Chapter 9 (“from the book, “Messianic Judaism”) — The Sabbath
This chapter addresses Messianic Judaism’s treatment of the Sabbath. The Messianics teach that we need to keep the Sabbath today as one of the Ten Commandments. Accordingly, members of this movement do not gather on Sunday, but on Saturday.
Seventh-Day Adventists came into existence in the nineteenth century with a similar message about the Sabbath. Here we will look at scriptures to consider this teaching, and we will conclude with some thoughts about the good aspects of keeping the Sabbath and how to interpret the fourth commandment.
Sabbatarians, those who adhere to the Sabbath as a day of rest, insist that it does not fall on Sunday, but Saturday. They are correct about the day of the week assigned to Sabbath. Historically and theologically, Sabbath was and is the seventh day of the week (Saturday, or technically sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Although Christians have been meeting on Sunday to take communion since the very beginning, this issue became confused when, in the fourth century, the church created a Sunday Sabbath. Before Emperor Constantine, Sunday was not a legal day of rest or worship; it was a workday even for Christians who met to worship. In the early 300s, the pagan emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity, made Sunday the legal Roman day of rest. There was no Sunday Sabbath or day off until the fourth century. This was put in place by the state, not by biblical mandate.
In the book of Acts, Paul preaches in the synagogue on Sabbath three times. Some Sabbatarians use this as evidence that Paul is still an observant Jew keeping Sabbath. They extend this further to say that his actions are a model for Christian practice. However, the Bible does not tell us exactly what Paul thought about the Sabbath. His purpose was to preach to Jews first, and then to the Gentiles. Sabbath would be the optimal time to preach to the largest audience of Jews, unlike, say, Tuesday or Thursday. The early church evangelized on the Sabbath because they always wanted to reach out to those who were familiar with the Scriptures, the original sons and daughters of Abraham, who could serve as a kind of beachhead providing leadership and stability in the faith. The Gentiles were grafted into the olive tree, so to speak.
What does Scripture reveal about the significance of Sunday? The early Christians had a reason for feeling differently about Sunday compared to Saturday or Friday. Jesus appeared after his resurrection on Sunday morning, and again that Sunday evening (John 20:19). He was also seen the next Sunday. The church began on Pentecost, a Sunday (Acts 2:1). In Acts 20:7, it says that the Christians gathered to break bread on the first day of the week, though they were not legalistic about this: since they did not break bread until after midnight, it occurred on Monday. 1 Corinthians 16:2 also uses “first day” wording, this time regarding monetary collections. In Revelation 1:10, John the revelator says he was in the Spirit on “the Lord’s Day.” That word “Lord’s Day” in modern Greek, kyriakē, is the same word as in the book of Revelation: the word for Sunday.
Sabbath was not changed from Saturday to Sunday in the early church teaching or practice. Rather, Sunday only became a so-called Sabbath three hundred years later, when church and politics started overlapping in the fourth century. “The Lord’s Day” was always Sunday.
Even if Sunday was always, historically, the Christian day of worship, do Christians still need to observe the Sabbath? Many maintain that the Sabbath originated and was observed in the beginning of creation, even observed by Adam. An ancient Jewish text, The Book of Jubilees, claims that Adam was born circumcised and kept all the festivals and feasts. Adam and his wife being the only humans in creation, this task seems quite challenging. There is no biblical evidence of a Sabbath prior to the time of Moses. Before Moses delivered the children of Israel from cruel bondage in Egypt, Hebrew slaves were not allowed a day of rest. In Egyptian history, there was no weekend, and the work week may have been ten days long. For the few days when the Nile flooded each summer, work ceased, but there was no “day off.” We indirectly thank the Torah for the weekend. The prayer in Nehemiah 9:13–14 makes the mosaic origin of Sabbath explicit:
“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. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses.”
While the concept of Sabbath, God’s rest on the seventh day, may be traced back to the creation narrative, we must not infer that its observance was instituted before Scripture makes it explicit.
The writings of the church fathers support the view that early Christians met on Sundays to take communion and to worship. They also confirm that Sabbath does not need to be observed by Christians. The three comments from church fathers included below are typical. One is by Ignatius of Antioch in Syria, who was martyred soon after the year 100. He says this: “If then, those who had lived in antiquated customs came to newness of hope, no longer keeping the sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s Day—on which also our life arose through Him… how shall we be able to live apart from him?”27
He uses that phrase “the Lord’s Day,” kyriakē, the Greek word for Sunday. “No longer keeping the sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s Day” clearly indicates that Sunday worship was not the same as the Sabbath, even in the early church.
The Epistle of Barnabas is also an early-second-century text. Here he quotes from the Prophets and offers commentary:
Moreover God says to the Jews, “Your new moons and Sabbaths I cannot endure.” You see how he says, “The present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but the sabbath which I have made in which, when I rested from all things, I will make the beginning of the eighth day, which is the beginning of another world.” Wherefore, we [Christians] keep the eighth day for joy, on which also Jesus arose from the dead and when he appeared ascended into heaven.28
Barnabas describes the day of worship as the eighth day, the day after the Sabbath. Although we say that Sunday is the first day of the week, from another perspective (in many other passages) it was viewed as the eighth day.
Justin Martyr, the Samaritan philosopher who became a Christian and was martyred in the middle of the second century, also addresses the significance of Sunday worship:
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.29
According to Justin Martyr, Sunday gained its theological importance as the day that Jesus rose from the dead and the day that he ascended.
It is unlikely that the generation after the apostles forgot the truth about the Sabbath. For Messianic Judaism to be correct, because it is refuted by all the abundant evidence of the second century, the generation of the apostles would have had to have lost the theological thread completely. We looked at Ignatius: Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John, and he says we no longer keep the Sabbath, but live in accordance with Sunday. The Epistle of Barnabas is very early, perhaps even from the first century. It says that they celebrated on the eighth day: Sunday, not Saturday.
