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Your Share in God's Promises
Bible Teaching on "The Hope of Israel"
WE talk about hope in everyday conversation. We say "I hope you feel better soon", or "We hope to go abroad this year" or "I hope the strike will be over by next week". We mean there is something in the future we should very much like to happen, and we feel cautiously optimistic that it will. Life without hope would be very grim. Even in the worst of circumstances, people like to look on the bright side. A poet wrote: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." Hope can give men extraordinary tenacity of spirit-miners trapped by a roof fall, or sailors drifting on a raft, will often fight death for days, convinced that their friends will come to the rescue before it is too late. Sadly, of course, they are sometimes disappointed. It can happen that the rock fall is too deep to tunnel through, or no one knows the ship has foundered. In this case the chance to which they cling does not exist, and their hope is an illusion.
Hope with a Foundation
Or Paul the Apostle, in calmer mood, in this passage from his letter to Timothy: "I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." See how assured he is, as he continues: "Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
This last passage is particularly interesting because it was written from a death cell. The Roman Emperor had turned against the Christians, and the aged Apostle was on trial for his life. There had been a first court hearing, and he was waiting for the second. He knew the outcome already as he penned the letter to young Timothy from his chilly prison. He was going to die. In spite of this gloomy prospect, he is full of hope. Unlike the trapped miner or the shipwrecked mariner, he does not grab at the slender chance that something will turn up-some vital document, or friendly witness, perhaps, to clear him of the charge. His hope transcends the certainty of his death. He is absolutely positive that even after he has died, a God in heaven will bring him back to a new and better life, at the last Day.
The Promises to Abraham
Abraham was a remarkable character who lived around 3,000 B.C. in a city called Ur which was in the land we now know as Iraq. He was visited one day by a messenger from the Lord, who told him to leave his birthplace. "Go", said the Lord, "to a land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). Because he trusted in God, Abraham sold up all his possessions and set off across the desert with his relatives. They came to the land we know as Israel. After he had briefly surveyed the country, the Lord appeared again, and said: "To your descendants I will give this land" (Genesis 1 2:7). This generous offer was particularly pleasing to Abraham and his wife Sarah, because in spite of a long and happy marriage, they had no children. It seemed the Lord was promising them a family, as well as somewhere to live. Some years passed. Abraham continued to camp out in his tent, waiting patiently for something to happen, but there was no sign of a baby on the way, and the native inhabitants of the land continued to go about their business.
One evening the messenger of the Lord appeared again. Abraham seized the opportunity to ask two important questions. "Behold", he complained gently, "thou hast given me no offspring". For answer, he was taken outside his tent and shown the sky, ablaze with stars. "Number the stars, if you are able to number them", he was told. "So shall your descendants be!" The other point troubling Abraham was the matter of the land. "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur . . . to give you this land to possess the angel reminded him. O Lord God'', he replied, "how am I to know that I shall possess it?" (Genesis 15:3-8).
A Solemn Covenant
The years flew by. In time, as Abraham grew to know God, the promises were repeated and enlarged. Two themes ran through them unchanged-the possession of the land, and the future of his descendants. It is worth tracing the development, through Genesis 1 3, 1 5, 1 7 and 22. The most impressive promise of the whole series was the last. This one began with an oath: "By myself have I sworn", said the Lord. It continued on a familiar note: "I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is upon the sea shore." It ended in mystery:
"Thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 22:17,18, A.V.).
Notice the change in person from a plural, numerous, "seed" or offspring, to an offspring or seed in the singular. Note, too, his importance. To "possess the gate" of someone is a Hebrew idiom. In ancient times, the gate was the only entrance to a fortified city. It was also the place where the rulers held court. To possess the gate of your enemies was to have complete control. Abraham's descendant was to be all conquering, and bring universal happiness. Whom did God have in mind? Abraham could only guess, and believe.
Twenty-five years after the making of the covenants, Sarah told Abraham with great excitement that she was going to have a baby. God was keeping His word. Through all that time Abraham never doubted God would give him a son. The Apostle Paul makes this comment about him in Romans: "No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised" (Romans 4:20,21). Abraham's faith was unshakeable.
No Inheritance . . . Yet
You can see now why Abraham is called "father of the faithful". God had brought him to the promised land. God had given him a son. If God said he would inherit the land, he believed he would, even though he had to die.
