65:1‑7; Jer 16:10‑18; Rom 10:20-21).  When there is a complete judgement visited on the nation for all the blood of the prophets shed from the foundation of the world, there can never be another such punishment meted out again (Isa 51:17‑22).

4.  Evangelism amongst Jewish communities will not be completed until Jesus’ return.

Although seventy disciples were sent out in pairs to prepare for Jesus’ arrival in a town during His ministry (Luke 10:1‑17), Jesus also sent out the Twelve with a specific commission to the Jews (Luke 9:1‑10; Mat 10:11‑42), because they will be given authority over the twelve tribes of Israel when Jesus returns (Luke 22:28‑30).  Their commission, therefore, while similar to that of the seventy, concerned specifically Jewish communities (Mat 10:5‑6, 23), within and presumably beyond the land of Israel also.  They were told that this specific focus for preaching the Gospel would not finish “until the Son of Man comes”, a phrase Matthew linked closely to the Second Coming (24:3, 27‑44; 25:31‑46).  This was also explained as being the result of Jewish hard-heartedness and persecution in city after city of Israel, and Jesus’ intention was to clarify to His followers that the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” in exile (cf. Eze 34:11‑16) would not all be ‘found’ until the time of His own return.

5.  Gentile control over Jerusalem will come to an end when the “times of the Gentiles” are fulfilled.

Whereas Matthew recorded Jesus’ teachings about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 and the Second Coming without differentiating them (Matthew 24:1–25:46; esp. 24:3), Luke recorded them separately, the Second Coming in 17:20‑37, and the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and exile in 21:5‑36.  Therefore Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem and captivity and exile of the Jewish people (Luke 21:20‑24) has already happened and evidently continued until modern times.  Despite the obvious severity of the judgement Jesus decreed, He did explicitly declare that at a certain point Gentiles would no longer ‘trample under foot’ the city of Jerusalem (21:24; cf. Isa 63:17‑19), which must indicate that Jews will eventually regain control over Jerusalem.  The “times of the Gentiles” may be a reference to that period during which Gentiles control Jerusalem, but it would be better to understand it as the times in which Gentiles are the focus of God’s commission to His Church, which is suggested by the word “fulfilled”.  In the latter case, Jesus would be teaching that Jewish repossession of Jerusalem will coincide with the culmination of mission to the Gentiles.

6.  Israel’s national repentance will be prompted specifically by the reception of the gospel by all other nations.

Jesus taught that “the end will come” at the point when His witnesses have brought “this gospel of the kingdom” throughout “the whole inhabited earth” and “to all the nations” (Mat 24:14), which could be said to be the ‘fulfilment’ of the “times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24).  He then instructed His witnesses to go from Jerusalem “even to the remotest part of the earth”, making “disciples of all the nations… even to the end of the age”, and in the context He was implying that only then would the kingdom be restored to Israel (Acts 1:6‑8; Mat 28:19‑20).  Paul explained this further, writing that Israel has been hardened temporarily “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”; then because of jealousy at the mercy shown to all nations, Israel would soften and “thus all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:11‑15, 25‑27, 30‑31).  Jesus indicated that this would be brought about particularly through the ministry of another prophet like Elijah at whose word the nation would turn back to God, ‘restoring all things’ (Mat 17:10‑11; cf. Mal 4:5‑6).  It is unlikely that this prophet is described in Revelation 11, where the two witnesses prophesy judgement against the nations, not salvation to Israel.  Although imagery is used from the ministries of Elijah and Moses, both prophets of judgement against unbelieving Gentiles and Jews, it is more likely that these two prophetic ‘olive branches’ are the Jewish and Gentile portions of the Church who are then resurrected as Jesus returns (Rev 11:4, 11‑13; cf. 13:7; Rom 11:17; Zec 3:8–4:6).

7.  Israel will be living in Judaea and Jerusalem when as a nation they welcome Jesus’ return as their Messiah.

Jesus regularly used the ‘fig tree’ as an image of the nation of Israel (represented by its leadership), to describe its fruitlessness (Luke 13:6‑9), its withering (Mark 11:12‑27), its destruction when dry (Luke 23:27‑31), and finally its softening and fresh leaves indicating His imminent return (Mat 24:32‑33).  ‘Sitting under one’s own fig tree’ was a common metaphor for being permanently at ‘rest’ in the land, particularly after exile (Mic 4:1‑4; Zec 3:8‑10; John 1:47‑51), so the images of softening and leaves coming out imply the beginnings of repentance and dwelling in the land respectively.  However Jesus also prophesied this explicitly:  In the ‘great tribulation’ immediately before His return, Jesus said that the believers living in Judaea would find travel on the Sabbath particularly difficult (Mat 24:15‑20, 29‑30).  Not only that, but He prophesied to ‘Jerusalem’ (both the city and symbol for the nation) at the very end of His public ministry that “from now on you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Mat 23:39; cf. Luke 13:33-35).  Following the exile of the Jewish nation, the ‘desolation’ of Jerusalem’s ‘house’ (Mat 23:38; cf. Lev 26:31‑35; Isa 49:14‑21; 62:4), the nation would again see Jesus when as a nation they could welcome Him as their Messiah (cf. Mat 21:9).  In fact, for the sake of these ‘elect’, He will shorten the days of their ‘great tribulation’ (Mark 13:14‑20).  Peter also taught that national repentance was a condition for Jesus’ return (Acts 3:19‑21).

8.  Nevertheless, secure and permanent inheritance of the land for Israel will not be possible until Jesus returns, initiating the resurrection and restoration of all things.