The Sabbath receives no emphasis at all in the New Testament documents themselves. If it is mandatory or preferable for Christians to keep the Sabbath, it is odd that Paul mentions the Sabbath only once, in Colossians 2:16. In that verse, he asserts that Sabbath observance is not required and that believers should not be judged on keeping the Sabbath or religious festivals. In Galatians 4:8–11, Paul is upset because the Jewish calendar is creeping back into the church, so that they are observing special days, months, seasons, and years. Therefore, according to Colossians 2 and Galatians 4, Sabbath days, Sabbath years, Jubilee years, new moon celebrations, and festivals must not be emphasized. Although they remind us of their fulfillment in Jesus and they are not forbidden, these rituals and special days are not meant to be the rhythm or focal points of the new covenant.
Some Messianics might counter that the New Testament did not emphasize these holidays because everyone knew you had to obey the commandments. Yet most of the Old Testament commands do not carry over, and historically, the church’s demographic makeup was becoming increasingly Gentile. Chapter 3 illustrates how some regulations could only be followed if you were living in Israel.
While primary sources offer a compelling and consistent explanation of the biblical and early church view of the Sabbath and Sunday worship, some readers may still feel unbalanced with the lack of symmetry regarding the Ten Commandments. For uniformity, it seems correct that either they should all be repudiated or, if they are not repudiated, then all ten should be required. For nine of those commandments, from the first, to worship the one God, and the second, to have no idols, all the way to the tenth, not to covet, each one is repeated in the New Testament. There is a flagrant and obvious exception in the fourth commandment: to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. The truth is asymmetric: four of the first five apply, and all five of the second five apply. While I yearn for symmetry, the fourth commandment is repealed according to the New Testament and the early church.
There are other examples of such asymmetries in Scripture, which does not remove the authority or poetry of God’s word. We have the twelve tribes, except that the tribe of Joseph splits into Ephraim and Manasseh; there are eleven and two half-tribes. The Levites’ tribe does not have a territory; this is not a tidy picture. In the New Testament, there are the twelve apostles, then eleven, then twelve again. When Paul comes as “one abnormally born” the chosen group totals thirteen apostles.
The above examples should reduce our discomfort with the incongruencies around the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue. The most important instructions found in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 6 are not in the Decalogue. Additionally, we have not just one version of the Ten Commandments, but two, or maybe three versions if we include Exodus 34. Consider also that the fourth commandment is the only particularly Jewish commandment.
We see irregularities biblically with various numbers, but also in nature and mathematics. The number of lunar cycles in a solar year is not even. A lunar cycle is normally less than one month, so the cycles do not fit roundly within a year. We have eight major planets and dwarf planets and other entities in our solar system. The Earth is the only one, as far as we know, that is inhabited. Would it be better if they were all inhabited or not? Mathematics has irrational numbers like π and e. You might argue for balance because it feels more pleasing to have all ten commandments, but the world is full of anomalies. Arguments from symmetry have an aesthetic appeal, but they have no logical power. Whether seven, nine, or ten commandments apply today, that must be determined by careful Bible study, not by preference for elegance or simplicity or tradition.
Christianity is a continuation and a fulfillment of Judaism, yet there is also a disjunction. In the new covenant, Christians did not have to observe circumcision, eat kosher, or stay in one land and go three times a year to Jerusalem. Even early Christian leaders had difficulty grasping how the new covenant relates to the old, and what to do with the Old Testament scriptures now that we have the inspired New Testament scriptures. The Sabbath, like many other Old Testament components, belongs to the world of shadows that faded once Christ came. We are called to embrace substance, reality—not shadow (Colossians 2:17). Living in Jesus today is fulfilling the Sabbath. It is a life of rest and peace in Christ, as well as a life of love in all we do.
Sabbath may not be required, even though we appreciate the theological principle. Hebrew informs us that there is still a sabbath for Christians, although it is not a weekly day of rest (Hebrews 4:9). We do not have to execute those who violate the Sabbath. We do not have to cease our work every seventh year. We do not return all acquired property every seven times seven years. Still, there is a spiritual principle for us to implement that hints at the freedom Moses brought when he led a slave nation out of bondage. We are not machines. Constant work crushes the spirit, wears us down. We need to set aside time for the Lord. For Torah-observing Jews, Sabbath (Shabbat) was a quiet family time, a time for prayer and study of the word, especially the Torah. That dominated the day. The Jerusalem Talmud, written a few centuries after Jesus, taught that the Sabbaths were given to Israel in order that they might study Torah. Setting aside a day each week to focus on family and Bible study rather than work is a wonderful idea. Shabbat is rest, yet not laziness. In the creation account, the Lord rests from his labor on the seventh day. The text does not say that God was tired or that he was not doing anything at all. Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day” (John 5:17). He is still working. The seventh day was rest, not laziness; devotion to God, not work. It was for study and prayer.
You may know people who truly believe that one day is more special than another, who hold the Sabbath as binding. Or they may have a view about Easter or a Jewish festival. Romans 14:4–6 guides us in these situations. To paraphrase, “Yes, we can proclaim the truth, but we do not have the right to judge someone else’s servant. We need to be gracious and understanding with those who have a different view about holy days.” We have seen abundant evidence that the early church did not observe the Sabbath as a Christian ordinance. That was part of the first covenant, but not the second.30
For years, I have heard people declaring that the words spoken by Jesus, the red-letter words in many editions of the Gospel accounts, are the most important ones in the New Testament. Some make this declaration and leave it at that, while others follow up by discounting the rest of the NT writings by the apostles and prophets. Paul’s writings are often especially discounted or totally dismissed using this approach. People who are offended by what he says about homosexuality and other “accepted” sins in our society are leading the parade in this regard.
