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Friday, December 26, 2008

Plans for January

My series on John the Baptizer has concluded.

But beginning in January this site will run a new series on Paul's letter to the Romans, one of the most important books in the entire Bible. In Romans, Paul lays out God's plan for the salvation of his lost human creatures in a lucid and systematic way. This book lies at the heart of Christian theology, and every Christian should saturate his or her thinking in its statements.

So take a couple of weeks off and enjoy the Christmas holidays, but make sure to check back here early in January!


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

John's Death and his Continuing Influence

After John had officially designated Jesus as the "one who was to come" and baptized him—at Jesus' own request—he recedes into the background in our gospel accounts. but he continued to function as a prophet of God, calling the nation to repentance, which would naturally lead them to acknowledge Jesus as the messiah.

As you know if you have read the Old Testament prophets, prophets of God were compelled to speak out against all sin and injustice, but in Israel itself especially against violations of the law of God given through Moses.

It was intolerable that an Israelite ruler should deliberately disobey a law of God given in the Torah. John was a true prophet, and had to rebuke Herod Antipas for marrying the divorced wife of his brother. The sin was not in marrying any divorced woman, but a woman who had been married to his own brother. This was forbidden by the Mosaic law ("Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife" Lev 18:16 NIV).

The Leviticus law is not intended for a situation in which no divorce has taken place, in other words adultery. Rather it is a law against a kind of incest. Since according to biblical thinking, when a man and woman are joined in marital union, they have become "one flesh." For a man to subsequently sleep with a woman who had been his brother's wife was like sleeping with his own sister.

Herod Antipas knew this, and yet he followed the promiscuous lifestyle of his pagan Roman friends and laughed at the quaint Jewish laws that were his heritage. John could not remain silent. He rebuked Herod publicly for this act and brought extreme notoriety and embarrassment to both Herod and Herodias (his brother Philip's former wife). This led to John's imprisonment (Mark 6:17 = Matt. 13:3 = Luke 3:19) and eventual death at the instigation of Herodias.

But before his death, John sent some of his disciples with a message to Jesus (Matt. 11:2-6 = Luke 7:18-23). The message showed John's fears that he had not discharged the mission for which he was born: to prepare the way of the Lord's messiah.

"Why," you may ask, "would he have any doubts?"

You have to understand that we look at what Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection with the benefit of hindsight. John didn't know this. What he expected was that the messiah would be acclaimed by the whole nation of Israel and would proceed to bring in the kingdom of God, a universal rule of righteousness and peace, with even the gentiles acknowledging the Lord's messiah.

This had not happened. Instead he saw opposition to Jesus from among his own people, and no sign of a worldwide turning to the God of Israel. It was quite understandable that he should now worry that he might have made a mistake. Under these circumstances, he did the right thing: he sent to Jesus himself and asked the direct question. "Are you in fact the messiah?"

Jesus' answer was for the messengers to tell John what they saw happening in Jesus' miracles:
"the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
These were the miracles of the messiah predicted by the ancient prophets. They spoke for themselves. But Jesus added: "blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" which—paraphrased—means "I advise you not to have false expectations, which I will not fulfill." The gospels don't tell us how John reacted to this reply, but knowing what he was made of, I believe his faith was strengthened and he died in firm faith in Jesus.

After John's messengers departed, Jesus turned to his disciples and—suspecting that they might look down on John for having any doubts at all—he praised the prophet with these words:

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. … and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11:11-15 NRSV)

The actual account of John's martyrdom is found in Mark 6:17-29 = Matt. 14:3-12.

But that is by no means the end of the story. John's influence lived on. Sometime towards the end of the Apostle Paul's second Missionary journey, while he was founding the church in the Greek city of Corinth, there came to the city of Ephesus in western Asia Minor an eloquent and learned man from Alexandria in Egypt. His name was Apollos. He had been baptized as a disciple of John the Baptist. Luke tells us in Acts 18:25-26 "He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue."

Apparently, Apollos knew of Jesus through John's teaching and was eager to persuade fellow Jews that Jesus was the messiah. Two friends of Paul's, a couple named Prisca and Aquila, decided to help this man in his efforts. So they took him under their wing and tuaght him more about Jesus and about the gospel. As a result, he shortly thereafter sailed westward to Greece and continued Paul's ministry in the Corinthian church.
“When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:27-28 NIV)
Faithful John did not live to see the resurrection of his Lord. But he paid the price of martyrdom for his bold faith, and long after his death his life continued to bear fruit in people like Apollos.

It should be our prayer that God in his mercy will allow us to plant seeds of faith in our children and friends and acquaintances that will bear fruit even after we may be gone.

[This is the end of my short series on John the Baptizer leading up to Christmas and New Years. In January this blog will begin a new series on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. I hope you will continue as a follower of these postings. Merry Christmas and a Happy 2009!]

Monday, December 22, 2008

John's Public Ministry and Message of Repentance

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’” … The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them. But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.” (Luke 3:1-20 NIV)

Luke treats this section, dealing with John's public ministry, differently from the other gospel writers. For one thing, as he does elsewhere, he puts most of the historical, chronological and background material at the beginning instead of letting it emerge in the course of his narrative. While Mark presents John as first preaching a message demanding repentance, and which identifies himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness; and only then describes John’s appearance in terms to remind us of Elijah: camel's hair garment and leather belt (Mark 1:6; Matt. 3:4-6), Luke doesn’t actually quote John’s call to repentance, but includes Mark’s words that he was “preaching a baptism of repentance”. Luke omits the description of John’s Elijah-like dress and diet, perhaps because he thought it would not communicate to his target audience, which had more Gentiles in it than Mark's or Matthew's.

And, although the gospel writers will later return to the Elijah comparison and include our Lord’s own comment about it, perhaps we should pause here to reflect on a few of the ways in which John’s ministry situation resembled that of Elijah. For it was not just that John looked like Elijah, or even that he lived in the wilderness like Elijah did, but that they both faced similar spiritual crises, similar kings, and demanded similar responses among the people.

Elijah faced a people of God who had been seduced into worshiping Baal, the storm-god and fertility-god of the Phoenicians. John was confronted with a people who had been seduced into the worship of twin idols:
  • the idol of seeking a political independence through a violent overthrow of the Roman government without any spiritual foundation of repentance and listening to God, and
  • the idol of selfish and materialistic collaboration with the Romans on the part of the high priests, Herod Antipas, and the tax farmers.
Both extremes led down the same road to idolatry: seeking happiness apart from obedience to the living God.

The parallel extends to the two kings Elijah and John faced as opponents. Elijah faced wicked but powerful king Ahab and his Phoenician wife-queen Jezebel, who together fostered Baal worship in Israel. Since it was thought that Baal could bring rain and crops and wealth through agriculture, his worship was popular in Israel, until the LORD through Elijah announced a lengthy drought, which meant crop failures and poverty. John faced Herod Antipas, an apparently successful young monarch, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was “in” with the Romans and had a Jezebel-like wife, Herodias, who used his lusts for her daughter Salome to lure him ever deeper into opposing God’s prophet John. Both Elijah’s and John’s lives were threatened by their royal opponents, but although God spared Elijah’s life during this crisis, he did not spare John’s.

