James Patrick’s Blog

June 7, 2011

Amos’ Message of Hope and the Council of Jerusalem

Apologies for the infrequency of posts recently.  Study continues unabated, and in due course I will have managed to integrate properly the wealth of things I am learning about the Old Testament, enough to be able to publish them in a coherent way.  This brief post began as an observation I made during tutorials on the book of Amos, with the link to Isaiah 16:5 referred to by James A. Meeks in his recent monograph The Gentile Mission in Old Testament Citations in Acts, which I was reviewing at the time.  I trust it will provide some further clarity on the vision of the prophets.

As I have been teaching through the book of Amos, I’ve had to deal with a number of scholarly assessments which conclude that the message of hope in chapter nine has been tacked on to the end by a later ‘redactor’ of the book.  Such a conclusion assumes that prophets typically just preach messages of judgement against their contemporaries (hope is thought to weaken the impact of such a warning).  Such scholars also often place the beginning of the message of hope at 9:11 with the mention of David’s booth, but it undoubtedly begins earlier.

Verse 7 of chapter 9 clearly parallels verse 12 with their mutual message of God’s personal care for other nations in addition to Israel, and in fact both focus specifically on the idea of the ‘remnant’.  The eyes of the LORD on the sinful kingdom in verse 8 would remind the reader of the oracles against the nations in chapters one and two, each of which is destroyed for their sin, but when God holds back from total destruction in the case of the house of Jacob (9:8), this parallels God’s mercy on other nations too.  For example, just as Israel was brought out of Egypt from the house of slavery and through the midst of judgement, so Aram is described as being brought up from Kir, whither they had been told they would be taken into exile in 1:5.  The Philistines did not just originate in Caphtor [Crete or Asia Minor], but Genesis 10:14 says they were descended from a separate group in the area of Caphtor, the Casluhim, and Jeremiah 47:4 says they are in fact the ‘remnant’ of the coastland of Caphtor.  This would fit with the idea that like Israel was brought out of Egypt, so the Philistines had been brought out of Caphtor as a remnant to be settled in their own land.  Amos 1:8 says that the remnant of the Philistines will perish, but like the further judgement even on the remnant of Judah remaining after exile (Isa. 6:13), so I think this means further judgement on [but not annihilation of] the Philistine remnant, as Zechariah 9:5-7 teaches too.

The idea of a remnant from Gentile nations, epitomised by the remnant of Edom [or ‘Adam’ if pronounced slightly differently, meaning ‘humanity’ as James correctly quotes/paraphrases in Acts 15:17], is actually a theme of many prophets.  Before Amos, Joel had summoned all nations against Jerusalem, where God would enter into judgement with them and destroy their assembled armies as He had recently in the valley of Jehoshaphat (2Chr 20).  Amos then combines this idea of judgement on international armies (and their leaders) with the deliverance of even Gentile nations who suffered under their oppression, an idea that goes right back to Abram (Gen 14) who defeated an international coalition led by the king of Elam and recovered not just the remnant of his own people (Lot) but also the remnant of Sodom.  Abram was told he would rule over and thus become a blessing to all nations, and though his great-grandson Joseph was the first to model this, the promise combined with ruling over the promised land got its first proper fulfilment under David, who defeated and ruled over all surrounding nations with justice, even incorporating foreign nationals in his own army (1Chr 11:38 [cf. 5:10], 39, 41, 46).  The greater Son of David, therefore, would similarly defeat all nations who gathered against Jerusalem, and also the ruler of their international coalition (the alternative Messiah/anti-Christ), and would deliver the remnant of all nations from his hand.

Amos has been prophesying judgement on the entire nation of Israel and Judah (cf. 3:1; 5:5 [Beersheba]; 6:1), with a special focus on the northern kingdom of Israel.  This message of judgement has hardly a glimmer of hope from beginning to end (only 3:12; 5:3, 4-6, 14-15, 24; 7:1-6) so without 9:7-15 his audience would be left with the impression that God is indiscriminate in His judgements – what about the poor and needy, the righteous who have been oppressed by their rulers; will they perish also?  9:9 says that unfortunately they will all alike be taken into exile in the nations, but like grain shaken in a sieve the chaff will be removed but the good grains will remain.  9:10 clarifies that it will be the sinners who will die by the sword, rather than the oppressed.  Then when the exiles return to their land they will live in the rebuilt cities and enjoy the fruit of their vineyards (9:14), which is evidently the vindication of those oppressed by the wicked back in 5:11.

More than just the remnant of Israel, though, God’s interest is in restoring the remnant of all nations (cf. Isa 49:5-7), just as He had brought judgement on all nations as well back in chapters one and two.  In this context, therefore, the rebuilding of the ‘fallen booth of David’ does not seem to correspond naturally to the rebuilding of the temple as such, partly because David did not build the temple for the ark in the first place.  Some suggest that this describes the tent he constructed to house the ark before the temple was built, which was presumably where he ‘sat before the LORD’ in 2Sam 7:18, but again, worship does not seem to be the primary focus of this passage in Amos.  The significance of this ‘fallen booth’ idea can actually be perceived in the way the prophet Isaiah interpreted it just a few decades after Amos.  Isaiah shares many of the interests of Amos, both as regards justice and as regards the nations.  He also goes into detail about the ruler of the international coalition who will oppress all nations, naming this Elamite/Median king ‘Cyrus’ (Isa 13:17; 21:2; 22:6; 41:1-7; 45:1-3; 45:22-46:2; etc.), and it is because of this worldwide oppression that the remnant of nations will turn for help and justice to God’s true anointed saviour, the Son of David.  This is a theme that comes up again and again throughout Isaiah’s oracles against the nations also, as anticipated in Isaiah 2:2-4: messengers come from Philistia to seek refuge in Zion (14:32), the remnant of Aram are like the glory of the sons of Israel (17:3), Ethiopians bring a gift of homage to Zion (18:7; cf. Amos 9:7); Egypt is given a Saviour and Champion to deliver them (19:20-22) and therefore worship the LORD along with Assyria (19:23-25), the inhabitants of Ashdod on the coast recognise that they have no hope for deliverance apart from God (20:6), Edomites call to God’s prophet for news of hope (21:11), the Arabian fugitives are met with bread and water (21:14), and the LORD will restore Tyre after seventy years of desolation so that her profit is brought to Him (23:15-18).  It is in the description of the Moabites, however, that the ‘booth of David’ idea appears: the outcasts of Moab flee to Zion, because there “A throne will even be established in lovingkindness, and a judge will sit on it in faithfulness in the tent of David; moreover He will seek justice and be prompt in righteousness.” (16:5)