Let me begin my observations by saying that we are at an all-time low in America of Bible reading and thus Bible knowledge. Many who claim to know the Bible know much of what they know from listening to or watching podcasts and other public communication mediums rather than digging into the biblical text on their own. The majority of those who appear to be very positive toward what Jesus said in person while on earth don’t really know much of what he did say. They know John 3:16 and a few more scattered passages but have little idea of what his overall teaching actually contains.
For example, he said that most people were going to hell and by comparison, few to heaven. Keep in mind as you read the following passage that these are all red-letter words.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
A few verses later in the same context he said that claiming to be his follower, a Christian as we would term it, doesn’t make you one. Here are a few more red-letter words for your reading enjoyment.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
You cannot do God’s will without knowing it. Where do you learn it? In the Bible, which is God’s only source containing his stated will. Is that will only stated in the red-letter words? Keep reading. By the way, why did Jesus utter these shocking words recorded in Matthew’s Gospel in the first place? The parallel passage in Luke’s account tells us he was responding to a question that would naturally arise, given his strong emphasis on God’s expectations of us.
“Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, ‘Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?’”
For those who have actually studied the Bible carefully for themselves, they know what Jesus taught about the narrow road and what it takes to be a disciple of his. It is not surprising at all that someone asked Jesus the above question. The earthly ministry of Jesus did not consist of him walking peacefully through the fields and meadows uttering nice little epigrams suitable for printing in Hallmark greeting cards. Far from it. He challenged people to the core of their beings and most rejected him and were only satisfied when he was on a cross bleeding for having delivered such direct challenges. But yes, we definitely need to be reading those red-letter words alright, because we are going to face them on the Day of Judgment.
“There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.”
What About the Black-Letter Words?
Are the words in Acts through Revelation not as important as the ones spoken directly by Jesus while on earth? Are they less inspired or perhaps not inspired at all? Let’s just ask Jesus and allow his red-letter words to answer that question for us.
“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
Do those quotes need explanation? Did the apostles have any question about being guided by the Holy Spirit to write just as authoritatively as Jesus spoke in person? That’s not what I read in passages like the following, written by the two most prominent apostles, one designated as the apostle to the Gentiles and the other as the apostle to the Jews.
“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.”
2 Peter 1:19-21
“We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 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.”
By the way, Peter went on to refer to Paul’s writings by the term, “Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). The Bible has come under attack since it was written, but the attacks have increased in modern times as have the tragic consequences of Satan’s successes. My alarm system is increasing accordingly, especially since my age guarantees that I don’t have much time left to help us fight back. Satan’s simplest plan is to keep people from taking the Bible seriously, and if he can keep us from reading it, his plan will continue to work. If we do start reading it, the next part of his plan is to undermine trust in it, or at least some parts of it. Hence his strategy to confuse us about both red-letter words and black-letter words, the latter being in actuality “red-letter” words also from Christ through the Holy Spirit to the apostles and prophets.
Which Letters and Which Words—Moses or Christ?
Another part of Satan’s plan is to get our biblical focus misdirected. A current misdirection is to have us focus more and more on the Old Testament, oddly enough. At one time, the difference in the Mosiac and Christian covenants was well understood because people read the New Testament for themselves. Even a cursory reading of the book of Hebrews should bring us back to Christ and the new covenant as our primary focus. Paul’s goal as an inspired writer of thirteen books of the NT is made clear in the following passage.
“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
If ALL the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ, pray tell why are so many becoming more and more enamored with Moses and the Law? Sometime within the past year, a friend suggested that I tune in to a recorded video sermon by a guest speaker in one of the congregations in our family of churches. I did and listened very carefully. He spent the entire sermon focusing on an Old Testament passage that he admitted at the outset was impossible to understand with certainty (although he seemed pretty certain of his interpretation of it). Yet, because he is purported to be an OT scholar, people in the audience appeared to be spellbound as they listened. I was far from being spellbound. I was wondering where Jesus was and why I was spending my time listening to Moses being preached instead of Jesus.
What I Am Not Saying
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t study the OT. I’ve not only studied all of it in some depth and continue to read through it almost every year as a part of my Bible reading program, but I used to teach courses in OT at a Preacher’s School training full-time ministry students. One of my consistent courses taught was the Pentateuch, the first five books of the OT. In teaching it, I gave an assignment to my students on a document which was many pages long and involved digging out hundreds of details from the OT text.
In looking back on it, I think I made a mistake in asking them to examine the minutia of such details. One student, an excellent straight A student who was always very respectful with this one possible exception, said as he passed by me on the last day of the course, “This (holding up the long assignment document) had all the educational value of a roll of toilet paper!” He had been a public-school teacher prior to entering ministry training and I think his assessment was correct. Coming from him, it was also pretty funny at the time!
Since the NT is in the OT concealed and the OT is in the NT revealed, our study of the OT should be mostly limited to what is necessary to our understanding of the NT. We simply do not need in-depth study of the OT in all of its details that no longer are a part of the requirements of our new covenant with God. Those details would include hundreds of requirements about sacrifices, feast days, other special days (yes, including the Sabbath), food laws and other parts of the Mosiac covenant. If all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ, we need to focus on him. Period.
Yes, the OT contains prophecies about Christ that Paul and others used to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, and yes, some of those prophecies were housed in typology pointing to Christ. Please keep in mind that the early teachers like Paul used these prophecies and typology in addressing Jews while trying to convert them, not Gentiles (unless they had joined themselves to the synagogue as Jewish proselytes or “God-fearers”). He decidedly was not simply teaching them the OT for edification!
The huge majority of those now claiming Christianity are Gentiles, having no Jewish roots at all. Therefore, to make the OT a major focus of our study is more than unwise; I believe it is an affront to Jesus. I can’t make this point better than Paul did in Colossians 2:17: “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Why would we want to focus on studying shadows in the OT when we can study the realities of Christ stated in plain language in the NT?