Now let us return to the gospel passages describing John's ministry. All four gospels connect the words of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3 to John:
1 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling:
"In the desert prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
Luke quotes more of the Isaiah passage than Mark or Matthew, including verse 4: “every valley shall be filled up and every mountain made low”, which resonates with Mary’s Magnificat themes (Luke 1:52), and the final verse 5: “and all flesh/mankind shall see the salvation of God”, which recalls Simeon’s Nunc dimittis words “for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32).

All the gospel writers alike inform us that John called for a repentance that showed itself in a clear improvement in the simple and everyday aspects of life, not just in worship practices (such as Elijah’s attack on Israel's worship of the pagan god Baal). Luke even records his answers to specific sectors of society, including tax-farmers (the so-called 'publicans', who enriched themselves through a collaboration with Rome) and soldiers (perhaps even Roman soldiers). The instructions he gave to each were not as demanding as those Jesus would proclaim in his Sermon on the Mount, but they were appropriate as signs of the genuineness of their repentance.

In Luke 3:16-18 John's message to the people is described this way:
John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
Although John’s message was in many ways harsh and threatening, stressing God's judgment on sin, Luke characterizes it as “good news” (Luke 3:18), that is, “gospel”!

All gospel writers also agree that John was asked if he were the Messiah, and that he denied it, but made a statement about one coming after him, the latchet of whose shoes he was unworthy even to loosen, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This "One" was Jesus, whom John described as "the Lamb of God who takes upon himself the sins of the world".

John’s message reminds us today that
  • through Jesus, the kingdom of God has truly become a present reality (“at hand”) in our lives and requires from each of us a decision of what to do with this Savior and King. It asks of those who accept Him, a constant repentance and cleaning up of even the simplest and most routine areas of our behavior.
  • that it is “good news” even when God must take uncomfortable action to “clear the threshing floor” of our lives of the trash that so easily accumulates, and to burn up this "chaff" in order for the Savior to live in us and to bless others' lives through us.
May he do that in my life and yours, so that we may with clean and happy hearts worship Him this Christmas!

Merry Christmas to you!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Birth of John the Baptizer

“When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.” (Luke 1:57-66 NIV)
 Mary remains in the background in this part of the narrative, but Luke has let us know in the preceding episode that she remained with her cousin for the last three months of Elizabeth's pregnancy, which means she was present at the birth. How excited she must have been to see God fulfilling his promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth, although since Zechariah was still mute, he may not have been able to communicate in writing everything that the angel had said to him about John's role of preparing the way for the messiah. Apparently (v. 60) he had been able to communicate to Elizabeth that the angel had ordered them to name the boy John (Yohanan).

The later Church followed the example of this passage to associate giving of the Christian name (i.e., the "first name") to infants at the time of baptism. There is nothing in the Old Testament mentions of circumcision to indicate that the baby's name was officially declared at that time, but apparently by Second Temple times the custom was established in Jewish circles. Luke brings all of this up—although otherwise it might seem a trivial detail—because it indicates Zechariah's obedience to the vision and faith in God's promise, and causes the return of his speech (v. 64). One is reminded of St. Paul's words in 2 Corinthians:
“But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak,” (2Corinthians 4:13 NRSV)
If we really believe what God tells us in his Word, God will open our mute mouths and help us to speak of it freely and naturally to others.

That Zechariah had been mute for nine months and then suddenly regains speech precisely when he confirmed the naming of his son was clearly a miracle and spread fear among the neighbors (v. 65) and the feeling that truly great things were in store for this child (v. 66). The "hand of the Lord" means miraculous things. If the boy's life began with miracles, it was assumed that it would always be accompanied by them. In fact, that was not the case. But what did accompany John as he grew up and during his brief adult life and ministry was to be filled with God's Holy Spirit, and what always accompanies that: moral clarity and outspoken criticism of all forms of disobedience to God's law. Such courageous attacks on sinful behavior is what led to his martyrdom at the hands of King Herod Antipas and his wife.
“His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” (Luke 1:67-75 NIV)
We now come to another in the series of prophecies (called "canticles" = "little songs", because the Church has thought of them as sung) pronounced by the main figures in the birth narrative. In all cases the ones prophesying are said to be "filled with the Holy Spirit" (v. 67). The Church liturgical versions are named for the first word in each in the Latin version. This one begins "Blessed (be the Lord)" and is accordingly called the Benedictus.

Although Luke throughout his gospel and the Book of Acts stresses the Lord's intention to incorporate gentiles in the people of God, and this gospel in its final form was written after it had become clear that most Jews were not going to accept Jesus as the messiah, yet here he faithful preserves the accurate form in which Zechariah blessed God: as "the Lord (Adonai), the God of Israel" v. 68). The mighty Savior whom God raised up was for "us" (i.e., the Jews, since Zechariah was a Jew, v. 69). And, although the goal of the Savior's deliverance of Israel is that they might "serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness," the fear that is to be dispelled is fear of pagan Romans, and the Savior will save them "from their enemies and … all who hate us (Jews)" (v. 71).

So although in retrospect readers of the gospel know that Jesus did not present himself as a political or military Savior, the Holy Spirit speaking through Zechariah (v. 67) presented him just that way.

All of this was as a fulfillment of God's promises made long ago to Abraham and by the prophets (v. 70, 73). We do not usually think of God's promise to Abraham of a "seed" as having anything to do with repulsing Israel's enemies, but there is at least one such promise which the Holy Spirit caused Zechariah to recall:
“I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies,” (Genesis 22:17 NRSV).

The last four verses of the Benedictus are spoken directly to the newborn Yohanan:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:76-80 NIV).
Gabriel had not given these specifics about the boy to be born, but the Holy Spirit now gave them to Zechariah. His son would be the Prophet of the Most High God (Hebrew navī El Elyōn). Here Luke quotes Zechariah as using "the Lord" (Greek kurios, Hebrew Adonai) for the messiah himself, whose forerunner Yohanan the prophet would be. By using the word "Lord" the deity of the messiah is hinted at.

As prophet, Yohanan would prepare the messiah's "ways" by calling the nation to repentance, and in identifying the messiah when he appeared, "to give knowledge of salvation to his (i.e., the messiah's) people by the forgiveness of their sins." There is some ambiguity here in the term "his people." It could refer to the entire Jewish people as God's elect covenant people, in which case the "knowledge of salvation" would only become effective if they believed. Or it might refer to the messiah's people as that smaller group of Jews who followed Jesus as his disciples, the first members of which came from "referrals" Yohanan gave from his own band of disciples. In that case the "knowledge of salvation" is seen as effective, because this group did believe.

The messiah—never called by that title explicitly here!—is portrayed here as like the dawn (NRSV; or the rising sun NIV) that gives light to those would were before in deep darkness, the very "shadow of death." All these things indeed were accomplished, just as the Holy Spirit allowed Zechariah to foresee.

Interestingly, Yohanan himself did not use these specific metaphors (deliverance from enemies, peace in which to serve God without fear, the tender mercy of God, the dawn or rising sun) in his description of the one whose coming he announced. Instead he used the powerful images of judgment: one who will burn up the chaff of sinners in supernatural flames. His was a message of warning, a call to repentance with no promise of deliverance from Rome.  But Zechariah's description nevertheless fits Jesus and what he brought to all who believed in him.