Four centuries after Abraham died, his family had grown into a nation. God had repeated the promise of the and to his son Isaac, and again to his grandson Jacob, so that it ran in the family. Jacob had a second name, Israel. He bore twelve sons, each of whom became the head of a tribe or clan with thousands of members. During a time of famine the family migrated to Egypt and settled there. As they multiplied, the Egyptians grew fearful of their power, and enslaved them. Moses, the great lawgiver, was sent to set them free. After a series of calamities which ruined his country, the Egyptian Pharaoh was forced to let them go, and the Israelites set off across the wilderness to their homeland. Remarkably, this very event had been predicted in one of the promises to Abraham, as you can check for yourself in Genesis 15:13-16.
God's Oath to Israel
That was a staggering statement to make. A typical generation spans something like a quarter of a century. A thousand generations would require up to twenty-five thousand years of promise-keeping! So utterly reliable is God's word. Certainly a number of God's promises came unshakeably true, as the Israelites crossed the Jordan for the hills and pastures of their Fatherland.
We pass over several hundred fairly unfruitful years to the time of Israel's monarchy. King David, well known for his authorship of the Psalms, was, like Abraham, a giant of faith. Something of his love for God and his insistence on truth and right comes out in his writings. Abraham is often referred to in Scripture as "the friend" of God. David was called by the Lord "a man after my own heart". Both epithets mark off these men as exceptional characters.
During the wilderness journey and their subsequent occupation of the land, the Israelites had worshipped God at the Tabernacle, a tent-like portable building. Now the nation was firmly established with a king and a capital at Jerusalem, David felt it would be a nice idea to build for the Lord a more permanent sanctuary of stone. When he suggested this to the prophet Nathan, he was disappointed to be told that the project must be shelved until his son came to the throne. However, said Nathan, the Lord was touched by David's concern for His honour, and in return He proposed a magnificent promise for David and his family, very like the one made with Abraham.
The Covenant with King David
So far, the promise could fit neatly David's son Solomon, who succeeded him on the throne. But God continued, "I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (v.14). Here was a poser. How could the person referred to be David's son, and yet have God for his father as well? It was very mysterious. The climax of the promise came at the end: "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever" (v. 1 6). The house of David was clearly his family or dynasty. We use the same term in history lessons when we speak of the House of York or the House of Plantagenet.
But what a promise -- to have your family line guaranteed a continuous succession to the throne, not just for a hundred years, but for ever! It was a covenant David rejoiced over for the rest of his life: "I will sing of the mercies of the Lord", he writes in Psalm 89. "I will not violate my covenant", God had insisted, "Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His line shall endure for ever, his throne as long as the sun before me" (vv. 1,34-36).
Once more, God had made a promise which, upon His honour, He could not break, and King David, like Abraham, died believing the eternal God would keep His word.
We must press on quickly now through five more centuries, pursuing the drama of what the Apostle Peter calls in the Authorised Version "God's exceeding great and precious promises" (2 Peter 1:4). It is a trail with a happy ending.
The Restoration Promises
The warnings had no effect. Eventually the ten tribes were invaded by the Assyrians and deported bodily from the land, to be followed a century and a half later by the two tribes, taken away to Babylon. It really looked like the end. As the beautiful Temple was burnt and the palace destroyed, Zedekiah, the nineteenth king to sit on David's throne, was blinded and taken captive, never to return. What of the promise to Abraham that his descendants would possess the land? And how about the covenant to David that there would always be someone to occupy his throne? Had God forgotten His promise? Or worse, was He less powerful than the heathen gods of Babylon? The people badly needed guidance.
In that very hour, when Israel's light seemed to be flickering out, astonishingly, there came the most tremendous outpouring of Promises from the lips of the Prophets. They insisted the calamities that had come were not accidental, but were the judgement of God. There could be no escape from punishment. But still, in the future, there was hope. The nation would not die out. There would be a king to reign on David's throne. And one day God would send them Messiah, a mighty deliverer, who would bring them back to the land they had left and rule over them in peace for ever.
Isaiah's Prophecy of Messiah
Isaiah lived before the end, and could see the writing on the wall. "Ah, sinful nation," he cries in his opening chapter, "a people laden with iniquity . . . they have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel. The whole head is sick and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is no soundness in it" (1:4-6). Yet entire chapters of his book are alive with praise and thankfulness at God's coming deliverance. "Shake yourself from the dust, arise, O captive Jerusalem break forth into singing you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem", he exults. He sees the people trodden down by vengeful nations, when God appears in fire and earthquake to deliver them: "For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire". For, he continues, "to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called 'Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace'. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore" (9:5-7).
