James Patrick’s Blog

March 22, 2010

Apostasy in Light of Faith and Grace (Winds of Doctrine #11)

In the last eight posts we have seen how the Early Church that had demonstrated Jesus to be the Messiah in the 30’s AD, welcomed Gentiles in the 40’s, and reaffirmed God’s plans for the Jews in the 50’s, had to endure mighty winds of heresy and persecution in the 60’s, and then recover their ‘first love’ for each other again in the 70’s.  The 60’s had brought a widespread apostasy, or ‘falling away’, in the church, which some at the time may have interpreted as the prophesied final apostasy that would sweep through the Church before the Great Tribulation and the return of Jesus (cf. 2Thes 2:1‑12).  Clearly Paul, Peter and John all recognised that a greater one was still to come (cf. 2Tim 3:1‑9; 4:1‑4; 2Pet 3:1‑18; 1John 2:18‑19, 28; 4:1‑3), whether or not they expected the final one within decades rather than millennia.  It is vital that we consider the nature of that first great apostasy, though, that we might be prepared for the final one that will soon be upon us.

1 Timothy 4:1 makes it clear that “in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons”.  Hebrews warns believers not to “fall in the wilderness” through disobedience like the generation of Moses (Heb 3:7‑17; 4:11; 6:4‑8; cf. 1Cor 10:1-12).  Whereas Paul is referring to specific fallen individuals in his congregation, whom he has ‘handed over to Satan’ for discipline, the writer to the Hebrews is offering a more general warning from Scripture, confident that his hearers will turn back from the brink and inherit the promises after all (Heb 6:9‑12; 10:23‑39; 12:12‑13).  The reality is that there are in every generation individuals who in practice ‘fall away’ from the Christian beliefs and lifestyle they once had.  Most of those who read this will know several such people, and the issue therefore becomes one in which we have intense personal interest.  Others might be genuinely afraid that they themselves might ‘fall away’ at some future point, and the doctrine of ‘perseverance of the saints’ (“Once saved, always saved”) can sometimes be applied too quickly to dismiss people’s real concerns.  Probably the single most fundamental key to this whole topic is a correct understanding of ‘faith’, a word we looked at in detail above.

Faith in God’s Grace

‘Faith’, or ‘trust’, is the only appropriate response to the ‘grace’ of God, and these two terms sum up absolutely every element of the Christian teaching.  They are the truth that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion ever taught, because they teach that as humans we have nothing to contribute to our relationship with God, and can only trust Him to bring about in our lives what is pleasing to Him.  Jesus is the fullest expression both of the grace of God towards humanity and the world, and of the faith in God which God considers to be true ‘righteousness’.  We receive ‘salvation’ and enter into God’s family when we share the ‘faith’ of God’s unique Son Jesus, and this has two elements according to Romans 10:3‑13.  The first element is the conviction that God alone can raise the dead to bodily life, which Jesus went to the cross believing, and therefore that God did indeed raise Jesus to permanent bodily life.  The second element is the willingness to surrender one’s life completely to the direction of this God like Jesus did, which Jesus describes as ‘take up your cross and follow me’.  The writer to the Hebrews says that ‘without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who comes to God must believe that He exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him’ (11:6).  There are many who have heard about Jesus, admired Him, and even dedicated their lives to imitating His good works, but none of this matters at all if they have not understood that the only way of pleasing God and receiving eternal life is to accept that Jesus has done everything required, and to put one’s life entirely in His hands.  Even this decision itself is a work of grace in the believer’s life.  As Luke points out in Acts 13:48, ‘as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed’.