More will be said about this concerning tendency among us in upcoming articles on my website, starting with one by my friend and fellow teacher, Douglas Jacoby. Watch for it. In the meantime, spend more time reading the NT for yourself, making notes, and digging deeply into the “red-letter” words of Jesus (in the entire New Testament). I am currently reading through the NT once a month, focusing on digging out the treasures of Jesus, and even after all these years, I continue to find new ones. Doing something similar would be a wonderful starting place for you too!
When we read the Gospel accounts, demon possession is mentioned a number of times. When Jesus and the apostles did miracles, one type was casting out demons. I have written at length explaining that miraculous gifts were limited to a first century setting and gave the reasons for that limitation. This material was originally included in Chapter Ten of my book, “Prepared to Answer,” and in a Second Edition, revised slightly. The revised chapter can be read as a stand-alone article on my website (gordonferguson.org) under the title, “A Study of Miraculous Gifts.”
Although demon possession and miraculous gifts of the Spirit are definitely related in the Gospels, they can be seen as separate topics. They can also be addressed as responses to two different questions. “Are miraculous gifts still operative today?” and, “Is demon possession still occurring today?” I have addressed the first question in the article, but now in this one I want to address the second.
Most Bible scholars believe that demon possession was a phenomenon that God allowed specifically during the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth, continuing during the time of the early church. It was a special way of demonstrating God’s power through his chosen leaders to convince those watching and hearing that these leaders were sent by him with his message. You find no mention of demon possession in the Old Testament, nor exorcism of demons, but you do find the presence of evil spirits, which is simply another term for demons. Demons are a reality and a part of Satan’s forces of evil used to influence humans to do and be evil. Their existence is not in question nor is their intent. What is in question is whether they possess people today like they did in the first century.
Demonology and Speculation
Demonology is a subject that historically is connected with more mythological theories than can be easily imagined. Theories of what demons are like and how they work is as varied as history’s theories of deity. The NT doesn’t give us much information about the origin of demons nor an explanation of their exact nature either. Therein we simply see what they did and how Jesus and the apostles spoke to the ones possessing humans and cast them out. Nothing is to be gained by speculation regarding areas not explained in the NT. Demons exist and they did possess humans during those early times. Sometimes their possession was associated with illnesses and sometimes not. Attributing illness or other calamity to demon possession today is nothing more than speculation and I believe a wrong one.
Bottom line, it seems best to relegate actual demon possession of the type found in the NT to a time when Jesus and the early disciples were performing a variety of miraculous works to confirm them as God-approved messengers of his new covenant. That new covenant began in spoken form by Jesus and the inspired apostles and prophets and ended up in written form, which we call the New Testament. Once the written form was completed, no further use of miraculous gifts was needed. With the death of the apostles and those upon whom they laid their hands to confer those miraculous gifts, they ceased. My article previously mentioned covers the miraculous stage of the church pretty thoroughly. If you still have questions, please read or reread that article.
It is also worth noting that the prevalence of demon possession and the casting out of demons is found much more in the ministry of Jesus than in the ministry of the apostles after Jesus ascended back into heaven. The Book of Acts has little mention of the exorcism of demons. The rest of the NT books beyond Acts contain no mention of this phenomenon at all. Even in the listing of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12, the casting out of demons is not found among them. Again, demon possession seems to be a phenomenon allowed by God especially for the ministry of Jesus and extending to the apostles as they carried on his ministry.
Another Related Possibility
That said, I do believe a type of demon possession might well be possible today, but a different type than we read about in the NT. In our present age, demons are constantly working to influence us for evil purposes. I have observed a few people who had given themselves over to Satan fully enough that they seemed to be completely controlled, or possessed, by demons. Even their facial features and the looks in their eyes seemed to be altered in very disturbing ways. But these were adults who had chosen to be influenced by Satan’s forces to sin, and then sinned long enough and deeply enough to be fully controlled or something close to it. Demonic influence seemed to progress to demonic control, which would be a type of demon possession. And yes, I did pray over them, shared Scriptures and reasoned with them, as with anyone caught up in sin. But this situation is different from what we find in the NT.
During Jesus’ ministry, you read about even children being possessed by demons. They had not fallen prey to temptation and sin, but they were unwillingly possessed by demons anyway. For example, look at this account:
20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
Have I ever seen anything like this take place with a child? No. I’ve not seen anything like this take place with an adult, for that matter. What I have seen are a few adults who seemed to be so in the control of the forces of evil that it appeared to me that they were possessed. Therefore, the bigger issue for you and me is not focusing on demon possession as a special topic of interest, but on demon influence which is not a questionable matter at all. I want to stay as far away as possible from the temptations Satan provides, regardless of how and through whom he provides them, and avoid ever coming close to being controlled by him and his army of evil.
This last sentence is clearly the path to choose, while the overall subject of demonology in detail is not close to being clear in the Bible. Further speculations about the topic can easily create confusion and become a distraction (or worse). I have seen that happen. Being aware of Satan’s schemes and approaches is biblical; attempting to study him and his demons in depth as a topic is neither biblical nor helpful. I have offered my opinions about what might still be possible in our day, but I am labeling them as my opinions. Let’s just concentrate on doing what Paul admonished us to do as disciples in Ephesians 5:11: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness…” If you follow that inspired advice, you cannot become possessed by demons.
Taken from Chapter 10 of Prepared to Answer, Second Edition
Without question, miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were very common in the early church as described in the New Testament. To the casual reader, the question would readily arise as to why these gifts would not be available and beneficial for today as well.