Just as Moses had met with the LORD in the tent of meeting, the Tabernacle, and there received divine judgements with which to adjudicate for the nation (Ex 18:15-26; 25:22; Lev 1:1; 24:12-13; Num 15:33-35; Deut 1:9-18; 17:8-13), so David too met with the LORD in his tent of meeting, and this would presumably be where he would have received wisdom with which to adjudicate as the ‘supreme court’ of his nation (anticipated in Deut 17:18-20; cf. 2Sam 12:6 [from Ex 22:1]; 14:4-20; 15:2-4).  The responsibility of the Son of David to act as judge for His [and other] nations is clear in Isaiah 9:6-7 and 11:1-10.  David had prayed in Psalm 72 (title can also be read as ‘For Solomon’ – see 72:20) that his son Solomon would continue to judge in righteousness, and indeed Solomon received divine wisdom to do this (1Kgs 3; 10:1-10), metaphorically (and literally) repairing the breach of the city of his father David and building up the walls of Jerusalem that had been broken down through David’s sin (1Kgs 3:1; 9:15; 11:27; cf. Ps 51:18-19 and Amos 9:11).  The ‘fallen booth of David’, therefore, refers to the failure of Israel’s kings to make righteous judgements on behalf of the poor and needy, a failure Amos ultimately blamed on Jereboam II (Amos 7:9-11), and its restoration will therefore bring justice once again to the oppressed remnant of Israel, and in fact to those of all other nations also.  Through her King, Israel will ‘possess’ the remnants of all nations, because all nations will acknowledge the authority of Israel’s King, and the nations will call on the name of the LORD as Gentiles, bearing allegiance to His anointed King yet not needing to become Jewish to do so.

It is this principle, therefore, that James was referring to in the Council of Jerusalem; he recognised that Amos’ prophecy not only spoke of Gentiles called by the Lord’s name despite remaining Gentiles (as Simon Peter had reminded the council – Acts 15:7-11, 14) but also spoke of the Son of David judging justly on matters concerning the Gentiles through His people Israel (hence this Jewish council’s authority to pass judgement on what Gentiles must avoid without putting excessive burdens on them to trouble them – 15:19-20).  The reason for this particular judgement was that [the books of] Moses were taught weekly in every synagogue throughout the Roman empire (15:21), and the laws God had laid down for all humanity (prior to the giving of the Law of Moses for Israel uniquely) were therefore already known to all Gentile God-fearers who attended synagogue: abstaining from the pollutions of idols (mankind is the only authorised image and likeness of God – Gen 1:26-27; 5:1-2); being faithful to one’s sole spouse (as God established at creation – Gen 2:18-24); and honouring God’s only condition concerning the consumption of meat after the Flood by removing all its blood (Gen 9:2-4).  The Law of Moses would only be recommended for Jewish believers in the land, its original intended audience (cf. Matt. 5:17-20; Acts 21:20-26).  Of course, the other aspect of this rebuilding of the fallen booth of David, the restoration of the Messiah’s authority over all Gentile nations, was working justice for the poor, a key value that both Jewish and Gentile missions of the Early Church shared explicitly (Gal 2:7-10).

February 7, 2011

‘The Lord has need of it.’

Filed under: Exegesis,Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 12:41 am
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Nobody doubts that momentous things are happening across the Muslim world at the moment.  Tunisia, Egypt, and many more nations have been or are being shaken, and one dictator after another is being forced out.  Many are fearful of what this means for the ‘plate tectonics’ of Middle East politics and hence the stability of the rest of the world.

One other factor in this, though, that few have considered, is what God is doing in His Church.  In April 2010, the popular Californian church leader Francis Chan announced to his successful congregation that he would be leaving to pioneer afresh somewhere.  Then just over a week ago, Terry Virgo, leader of the worldwide NewFrontiers family of churches, also announced to his home church in Brighton that he had been feeling stirred like Caleb in Joshua 14 to leave his comfortable situation there (despite his age!) and join a small pioneering church in southwest London.  I have no doubt these are only the tip of the iceberg – significant church leaders across the world are feeling ‘untied’ and called to go out and pioneer once again, leading those who respect their ministry to follow their example and pull up their tent pegs.  It is time to go!

My daily Bible reading today is from Luke 19:33-38, a passage referred to by Terry on his blog as having been of some significance in recognising God’s new call on his life.  This excerpt comes from Jesus’ final journey towards Jerusalem during His first appearance to Israel as their Messiah, nearly 2000 years ago.  He recognised from Scripture that Jerusalem must behold its king arriving not in glory on a warhorse but in humility on a donkey.  Rabbis since His day have similarly noticed that Messiah’s coming to the Jewish people would be on a donkey if they were an entirely wicked generation, but on the clouds of heaven if they were a righteous one (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 98a).  Oh for the day when ‘all Israel will be saved’! (Romans 11:25-32)

In this passage in Luke, the disciples have been sent to find a donkey on which no-one has ever ridden, which is the obvious interpretation of the extra specification in Zechariah 9:9 that the donkey must be a colt (compare also Matthew’s report that both the colt and its mother were brought to Jesus – proof that the colt had not yet been ridden).  Luke records that the ‘lords’ of the colt objected to the disciples untying it, as Jesus had anticipated, and they responded as instructed – “The Lord has need of it.”  It now had a new lord, and its old lords had no authority to resist.

This parallels the same situation, though travelling in the opposite direction, that we find during King David’s departure from Jerusalem over the Mount of Olives in 2 Samuel 16.  At exactly the same place on that mountain where Jesus would later mount his donkey(s), the servant of King Saul’s grandson and heir Mephibosheth brought to David two saddled donkeys “for the king’s household to ride”.  Mephibosheth himself had remained in Jerusalem, and was reported to be anticipating that his ancestral right to the throne of Israel would now be acknowledged by the newly crowned upstart, David’s son Absalom.  Instead, the true king David decreed that all Mephibosheth’s existing possessions were to be stripped from him and given to his servant who had chosen to remain loyal to David.

