Israel in Romans 11

An excerpt from my forthcoming book on the church and Israel:

All Israel Will Be Saved
            Romans 11 is often misread, assumed, and thrown about as if it closes the conversation on the church/Israel topic. I can’t count how many times I have been told, “But Romans 11 teaches the future restoration of ethnic Israel.” Full stop, as if that undemonstrated assertion is all there is to say. Now, this is a dense chapter and many solid exegetes disagree on how to interpret it. Again, I do not claim to have the new covenant view, but I hope to show this reading best fits the hermeneutic that has been shown throughout.[1]
            One main question is driving Paul in Romans chapter 11: “Has God completely rejected Israel?” That’s how he starts: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people” (Rom. 11:1)? To feel the force of it, we could paraphrase it as, “Has God completely rejected his people?” Lest his readers lose track, he repeats himself in verse 11: “So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?” Again, we could read it as “That they might totally fall?” His answer to the question in both instances is the same: no way.
            But the question is a legitimate one that doubtless many in that day were asking. Paul himself says in the previous verse that all day long God had held out his “hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Rom. 10:21). In 1 Thessalonians 2:16, we read that God’s wrath has come on the Jews forever (eis telos). Jesus had told the Jews, “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit” (Matt. 21:43). In his rebuke of the Jewish leaders, Jesus said, “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers” (Matt. 23:32, cf. Gen. 15:16) and “on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” (Matt. 23:35). Jesus pleaded with the Jews: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37)!
The pagan Pilate (and his lady-friend) was hesitant to crucify Jesus and gave the Jews a chance to change their mind. Pilate would release Jesus and crucify Barabbas if they agreed. But the leaders told the Jewish people to “destroy Jesus” (Matt. 27:20). They “all” said, “Let him be crucified” (Matt. 27:22)! Pilate again hesitates and they shout, “all the more, ‘Let him be crucified’” (Matt. 27:23)! Pilate literally washes his hands and says this is on them and not him. Astonishingly, “all the people (pas ho laos) answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’” (Matt. 27:25)! John records the Jews threatening Pilate. They say, if you don’t put him to death, you are no friend of Caesar. Pilate asks them, “Shall I crucify your king?” Astoundingly, they reply, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). The Jewish people calling Caesar their only king? Bone-chilling. After the Jews reviled Paul and his message, he said, “Your blood be on your own heads” (Acts 18:6)! Luke closed his second volume with Paul telling the Jews that their hearts were dull and now “this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:28). So asking whether or not God was totally done with the Jews is a legitimate question. In Romans 11, Paul shows how salvation is still available to any Jew who trusts in Christ. They, indeed, anyone who trusts in Christ can and will be saved.
            Another overlooked fact is the abundance of time indicators in the chapter. Interpreters often assume that Romans 11 is about the future but Paul repeatedly makes it clear that his concern is a present one. Paul’s focus is on the 1st – not the 21st – century:

·      “Has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite” (Rom. 11:1). Paul in the first century is current proof that God has not totally rejected Israel.

·      “So too at the present time there is a remnant” (Rom. 11:5, my italics).
·      Now I am speaking to you Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13, my italics).
·      “I magnify my ministry” (Rom. 11:13, my italics). He is focused on his ministry in the first century.

·      “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience” (Rom. 11:30). Now in the first century.

·      “So they have now been disobedient” (Rom. 11:31, my italics).
·      “By the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Rom. 11:31).
So it is clear that this chapter is not about the future, but Paul’s present.
            In Romans 9-11, Paul explains that Israel’s rejection of their Messiah is not failure on God’s part. He never promised to save every Israelite, but only the elect. There is an Israel within Israel. “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). There are children of promise and children of the flesh within the physical offspring of Abraham (Rom. 9:6-13). God has not “rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11:2). Part of Israel has been hardened, but not all! “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened” (Rom. 11:7).
            The point of Romans 11 is that Israel’s fall is not total. No, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous and “some” of them will be saved (Rom. 11:14). Some ethnic Jews – not all. Lest the Gentiles become arrogant about this new situation, he warns them. In doing so, he says that Gentiles are wild olive shoots grafted in and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree. This word for “share” (sygkoinōnos) is similar in form to the words Paul uses when speaking of the same reality in Ephesians 3:6: “The Gentiles are fellow heirs (sygklēronoma), members of the same body (syssōma), and partakers (symmetocha) of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Each of these words begins with syn, which means “together with.” The Gentiles are together with Israel in the root, in the inheritance, in the body, and in the promise. In other words, like the prophets prophesied, Gentiles have been grafted into Israel.
            Now we come to the controversial passage. Romans 11:25-27 reads,

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins”.

