Handling Injustices and Ill Treatment Spiritually
Life is nearly always somewhat messy, right? Sometimes it is so messy that we generalize and just say it’s a mess. I’ve been at that point many times, one recently that I will mention before closing the article. But for whatever reason, I’ve been getting a number of phone calls from people who are either in the middle of a mess or have friends who are. In all cases, other church members are involved in the mess, most often leaders in one role or another.
That’s not surprising, for at least two reasons. One, leaders are humans and thus imperfect and sinners. Two, we interface more with them in situations that are likely to be challenging because their roles put them with us in those situations. Do I have issues with some leaders? Since I authored one of my longer books on the topic of leadership and co-authored another, you can no doubt answer my question pretty easily. Do I have issues with all leaders? No, because I refuse to generalize about leaders, churches and members of those churches. But the point is well taken that we humans who claim Christ will have challenges with other humans who share the claim of being his followers. Most often those challenges will involve leaders. No surprises there, for reasons noted.
With those observations as a backdrop, the biggest issue by far is how we respond to those challenges. The application of common sense is a good place to start. Humans are still humans even in God’s family. Further, Satan is alive and well on planet earth to the point that John the beloved apostle wrote that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Next, only a small minority of humankind is traveling the narrow road that leads to heaven (Matthew 7:13-15). Finally, in our quest for common sense on the matter, we need to realize that without a plethora of problems in the first century church, we wouldn’t have a New Testament (or if we did, it would be pretty short). With all of that in mind, let’s proceed with expectations that are at least within shouting distance of reality.
One of the mistakes I have made through the years is not always opening the Bible and looking at God’s words in print when giving spiritual counsel. I know the Bible well enough to work its principles into normal conversation and also to quote relevant passages from memory. In much of my spiritual counseling, I have used that knowledge in the way described. Although I believe I have been effective in most cases, I would have been more effective if the Book of books was open and we were reading it together. However, to avoid making this article overly long, I will do some paraphrasing along with some direct quoting. But I urge you to read the article with Bible open and read each verse as we discuss the passage.
God’s Directions Are Clear
When I say that his directions are clear, that doesn’t mean that they are easy to follow. Far from it. But if we truly want solutions, we can’t improve on what the Creator said about how his creatures should function. Many biblical passages could be listed here which would be quite applicable, but I will only mention the main three that I have been using lately. The first two apply to dealing with problems between individuals and the third applies to responding to broader church problems. In all three cases, I am going to offer my insights about the passages. Otherwise, if we but read them quickly, we might only catch the surface meanings and not the deeper, most important principles.
The Way of the Cross – 1 Peter 2:11-3:9
This is a long passage, but it is all about what might well be called the way of the cross. It begins under a heading in my Bible entitled, “Living Godly Lives in a Pagan Society.” Chapter 2:11-12 urges us to avoid sin because we are in a spiritual war and our lives should stand in stark contrast to any charges that others might make against us. Good introduction. Verses 13-17 admonish us to live a life of submission, beginning with submission to governmental rulers, and once again emphasizes the need to live in a way that that quietens the critics. In other words, be the real deal – walk the walk and not just talk the talk. He ends this section by saying that we should live as free people in showing respect to everyone and loving God’s family. But that lifestyle is described as living as God’s slaves.
Verse 18 introduces the final section of the chapter in addressing literal slaves and their behavior in response to their owners, regardless of whether they are kind or harsh masters. The way of the cross is about to go uphill fast with rocks strewn abundantly in the path. The word “slavery” catches in our throats in any combination of a discussion about Christianity. I understand. Slavery has been aptly labeled as the original sin of the United States. Yet in both the Old Testament and New Testament, slavery was regulated but not forbidden. Not only were there slaves in the first church, but slave owners. Because of this, many moderns have rejected the Bible and Christianity. Was slavery in the first century as bad as that in American history? I hope not, but I’m not sure we can be sure. Slavery would have to be viewed negatively in any setting in any century. Yet, Peter talks about it and uses Christ and the way of the cross as the solution in their setting.
1 Peter 2:18-23 (NIV2011)
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
From the Sermon on the Mount forward, those who follow Christ are directed to respond to all kinds of ill treatment and injustices differently than those in the world respond. The concept of “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) is repeated many times in many ways throughout the NT. Christians must live as examples of this principle if we are to follow Christ. It goes against everything in us to do it, and few have done it well, even among those who call themselves Christians. Seeking revenge is natural; refusing to seek revenge is unnatural.
Back to our passage. Slaves submit to even harsh masters because their first priority is pleasing their heavenly Master, and he is pleased when we imitate Christ. He says, “To this you were called” (verse 21), referring to imitating Christ’s example of enduring unjust, harsh treatment. Not only did he refuse to sin generally, but he refused to respond with retaliation to insults or threats when suffering. How did he manage such unnatural responses? He entrusted himself to God.
After all, did not God promise to work all things (good and bad) together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28)? Did he do it for Jesus? Does he now do it for us? Jesus died a gruesome death as a common criminal as people spat upon him and cursed his very name. Did that work out for good? Jesus thought so. We who follow him think so. If God managed that outcome in the midst of the most extreme circumstances, can he not manage it in your circumstances, as challenging as they may seem? Is God not still God? We all say yes intellectually, but saying it emotionally is quite often a different matter. At least that’s true for me.
Broadening the Principle – to Wives
In 1 Peter 3, God applies the same principle, the way of the cross, to three other situations. First, Peter addresses wives with knotheads for husbands, i.e., those who “do not believe the word,” whether as non-Christians or Christians who aren’t obeying what they profess to believe. Either way, they are knotheads. So what does the Christian wife do in such situations to follow the way of the cross? Note that this is still the principle being discussed, for he begins the passage with “in the same way.”
1 Peter 3:1-4 (NIV2011)
Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
Thus, wives are to be submissive to their husbands, with behavior that includes purity, reverence, a gentle and quiet spirit. They don’t react unspiritually to unspiritual treatment, but rather they go the way of the cross in following the example of Jesus. In verse 6, they are told that such responses can only occur when they don’t give in to their fears. What might those fears be? Probably that if they don’t fight back, they will become worse then doormats for their husbands to wipe their feet on. Did Jesus become a doormat for not fighting fire with fire? That certainly wasn’t his expectation. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Does the way of the cross work? Will it work for you and me? Only if we do it consistently, not simply try it occasionally. As I said earlier, the way of the cross is a steep one full of obstacles (mostly ourselves).
Broadening the Principle – to Husbands
Next, Peter addresses husbands, but for only one verse. That is puzzling to me. Most of the problems in my marriage are my fault as the husband. Most of the problems in marriages I have counseled (hundreds) have been similar, with more of the fault on the husband’s side than on the wife’s side. Of course, there have been some notable exceptions, but not a great many. But no matter my puzzlement, Peter begins with “in the same way” again as he continues to elaborate on the way of the cross and what it looks like when applied to marriage for the husband.
1 Peter 3:7 (NIV2011) — Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
Thus, husbands are to be considerate, which carries the idea of considering or studying the wife in order to know her well enough to meet her needs (figure out her love languages and provide for them). Treating them with respect is what all people need, and given the patriarchy views held in the first century toward women and wives, that was unnatural. Unless we understand how wives in that era were viewed and treated by their husbands, we will likely underestimate the counter-cultural nature of what Peter wrote here. The way of the cross is unnatural, although with lots of practice and prayer it becomes more natural (thankfully).
Broadening the Principle – to the Church
I started to entitle this section, “Proceed With Caution – Hazardous Road Ahead!” You will see why in a moment.
1 Peter 3:8-9 (NIV2011)
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
We know that Peter is making this application to the church, suggested by “Finally, all of you” and “to this you were called” (pointing back to verse 21 of chapter 2). How does the principle of the way of the cross fit the church and all of our relationships within the church? Just like the example of Christ, it applies in two ways: live righteously and refuse to respond unrighteously to unjust treatment. Peter begins with the ideal, the righteous part, which includes being unified, sympathetic, loving, compassion and humble. Amen – that is what the church ought to be like! Why isn’t my church like that (some are thinking)? Undoubtedly that is the goal and one worth striving for mightily.
But he is still addressing church relationships when he wrote verse 9. If we are not to repay evil with evil or insult with insult, that clearly implies that we are going to encounter such in the church. And right there lies the ultimate challenge. We expect to be treated badly by those in the world. We expect to find a safe haven in the family of God. When that expectation is dashed by a harsh dose of reality, it hurts and hurts badly. I recall the Proverb which explains why this is so true. “A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel” (Proverbs 18:19). When deeply wounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, how must we respond? “Repay evil with blessing.” Why? “To this you were called” – to the way of the cross, to imitate the example of Jesus suffering the greatest indignities possible.
Best Communication Principle in Scripture
The Bible is chock-full of teaching about communication with those outside the family of God as well as in it and within our own physical family relationships. All of these passages are jewels and golden nuggets. In my opinion, based on observation and personal experience, one rises to the top of the heap when dealing with challenging people in challenging situations. Here it is.
2 Timothy 2:23-26 (NIV2011)
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
We teach our kids not to use the word “stupid.” Overall, that’s a good idea, but Paul didn’t get the memo or at least the translators of this version thought that this word was the best translation of the Greek term, apaideutos. It is the only time the word is used in the NT. I like the word as it is translated here. Any married couple can tell you that the bulk of their arguments are actually pretty stupid and petty, focused on irritants and not real issues. If we don’t stop such arguments, they lead to longer lasting problems which are here termed quarrels, becoming something like an ongoing feud. But how do we avoid such disturbances in relationships and keep them from getting out of hand, and hopefully, end up with both parties in harmony?
First, just don’t allow that sinful part of your nature to take control of your emotions. Second, be kind to everyone, which in this context is applied to those who oppose you. Third, continue calmly trying to reason with those who do oppose you. Being “able to teach” means here controlling your emotions while continuing to reason. Refusing to talk is not the option given. Many people just shut down when they are mad or hurt. Most in this category justify their actions by explaining that silence is preferable to saying something that they will regret later. That sounds reasonable, of course, but it is not what the text says to do. Keep teaching, calmly. Difficult to do, yes, but as an emotionally based person, I assure you it can be learned and practiced.
Fourth, don’t take what is said to you personally. Otherwise, you will become resentful, angry and bitter (the normal progression of unchecked emotions in conflict). How can we do these things when what is said is hurting us, perhaps very deeply? How can we continue to gently instruct those who keep dishing out the pain? It’s actually a matter of recognizing the deeper issues of what is taking place. Your opponent in an emotional quarrel has been captured by Satan, who is now using the person to hurt and hopefully destroy you. The issues are really never about you and another human; they are about you, God and Satan; and them, God and Satan. It’s a spiritual battle taking place. God is always begging us to go the way of the cross and Satan is always begging us to do the opposite in taking the human way.
Since the captive is under Satan’s control, they are out of their senses. That’s why we must remain in ours, calmly and gently continuing to reason with them while we are praying that God will bring them to repentance. We cannot force anyone to repent, even ourselves. God is the one who grants repentance to all of us. Yes, we must at some point reach a desire to repent, or be willing to be made willing to repent, but God through his Holy Spirit must bring it about. If you believe this and pray as though you believe it, God will do it if it can be done in a given situation. Even if all of the right principles of dealing with difficult people don’t work on a given occasion, there’s always another day. God doesn’t give up on us; we must not give up on each other.