This is precisely what the Lord and King Jesus is now doing, both in His Church and in the nations.  His return to Jerusalem is imminent, this time in devastating glory, and He is in need of a fitting mount on which to ride on victoriously for truth, meekness and righteousness.  Just before He ascended bodily into heaven, He gave specific instructions to all His followers from that point on, to take the news of His deliverance from sin and death, and soon-coming global kingdom, to every nation on earth (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:6-8; cf. Matthew 24:14; Luke 21:24; Romans 11:25-32).  Just weeks later, Peter explicitly called his own generation of Jews to turn to their revealed Messiah Jesus so that they might in turn bless “all the families of the earth” and so prepare for the “times of restoration of all things” (Acts 3:17-26).  The writer to the Hebrews again appealed to the same generation of Jews, who would soon be exiled from their land in AD70, to metaphorically ‘dwell in tents in the land of promise’ (11:9), joyfully accepting the seizure of their property in the land as they had three decades earlier (10:32-39) because it was not yet time to inherit that land promised to them.  The age of ‘Sabbath rest’ for God’s people will only come when God’s work is finished (4:8-11), that work He decreed for humanity in Genesis 1:28, set the stage for in Genesis 10:1-11:9, and provided the solution for in Genesis 12:3.

God’s work is to ensure that every people group on the face of the earth has been presented with the good news of Jesus’ coming reign over all the earth, so that when He does come He will have representatives in every land who can reign with Him on the earth (Revelation 5:9-10).  It is God’s patience that has prevented Him sending His Son back to earth for the last 2,000 years.  Peter made this clear in 2 Peter 3:9, where he writes that the day of the Lord’s return in glory and judgement will not happen until ‘all’ nations have come to repentance, which is also why he urges believers everywhere to ‘look for and hasten the coming of the day of God’.  There is one and only one reason that Jesus has not returned sooner – the last people group has not yet heard about Him.  The sooner we get out and tell them, the sooner He will return, because that is what He promised: “This good news of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

That means that there are people groups in which Jesus has not yet been experienced as lord, on which He has not yet ridden, so to speak.  The time has now come for His triumphal entry, and He has need of every nation.  Yet many nations are bound in service to other ‘lords’, and Jesus is now sending His disciples ahead to untie them and prepare them for His use.  Their present lords will object to their people being ‘untied’, but if like Mephibosheth they hope to hold on to the authority they think they deserve, all that they have will be stripped from them and given to those who acknowledge Jesus as the true King.  Islam has bound many nations and peoples with a tight cord, preventing them from hearing the wonderful news of salvation in Jesus and His soon coming kingdom.  The time is now upon us for this cord to be loosed, for dictators to topple, and for the good news to be spread far and wide.

This is where the changes in the Church come into play.  Jesus is stirring the hearts of His disciples, sending them ahead of Him to untie peoples and nations, to break new ground, like Paul “to preach the gospel not where Christ is already named, so as not to build on another man’s foundation; but as it is written, ‘They who had no news of Him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand.'” (Romans 15:20-21).  Whether a leader has been serving for sixteen years or forty-three years, if they are hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches they will be feeling an urge to pioneer once more.  They must model how to do this, because from now on the pace of mission will increase to a rate never before known on the earth, and churches must learn an entirely new dynamic of equipping and sending workers into new harvest fields.  There is no time to lose, and any leader who resists what the Spirit is speaking individually to their own hearts out of a desire to hold on to their own authority will eventually have it stripped from them just like Mephibosheth.  Jesus will not endure any leader who is competing with Him for the hearts of His people.

May God confirm the words of His servants, and may the kingdom of His Son come quickly on this earth.

March 22, 2010

Primary Doctrinal Issues of the First Three Decades (Winds of Doctrine #4)

False teachings had been making the rounds in the Christian churches in the early- to mid-60’s AD, but these were of a different sort from those in earlier decades.  When Paul wrote to the south Galatian churches (Iconium, Lystra, Derbe) around AD48, the primary heresy he had to address was the insistence of Jewish followers of Jesus that Gentiles turning to the Messiah had to be circumcised and follow the Jewish Law (Gal 6:12‑15).  Just weeks or months after dashing off this epistle to the Galatians, the Council of Jerusalem agreed with Paul that Gentiles did not need to become Jewish to follow the Jewish Messiah (Acts 15).  Once the Council’s official letter began to be circulated, the door was now wide open to Gentile conversion.  [See my post on Galatians and Acts for a defence of this scenario.]

Only a year later, however, in AD49, the Roman emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome over disputes about the Messiah (evidently the gospel had arrived!), which eventually resulted in the next big doctrinal issue Paul had to address – the place of Israel.  Priscilla and Aquila, a Jewish couple from Rome who chose to settle in Corinth, may have already been believers when they met Paul there on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-4).  When Paul left Corinth after eighteen months, around AD51, they went with him as far as Ephesus.  Although Paul continued on to Antioch, they chose to settle in the Jewish community in Ephesus, and were thus ready to teach Apollos when he arrived there soon afterwards (Acts 18:18‑28).  At the start of Paul’s third missionary journey he spent two years teaching in Ephesus (Acts 19), and during this time, around AD54, he wrote to the church in Corinth, mentioning Aquila and Prisca’s house church to them (1Cor 16:19).  Resurrection was clearly a problem subject for several churches planted during the second missionary journey (e.g. Thessalonica – 1Thes 4:13–5:11; 2Thes 2:1‑15; Corinth ­– 1Cor 15), but this doesn’t seem to have been due to ‘winds of false teaching’ so much as localised misunderstandings.

Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians from Macedonia about a year after his first letter (see 1Cor 16:8‑9; 2Cor 1:8‑11, 15‑23; 2:12‑14; 7:5‑7; 8:1‑6; 9:1‑5), but by this stage Priscilla and Aquila had probably already returned to Rome from Ephesus; Jews were now being allowed back, and when Paul wrote his letter to Rome from Corinth just a few months after writing 2 Corinthians, his friends were already leading another house church there.  Naturally, Jewish believers returning to Rome would expect to pick up where they had left off, as qualified teachers of the Jewish scriptures in the believing congregations.  However, the Gentiles were now confident in their access to grace by faith without any need for the detailed cultural regulations of the Jewish Law, and looked down on Jewish believers for their ‘weak faith’ that prevented them eating meat from the markets.  When Paul arrived in Corinth as planned around AD57 (Acts 20:2‑3), he heard news of the Jewish / Gentile divisions in Rome, perhaps in a letter from Priscilla and Aquila (Rom 16:3‑5).  Although he had often wanted to travel to Rome, he could not travel there himself quite yet, because he had a responsibility first to deliver the financial Collection from the Gentile churches to the church in Jerusalem (Rom 15:22‑32; Acts 20:4, 16).  Instead, he decided to write an extended letter to the Roman church, setting out clearly why neither Jew nor Gentile could claim moral superiority, even though the gospel was still ‘to the Jew first’ and Israel still had a crucial place in God’s future purposes [see my two posts on Romans 1-8 and 9-11].  Because of the five years of Jewish absence, Rome had been ahead of its time in having to deal with issues raised by being a ‘Gentile majority’ church, even though it had been less than ten years since Paul had addressed the ‘Jewish majority’ issues of the Galatian churches.

