Sunday, 23 March 2014

God's Plans for Israel, Church & Nations

Someone said God has three streams of purpose: one for Israel, one for the Church, and one for the nations.

He said we need to know what God is saying to whom.

Sometimes His plans are intertwined, and sometimes they're separate, he said.

I'm still trying to understand God's plans for the future for Israel, the Church and the nations, in Bible Prophecy. 

But I've always felt uncomfortable with the interpretation that sees Jews, Christians and Gentiles traveling yearly to a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem to keep the feasts in future - and cursed if they don't. 

These and similar Bible Prophecies were spoken around the period of Israel's captivity in Babylon.  And it seems there was a literal fulfilment soon afterwards, when the Temple and walls were rebuilt, the Levitical priesthood resumed, and the Jews resettled the land - and indeed God-fearers came yearly to Jerusalem for the feasts, as we see happening in Acts 2.

In the context of those prophecies regarding Israel are the Messianic prophecies. If we therefore place the prophecies about Israel exclusively and literally in the future, then we're also placing the prophecies about the Messiah in the future. 

But that's not how I see the Apostles applying prophecy. They asserted that the Messianic prophecies were already fulfilled in Jesus. 

And rather than seeing a delayed fulfilment of the prophecies regarding Israel, they explained the manner in which they were fulfilled already in Israel. They explained that the outcome they were seeing was precisely what the Prophets had written.

They didn't see the Gospel for the Gentiles merely as some unforeseen parenthesis in God's dealings with the world before God finally gets back to fulfilling His Old Covenant type prophecies regarding Israel.

Rather the Apostles saw the Gospel as THE ultimate plan that God had for all people, whether Jew or Gentile, promised before Israel ever became a nation, before the Law was ever given.  The very plan that the Patriarchs and Prophets foresaw. 

And yet a lot of modern ideas about God's intentions for the future seem to ignore this fulfilled aspect and instead place the majority of these prophecies entirely in the future, including all the references to Old Covenant, Levitical, Jerusalem-centric worship.

I can't help wondering how much it might reshape our outlook on the future if we draw a clear line in history at the point where Old Covenant-style worship ended forever.

It would mean that many popular, modern ideas about the future actually don't have their Biblical basis.

It would bring our understanding, focus and passion into alignment with the Apostles'.

So I'm beginning to feel quite assured about what can only be PAST - but still not dogmatic about what all exactly is yet to come in future.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Matthew's and John's Gospels

Matthew's Gospel assumes the reader has a knowledge of and an appreciation for Old Testament writings and customs.

Such readers would not have believed in Jesus unless Jesus had fulfilled the written prophecies and unless His life and doctrine had upheld Moasaic, Jewish customs.

So Matthew draws our attention to these details. Jesus' genealogy is traced back through David to Abraham; Jesus did fulfil prophecy; and Jesus certainly didn't condone an attitude of disregard for the Law. Thus Matthew points-out Jesus' authentic Jewish merits.

John's Gospel assumes the reader has little understanding of such things. No genealogy is needed for John's purpose, except to say that Jesus was the Son of God; John needed to explain that the Passover, for example, was a feast of the Jews; and John mentions many ways in which Jesus' doctrine superseded the Law: such as Jesus' discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well, and Jesus' treatment of the woman taken in adultery. John points-out Jesus' clashes with the prevailing lack of validity among Jewry.

Matthew doesn't mention the idea of a New Covenant inclusive of Gentiles, until the end. Right from the start, John's Gospel, however, shows Jesus' objective as being "the world".

Whose emphasis was right? Both Matthew and John recorded Jesus' life and message truthfully. It's just that they had a different readership and a different strategy. Misunderstanding this has led to some wrong ideas. 

One wrong idea is that the Gospel for the Gentiles was only an after-thought, separate from Christ's offer of the kingdom to Israel. 