He pictures in the end this Davidic king presiding over a worldwide empire where all nations live at peace, and God's laws go out from Jerusalem: "It shall come to pass in the latter days", he begins, " . . . out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples . . . nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (2:2-4). These prophecies would have seemed impossible to a Jew living at the time of the fall of Jerusalem. Yet the God who keeps His word for a thousand generations was promising them.
Jeremiah and the New Covenant
The old covenant was the one made with the nation at Sinai, which gave them the Promised Land, on conditions. This New covenant replaces the Old: "This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people". Instead of His commandments remaining on tablets of stone, they would be taken into men's hearts. The people would all know the Lord, he continued, and God would forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
If it all sounded very unlikely to Jeremiah's readers, setting off for captivity in Babylon, he could cheer them with these words: "Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger . . . I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety . . . I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul" (32:37,41). Time and again Jeremiah repeated this promise of the regathering. And if their faith was shattered at the sight of their king being taken from them, he even had a special reassurance about the throne: "I will cause a righteous Branch to spring forth for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. . . For thus says the Lord, David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel" (33:15,17).
"Justice and righteousness"-those words echo the statement we found in Isaiah one hundred and fifty years earlier. Both prophets pictured the line of David as a family tree, from which an illustrious branch would arise, a unique being who would occupy the throne for ever. Sure and firm, too, in both prophets is the Abrahamic promise of the Land, assured to the people in spite of their scattering.
Ezekiel's Vision of the Kingdom
The Israelites were held captive in Babylon for three quarters of a century. A revolution followed, in which the Babylonian empire was taken over by the Persians. In the first year of his reign the new king declared an amnesty, permitting any members of the tribe of Judah who wished to, to return to their own country. Many did, and began the heartbreaking task of rebuilding their overgrown ruined estates.
Perhaps they wondered hopefully whether the Messiah would appear to make life easier for them. They had, it was true, gone back from captivity, but life was not the same. They groaned under the taxes of their imperial masters, and as the years passed they were invaded and crushed by armies from north and south. The great majority of their brethren remained in dispersion, wandering farther away among the nations. And no king sat on David's throne.
The Coming of Jesus
At a stroke, the mystery of centuries was becoming plain. Mary's son Jesus was a unique being, the only one capable of fulfilling the covenant with David. He was descended from David, through her own family tree. He was at the same time Son of God: "I will be his father", God had said to David, and the power of God's Holy Spirit brought Jesus to birth.
Further, Jeremiah had promised, "David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of David", and the angel said Jesus would reign for ever, on that very throne. Finally, because David was descended from Abraham, Jesus stood in the line of Abraham's promise of a blessing to all nations, as well: "He will save his people from their sins", was the angel's explanation of his name (Matthew 1:21), and what greater blessing could there be than to remove the terrible burden of human sin that brings sorrow, disease and death to all men? So, quietly and without drama, the one on whom Israel and the world depended was born in a stable in the city of his ancestor David.
The people were doomed to disappointment. Jesus remained a wandering teacher and spurned political ties. His enemies, the leaders of Israel, jealous of his popularity, successfully plotted his death. After three years, in which he transformed the lives of thousands by his example and his quiet teaching, he was betrayed and executed as a criminal. The Jews remained in dispersion, ungathered. David's throne stayed empty. Even the body of Jesus disappeared. It looked as though, yet again, God had made a promise, and it had all come to nothing. For six long weeks, Jerusalem slept.
The Mystery Revealed
"What God foretold by the mouth of all his prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he hath thus fulfilled", declared Peter the fisherman. "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets" (Acts 3:18-21).
All had become clear again. Jesus was the Saviour of Israel and the nations of the world, just as the prophets had said. But he had to come twice. He had to come once to die as the sin bearer, the Deliverer from the great enemy of sin and eternal death. He had to come a second time, to save his people from their oppressors and reign over the world. He had ascended to God's right hand, but not for ever. He is there "UNTIL" the time for establishing all that God had spoken by the prophets.
With this key, the prophecies of the Messiah open up like a treasure chest. Passages where Messiah's reigning in victory seem clouded by descriptions of his death become instantly plain. Look, for example, at Isaiah chapters 52 and 53. Chapter 52 describes the joy of Jerusalem as she is delivered by Messiah from her captors.
Chapter 53 predicts in painful detail his humiliating crucifixion. Seen as the two Comings, both chapters make perfect sense.