The 30’s had dealt with the question of ‘Is Jesus the Jewish Messiah?’, the 40’s resolved the problem of ‘Do Gentiles need to become Jewish to be saved?’, the 50’s asked the question, ‘What value is there in being Jewish at all?’, but the 60’s would return to questions of Jesus’ identity and nature.  By this stage, the Jewish churches were less in touch with those who had known Jesus personally, who by now were taking the gospel to distant corners of the world, and Christian thinkers were beginning to engage more with the Jewish apocalyptic philosophy and revolutionary ideology prominent in the final decade before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, to which we turn in the next post.

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 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.

September 12, 2009

Promised Land in the Gospels, part one [I&NC #6]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 8:07 pm
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Contrary to popular opinion, the New Testament frequently assumes that the land covenant is still in effect.  Here we start with the Gospels (in 3 posts), moving on after that to Acts (2 posts) and the epistles (3 posts).

To begin with, we would expect that a divine promise of territory given to the ethnic descendants of Israel be spoken of most often in passages addressed to the Jewish people.  The letters of Paul to the Gentile churches are therefore the least likely place to find mention of this land covenant, as are the writings of John who was based in Ephesus in modern-day Turkey.  Peter’s first letter was written to believers living in the northern parts of Turkey, though his second letter to unspecified recipients does refer to the “holy mountain” where Jesus was transfigured.

On the other hand, Jesus was teaching Jews within the land of Israel, much of Acts takes place in that land, and Hebrews is also written to Jewish believers there. It is not surprising, then, that the majority of passages referring to the land covenant are found in the Synoptic Gospels, Acts and Hebrews.  Paul’s letter to the Romans is highly unusual in that although it is written to Gentiles, Paul sees it necessary in his extended discussion of the gospel message to specifically address the problem of the unbelieving Jewish nation in Romans 9–11.  We therefore find clear references to the promised land in Romans also.

Even so, we would not expect to have many references to the promise of land for the Jewish nation in the New Testament, for the simple reason that Jesus had unmistakeably prophesied destruction and exile for the nation within a single generation [see below].  Even though most of the Old Testament prophets do mention future restoration in passing within long oracles of judgement, warnings of imminent destruction in Jesus’ day would be even less likely to convince a rebellious generation if they were qualified by frequent reaffirmation of the promise of eternal security in the land.

With that in mind, let us turn to the passages about the land covenant in the New Testament:

(A)  Promised Land in the Gospels

In the Gospels Jesus never explicitly reissues the covenant promise of land; He would not do so to His own rebellious generation, nor could He grant the land to His followers before the age of restoration of all things.  Yet He often assumes a Jewish presence in the land of Israel at the end of the present age just before His return, and then a secure Jewish authority over that land following His return.  Here we deal with the first two of six representative passages taken from the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Matthew 10:5-6, 23 – Jesus explicitly instructed His twelve disciples to identify themselves with His own mission to the Jewish nation specifically, which was in line with their calling to rule over their own nation in the age to come [see third Gospel post below on Mat 19].  Evidently they understood this mission to be a permanent one even after Jesus ascended, as implied by both Galatians 2:7‑9 and the role of both Peter and Paul in the establishment of church communities in Corinth and in Rome (1 Cor 1:12; Rom 15:20-22; 1 Pet 5:13).  The disciples were told, “Truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes”.  When seen in the context of 10:17-22 this prophecy cannot be understood to refer merely to making preparations in advance for Jesus’ earthly ministry in those cities, as was the task of the seventy sent out in Luke 10:1 (cf. Luke 9:1-6).  For Matthew, the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ was an unmistakeable reference to the second coming (cf. Mat 24:3, 23–25:46).

This indicates, therefore, that Jesus recognised the ongoing need for mission to Jewish cities and communities from the time of His own ministry right up until His final return, and one might even argue that the ‘cities of Israel’ refers to Jewish communities within the territorial land of Israel throughout that time (cf. Mat 10:5-6).  The case could be made that this passage influenced Paul’s own practice in his missionary journeys through Gentile lands of ‘going [first] to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, ‘shaking off the dust’, and ‘fleeing to the next city’ (cf. Acts 13:42-51).  Even so, ‘cities of Israel’ when compared with ‘city of the Samaritans’ in 10:5 would suggest towns under Jewish authority, or at least Jewish-majority towns, and the prohibition against travelling into Gentile areas in 10:5 may indicate that the territory of Israel as defined in the first century is in view in 10:23.

Thus we have in Matthew 10 evidence of, at very least, an ongoing mission to the unbelieving nation of Israel that will not be concluded before Jesus Himself returns to the land.  It is possible that the ‘cities of Israel’ in which mission must be undertaken actually refers to Jewish communities remaining within the traditional territory of Israel throughout the time between Jesus’ ascension and His return, providing possible evidence of an unbroken land covenant underlying this preservation.

Matthew 24:32-35 – Luke 21:29-32 seems to be a generalisation of Matthew’s version of this teaching, by drawing the parable from all trees and not just the ‘fig tree’.  However I would argue Luke himself was aware that Jesus had not just chosen the fig tree at random for this illustration, because other sayings preserved only by Luke reinforce the significance of the fig tree.  In the Old Testament, the fig tree was used to represent the nation of Israel (Hos 9:10, 13, 16–10:2; Hab 3:16-18).  More importantly, though, the shelter it provided was a metaphor for the permanent and secure dwelling of the nation within its land, ultimately connected with return from exile (1 Kgs 4:25; Jer 8:8-15; Mic 4:4; Zec 3:8-10; cf. Song of Songs 2:10-13; John 1:47-51 with Gen 28:12-15).  Jesus made ample use of this metaphor in his teaching, for example in Luke 13:6-9, where He warned the nation that He had been looking for fruit on the ‘fig tree’ for three years, and it would be given only one more year before being ‘cut down’ (cf. Luke 3:7‑9).