The final verse (v. 80) succinctly describes Yohanan's childhood and adolescence. It is instructive to compare and contrast it with the similar verse Luke later uses to describe this period in Jesus' life:
John:  “And the child grew and became strong  in spirit,  and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” (Luke 1:80 ESVp)    
Jesus:  “And the child grew and became strong,
filled with wisdom.
And the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40 ESVp)
Both "became strong;" being filled with "spirit" is similar to being filled with "wisdom." But the last line differentiates the two men. John grew up in the wilderness, apart from normal social contacts, while Jesus showed the "favor of God" in his interactions with those in his village and the countryside. this difference underscores what was perceived by Jesus' enemies later in his life. John was an ascetic, while Jesus was at home in banquets and entertaining others with his fascinating stories and parables. Each served God in the way that was intended, but they made quite a pair of opposites just in terms of appearance and mannerisms.

This will always be true of God's people. You will not be a carbon copy of any other believer. Nor will I. But hopefully we will all strive to live lives of obedience to God's word and love for others.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Immanuel "God With Us" - Part 8 - Eschatology

God's Redemptive Plan: a Pattern

Today's study is not on the general theme of eschatology. There is far too much involved in that subject to fit into a one-session study. And the subject—while vital—has many controversial aspects. Furthermore, much of such a general study would be irrelevant to our theme: "Immanuel: 'God with Us' in the Old and New Testaments." Instead, we will focus on a few central aspects.

I see a pattern in God's plan for human history that involves Eden, then the loss of Eden, and finally the restoration of a better Eden. This idea is actually a very old one, even antedating the New Testament. It is suggested in many passages of the prophets, but I would like to suggest another unlikely place.

Example of Job

I like to think that God's overall plan for the redemption of believers is shown in microcosm in his story of Job. Job was once very rich and happy, with possessions, servants and family. Then God allowed Satan to take away everything, leaving Job with no possessions, no servants, no friends, and a decimated family. At his lowest point even Job's wife gave up hope and told him to "curse God and die"! But although tested by ultimate adversity in his life and seeing others around him losing faith in God and urging him to curse him, through his unwavering faith in God, Job received in the end not just a restoring of his earlier fortunes, but much more. Notice that Job's vindication and consolation was not in Heaven, but right where his humiliation occurred. Ours will not be "pie in the sky" - but "pie on the new earth", right where the problem now exists!

Tracing the History

I believe this can be a key to understanding God's overall plan for the redemption of his creation. Whatever was lost in the fall of Adam and the stumbling of the first Israel by failing to accept their Messiah at his first advent will be reclaimed. The first Adam's fall had consequences for all humans descended from him. The stumbling of Israel also had sad consequences for most Jews descended from them. But instead of abandoning, destroying, or replacing Adam's descendants with a different race, God redeemed those among his kind who believed. So also instead of abandoning, destroying, or replacing Israel, he began his reclamation by redeeming the first wave—Jewish believers such as Peter, John, James, Stephen, Philip and Paul—all but one of the authors of the New Testament were Jews. That first wave was huge: a significant component of the church in the first century was ethnically Jewish. Yet in comparison to the total number of Jews at that time it was small. That Jewish component of the church has continued through history: persons descended from Jewish ancestors who believe in the Messiah. And later this morning we will see how that will culminate.


The New Testament writers used many of the conventional terms of contemporary Judaism to describe the course of history under God's sovereign control. One of these conventional oppositions was "this (or: the present) age" (Hebrew hā-ôlam hā-zeh) and "the age to come" (hā-ôlam hā-bāʾ). With this pair, ancient Jews saw history divided into two eras: the present one under the control of evil forces, and the future one under the absolute and complete control of God. You have heard how the earliest Christians thought of their present condition as living in "the last days", even though they acknowledged that the real and full sense of "last days" would be realized only at the second coming of Jesus. As a result, the earliest Christians held in tension two equally correct terms for their present age: (1) as the first phase of the "last days," when the powers of the age to come might be experienced in Christian living, and (2) as "the present evil age". Paul in Galatians 1:4 resolved the tension by saying that Jesus by dying on the cross "set us free from the present evil age."

The two ages run contemporaneously. Outside of the circle of believers, in "the present evil age," evil increases and hatred of God and his Word grows, while within the life of true believers, in the initial phase of "the last days," holiness and righteousness increase, and love for God and his Word grow. The second process allows for a witness to Immanuel "God in us" no matter how intense and vicious evil grows on the outside.

The Antichrist

This brings us to what could be called "The Dark Side" of eschatology: the culmination of the "present evil age." The Bible teaches clearly that in the end of history a person will arise who is the Devil's best imitation of Jesus, but with opposite goals from Jesus. He is called in Greek Antichrist, which (contrary to popular belief) doesn't mean "against Christ", but "substitute for Christ." Greek anti means "instead of." The Antichrist will come impersonating Jesus, or in the name of Jesus, deceiving the world and almost deceiving the very elect of God.

The Beast and the False Prophet

In his Apocalypse, John has a central role for two figures called "the Beast" and "the False Prophet" (ch. 13). These two figures seem to correspond functionally to the one Paul called "the man of lawlessness" (2 Thess. 2:1-4) and "the Antichrist". His activity takes place in the phase that precedes the appearance of Christ in Revelation 19 as the "Word of God" (v. 13), and "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (v. 16), who destroys the Beast and the False Prophet (Revelation 19:20-21). Only after they are defeated and destroyed can the earthly kingdom of God ruled over by the one called "the Word of God" and "King of Kings" begin (ch. 20).

The Course of Evil and the Antichrist

Paul develops teaching on the Antichrist rather fully in 2 Thessalonians 2, which you should turn to now. This is a lot of material, and each verse needs careful interpretation. So we will not be able to do it justice today.

Verses 1 and 2 give the reason for Paul's teaching. A false rumor had spread in Thessalonica to the effect that the "Day of the Lord," when Jesus would return, judge the evil powers in the world, and gather his saints to himself, had already come. It is difficult to see how people seeing Roman power all around them could think this had happened, but who knows how cleverly the facts were "interpreted away."

Paul's reply to their claim is that this is impossible, since something very easily recognized would need to happen first: the apostasy and the revealing of the "man of lawlessness" (v. 3). The latter is the Antichrist.

Verse 4 describes what his agenda will be: he presents himself as God, demands worship and forbids worship of any other. Unlike some modern interpreters, Paul doesn't identify the Antichrist with the Roman emperor in power at that time.

In v. 6 Paul explains that something restrains the appearance of the Antichrist until the time God has appointed. Scholars disagree as to what this restraining force is. But it is clear from v. 7 that God controls it and will remove it when his time is right.

The characterization "man of lawlessness" (Greek anthrōpos tou anomias) doesn't mean the Antichrist will impose chaos on society. He is called "lawless" because he will reject God's law. As a world ruler he will have very strict laws, just as the Persian king Darius for a brief time outlawed prayer and threatened Daniel and his friends with death for praying (Daniel 6).

Verses 9-12 tell us that he will have enormous popular appeal among the masses, for God will allow them—since they have rejected his Truth in the scriptures and in Jesus—to believe anything this man wishes them to believe.

Our purpose today is to explore how God's plan for the end of this age and the final state will continue the theme of Immanuel "God with Us". In this light, the warning that there will arise in the last days a "man of lawlessness" who will be a substitute Christ, shows that Satan will use a perversion of God's own Immanuel theme as one last attempt to bring eternal misery where God intends eternal joy.