Purpose of Miraculous Gifts
In a word, the purpose of these gifts was to reveal and to confirm that the message of the early preachers and teachers was from God, and that these preachers and teachers were also God-sent. Just imagine yourself among those audiences of Jewish listeners described in the early chapters of Acts. Your Jewish training would have caused you to respect the written Word of God, the Scriptures, and to settle all issues of your life by it. Now you are listening to these early apostles and other preachers teaching that this controversial figure, Jesus Christ, has fulfilled the OT Scriptures, so you are no longer under their authority. However, these preachers have no written word from God containing this new message. In fact, no book of what we now call the NT will be written for about 20 years! Therefore, the challenge of leaving a written, time-tested covenant, to accept one which was only verbal at that point, would have been staggering for a Jew! That is, unless these new preachers could validate their claims with miracles.
In Mark 16:15-20, Jesus spoke of these miracles which were to confirm his message and messengers.
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
Hebrews 2:1-4 speaks clearly of the signs and wonders that were needed to confirm the word that was originally preached.
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
It is vital to remember the background of the Jewish audiences (and later the Gentiles), and how it would have been difficult for them to accept the gospel (as yet unwritten) without these confirming miracles. Also, without the miraculous gifts, there would not even have been a message, for “prophecy” (speaking by inspiration from God) was one of these gifts. Some of the gifts were revelatory (they revealed God’s message) types, and some were confirmatory (they confirmed God’s message). When Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14 that the gifts were to be used to build up the body of Christ, he was referring primarily to the revelatory type of gifts. Since God’s revelation is now completed in written form, we can enjoy the same strengthening when this message is spoken by those with non-miraculous gifts of teaching and preaching.
For the gifts to have their desired effect, they would need to be obvious, even to unbelievers: and they clearly were, according to Acts 4:15- 16 and Acts 8:9-13. These were not the kind of alleged “miracles” which were attributable to other causes. Even the enemies of the early church could not deny that the miracles were real and totally amazing.
Furthermore, if the “tongues” were merely ecstatic utterances (unintelligible vocal sounds, as with modern claims), they would not have convinced anyone of anything, because ecstatic utterances were widely practiced in pagan religions long before the church was established. This fact is easily documented, and therefore such “tongues” would have done nothing to impress unbelievers with the truth of these messengers and their messages.
How the Gifts Were Received
The position that I have taken here is that the miraculous gifts in the NT times could only be passed on through the laying on of apostles’ hands. They had received a special measure of the Holy Spirit, which enabled them not only to possess these gifts, but to spread them to other Christians as the needs in the church dictated. A careful examination of the applicable passages will yield evidence that is quite compelling.
In Acts 2, although 120 believers may have been present, only the apostles spoke in tongues which were actually languages or dialects (glossa and dialekto in Greek). Note the following reasons: (1) in verse 1, “they” goes back to the nearest antecedent “the apostles” in 1:26; (2) in verse 7, all of the speakers were said to be Galileans. (Although the apostles were all chosen in Galilee, the setting for this occasion was in Judea, quite a distance away. Certainly, not all of the 120 would have been from Galilee.) (3) in verse 14, it specifically says that Peter stood up with “the Eleven”; (4) the question raised by those in the audience was addressed to Peter and the other apostles; (5) after baptism, those early disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching; and lastly, (6) verse 43 tells us that the ongoing wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.
Acts 2 also demonstrates that the “tongues” were understandable languages, not simply some kind of ecstatic utterances. In verse 6, the audience heard them speaking in their “own language.” The Greek word here is actually the word for dialect, which is even more specific. The same word indicating dialect is found in verse 8, where it is translated “own native language.” Then, in verse 11, it says that “they were declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues.” The Greek word for “tongues” here is glossa, the basic word for a language.
Between Acts 2 and Acts 6, all miracles were performed by apostles only. Then, in Acts 6:1-6, seven spiritual men were chosen to help with the distribution of food to widows, after which the apostles’ hands were laid on them (verse 6). Immediately afterwards, Stephen, one of the seven, did miracles (verse 8). This is the first mention in the Book of Acts of anyone besides the apostles doing any miracles. And it occurred right after the seven men received the laying on of the apostle’s hands! Philip, another of the seven, is the next person to perform miracles (Acts 8, beginning in verse 5). Although Philip could do powerful miracles, he could not pass on this gift to others, as verses 14-19 make clear.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Notice that Simon tried to buy this ability from the apostles, rather than from Philip, although Philip could do the miracles.
The apostle Paul also laid hands on those who then received miraculous abilities (Acts 19:1-7). When writing to the church at Rome, Paul mentioned that he wanted to impart some additional gift (Romans 1:11) by which the Roman Christians might be strengthened. When Romans 12 is compared with a very similar chapter discussing gifts in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 12), the difference in the nature of these gifts is striking. Notice in Romans 12 that the gifts in the body are all non-miraculous, except for prophecy. The parallel in 1 Corinthians 12 names many miraculous gifts. Paul planted the church at Corinth, and laid hands on many of the disciples; but when Romans was written, no apostle had yet been there. Therefore, one church had many who could do miraculous gifts, while the other church had very few (if any). Those few evidently had moved to Rome from other churches that had been planted by apostles.
How Long Were the Gifts to Last?
If the miraculous gifts came only through the laying on of apostles’ hands, they would cease when the apostles, and those on whom the apostles had laid their hands, had all died. Also, if the reason for the gifts was to reveal and confirm the message and the messengers, then when the message was delivered in written form, the need would have been met. By the time Paul had written his last inspired letter, he must have known that the Scriptures (which now included his own writing) would soon be completed, as the NT joined the OT in God’s complete revelation. These Scriptures would equip Timothy and all disciples for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
An important point to mention at this juncture is that the miraculous gifts accompanied new revelation. If the miracles are occurring today, as the Pentecostals claim, where and what is the new revelation? The Mormons actually claim that their additional books are confirmed by their practice of miraculous gifts. The proponents of the Holiness Movement, then, should not reject the Mormon writings, but they do. Now that the message has been revealed and confirmed and committed to writing (the NT), the written descriptions of the miracles do for us today what the actual miracles did for them in that day (John 20:30-31):
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
If the written descriptions of the miracles are sufficient to produce faith in man, which leads to salvation, just what else would we need? Actually, Jesus recognized a greater degree of faith in us who have not seen these things personally but have accepted the Word’s testimony:
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:27-29).