Using a parable, Jesus taught His disciples that only on His return as King would He distribute territories within His kingdom to them in reward for faithful service (Luke 19:11‑28; cf. 22:28‑30).  When asked about the timing of the kingdom being restored to Israel, He acknowledged His Father’s plan to do this, but instructed His disciples to focus first on mission to all nations (Acts 1:6‑8).  Jews in the Early Church, including Barnabas, Stephen and the writer to the Hebrews, modelled and taught that in this age they must not expect to be able to hold on to their property within the land of Israel (Acts 4:32‑37; 7:4‑6; Heb 4:1‑11; 10:34).  Rather, they were to live by faith, whether they left their land to bring the good news of salvation inheritance to other nations also, or whether they chose to remain in their ‘promised land’ but live as if they were foreigners, ‘strangers and exiles’.  Choosing to return to other countries for the sake of security was not a valid option (Heb 11:15), but rather they needed to persevere by looking forward to their ‘better, permanent possession’ in that very land, in the form of a city and country being prepared by God and soon to be delivered from heaven (Heb 11:8‑16; Rev 21:10, 24‑27).  Paul associated the fulfilment of Israel’s promised gift of land with the salvation of all nations (Rom 9:4; 11:26‑29; cf. Zec 2:6-12).  He therefore recognised that Jewish and Gentile believers, as both natural and adopted ‘sons of God’, would inherit their apportioned lands at the same time, freeing all of creation from its slavery to corruption (Gal 3:23–4:8; Rom 4:11‑17; 8:14‑22).  This inheritance by every nation of lands bestowed from heaven by God is a large-scale fulfilment of what will happen at the same time on a small scale with each of us inheriting ‘heavenly’ resurrection bodies (Acts 17:26 with Deut 32:8‑9; Rom 8:18‑25; 1 Cor 15:42‑49; 2 Cor 5:1‑5). Thus ‘all things’ will be restored (Acts 3:21; Mat 17:11).

In summary of New Testament teaching, the promise of land inheritance made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and spoken about by the prophets has not yet ever been properly fulfilled.  This was because God chose to use the Law of Moses to harden the Israelites in their sin, making them unable with uncircumcised hearts to inherit as ‘sons of Abraham’.  Moses taught that God would personally atone for Israel, and reconcile them to Himself by making them jealous of His favour on the nations.  Jesus then came as the ‘seed of Abraham’ bringing blessing: fulfilling the powerless Law by becoming a curse for Israel, and dying to atone for the sin of Jew and Gentile alike, reversing the disobedience and death of Adam.  His resurrection is both the object of faith, by which all can be declared righteous, and the content of our hope.  Jesus declared the Jewish nation of His own generation to be unforgivable, decreeing that within a generation they would enter into an exile that would complete God’s punishment for all previous rejection of His messengers.  Witness to scattered Jews must continue, but their full repentance and inheritance would not happen before every nation on earth had also received the good news of salvation (resurrection, deliverance and inheritance).  At the end of the age God will begin restoring Israel to her land and softening her heart towards Him, using a prophet like Elijah, and even more importantly the jealousy provoked by seeing all nations accept her Messiah.  In the midst of the ‘great tribulation’ that follows the fulfilment of the times of the Gentiles, Jewish believers in the land will undergo persecution, but will be delivered by their returning King whom they will welcome as a whole nation.  The faithful from previous generations will return with Jesus, met by surviving believers joining them from the earth in a visible imitation of Jesus’ own ascension, and all will receive their resurrection bodies with Jesus.  After destroying the enemies of His people, Jesus will establish His kingdom on earth from Jerusalem.  Within this worldwide kingdom, the Twelve disciples will rule over Israel in their land, and Gentile believers will rule over every nation across the earth, each in its own territory as apportioned by Jesus [the new ‘Joshua’].  In this way all creation will be released into the glorious freedom of the ‘sons of God’.

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October 20, 2009

Promised Land in Hebrews [I&NC #13]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 3:36 pm
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In this final exegetical post on the subject of the Promised Land in the New Testament, we will consider the book of Hebrews.  As we would expect, a book of the New Testament written specifically to Jewish believers does not neglect the subject of land inheritance.  However, as with all the other passages we have looked at in the Gospels, Acts, and Romans, the writer to the Hebrews situates the time of the inheritance in the future rather than the present.  There is a task of world evangelisation to finish before Jewish believers can finally receive the promise of the ultimate Sabbath rest in their land.  They must learn to live by faith as their ancestors did, welcoming the promise from a distance, because perfection will be attained only together with the full number of nations descended from Abraham by faith.

Hebrews 3:1–4:11 – After demonstrating that Jesus was not an ‘angel’ but flesh and blood like us (chapters 1–2), but before explaining three ways in which Jesus had made the Law obsolete (priesthood, Temple and sacrifices; chapters 5–10) the writer to the Hebrews first dealt with the question of the promised land.  He showed that trusting in Jesus is more reliable than trusting in Moses, who bore witness to future things (3:5), but whose generation died in the wilderness through unbelief.  Clearly Joshua’s generation had not fulfilled the prophetic promise of a permanent ‘rest’ in the promised land (4:8), because David and later prophets still spoke of a future time of restoration (4:7).  Furthermore, even in the present generation there was still ‘work’ to do (4:10), and the future ‘Sabbath rest’ for Jewish believers [as for those from every nation] was a promise that would only be inherited by trusting in Jesus [‘Joshua’ in Greek] ‘until the end’ (3:14; 4:3, 11).  Believers might still ‘today’ be disqualified from inheriting the promise through unbelief and disobedience (3:19–4:2), as had the generation of Moses who died in the wilderness even after being ‘saved’ from slavery.

Obviously the writer here is not saying that the promise of ‘rest’ has been withdrawn since the Mosaic Law has been abolished, nor even that it has been ‘spiritualised’.  On the contrary, the entrance into the land under Joshua is treated as the best example so far of a fulfilment of the promised ‘rest’, and if even Joshua’s inheritance of the land was not the fulfilment, how much less could Jewish believers in the mid-first century AD think that their generation was the final fulfilment.  The writer reminds his listeners that in earlier times they endured great persecution from fellow Jews, but “accepted joyfully the seizure of your property”.  The implication is that they should again be willing to give up their land in the present age, knowing that they will inherit “a better, lasting possession” (10:34‑35).  What makes the inheritance of land in the future ‘better’ is its permanence.