Just what form that perversion will take is left unstated. Perhaps the biblical teaching that God became human in Jesus to redeem us all will be perverted into something like the popular belief among New Age adherents today that all humans should simply realize their own divinity. In any event, the Antichrist will present himself as Immanuel "God with Us." But he is a false god, who will be gladly welcomed by a false world. And his destiny is to be destroyed by Christ (v. 8) at his second coming: "The Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth," the text says. One thinks of a kind of reversal of Cod's creative command in Genesis 1 "let there be …" into "let there not be …"


The Rapture and the Coming to Earth

If "track two," the present evil age, will culminate in the Antichrist and his destruction  by Jesus at his coming to earth, "track one," the "last days" phase of the Kingdom of God (in the Church) will end in coming of Jesus for his saints.

The coming of Jesus for his saints is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. In this coming, the Lord Jesus appears in the sky, and living believers are caught up "to meet the Lord in the air," and "then" (v. 17, Greek houtōs, which is temporal, just like in Romans 11:26) says Paul "we shall ever be with the Lord."

The coming with his saints is described in Revelation 19 and in the Olivet Discourse of Jesus— which involves the destruction of the evil world system and the Antichrist and the establishing of his physical rule over the earth.

What is important for our course theme about both of these comings, is that Jesus promised not to leave us "orphans"—"I will come to you" he said. And in John 14:1-3 he promised "Let not your hearts be troubled: I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go … I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, you may be also". That is definitely our Immanuel theme.


The Old Testament Prophets

The prophets of the 8th through the 6th centuries B.C.—Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah—all predicted a glorious culmination and fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and to David, a worldwide kingdom of peace and justice, including humans and animal life. This harmony within the various parts of creation, and their restored harmony with God who created them, is expressed in terms of the first Eden.

Clearly implied is a reversal of the effects of the curses God imposed upon humans and the earth following Adam and Eve's sin. Those curses affected more than just human beings. Humans dragged the rest of creation into what Paul in Romans chapter 8 calls "futility," meaning that the earth with all its creatures no longer functions in the way God originally made it and cannot now achieve the goals for which God created it. Those goals are a perfect life for all creatures, peace between prey and predator, as Isaiah expressed it in Isaiah 11:6-9:
"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea,"
a beautiful picture of harmony, peace, and full knowledge of God. The restoration of Eden, but on an even grander scale, will take place with the Second Adam, the victorious Redeemer Christ present to rule over the creation in person.

Romans 8 and the Renewal of Creation

The crucial passage on the renewal of the earth is Romans 8:19-23.  First, in v. 20 Paul states what is evident already in Genesis 3, that the entire creation (not just humans) was "subjected to futility." Genesis 3 tells us that, while Eve and Adam by their disobedience were the proximal causes of the disaster, it was actually God himself who pronounced the curses on Satan (in the serpent), on humans (Eve in childbirth, Adam in toil), and on the ground (representing the rest of creation). God subjected everything to futility, to the inability of what he had created as "good" to any longer completely fulfill the purposes for which it was created.

Hence, the creation—now unable to fulfill what it was made for—"groans and suffers the pains of childbirth" together with fallen humans until this day (Romans 8:22). In part, this futility is expressed by the warring of the various living species, animal and human. When Genesis 3:15 is seen on the surface instead of in its ultimate allusion to the warring of Satan against God, it portrays this very conflict between animals (namely snakes) and humans. And this typifies the broader picture of killing among the animal species.

Ever since the Fall, there has been a remnant—a minority of the human race—that has believed God and obeyed him in faith. With the advent of Christ, his death and resurrection, that minority people of God has experienced the New Birth, and has become already a New Creation. But that new creation is merely the "firstfruits" (Rom. 8:23), the down payment of the completion of that new creation that awaits both us and all creation at the return of Christ. If it were already complete in us now, there would be no talk of our "groaning within ourselves" and "waiting eagerly for … the redemption of our bodies" (v. 23). By "the redemption of our bodies" Paul means the bodily resurrection that was predicted in the Old Testament, is pre-figured in Jesus' own bodily resurrection, and is discussed in detail by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Significantly, it is called the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23). Redemption is the act of "buying back," or restoring to a previous owner. There is an unmistakable element of recovering what once was. Yet other scriptures make it clear that the new bodies will be glorified (1 Corinthians 15). We will not just get back what we have now, bodies which are fallen and mortal. In v. 21 Paul states it clearly and concisely: "the creation itself will also be set free from bondage to corruption/decay, into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God."  And although Jesus possesses a body in heaven today, the souls of believers there now do not. For glorified bodies are intended to life on a new earth, which still awaits us.

The Future of Israel

In the end God will not leave any loose ends in his redemptive program. Every wrong will be righted, every promise kept. In three crucial chapters in the middle of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul explains God's plan to keep his promises to Israel in spite of the unbelief of the majority of Jews at the time of Paul's writing. Paul explains this in order to show that God is faithful to what he promised to Israel in the Old Testament, and it was important to Paul personally because of his enormous love and compassion for his own people, as expressed in his willingness to be "cursed from Christ," if that might allow them to be accepted (Romans 9:1-5; 10:1). The influential British evangelical theologian N. T. Wright, in his commentary on Romans, dismissed Paul's words as window dressing and a mere formal gesture. But anyone who knew Paul would never take his words in any but the most serious way possible.

According to Paul, God still had a remnant of his ancient people in a large part of the believers in Jesus in Paul's day. But he also intends to bring to a glorious completion the process of winning Jews to their Messiah. As Paul wrote in Romans 11:11-12,
"So I ask, have they [i.e., the majority of Jews in Paul's day] stumbled so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!”
God gave Paul a vision of a future national repentance and salvation of Israel, probably based on passages in the prophets such as Zechariah 12:10-14. And this is what he means by "their full inclusion" in verse 12. The argument is that Israel's rejection of the Messiah brought a greater focus upon the Gentiles, bringing them the "riches" of God's salvation.

But now Paul surprises his Gentile audience in Rome, by promising that the future full inclusion of God's old people in the Messianic community will bring even greater riches than these! He also puts it another way in v. 15: "For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?" Here he draws on Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones of Israel reconstructed and given life again (Ezekiel 37).

There is no way of telling how Paul himself thought this would happen, or when it would happen. Like the Old Testament prophets, he spoke an inspired prophecy, the details of which were not disclosed to him as the messenger. But the meaning is quite clear. God has not abandoned the people whom he originally chose, nor redefined his promises to them. His Old Testament promises were not some shell game—"now you see it, now you don't"—that allowed him to mislead his Old Testament people and then surprise them in the end. Could we trust such a God not to change the meaning of promises made by Jesus or Paul to you and me?

Are we saying that God has two chosen peoples? Certainly not. Paul himself makes that clear in his image of the olive tree (Romans 11:17-24). The root and trunk of the olive tree is Abraham, the genetic father of Israel. The natural branches of the tree represent Israel. God looked for fruit (i.e., righteousness by faith) from those olive branches. In Old Testament times there was much fruit—in Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, and Daniel. But when no fruit appeared in the accepting of the Messiah, God had to do a drastic pruning of the tree. "Some" of the branches (v. 17) were lopped off, and to compensate, new branches from a wild olive tree (Gentiles) were grafted in.