Or Psalm 2: viewed with one pair of spectacles this passage tells of Messiah's enemies combining to put him to death. Change the focal length, and you have Messiah once more surrounded by enemies, but this time victorious, as his Father decrees: "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill" (v.6). We could go on, but you will find great pleasure in unraveling the mystery for yourself. That is exactly what the New Testament apostles called the good news -- a mystery revealed, a secret, to which they now had the key.
The Need for Christ's Second Coming
Let us read the Apostle Paul's words in Ephesians 3. "The mystery", he says, "was made known to me by revelation. It was not made known", he continued, "to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (vv. 3,5,6).
These are wonderful words. A Gentile is someone who is not a Jew. For centuries, God's word and His promises belonged to the people of God. Now, says the Apostle, the Gospel net has been thrown wider to include people from other nations. Those great promises of the Kingdom when Messiah reigns can be ours, too. "At one time," he writes, "you Gentiles in the flesh . . . were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:11-13).
Did you notice how this passage illuminates our theme, the Hope of Israel? "Having no hope" was how the Ephesian believers used to be. It is how millions are today, and how you may feel at this moment. But they had learned about the "covenants of promise" which we have been studying. They had seized the Hope enshrined in those promises. Through the blood of Christ, they had been brought near.
A Covenant Sealed with Blood
When the Messiah comes he will raise from the dead all those who have died in faith, and give them a strong, immortal body like his own. Abraham will certainly be there, and so will David, and Paul. We can be there, too.
And it is all possible through the blood of Christ, which has brought us near to God. For whether we are Jews or Gentiles, we are sinners. We break God's laws, and deserve nothing but death. Jesus' death, the offering of his sinless self in sacrifice, broke the power of the grave for all who join themselves to him. Thus the two Comings are inseparably linked. The cross precedes the crown; the suffering servant becomes the king of kings. And the same land where Abraham waited in his tent and Jesus walked with the good news of the Kingdom, is given to them both with their family around them, to enjoy for ever.
When Peter stood up in Jerusalem at Pentecost and began to explain the mystery of the two comings, he had an urgent message for the people. Let us look at his words again: "Repent therefore", he cried, "and turn again" (Acts 3:1 9). He was exhorting his hearers to prepare themselves for the coming of Jesus by changing their lives, turning round and going a different way. Earlier that day when the crowds had asked him what they should do, he said to them: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (2:38).
Heirs of the Promise
Imagine that! What a privilege, to be called sons and daughters of God! "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (vv. 27-29). All that Jesus inherits -- the land, the throne, the blessing-all will be ours. How exciting and moving it is, to think what God offers us. It is as if we are being introduced already to the new covenant God will make with His people. God's law is written on our heart, our sins are washed away, and we are enrolled for a place in that age when war and famine, sin and sorrow will be banished for ever from the earth.
Paul uses another figure in Romans 11. He says we Gentile believers are like sprigs of a wild olive tree that have been picked up by God the gardener and grafted into the stem of the olive tree of Israel. We share the rich sap that keeps the life flowing, and we will be there in the time of harvest. "I want you to understand this mystery brethren", he says, as he explains the long gap between the two Comings: "a hardening has come upon part of Israel". He means that only a minority of the Jewish people accepted the good news Jesus and the apostles brought; the hearts of the rest were too hard for the good seed of the Kingdom to grow.
But Israel's hardness of heart is not for ever. "Until the full number of the Gentiles come in", he continues, "and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written" -- and he quotes from one of the 'Messiah' passages in Isaiah -- "the Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob. And this will be my covenant with them", he adds, repeating the passage we read from Jeremiah 33, "when I take away their sins" (Romans 11:24-27).
Notice the time period-when the full number of the Gentiles has come in. It has not come in yet. God is still calling us to come into His family. But one day, soon, perhaps very soon, the door will be shut. The Lord Jesus will be here with power to rule over the nations, and bring men to judgement for despising God's laws.
Signs that God has not Forgotten
Let us finish with a lovely passage, which sums up this great Hope of Israel that we have been thinking about so long. We said it can give us comfort, direction, and courage to face all the storms of life. This is just how the Apostle puts it in the Letter to the Hebrews: "When God made a promise to Abraham . . . he swore by himself, saying, 'Surely I will bless you and multiply you'"
Sure as an Anchor
Men and women who believe in God's promises are as safe as a ship, tossed on a dark night in an angry sea, secured from all danger by the strong anchor that bites deep into the rock below. Won't you make this hope your own?
DAVID M. PEARCE
Bible quotations are from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise stated.
Reproduced with the kind permission of The Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association Ltd (UK), by whom all rights are reserved.