Some claim that miracles are still needed today in order to confirm the Scriptures for us. This overlooks the fact that the Scriptures have already been confirmed and can now produce saving faith in us (John 20:31; Romans 10:17; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Ephesians 3:3-5). Also, according to Romans 1:4, Jesus was confirmed to be God’s Son by the resurrection. If miracles are needed in each generation to reconfirm the Scriptures, then every generation would also need another resurrection of Jesus to reconfirm him as God’s Son! Certainly, the Scriptures have been confirmed adequately, and they carry within themselves their own self-authenticating miracles. Besides these obvious and necessary logical conclusions, 1 Corinthians 13:10 (which we will explore later in this chapter) predicted the ending of the miraculous gifts.
Miraculous Gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14
Enumeration. The church at Corinth had problems with their attitudes toward, and use of, spiritual gifts. A particular problem was their pride in exercising the somewhat “showy” gift of tongues. Paul corrected their problems by demonstrating the proper way to view and use these gifts. In chapter 12, he gave the enumeration (listing) of the gifts; in chapter 13, the duration of the gifts; and in chapter 14, the regulation of these gifts for as long as they were to be in effect. Importantly, the church at Corinth provides conclusive evidence that the presence of the gifts, even in abundance, was no guarantee that the Christians would be spiritual. In fact, this church seemed to have more gifts than any other mentioned in the NT, and yet these disciples were about the least spiritual of any mentioned! The modern claim that the truly spiritual people get the gifts flatly contradicts what we see in the NT.
The enumeration of the gifts is found in 12:8-10. They were as follows:
- the message of wisdom
- the message of knowledge
- faith (evidently of a miraculous type)
- gifts of healing
- miraculous powers
- distinguishing between spirits
- the interpretation of tongues
In verses 29-30, Paul asks some rhetorical questions: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” Clearly, not everyone had the same gifts. Specifically, all did not speak with tongues, contrary to charismatic teaching. Furthermore, verse 30 shows that a non-miraculous gift is greater than the miraculous. Thus, Paul leads into chapter 13 with the call for every person, above all else, to exhibit love.
Duration. The duration of the gifts is described in chapter 13, in a context which depicts the superiority of love. Tongues, without love, were worthless. Prophecy, without love, was and is worthless. Knowledge, without love, was and is worthless. Faith, without love, was and is worthless. Giving, without love, was and is worthless. Even a sacrificial death without love is worthless (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Notice that tongues, prophecy, knowledge and faith, in the context of the preceding chapter, are all miraculous gifts. Then, in chapter 13 verses 4-7, Paul describes real love (the “agape” type), as contrasted with their spiritual immaturity and erroneous use of gifts.
Next, in verses 8-10, Paul shows that love will continue when the gifts have fulfilled their purpose and ceased.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
This passage says plainly that prophecy, tongues and knowledge were going to cease. Furthermore, they were only partial in their effects (verse 9). For example, a prophet could give only a partial message at any one time (see 14:29-32). He could not state all aspects of a subject, as we can today, through the use of a completed Word—the OT and NT.
Then, in verse 10, the partial gifts were said to last until perfection came. Just what was the “perfection”? It is not Christ, for the Greek term is neuter in gender, whereas it would be masculine if it were referring to him. It is not love, because love is feminine in gender. Notice that the “perfection” will take the place of the “partial.” Since the partial gifts mentioned here are all revelatory gifts, then the perfection must have to do with revelation. Otherwise, it could not replace the partial. Therefore, the perfection (or complete, from “telios” in Greek) must at least include a completed revelation, which would end the need for miraculous gifts. Our earlier study has shown this to be a logical conclusion of a completed revelation, and now this passage has demonstrated the validity of such a conclusion.
We now can turn to a written and “perfect” law of liberty (according to James 1:25) which employs the same Greek word as that in 1 Corinthians 13:10. Paul’s argument is a warning against being so enamored with gifts that are temporary anyway. He urges concentration on love, for it will always be with us. While it is tempting to say that the perfect in verse 10 is simply the completed NT revelation, the text doesn’t demand such a limitation; the context suggests that more may be involved and logic would say that more must be involved. The real purpose of these three chapters in 1 Corinthians, as already noted, was to deal with worldly pride and immaturity in their view and the use of miraculous gifts.
Having a completed revelation does not rule out pride and immaturity, although it surely would help in their case. What does rule it out is maturity and spirituality. Thus, in our verse under examination, it seems best to focus on the cessation of gifts (especially their misuse and abuse) as Paul’s plan for their maturation process—when love would reign supreme and disunity be dispelled. He uses similar wording in Ephesians 4:11-16, when unity based on maturity was to rule out being tossed to and fro by every wind of teaching. Certainly, the completed revelation would be a part of that, as it would in 1 Corinthians 13:10, which would help eliminate immaturity based on pride. Just knowing that the gifts were partial, temporary and inferior to love would help the hearts and attitudes to change. This interpretation fits the context in showing that the partial, miraculous gifts were to cease, but keeps the real focus on maturing in love and respect for one another. The completed NT in writing was not incidental to Paul’s purpose in writing, but neither was it his main focus.