Is there a second olive tree? No, it is the same olive tree, whose roots are Abraham and his faith. The Church, consisting of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus the Messiah, shares the faith of Abraham and forms a single tree. The Church is not a replacement for Israel, but shares the root (Abraham and his faith) with the remaining branches of believing Israel. The tree is still the same, and there are branches in it that are natural branches, not grafts. Paul reminds his Gentile hearers that as branches they do not support the root (i.e., the tree trunk), but the root supports them (v. 18)! That root is Abrahamic faith.

And then Paul adds the master stroke: there is a possibility that God will remove Gentile branches and re-graft in natural ones! He doesn't say that God will plant a new tree to replace the one with Gentile branches: he says that some in-grafted branches will be removed and natural ones put in their place. In other words, the tree will always be the same, but God will eventually re-incorporate Israel.

How this will happen he describes in vv. 25-33.
Rom. 11:25-31  I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, [my Gentile] brothers, 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 then 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.” 28  As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. 30 Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.
If you were following in your favorite English translation, you probably noticed that I omitted the word "now" in the second half of v. 31 ("that they too may now receive mercy"). That is because that word is not in the earliest manuscripts of Romans, and is probably a mistaken addition by a scribe. That verse therefore promises mercy on Israel in the future, not "now."
The only hint Paul's words give as to the time of this event is the words "until the full number of Gentiles has come in" (v. 25). So long as the world mission to Gentiles continues and Gentiles are being saved, the "hardening" of the larger part of Israel continues also. "Hardening" in Paul's language means unwillingness to repent and believe (this term is used of the Egyptian pharaoh whom God "hardened" (made stubbornly resistant) so that he would not let the Israelite slaves go free). With the hardening also went a blindness imposed by God according to the prophecy in Isaiah 6 (Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:15; John 12:40).

The qualification "in part" acknowledges that, even though the larger part of Israel is presently refusing to believe, a smaller part (Paul's term is "a remnant") of the Jewish people are not experiencing that blindness and hardening, but are repenting and believing in their Messiah. The word "until" implies that the hardening—even hardening of only a part of Israel—will someday cease. In v. 26 Paul uses the Greek adverb houtōs, which usually is translated "so"—"and so all Israel will be saved.". One could take it this way, and it would fit our interpretation: "It is in this way—by a temporary and partial hardening to permit the inclusion of the Gentiles, followed by a lifting of the hardening at the end—that all Israel (not just the partial group that today is not hardened, the whole tree with all its branches—will be saved." But scholars have pointed out that in at least three other places in the Greek New Testament houtōs must be translated "then" or "next," and this fits much better: "and then—after the full number of Gentiles are saved—all Israel will be saved."

This conversion of "all Israel" is how Paul understands Isaiah 59:20, which uses the term "Deliverer/Redeemer" to refer to God, but which the Talmud already understood to refer to the Messiah. Jesus the Messiah would "come from Zion" and "remove ungodliness from Israel." Israel in the end time will be the prodigal son returning to his father.  In the last few days before the Crucifixion, Jesus looked upon Jerusalem and uttered these painful words:
““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’’”” (Matthew 23:37-39 NIV)
He was not teasing Jerusalem with these words—he meant every word. A future generation of the people of Jerusalem would see him again when they corporately said "blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," the same words that the crowds used to welcome him into Jerusalem, and the very words of Psalm 118, which I believe are to be the libretto of end-time Israel's contrite plea for forgiveness and statement of faith.

The New Jerusalem
In chapters 21 and 22 John uses an image for the eternal dwelling place of the redeemed that is not used by any other New Testament writer. He calls it "the New Jerusalem" (21:2). It descends from the New Heaven upon the New Earth, as a "holy city" made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.

In Revelation 21:3 we have the culmination of all the Immanuel themes in the Bible: "“Now the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God." The original Tabernacle, which was a tent, was designed to move about always with the moving people of God. In his gospel, John used a verb based on this noun to describe how God the Son "tabernacled with us" during his earthly life. This has suggested to some that the Greek word denotes a temporary location. But John uses it here for God's permanent dwelling, his "home." God is with us forever — forever Immanuel.

What results from this permanent and perfected Immanuel? Verse 4 gives samples of the changes in the condition of redeemed humanity, and everything is portrayed in terms of Eden and the reversal of the curses resulting from the Fall: no more tears, mourning, crying, pain or death. These conditions, which sin brought into existence, are part of what John calls "the first/former things" which at this point have "passed away." The completion of the long series of Immanuels in Old Testament and New Testament has now been reached. Verse 6 tells us: "It is done: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end."

In the rest of Revelation chapter 21 and the first verses of chapter 22 John describes the New Jerusalem in symbolic terms, symbolic not because anything is impossible with God but because it is clear that John has to find a way through impossible language to convey realities that transcend language.

But with Revelation 22:3 he reaches a summary statement of the eternal state of the redeemed which is significant. The curse referred to his the curse on humanity and on the entire creation that resulted from the first sin. That curse is gone, and with its disappearance there appears the ultimate good: God himself will dwell among his redeemed creatures, and we shall serve him. With the words "serve him" a whole universe of possibilities are contained: worship, fellowship, care for one another and for the rest of the new creation. Singing praises may be the mental modality of the redeemed through all ages, but it need not exclude other activities in God's service. In verse 5 the redeemed will "reign forever and ever." Elsewhere in the New Testament believers are promised to reign with Christ (2 Tim. 2:12). How is this conceived?

Frist, if we keep in mind that Adam and Eve were intended to rule over the animals and fish and birds (Gen. 1:26, 28), it is possible that in part this is what is meant. Tame birds and animals will respond to redeemed humans. But there are other possibilities.  Jesus promised the Twelve that they would judge the 12 tribes (Matt. 19:28).
Matt. 19:28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
What the ESV translates here as "the new world", which the NIV and NRSV render as "the renewal of all things," is the Greek word palingenesia παλιγγενεσίᾳ which means literally "rebirth" or "regeneration." This refers to the New Heavens and New Earth spoken of by John in Rev. 21-22. and if the Twelve have such roles, there will be similar tasks for others of the redeemed.  It is clear that a rich array of activities await us in the eternal kingdom of Christ.


Jesus always accompanied his predictions of his own return to earth to judge and reign with warnings to his disciples to "watch." But the parables of the talents and other similar parables show that what is entailed in being "watchful" is holy living and productive service, investing our every hour and our every dollar in activities that extend the gospel and promote righteousness in the earth. Peter describes our obligation now in anticipation of the destruction of the world we now know and its transformation into a new earth in these words:
“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. … in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” (2Peter 3:11-14 NIV)
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews expresses our duty as we "see the Day drawing near" this way:
Heb 10:23-25 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.  24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
It is not ours to "bring in the kingdom" with our own efforts as the Church. But neither is it our right to cease from the work of the Kingdom, described by Peter as making "every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him" and in Hebrews as "love and good works."
Our "hope" that we confess and hold fast to is not the creation of a totally righteous world by our own efforts. As we have seen, the Bible portrays a world government at the time of Jesus' return that is the very opposite of holiness. No, our task is the infiltration of the enemy's camp and the liberating of Satan's subjects.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2Corinthians 10:3-5 NIV)
The "strongholds" Paul envisages, are his counterparts to the walls of Jericho. And like the spies who infiltrated Jericho and saved Rahab and her family, we infiltrate the Jerichos of our world, bringing the news of the coming overthrow of its citadels, and rescuing those who will believe. Then we walk around the strongholds, trumpeting God's truth and warning of God's judgment, until in God's time he (not we) brings down the walls.