Paul doesn’t want his audience to miss this. A partial hardening has come upon Israel. Many interpreters wrongly read this hardening in temporal rather than quantitative terms. It literally reads, “a hardening from part in Israel” (pōrōsis apo merous tō̧ Israēl). Part of Israel has been hardened “until (arxi) the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”[2] With “until,” Paul is saying this will be the state of things throughout this present era. He uses the same word with regard to the Lord’s Meal, when he says we proclaim the Lord’s death “until” he comes (1 Cor. 11:26). Or later he says that Jesus must reign “until” he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). So this hardening of a portion of Israel will endure during this whole present era until its goal is reached at the end of history.[3]
The fullness of the Gentiles refers to the full number of elect Gentiles in history.[4] At this stage in salvation history, most Jews have been hardened but not all. The elect obtained it but the rest were hardened (Rom. 11:7). “Some” will be saved as Gentiles are being saved (Rom. 11:14). “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Again, interpreters often take “in this way” as temporal. So they read it as, “Gentiles will be saved then all Israel will be saved.” But that is not what the word houtōs means, here or elsewhere! The ESV nails it here; it is modal not temporal. In this way all Israel will be saved. Paul is explaining the manner in which all Israel will be saved. God has hardened part of Israel, is saving Gentiles, which is causing some Jews to become jealous and so be saved – and in this way, all Israel will be saved. We will unpack just who “all Israel” is below.
Then Paul provides important OT grounding:

As it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins”.

Here, Paul is combining several OT promises. Getting these verses right is crucial because 11:26b explains 11:26a. In other words, we learn what “all Israel will be saved” means from learning what these OT promises mean. The main passage Paul is drawing on should not surprise us at this point: Isaiah 59, where God promises to rescue his people, reign as king, and dwell with his people. Right after the verse Paul quotes, the LORD speaks of this future covenant where God will do the inward work that Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of as well (Isa. 59:21). So Isaiah 59 is a “new covenant” promise. This is what Jesus came to accomplish in his first coming.
Interestingly, Isaiah 59:20 says “A Redeemer will come to Zion.” Paul says, the redeemer “will come from Zion (ek Zion).” Did Paul just slip? No, the Spirit is moving him along. With “from Zion” Paul is making a couple of points. First, he is quoting a passage that is future from Isaiah’s perspective but past from his own perspective. The Messiah came from Zion. He is Israel’s Messiah for the world. Second, with “from Zion,” Paul is alluding to two other prophecies. Psalm 14:7 speaks of the future restoration of Israel. It reads, “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion (ek Zion)! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.” The other prophecy is from Isaiah’s earlier vision where he describes, in poetic form, what the world will look like when God restores Israel. Isaiah 2 is a vision of the latter days where the Lord’s mountain will be the highest, the nations will flow to it,  “for out of Zion (ek gar Zion) shall go the law” (Isa. 2:2-3, cf. Micah 4:2). Rather than seeking the instruction of the Lord (Torah) coming from Zion, the Apostle sees the fulfillment in the King coming from Zion since Christ is the “culmination of the law” (Rom. 10:4 NIV).
Another passage Paul includes in Romans 11:26-27 is Isaiah 27:9.[5] Isaiah 27 is about the deliverance of Israel. God promises that “in days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit” and “the guilt of Jacob will be atoned for” and the fruit of this atonement will be the removal of idols (Isa. 27:6, 9). He then speaks of Gentiles being included within Israel: “those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Isa. 27:13).
The last passage alluded to here in Romans 11:26 is Jeremiah 31 and the promise of the new covenant. When any Jew heard language of “taking away sin” and “covenant” they would immediately think of Jeremiah’s grand promise:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31–34)