This passage, in combination with 1 Peter 2 & 3, provides us with powerful principles of allowing God to work his miracles in the middle of our messes. I have seen him do it time and time again in my life and in the lives of countless others. It is not as if these principles have been tried and found ineffective; they are just not often tried and employed consistently. The way of the cross in Peter’s writing is applied as the way of the godly communicator in Paul’s. Both employ the same two foundational elements: be righteous in your own life and refuse to be pulled into Satan’s world by those who are behaving righteously. Peter says to return blessings for evil treatment and Paul shows how to do it in the communication process. A beautiful combination of the same principle illustrated in two ways.
Handling a Bad Church Situation
Peter ends up his emphasis on the way of the cross as it applies to disciples with what we have already covered in 1 Peter 3:8-9. But the question of how to respond to a broader situation involving a church that is, or seems to be, going in a bad direction is another issue. The two are related, but different in some ways. One of the recent calls that I received came from friends who were members of a church that was doing well, but who had friends in another church that was doing badly from their perspective. Some members of that church had already left and others were contemplating leaving. My friends admitted that their discouraged and angry friends in the other church were responding poorly but had a lot of truth in what they were saying. I tried to help them help their friends using two approaches.
One was going through the same two passages we have just gone through. We may be a part of a fellowship, but we as individuals have declared Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. If he is our Lord, we cannot fail to listen to what he says and follow it to the best of our ability. What he says in our two passages is that receiving bad and unrighteous treatment is no justification for unrighteous responses to those inside or outside the church. Period. No excuses and no exceptions. The way of the cross is the narrow way of Matthew 7 and thus the way of salvation. Both righteous living and righteous responses are salvation matters. Satan will try to convince us otherwise, but don’t listen to all of his justifications and rationalizations. They lead to hell.
The passage I find very helpful in these situations provides us with an example of a church gone bad.
Revelation 3:1-5 (NIV2011)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. 4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.
The church in Sardis was dead. The members thought otherwise. Other sister churches probably thought otherwise too. God told the truth and told it bluntly. He called the church to repent and if they didn’t wake up, he guaranteed disastrous consequences. His word is full of commands, not suggestions. He is not fooled, and he is not fooling around. I find myself wondering how many of our churches today are evaluated by him in exactly the same way. The Christianity of America is a watered-down, polluted version of what Christ established and still expects. Scary stuff, that.
The helpful verses in the plight we are describing about a church gone bad are verses 4-5. In spite of the deadness of the church as a whole, there were a few who were still walking the walk. What were they told to do? Leave the church? No, they were told to keep walking the walk, for their consequences were promises of walking with Jesus in white, that their names would never be blotted out of the book of the saved, and they would be acknowledged by Christ himself before all heaven.
Would I ever consider leaving one congregation to be a part of a better one? Perhaps, but I would not leave in the midst of a storm on bad terms with those whom I left behind. In that case, I would be taking my sins with me that violated the passages we have studied. Therefore, I would also be taking God’s judgment of those sins along with me. I’ve never seen an angry, bitter person change their hearts by a change of location without repentance. Satan will fill your ears and hearts with justifications and human reasoning to make you think otherwise, but nothing less than true spirituality is going to work in old or new locations. You may move, but your problem is that you are going to take yourself with you, and without repentance you are still going to be you. After the honeymoon of a new location wears off, your sins will catch up with you. They always do. The church at Sardis and all individuals who are caught up in sin are always given one solution and one solution only: repentance. Whether anyone else repents or not, you must.
So Where is God in My Mess?
The title of the article suggests that I am going to talk about my own personal mess at some point. What I am about to write delves into another aspect of handling injustice and ill treatment. The other segments of the article dealt with how to respond to hurtful issues at the hands of other people. What has not been addressed is for me a bigger issue than these others, by a wide margin. What do you do when this perceived bad treatment is coming, in one way or another, at the hands of God himself? My belief is that all that happens to me or you is either caused or allowed by him. He is somehow involved in all that I experience.
I have another article on this website which affirms that I have lost my faith in coincidences. I think God is somewhere in the mix of all that I experience, always has been and always will be. That’s a wonderful thought when my life is going according to my plan but can be extremely painful when it is going according to God’s plan which differs from mine. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t get super-spiritual here and pretend that you don’t. You have been upset at God too. The Psalmists certainly were at times and expressed it in print for future generations to read. I’m grateful for their gut-level honesty.
Up until now in the article, I have talked generally about the messes that we all find ourselves in as disciples and what God tells us to do to get out of them. Actually, he has to get us out of them, but we have to cooperate with him by listening to his directions and doing our best to put them into practice. In all three cases, we don’t have control with what is happening to us but we can have control over our responses. These responses can then have an effect, sometimes a very big effect, on those who are causing us grief. What may seem impossible can become possible by the power of God. We just have to cooperate with him by taking what he said seriously enough to follow through by obeying him. He is in the middle of our messes with us and has solutions. We just have to trust them and put them into action.
But what happens when you have done everything you know to do and prayed about all that you can think of and you are ready to just give up? All of your spiritual approaches to spiritual problems for spiritual solutions no longer work. What then? Where indeed is God in my mess? Ever been there? If you are human, I imagine that you have. I know I have and will again. As my dear departed brother Wyndham Shaw often said, “I’ve been up and I’ve been down and I will be both again.”
A Hell of a Year – and Beyond!
God is right in the middle of it with you, regardless of what the mess is and how bad it is. He is always working to get us out of it spiritually, if not physically. So here’s my most recent story about my current mess, an ongoing story at least in one aspect. 2020 was a very hard year for me, one of the worst in memory. As the old saying goes among older people, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” I think I did pretty well emotionally, spiritually and physically until about age 70. Moses did not write Psalm 90 without reason. Here’s the verse most applicable to this present discussion. “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (verse 10). This was Moses’ only Psalm, and interestingly it was written during a period when life spans were typically longer. It was a type of predictive prophecy evidently.
I won’t list all of my life challenges of 2020, but the pandemic on top of it made for a really hard year. I was excited about the calendar hitting 2021 because life had to get easier, right? I’ve thought that many times at the end of a year and have most often been wrong. I most certainly was wrong this time. For just one example of my challenges, health issues were involved. I had one surgery at age four (tonsillectomy) and one in my early 60s. Since hitting 70, I’ve had five, the last of which was just over a week ago. Ten days earlier, I had a similar surgery and was called back into the doctor’s office for a consultation. I was told that the pathology report about the tissue removed for testing might be cancer and might not be. The test was inclusive in the opinion of three separate pathologists. So, ten days later I had a more invasive surgery to obtain a deeper tissue sample. I’m still awaiting the results to be relayed to me by my surgeon as of this writing.
But this issue was just one on top of a number of others that had raised my anxiety level to bad places. Yes, I did write a book about the topic of spiritual surrender. I have been fighting to surrender and stay surrendered pretty much all of my Christian life. It is not an easy war. I win individual battles from time to time when I am out of whack spiritually, and I have written a lot about my relationship to God and all that I have done to try maintaining a growth track. But keeping it real, this last year and a half has been the hardest period of a similar length in my entire life (and that’s saying a lot, by the way).
God – Brace Yourself!
A few days ago, my frustrations and anxieties caught up with me and I poured them out in print to God as a prayer. As I wrote, I came to realize that underneath it all I was angry with him. My conviction that all that happens in life is either caused or allowed by him left me feeling that he had pushed the edge and I was about to go over it. ALL OF THIS WASN’T RIGHT AND IT WASN’T FAIR! Where was God in my mess anyway? In reading the Psalms, I am sure that God can handle our emotions, even when we are at our worst and dumping all of our pain and sins on him. We have to do that with our own kids, don’t we? Why wouldn’t we think he is willing to do the same with us? He had Paul write that passage in 2 Timothy 2, which must mean that he practices it with us.
I told him in this wacko prayer that I knew my view of him, him and me, and life in general was messed up and it was my fault. In fact, everything was my fault – always! I further explained that I felt as if the old humanistic saying were correct: “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Thus, I needed to change my perspective on everything I was thinking and feeling. But I simply could not do it. And he would not, or so it seemed to me. I said all of that ridiculous stuff, and a good deal more. I told him I would just settle for being like a teenager saying, “Whatever!” when I couldn’t get my way. I would just keep going but with clenched teeth and rolling eyes. Thus ended my prayer. I could not change myself and God refused to do it for me. I felt like the writer of Psalm 88 as he ended the Psalm by saying, “Darkness is my closest friend.”
Gordon, you actually said all of that stuff to God? Yes, because if we think it he already knows it and we might as well say it. I had hit rock bottom – hard. Like Job, I was wishing October 27, 1942 had never occurred. That was the day I was born. Nothing happened in the next few hours to change my thinking. I didn’t get a phone call or a card of encouragement. Nothing happened out of the ordinary. Doom and gloom prevailed. My normally encouraging wife understood me well enough to just stay out of my way and let me fight my own battle with God. I described that morning to myself and later to others as having wrestled with God until he pinned me to the ground by my neck and forced me to cry, “Uncle!” through clenched teeth. He won, decisively. I was beaten and as disheartened as I could remember. It was, using the phrase from a very old movie, a “bad day at Black Rock!”
Out of the Clear Blue, a Miracle
Then a few hours later, a miracle occurred. All of a sudden, without warning, I was clothed and back in my right mind. Not one thing changed except my heart, and that without any human explanation – none. Amazing! I was simply staggered for a moment, and then began laughing and joking with God about the battle as I marveled at what he had obviously done. I have reached the point of absolute surrender many times through the years. I know when I am there, because in the words of Philippians 4:7, I find a peace from him that transcends all understanding. In that unexpected moment, I had it once again.
Most of my full surrender times in the past came when I was genuinely trying to surrender, using all of the spiritual approaches that seemed to aid in the process (and I have many). Not this time. I was doing nothing, for I had completely given up. I had hit rock bottom and was looking down, not up. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all changed. God was making his point loud and clear. He wanted me to know beyond doubt that it wasn’t up to me. It was beyond me. But nothing was beyond him, even dealing with a totally defeated and hopeless idiot.
The frustrations on my list, including not hearing back from the doctor about my test results for what seems an inordinate amount of time (well over a week after the surgery I still haven’t heard), no longer mattered. God is in control. He can do what he wants to do when he wants to do it in any way he wants to do it. That’s all in his realm, not mine. I belong to him. He promised to take care of me and that’s all I need to know. I’m sitting on the back of this bus called life and he is the driver. My world is back on its axis and whatever comes down the pike of life will be just fine, up to and including death.
We would do well to read Psalm 139 regularly and meditate on its grandeur. I especially find comfort in this verse: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (verse 16). Let’s just relax and enjoy the ride. It’s pretty much a roller coaster ride, but those are my favorite rides at amusement parks anyway. I’m not at all surprised that God fashioned my life to fit such a ride spiritually and emotionally. It’s been quite a ride, Father, and although we are nearing the end of it, I still love the thrill of it, especially in those days when you do the unexpected and inexplicable – a “God thing.” You are indeed in the big fat middle of my mess, the mess that is me, still loved and cared for by you. End of story (or this current chapter at least). Thank you, Lord, for still being in there with me. When I get it all on straight with you, fully surrendered, other issues in life are just not that significant. Pretty cool, or as my grandsons would say, pretty dope!