It wasn't an after-thought: the Gospel which we Gentiles have come to believe in is the very same message which Jesus offered the Jews - and it's the very program which had been foreseen and foretold by the Prophets and Patriarchs.

Another wrong idea is that Christians - or at least Jews - should still be observing Old Covenant customs. 

It's true that Jesus observed them; it's true that Jesus didn't condone breaking Moses' Law, during His earthly ministry (which was a ministry exclusively to Jews who were still, at that time, under the Old Covenant). But Jesus also brought about a transition of the Old into the New, and spoke of fundamental changes in what would soon be required of true worshipers.

So the overall truth of the Gospel which Jesus announced was from the start a message which would be for all nations, not only for Jews; the Gospel was the fulfilment of the very blessing which had been promised to the Patriarchs, a blessing which was to be for all nations, through the seed, which was Christ. This had been promised before Israel was ever made a nation, before the Law was ever written for them. 

The writings of the Prophets later showed that this salvation would come to both Jews and Gentiles who believed, and the rest would miss out.

Jesus, during His earthly ministry, came to those who were under the Law; He perfectly fulfilled the Law and the Prophets; He brought transition, through the cross, into the New Covenant; and now all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, can inherit what was promised before the Law was ever given, and they can now live the new lifestyle which God ordained for us all alike before the world began. 

Many believers in the early church in Jerusalem continued being zealous for the Law. But the Apostles did not require this of the Gentile believers. And the keeping of such Mosaic, Jewish practices was passing away even for the Jews, as the Epistle to the Hebrews taught (and indeed many such practices did of necessity pass away even among non-believing Jews, after the destruction of the city and temple).

There is no contradiction between Matthew and John. Jesus came offering the same Gospel-lifestyle to the Jews that Gentiles believers also were soon blessed to experience.

Matthew wrote what he had to, in order to remove any unwarranted misconceptions which Jews and prosalytes to Judaism may have had about Jesus, in order to help them believe.

John wrote all that he needed to write, in order to assure his predominantly Gentile readers about their faith in Jesus, as they'd heard it through the Gospel.

Matthew and John had the same objective, the same message, and ultimately the same lifestyle in mind, for all their readers. 

It's the good news about the grace of God through Jesus, to all who believe, without the works of the Law, whether Jew or Gentile.

Jews could be assured that the grace lifestyle of the New Covenant that was theirs through the Gospel, had been inaugurated through One who perfectly obeyed the Law, fulfilled the Prophets and the promises to the Patriarchs. 

Gentiles could be assured that the Gospel in which they were trusting was valid, for it was the message which Jesus had spoken from the start - despite their persecutions from Judaizers and Gentiles alike, clashes which Jesus Christ Himself also had already endured. 

Matthew, John, and Jesus had one and the same message. It is the wonderful message of God's grace through Jesus, for all. It is freedom. It is the Gospel.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Ezekiel 39

Ezekiel 39 describes a great victory for Israel. Some are expecting a future fulfilment of this chapter.

But it says the effect of this victory would be to explain why Israel had gone into captivity. That would seem to refer to the captivity in Babylon, given the time and circumstances of Ezekiel's ministry.

Then it says the Spirit would be poured out on the Jews. Peter said that happened on the day of Pentecost, through the Gospel, which came to Israel while Israel was again in its own land, having already returned from captivity in Babylon.

But the book of Revelation takes up the theme of Gog again. So I wonder if Revelation saw a future fulfilment of the same prophecy as Ezekiel's, or whether Revelation was merely describing a different future event in terms of an already-fulfilled prophecy. The book of Revelation does after all also mention Babylon long after Babylon had literally already met its demise. Although Peter's epistle mentions Babylon as a first-century reality. In what sense, I wonder. And in either case, is the event described in Revelation still future or already fulfilled.

There is something in the Ezekiel chapter which may help to date its fulfilment. It mentions wooden weapons and weapons of ancient history such as shields, bucklers, bows, arrows, hand staves, and spears.