The extent of our social involvement is described by our Lord's words "you are the salt of the earth" (Matt. 5:13) and "you are the light of the world" (Matt. 5:14).

Salt only deters corruption, it does not prevent it altogether. Furthermore, believers are to "salt" their verbal witness to non-believers, as Paul says in Colossians:
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6 NIV)
As for the figure of light, the blaze of sunlight at dawn disperses all darkness, but the individual lights in the night of this dark age only disperse the darkness in their immediate vicinity. When Jesus returns, he will be the Sun of righteousness rising (Malachi 4:2), and the whole world will be ablaze with the light of that great Sunrise. Meanwhile, as Luke puts it, the sunrise has arisen in our hearts (Lk 1:78), and we can share that on an individual basis with individuals we meet and know who are in darkness. This is our mission, and it is a joyous and exhilarating one. Let us be about it.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Immanuel "God with Us"- Part 7 - Worldwide Mission

For the past six weeks we have been exploring the scriptural concept expressed in the name from Isaiah 7:14 applied to Jesus by the angel Gabriel in his announcement: Immanuel, which means "God with us." As we have seen, the concept expressed here runs from Genesis 1 to the end of the New Testament, and in the process—like in a grand fugue—every possible variation on the themes "with" and "us" is explored.  As I explained a few weeks back, "with" (in both Hebrew and English) can express the idea of physical closeness—always a privilege of Old Testament Israel who unlike the other nations boasted a God "so near" (Deut. 4:7 "For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?"), and reaching a climax in the incarnation of God in a Jewish baby boy—and (equally important) the idea of alignment and solidarity: God is with us not our enemies; he is on our side.

Equally fascinating is the way that the Divine Composer develops the several senses of the pronoun "us". In all human languages the personal pronouns derive their meaning from their implied oppositions. The Jewish existentialist philosopher Martin Buber exploited this function in the title of his famous book I and Thou (German Ich und Du).

In the case of "we" or "us" we have to reckon with what is called the inclusive "we" and the exclusive. If I say "tomorrow we will go to the Arboretum," does that include you or only my family? Only context decides. Is God with us but not you, or is he with you and me but not with them, however the "them" is conceived? Or is he with all persons not himself—the most inclusive of all "us"-es?

We saw that God was with all humans potentially in the Garden of Eden, when he created the first humans and fellowshiped with them daily (Genesis 3:8-10), instructing them in the tasks of world-management. We saw that he was with "us" as Abraham's seed in the events of the Old Testament, focusing principally on Moses and David. There the "us" was Israel and through Israel to the nations. We saw in three weeks devoted to the gospels, the letters of Paul, and the general Epistles, that he is with an "us" that began as the "lost sheep of the people of Israel" and morphed into the Jews and Gentiles who accepted his claims and his salvation, becoming the Church of Jesus the Christ.

This week we shall see that a redeemed people of God has a mission like Israel of old to the nations, and that in this ever-expanding mission God is with an "us" that is worldwide, both (1) in the sense that he is present in believers who incarnate Jesus by his Holy Spirit and (2) in the sense of being "on our side" through the gracious offer of the love of God in the gospel.

Creation and Noah

Although as Evangelical Christians we tend to think of worldwide evangelism as something first intended by God after Jesus' resurrection and first really implemented by the Church in the early 19th century with the birth of Protestant missionary societies in Britain, the fact of the matter is that the saving of worldwide humanity from the effects of the Fall of Adam begins already in Genesis.

The chapters of Genesis immediately following the story of the first sin focus on the gradual spread of sin and its corruptive influence: from Cain down to the Universal Flood (Genesis 4-8). The Genesis text itself doesn't describe any witnessing by the earliest patriarchs, although intertestamental literature, reflected in some New Testament statements about Enoch (Jude 14) and Noah suggest that they were "proclaimers of righteousness" (Noah is called that in 2 Peter 2:5). The first indication that God is concerned to save and bless the nations appears in the covenant with Abraham.


Although Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, and in the New Testament times is frequently referred to by Jews as "our Father Abraham" (Lk 1:73; Jn 8:53; Acts 7:2), he is also claimed by St. Paul and other New Testament writers as "the father of all believers," regardless of ethnicity (Rom. 4:12). In fact, on a wide variety of criteria Abraham is claimed as ancestor and prototype by many groups.

But Jews in both ancient times and modern ones realize that by his birth in pagan Mesopotamia, Abraham was in fact a "gentile" long before he became the first Jew. And in the story-line of Genesis, Abraham is just one in a long line of faithful and believing humans beginning with Adam and passing through Enoch and Noah and Noah's son Shem.

With the progress of the story-line of Genesis we see a progressive narrowing of the circle of faithful men, with each stage in the genealogy redefining that circle until it settles on Jacob and his sons. Only then does the narrowing stop. All twelve tribes continue to be God's chosen people.

But although the narrowing was necessary for the selection of a people to be the keepers and exemplifiers of God's revelation, the widest possible goal was never forgotten, and shows itself periodically in the Old Testament. The best way to locate these glimpses is by following the occurrences of the word "nations" in a Bible concordance. An important passage in the Abrahamic covenant that offers a salvation for all peoples on earth is:
Gen. 22:15-18 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I  swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Here what is promised to all nations through Abraham's offspring is "blessing." Although "blessing" seems like an ill-defined concept, Peter, preaching in Acts 3(:25-26) to a Jewish audience in Jerusalem quoting this very promise, defines it as deliverance from sin:
"And you [Jews] are heirs of the prophets," Peter said, "and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up his servant [Jesus the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13 and following], he sent him first to you [the Jews in Peter's audience] to 'bless' you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”
The word "first" implies that there was a "next" stage also in God's plan. Peter does not explain what the next phase was, since it did not concern the needs of his Jerusalem audience. But we know what the next phase was: this "blessing" of forgiveness of sins was to be passed one next through the Messiah's Jewish followers to the Gentiles of the entire Roman Empire (Acts chapters 9-26).

Moses and the Sinai Covenant

With Moses the focus has already narrowed considerably to a covenant people consisting of the physical descendants of Jacob, but also including persons attracted to Israel and her faith, such as the "mixed multitude" of Egyptians. And in the days following the exodus such outsiders would have included Caleb (Num. 32:12 says he was a Kenizzite [non-Israelite], Josh. 15:13 indicates he was adopted into the tribe of Judah and given land in Judah's territory), Moses' wife Zipporah, Rahab the harlot, Ruth the Moabitess, and Uriah the Hittite.

Passages in the laws of Moses that relate to the goal of a universal offer of grace and salvation are: Deut. 4:5-8 and 29:22-28. These verses refer to a kind of witness that Israel's national life with all the gracious gifts of God's revelation to them was to have on the surrounding nations. It is of a twofold kind. On the one hand, Deut. 4:5-8 tells how the nations will be favorably impressed with how Yahweh their God is near at hand to help, defend, guide and teach them, not only through priests but through wise laws given at Mt. Sinai.
Deut. 4:5-8 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” 7 What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?
It is generally not noticed, but Deuteronomy 4 with its picture of the impressed pagans, envious of Israel's blessings, is the model for St. Paul's strategy of witness to his fellow Jews who do not believe in Y'shua (Jesus) the Messiah: to "make Israel envious" (Romans 11:11) of what God was doing in the community of believers in the Messiah Jesus.