In a previous article, “Gentiles and the Law of Moses,” I addressed the increasingly popular Torah pursuant concept that we need Christ plus the Law. Of course, the claim of such adherents is that only Christ saves us, but God never intended his followers to forsake the basics of the Law, especially the Sabbath observance, food laws and the special Feast Days. Not only is such teaching patently false, it is misleading and dangerous. It is the reason that books like Romans and Galatians were written in the New Testament and the reason that the early church nearly split along racial lines. “Christ Plus” teaching, in any form, is heresy biblically. If you haven’t read the aforementioned article, please take the time to read it on my Bible teaching website (gordonferguson.org).
This present article shows the connection between this form of Christ Plus teaching of Law observance and the claim that Israel is still God’s special nation for whom he has special plans in the future. If you grant the latter, the former makes more sense, although not perfect sense by any means. However, the acceptance of their specialness as a nation would certainly usher in the idea that their laws would remain special too. The assumed connection is wrong, because both parts of it are shown to be unbiblical in multiple passages in the New Testament, but the connection does make some sense logically. Thus, it is important to examine and answer the question posed in the title of this article.
The Development of End-Times Theology
According to many Evangelicals, the Jewish nation is still God’s special nation, especially as we near the “end-times.” As an old guy in my late 70s who has been involved in Bible study and teaching for most of those years, seeing such doctrines develop has been interesting, although disturbing. As a young minister, this teaching was fairly rare. The church was viewed as the earthly presence of God’s spiritual kingdom and the Jewish nation was seen as simply a nation among nations. Israel was once a very important part of God’s purpose to bring the Messiah into the world and to establish his kingdom and his new covenant, but after that was accomplished in Acts 2, Christians were seen as Christians and non-Christians as non-Christians, regardless of nationality or race.
The growing emphasis of the importance of modern-day Israel was tied directly to a developing end-time philosophy called “premillennialism,” and one flavor of this philosophy was called “dispensationalism.” This flavor can be traced back to a few key figures who promoted such speculations, men like Charles Nelson Darby. He was a religious leader in the 1800s who is considered to be the father of Dispensational theology. A later very influential figure was C.I. Scofield in the mid-1900s whose popular reference Bible promoted this theology.
If memory serves correct, I received one of his Bibles for my 15th birthday and through a preacher friend of the family, heard this doctrine espoused all throughout my youth. Scary stuff, that. I have some very interesting stories about its effects on me. It took some years to get it expunged from my thinking, but serious contextual Bible study will do that for you. When I was still a young minister, Hal Lindsey began his writing career and popularized these end-time doctrines in books like “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” along with a growing number of writers of this persuasion. The end result is that now, most of the evangelical movement accepts such teaching as absolutely true, unquestioned and unquestionable. Even a popular Christian author like Tim LaHaye has delved into this genre of writing with his “Left Behind” series of novels, several of which have been made into movies (which didn’t turn out to be a very popular film series, by the way).
The Imagination Knows No Bounds
Let me just comment at this point that, although widely accepted, these teachings filled with concepts like the “Rapture,” a personal “Antichrist,” and the “Restoration of Israel” are far from being unquestionable. They constitute a twisting of Scripture that boggles the mind of a serious biblical student who has not been indoctrinated with such teaching. I have examined each of these concepts in more detail in other writings through the passages from which they are supposedly derived, but for now, here are a couple of “teasers” to prick your interest and to perhaps ease your mind if you are thinking I have lost mine!
Consider the antichrist concept. The NT uses this term four times, all in the letters of the apostle John (1 John 2:18, 22; 1 John 4:3 and 2 John 1:7). He defines the term quite clearly for us. “I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist (2 John 1:7).” One of the false doctrines that sprung up in the early church was a form of Gnosticism which taught that anything physical was bad and only the spirit world was good. Therefore, it was argued that since flesh was inherently bad, Jesus didn’t really come in flesh and blood, but just “seemed” to be material. This particular form of Gnosticism is called “Docetism,” from the Greek term dokein, meaning “to seem.” So where did the concept of a personal Antichrist associated with the end-times come from? The fertile imaginations of so-called Bible teachers who are captivated with views that become more interesting to them than Jesus, to put it bluntly. Otherwise, why would so much emphasis be placed on anything other than Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3)?”
Then let’s take a brief look at the idea of the Rapture, when the good Christian folks will purportedly be suddenly snatched from the earth, leaving the bad folks for a period of seven years until Christ and the good folks return to reign physically upon the earth for a literal 1000 years. Now let’s read the passage upon which this popular teaching is supposedly based.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NIV2011)
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Paul had a basic purpose in mind when writing these words. He simply wanted to reassure those in the church whose fellow Christians had died that the departed ones had in no way lost their reward. In offering this encouragement, he spoke of two classes of people: living Christians and dead Christians. He says absolutely nothing about living or dead non-Christians. Further, all Christians will meet Christ in the air to be with him forever. Nothing is said about him coming down to earth in the passage. Neither is anything said here about what happens to non-Christians, dead or alive, at his coming. You have to look at other passages to discover what happens to them, and one such passage is John 5:28-29. Read it. It’s not complicated. “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” John affirms one resurrection from the dead of both Christians and non-Christians. Simple enough?
By the way, the word “rapture” is the Latin, rapio, from which the English word is derived. It is a translation of “caught up” (Greek harpazo) in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Again we must ask: where did such a well-developed, widely accepted doctrine of the Rapture come from? The fertile imaginations of so-called Bible teachers who are captivated with views that become more interesting to them than Jesus, to put it bluntly (again). The passage used to support the teaching says nothing about non-Christians at the coming of Christ, nothing about a seven-year departure of Christians from the earth, nor a return to earth after that period of time. It is an invention of man, embellished and emphasized long enough to make people think it must be real, but is in fact not found nor even suggested in the Bible. Amazing! Simply amazing!
What About Physical Israel?
I mention the above doctrines for two reasons. One, they are unbiblical, although popular and widely accepted. Two, they are associated with the so-called “Restoration of Israel,” a doctrine that declares the Jewish nation of today to be special to God and to have a special place in his plans for the future. I believe the best way to show the fallacy of this teaching is to defer to what Paul said in Romans 9-11, which we will do shortly.
One of the greatest challenges to the minds and hearts of first century Jewish Christians was in trying to understand and accept the current plight of most of their fellow Jews. Although many of them had accepted Christ as Messiah and Savior, the majority had not. Thus, they were outside of the church, which meant that they were outside Christ and outside a saved relationship with God. They must have asked themselves questions like these: “How were we the chosen nation of God for centuries and now most of us are no longer a part of the chosen?” “Did all of our years of hardship and persecution mean nothing?” “Does God no longer love the Jews as the ‘apple of his eye’ (Deuteronomy 32:10) as he did throughout our history?”
Speaking of history, both the Jews of the first century and many Christian faith adherents today seem pretty confused about what historical Israel was really like. By “cherry-picking” their favorite Scriptures and failing to examine OT books as a whole, especially the Prophets, their views of Israel as God’s beloved nation warm the hearts. However, the Israelite nation was about as rebellious toward God as could be imagined. Even a casual reading of the OT prophets would demonstrate this. They went from serving God faithfully at times to absolute apostasy of the worst kind, repeating this cycle over and over again. The description of their sins included every type of moral violation and every type of idolatry, including sacrificing their own children in the fire. Just do a word search of “idols” in the Bible. The types of idolatry and numbers of times it was practiced by the Jewish nation is absolutely shocking.
All of these sins, repeated in spite of repeated warnings from God, resulted in God sending enemy nations to punish Israel throughout their history and ultimately resulted in him allowing them to be taken into captivity. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was taken into captivity by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Reading the biblical accounts of these events are not simply horrifying; they will make you nauseous. Take a look at God’s prediction of such way back in the early part of Israel’s history during the Wilderness Wandering period.
Deuteronomy 28:53-57 (NIV2011)
Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. 54 Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, 55 and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. 56 The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter 57 the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For in her dire need she intends to eat them secretly because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of your cities.
The tendency toward sentimentality in the case of Israel was alive and well in the first century and it is just as apparent today among those who espouse the view that Israel is still God’s special nation. Those of Christ’s days on earth trusted their heritage in spite of what it actually demonstrated. The self-righteousness of the religious Jews knew no bounds. After all, they were God’s special nation and the other nations of the world were less than worthless. The Gentiles were viewed as “dogs” and as perfect fodder with which to stoke the fires of hell. John the Baptist expressed the same absence of sentimentality toward Israel that God did in the OT.
Matthew 3:7-10 (NIV2011)
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
In one way, the rejection of Jesus by the majority of the Jews shouldn’t have been that surprising, since most of them hadn’t responded too positively to the teaching of Jesus during his earthly ministry. Oh sure, they had turned out in droves to see his miracles and to perhaps be the recipient of his miraculous healing or even feeding. But when it came down to accepting his most challenging teaching, that was quite another story. This passage from John 6 illustrates the point well.
John 6:60-66 (NIV2011)
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” 61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” 66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
A Kingdom Within a Kingdom
The truths contained in this section, if understood and taken seriously, would eradicate the mistaken views of the actual position of the Jewish nation from its very inception to this present day. Is Israel still a special nation in God’s eyes? Were they a special nation in his eyes in the OT period itself? The answer – yes and no in both cases. In the OT, they were a part of his special plan to bring forth the Messiah and through him to bless the world spiritually. However, being a part of that plan did not mean that they were right with God spiritually as individual members of the nation. In the NT, from the first day of the New Covenant until the present, God loves non-Christian Jews simply because they are a part of the human race and also because they descended from the patriarchs (Romans 11:28). That being said, they have not been a part of any special plan of God since the New Covenant was instituted. They are not, nor will they be, a part of God’s spiritual kingdom without accepting Christ on an individual basis according to that covenant.
Everyone from Adam onward who were (or became) people of faith, were a part of a kingdom within a kingdom. They voluntary submitted to their God as their King, which made them a part of two kingdoms at once. The spiritual part of the kingdom has gone through various phases, which can easily be overlooked or misunderstood. Before the Law of Moses was given at the inauguration of the Judaistic kingdom, those who were faithful to God were in his spiritual kingdom – whether it was officially called a kingdom or not. If he was the king, they were his subjects. If his will was being done by them, they were in his kingdom of the redeemed. This kingdom before the cross was nonetheless based on the sacrifice made on the cross, for Jesus was the Lamb slain from the creation of the world in the mind of God – Revelation 13:8. The citizens of that early kingdom understood none of this, but they didn’t have to. God did. They just had to be faithful to the light God had given them.
Then historically, the kingdom of the Jews was established at Sinai. God’s will was for all of those descendants of Abraham to be a spiritual kingdom under his kingship. He made this clear through Moses in Exodus 19:5-6: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” However, although this lofty goal for Israel represented God’s ideal will, it didn’t play out in an ideal fashion. In fact, by the end of the Wilderness Wandering period, Deuteronomy was written to correct legalistic views of observing the Law that had developed in just a forty-year period, which explains why so much in this amazing Book addressed the heart. But Deuteronomy did not halt the slide into legalism (and worse). From its inception, the nation of Israel became a nation within a nation, a kingdom within a kingdom. The whole nation was used as God’s instrument to prepare for the coming of the Messiah and to produce him. Sadly, only a remnant (the spiritual kingdom within the physical kingdom) was faithful to him.