In Mark 11:12-14, 20-23, Mark clarifies and adds detail to the conflated story in Matthew 21:18-22 where Jesus curses a fig tree overlooking Jerusalem for having no fruit on it.  The fact that it was not the season for figs made no difference to Jesus’ acted parable, and when the disciples commented on the immediate withering of the fig tree, Jesus turned the application over to His disciples – forty years later they would similarly command ‘this mountain’ (i.e. the Temple Mount they were walking towards) to be taken up and cast into the ‘sea’ (i.e. the nations – cf. Mat 13:47; Rev 17:15).  The withering of the fig tree symbolised the hardening and coming exile of the nation.  This makes best sense also of Jesus’ prophecy to the women weeping over Him as He approached Calvary (Luke 23:27-31), that presently the nation was still ‘green’ with leaves, but within a generation it would be ‘dry’ and experience judgement.

In the light of Jesus’ metaphor of Israel as a fruitless fig tree, withered at Jesus’ command, the ‘parable of the fig tree’ in Matthew 24:32-35 takes on a much greater significance.  When the dry fig tree becomes tender again and begins to put forth its leaves, that is, when the nation of Israel softens towards God and begins once more to show signs of secure dwelling within the land, believers will know that Jesus’ return is imminent.

[Matthew’s addition of Jesus’ saying about “this generation” that will not pass away before these things take place (24:34-35) appears to apply to the parable of the fig tree, but in fact Jesus spoke the saying to conclude his discourse to the four disciples specifically about the AD70 destruction of the Temple; the parable and the saying were juxtaposed because Matthew did not differentiate between prophecies about the two judgements.  Luke understood the saying (see next post), and because he also recognised that Matthew’s attached fig tree parable must point to the ‘end of the age’, he had to deliberately generalise the parable (“and all the trees”; “the kingdom of God is near”) in order to include the whole saying properly within that specific discourse about the sooner judgement (21:29-33) .  Similar adjustments are introduced by Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27 to clarify a potentially confusing juxtaposition of sayings in Matthew 16:27‑28.]

Jesus therefore used the ‘fig tree’ as one of his favourite images 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.

Although some may argue that the parable of the fig tree is open to any interpretation simply because it is a parable, this interpretation corresponds precisely to the entirely literal prophecies Jesus gave about the Jewish nation at the end of this age [see next two posts].  Thus we may treat the parable of the fig tree as evidence of a promised reversal of the judgement of exile spoken by Jesus over the Jewish nation in His own generation; the only reasonable explanation for such a return from exile to the land of Israel is the fulfilment of God’s land covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

September 1, 2009

Permanence of covenants with Abraham and Moses [I&NC #3]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 3:38 pm
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God made the covenant promise of land to Abram 606 years before He renewed the covenant with the Israelites through Moses at Mount Sinai (Gen 15:1‑21; Exod 34:27‑28; 40:17).  Fourteen years after the promise of land, He instructed [the renamed] Abraham to circumcise all his physical offspring, because now he would be the father of a multitude of nations, and it was necessary to distinguish between those descended from him physically and those descended from him spiritually (Gen 17:1‑16).

The renewed covenant with the Israelites through Moses [hereafter the ‘Mosaic covenant’] was temporary from its very beginning, and has now been entirely fulfilled and abolished by Jesus as we will see in the next post.  However the covenant with Abraham promising land and a multitude of descendants, which was linked to the ethnic marker of circumcision and later reissued to the descendants of Jacob, has not been revoked in the new covenant.

A.  Circumcision

Circumcision was reaffirmed for the Israelites through Moses, but it had been established by Abraham.  Moses knew that circumcision was an important condition for inheriting the specific promises passed on by Jacob / Israel.  It is the physical sign throughout all generations that a male belongs to the ethnic ‘children of Israel’ and therefore qualifies to share in the promises made to Israel.  Gentiles, however, can now become the ‘children of Abraham’ by faith alone, becoming part of his wider promise of blessing to the nations, without having to become ethnically Jewish through circumcision.  Circumcision was thus not abolished for Jews in the new covenant, but rather declared irrelevant for Gentiles.  Sons of Jewish parents who are not circumcised can still inherit Gentile promises (that is, ‘salvation’), but are not qualified to share in the specific ‘salvation’ promises made to Israel, including the particular land promised to them.  The New Testament does not teach that any part of the Abrahamic covenant has been abolished.

John 7:19-24 – In this fascinating interchange, Jesus is perceptively pointing out that the Mosaic covenant is both inadequate and superseded by the earlier covenant with Abraham.  Moses commanded that one must not work on the Sabbath, which would certainly include cutting (cf. Num 15:32-36), but in order to keep the Abrahamic command to circumcise male children on the eighth day (Gen 17:10-14; Lev 12:3), the Mosaic Law could be broken.  Jesus was therefore claiming similar authority to supersede the Mosaic covenant, but not the Abrahamic covenant.

Galatians 5:2-15; 6:12-16 – In this letter written to Gentile believers (that is very important), Paul is fighting against the teaching of certain Jewish ‘believers’ that “Unless you [Gentiles] are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1, 5).  Paul makes it clear that the real issue was not circumcision, but whether Gentile believers had to observe the Law (5:3, 14; 6:13).  It was Mosaic circumcision not Abrahamic circumcision that was being advocated by Paul’s opponents; for them, conversion to Judaism was complete only when the Gentile ‘God-fearer’ went so far as to become circumcised, thereby becoming Jewish.  At this point the Judaisers could ‘boast’ of having made another convert (6:13; cf. Mat 23:15), and it also enabled them to avoid persecution from fellow Jews who accused them of no longer valuing the Law (6:12; cf. Acts 6:11-14; 13:39-45; 21:20‑21).  To persuade Galatian Gentiles, they even claimed that Paul himself taught circumcision of Gentiles (cf. Acts 16:1‑3; 1 Cor 9:20).  Paul replied by pointing out that in that case the Jews would hardly keep persecuting him (5:11).  He was not against circumcision, because this was still the mark of physical descendants of Abraham, even with the Law of Moses abolished; rather, it was entirely irrelevant for salvation (5:6; 6:15).  Paul therefore spoke a blessing over all true believers, specifically including true Jewish believers – the ‘Israel of God’, unlike his opponents (cf. Rom 11:1-7) – who rightly put higher value on new creation than on (their) circumcision (6:16).  The reason Paul commanded Gentiles not to get circumcised was that their only reason for doing this would be to become Jewish according to the Mosaic Law (5:2-4).  This would indicate that they didn’t actually believe that Christ had taken on Himself the curse of the Law to open up the Abrahamic blessing to all Gentiles as well (3:8-14).  They were therefore enslaving themselves to the Mosaic Law and rejecting the gospel of grace.