Again, this passage finds fulfillment in the first coming of Jesus. This is what the church celebrates every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The Deliverer has come and forgiven our sins. Many interpreters assume these verses are about the future but it should be clear from the OT background that this verse about the coming redeemer is referring not to the second coming, but the first coming of Jesus. These are new covenant passages and the new covenant was inaugurated with the first coming of Jesus.[6] They are also all passages that speak of the inclusion of Gentiles within the people of God.
Now we are at a place to answer the question, “Who is all Israel in Paul’s summary statement of these chapters?” Before answering that question, it is important to state what is emphatically not in this chapter: a rebuilt temple, anything about the land, a reconstitution of geopolitical Israel, a millennial kingdom for ethnic Israel, etc.[7] These sorts of things are often assumed to be included but these things are not what Paul has in mind. Contrary to many (especially American) interpreters, this chapter is not about a future millennium for the nation of Israel. These things are simply not found in this chapter.
Context makes it clear that there are three legitimate options for who “all Israel” is. Many interpreters take the view that all Israel refers to “all” ethnic Jews who will trust in Christ at the last day when Christ returns.[8] It is important to say that these interpreters do not separate the church and Israel. They view these Jews as those who will join the church at the second coming and so be saved in a future mass conversion. Most don’t think “all” means “all” here.[9] But “many” Jews will be saved at this last minute altar call given by the Lord Jesus himself.[10]
Others would agree with my view of the “present” concern of the chapter, and define “all Israel” as all elect Jews who will come to Christ throughout history.[11] They would agree with much of what I have articulated, but would say the immediate context lends toward viewing “all Israel” as only ethnic Jews. A good case can be made for this view.
I take “all Israel” as referring to anyone – Jew or Gentile – who trusts in Christ. In other words, it is all the elect. In yet other words, all Israel is the church. Though both of these last options are viable, five reasons cause me to believe that Paul is referring to the church with “all Israel” in Romans 11:26.[12]
First, the immediate context. He has just finished saying that Gentiles are grafted into Israel. This is what we saw again and again in the prophets. The olive shoots are grafted into the olive tree (Rom. 11:17). When Paul says that part of Israel has been hardened “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25), he means, “until all elect Gentiles come into Israel.” In chapter 10, Paul wrote that everyone who believes in Jesus will not be put to shame “for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Rom. 10:11-12). He just said there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in Christ, which is exactly what I am saying Romans 11:26 says. Paul uses very similar language in Romans 10:13 as he does in Romans 11:26. In the former he writes that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (sōthēsetai). In the latter he says that all Israel will be saved (sōthēsetai). All Israel consists of everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. They will be saved. Romans 10:18-21 quotes the OT a few times to speak of the ends of the world, the nations and Israel’s jealousy, and the Lord being found by the nations. He closes that section saying, “But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Rom. 10:21).
Second, the larger context of Romans. Paul has already redefined Jewishness at the beginning of the letter. Readers of chapter 11 mustn’t forget the earlier chapters. A Jew is no longer one outwardly but inwardly (Rom. 2:28-29). Romans 4 spoke of Abraham as the father of both Jews and Gentiles. Romans 9 quoted Hosea to refer to the inclusion of Gentiles in Israel. So by the time we get to Romans 11, new covenant Israel has already been defined as including Gentiles.
Third, the even larger context of Pauline theology. We have only looked at Galatians so far, but will see much the same below. All over the place, Paul defines Israel around the Messiah. If you are of Christ, then you are the children of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). He concludes his letter to the Galatians by calling Jews and Gentiles “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).[13] We will demonstrate this with other texts in the next chapter.
Fourth, the meaning of “mystery” in Paul’s letters. In Romans 11:25, Paul writes that he does not want the Romans to be unaware of “this mystery.” The mystery is that part of Israel is hardened, which leads to the salvation of Gentiles, and in turn some Jews will be saved, and in this way all Israel will be saved (Acts 13:46, 18:6). “Mystery” in Paul does not refer to something hard to understand but to revelation. It is something that was previously hidden but now revealed. He uses the word again at the close of this letter:

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.
(Rom 16:25–27)

The mystery was kept secret but now disclosed to all nations. The command was to bring about the “obedience of faith.” Paul sandwiches this letter with this apostolic goal. Romans 1:5 says that he was given his commission to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”
Paul uses this same word in the same way in Ephesians to speak of the inclusion of Gentiles within the Israel of God: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel”(Eph. 3:6). We’ll unpack the specifics of this verse below but here Paul says the mystery is Gentiles becoming fellow heirs with Israel and members of the same body. Paul’s theology of the people of God in Romans is consistent with his theology of the people of God in the rest of his letters.

Fifth, the OT grounding.[14] We saw above that Paul explains what all Israel being saved means by quoting passages about the first coming of Jesus to establish the new covenant, which includes Jews and Gentiles. In Paul’s theology, the removal of sin from the people of God occurs at the cross and resurrection, not the second coming. As he put it a few chapters earlier, there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom. 8:1).
So Paul answers the question that started the whole section by saying that God has not abandoned his people. Rather, he always only promised to save the elect and in the new age he has expanded Israel to include Gentiles. How should one conclude such a section? One cannot improve on the way the Spirit moved Paul to do so: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom. 11:33)!

[1] Solid theologians who have a similar hermeneutic as this book, but who hold a “futuristic” view of this chapter include Tom Schreiner, Doug Moo, John Piper, and Jason Meyer, to name a few.
[2] 2 Corinthians 3:14-16 says, “But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”
[3] O. Palmer Robertson, “Is There a Distinctive Future for Ethnic Israel in Romans 11?” in Perspectives on Evangelical Theology ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 219-20; idem., The Israel of God, 179-81.
[4] In personal correspondence, Douglas Goodin suggests that “the fullness of the Gentiles” refers to the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. He bases his view on the similarity of language used by Paul and Luke. Romans 11:25 reads, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (arxi hou to plērōma tōn ethnōn eiselthȩ̄) and Luke 21:24, referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, reads “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (achri hou plērōthōsin kairoi ethnōn). So the hardening in his view is temporal. There was a hardening of Israel until God’s full judgment was poured out on Jerusalem through Rome and after that the hardening was removed and salvation is now freely available to all Jews who trust in Christ. This particular reading of Rom. 11:25 would fit my overall reading of the whole section.
[5] The quote is clearer in Greek. The LXX of Isaiah 27:9 reads “hotan aphelōmai autou tēn hamartian.” Romans 11:27 reads hotan aphelōmai tas hamartias autōn.
[6] David G. Peterson, Transformed by God: New Covenant Life and Ministry (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 130-32.
[7] For example, in his commentary on these verses, John MacArthur says that all Israel are “all the elect Jewish people alive at the end of the Tribulation. . . . the Lord Jesus Christ’s millennial rule will be associated with Mt. Zion.” One wonders where he gets the “Tribulation” or the “Millennium” in this passage. Neither is anywhere to be found anywhere in Romans 9-11, or all of Romans for that matter. The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Nelson, 1997), 1715.
[8] Moo, The Epistle o the Romans,710-29; Schreiner, Romans, 611-623; Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 177-229; Piper D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 113.; Kim Riddlerbarger, Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 180-94.
[9] But as Robertson puts it, “In this context, ‘all’ can hardly mean ‘most.’” Israel of God, 183.
[10] Besides the exegetical difficulty, this brings evangelistic difficulty as well. The view could hinder gospel urgency among Jewish people. It would also seem logical to urge those who reject Christ to consider Judaism since if Jesus returns in our day, presumably they’d be part of the “all” Israel who will get saved at the parousia.
[11] Ben L. Merkle, “Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel,” JETS 43.4 (December), 709-21; Charles M. Horne, “The Meaning of the Phrase ‘And Thus All Israel Will Be Saved’,” JETS 21.4 (December 1978), 329-34; Storms, Kingdom Come, 303-34. Robertson, “Is There a Distinctive Future for Ethnic Israel in Romans 11?,” 209-227. Note that Robertson later changed his view.
[12] See Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Hays, Moral Vision 416-17; Wright, “Jerusalem in the New Testament,” 65-67; idem., The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 231-57; idem., Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Book Two (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1156-1259; Robertson, The Israel of God, 167-92; Paul Williamson, “Covenant,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 428.
[13] Hays writes, “The ‘Israel’  of Romans 11:26 is the same as the ‘Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16, a description of the elect eschatological people of God consisting of Jews and Gentiles together in Christ,” Moral Vision, 417.
[14] Christopher R. Bruno, “The Deliverer From Zion: The Source(s) and Function of Paul’s Citation in Romans 11:26-27,” Tyndale Bulletin 59.1 (2008), 119-34.