Paul certainly made this principle clear with his comments in Romans 9-11, as we will see. This explains why there had to be a kingdom within a kingdom, a spiritual kingdom and a physical kingdom existing concurrently. The nation may have become a nation at Sinai, and although God used them for his ultimate purposes, they were often a nation in rebellion. Praise God for the encouragement we get from knowing that there was a remnant even in the worst of times, Ruth being a shining example of that – though a foreign proselyte. Even in the largely apostate Northern Kingdom during the time of the divided kingdom, Elijah was told by God that the remnant numbered 7,000 (1 Kings 19:18).
The most important phase of the Israelite kingdom began when David was made king, for God promised him that someone from his lineage would remain on the throne forever. Saul’s family lost the throne due to his sin, but David’s family would never abdicate the throne to another family. Of course, the ultimate Davidic king who would reign forever and ever was none other than Jesus the Messiah.
Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV2011)
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
The apostles’ question about restoring the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6 was not a dumb nor naive question, in spite of frequent assertions of same. The kingdom of the Messiah was a restored kingdom, especially relevant historically because from the time of the Babylonian captivity until Jesus was crowned, there was not a king on David’s throne (meaning from his lineage). The kingdom of Christ was given first to the Jews as a fulfillment of many OT prophecies, and it was a number of years before Gentiles began flooding into his kingdom. Of course, the OT foretold the inclusion of the Gentiles, but the Jews evidently understood this to mean that they would come in through the funnel of Judaism. That misinterpretation led to the Jew/Gentile controversy in the early church that nearly split it.
Paul’s Answer to Our Question
For most modern Jews, since most of them are secular and not religious, all of this is a moot point. They are neither intrigued nor disturbed by such considerations. But an increasingly large number of those claiming to be Christians, most of whom come from Gentile (non-Jewish) heritage, are quite concerned about the Jewish nation. They have become deeply involved in what they believe to be “end-time” prophecy and the place of the present Jewish nation is quite prominent in much of current prophecy. We have already examined some of the popular basics of this teaching, but now let me share with you an abridged, edited version of Romans 9-11 from my practical exposition of Romans, “Romans: The Heart Set Free.” Although I chose to leave out most of the biblical passages themselves, they are all included in the book. If you have any questions after reading a given section, please read the passage in your Bible.
Romans Chapter Nine: God’s Right to Make His Choices
After carefully developing the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in chapters 1-8, Paul now addresses the issue of physical Israel. The question naturally arose: “If the Jews were used by God as a nation in bringing salvation to the world (by producing the Messiah), why were the large majority of them not in his Kingdom?” Paul explains that the problem is not God’s love, nor even his love as a fellow Israelite – the problem was the Jew’s reaction to a crucified Messiah. As always in God’s dealings with man, it boils down to the issue of choice.
God created us as humans, which by definition means that we have the ability and the freedom to choose. That freedom would not be freedom unless we could choose either the good or the bad. When we exercise this freedom in the wrong way, God does all possible to persuade us otherwise, but he will never remove our freedom in the process. Sadly, most Jews choose to reject the Messiah who did not fit their mold of what they thought a Messiah should be. Of course, Jesus fit the mold of OT prophecy perfectly, but Jewish expectations were more based on traditions than Scripture. However, neither God nor Paul had given up trying to reach them. With the skilled pen of a rabbi, Paul masterfully used Jewish history to reach out with the heart of God to hearts that were hardened to the gospel. Maybe there was yet hope! With that thought burning inside, Paul begins.
Paul’s Love For His Jewish Brothers (Romans 9:1-3)
Romans 9:2-3 (NIV2011)
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel.
Paul begins by expressing his own intense love for his countrymen (verses 1-3). He assures the readers that he is being truthful about this, for no one was more hardline in his preaching to Jewish audiences than was Paul. Read Acts 28:23-28 to get a feel for the power of his convictions and the directness with which he spoke. He was a great imitator of Jesus, who said: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
Next Paul asserts that he lived with the burden of their spiritual rejection, and in fact would be willing to be lost if that would save them. I can only wish that my love for the lost rivaled that of Paul. Allow yourself to sit quietly and contemplate that possibility in your own life – think about being lost for eternity, and think about who you love enough to go to hell for! Paul’s statement about having constant sorrow and anguish does catch us a little off guard, because we think of him as being such a positive, upbeat thinker. After all, he is the one who said to rejoice always (Philippians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16). Yes, even though he said that and did that, he still had unceasing anguish in his heart over his lost brothers. Obviously, the anguish and the rejoicing exist together.
God’s Love In Making Choices (Romans 9:4-18)
God had clearly loved and blessed the Jewish nation throughout their history (verses 4-5). Of all the people on the face of the earth, they had been most blessed. Here Paul lists seven things that were unique to their nation. In light of this, how could they question God’s love? What else could he have done to win their hearts and move them to repentance by his kindness (Romans 2:4)?
However, he had always made choices in his dealings with them, most of which they accepted without any problem (verses 6-13). In fact, they gloried in them as they recounted them with great pleasure and approval. Their very lineage showed God’s choices, and none of them would have argued that the choices were poor ones. But their sacred history demonstrated clearly that it had never been simply an issue of physical descent. Abraham had two sons, but only one was chosen. Isaac also had two sons, and only one of them were chosen.
The allegation that God loved Jacob and hated Esau is somewhat shocking at first glance. But this is a quote from Malachi 1:2-3, referring to the nations of Israel and Edom respectively, and thus the term “hate” applies primarily to a nation. God chose Jacob, who had his own character flaws, but who ended up as a man of faith after he responded to the discipline of the Lord. Sometimes writers describe Jacob in as negative of terms as his brother Esau, which suggests that God’s choice had no moral basis at all. However, the passage of time showed that Jacob had the more righteous heart. However, the point of Paul’s argument here is that God had the right to make these choices.
God’s deliverance of the people from Egypt showed other choices, and were choices that the people had always readily accepted. Moses was especially blessed by God to catch a glimpse of God that no one else was privileged to see (Exodus 33:18-23). Pharaoh, on the other hand, was hardened by God. What does that mean? Simply this: God “hardened” Pharaoh through his commands and Pharaoh’s free will to choose. Back in Exodus, the text says a number of times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and a number of times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. God’s word hardens some hearts and softens others, depending on the type of heart is responding to that word. The same sun hardens clay and melts butter. But again, the thrust of this passage in Romans is that God has the right to do what he pleases. Thankfully, he pleases to always do the righteous thing and the thing which allows men to make their own moral choices.
God’s Choices Were Always Right (Romans 9:19-33)
God is always God, and he is always right. He is the potter and man is only clay. Obviously, the potter can do what he wants with his own clay! Romans 9 is a much-used chapter by the Calvinists in their attempt to show unconditional election and predestination, and the potter and clay illustration is a favorite as they try to bolster such a belief. The clay has nothing to do with how the potter chooses to shape it, we are told by them. However, similar potter and clay passages show that while God has the right to do what he wants, the clay has a choice in the outcome of the shaping. Read Jeremiah 18:1-10 and 2 Timothy 2:20-21 to see this point clearly established.
The sovereignty of God and the free choice of man run concurrently all through Scripture (again, see Acts 2:23 for a classic text). As difficult as it may be for our minds to harmonize the two, we cannot throw out either part of the equation. God’s foreknowledge and man’s choices, complete with total responsibility, are not mutually exclusive. And God knowing in advance what someone is going to do in no way rules out their free moral agency nor forces them to do it.
In Romans 9:20-21, we see that getting angry and blaming God is totally out of place. In verses 22-29, Paul makes a point from the OT that only a remnant in the Jewish nation had ever really followed heart and soul. How could they argue with their own history? As mentioned previously, there were really two OT election processes working at the same time, the physical and spiritual, but the Jews mistakenly assumed that the former guaranteed the latter. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and their own prophets had made the point clear, if they had but listened.
The fact that was becoming more obvious in Paul’s line of reasoning is that Israel simply made the wrong choice. Their response to Christ and the cross revealed the nature of their hearts (verses 30-33). They pursued their law that was designed to lead them to righteousness in Christ, but they sought it by performance, not by faith. Hence, they stumbled at the idea that they were so sinful that God had to become a man and die for them. The cross was pure foolishness to them (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). They did not understand God’s way of making men right with himself (grace through faith), seeking to establish their own path to being right with God (legalism). Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah showed the entrenched legalism in their hearts. The true Jews, like the 3,000 on Pentecost, obviously had very different hearts.
Romans Chapter Ten: Israel’s Lack of True Faith
Romans 9 made the point that God had the right to make the choices that he did, including the choice not to bend his rules for the physical Israelites. Romans 10 argues the point that the real problem is Israel, for most Israelites had simply made the wrong choice by deciding to reject Jesus. That rejection was not God’s fault, and certainly not his will. It could and should have been different. Romans 11 will go on to show that even though the choice had been wrong up until then, it could in fact be reversed. God’s outstretched hand has not been pulled back; he was (and is) still willing and anxious to accept the Jews, but only if they exercise true faith. Zeal they had, but faith they did not have. Hence Paul addresses that issue head-on.
Israel Had a Zeal For God (Romans 10:1-4)
Romans 10:1-4 (NIV2011)
Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
They were filled with zeal for God, but it was misdirected zeal (Romans 10:1-4). Christ was the culmination (aim, fulfillment) of the Law of Moses – it all pointed to salvation in him. From this passage, it is obvious that we cannot be saved outside a true relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Belief in Yahweh did not save those who did not accept Christ. Spiritual zeal did not save them either. The Bible is clear about this matter of salvation – no one can come to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6), and no salvation can be found in anyone else (Acts 4:12). If these statements be viewed as narrow-minded, so be it, for Jesus himself said that the way of salvation was narrow (Matthew 7:13-14,21)!
Righteousness Was Readily Available (Romans 10:5-15)
In Romans 10:5-15, Paul proceeds to demonstrate that the spiritual needs of the Jews could have been met, for righteousness was readily available. The hard part has already been done – Christ died and was resurrected. The word of faith is simple to obey, and the progression in verses 14-15 is preaching, hearing, believing, and calling. Calling on the name of the Lord includes baptism, as may be readily seen in Acts 2:21,38, and also in Acts 22:16. In Acts 2:21, Peter quotes from Joel 2:32 which reads: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Then, when the people asked, in essence, just how to do that, Peter told them to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:37-38). Acts 22:16 is even clearer, as Paul was told to “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
In Romans 10:9-10 Paul is talking about the Jews who had failed to accept Christ, and addressing the reasons for that rejection. He was making the point beginning in verse 5 that the righteousness which comes by faith is not a complex issue nor an unreachable goal. God has already done the difficult work by sending his Son to the cross. Now in response to what he has done, we need to accept him as Lord and Messiah. That was the challenge to the Jew. Being baptized was not a hard concept for them. It had been a part of John’s ministry, and large numbers of Jews had received it from his hands. Matthew 3:5-6 says that “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Proselytes to Judaism were customarily baptized as an initiation rite into Judaism.