Regulation. The regulation of the miraculous gifts is found in chapter 14. As long as these gifts did remain in effect, they needed to be exercised with God’s restraints. Prophecy was a much greater gift than tongues because it was understood much more easily (verses 1-19). Some find a supposed basis for ecstatic utterances in verses like verse 2: “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.” If one only read verse 2, such an interpretation would seem possible. However, verse 2 could also be explained as being a situation where a person was speaking a real language which neither he nor anyone in the audience understood. Thus, it would be a mystery to everyone present except God.
The above explanation is in perfect accord with the context of the discussion, as verses 22-23 show:
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?
It is true that just knowing that God was speaking such a language through someone would provide some building up for them (verse 4). However, it would not do anyone else real good unless someone present had the gift of interpretation (see verses 5, 13, 27, 28, in this regard). This explanation takes into account all other considerations which we have studied, such as the meaning of “glossa”—a language—whereas the ecstatic utterance position does not.
In verses 26-40, the specific regulations for using the supernatural gifts in the first-century assemblies are outlined. Everything in the assembly was to be done for strengthening the hearers (verse 26). When tongues were being used, three people at the most could speak, one at a time, and only if an interpreter were present. If no interpreter was present, no tongues could be spoken (verses 27-28)! Two or three prophets would speak, one at a time, only until the next prophet received a revelation, and then the speaker had to stop and sit down (verses 29-33). Note that in verse 12, a warning is given against getting “carried away” and saying that you could not stop because you were “in the Spirit.”
Women were to be silent in the assemblies, not being permitted to speak (verses 34-35). As we discuss in Appendix III, these women were most likely the wives of the inspired speakers in the service. The wives were interrupting their husbands, and in doing so, were disrupting a service which was to be conducted in an orderly manner. Paul then warns people against over-reacting and forbidding certain people with the gift to speak in tongues entirely. However, they were to be careful about keeping within these regulations as long as the gifts were operative (verses 39-40).
In view of the foregoing biblical consideration, the charismatic movement today is not based on the Holy Spirit’s activity. Although its adherents are often well-intentioned and sincere, it is a movement based on emotionalism. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to promote truth in a spirit of gentleness and love. May God help us to help others who have been misled in this area of exercising so-called spiritual gifts!
I have expressed my alarm many times about the current teaching and emphases of American evangelical churches. Honestly, the emphases are in many ways more disturbing than the specific doctrines with which I disagree. Living in the Bible Belt and interreacting with those having a past or present history in these churches shows me what they really believe in their heart of hearts. They are in the majority quite comfortable with wrong teachings about both doctrine and lifestyle. Regarding lifestyle, Jesus made it abundantly clear that his followers had to be “all in,” “sold out,” “heart and soul” disciples of his. This means far more than just getting a vaccination to protect you from the consequences of sin when you die and then going on about your business as usual, with little changed. Just look at a few of the many passages that could be listed which teach this truth.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Is total commitment to Jesus and his spiritual body, the church, the emphasis of evangelicalism? I don’t think so, based on what I hear from individuals and preachers and what I read in their writings. Their main focus is usually on “getting saved,” a part of the basic stated definition of their purpose as evangelicals. It is quite common for preachers or the more committed members to urge the “unsaved” to invite Jesus into their hearts or to pray the sinner’s prayer, with little or nothing said about what becoming a follower of Jesus includes from that point forward. Not only is what is being offered as the salvation process not in line with New Testament teaching, becoming a sold-out disciple of Jesus for a lifetime is not taught and/or emphasized. The offer of salvation in this case is much more of an offer of “fire insurance” to keep you out of hell when you die than a lifetime commitment to Jesus as the very Lord of our lives.
The Problem Compounded
But this is only the first part of the problem. Most evangelicals still believe and teach that once you are saved, then you are always saved. You cannot lose your salvation. One of my good friends related a conversation he had with the preacher at his girlfriend’s church decades ago, and it illustrates my point well. He told the preacher that his girlfriend wouldn’t marry him unless he was a Christian, and since he really wanted to marry her, he needed to know what becoming a Christian entailed. The preacher said that he simply needed to accept Christ as his personal Savior and that was it – he would then be a Christian and set for eternity. Of course he would, if you accept this answer as the way to enter a saved relationship with Jesus, and if you cannot lose your relationship with him once you have it. My friend said, rather incredulously, “So what’s the downside?” The preacher said, “No downside; at that point you are set for life and eternity.”
Again, I could quote passage after passage showing the total commitment Jesus is asking for – demanding, really. But in our Christian culture, you just need to get your eternity set and then you can go about your business just like everyone else does. Most who claim Christianity appear little different from those who don’t. Of course, you are encouraged to attend church and avoid the really “bad” sins, but rest assured that no matter what, you will be pronounced “at home with God” and “safe in the arms of Jesus” at your funeral. If you have been to many funerals (or pretty much any funeral), you know what I am saying here is correct. Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14 talked about a narrow way to eternal life found only by a few, and a broad way that the majority end up on, the way of eternal destruction. He taught that most will be lost in eternity, not saved. But you will not hear anything close to that in the Bible Belt, rest assured.
Enough Preaching, Gordo!
Okay, I’ll quit preaching and get back to teaching – teaching about what is wrong with the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Interestingly, this doctrine is a part of historic Calvinism and the only part still accepted by most evangelicals. Yet, it rests upon the foundation of the other four parts of the Calvinistic system. In short, the word TULIP represents the basic tenets of that system. T stands for Total Depravity. John Calvin (and many others) during the period of the Reformation overreacted to the focus on human works in the Catholic Church and went to the other extreme. Now it was all up to God in way that boggles the imagination (and contradicts the Bible). Thus, children were said to be born totally incapable of doing good, lost sinners at birth.