Hebrews 11:8-16 – Our writer has explained how Jesus has made the Mosaic sacrificial system obsolete, and furthermore how continued reliance on it is now actually evidence instead of unfaithfulness towards God’s new covenant, deserving of terrifying judgement.  He then returns to his earlier theme of future inheritance of the promised land, inheritance that is only ensured by faithful endurance in the present (10:32‑39; cf. 3:5–4:11).  This may involve accepting present seizure of property within the land of Israel, but we can be joyful in this because we have a greater birthright (12:16‑17), a permanent inheritance in the future.  With this, our writer recalls that the ages of creation were “prepared” by God’s promise, which made them without having to use pre-existent materials (11:3; cf. Isa 66:8).  What is more, not a single one among the righteous heroes of the past actually received their promised inheritance, because their ‘perfection’ will happen at the same time as ours (11:39‑40; cf. Luke 13:28‑29).  Instead they wandered homeless and persecuted, condemning the rest of the earth’s inhabitants by their faith, and looking forward to the resurrection (11:7, 13, 27, 35‑38).  In fact, such was their righteousness that this present world was not even a worthy inheritance for them (11:7, 16, 38).  The question is, then, what is the inheritance of which the faithful are worthy?

In 11:8‑16, our writer focuses attention on the physical territory in which Abraham wandered, the country in which his listeners were now living (cf. Acts 7:4).  If he had wanted, this would have been the ideal time to tell Jewish believers that the land was no longer important, that they should hope for a ‘different’ country, or perhaps ‘living in heaven for ever’.  However he says quite the opposite.  That territory is “the land of promise”, the place “he was to receive for an inheritance”.  If none of these people of God in this chapter have yet received what was promised (11:13, 39‑40), this means that Abraham will still receive this territory at some future point.  He then writes that Isaac and Jacob lived in tents also, as “fellow heirs of the same promise”, meaning that they too will receive this territory along with Abraham (cf. Luke 13:28).

What made their behaviour unusual was that they did not actually own any of the land in their own day (cf. Acts 7:5), choosing to live in it as if they were foreigners rather than heirs.  They “confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the land”, and yet chose to remain there rather than return to the land from which they had left.  Clearly, they were wanting an inheritance, but they believed they were already in the right place.  Even so, it was not quite what they were looking for; they wanted a ‘better’ country, that is, a more permanent one (cf. 10:34), and they were prepared to wait right there until it was delivered (cf. Gen 26:1-6).  True to His word, God has been preparing a city for them, even a country, built not by their own hands but by God Himself (i.e. ‘heavenly’ – 11:10, 16; 12:22; 1 Cor 15:47‑53; 2 Cor 5:1‑4).

This is our own hope also, in every land on earth that we ourselves have been called to:  When we choose not to abandon the mission God has given us by returning to the country from which we left, it is because we are looking forward to God’s promised, prepared inheritance for us in the age to come – the very lands in which we presently live as strangers (cf. Gen 13:14-17).  On the other hand, we might choose to leave the land of our inheritance in order to help other nations receive their inheritance, just like the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh chose not to receive their own territories until the rest of the tribes had conquered theirs (Num 32:16-24).  They did not give up the hope of inheriting their land, but they postponed it for the sake of the rest of God’s people.  Heaven itself is not our inheritance; rather it is God’s workshop where He is preparing our earthly inheritance for us, “a better possession and a lasting one”.

In summary, therefore, we have seen how the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles all teach clearly that Israel will indeed permanently possess the territory promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the resurrection age to come.  This will happen after the Messiah returns, as a result of the whole nation of Israel being reconciled to their God when they see God’s mercy shown to the full number of Gentile nations.  Israel is not alone, therefore, in inheriting a promised land.  Paul saw that just as Adam’s sin affected all humanity and all creation, so Jesus’ obedience will bring restoration to all humanity and to every land on earth (cf. Acts 17:26), because by faith they too can become adopted ‘sons of God’ and the ‘seed of Abraham’.  The hope for every nation, and for every believer, is that as they move in faith to the place to which God has called them, God will grant them a permanent inheritance there in the time of resurrection and ‘restoration of all things’.  Thus ‘the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord’, for Jesus will be ‘the king of all the earth’, ruling from Mount Zion, the ‘city of the great king’ (Num 14:21; Psa 47; 48:1‑8; Mat 5:35; Rev 20:4‑9; 21:10, 22‑27).

The next post will offer a summary of the New Testament teaching concerning the promised land.

October 12, 2009

Promised Land in Romans, part two [I&NC #12]

The three chapters of Romans 9-11 deal with the biggest objection Gentile believers might have to his ‘gospel’ of first Jews and also Gentiles receiving the inheritance of salvation.  They explain why Paul can be so confident that his own nation will experience ‘salvation’, despite all present evidence to the contrary.  Within these chapters, the verses at the beginning and end of his explanation offer the clearest evidence of Paul’s conviction that the covenant of land remains in effect for Israel.

Romans 9:4 – So far Paul has presented thoroughly the gospel message that both Jews and Gentiles are equally slaves to sin, but to show His love God sent His Son to pay the penalty of death on behalf of both Gentile and Jew, so that both alike could put their trust solely in His resurrection and thereby receive the Spirit now and inherit ‘salvation’ in the age to come.  This promise of ‘salvation’ inheritance, for the Jew first and also for the Gentile, is undermined however by Israel’s apparent failure as a nation to confess their Messiah and so inherit their promises.  Paul’s solution to this problem is to demonstrate how God has purposely delayed the inheritance of Israel so that the spiritual descendants of Abraham might be first gathered from all nations, and only then will Israel, along with the elect of every nation, together inherit their promised lands.