The problem that the Jew did have was to accept Jesus as the Messiah and to then make this crucified Jew from despised Nazareth their Lord and King. Now that was a challenge! This background focus explains why the passage was worded as it was. In a related vein, the problem with Gentile acceptance of the gospel was repentance. Therefore, Luke, a book written by a Gentile for Gentiles, focused on that need all through his Gospel. In fact, his account of the Great Commission only mentions repentance. “He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’” (Luke 24:46-47). Luke’s failure to specifically name faith in this account does not mean that he was excluding it from the conversion process. He was simply focusing on their greatest challenge. And Luke’s approach follows exactly the same principle used by Paul in Romans 10: address the key need of the intended audience.
Israel’s Rejection and Gentile’s Acceptance Was Foretold (Romans 10:16-21)
As in the ending of Romans 9, Paul makes two basic points in this section: only a remnant of Israel had ever responded in faith to God; and the inclusion of the Gentiles was foretold by Israel’s own prophets. The bulk of the Jews rejected Christ because they did not accept the words of the Scripture that they supposedly cherished like no other. They had the message for centuries, but they had misinterpreted it by reading into it what they wanted to see. If we come to the Bible to prove a point that we already have decided upon, we are wasting time opening it up. We will see from God only what our hearts are prepared to see.
The message, says Paul, comes through hearing the word of Christ. Certainly the OT was all about Christ, for he himself said to the Jews, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). As far back as Moses (Deuteronomy 32:21), their rejection was cause for God to announce that he would use another nation to provoke them to envy. (Paul will make much use in Romans 11 of this envy provoking idea.) Then other prophets such as Isaiah added their voice to the same message. Israel could not claim that Paul’s argument was a new revelation to them; they had only to read their own prophets. The fact of the matter was what Paul concluded the chapter with: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (Isaiah 65:2). How sad! But for God’ apostle, hope springs eternal, and in Romans 11, he continues to try and move the Jews toward faith in Jesus.
Romans Chapter Eleven: Israel’s Choice Is Not Irreversible
As Paul brings his line of reasoning on this subject to a conclusion, he will correct attitudes of both those with Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. The Jews thought that God had excluded them with some ulterior negative motive, which was certainly not true. His invitation is always open to anyone who will hear. The NT message closed out with such an invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). That will forevermore be the heart of God for everyone, and certainly for the Jews, with whom he shared so much history and memories.
By this point in Paul’s arguments, the Gentiles ran the risk of becoming self-righteous and puffed up about their inclusion in God’s kingdom. Thus, they had to be warned. Pride is always looking for ways to get into the nooks and crannies of our hearts. We are all too tempted to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Romans 12:3), for many reasons. We can be prideful about our salvation, the fact that we chose Jesus when most do not. But why did we choose him? Surely not because we are good, for none is good. Everything about our salvation is a matter of grace. Acts 11:18 informs us that even our repentance is by God’s grace. Paul, the apostle of grace, will make sure that those on both sides of the issues get what they need in Romans 11, whether encouragement or correction.
Only a Remnant Made the Right Choices (Romans 11:1-10)
Actually, only a remnant of Israel had ever made the right choices (verses1-10). Paul was an example of those in the remnant in the first century, as were thousands more. In Acts 21:20, James mentioned that thousands were believers at that time in Jerusalem. In Elijah’s day, God said that 7000 had not bowed the knee to Baal – and keep in mind that Elijah was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom, the most godless part of Israel. The ones who did not respond to grace were hardened by their own rejection. As was the case with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, verse 8 shows that God gave the people a spirit of stupor. He did this by giving commands of righteousness and giving them the freedom to make choices in their response to these commands, thus revealing the nature of their own hearts.
The same principle is applied by Jesus in his use of parables (Matthew 13:13-16). The lesson that we must gain from this passage is a realization and appreciation of how God wrote his message in a manner that reveals hearts. Another example of the principle is seen in Lydia, who could hear a single message and respond in faith (Acts 16), while the Jews about whom Paul wrote could try to kill him for preaching the same message. The Word can be understood by a person with a heart of faith, but it can be twisted unknowingly by a person without a heart of humble faith. Indeed, through God’s message, “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
God Intended To Use Their Wrong Choices (Romans 11:11-24)
In spite of God’s pain over a majority of Jews rejecting Christ, he still intended to use even their wrong choices to accomplish good (verses 11-24). Israel’s wrong choices and subsequent rejection has ended up being a blessing to the Gentiles. The Jews had Jesus crucified, making salvation available to Jews and Gentiles alike. They drove Christians out of Jerusalem, which resulted in the Gentiles being able to hear the gospel sooner. They rejected the message in each city to which the early missionaries preached, after which they preached to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). If the Jew’s rejection of the gospel ended up blessing the world, then how much more their acceptance would do! Now Paul hopes that the Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom will provoke the Jews to envy, causing them to reconsider the message of Christ.
Read verses 13-14 carefully with this in mind. “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry 14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” This section concludes with a warning to the Gentiles not to be prideful and self-righteous. They had not been a part of the olive root (Judaism) in the first place – they had been merely grafted in by the grace of God. The Jews had been cut off because of their faithless rejection of Christ, but they can be grafted back in again if they turn to Jesus in faith.
They Still Had Choices To Make (Romans 11:25-36)
The motivation and opportunities for future choices are found in verses 25-36. Israel’s hardening is only partial, until the full number of Gentiles has come in. If it is partial, it has the possibility of being reversed. The key to a reversal is the coming in of the full number of Gentiles. Here is the key section in verses 25-27: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. 27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
Paul likely was referring to the completion of his own ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7), resulting in more and more Gentiles in the church all over the world. In Romans 15:24, we find that his missionary plans were not nearly completed, for he planned to go as far as Spain. Once this larger Gentile inclusion had occurred, all Israel could be saved. The phrase “in this way” in verse 26 is translated from the Greek houtos, an adverb of manner. The earlier version of the NIV (New International Version) translates it as, “and so all Israel,” as do a number of other versions. Even the more accurate NASB (New American Standard Bible) translated it as “and thus all Israel.” Although these translations are not technically misleading, they are not clarifyingly accurate either. I think in this way refers back to the envy-provoking process mentioned in verses13-14. Paul refers to the same idea again in verse 31: “so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.” Therefore, when the Jews saw the growing number of Gentiles in the church, and the blessings from God that they were enjoying, those with good hearts would be envious enough to humble out and reconsider. In this way, or manner, they would be saved.
The all Israel referred to those whose hearts would allow them to humble out and reconsider. It could not refer to every last Israelite coming to Christ at some future point, for a number of reasons. For starters, the narrow path will never be chosen by a majority from any nation, race, or population group (Matthew 7:13-14). Paul had already in this chapter expressed his hope that some (not all) would turn to Christ by being provoked to envy (verse 14). Even if some future generation of Jews in the majority were to accept Christ (which I don’t believe will happen), what comfort would that be to the scores of generations that had already died lost? The key idea of all Israel being saved is that of hopeful potential – much like Jesus expressed in John 12:32, when he said: “I will draw all men to myself,” and in John 13:35: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples.”
Note that the quote in Romans 11:26-27 refers to salvation in Christ which became available at the cross and will continue to be available to anyone who will accept the gospel in faith. “As it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. 27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’” He is still talking about the one new covenant in Christ, the final covenant God has offered to mankind to save us through Christ, Jew and Gentile alike. The only plan of salvation that God has and will have to the end of time is this plan, which must be accepted individually! God still loves the rejecting Jews and wants to save them, for the promises made to the patriarchs still stand. The section concludes with a beautiful doxology, showing that God’s ways are beyond man’s ways, and thus above our comprehension. But we do know that even bad things (like Israel’s rejection) can be used for good ends, even as Romans 8:28 promises. Praise God that he is in control of the world and not we ourselves! Hope springs eternal!
PS — For a more extensive study of the end-times, see my practical exposition of Revelation entitled, “Revelation Revealed” from Illumination Publishers (ipibooks.com).
From time to time, for reasons I do not fully understand, Christians are tempted to combine Judaism with Christianity. Perhaps they get bored with Christianity as they know it and are looking for something new and more exciting. This reason certainly is involved when various new emphases such as “speaking in tongues” spring up from time to time. Church as traditionally viewed and practiced often leaves people unfulfilled spiritually and emotionally. I think the concept sometimes expressed as being “Torah pursuant” is based at least partially on this condition.
Douglas Jacoby, one of the best-known teachers in the ICOC family of churches, recently made this observation in an article entitled, “Messianic Judaism – Why Focus on this movement?”
A growing movement—with perhaps a quarter million members in the U.S., and 10% that number in Israel—is proclaiming that the path to Christian spirituality is through embracing the Jewishness of the early church. They aim to keep the Sabbath, obey Torah, observe the Old Testament festivals, use Hebrew and Aramaic words, call their leaders rabbi, and much more.
You can read the numerous articles of Doug’s and listen to his many podcasts at douglasjacoby.com. I especially urge you to read and listen to his material on this topic if you have friends who are entertaining or teaching this type of doctrine. As we will see in my present article, it is a blending of covenants expressly forbidden in the New Testament.
The Root Issue
Such teaching hardly ever arises from the grassroots membership of the church; it is promoted by someone who is a leader or wants to be a leader. This is an age-old problem, as Paul’s comments demonstrate in 1 Timothy 1:3-7:
3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer 4 or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. 5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.
These verses give us insights about the motivation and direction of these described as wanting to be teachers. They are teaching false doctrines by digging into little details of the Law of Moses with have little to do with the gospel of Christ. If all the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ (Colossians 2:3), why would anyone want to dig into the minutia of the OT? By the way, Paul was dealing with exactly the same issues in Colossians – disciples wanting to go back into the OT and combine it with the Christianity of the NT. They lose their way and end up with meaningless talk. We usually describe the teaching in Colossians 2 with the term “syncretism,” the blending of two or more religious systems into one new conglomeration. In this case, it was a blending of Gnosticism and Judaism.
16Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. 20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Strangely, I have heard Torah pursuant folks claiming that verse 16 is giving them the right to pursue Judaism without having anyone judge them for doing so. That is simply amazing to me! The context of the passage is clearly warning against observing Judaistic and Gnostic practices. The very next verse is sufficient to make the point, for these Jewish observances were merely a shadow while Christ is the reality. The chapter ends by identifying these ceremonial practices as rules having to do with self-denial, which “lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Texts taken out of contexts are pretexts, and such usage of Colossians 2 is a prime example.
While I have my opinions, based on experience, about the motivations to minimize Christ in order to seek Jewish tenets, one thing of which I am certain is that trying to do such is a dangerous practice for a number of reasons. As the old saying puts it, the New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed and the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed. The purpose of the OT was to serve as a preparatory system leading to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ and his kingdom on earth. Simply put, the Jewish kingdom was a temporary one and with its purposes fulfilled, it no longer occupies a place of biblical significance in God’s plan for those of us living since the cross of Christ.
As I have prepared this presentation and looked at many biblical passages on the topic, my honest response has been, “So tell me again – why are we studying something that seems so obvious in Scripture?” I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I am puzzled a bit and left scratching my head. This topic is not a complex one, given the multiplicity of Scriptures on it, and it is certainly not as complex in concept and application as topics like marriage, divorce and remarriage or pacifism or the role of women in the church. At any rate, here are my thoughts about Gentiles and the Law of Moses – in the first century church and in the 21st century church.
What Do We Mean by “Law?”