If that is accepted, then the U stands for Unconditional Election. If you are totally depraved and cannot choose good, God must make the choice for you and so only those whom he unconditionally elects will ultimately be saved. By the way, those not elected to salvation are by necessary logic elected BY GOD to be lost. Next comes the L, which stands for Limited Atonement, meaning that Jesus died only for the elect, not for the the rest of the world. Then comes the I, standing for Irresistible Grace. If you are born totally depraved and unconditionally elected, with Christ dying for you as one of the fortunate elect, then you certainly cannot resist God changing your heart and saving you. It’s his choice and not yours.
Finally, we get to the P in our TULIP system, and that stands for the Perseverance of the Saints – another way of saying “once saved, always saved.” In my first book, “Prepared to Answer,” I devoted a full chapter to these five tenets of Calvinism. Regarding the perseverance doctrine, I will use some of the material in my book here. It is still quite relevant in this one area of teaching which is a part of evangelical doctrine, although an increasing number of evangelical teachers are questioning it or outright rejecting it. Get ready to dig in and dig in deeply!
Digging in More Deeply
This doctrine is about the only part of the Calvinistic system that remains in many denominational groups which once accepted the entire system. In the introduction of a book on election by a former Baptist writer, another Baptist scholar had this to say: “Let it be remembered that, less than a hundred years ago, all five cardinal points of Calvin’s system of theology generally prevailed among Baptists, as theological textbooks of the times will confirm. Today, only one point remains to any appreciable extent among Baptists, inevitable perseverance, and there is growing evidence that Baptists are increasingly questioning this last vestige of the central core of Calvin’s system of theology.” (Elect in the Son, by Robert Shank, p.16).
Back in 1960, Shank wrote a book entitled Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance. He started writing that book for the express purpose of supporting the Calvinistic position, since that position was the accepted one within his denomination. However, as he looked carefully at all of the supposed Calvinistic proof-texts, they did not support the position. His book is especially good in looking at the Greek tenses of the verbs. He shows that perseverance of the saints is completely tied in to a perseverance of faith. In other words, a Christian’s security is always intact as long as his faith continues. The idea of the security of the believer is a beautiful biblical concept. But the truth is that a believer can become an unbeliever, and at that point, there is no security at all. What does the Bible have to say on the subject?
In teaching those who are not really entrenched in this doctrine, pointing out a few passages often solves their problem. The entire book of Hebrews is dealing with the possibility of apostasy. See especially 2:1-3; 3:7-13; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:25. James, in his epistle, told brothers (1:2) that sin can become full-grown and bring about spiritual death once again (1:13-15). Paul clearly stated that if we deny Christ, he will also deny us (2 Timothy 2:12). He wrote in Romans 6:16 that “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey–whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” In 1 Corinthians 10: 1-12, the disobedient of the Old Testament are presented as examples, that New Testament people should “be careful that you don’t fall!” An unbiased person should be able to grasp this point readily, for the NT is absolutely full of such passages.
The Real Security of the Believer
However, some are so rooted and grounded in this error that time and patience must be expended with them before they are willing to give it up. With such people, we suggest approaching the subject from a slightly different angle. Admit readily that the NT does teach the “security of the believer.” The key to the whole misunderstanding is found in the term believer. A believer is one who has become a Christian through an obedient faith, and who then continues to exercise the same obedient faith. Once he stops exercising this faith, he ceases to be a believer. A believer can become an unbeliever. It is just that simple.
Notice carefully the wording of Hebrews 3:12: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” Therefore, a brother can become an unbeliever and, as such, fall away. In John 5:24, we are told “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” Then, in John 3:36 we find, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Now, which will not is stronger? Why should either of these statements be irreversible? If an unbeliever can become a believer and escape the wrath of God, a believer can turn back to the state of unbelief and thereby be under condemnation again.
At this point, a trained Calvinist will usually say something like this: “Well, if they fall away, they never really were saved in the first place.” If they resort to this even after we have studied how believers can become unbelievers, their minds may be closed. In this case, about all that we can do is turn to a passage like 2 Peter. 2:20-22 and camp there until they either deny the passage or deny their error. Do not be sidetracked. Stay with this passage until they accept it or deny that Peter was correct when he wrote: “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them.”
For further study on the perseverance issue, see John 15:5-6 which shows that a branch in Christ can be cut off and burned. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul states: “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Corinthians 10:5-12 uses the OT people in the wilderness wandering period as examples of those who sinned and lost the grace of God. Can a Christian fall from grace? If we wanted to prove it beyond any doubt in words that are precisely to the point, no better statement could be penned that the one in Galatians 5:4: “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
Yup – I’m Talking to You Too!
I have two cautions with which to end the article. One, never focus so much on the fact that we can lose our salvation that you forget the beauty of Jesus’ assurance of the security of the believer. Insecurity in a child of God is hurtful to everyone, especially to our heavenly Father who loves us so dearly. I love this passage and I need this passage: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7). Walking in the light is not sinlessness or there wouldn’t be any sin from which to be purified. The verb, “purifies,” is a continual action verb, meaning that if our lives are characterized by walking with Jesus, sins are continually taken away by his blood on the cross. As Paul put it in quoting from David, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them” (Romans 4:8). Perseverance of the believer is a precious doctrine indeed!
Two, while I wrote this article addressing a teaching found mainly in evangelical circles, I am concerned about any supposed Christian with a watered-down commitment to Christ and his Cause. I continue to see a lessened commitment level among members of my own family of churches, the ICOC, and the pandemic lifestyle has surely increased this malady. When (sometimes I just say “if”) this pandemic ends and we are able to return to mixing and mingling with others at will, I am concerned about what we may likely see – that many have become too comfortable with isolation. Being an active part of a church fellowship may seem too high a price to pay at that point. I pray to be wrong, but the dangers are there. We need to be helping each other right now by being in each other’s lives in every way possible. Brightly burning coals don’t last long when removed from the fire and left alone. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23-24).
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).