Paul is very open about his ‘unceasing grief’ about the hardness of his own Jewish nation toward their Messiah, quite the opposite of those who presume unwisely that God has simply moved on to bigger things (11:25).  Although he is the Apostle to the Gentiles, he would prefer to be personally cast out from the Messiah’s people in order that they as a nation might receive their inheritance of salvation (9:3).  Not only is this what the Messiah Himself chose to do, but Paul is surely recalling the plea of Moses to this effect in Exodus 32:32 (cf. Deut 9:14).  Twice God gave Moses the option of allowing Him to destroy Israel completely and instead make a great nation of Moses himself, once when the people made the golden calf before they received the Ten Commandments (Exod 32:9‑10), and a second time when they refused to go in and possess their promised land (Num 14:11‑12; cf. Deut 9:13‑14, 22‑23).  In both cases, Moses appealed directly to God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that He would multiply their descendants and allow them to inherit the promised land for ever (Exod 32:11-13; Num 14:15‑16; Deut 9:27‑29); if God didn’t do this, the nations would question God’s own power to fulfil His promises.  Such is again the situation in Paul’s time.

In response to the threat of destruction on Israel, therefore, Paul likewise appeals to God’s choice of the nation, listing a series of nine ‘advantages’ of the Jews (9:4‑5; cf. 3:1‑2).  Paul appears to have deliberately ordered this list according to the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery.  Thus he starts with their descent from ‘Israel’ (Exod 1:1‑7), followed by six specific gifts: their ‘adoption as sons’ (Exod 4:22‑26), the ‘glory’ (Exod 13:21‑22; 16:10; cf. 24:16‑18; Num 14:10), the ‘covenants’ (Exod 19:3‑6; 20:1–23:33; 24:3‑8), the ‘giving of the Law’ (Exod 24:1‑2, 12; 31:18; 34:1‑4, 27‑29), the [tabernacle] ‘service’ (Exod 25:1–31:11), and the ‘promises’ (Exod 32:13, 32:31–33:3, 12­‑17).  He then appeals, as Moses did within the section on promises, to ‘the fathers’ (Exod 32:13; 33:1), but takes it even further than Moses did, appealing to the Jewish descent of ‘the Messiah… who is over all” (cf. Exod 33:2, 12; 23:20‑23).  The precise order of these nine elements according to the book of Exodus, concluding with the very passage where Moses asks, like Paul here, that he be blotted out in place of the nation, is strong evidence of Paul’s meaning.  The ‘promises’ that were given to ‘the fathers’ are spoken of in this passage (Exod 32:13 etc.) specifically as the multiplication of Israel ‘as the stars of the heavens’ and their inheritance ‘for ever’ of ‘all this land of which I have spoken’.  The blessings on the nations are not referred to here, apart perhaps from the way the nations will doubt God’s love and power if He fails to fulfil His promises.

Therefore we have in Romans 9:4 a clear reference by Paul to God’s enduring covenant promises of multiplication of the Jewish nation ‘as the stars of the heavens’ and their eternal possession of the specific territory promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Sequence of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11

Paul’s first argument against the idea that God’s promises have failed for Israel is that God is entirely at liberty to choose some and harden others.  Ever since Abraham, God has deliberately and consistently ordained that the most unlikely child will be the ‘seed’ of promise, independent of the actions of this chosen ‘seed’, simply to prove that it is all about God’s mercy rather than man’s effort (9:6-13).  Paul therefore has to address two objections to the idea that God has hardened the majority of the nation of Israel entirely of His own choice (9:14‑22; cf. Isa 64:6‑9).  The only reason he gives for this hardening is that God uses it to demonstrate His glory to those on whom He shows mercy, both Gentiles and the remnant of Jews (9:23‑29).

His second argument raises the question of why Israel who pursued righteousness according to the Law of Moses did not arrive at their goal.  His answer is that however zealous they were for God, they were trying to accomplish their own righteousness and so they stumbled over their own Messiah, who demanded that they put their trust solely in His resurrection (9:30–10:13).  Even the Law itself was meant to be observed by faith (9:32), because Moses himself wrote that the commands he was giving were not a matter of hard work; rather, people could only accomplish these commands by allowing the Lord their God to circumcise their hearts so they could love Him and live (Deut 30:6‑14).

His third argument concerns whether Israel has actually been told about this good news of the Messiah, as the Gentiles had.  His response was, ‘Of course!’  Many apostles had gone to Jerusalem and the Jews announcing the ‘good news’ that not only has redemption come for Israel, but the Gentiles can now also rejoice in the ‘salvation’ of the Jewish God (Isa 52:7‑10).  Gentiles have been told of God’s glory (Psa 19), and because they found the God they weren’t even seeking (Isa 65:1­‑2), He would use them to make His own people jealous, the very people who had made Him jealous by worshiping idols (Deut 32:16‑21).

His fourth argument applies the first argument more specifically to the present day; God has not completely rejected His people, because there is still a believing remnant [and by implication, there will always be such a remnant].  Paul himself is Jewish (11:1), and not only him, but as in Elijah’s time so at this time God has chosen thousands of Jews, entirely according to His own grace (11:2‑6).  As in the time of Moses, David, and Isaiah, God Himself had decreed a hardening over the majority of the Jewish nation, choosing a small selection to obtain righteousness (11:7-10).