The Olivet Discourse

I love the so-called "Olivet Discourse." For a forthcoming book on the restoration of Israel, I finally had the chance to put my thoughts in print and wanted to share them here:

Many interpreters view this chapter as Jesus’ teaching about the end of the world but I hope to show that this is actually about the judgment and restoration of Israel, which makes it relevant for our purposes.[1] Before turning to it, we must clear some ground. First, consider audience relevance. Jesus is speaking to his disciples in the first century. The Bible was written for us but most of it was not written to us. The “you” found throughout the chapter is referring to the disciples Jesus was speaking to. Another thing to keep in mind before we look at this chapter is the clear teaching of Mark 13:30, where Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” So Jesus clearly says that all that he talked about in chapter 13 would take place during that generation, which is roughly 40 years. The last thing to keep in mind is, as should be clear by now, the OT must be kept in mind when interpreting this knotty chapter. With these three truths in mind, let’s dive in.

Matthew’s Gospel, being longer, includes a bit more detail than Mark’s account of the Olivet Discourse. In Matthew’s account, after Jesus has pronounced those bone-shivering woes to the Jewish leaders, he laments over the state of Jerusalem:

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, 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’." (Matt. 23:37-39)

Jerusalem was in for judgment. Jesus says to Israel, “your” house is now desolate. As Amos said, “O house of Israel: Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land” (Amos 5:2). It was time for judgment to begin in the household of God. As Jeremiah had said, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended” (Jer. 19:11).

Akin to the glory of the Lord leaving the temple in Ezekiel (Ezek. 10:18-19, 11:22-23), Jesus leaves the temple and one of his disciples, probably Peter, comments on how wonderful the temple was. Jesus does not share his enthusiasm, saying, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). Jesus is asked when this will happen and Jesus teaches them what they can expect. There would be false teachers, wars, earthquakes, and famine. The Jewish unbelievers would deliver them over to councils and they would be beaten in synagogues. When they see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be, which refers to the Roman army desecrating the temple (Dan. 9:27, 11:31, 12:11, Luke 21:20, Matt. 24:15), the disciples who are in Judea should flee to the mountains. Clearly this is a local judgment, for at the final judgment all are in danger, not just those in Judea and on that day the mountains will be no refuge from the wrath of God.

Then we read in Mark 13:24-27: "But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven."

Let’s look at these verses line by line. After the tribulation in those days the sun and moon will be darkened, stars will fall, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Taken literally, this does sound like the end of the world, but these verses should not be taken literally but literarily. Jesus was employing a common literary convention of his day and the days before him. We now refer to it as “apocalyptic language.” It is the use of exaggerated de-creation language to signal major political shifts. The OT is full of the stuff. Notice the similar language used when various empires were defeated in space-time history:

· Isaiah 13:10 – “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.”

· Isaiah 34:4 – “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.”

· Ezekiel 32:6-8 – “I will drench the land even to the mountains with your flowing blood, and the ravines will be full of you. When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD.”

Many more passages could be listed, but you get the point.[2] These verses are referring to the down falls of Babylon, Edom, and Egypt respectively. Clearly, in these cases the world did not end. Were the prophets wrong? No, they are not referring to the end of the space-time universe, but used de-creation language to describe these events because the change was that significant. The world would never be the same. “The destruction of earthly kingdoms is portrayed in terms of a heavenly shaking.”[3] The prophets find themselves reaching for terminology of cosmic disorder to describe how theologically significant this transition is.