On the other hand, even when Israel failed, and God had to discipline them with oppression by neighboring and eventually distant conquerors, these disasters witnessed to the same nations that Israel's God cared enough to punish his chosen people and eventually restore them.
Deut. 29:22-28 Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it. 23 The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur—nothing  planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in fierce anger. 24 All the nations will ask: “Why has the LORD done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?” 25 And the answer will be: “It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. 26 They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. 27 Therefore the LORD’S anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. 28 In furious anger and in great wrath the LORD uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.”
The Prophets

By the time of Isaiah and the great prophets of the two centuries (c. 800-600 BC) before the Babylonian captivity of the Kingdom of Judah, the vision for the nations had become even clearer and more precise. In some passages the emphasis is on God's vindication of Israel and the subordination of the nations to the rule of Israel's messianic king:
Isaiah 11:10-12 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious. 11 In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. 12 He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.
But in other passages the desire of the nations to share in the worship of Israel's God and to learn from his wisdom and laws is made quite clear:
Isaiah 2:2-4 In the last days the mountain of the LORD’S temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 3 Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Isaiah 56:6-8 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
The "light" that Yahweh's Servant Messiah will bring to the nations will also be God's salvation:
Isaiah 49:5-6 And now the LORD says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength— 6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore  the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
That salvation which the nations will receive will abolish death, the last great enemy of Earth's people:
Isaiah. 25:7-9  On this mountain [God] will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people [Israel] from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. 9 In that day they [repentant Israel] will say, “Surely this [the Messiah?] is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”
In the ancient Canaanite myths death—personified as the god Môt—was said to swallow up its prey. Here God turns the tables and himself swallows up death!

In our first week's lesson I pointed out that with the creation of humans God was "with us" in at least two ways: (1) through making humans in his own image to reveal his own nature, and (2) through his verbal communication with them in his daily meetings with them in the "cool of the day" to instruct them. With Moses, the words of God were put into writing for the first time, to be a source of instruction in righteousness.

So it was that with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, both Israel and Judah were dispersed to the nations and the great Diaspora began. Jews now lived among the nations in large numbers. And with their presence went scripture. Now for the first time that scripture was translated out of Hebrew into the language of the other nations. The first translations that we know of are those into Aramaic for the Babylonian Diaspora in the East—the Targums—and the translation into Greek made in Egypt in the 4th century BC for the Diaspora of the West—the Septuagint.

The Greek Septuagint not only served to train Greek-speaking Jews in righteous living, but provided a basis for the use of scripture in the Greek language to reach out to persons who could not read Hebrew. It became an evangelistic tool, and continued to facilitate evangelism by Christians after the resurrection. Although he was fluent in Hebrew, St. Paul used the Septuagint to make his case to Greek-speakers in the Diaspora.


So it was that, by the time Jesus was born there was a rich teaching in all the canonical Hebrew scripture that God's purpose through his covenant people was to spread the knowledge and worship of the God of Israel and the obedience to his laws to all the nations of the world, which for most Jews was the world surrounding the Mediterranean Sea—southern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. And just as six centuries later Arab merchant sailors would spread Islam as far east as the East Indies and as far west as Spain, and as far south as sub-Saharan Africa, so in the centuries before the birth of Jesus, Jewish merchants and Jewish settlers spread the knowledge of Israel's God and Israel's scriptures throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean world.

Already at the birth of Jesus God was telling his parents and relatives, the witnessing shepherds, and other holy people, that he was born to be the Savior of the nations, as well as of Israel.

In the announcement to Mary and Joseph of the conception and birth of Jesus, there is little indication that his saving work would be for nations outside of Israel. To Mary the angel Gabriel said:
Lk 1:31-35  You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus [Y'shua]. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” … “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
From these words it appears that his mission will be limited to occupying David's throne and ruling over the "House of Jacob" (that is, Israel).

To Joseph Gabriel said:
"[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus [Y'shua], for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). 
Here the mission is not ruling, but saving from sins, and those saved are to be "his people," that is, Israel.

It is only with the appearance of Simeon to Jesus' parents in the temple, when they went to have Jesus circumcised on the 8th day after his birth that his mission to the nations is first hinted:
Luke 2:25-33 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.
The Christian Church focuses every January on this passage and others like it to celebrate what is called the Epiphany, a Greek word meaning "manifestation", which means God's first revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.

In this passage, Simeon, a man waiting for "the consolation of Israel," prophesied that Jesus when he was full-grown would be God's "salvation", "a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to your people Israel." Notice how beautiful is the balance here: Most of the italicized words in the passage quoted above show how the incident was rooted in Israel's religious life. Yet one of the goals is to extend this salvation to the nations as a "light for revelation". 

In the Old Testament God's light was evidence of his glorious presence. It could blind the ungodly as well as show the way through darkness to the faithful. But in Simeon's inspired prophecy the light to the Gentiles brings salvation.


Jewish outreach to the gentiles in Jesus' day was active. In a word of rebuke to some Pharisees who opposed him, Jesus said:
Matt. 23:15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
Such was the zeal of some Jews in Jesus' day to bring the light of God's word to the nations. His rebuke quoted above was not aimed at their zealous evangelism, for clearly Jesus also was zealous to win converts to his gospel, because he had come to "seek and to save the lost." It was a rebuke to hypocrisy. The hypocrisy Jesus refers to is not the Pharisees' zeal to win a convert to Judaism, but the subsequent brainwashing of the convert to make him able to dodge the true demands of the law, as some Pharisees were doing who opposed Jesus and earned his criticism.

God's eventual intention was to give light to the gentiles. But Jesus' personal mission before he was crucified—in contrast to that which he gave to his followers after his resurrection—was almost entirely confined to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel".
Matt. 10:5-7 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’
Matt. 15:23-25 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

As the continuation of Matthew 15 shows, Jesus never turned an earnest and desperate Gentile seeker away, but his active initiative prior to the resurrection was to seek and save the "lost sheep of the house of Israel", and he would not be deterred from that focus.

Training by Jesus

Still, long before his death and resurrection, as he trained his disciples to spread the news of the kingdom of God among the villages of Galilee, he was training them in advance for their future ministry to Samaritans, Greeks, Syrians, Ethiopians, and Romans. Evangelism is evangelism. Personal work is personal work. The principles are the same. Only the language and customs in which the message is expressed change. One could assume a good deal of valuable background knowledge among the Palestinian Jews, that one could not among Diaspora Jews and "god-fearers", and even less among raw pagans.
Mark 13:9 “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10 And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11 Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.


After his resurrection, Jesus revealed his program for the present age: a worldwide mission to the nations, the gospel for the whole world of Adam's descendants.
Matt. 28:16-20 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always [Immanuel!!], to the very end of the age.”
Luke 24:46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.
Acts 1:4-8 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus' primary mission was completed with the crucifixion and resurrection. He had sought the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Many had accepted him, and a group of eleven were trained to continue the mission to the nations of the world. He now could tell them of how the training they had received from him during the period of focus on Israel would be put to use in making disciples worldwide.