B.  Mosaic Covenant

The covenant renewed with the Israelites through Moses, unlike the covenant with Abraham, was a temporary covenant, even from its inception.  The prophets at the time of exile clearly prophesied a ‘new covenant’ that would supersede the ‘old’ broken one, as had Moses himself.

Deuteronomy 29:22–30:10; 31:16-29 – God tells Moses explicitly that in later generations the children of Israel would be so rebellious that his covenant would be broken, and God would bring on them all the curses threatened in it, removing them from the land.  After this, though, He would surely restore the people to the land, and once there would circumcise their heart to love Him heart and soul, “so that you may live” (cf. Leviticus 18:5; Romans 10:4-10).

Isaiah 59:9-21 – In a passage that deliberately interprets the above predictions about exile from Deuteronomy 28–32, Isaiah describes Israel’s inability to keep the law of Moses (cf. Deut 31:27; 32:36), their groping along in the darkness of exile (cf. Deut 28:28-29), God’s promised decision to redeem and atone for His people single-handedly through a ‘redeemer’ (cf. Deut 32:39-43), and a coming covenant of God’s words ‘in your mouth’ (cf. Deut 30:14) and His Spirit upon them (Deut 31:7-8, 14; Num 27:18; 11:28-29).

Jeremiah 31:31-34; 32:36-42 – Jeremiah further explains this ‘covenant’ Isaiah prophesied as a “new covenant”, different from the one made one year after the Exodus from Egypt that had been broken.  This “everlasting” new covenant would involve sin atoned for and God’s law written on the hearts of the people.

Ezekiel 11:17-20; 16:59-63; 36:24-33; 37:21-28 – Ezekiel, writing in exile, picks up Jeremiah’s prophecies and similarly promises a “new spirit” put within the people who have been restored to their land, and a new heart of flesh to keep God’s commands, now that their sin has been cleansed.  This is similarly described as an “everlasting covenant of peace”, not like the one that had been broken, and it is specifically connected with the promised descendant of David who would be their king for ever.

August 27, 2009

Heirs of Abraham’s promise of land [Israel & New Covenant #2]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 10:29 pm
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The ‘eternal’ land covenant made with Abraham was reissued to Isaac, to Jacob/Israel, to the patriarchs of the twelve tribes in Egypt, and to their ethnic descendants whom God promises will never be permanently rejected.  The promise of land, therefore, is a cheque made payable specifically to the ethnically Jewish people, whether or not this particular generation is permitted to cash it in.

Genesis 15:6-21 – As a reward for his faith, Abram was promised the land of the Amorites as a permanent possession, confirmed by God through a highly unusual covenant ceremony in which God promised it unilaterally, without any conditional requirements for Abram.  The closest parallel is Jeremiah 34:17-20 where passing between the carcasses is a self-curse if the covenant should be broken.  Effectively God is saying that if the descendants of Abram are denied their promised land, God Himself will be slaughtered to atone for His broken covenant.

Genesis 26:2-5 – When Isaac trusted God and in obedience did not leave the land of promise in a time of famine, God reaffirmed the land covenant of his father with him also.

Genesis 35:9-12 – When God officially changed Jacob’s name to Israel, he reaffirmed with him the covenant promises made to Abraham and Isaac of both descendants and land.

Genesis 50:24-25 – Joseph reminded his brothers that God would surely bring the children of Jacob / Israel up out of Egypt and bring them into the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Deuteronomy 9:4-6 – God explicitly warned Israel not to assume that they deserved His gift of the land of Canaan; He drove out the other nations for their wickedness, and He granted the land to Israel despite their stubborn rebellion, to confirm His promise to the Patriarchs.

Deuteronomy 11:21–12:1 – At the beginning and end of this passage God clarified that his promise of land to the Patriarchs and their descendants (Israel) will endure “as long as the heavens remain above the earth”, and “as long as you live on the earth”.  This was despite his warning that if they broke the commandments He was giving them, they themselves would perish quickly from the good land being given them.

Deuteronomy 30:1-5 – The endurance of the promise beyond exile from the land is made explicit here, where God promised that when the people return to their God, He would bring them back to possess the land which their fathers possessed, and multiply them even more than their fathers.

Jeremiah 29:10-14; 30:3 – At the start of the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah wrote to the exiles promising that after seventy years God would fulfil His promise to bring them back to the land from whence they were sent into exile.  30:3 makes it explicit that this promise is the gift of the land to their forefathers.

Jeremiah 31:1-14, 35-40 – After declaring to the distant nations that He would again gather His scattered flock Israel, ransoming them and returning them to their land, God declared that only if the laws of physics are overturned, or the universe is measured, will Israel cease to be a nation before God for all their sin (cf. Jer 33:19-26).

August 26, 2009

Interpretation of Old Testament prophecy [Israel & New Covenant #1]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 7:37 pm
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Peter declared that “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pet 1:20).  The standard view in the Church today is probably precisely the opposite – ‘every prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation’.  Nowhere is this more true than in discussions on the subject of the place of Israel today.  Political, religious and historical factors converge in a huge storm of controversy, and at the centre is the question of prophecy.

Christians know that God predicts the future, because the whole New Testament insists that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were entirely the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy (Mat 26:56; Acts 2:23; Rom 1:1-4; 1 Cor 15:1-4; Heb 1:1-2; etc.).  Jesus believed that all the Old Testament Scriptures were about Him (John 5:37‑47), and after His resurrection He met with His disciples and opened their minds to understand how the Scriptures spoke about Him (Luke 24:25‑27, 44‑47).  This was the good news they proclaimed with such wisdom and authority that the Jewish leaders recognised they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:10‑13; 6:9‑10), and they also taught this message to Jews throughout the known world (Gal 2:7‑9).  Paul received the same insight into the ‘mystery’ of the gospel purely by personal revelation from Jesus; he was not taught it by the disciples, but they recognised that it had truly been given to him by Jesus in order for him to take this message also to the Gentiles (Gal 1:15–2:10; Eph 3:2‑11).

Since that time, the understanding has been almost entirely lost, of how the Old Testament Scriptures themselves “are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Messiah Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15).  New Testament writers frequently mention aspects of the interpretation of the Old Testament shown to them by Jesus, but without their bigger picture we are left trying to piece together just a handful of the most important jigsaw pieces.  Neither educated nor uneducated believers are now able to interpret the entire vision of the gospel through the Old Testament (Isa 29:11‑12; 42:18‑21); all of us who are waiting for the Second Coming have fallen asleep to the prophecies we hold (Mat 25:1‑13; cf. 5:14‑18; 1 Sam 3:1‑4, 21).  However we can be encouraged that in the days just before Jesus returns to restore all things, “the deaf will hear words of a book, and … the eyes of the blind will see” (Isa 29:17‑18; 43:8‑10; cf. Dan 12:1‑4).