We still do this in a sense. For example, if in 200 years a man is reading the history of the NBA and comes across a sentence that says, “In the early 2000’s, Shaq was known for his earth-shattering dunks,” he would be missing the point if he turned to his wife and said, “Wow, honey, this fellow called Shaq used to shatter the globe when he dunked a basketball. I wonder how they managed to put it back together after the games?” No, it is figurative language. The “literalist” reader misses the intended point.

In Mark 13 and elsewhere, this is figurative language employed to indicate the downfall of seemingly permanent political and social orders. Jesus, in prophetic form, is using this complex mixture of metaphors to describe this massive event that was about to happen: the center of Jerusalem was about to be reduced to rubble. Remember that for Jews, the temple was viewed as the center of the creation. The world as it was is coming to an end. The Jewish people would never be the same again. Jesus is saying something big is about to happen. Something apocalyptic.

But what about the Son of Man coming in clouds (Mark 13:26)?. Surely, this is referring to the second coming of Jesus, right!? Not so fast. Again, as we have seen over and over, the OT is informing what Jesus is talking about. Any Jew in Jesus’ day who heard “Son of Man coming” would immediately think of the book of Daniel, which was a first century favorite. Jesus is quoting from Daniel 7:13-14:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

As mentioned above in our discussion of the Great Commission, this is a vision from heaven. The son of man “comes” from earth to the Ancient of Days. This is ascension not descension. The son of man ascends to the Father and is given all authority so that all nations would serve him forever. So Jesus is making quite a statement about himself! He is the one Daniel saw. He will be vinidicated. He will be given a kingdom that will include all peoples.

But from the surrounding context we know this “coming” will include judgment, which is why Jesus includes a reference to “clouds.” The Lord coming on clouds is frequently used in the OT to refer to his coming in judgment. For example, Isaiah 19:1 says, “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence.” Ezekiel 30:3 says, “For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (cf. Joel 2:2, Psa. 97:2-3). In the OT, God would often use pagan nations, like Babylon and Assyria, to judge and punish his wayward people and that is what happening here, just as he said he would in the curses of Deuteronomy 27-29, Leviticus 26, and Isaiah 6:11-13. Jesus, through the Roman army, will come and judge the temple and its leadership and all would know that he was right and Jerusalem was wrong.[4] “The Temple is dethroned. Jesus is enthroned.”[5]

So what does all this have to do with the church and Israel? Verse 27 says this son of man will send out his messengers (aggelous) and gather his elect from the four winds, and from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. This is “regathering” language from the OT promises of when God would return to rescue and unite his scattered people. Listen to the words of Deuteronomy 30:4-6:

"If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live."

Isaiah had spoke of that day as well: “In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea” (Isa. 11:11, cf. Isa 49:12, Hab. 2:5). Later God promised, “Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth” (Isa. 43:5-6). Zechariah had promised this gathering and the inclusion of the Gentiles within the people of God:

"Up! Up! Flee from the land of the north, declares the LORD. For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, declares the LORD. Up! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon. For thus said the LORD of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye: “Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me. Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you" (Zech. 2:6-11).

Then Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:30). Jesus was a prophet if there ever was one. A generation was considered 40 years and right at 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, the Roman army sieged Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Not one stone was left on another. When Jesus uses Rome to judge the temple, he sends out his messengers to tell of the good news and as the church grows, the promises of a regathered Israel are being fulfilled. So the expansion of the church is the fulfillment of the promises to Israel.[6]

[1] For further exposition, see R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark. NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 497-546; Sam Storms, Kingdom Come, 229-81; N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 339-69; Thomas R. Hatina, “The Focus of Mark 13:24-27: The Parousia, or the Destruction of the Temple?” Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996), 43-66.
[2] E.g. see Isa. 24:1-6, 19-23, Joel 2:10, 30-31, 3:15-16, Hab. 3:6-11, Jer. 4:23-28, Amos 8:9, Zeph. 1:14-16, Mal. 4:1-5. See Caird, Jesus and the Jewish Nation, 17-22; G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 212-16; Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 360-65.
[3] Storms, Kingdom Come, 265.
[4] Caird writes, “Here, as in the book of Daniel, from which the imagery is drawn, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven was never conceived as a primitive form of space travel, but as a symbol for a mighty reversal of fortunes within history and at the national level.” Jesus and the Jewish Nation, 20; R.T. France, Divine Government: God’s Kingship in the Gospel of Mark (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1990), 81.
[5] Storms, Kingdom Come, 281.
[6] “Israel’s story is retold so as to reach a devastating climax, in which the present Jerusalem regime will be judged, and the prophet and his followers vindicated. The covenant god will use the pagan forces to execute his judgment on his people, and a new people will be born, formed around the prophet himself.” N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 325.