Finally Paul comes to his fifth and greatest argument, that the nation has not stumbled so badly that they will not rise again (11:11-32).  Moses had prophesied that Gentiles would become believers precisely so that His own people might be made jealous and return to Him (Deut 32:21, 36, 43).  For this reason Paul, an apostle to the Gentiles, boasted to the Jews about Gentile conversion to try to make them jealous and perhaps save some of them (11:13‑14); he saw his own Gentile mission as a method of reaching out to Jews.  What Paul recognised was that God had enslaved Israel to sin in order to redeem Gentile sinners, and was now redeeming Gentile sinners in order to redeem Israel also; God has made all nations slaves to sin so that by His choice and power alone He can redeem them all (11:30‑32).  What is more, if God’s anger towards Israel was a blessing for all nations, His favour towards Israel will certainly bring even more blessing to all nations, in the form of “life from the dead” (11:12, 15).  Israel is promised not just ‘reconciliation’ when they return to their own God (11:24), but ‘life from the dead’ also – thus we can conclude that their national restoration will result in the return of Jesus and resurrection of all believers.

Romans 11:29 – Paul’s Gentile listeners were rebuked for being ‘arrogant’ towards the Jewish nation, whether believers or unbelievers (11:17‑18).  Gentiles must not forget that although they are now able to inherit the promises as adopted ‘sons of God’ and the ‘seed of Abraham’, the Jews are ‘sons of God’ and ‘seed of Abraham’ by birth, and will all the more naturally be restored to their own covenant promises (11:24).  The ‘mystery’ of the gospel  (11:25‑27; cf. 16:25‑26) is that Israel has been temporarily hardened to allow all nations to enter into the covenant also, but when the full number of nations are present, this will cause the whole nation of Israel to be ‘saved’, both from sin and into their inheritance.

Although Israel as a whole is presently far from God so that Gentiles can be saved, nevertheless, within the purposes of God the nation is still “beloved for the sake of the fathers” (11:28).  The reason for this is that God cannot and will not revoke either His gifts or His calling.  What are the gifts and calling of Israel?  The calling of Israel is to be a blessing to all nations, and the gifts are a multitude of faithful Jewish descendants and an eternal inheritance of their promised land [see discussion of 9:4 above].

I am convinced that Paul believed the promises to the Patriarchs of multiplication and territorial inheritance to have endured into the new covenant.  Although in writing to Gentiles he usually had no reason to defend the promise of land to the Jews, the letter to the Romans was a clear and important exception.  Even so, he certainly never claimed that Jewish believers such as himself had a claim to the promised land in this age, before every nation had received the good news.  Jews in the land, and probably even Jewish believers, did make such a claim, which was something even Jesus had to address (cf. Acts 1:6‑8).

If Paul were to write to a Jewish majority church, therefore, he would almost certainly have urged them to trust God for the future inheritance of the land rather than trusting the obsolete Temple system of Moses to qualify for inheritance in this age.  Enduring persecution from fellow Jews for rejecting the Temple was preferable to risking divine judgement for despising the Messiah’s greater sacrifice and priesthood, even if it meant the seizure of one’s family inheritance of land (Heb 10:34).  In every generation of Israel there had been the faithful remnant who had longed for the fulfilment of the promised inheritance, but had instead chosen suffering for the sake of the rest of God’s people.  God would certainly fulfil His promises, but not yet.  This is precisely the message written to the Hebrew believers in Israel probably just a few years after the letter to the Romans, as we shall see in the next post.

October 5, 2009

Promised Land in Romans, part one [I&NC #11]

The three chapters in Romans where Paul wrestles with the general unbelief of his own generation of Jews is actually a marvellous explanation of God’s sovereign purposes in this hardening.  Like the book of Acts, Paul recognises the Gentile mission as the reason why Israel has not yet inherited her covenant promises, but nevertheless he triumphantly reaffirms the certainty of fulfilment, because this fulfilment for Israel will itself signify the greater fulfilment of Christ’s inheritance of every nation for the Church.  In order to understand the flow of Paul’s argument, it is worth explaining briefly the situation that prompted the letter, and giving a summary of Paul’s reasoning up to the start of chapter 9:

Background to Romans

In the nine years since writing to the Galatians, Paul noticed that the massive growth of Gentile churches meant that the main theological question within churches comprised of both Jews and Gentiles had changed.  The decree of the Jerusalem Council confirmed that Gentile believers did not need to be circumcised (Acts 15:22‑31).  Instead, Jewish believers were quickly becoming a minority everywhere apart from the land of Israel, and as this religion became less recognisably Jewish, the question naturally arose whether Jews had any remaining significance at all in God’s purposes.  This question is still very common today.

The issue was most noticeable in the church in Rome, because Jewish disputes about the Messiah had led to the Emperor Claudius expelling all Jews in AD49 (cf. Acts 18:2), leaving an entirely Gentile church there.  Although Jewish believers did begin to return over the next few years (cf. Rom 16:2-4), the church there had changed unalterably, and tensions were introduced.  Jews boasted about their superior knowledge of God’s righteous Law, insisting on being teachers (1:17–3:20; 12:3), but Gentile believers criticised Jews for their weak faith when they continued to believe that eating certain foods or failing to observe Sabbath laws was sinful (14:1–15:4).

Paul wanted to visit Rome to teach into these tensions, but first he had to carry the gifts of the Gentile churches to their poorer brothers in Jerusalem (15:22-29).  He knew that this issue would only become more of a problem the longer he left it, but also that Rome, being the centre of wisdom and culture (1:14‑15), could positively affect the rest of the Gentile mission if they understood the truth (1:8‑13; 16:19).  He already knew a number of the Roman believers personally, both Jews and Gentiles, and he knew that there were some on whom he could rely to explain his arguments in more detail (Priscilla and Aquila – 16:3‑15; cf. Acts 18:2‑3, 26).  Therefore he decided to use his authority and well-known successes as the Apostle to the Gentiles to write boldly to the church in Rome and explain in detail the theological ‘mystery’ of Jews and Gentiles within God’s purposes (15:15‑19; 16:25‑26).