There is no doubt that the Old Testament speaks a huge amount about Jewish people returning from exile to the land promised to Abraham.  However Christians interpret these prophecies in many different ways: (1) they were all fulfilled in the return from Babylon around 500BC; (2) they are being fulfilled today in the return of Jews to the modern state of Israel; (3) they will be fulfilled at some point in the future; (4) they are fulfilled metaphorically / spiritually by the Church; or (5) they will not be fulfilled because God is doing something else now.  Sometimes people apply a combination of these approaches to different prophecies, but ultimately it is all seen as a matter of one’s own interpretation.

One thing Christians do agree on, however, is that any interpretations must be consistent with the New Testament writings; there are verses suggesting that parts of the Old Testament are now ‘obsolete’ (Heb 8:13), and as no-one is really sure which parts are obsolete, it is safer to stick closely to the New Testament.  On the issue of the modern state of Israel, then, one of the most controversial questions is whether the promises of land apply to Jews today.  A common position taken by Christians is that the New Testament does not reaffirm the promise of land found in the Old Testament, and therefore we must assume it is no longer in effect since Jesus ‘fulfilled’ everything.

My intention in this next series of posts is to address this question of prophecy, particularly as it relates to Israel (i.e. the Jewish people) in the time of the new covenant.  I will look at to whom exactly the promise of land was made, what parts of the Old Testament were actually made obsolete by the new covenant, what the New Testament does not say about the promise of land being revoked, what the New Testament does say about the land covenant in detail (Gospels, Acts, Romans, Hebrews), what this teaching means practically for Jews, Palestinians and believers in the land of Israel today, and then how Moses and all the prophets teach exactly the same understanding of Messiah and His return as it relates to the Jewish people and the promised land.  I urge you as you read to examine the Scriptures for yourself to see whether these things are actually so (cf. Acts 17:11‑12).  May the Holy Spirit give us understanding as we consider the wonderful mystery of the gospel.

August 11, 2009

Priests in early Israel, and the ‘eternal’ covenant with Phinehas

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 3:53 pm
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Numbers 25:1-13 and Psalm 106:28-31 describe a covenant that God made with the high priest’s son Phinehas during the lifetime of Moses.  As God used the word ‘eternal’ or ‘perpetual’ to describe this covenant, people have sometimes taken this as evidence that ‘eternal’ covenants don’t necessarily last ‘for ever’, since the people of Israel no longer have priests ministering before the altar.  They then apply this to other covenants such as the ‘everlasting’ possession of the land of Canaan that was promised to Abraham (Genesis 17:7-8).  In order to understand the significance of this particular covenant, therefore, it is important to first get a general understanding of the development of the priesthood following the Exodus from Egypt, according to the Pentateuch and historical books.

Brief summary of priesthood in Israel

Aaron, brother of Moses, was made high priest over the people of Israel (Exodus 28:1), being from the tribe of Levi through Kohath (Exodus 6:16-27) along with Moses.  The tribe of Levi was set apart as a whole tribe (perhaps because of Exodus 32:25-29) to be without inheritance, representing all the firstborn of Israel (Numbers 8:25-26) as the Lord’s portion (Numbers 18:1-24, esp. 20; Deuteronomy 10:9; 18:2).  They served the congregation in the cities of Israel, and served Aaron and his sons who ministered in the Tabernacle (Numbers 3:5–4:49).  Aaron with his four sons – Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, Ithamar – were chosen to minister in the holy place of the Tabernacle (Exodus 28:1–29:44), set apart even from the rest of the tribe of Levi, as “the highest among his brothers” (Leviticus 21:10).

Early history of priesthood in Israel

When the Israelites first arrived at Mount Sinai after escaping from Egypt, God told Moses to bring up the mountain with him Aaron, his two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel (cf. Numbers 11), along with Moses’ attendant Joshua, for a meal with the Lord (Exodus 24:1-14).  After that, Moses went further up the mountain for his first forty days meeting with God and receiving the Ten Commandments.  In the meantime, the people of Israel then went to Aaron to make for them a god, since Aaron was Moses’ deputy (Exodus 32:1-6).  On his return Moses saw that Aaron had let the people get out of control (32:35), and so he stood at the camp entrance and called to him those on the Lord’s side.  His own tribe of Levites gathered to him and were sent out to execute 3000 of the worst offenders, perhaps resulting in God’s specific choice of that tribe as His possession (32:26-29).  Moses went back up the mountain for another forty days, starting with seeing God’s glory, and being given the second pair of stone tablets (Exodus 34).  On his return, face shining, he instructed the people about constructing the Tabernacle first (40:17-35), and then instructed them about sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7) and about the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests (Leviticus 8-9; although God had apparently chosen Aaron even before the golden calf incident – Exodus 27:21-28:30 ff.).

Almost immediately after their consecration, however, Nadab and Abihu offered incense in their firepans before the Lord in an inappropriate way, and fire came out from God’s presence to consume them (Leviticus 10:1-3), as would happen later with the Korahites.  Their brothers Eleazar and Ithamar who had also been anointed were not permitted by Moses to outwardly mourn (see 10:4-20; 21:10-12), but Moses understood when they burned the daily sacrifice completely, being unable to eat it as they were meant to.  The laws of atonement for priests and for the community were instituted after Nadab and Abihu’s death (16:1-34).  Nadab and Abihu died without children, so their brothers served with Aaron in their place (Numbers 3:2-4).

The elder of the two remaining sons of Aaron, Eleazar, served as chief of the leaders of Levi as well as chief of the clan of the Kohathites, who were responsible for performing the duties of the sanctuary and looking after its holy contents (3:27-32; 4:16).  After the consecration of the Tabernacle and the priests (Aaron and his sons), the offerings brought to the Tabernacle by the leaders of all the tribes were distributed among the Levitical clans of Gershon and Merari under the oversight of Ithamar, younger brother of Eleazar.  The Kohathites under Eleazar didn’t receive any because of their more holy responsibilities (7:1-9).  This was all within their first year of being in the wilderness, after which they travelled north to spy out Canaan (Numbers 13-14).