If you saw the movie "the Karate Kid," you remember how the Okinawan-born instructor gave his teenaged American student training with tasks that seemed unrelated to the eventual goal of winning a karate tournament. At his instructor's request, he waxed a car ("wax on … wax off"), painted a fence, and sanded the floor. Eventually the boy became angry that he was not being taught karate. What to his surprise he eventually learned was that these apparently unrelated skills came together in the end to enable him to win the karate tournament.

So it was with the disciples of Jesus. Skills learned in Palestine proved invaluable in carrying the gospel to the nations.

The preparation through instruction and field training, begun before the Cross, was finished with the forty days of post-resurrection teaching (Acts 1:3, cf. Lk 24:27). Now the disciples' final resource is given: the "Immanuel" presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, of whom Jesus said, "he will be with you forever" (John 14:16). The abiding presence of the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit guarantees to the world-discipling Church the same authority and convincing power in presenting the truth of God that Jesus himself had during his earthly ministry (Matt 7:29; 8:9; 9:6, 8; 10:1; 20:25; 21:23-24, 27; 28:18).


Public speaking and bold confrontation

Throughout the Book of Acts, Luke stresses that all the disciples spoke out in public boldly—Peter and John in the Jerusalem temple (Acts 4),  Paul in his first return to Jerusalem as a new Christian (Acts 9),  Paul and Barnabas confronting the Jews who opposed their preaching in Pisidian Antioch (Asia Minor) (Acts 13),  and Apollos in the synagogue at Ephesus testifying that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18).  Early on, in the first Jerusalem gatherings for prayer by the believers, confronted by sharp opposition from the authorities, they prayed to be able to speak boldly without fear (Acts 4:29-31).  And so on! 

And these are just the places where Luke uses the specific word "bold" to describe the witness. In many other places where the word isn't used, the situation and the recorded speech show boldness: Philip to the non-Jews of Samaria (Acts 8), and running up to the carriage of the Ethiopian eunuch to explain to him the meaning of Isaiah 53. Boldness is what characterized the witness of the earliest Christians, as it should ours.

Healing and Acts of Mercy

Gospel witness always joins bold speaking of the truth to compassionate meeting of human physical needs. It began with Jesus himself, whose miracles of healing and exorcism were not just to showcase his credentials as the Son of God, but were genuine compassion in action. This kind of practical concern seems to have been shared by him with his cousin and beloved friend John, the son of Zebedee, who later wrote:
"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. … 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence" (1 John 3:16). 
And so it was that, in the earliest days after Jesus resurrection and ascension, when Peter, John and the other disciples were boldly charging the religious leaders of Jerusalem in public of rejecting and crucifying their own Messiah, they did not allow this main mission to deter them from using God's power to miraculously heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and even raise the dead. These hallmarks of the Messiah's ministry, shown by Jesus while he was on earth, continued to follow the disciples as they preached the gospel.

As Peter himself characterized Jesus' earthly mission to Cornelius in Acts 10:38-39.
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. 39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.
By the time he uttered these words to the Roman centurion Cornelius, Peter himself had been doing just that throughout Jerusalem, Judea and the Palestinian coast, as Luke makes very clear in Acts 2-8. to borrow a phrase from 1 Timothy 6:18, Peter was "rich in good deeds."

One-on-one explanation of Scripture (Acts 8)

The earliest Christians followed the example of Jesus, who often engaged people in private talks. You can easily remember his talks with Nicodemus about being born again (John 3) and with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). But there were many such talks recorded also in the synoptic gospels. People related well to Jesus and often sought him out for private confidential talks about their deepest and most intimate needs. His merciful and understanding attitude drew people to him. This is obviously what any disciple of his needs to exhibit.

The Book of Acts is also full of examples of Peter, John, Barnabas, and Paul engaging individuals in private talks which led either to a conversion or to a deepening of the other person’s understanding of God’s will. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a particularly good example. Philip was a man unshackled from the prejudices of other Jews toward the Samaritans, which was why it was he rather than someone else who first began to reap the harvest of souls in Samaria (Acts 8:1-25), the seeds for which Jesus himself sowed in John 4. Knowing what kind of a man Philip was, as shown by that ministry, it is easy to see why the Holy Spirit chose him to approach the chariot of the Ethiopian man (Acts 8:26-40), and hearing him reading aloud from the great Isaiah 53 prophecy, to ask if he could help him to understand it.


Paul's many letters written to his churches, eventually had a much broader reading than just the Christian congregations.

Today's equivalent opportunites for long-distance ministry are email and blogging —keeping in touch with others for purposes of mutual edification, and as an evangelistic tool. I recently read on Pastor Todd Wilson's blog how he grudgingly came to the conclusion that the time-consuming task of blogging was indeed what God wanted him to add to his other pastoral duties (see He came to this conclusion very reluctantly and not just in order to conform to some modern trend.

Paul may never have thought that hundreds of years in the future individuals would be coming to faith in Jesus through his letters. And he wasn't the only Christian in his day who wrote letters to spread the gospel and encourage those who believed. What we have in the New Testament is only a selection from a much larger corpus, a selection made by the Holy Spirit and recognized as one intended by God to be a part of the God-breathed revelation which is the New Testament.


In Old Testament times God held out to Israel visions of fulfillment of his plan and of her task, in order to encourage her and to spur her on. The New Testament too gives us such visions. Not all of them are found in the Book of the Revelation, but many are.

Quite apart from how these visions inform us about how God will be with us in the eternal state—which is our subject next week—they show that the goal of saving believers in all nations will be realized.
Rev. 5:9-10 And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. 10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
Rev. 7:9-12 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
This prediction that God's goal in redeeming members of every nation, tribe and ethnic group is not to make us complacent—"Oh well, why should I work? God will do it all eventually!"— but to give us hope and challenge us to engagement.

I sometimes record a sports event on TIVO and watch it after I know who won. I know that this takes the fun out of it for some people. But for me it often reinforces a spiritual lesson. When you know who eventually won, it is interesting to see how unnecessary is all the agony and despair shown in the course of the game by those rooting for the eventual winners.

We live in a world where most of the people are not rooting for the Lord Jesus or the cause of the gospel. And there are constant incidents either on the local or global scene that seem to us as his disciples like huge setbacks. It is proper that we grieve over our own moral and spiritual failures, but we should not despair over apparent setbacks that have no cause in a moral failure by believers. We know that Jesus will win. We know that God's plan will prevail, that the gospel will win. This for me is the joy of reading a book like the Revelation. And it challenges me not to overlook any individual or ethnic group in my prayers, my giving, and my personal witness.

Jesus came so that God can be with any person regardless of his nationality, if he will only accept the gift of salvation through Jesus—the Jewish Messiah and Savior.

I once was the teaching leader of a large inter-faith Bible study class for men. I had an African-American friend in the class who came to me privately, concerned that he felt alienated from Jesus because he was not black. I told him that Jesus was also not Caucasian like me: he was a Middle Eastern Jew. But I told him that I had come to the conclusion that skin color and ethnicity had nothing to do with my relationship to Jesus, for he was not only a Near Eastern Jew by birth, he was also the Son of God long before his birth. This seemed to help my friend.

Our God will be Immanuel "God with us" to all the nations. Let us rejoice in that.