Paul knew that understanding this ‘good news’ was the solution to the unity problems; it would help the Gentiles to give due respect to God’s choice of the Jews first (1:16; 2:9‑10; 3:1‑2; 15:8‑9; cf. 11:16; Eph 1:12‑13; Jas 1:18; Rev 14:1‑5), but also help the Jews to stop boasting in the obsolete Law of Moses and walk in the freedom of the Spirit.  But how could Paul defend the ‘good news’ that God is able to bring ‘salvation’ first to the Jews (1:16), when the nation of Israel had obviously rejected their promised Messiah?  Perhaps He had passed over the Jews now that He had bigger plans; perhaps His commitment to them had failed (3:1‑4; 9:6; 11:1)?  Paul had no choice, therefore, but to tackle head on the question of God’s purposes for Israel as a nation.  If God couldn’t even reconcile His own Jewish nation to Himself, and so fulfil His promises of a permanent land inheritance, Paul could hardly presume to teach other nations about their glorious hope of inheriting the rest of the world in the Messiah (4:13; 8:18‑25).

Brief summary of Paul’s reasoning in Romans

What follows is a summary of the ‘mystery’ as Paul explained it to the church in Rome.  Israel’s inheritance of the promises made to Jacob is at the foundation of Paul’s entire argument:

The God of Jacob promised His people an eternal inheritance, but the holy Law He gave them through Moses before they entered the promised land instead made them slaves to sin just like the Gentiles, unable to inherit as ‘sons’.  God’s own Son therefore came as a Jew, so that by His obedient death He could legally free Israel from the Law’s power, dying in place of both Jews and Gentiles to pay for their sin.  Jesus was then resurrected, so that both Jew and Gentile alike could trust in God’s ability to raise the dead, and thus become righteous ‘sons of God’ just like Abraham, able to inherit his promised ‘blessing for all nations’.  The life of the Spirit that Jesus received began to spread, first to the Jews, and then, because of the temporary hardness of Israel, to nation after nation.  Eventually this life will ‘overwhelmingly conquer’ the death that Adam brought to all humanity and all creation.  Provoked by the mercy shown to all nations, Israel will finally return to God, bringing life from the dead and thereby inheriting her promises alongside every other nation, right across the earth.  For this reason, in the Church we should live out the ‘obedience of faith’, avoiding sin by the power of the Spirit, and showing love to others who are different from us, because this will demonstrate to worldly authorities and unbelievers the truth of God’s promises in Christ of harmony and ‘salvation’ for all nations together in the resurrection age to come.

Flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 1-8

Paul begins his argument by demonstrating to Gentiles that the Law of Moses is self-evidently accurate in its assessment of what is bad, and therefore comes from the Creator God (1:18‑32).  Gentiles are hypocrites, judging others for sins they commit themselves (2:1‑8, 14‑16), as Jews do also (2:17–3:20), meaning that Jews and Gentiles are equally sinners before God (2:9-13; 3:23).  The good news, however, is that God has displayed in Jesus’ death and resurrection a way of being right before God that does not depend on Law but rather on trust (1:17; 3:21‑22, 24‑30).

This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no longer any ‘law’ by which we must live (3:31).  Instead the ‘law’ we have to follow is the command to trust that God can do what He has promised and raise the dead (3:27; 4:3‑5, 22­‑25).  The Jews’ own ethnic father Abraham proved that being in right relationship with God did not actually depend on following Law, but rather on believing that God could raise the dead (4:1‑25), something Gentiles can now do as well as Jews.  Being right with God means Gentiles can share the Jewish hope of future resurrection inheritance, and the deposit of the Holy Spirit helps us make it through present tribulations while we wait (5:1‑11).  In fact, to prove His love for Gentiles and intention to include them in the Jewish hope of ‘salvation’, the Messiah died for them before they even knew about Him, while they were still ‘sinners’ (cf. Gal 2:15).

God’s plan to ‘reconcile’ every nation to Himself, using Gentiles themselves to spread the good news of life to others (5:11), was actually just like the way death had initially spread to all humans starting with one man, in fact, with just one action (5:12-19).  But compared with Adam’s sin, Jesus’ obedience accomplished even more, overcoming even the punishments that started to accumulate for Jews when Moses brought in the Law (5:13‑14, 20‑21; cf. 2:12; 3:25; Acts 17:30).  If His grace is powerful enough to atone for breaking the Laws of Moses, that still doesn’t mean Jews are free to keep breaking it (6:1-14; cf. 3:8, 31), because belonging to Messiah means recognising that His crucifixion was a payment for Jews breaking the Law, and we Jews are now made alive with Him in this new age of laws on our hearts (cf. Gal 2:19-20; 3:13; Heb 10:19-26; Isa 59:12-21; Jer 31:31-34).  Equally, Gentiles who were never under ‘Law’ in the first place, are also not free to presume on His death-defeating grace (6:15-23), because they used to be obedient slaves to sin but now have a new master, One who can give them far better promises than the ‘wages’ of death they used to get.

Paul then realised that the Gentile illustration of slavery to sin could be linked to the Jewish illustration of sharing in the curse-bearing death of Messiah which did away with the former age of habitual Law-breaking.  Therefore he turns back to his Jewish listeners (7:1), who knew well the illustration of the nation being ‘married’ to her God (e.g. Isa 54:1-8).  The Law of Moses had actually bound her to the husband of Sin, producing the offspring (‘fruit’) of death; the only way she could become married to Messiah would be for the old marriage covenant (Law) to be ended through her own death (sharing the shameful curse of a crucified Messiah in baptism), freeing her then to wed her Messiah (7:1-6).  The marriage Law wasn’t what produced death, but it was the husband Sin who used the Law to produce deadly offspring.  Therefore the nation of Israel (habitually unfaithful even beforehand) had been given in marriage by God to her chosen husband Sin, but God wed them using a holy covenant of Law.  This resulted in the situation where the nation realised she desperately desired another husband in order to produce righteousness, but having been married to Sin she was ‘sold in slavery’ to this husband because of the Law (7:7-25).  Even the individual Jew under the Law [or Christian without a true experience of grace] can testify to this desire for freedom from Sin and joining to Messiah.