Jesus & the Jewish Nation

George Caird's conclusion of his famous lecture:

"Here then, in conclusion, is the picture of the ministry of Jesus I have been trying to put before you. Jesus believed that Israel had been called to be God’s saved and saving nation, the agent through whom God intended to assert his sovereignty over the rest of the world, and that the time had come when God was summoning the nation once for all to take its place in his economy as the Son of Man. His teaching was something more than individual piety and ethics, it was a national way of life through which alone God’s purpose could be implemented. The nation must choose between the way of Jesus and all other possible alternatives, and on its choice depended its hope for a national future. For nothing but the thoroughgoing change of heart which Jesus demanded and made possible could in the end keep the nation out of disastrous conflict with Rome. If the nation would not listen to him, it must pay the consequences; but he at least, and anyone else who would share it with him, must fulfil the destiny of the Son of Man. But so deeply does he love his nation, so fully is he identified with its life, so bitterly does he regret what he sees coming upon it, that only death can silence his reiterated and disturbing appeal. He goes to his death at the hands of a Roman judge on a charge of which he was innocent and his accusers, as the event proved, were guilty. And so, not only in theological truth but in historic fact, the one bore the sins of the many, confident that in him the whole Jewish nation was being nailed to the cross, only to come to life again in a better resurrection, and that the Day of the Son of Man which would see the end of the old Israel would see also the vindication of the new."

-from Jesus and the Jewish Nation

The OT in the NT

The other day I posted this on Facebook:

Christian, want to elevate your view of Jesus and deepen your appreciation for Scripture? In your reading, when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, go back and read the whole chapter in which the particular Old Testament verse verse is found.
I wanted to give just one example. The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book I am writing on Israel and the church:

The Fig-less Fig Tree, the New Temple, and the Den of Robbers

On the way back into Jerusalem, Jesus sees a fig tree that had no figs on it and says, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14). I once heard a man teach that this is just a random inclusion to show that Jesus was frustrated at times. Um, not quite. Jesus sees himself as a new Jeremiah, warning unrepentant Israel. Right after the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus cleanses the temple, in an enacted parable of judgment. Jesus knocks over the tables and scathes his unrepentant people “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Here, Jesus alludes to two OT passages: Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7.[1]

Doubtless, Jesus has the larger context of those verses in mind when he cites them. Recall that Isaiah 56 is the promise of the salvation of Israel and of Gentiles who join themselves to the Lord. Then it speaks of these foreigners becoming priests and ministering to the Lord as his servants (Isa. 56:6). The very next verse says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” which Jesus quotes. Jeremiah 7 was Jeremiah’s “temple sermon.” The Lord had told Jeremiah to stand at the gate of the temple and preach. Jeremiah was to warn the people of God: “Amend your ways and your deeds” (Jer. 7:3). He warned Judah that if they amend their wicked ways, God would let them dwell in that place. Then the Lord asks,
Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim. (Jer. 7:11-15)

Shiloh was the sanctuary before the monarchy that God judged through the Philistines (Ps. 78:60-64). If they do not repent, God will once again destroy the temple through judgment. The “robbers” are those who trust in the temple but offer corrupt worship.

So Jesus has a double message in mind when he combines these two passages. He picks up Isaiah to say that the vision of foreigners coming to do priestly service in a new temple is coming but currently the temple and its leadership is corrupt and, like at Shiloh, is on the verge of being destroyed. Elijah had come and warned but Israel had not amended their ways. So Jesus would destroy the temple (Mark 13) and build a new one where the nations would gather, he himself being the keystone.

Which is why the very next episode in the story is a return to the fig tree. Now the tree has “withered away to its roots” (Mark 11:20). The fig tree is a symbol of idolatrous Israel. Jesus is alluding to Jeremiah’s judgment oracle on unrepentant Judah. They will be punished and overthrown. “When I would gather them, declares the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them” (Jer. 8:13, cf. Micah 7:1). The messenger had come before the great and terrible day of the Lord but the Jewish people did to him “whatever they pleased” (Mark 9:13). So the Lord would come and curse the land and the figless fig tree is a sobering illustration. Mark sandwiches the enacted judgment on the temple in between the fig tree teaching to make is point dramatically clear.

Hays, Reading Backwards, 6-12.

Colossians Outline

I am teaching through Colossians in 8 weeks this Fall and am always helped by outlining the book to keep the big pic in mind. Here it is:


I.       Greeting 1:1-2

II.     Thanksgiving 1:3-8

III.    Christ & His Work Related to the False Teaching 1:9-2:5

A.    Prayer for Wisdom and Growth 1:9-14

B.     Christ the Lord over creation and the Church 1:15-20

C.    Reconciliation and Perseverance 1:21-23

D.    Paul's Ministry 1:24-2:5

IV.    Walk in Him: The Gospel-Centered Life 2:6-4:6

A.      Life in Christ 2:6-15

B.       Don’t Be Enslaved to Man-Made Rules 2:16-23

C.    Raised with Christ 3:1-4

D.     Put Sin to Death 3:5-11

E.     Put on Goodness 3:12-17

F.    Christ in the House 3:18-4:1

G.    Missional Living 4:2-6

V.     Greetings and instructions 4:7-18 

Who is the "Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16?

At the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul closes with:

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.               (Gal. 6:15-16)
Lots of debate has surrounded the phrase "Israel of God." Who is Paul referring to? Is he referring strictly to ethnic Jews or the church - Jews and Gentiles? I think it is pretty clear that Paul is referring to the church. Two main reasons lead me to this conclusion: the larger context and the immediate context.