So it seems the chapter could have found its fulfilment already.

If Ezekiel's prophecy is now past, to what then does Revelation refer. 

Or if instead Revelation refers to the same event as Ezekiel's prophecy, what then might that tell us about the way Old Testament prophecy can be understood.

Israelites in Prophecy

1 Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city: for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean.

Isaiah promised a great future for Israel, and said the uncircumcised will no longer enter Jerusalem forever. Some expect a future fulfilment of this verse.

But Paul taught that there's no need to be circumcised. And Jesus said the hour had come when worshipers would no longer be required to go to Jerusalem.

Therefore Isaiah's prophecy must have been fulfilled at a time when uncircumcision and Jerusalem had significance with regards to worship and with regards to God's requirements. That is, the verse was fulfilled during Old Covenant times.

And sometime after that, Christ came to Israel, fulfilling the promises, the Law and the Prophets. All who believed on Jesus were saved, including Gentiles - as the Prophets also foresaw.

What is Biblical Predestination About?

In Rom.1-8 Paul presented his thesis that salvation is for any Jew or Gentile who accepts Jesus. 

Then in chapters 9-11 he addresses some objections to this thesis. One of which was to do with the fact that many in the nation of Israel had not accepted Jesus and therefore were not being saved. Was this outcome unjust of God? Did it imply His promises spoken originally to the Hebrews had failed?

Those are the questions which Paul now turned his attention to. 

As you can see, that's a different question to the question debated centuries later by Calvin's and Arminius' supporters.


When Paul discussed predestination in Rom.9-11, he had a different purpose in mind than to answer the question which Calvin's and Arminius' followers debated centuries later.

Paul's purpose was to show that it was within God's sovereign right and plan not to have saved the Israeli nation on the basis that they were Jewish or that they had Moses' Law, but to save individuals - Jew or Gentile - on the basis of whether or not he accepts Jesus.

Paul defends this Gospel by showing that the outcome which God had allowed in ethnic Israel was within His sovereign right - within His use of nationhood - and it was also an outcome which the Prophets themselves had foreseen anyway.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Isaiah 62 in Context

Isaiah 62 mentions the walls of Jerusalem, and the holy courts of the Temple. Both of these don't exist anymore. 

These promises were fulfilled leading up to the Gospel, and by the Gospel, in the remnant of them that believed.

But the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable, meaning: Israelites could still inherit the promise, if they believed.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Zechariah 14:3-5 in Context

3 Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle.
4 And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south. 
5 And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah: and the Lord my God shall come, and all the saints with thee.

Dramatic imagery, isn't it!

The prophecy goes on to describe what was to happen next:

Many of the survivors of this judgment would begin a habit of going up to Jerusalem to the Lord's house (the Temple) to keep the feast of tabernacles, bringing sacrifices and using the pots in the Temple in which to boil their sacrifices (verses 20,21);

And a curse was to come on any individual, family and nation who failed to take that trek to Jerusalem annually to keep the feast (verses 16-20).

So those parts of the prophecy at least must have found fulfilment already - seeing it describes Old Covenant distinctives, and God isn't into returning to shadows.

It puts the fulfilment of much of the wider prophecy squarely into the context of Zechariah's own dispensation. And history shows that to be the case.

Not to say all of the prophecy is necessarily now in the past. Maybe some statements in it might still be future.

And not to say we can't apply lessons from it to our own circumstances. Of course we always can.

But "rightly dividing" the word - and one way to do that is by appropriately distinguishing between its fulfilled and unfulfilled aspects - helps avoid a lot of fanciful and failed predictions about current affairs.

And rather than portraying Moses' Law or modern Judaism as again being at the centre of God's plans for the future, rightly identifying fulfilled prophecy shows that Jesus Christ and His Gospel of grace was and is the fulfilment of God's promises - for Israel, for all of us - for all time.