That is why there is no longer any condemnation for the Jewish believer who does not obey the Mosaic Law – the new marriage covenant ‘Law’ of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jer 31:31‑34), in whom we are now ‘married’ to the Messiah, is evidence that we are no longer in our former marriage, bound by the Law of Moses to Sin and its offspring Death.  The holy Law could not change the Jewish nation’s uncircumcised, fleshly heart, by enslaving her to Sin and showing her the results of her rebellion.  Instead God’s own Son entered that marriage by becoming Jewish in the ‘likeness’ of that fleshly nation that was bound to Sin (8:3; cf. 1:3; 15:8; Gal 4:4‑5), and because He obeyed the different Law of the Spirit even to the point of crucifixion, the fleshly Law of Moses condemned Him (as an ‘adulterer’ breaking Israel’s marriage covenant with Sin – cf. Num 5:19-28) using the curse against ‘anyone who is hung on a tree’ (Gal 3:13).  As the representative head of the Jewish nation (i.e. the Davidic Messiah) He Himself suffered the holy Law’s curse on behalf of the whole nation (Gal 3:10, 13) and suffered the ‘exile’ of death as a penalty (cf. Heb 13:12-14).  However, although He was a Jew according to the flesh, He had never consummated Israel’s marriage with Sin to produce Death despite being faultless according to that covenant, and when He was still punished for breaking the covenant, He condemned Sin as the false husband, and His own representative death ended the old marriage covenant of the Law of Moses joining Israel to Sin (8:1-3).

The nation of Israel can therefore be faithful to her holy marriage ‘Law’, not the Law of Moses with Sin but the Law of the Spirit with her Messiah, and produce life.  Marriage ‘faithfulness’ (i.e. righteousness) is now found not through the Law of Moses, obeying Sin because of fleshly uncircumcision of heart, but rather through the Law of the Spirit, obeying Messiah because His Spirit has circumcised our heart and we are no longer ‘in the flesh’ (8:4‑10).  Believers, not unbelieving Jews, are those who truly observe the new ‘Law’ that has been given to Israel in Messiah (cf. Gal 5:13-26; 6:15-16).  We must therefore live according to the commands of the Spirit, who will ultimately cause us to inherit resurrection life as the true ‘sons of God’ and heirs of God, unlike unbelieving Jews (8:11‑14; cf. Gal 3:24‑26; 4:1‑2, 4‑5, 29‑30).  Not only are Jews truly ‘sons of God’ if they are led by the Spirit, but also Gentiles who were ‘slaves’ can be adopted as ‘sons of God’ and ‘co-heirs’, if they are led by the Spirit (8:14‑15; cf. Gal 3:26-29; 4:3, 5-8; 5:1-6).

Having returned now to his earlier focus on what ‘salvation’ means – the resurrection life that Gentiles and Jews will both inherit (cf. 5:2-10), Paul expands on this hope of inheritance.  The coming ‘restoration of all things’ will happen at the time we are all alike ‘adopted’ as fully mature heirs of God and receive resurrection (8:23; cf. Gal 4:1‑2), and it will include all of creation, not just our own physical bodies.  In the meantime we must rely on the Spirit to endure our temporary present persecution, being confident that no persecution can prevent us from eventually receiving “all things” as our inheritance (8:17‑39).

Paul quotes here from Psalm 44, a psalm which recalls how ‘in the days of old’ God Himself ‘planted’ Israel in her land without her help.  Now, though, He has apparently rejected His people, scattering them into exile so that the Gentiles mock and revile them.  The psalmist protests that the righteous within Israel have not turned away from God, but calls on Him to redeem the nation for His own sake.  Evidently Paul is conscious of His own nation’s wickedness and imminent judgement, even though there is a suffering righteous remnant who have accepted their Messiah’s new covenant.  In the face of Israel’s hardness of heart, however, Paul is for some reason still able to rejoice (8:37) in hope that God will again redeem Israel and plant them in the land of their inheritance, for His own sake, at that time when the rest of creation too is freed from slavery to corruption and all the ‘sons of God’ are revealed in glory.

The next three chapters of Romans, therefore, explain why Paul can be so confident that his own nation will experience ‘salvation’, despite all present evidence to the contrary.  Within these chapters, the verses at the beginning and end of his explanation offer the clearest evidence of Paul’s conviction that the covenant of land remains in effect for Israel.

October 2, 2009

Promised Land in Acts, part two [I&NC #10]

Acts 7:2-53 – Stephen’s long speech to the Sanhedrin before his martyrdom might appear to some readers to be a vain attempt by a condemned man to delay the inevitable and prove that he was actually a good Jew who knew his Bible stories.  By no means!  In this sermon Stephen was expertly retelling the story of God’s people to religious leaders accustomed to putting themselves in the shoes of their ancestors.  By recounting certain features of their history rather than others, he was making a series of uncomfortable theological points, getting his hearers so increasingly riled that they finally covered their ears and shouted to drown him out, and stoned him into silence.  Perhaps it was the points made in this sermon that Paul [Saul] couldn’t get out of his head (Acts 7:58–8:3) as he sought to purge the land from the followers of this false prophet Jesus, one who taught that the Temple and the commands of Moses were to be done away with (Acts 6:11-14; cf. Deut 13:1‑15).  Here we will ‘listen’ to Stephen’s speech through the ears of first century Jews, by applying each story to ‘our’ own time:

7:2-8 is the story of the father of the ‘circumcision’ (the Jewish nation), Abraham “our father”, who was directed by God to move to “this country in which you are now living”.  However, despite the promise of this land as “a possession, and to his descendants after him”, ‘our father’ was given “not even a foot of ground”.  The first implication is therefore that although ‘we’ also, like our father, are living in our promised land, we will be given ‘not even a foot of ground’ to inherit, perhaps not for hundreds of years yet.  The second, subsidiary implication is that there will indeed be judgement on “whatever nation to which they will be in bondage”, after which the nation will be brought back in to worship God in their promised land.  This assurance of eventual vindication against the Greeks and Romans would hardly, however, make up for the clear warning that ‘our’ nation will soon become “aliens in a foreign land … enslaved and mistreated for [hundreds of] years”.