If a person has truly understood that they can do nothing of any value without God’s gracious giving, they will be in the right place to receive His Holy Spirit, who gives us everything we need for life and godliness, empowering us to do what God has called us to do.  This is the beginning of a life of trust, or ‘faith’, in which time and again the believer comes back to God asking for grace to accomplish what he or she has been given to do.  If at any point we turn back to our own wisdom and strength, we have ‘turned away’ or ‘fallen away’ from faith, or from ‘the [life of] faith’.  ‘Whatever is not from faith is sin.’ (Rom 14:23)  Paul expresses exactly the same concept in Galatians 5:4, when he tells those trying to be righteous by keeping laws that they have ‘fallen from grace’.

Faith is just as necessary for one’s beliefs as it is for one’s life, because we are unable to arrive at the truth through our own wisdom or ‘rational’ thought processes.  God has deliberately planned it this way, so that those who come to Him are forced to accept what He says without the benefit of their own five senses.  If we were able to reason our way to the ‘meaning of life’, we would have no need for grace, and we could boast in our own wisdom.  As it is, God has chosen to save people through the apparent ‘foolishness’ of what is preached, the message of a crucified Saviour (1Cor 1:17–2:5).  Of course, that is not to say that God leaves us in the darkness just for the sake of it, or that He has not revealed elements of the truth about the world around us to those who do not trust Him.  Rather, God reveals more and more to those who keep coming to Him for wisdom, and He graciously enables others who do not trust Him personally to nevertheless recognise the divine order and beauty with which He created the world.

Winds of Doctrine in the 60’s AD (Winds of Doctrine #5)

We find evidence of these particular false teachings in Paul’s ‘prison epistles’, Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians (all evidently written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome around AD62), as well as in the epistle to the Hebrews (probably written to believers in Israel in the mid-60’s), the epistle of Jude and second epistle of Peter (written in the mid-60’s also), and here in 1 Timothy.  Philippi is the farthest of these churches from Israel, and unlike Ephesus, had very little Jewish influence (there was no synagogue building when Paul first arrived – Acts 16:13).  However Paul specifically warned the Philippians against Jewish false teachers, quite possibly claiming to be believers, who continued to boast in their Jewishness and obedience to the Law (Php 1:27-30; 3:2‑9) [though there is no evidence that they were still trying to argue that Gentiles needed to be circumcised, as in Galatia 15 years earlier].  Colossians also seems to reveal a pressure against the church from a Jewish direction, because Paul specifically highlights that he only has three fellow workers in his Gentile mission who have a Jewish background (Col 4:10-11), and also rebukes the church in Colossae for accepting Jewish teachings about festivals and Sabbaths, visions of angels, and commandments about abstaining (Col 2:16‑23).  The Colossian church was in danger of being ‘taken captive’ through philosophy and human traditions (2:8), being told they were ‘incomplete’, ‘indebted’ to obey the decrees of the Mosaic Law, and ‘inferior’ to the angelic authorities (2:9‑10; 2:13‑14; 1:16‑17 & 2:15, 18; 3:1‑4).  It seems similar issues are being addressed in Ephesians also (1:20‑23; 2:6, 14‑16; 3:10).

Similarly in 2 Peter, false teachers are introducing destructive heresies by unSpiritual interpretations of Scripture (2Pet 1:20–2:1).  They appear to be people from within the church who have adopted these winds of doctrine (2Pet 2:20‑22; Jude 1:4, 12, 22‑23; cf. Eph 4:14), and are unhealthily fixated on angelic beings (2Pet 2:4, 10‑12; Jude 1:6, 8‑10).  Unlike in Colossae, where the Law of Moses was being used to try to restrain fleshly indulgence (Col 2:23), in the epistles of Peter and Jude it seems that the apostasising believers were actually advocating immoral licentiousness in the name of ‘grace’, hence the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah (2Pet 1:4, 9; 2:2, 6‑10, 13‑14, 18‑19; 3:3; Jude 1:4, 7, 18).