The twelve spies returned from the land of Canaan with their report, but the tribes drew back in unbelief and were condemned to wander the wilderness for forty years.  Shortly after this, Korah, who was of the same Kohathite clan within the tribe of Levi as were Aaron and Moses, along with two Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, rebelled against God’s choice of Aaron and his family as priests.  As a result, God opened up the ground and swallowed them alive.  The 250 Korahites who had brought censers with incense before the presence of the Lord were consumed with fire that came from His presence (Numbers 16).  Eleazar was then instructed to clean up the censers of those who had died in God’s presence (16:36-40).

Eleazar was given increasing responsibility under Aaron, supervising the creation of holy water from the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19:1-10).  At the end of the forty years wandering, God told Moses to take Aaron and Eleazar up Mount Hor, and there put the high priestly garments of Aaron onto Eleazar to be high priest after him, before Aaron died there on the mountain top (20:22-29).  Eleazar took his father Aaron’s place as Moses’ deputy and high priest (Deuteronomy 10:6), helping him with a census of Israel in the plains of Moab (Numbers 26), as Aaron had done forty years earlier at Mount Sinai.  Eleazar also assisted Moses in making judgements concerning inheritance (27:1-11; 34:17), consulting the Urim and Thummim for Moses and his successor Joshua (27:15-23), and making distribution decisions concerning the spoils of war from the battle with the Midianites (31:12-54).

Phinehas was a son of Eleazar and his wife, one of the daughters of Putiel (Exodus 6:25; Putiel was probably Ethiopian, as ‘Phinehas’ means ‘black-skinned’).  Phinehas joined with the congregation of Israel when they gathered at the doorway of the Tent of Meeting to weep over the immorality and idolatry of the Israelites with the Moabite and Midianite women (Numbers 25:1-18).  A leader of a clan in the tribe of Simeon, Zimri, brought his Midianite mistress Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite clan leader, into his tent publicly in full view of the congregation weeping before the Tent of Meeting.  Seeing this, Phinehas took a spear and ran it through both of them in their tent, averting God’s wrath.

Because of this action of zeal for the glory of God, atoning for the sons of Israel, God told Moses that Phinehas would have a ‘covenant of peace’, for him and his descendants after him, described as ‘a covenant of perpetual priesthood’ (25:12-13).  This terminology of a ‘perpetual priesthood’ was specifically used at the consecration of Aaron and his sons as high priest(s), as seen in Exodus 29:9, 40:15, Numbers 18:8 and Deuteronomy 18:5.  The significance of God’s pronouncement here was that although Phinehas was not yet succeeding his father in the high priesthood, God was at this time decreeing that the succession of the high priesthood would always come from the line of Phinehas son of Eleazar rather than from the other priestly line of Ithamar.

Eleazar remained as high priest throughout the rulership of Joshua (Joshua 17:4; 19:51; 21:1; 24:33), while Phinehas was the one who went off to war against the Midianites with the 12,000 soldiers and with the holy vessels and trumpets (Numbers 31:6; see also Numbers 10:9 and Joshua 22:13, 30-32).  He continued this role in warfare even after he succeeded his father in the high priesthood, presumably ministering at Shiloh (Judges 21:19) even though his family inheritance was apparently at Gibeah in Ephraim (Joshua 24:33).  [This was a different Gibeah from the Benjamite city of Judges 20:14, which was not among the Aaronic Levitical cities allotted in Benjamin (Joshua 21:13-19), although Gibeah in Ephraim is not listed elsewhere among the Levitical cities of Ephraim.]  Phinehas as high priest apparently accompanied the ark of the covenant from Shiloh to Bethel when the armies of the tribes of Israel gathered at Mizpah against the immoral tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-21), inquiring of God for the people and offering sacrifices.

More than 250 years later, by the time Eli became judge over all Israel at Shiloh, the high priesthood had apparently passed to his father (1 Samuel 2:28, 30) and thence to Eli.  Eli as high priest also judged Israel for forty years, under the domination of the Philistines.  However Eli was of the line of Ithamar rather than Eleazar, as we see from King David’s later distinction between the two Aaronic clans for the sake of temple worship: the line of Ithamar was represented by Ahimelech son of Abiathar son of Ahimelech son of Ahitub son of Phinehas son of Eli (see 1 Samuel 14:3; 22:20; 1 Chronicles 24:6), and the line of Eleazar was represented by Ahimaaz son of Zadok son of (a different) Ahitub son of Amariah (1 Chronicles 6:4-8, 52-53; 24:3).  Although Abiathar initially succeeded his father as high priest for David with the ephod during his wanderings before he was king (1 Samuel 23:6-12), by the time King David brought the ark into Jerusalem he was served by both Zadok and Abiathar representing both clans of Aaron (1 Chronicles 15:11-15).  They both served in an official capacity as David’s priests, heads of the two clans (1 Chronicles 18:16; 2 Samuel 8:17), and remained so under Solomon also (1 Kings 4:4).

However when the ark was brought into Jerusalem, David left Zadok rather than Abiathar in charge of the Tabernacle that was still in Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39-40).  About thirty years later Abiathar supported Adonijah when he had himself proclaimed king in place of his father David (1 Kings 1:7), whereas Zadok submitted himself to David and therefore supported David’s chosen heir Solomon (1 Kings 1:8, 38-39).  Abiathar was therefore dismissed from priestly service by Solomon and returned to his family inheritance at Anathoth (1 Kings 2:26-27), which is said to have fulfilled the prophecy against Eli’s descendants (1 Samuel 2:27-36).  For this reason, by the end of Solomon’s reign, Azariah son of Ahimaaz son of Zadok ministered as the sole high priest (1 Kings 4:2), as did his heirs even until the exile to Babylon (1 Chronicles 6:4-15), fulfilling God’s promise of a perpetual priesthood for Phinehas son of Eleazar.

Thus we see that the ‘eternal’ covenant with Phinehas was specifically related to the inheritance of the high priestly position, using the same technical vocabulary as in other passages about the high priesthood.  This covenant is therefore self-evidently dependent on the larger decree of God for the priesthood in Israel to belong to the tribe of Levi, a decree that has been superseded by the greater decree given to Jesus within the order of Melchizedek, according to Hebrews 7:11-28.  It is even arguable that the Levitical priesthood was only ever a ‘permission’ of God for the Israelites because of their hardness of heart, as suggested by the change from Exodus 19:5-6, because of the people’s reaction in 20:18-21, to the establishment of Moses and his family and tribe in the priesthood in 28:1.  But further explanation of that idea must be left to another post.

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