7:9-35 continues with the story “as the time of the promise was approaching” for fulfilment of the covenant of land for the descendants of Abraham.  First of all, ‘our fathers’ “became jealous of Joseph and sold him”, but “God was with him”, not only rescuing him from all his afflictions, but making him governor over the nations.  In a similar way, Moses, who was “lovely to God”, a “man of power in words and deeds” who was “approaching the age of forty”, was still “disowned” by his own brothers who objected to the idea that God might make him “a ruler and judge over us”.  Nevertheless, God “has sent” this same disowned wonder-worker to be “both a ruler and a deliverer” for his oppressed people.  The third implication is unmistakeable – this was a time when the Jewish people were expectantly looking for the fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecies and the arrival of the Messiah (Dan 9:24-25), the One who would restore Jewish authority over the land.  However, despite being beloved of God and powerful in words and deeds, Jesus was disowned by His brothers who were jealous of the authority God had given Him to be their ruler and deliverer.  Even so, God delivered Him from all His afflictions and made Him ruler over both His own people and the nations.

7:36-40 focuses in on the reaction of the Israelite nation to their deliverer Moses while he was among them, as the time approached for the covenant of promised land to be fulfilled.  Moses performed “wonders and signs” not only at the beginning of his ministry but throughout the time of their journey through the wilderness, as a pattern for the “prophet like me” he foresaw whom God would raise up “from your brethren”.  Moses was not only among the congregation in the wilderness, but also received revelation directly from God through the ‘angel of the Lord’ who travelled with ‘our fathers’; thus he received not just the written laws recorded in the books of the Pentateuch, but also “living oracles to pass on to you”.  Even so, “our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him” and in their hearts chose slavery and idolatry instead, particularly after he was no longer visibly among them.  The fourth implication is a powerful denunciation of the way the Jewish nation had treated Jesus during His ministry and even afterwards, despite their expectation of an imminent fulfilment of the Messianic age.  Although Jesus proved Himself to be the ‘prophet like Moses’ with both His miracles and His remarkable ‘living oracles’, explaining and superseding the written Law of Moses, even so ‘you’ were disobedient to the voice of God revealed through Him.  ‘You’ denounced Him as your deliverer, and in your hearts instead you chose slavery (to the Roman authorities) and idolatry (of the Temple system), and all the more now that Jesus is no longer visible among you.

7:41-50 shifts attention onto the significance of the sanctuary and later Temple in God’s purposes for Israel.  In the days of Israel’s rebellion against Moses, they chose to make sacrifices to “the works of their hands” in which they rejoiced.  In response, God turned away from them also, and “delivered them up to serve the host of heaven”, because the sacrificial worship they made in the tabernacle was in reality made not to God but to the images that they themselves had made.  As a result, God promised to send the nation into exile in Babylon.  ‘Our fathers’ did actually bring that tabernacle with them into the land, but when David who had “found favour in God’s sight” asked if he could find a permanent “dwelling place for the house of Jacob”, God’s response was to deny any need for either a Temple or a permanent physical location for His presence (cf. 2 Sam 7:6‑7).  His son Solomon did build the Temple, but God repeated through later prophets His continued rejection of a need for Temple and holy place.  The fifth implication explains why Stephen was accused of speaking against “this holy place”, just as the fourth implication touched on how Jesus’ ‘living oracles’ superseded the Law of Moses and “the customs which Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:11-14).  More important than the sanctuary itself is the object of the nation’s worship, and just like ‘your fathers’, in your rebellion against God you are actually making sacrifices not to Him but to the glorious ‘works of your hands’, the impressive Temple full of your own self-honouring adornments in which you rejoice (cf. Luke 21:5-6).  God has no special attachment either to this building or to this place when it is not honouring Him, and He will remove you, like your fathers, into exile from the land.

In 7:51-53 Stephen has finished his retelling of Israel’s history and made his points loud and clear, and now in conclusion he makes explicit what had been implied, and condemns his hearers in language as vehement as any of the Old Testament prophets.  The reference to his hearers receiving “the law as ordained by angels” but not keeping it (7:53) may be a straightforward accusation of not observing the Law of Moses, which was traditionally said to have been delivered to Moses via angels, but it is also possible that the reference is equally an accusation of disobedience against the ‘living oracles’ that Jesus Himself brought to the people (7:38).  It appears that the Early Church recognised that the ‘angel of the Lord’, who interacted with Moses and led Israel through the wilderness (Exod 3:2‑6, 13‑17; 13:21; 14:19; 23:20‑23; 24:9-11; 33:1-3, 12-20; Isa 63:8-14; Heb 1:4–2:9; Jude :5; cf. 1 Cor 10:4; Rev 14:14‑16), was Jesus Himself in a pre-incarnate form.

In this sermon He had effectively accused the Jewish leaders of rejecting their appointed deliverer despite God’s vindication of Him, ignoring His miracles and ‘living oracles’ that superseded those of Moses, and worshiping the works of their hands rather than the God in whose Temple they trusted.  As a result God had decided they would be taken into exile and be mistreated in foreign lands for hundreds of years, not inheriting even a foot of ground in the land that God had promised to give to Abraham and to his descendants after him.  God did not need a building or physical location in which to dwell, and neither did He have to fulfil His covenant promise of land with that particular generation that rejected His Servant (cf. 7:45).  Stephen’s speech clearly teaches the covenant of land made with Abraham and his physical descendants, and despite prophesying judgement and exile on his own generation, he also implies an eventual return of the nation from exile to “serve me in this place” (7:7).

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