First, the larger context. The rule of exegesis is the same as that of real estate: location, location, location. On this question, the grammar and syntax are ambiguous so, as with every interpretive decision, context must be determinative. We must examine the conclusion of the letter in light of the whole letter. And in many ways, the point of the letter is that there is in fact no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Remember that the anti-gospel missionaries had come along and were trying to force the Gentiles to "Judaize" (ἰουδαΐζειν), that is "to follow Jewish customs" (Gal. 2:14 NIV). They were saying to be come the true people of God, one must essentially become a Jew. Paul disagrees. Sharply.

So Paul is at pains to show that their teaching is emphatically false. It is anti-gospel. To force Gentiles to live like Jews is not walking in step with the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:14). He shows again and again that Gentiles become part of the children of God through faith in the Messiah. One becomes a child of Abraham - that is, a Jew - by being united to the Jewish King. Notice how pervasive this truth is throughout the letter:

  • Galatians 3:7 - "Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham." This is the exact same thing as saying that believers are Jews. The church is Israel because of faith in Jesus.
  • Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Again, the clarity is crystal. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. All are one in Christ Jesus. One, not two.
  • Galatians 3:29 - "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise." Who is the seed of Abraham? Who is Israel? Who are the Jews? Those who belong to Christ. The church is the heir of the promise made to Abraham.
  • Galatians 4:28 - "Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise." The Gentiles are the children of promise if they are in Christ.
  • Galatians 4:31 - "Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman." The Galatian believers are children of the free woman. Sarah's offspring is the church.

I am not really sure how Paul could be any clearer. He's flogging a flat-lined pony here. To make a distinction between Jews and Gentiles stands at odds with the warp and woof of the whole letter.

Second, the immediate context shows that the "Israel of God" includes Jews and Gentiles. Notice the structure of verses 15 and 16: in verse 15 Paul lays out the "rule" (κανών) of the new creation: "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything." In other words, ethnicity means nada. Paul uses this same "rule" in two other places: Galatians 5:6 and 1 Corinthians 7:19. "What counts is the new creation" (Gal. 6:15). After laying out this "rule," Paul wishes peace and mercy on all who follow it, namely the Israel of God:
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.               (Gal. 6:15-16)
What is striking here is that the prayer for peace and mercy is excluded from those who would posit that ethnicity matters; that circumcision and uncircumcision do matter; that there is a distinction between Jews and Gentiles in the economy of God!

So if Paul is wishing peace and mercy on those who follow the rule of the new creation, the rule that says in essence what he already said: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile", then he cannot be making a distinction between Jew and Gentile with the phrase "Israel of God" at the conclusion of this letter! This would not make sense in light of the immediate context. In fact, it would undermine everything he has said so far in the letter. All throughout, he has shown that all who are in Christ by faith are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

Therefore, based upon the larger and immediate context, the Israel of God in Galatians 6:16 includes any who are in Christ, Jew or Gentile.

A couple of my books on Galatians:

The 'Old Perspective' on Paul is Actually Quite Old!

If you are familiar with the academic debates on Paul and Judaism, you'll know that most advocates of the "new perspective" on Paul (NPP) are a tad left of Evangelical. For various reasons, most NPP advocates have denied that Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals. This is no small thing. One of the linchpins of the NPP is seeing "works of the law" (erga nomou - ἔργων νόμου) as Jewish boundary markers, namely circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws – and not human works in general. So for them, Paul was not so much opposed to human effort to gain righteousness as he was to ethnocentrism. But those letters supposedly not written by Paul do not fit the NPP paradigm. They speak more generally of human works and not merely to "works of the law." For example:

  • 2 Timothy 1:9 - God "who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began."
  • Titus 3:5 - "He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit."
  • Ephesians 2:8-9 - "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."

In the book by E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) that started it all, in 449 pages there is one footnote on Ephesians 2:8-9. Other than that, there is not a single mention of these passages. Neither is there a single mention in Sanders’ 630 page Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, or in James Dunn’s Jesus, Paul, and the Law or in N.T. Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant![i] That's one way to do scholarship: merely ignore any evidence that doesn't fit your system.

But listen to this admission by one of the NPP big guns: James Dunn writes, 

In all these cases [Phil 3, Rom, Gal], therefore, it is difficult to sustain the claim that Paul was polemicizing against ‘self-achieved righteousness.’ Of course the texts just reviewed can be read that way. The only question is whether those who read them that way have shifted the issue from one of Israel’s works of the law vis-à-vis Gentile acceptability to the more fundamental one of the terms of human acceptability by God. That may have happened already in Eph. 2.8-9, where the issue does seem to have moved from one of works of the law to one of human effort. But when the texts in the undisputed Pauline letters are read within the context of Paul’s mission emerging from its Jewish matrix, the resulting picture is rather different.[ii] 

The shift from a concern over merely Jewish badges and "boundary markers" to works as in self-achievement "may have happened already" by the writing of Ephesians?! Some NPP advocates argue that "old perspective" advocates are pulling Paul out of his context and modernizing him and distorting him with our Western "introspective consciences." But here, NPP's poster boy says that Paul was being modernized . . . .  in the 1st Century! 