The dictionary defines law as a rule of conduct or action recognized as binding, enforced by a controlling authority. The term “moral law” is often applied to the Ten Commandments, but this is problematic for more than one reason as we shall see. That which is moral in nature really has to do with human relationships with fellow humans. The term comes to us through the Latin and then Old French and carries that meaning in its entomology. For example, you would use “immoral” in reference to human relationships, but not to our relationship to God. That term would be “unrighteous.” This being true, the 10 commandments are not THE moral law, for several of them are about man and God.
Since the Law of Moses was given to the Jews, we should pay attention to how they used the term law. In the first century, any part of the OT could be (and was) called “law.” For example, in John 10:34 Jesus quoted from Psalms and called it Law, as did the crowd in John 12:34. For the rabbis, even the commonly accepted traditions might well have been called law. Various groupings could be found, such as the “Law and the Prophets” (Luke 16:16), “Moses and the Prophets” (Luke 16:29), and the “Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).
Broadly, there were two types of Divine laws: self-evident, or moral laws – assumedly unwritten until the Law of Moses was committed to writing. Revealed law – also written or unwritten, and even the NT revelation was unwritten for some years after the church was established. The self-evident laws come out of the nature of God himself. In the absence of a written law, Cain still knew that the world’s first murder was wrong.
Other laws come from the voice of God in revelation and are not self-evident. To state it another way, some things are in the Bible because they are true (the moral laws), while other things are true simply because they are in the Bible. The self-evident laws were true from the beginning, whether or not they were written down by God in a revelation. However, when God did inspire men to write, these types of laws were always included in that written revelation.
Examples of self-evident laws:
Romans 1:32 – Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Romans 2:14-15 – (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)
Galatians 5:19-21 – The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Abraham, for example, had laws of both types (moral and revealed): Genesis 26:4-5 – “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.”
Written law began as far as we know with the Law of Moses – given only to the Israelites.
Leviticus 26:46 – These are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the LORD established between Himself and the sons of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai.
Nehemiah 9:13-14 – You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. 14 You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses.
Psalm 147:19-20 – He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. 20 He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws. Praise the LORD.
Romans 9:3-5 – For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
The three “Ages” concept is helpful in looking at biblical history accurately. The Patriarchal Age was from Abraham until Moses. Job fell within this age, sacrificing for his family, for offering sacrifices went back to the beginning of humanity, as shown by the examples of Cain and Abel. The Mosaic Age was just for the Israelites, beginning with Moses and lasting until Christ’s death. The Christian Age began with Acts 2 and the inauguration of the Christians covenant, and was given for all men everywhere. Paul in Acts 17 preached to Gentiles, calling them to repent and accept Christ.
Gentiles were only a part of the first and third ages and never were under the Law of Moses, unless they joined themselves to the Israelite nation. Books like Jonah show that God did have dealings with nations outside Israel during the Mosaic age. But it was not the purpose of the OT to show that; rather it was to show God’s development of the Jewish nation through whom he would bring Christ for the world.
The Main Purposes of the Law of Moses
Many of these purposes were positive and essential for that period of time. First, the Law provided a basis of fellowship with God as it guided them to a covenant relationship with him. Sadly, the Jews quickly perverted this covenant into legalism early in the wilderness wandering period and led God to clarify his original design for the Law in Deuteronomy, showing that it was all about the heart and not just outward compliance. In the first century, legalism was again rampant. See Galatians 3:10-12 warned against relying on one’s obedience as a means of obtaining and maintaining a relationship with him. The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Matthew 18 shows beyond doubt that Paul had good reasons for later writing that warning!
Second, the Law provided religious nomenclature for the Jewish nation, which would find itself expressed as future spiritual concepts in the NT. Many terms associated with God and his relationship with man are found in the Law of Moses first. Third, many direct prophecies about the Messiah are a part of the Mosaic system, along with another type of prophecy, typology. In the latter, both practices and institutions in the OT were fulfilled by Christ and the new covenant. The book of Hebrews is replete with such typology.
Fourth, both positive and negative examples from the OT are used in the NT as encouragement or as warnings, depending on the type of example. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12 is one of the negative examples by which Paul warned us and Hebrews 11 is a chapter full of OT heroes by which we are encouraged to imitate their faith. Fifth, civil legislation was provided in the Law of Moses to govern the new nation, consisting of constitutional, social and criminal laws.
Sixth, an interesting overall purpose could be viewed as negative in the short run, but positive in the long run. Moses’ Law was definitely designed to keep the Israelites separate from other nations so that they in their infancy as a nation wouldn’t be polluted for their long-term purposes. Perhaps that shouldn’t be described as negative, but it surely was not the Great Commission!
Seventh, the Law increased sin in two different ways, namely through sins of commission and omission. With 365 negative commands (“don’t do it”) and 248 positive commands (“make sure to do it”) for a total of 613 commands, the ways to sin increased dramatically. Note that most of these commands were of the non-self-evident type – meaning that they were not opportunities to sin prior to the Mosaic Law being given. Here are a few NT passages to illustrate this purpose:
Romans 5:20 – The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (The burden of too many commands can raise the desire to sin.)
Romans 7:7-8 – What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. (The intended positive long-term effect.)
Galatians 3:22 – But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
Gentiles Never Had the Law Unless They Became Proselytes
Circumcision was necessary to observe the law for all males. Even the covenant given to Abraham, based on the three promises of Genesis 12:1-3 couldn’t be kept without circumcision. When the Mosaic legislation was in effect, circumcision was required to observe all parts of that legislation.
Genesis 17:11-13 – You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.
Exodus 12:43-49 – The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover meal: “No foreigner may eat it. 44 Any slave you have bought may eat it after you have circumcised him, 45 but a temporary resident or a hired worker may not eat it. 46 “It must be eaten inside the house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. 47 The whole community of Israel must celebrate it. 48 “A foreigner residing among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. 49 The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you.”
The place of circumcision could be seen as a bit confusing in the early church period. Jewish Christians could be circumcised as a matter of custom or expediency, but not as a requirement for salvation. For example, Timothy was a Christian without circumcision, but since a half-Jew was considered a Jew, much like a half-black person in our society is considered Black, he could be circumcised – and was, by Paul himself. A contemporary of Timothy was Titus, fully a Gentile, and Paul refused to have him circumcised. In this case, not only was he a Gentile, but Judaizing teachers were insisting that he be circumcised in order to be saved.
Acts 16:3 – Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (Gentile Christians never had circumcision required – quite the contrary.)
Galatians 2:3 –Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.
Galatians 5:3-4 – Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Thus, Jews could be circumcised as a matter of culture and/or expediency, but this could not be bound on Gentiles and no example in the NT shows them ever being circumcised. If it were to be a part of their requirements, surely Acts 15 would have shown it. And if they were not circumcised, they could not adhere to the Mosaic laws – the two were inseparable. You simply cannot find Gentiles in the early church obeying any part of the Mosaic Law as a part of following Christ.
Understanding the Promises Made to Abraham
Here we find one main promise which was to affect mankind to the very end of time, with two temporary promises which were essential to bringing about the main one. The main promise was that all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham, which was ultimately fulfilled in Christ. The temporary promises were for a great nation (Israel) to be established, which required a land in which to live. The nation existed as a called nation until Jesus came and the church was established.
Genesis 12:1-3 – The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
They were an elect nation for a physical purpose but being a part of that nation did not save them spiritually unless they were spiritual. Hence, there were two elections running concurrently during the Mosaic period – one physical and one spiritual. The Jews during the time of Christ were quite confused about this two-fold election, as John the Baptist’s statement in Luke 3:8 shows clearly. Once Jesus had come and the old covenant had ended, the purpose of physical Israel was over – they were God’s special nation no longer. Now the true Israel is the spiritual nation of God.
Galatians 6:14-16 – May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. 16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.
Philippians 3:2-3 – Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.
The land we still call the “Holy Land” has no relevance other than history, for it served its temporary purpose to house a temporary nation. This land was the promised land to Abraham and his descendants after him, but once the promise was fulfilled, it has no present-day purpose. However, some Jews and many Evangelicals see a modern or future fulfillment of prophecy. Let’s go back and look at the extent of the land promised:
Genesis 15:18 – On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.
1 Kings 4:21 – And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life.
Yet, the Jews since 1948 have demanded the rights to Palestine, which has resulted in an amazing amount of strife. Those with a confused view of prophecy say that the promise to Abraham was either never fully satisfied (an ignorance of 1 Kings 4:21 – read it) or that it must yet be fulfilled in Jesus’ supposed 1000 year reign on earth. The truth? One and done – long ago!
Matthew 21:43-44 – “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
Romans 9:30-33 – What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
The Law of Moses Was as Temporary as Was the Nation of Israel
Further explanations could be provided here, but are they really needed? Galatians 3 says explicitly that once Christ came, we are no longer under the Law which had served temporarily as a guardian. 2 Corinthians 3 tells us that Ten Commandments engraved on stone was transitory and a ministry that brought death. Could Paul have been clearer? Finally, the Hebrew writer said that the Law was changed, obsolete, outdated and soon to disappear. That final ending would have been in AD 70 when the Roman armies destroyed the temple for the final time, the coup de grace. Again, with the Scriptures being this clear and explicit regarding the old and new covenants, just why is this conversation even necessary? Read the passages for yourself.
Galatians 3:19-25 – Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one. 21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. 23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
2 Corinthians 3:6-14 – He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! 12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.
Hebrews 7:11-12 – If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood – and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also.
Hebrews 8:7-13 – For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 9 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. 10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” 13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.
Ceremonial Laws and Self-Evident Laws
The ceremonial type laws were temporary because they were a part of the old covenant and were not of the moral or self-evident type. This included the Sabbath law – it was only given to Israel. Just read the following passages:
Nehemiah 9:13-14 – “You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. 14 You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses.
Exodus 31:16-17 – The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. 17 It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.
Colossians 2:13-19 – When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. 16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
As stated earlier in this study, the passage in Colossians 2 is one of syncretism – a combination of Jewish laws and pagan Gnosticism, both of which were ended by the cross. The legal indebtedness that was cancelled may refer to the law itself or to sin caused by violating it as Jews or violating self-evident laws as Gentiles.
The day of worship was the first day of the week in the new covenant, not the Sabbath.
Jesus arose from the dead on the first day of the week (Mark 16:1-9). Jesus first appeared to his group of disciples on the first day of the week (John 20:19), and his next appearance to them was one week later, also on the first day of the week (John 20:26). Since Jesus was “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4), this marvelous declaration is inseparably connected to the first day of the week. The church was established on the Day of Pentecost, which always fell on the first day of the week (50 days from the Sabbath of the Passover week).
Therefore, the long-awaited outpouring of the Spirit occurred on the first day of the week (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:1-4, 16-21); the first gospel sermon was preached on this day; and, the first converts were baptized into Christ on this first day of the week. How could the events of a Judaistic Sabbath compare with these highly significant events on this new day of emphasis in the new covenant?
Another important passage in this light is Acts 20:7, which reads: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.” The previous verse tells us that Paul had arrived a week before in Troas and stayed seven days. The implication from the text is that Paul waited for these days in order to meet with the church in Troas before continuing on his journey. Since their day of meeting was on the first day of the week, he waited until then, met with them and departed the next day. This one passage provides rather conclusive proof that the Church met regularly on the first day of the week, rather than on the Sabbath.