There is evidently also a specific claim made by these false teachers that there will be no coming judgement on the Jewish nation, despite Jesus’ clear warnings about this (e.g. Luke 21:12‑24).  The common misunderstanding of the Early Church that Jesus’ coming would coincide with the destruction of Jerusalem in that generation (e.g. Matt 24:2‑3; see my post on Luke’s clarification of Matthew) would explain why Peter and Jude both emphasise imminent judgement as well as the soon return of Jesus (2Pet 2:4, 5, 6, 9; 3:2‑13; Jude 1:5, 6, 7, 14‑15, 21).  In the last decade of the Jewish nation before its destruction in AD70, nationalistic fervour was on the rise among Jews everywhere, believing that this was the time when they would throw off Roman oppression and regain their territory and independence.  Hebrews was written specifically to Jewish believers who seem to have forgotten their initial willingness to surrender their own lands trusting in an inheritance after Jesus’ return (Heb 3:7–4:11; 10:32–11:16; see my post on Hebrews).  The call to all Jews across the Roman empire, and particularly in Israel, was [as it is in our generation also] that if all Jews return to the Law of Moses and temple worship, Messiah will come and re-establish Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.  The pressure was clearly on Jewish believers in Jesus also, to return to the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system, and the writer to the Hebrews warns them not to turn away from the greater reality of Messiah’s priesthood and sacrifice (Heb 2:17–3:1; 4:14–5:10; 6:20–10:22; 13:10‑16), nor to ignore the coming ‘shaking’ (Heb 10:26‑27; 12:16‑29).  In Gentile areas, this fervour about an imminent coming age of peace and prosperity would probably have led certain groups of Jewish Christians, who knew the prophets’ words about all nations coming to worship the God of Israel, to twist the message of grace into a license for continued indulgence (Jude 1:4), because Gentiles had no need to obey the Jewish Law – what better way to ‘convert’ the Gentiles to follow the Jewish Messiah (2Pet 2:18‑20; Php 3:18‑20).  The prophets also spoke of Israel receiving the wealth of the nations, which may be reflected in the greedy motivation of Jewish Christian false teachers apparently teaching whatever people wanted to hear in order to be paid more (2Pet 2:14‑15; Jude 1:11; cf. 2Tim 4:3‑4).

Perhaps the biggest doctrinal problem of this decade, though, involved the identity and nature of Jesus.  Hebrews 1 and 2 give clear evidence that many Jewish believers had come to view Jesus not as simply a holy man, nor as the unique Son of God, but as a sort of hybrid or intermediate angelic being – most likely as the ‘Angel of the Lord’ who acts and speaks as God Himself in many passage of the Old Testament (see Jude 1:5 with the best reading ‘Jesus’, compared with Exod 13:18, 21; 14:19‑20, 24‑30; 23:20‑23; 24:9‑11; 32:34–33:3; Num 14:14‑15, 20‑23, 35).  Although it is probably correct that the ‘Angel of the Lord’ was indeed Jesus in His pre-incarnate form (cf. Acts 7:35‑40), the writer to the Hebrews has to address misconceptions that follow from this, particularly equating Jesus with other angelic powers, and failing to recognise that this ‘angel’ or ‘messenger’ is in fact the divine Son of God Himself.  Paul similarly had to emphasise the exaltation of Jesus over all angelic powers in his letters written around the same time (e.g. Eph 1:20‑22; 3:9‑12; 4:10; Col 1:15‑20; 2:2‑4, 9‑10, 15; Php 2:6‑11; 3:20‑21).  Peter emphasised Jesus’ divine humanity (2Pet 1:16‑19; 2:1), and Jude similarly accuses the Jewish Christian false teachers of ‘denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ (Jude 1:4‑6).  He chooses to quote from the book of 1 Enoch, a favourite (non-canonical) text of these false teachers, in order to turn it against them by making them the ‘ungodly’ who will be judged by Jesus Himself, ‘the Lord’ who is returning with His holy ten thousands.  [This explains why Jude would quote from 1 Enoch – he is not affirming its authority, but using it rhetorically against those who do.]

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’.

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.

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