Further, the church was commanded to assemble (Hebrews 10:25) and they observed the Lord’s Supper when they assembled. The day of this assembling was on the first day of the week as 1 Corinthians 16:2 clearly says: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” Therefore, the first century assembled on the first day of the week and not on the Sabbath.
The Ten Commandments are not the foundation of all other Jewish law, as is often mistakenly claimed. Jesus told us clearly what that foundation in fact was.
Matthew 22:35-40 – One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
These ceremonial, temporary laws also included the food laws, and a multiplicity of other laws which were not of the self-evident or moral types of laws. We have already mentioned these types of laws in Colossians 2:16, called “shadow” of the things to come in Christ. “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”
Mark 7:17-23 – After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Mark’s comment in verse 19 was a parenthetical one, realized and put into practice after the new covenant had been put into effect. Prior to then, Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:17-20 were still very much in force. Note that the real issues of defilement are laws of the self-evident type.
Acts 10:13-16 – Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Can the Law Be Changed?
This question has oddly become the starting place for those who insist that the Sabbath and other parts of the Law of Moses are to be assimilated into Christianity. Like all systems of false doctrine, this one is based on certain basic presuppositions, which if granted, allow for the seemingly logical development of a system that cannot stand up under biblical examination.
Did Jesus change the Law? Let’s look at a key passage and his terminology.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
These two terms, abolish and fulfill, must be defined and understood in this context. “Abolish” comes from the Greek, kataluô, and means to abolish, destroy, overthrow, or tear down. “Fulfill” is a translation of plêroô, meaning to accomplish, complete, fill, or supply. I’ve never heard anyone argue that Jesus came to destroy the Law, for it was of God and remained in effect until the new covenant took its place. That occurred on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection, as recorded in Acts 2.
Here is what Jesus said about the matter in Luke 24:44: “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’” Once all had been fulfilled, including the death and resurrection of Jesus, the old covenant could be removed as a binding covenant on the Jews and replaced by the new covenant for Jews and Gentiles alike. As with the “age-lasting” promises of the OT, including the occupation of Palestine, once the Mosaic age had ended, so did those promises.
Did Paul change the Law? For starters, Hebrews 7:11-12 said that the law had to be changed, as we have already read.
Hebrews 7:11-12 – If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood – and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood – why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also.
This next passage could not be clearer about the inferiority of the old law compared to the new covenant and about the transitory nature of the old law. Note that Paul begins by specifically addressing the Ten Commandments (which included the Sabbath observance). As I said earlier, this topic is not a complex one. We have read this passage once, but it is worth reading again in this context regarding the change of the covenant laws.
2 Corinthians 3:7-16 – Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! 12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
Paul had no authority as a human to change anything God had instituted, but as an inspired apostle and prophet, he could be the instrument God used to make the changes he wanted. The following passages show what this means.
Ephesians 3:2-6 — Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
2 Peter 1:20-21 – Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Exodus 4:15-16 – You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. 16 He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.
Going Backwards is Rarely Progress
I close with a few additional passages showing that Gentiles were never a part of Mosaic practices. The whole issue of trying to bind the old covenant on those in the new covenant, Jew or Gentile, was the battleground in the early church that could have split it right now the middle. We could have ended up with a Jewish church and a Gentile church rather than a church of all nations, made possible by the death of Jesus that ushered in the personal peace of salvation and the universal peace between all races in Christ. Any attempt to mix the temporary national religion of the Jews with the ultimate goal of salvation in Christ for all peoples is false doctrine, and damnable doctrine at that, according to Paul. Such attempts cannot be ignored nor sugar-coated. They were stoutly resisted in the first century church and they must be stoutly resisted in the twenty-first century church.
2 Peter 2:20-22 – If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. 22 Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
Hebrews 13:9 – Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so.
Acts 15:10 – Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?
Acts 15:27-29 – Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Matthew 11:28-30 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The gospel is centered fully in Christ. Any attempt to add elements not found in the New Testament is an attempt with Satan in the center of it. He is fine with Christ PLUS! God is not. The rationalizations to include add-ins are many and some of them are persuasive to those who don’t study the bible in-depth and in context. As with any false teaching, you end up explaining away plain teaching in order to support false teaching. Let’s avoid that malady and concentrate on Christ and his kingdom. Nothing else will suffice in God’s eyes and nothing else will satisfy in our heart of hearts.
Which of those descriptions is true of us as disciples? Both, actually. We are the sons and daughters of God Almighty, Creator of the universe and King of this world and all worlds. But we are also servants of the King, the Master of all creation and of all peoples, those who submit (now) and those who don’t (yet). Ultimately, all will submit.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”
The event in view in this passage occurs at the end of time when time shall cease, leaving only eternity in its place. Those of us who have confessed Jesus as Lord of our lives in this time-bound world will confess then with joy beyond measure, while those who made no such confession with tongue (and life) will then confess with horrific fear and unbelievable regrets. Then eternity with God will begin for the “few” who chose the narrow road of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 7:20-21. Eternal damnation and separation from God will begin for the “many” who chose to remain on the world’s broad road described in the same passage. Thus is reality described by God in his word – unbelievable joy and indescribable pain, depending on our choices regarding Jesus Christ, the crucified.
Back to the Title
Are we disciples children of the King, with the full rights that go along with that exalted depiction? Indeed we are! Sometimes we miss one of the most important points of the popular biblical parable we know by the term, “The Prodigal Son.” Our focus is, understandably, on the son who recently vacated the pig pen and has now come home begging for mercy from the Father he betrayed and sinned against. Remarkably, no begging was needed or even accepted. The Father in this story (capitalized because it is God who is represented) interrupted the prodigal’s well-rehearsed confession, showing that a repentant heart was enough to satisfy him. Beautiful! And, by the way, the Father was so anxious to have the son return that he ran to meet him. Will God run? Obviously, yes – if for nothing else, to welcome home a wayward child. Much more could be said about this part of the story. It is one of the most heart-warming stories in the entire Bible, one that gives us sinners hope. O Jesus, thank you for that!
The lesson I want us to see now is the one that comes in looking closely at the interaction between the Father and the other son. This son wasn’t guilty of the kinds of rebellious, overt sins of his younger brother, but guilty of sins that were far more serious and deadly. Those were the sins of self-righteousness and obliviousness to who he really was before God and who God himself was. He represented the leadership class of Jews, who like the Pharisee of Luke 18:9-14, patted themselves on the back that they did lots of right things and avoided wrong things. They looked good on the outside to their fellow humans, but putrid on the inside to their Creator. Scary stuff, that.
Sinners Are We All
As all self-righteous people do, he looked down his nose at those awful sinners, even his own brother. Especially his own brother. While the Father rejoiced at the return of his long-lost son and prepared a celebration festival, the older son was insanely jealous of his brother and incredibly resentful toward his Father.
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”
Wow! How had he lived with the Father all of those years and totally missed who He was? As many of us can attest, certainly me, we can miss who God is by a country mile. Satan tries to twist our view of God into a 180-degree distortion. Due to my very legalistic religious upbringing as a child and young adult, Satan has been more effective in such attempts than I like to admit. It’s embarrassing to admit, especially for a student and teacher of the Bible. But Satan is nothing if not incredibly cunning and deceptive and effective at what he does.
But Here’s the Answer!
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
“Everything I have is yours.” Thus said the Father to the child of a king. He had it all and didn’t know it! He had the Father and all that the Father owned. He was a prince. He lived as a son with the King – in ignorance, without appreciation and with resentment. That’s beyond sad; it’s tragic. Is that you? Is that me? It all depends on our view of God and of God and you (your relationship). How can you tell? Your level of gratitude toward God and your level of love for the unlovely is a good place to start looking for the answer.
Back to the Title (Again)
Child of the King and servants of the King – disciples are both. Which concept do you most treasure and like to picture yourself as being? Think about it a bit before reading further. Please…
No matter what your answer, I think I know what it should be. What do you think is God’s favorite way of viewing himself – king or servant? Take another moment to consider your answer… Beyond question, I believe it is the latter. We so miss God and who he really is! Oh yes, he is all of the magnificent things we can contemplate: Creator of all, Judge of all, the All-Knowing, All-Powerful God of all. But God has no emotional need of such titles. We humans need them due to our incredible selfishness and resultant continual bent toward rebellion. But the most accurate picture of God you could ever have is that of a suffering servant, a God on his knees with towel in hand washing the dirty feet of those who, like us in our humanity, failed to see him as he really is – the Servant God wrapped in flesh, volunteering for death on a cross as a common criminal. But wait a minute, you say – he wasn’t a criminal, he was sinless! No, that day he was identifying as a criminal, for on the cross “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) as “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24).
No writer of whom I am aware has been able to portray God as servant quite like my old friend, Jim McGuiggan, someone I wrote about recently in another column. As he often says, God didn’t become a servant at the Incarnation when he became a human; rather, he became a human because he was already a servant, always a servant. All of us are created in the image of God, and like him, we can be identified with many terms, all of which are accurate in their own right. But regarding our nature, some things about us are more dominate than others. Likely one descriptor fits us better than any other. The descriptor that identifies God best is servant, for that ever-giving heart drove him irresistibly to the cross. Yes, God is love, said John, but love manifests itself in different ways and in different degrees. I think its greatest way and greatest degree is encapsulated accurately and astonishingly as simply, “Suffering Servant.” Jesus actually made the point quite clear in these words:.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Therefore, that is what I want to be; who I want to be. I am not that – yet! But I want to be and I’m trying to take that road and stay on that road at every fork along the way. I wish I were doing so much better at it. I’m glad to be the son of a King, the very King of kings and Lord of lords. But the high-water mark of all that anyone can be is servant. Please, Lord, let me be the servant of a king, the King – my King! In the name of Jesus, your human name, Amen!
Roger Lamb sent several of us an email yesterday to let us know that all of the old KNN (Kingdom News Network) videos had been uploaded to the ICOC Disciples Today YouTube channel. He also attached the link for a section from one of them highlighting a very important event which took place in February of 2004. It occurred at the Abilene Christian University Lectureship and featured a segment from a panel discussion by several of us from the ICOC and several from the mainstream Church of Christ. It was a unity panel and definitely worth watching. I’ll attach the link.
But watching that segment triggered some memories in me from deep down in my heart. Here is the email reply I sent Roger.
Thank you, Roger, for the video of the 2004 ACU Lectures and of the panel discussion. The video was very well done. For me, it brought up a plethora of memories, including one that is quite unique to me and I think quite unique in and of itself. It is pretty much a story untold by me, which is unusual, but a highly significant one in my life.
The day I traveled to that lectureship fell on the exact 25th anniversary of the small plane crash in Dallas that took the lives of the four full-time faculty members of the Preston Road School of Preaching. They were returning from a one-day trip to the ACU lectures late at night and crashed trying to negotiate an instrument landing in the most dense fog I have ever seen in Dallas.
I had left the faculty six months prior, one of the hardest decisions of my life. I almost didn’t make it. They had more vacancies than the one I left and had hired two new men. That meant that one of them died as a result of my leaving. When I visited their widows in the days following the crash, neither of whom I had met previously, both they and I knew that one of those men died as a result of me leaving the school. It took me a long time to process all of that. As I am writing this now, I’m not sure I have fully done it even after these many years.
Eldred Stevens was the director of the school and the pilot. He had flown to my hometown in that plane to recruit me as a student in early January of 1970 and later, when I was on the faculty, he and I had flown in it many times to recruit others. I loved flying and was a good recruiter, being a graduate of the school myself. Eldred and Rudell White were the two in the plane I knew, both of whom were very close friends. They were also graduates of ACU (when it was still ACC). I was asked to speak at both memorials, but since Rudell wasn’t nearly as well-known, I chose to travel to the Texas Panhandle where he was from and be with his family. That was one of the saddest experiences of my life, meeting his parents and brother for the first time and trying to console them while needing much consolation myself. They were a simple, salt-of-the-earth farming family who had produced one of the sharpest, most spiritual teachers I have ever known.
At the 2004 event, I met Eldred’s grandson and was invited to attend a luncheon hosted by the school’s faculty. I was able to get reacquainted with many of my former classmates and students I had taught. The whole thing was such a surreal experience. I was 36 years old when the plane crash occurred. I was exactly twice that in December of 2014 when we moved back to Dallas. God has graciously granted me many years of life since that fateful day. Tomorrow will be the 42nd anniversary of the crash. Interesting timing, Roger.
This is an abbreviated version of all that took place and but a fraction of all that I vividly remember. Oddly, in my book, “My Three Lives,” I didn’t tell this story. I don’t guess I have ever put it in print until now (February 20, 2021). The emotional impact this event had on my life is hard to describe, which may account for it being a story left untold for decades (at least in print). I could have been on that plane. I almost was. As I said, I flew in it with Eldred many times and have a photo of my two children standing on its wings when they were small. The four of us flew to a city in Oklahoma where our wives were speaking for a Women’s Day. I loved flying in small planes and have done it scores of times, probably well over a hundred times. But I missed that flight 42 years ago.
The crash occurred just before midnight and killed the four men instantly. Rudell’s wife, Kay, called me at 5 am the next morning to tell me about it. Hearing that news and realizing that I came very close to having been one of the victims put me into somewhat a state of shock. One of the elders of the Preston Road Church of Christ called me a short time later and asked me to come to the school and talk with the students. I had taught three of the four classes (groups) of students and we knew each other well. Thus, the elders thought I could help them deal with their grief. I was quite full of my own grief, but spent the day with the students. It was, to say the least, a surreal and sad day. I was also asked to teach part-time although I was preaching for a church in the area full-time. The elders of my church quickly agreed for me to accept that role with the school, given the tragedy that led to it. I continued in that role until we moved from Dallas in the summer of 1981.
I remember all of the phone calls that came very quickly the day after the crash. My dad was one who called as soon as he heard about it. Once I answered, he said “Wait a minute,” which was followed by a long period of silence. He explained that he assumed I was likely on the plane and had been killed, and in his shock he needed a few minutes to catch his breath and regain his composure. The whole experience produced perhaps the biggest emotional impact ever into my life, and that’s saying a lot.
Losing two close friends was a part of my shock. Eldred, although 20 years my senior and the Director of the school, loved what I loved – preaching, singing, flying and golfing. We did a ton of all of that together. Rudell and his family lived less than a mile from us in Richardson, Texas, and we rode together to our teaching job every day. Plus, we both loved fishing and fished a lot together. He was such a delightful man with a great sense of humor.
I remember arguing with him about whether largemouth bass or catfish were the best-tasting fish to eat. I took the former and he took the latter. One day I said to him, “Rudell, if catfish are so great, why didn’t God allow them to be eaten under the Mosiac Law?” The law demanded that fish have both scales and fins to be considered ceremonially clean and catfish don’t have scales. Rudell was a really sharp guy and a very quick thinker. Without hesitation he replied, “Well, that’s obvious – he was saving them for us Christians!” That was Rudell for you.
Another part of my shock was in realizing how close I came to being in the plane. The biggest part of the shock was in realizing that either Ray Evans or Tom Dockery died in my place. One of them was hired to fill the vacancy I left when I resigned from the faculty. I will never forget going to their homes and meeting their wives and trying to comfort them. I’m sure I met some of their children who were now without a daddy. Those were two of the most gut-wrenching, heart-breaking visits imaginable for me. It takes my breath away just writing about it now.
I remember staying up very late night after night after Theresa and the kids had gone to bed, just staring at the fire I kept going in the fireplace. I had thoughts like, “Why them and not me? Why me and not them?” Of course, there are no answers to questions like those, but we cannot keep from asking them. The only real answer is found in the doxology which ends Romans 11, so we must leave it at that until eternity.
Romans 11:33-36 (NIV2011)
33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” 36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
NOTE: This article was originally written as Chapter 18 in my book, “The Power of Spiritual Relationships.”
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance. (Proverbs 1:1–5)
I am very thankful for the youth of our churches. My hope for the future of our churches is in them. While I appreciate all that God has been able to use me and others of the older generations to accomplish, my hope for what lies ahead is not in us. We have done our thing, and now the future is up to our younger generations. Many in my generation have a difficult time recognizing this and thus have a difficult time letting go of the reins. But God and time will see to it that we do, you can trust that! My own rapidly increasing attendance at memorial services makes the point, loudly! It would be far better if we were to recognize the need and have a planned generational transition much sooner than later. That is my prayer and my plea in this chapter.
A Lost Generation
Our family of churches, the ICOC, has been seriously affected in negative ways by losing a generation of leaders. In the early years of this millennium, we suffered as a movement a serious upheaval and a series of reactions. While we needed something to jar us into a realization of ineffective and wrongful spiritual building in our serious attempts to carry out the Great Commission, we experienced more damage than we realized at the time. A grave part of the damage was the loss of a generation of leaders (and members). As our overall membership declined, our available funds to support ministry staff declined. Young ministry staff leaders in their twenties were laid off because of these dwindling contributions and the decision to direct available funds toward ministry staff who were older and dependent on those funds for supporting themselves and their families in their career choice.
It took some years to start recovering and raising up younger leaders again in significant numbers, but by then we had another problem. Leadership roles were limited, and although we were adding young people to our ministry staffs, their opportunities for advancement into more influential roles were already filled by older staff members. The young ones could lead campus ministries or youth programs or in some cases, small churches. But the opportunities to lead in roles that carried with them a voice that was heard on a broader scale simply weren’t there. When we were growing fast in the 1980s and 1990s, leadership advancement was a natural part of our growth. When growth stopped, suddenly the whole picture was different, and natural progressions in leadership were stymied.
The result has been that older, established leaders have guided most of the directions we have taken as a whole. The same older crowd is leading in the same older ways, and those ways have ceased to produce the results they once did. Without younger leaders with younger thinking whose voices are not just heard, but allowed to shape our future directions, we will continue down the path of diminishing growth and relevance with the upcoming generations. As I put it bluntly from time to time, many (not all) of those who were once new wine breaking old wineskins have themselves become old wineskins—and don’t realize it. It pains me to say such things, but facts are facts, and I think these are indisputable and need to be recognized, admitted and acted upon.
Since our growth rate is diminishing, the natural progression of having more and more younger leaders entering the fray is not going to happen organically. We older leaders are going to have to find alternative roles for ourselves, like shepherding and teaching (teaching was my choice over a decade ago), and put younger leaders in roles that allow them to help us figure out how to turn the growth rate around. That might sound radical, but I hope it also sounds rational, because I believe it is the only rational choice available. The lost generation syndrome can be reversed, but only if we are willing to make radical choices that seem unnatural to us.
Youth and Radical Change
Christianity had its beginning with youth, for they are the ones open to entertaining new ideas and approaches. The apostles were likely quite young. If John the apostle wrote his five documents (his Gospel, his three letters and Revelation) when tradition says he did, he must have been a teenager when called to be an apostle. I suspect most of the other apostles were also young. History shows that radical things done in the spiritual realm are almost always initiated by youth. Youth and radical go together, not old and radical. It is the nature of aging to become tradition bound, and the recognition and rejection of traditions becomes more and more an elusive task. I wish it weren’t so, but it is, and that is why my hope is in the youth among us.
As that exciting first century church aged, it moved further and further away from the truth and replaced it with traditions. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit predicted this departure through Paul in no uncertain terms. Passages like 1 Timothy 4:1–3 and 2 Timothy 4:2–4 demonstrate that God didn’t want this turning aside to take later generations by surprise. They also serve as a warning about how easy it is to move from truth to traditions, an ever-present danger in every age. Further, the danger is not just limited to traditions that directly violate Scripture; the ones that are not unbiblical but become ineffective are in some ways more damaging, since they block the effective spreading of the gospel. That type represents our current challenge, for said simply, we as a movement are stuck.
As history unfolded, it was only a matter of time before some youthful radicals had enough of the Establishment’s traditions and drew a line in the sand. Well, in this case, it was actually a document nailed to a door. Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” against Catholic teachings to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He was in his early thirties when this momentous event took place, but he was much younger when his radicalness was taking shape. Another very important figure in the Protestant Reformation was John Calvin, who began his extensive writings when yet in his twenties. Once again, history connects the terms “youth,” “radical” and “change.”
Then we come to the Age of Reason, when the American Restoration Movement was born. Much about the Reformation was commendable; much about its effectiveness was not so commendable. By 1700, there were 150 divisions within Protestantism. In the early 1800s, leaders from various denominations started questioning the concept of reformation. Trying to reform something with so many divergences from the Bible was proving to be impossible in the quest for religious unity. Thus the idea of just going back to the New Testament as the pattern for Christianity and restoring it gained ground quickly. The two most influential leaders started their quest for restoration of the NT church when they were still young. Alexander Campbell was in his twenties and Barton W. Stone was just about thirty.
Fast forward to the origins of my current church association, now known as the International Churches of Christ. This group began as a spiritual renewal group within what I now call the Mainline Churches of Christ. It was at the outset a campus ministry movement in the 1970s. Its epicenter was in Gainesville, Florida at the Crossroads Church of Christ, and it was spearheaded by Chuck Lucas when he was about thirty and later pushed forward by Kip McKean when he was about twenty-five. That Crossroads Movement became the Discipling Movement and the Boston Movement and ultimately the ICOC as we now know it.
The Future – Scary and Exciting!
Is not the pattern of radical spiritual change fairly obvious? Doesn’t it always start with radical youth who burn with a desire to change the world? That is why I am so thankful for the youth among us. They must pick up the baton and do what we are currently failing to do—affect the whole world significantly with the rapid spread of the gospel. Christianity has never been about having a nice, comfortable church to make us feel warm inside once or twice a week. It was designed by its Designer to radically affect the world.
Our society is changing so fast that keeping up with how people think is almost impossible for us older folks. We don’t understand youth and they don’t understand us too well either. We use similar words but often are speaking a different language. But that is nothing new. It has always been that way. Generation gaps are real, and really important to at least recognize (not just decry). I highly recommend reading Chapter 21 in Michael Burns’ book All Things to All People. The title of that chapter is “World War Z,” and I can promise you that it is one of the most eye-opening, disturbing pieces we of the older generation could read. It is for those of all generations among us a must-read—so please read it!
Youth—Christ’s mission now depends on you! Grab hold of it and GO! People like me who have done their best want to see our work as only a foundation of what you can do as you build to the sky with the help of Almighty God. I am praying for you and already thanking God for what you are going to do. I am also praying for us older ones, that we will help you begin doing it—now. Let’s all please do our part, and may God lead us to do it soon!