While acknowledging that the NPP has brought many truths to the surface, I submit that the NPP advocates are the ones guilty of modernizing Paul on this particular issue. Away with sin, guilt, and blood. Replace those with community and unity, and dare not say anything remotely negative towards the Jews. Paul ends up sounding like a Postmodern, post-holocaust Protestant liberal. Surprise surprise. So when we bow the knee to all of God’s self-revelation, we see that seeking justification by works is a universal human problem, as we see from Ephesians and the Pastorals, as well as in Galatians and Romans.

[i] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 406.
[ii] James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 371.

Romans 7

Romans 7 is notoriously controversial. Good Bible people land on both sides of just who this chapter is referring to. Does it refer to a Christian's experience or the experience of the unbelieving Jewish struggle to obey the Mosaic law? I think the latter.

For me, there are three main reasons, the biggest being that the new covenant believer is not under the Law of Moses and that whole chapter is about the struggle to keep that law. He starts in 7:1 saying he is speaking to Jews: those who know the law. Then in 7:6 he says we are released from the law. So in my view it cannot refer to the Christian struggle to keep the law because we are released from that law. We "serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code" (7:6).

The second main point that pushes me this way is the absence of the Spirit in Ch. 7 and the abundance of "Spirit" language in ch. 8. The word "Spirit" occurs 34 times in the book of Romans and 21 of those occur in chapter 8! The Spirit as the gift of the new covenant is the solution to why a Jew could not obey. The Spirit is mentioned in 7:6 about being free from the law then not mentioned again until 8:2. I think 7:5 is unpacked in 7:7-25 and 7:6 is unpacked in 8:1-17.

The third reason is that a "Christian" reading of 7 seems to contradict what Paul writes in ch. 6 and 8 about the believer:

Rom 7:14 - "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin."

  • Rom 6:18 - "and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness."
  • Rom 6:22 - "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God"
  • Rom 7:5 - "For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death."
  • Rom 8:9 - "You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you."
Also, note the contrast between 7:23 and 8:2:

  • Rom 7:23 - "but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members."
  • Rom 8:2 - "For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death."

I do not think Rom 7:14 can be true of a believer. The dilemma of 7 is resolved in 8 through the work of Christ (Ch. 6) and the Spirit (Ch. 8).

(For theologians who take this view, see the work of Moo, Fee, Robert Reymond, Hays, Wright, Ridderbos, Longenecker, Chrysostom, Hoekema)

Acts 21:17-26

I get asked about Acts 21 a lot. What exactly is going on there? The rest of the NT is univocal on the fact that new covenant Christians are not under the Mosaic law, but here it seems as if at least Jewish believers were supposed to keep the law. Here is the passage:

When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them. (Acts 21:17-26 ESV)
There were rumors among the Jerusalem church that Paul taught that Jewish believers should not circumcise their children. The rumors were false. Paul had no problem with Jewish believers circumcising their children. In fact, recall that he himself had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3)! Circumcision is a matter of indifference. Three different times Paul writes that circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing (Gal. 5:6, 6:15, 1 Cor. 7:19).

What Paul took issue with was people teaching or thinking that circumcision contributed to one's righteousness before God. What brought Paul's fangs out was when people sought to add to the gospel. Any addition to the gospel is a subtraction. This is why he refused to have Titus circumcised (Gal. 2:3). Paul's attitude was the same towards observing days on the Jewish calendar and abstaining from meat: "Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. . . . One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom 14:4-5). If you eat and observe, do it for the Lord. If you abstain, do that for the Lord. Just don't judge one another on these indifferent matters.

Back in Jerusalem, to prove that Paul had no problem with Jewish believers voluntarily following the law, he joins and funds some men who were taking a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:1-21). The elders of the church in Jerusalem were not requiring Jewish believers to keep the Law and certainly were not asking Gentiles to do so (see Acts 15).

And Paul certainly didn't have to go along with their proposal. Perhaps he was wrong. But what we see is consistent with his practice and theology. He would rather go out of his way than cause believers to stumble. It was his aim to "give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God" and to try and "please everyone in everything" "not seeking [his] own advantage but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 10:32-11:1).

Also keep in mind that elsewhere, Paul will call such Jewish believers "weak" in faith, but encourages the strong to welcome them (Rom. 14:1). Those Jewish believers are wrong theologically but the strong ones are called to lay down their right for the edification of the many. What matters is walking in love (Rom. 14:15). "It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble" (Rom 14:21). The strong believer has an obligation to bear with the weak, to not please self, to please their neighbor, and to build them up - because that is exactly what Jesus did for us (Rom 15:1-3). Paul's actions in Acts 21 are consistent with his theology and practice. As F.F. Bruce once put it, "a truly emancipated spirit such as Paul's is not in bondage to its own emancipation."

So this is merely another example of Paul's missional lifestyle. He is willing to become all things to all people that he might further promote the gospel: "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings" (1 Cor 9:19-23). In Acts 21, we merely see Paul "become as a Jew."

What I love about this passage is the Christ-centered attitude of two significant leaders in the early church - one over Jews and one over Gentiles. James rejoices with the news of what God (not Paul) is doing among the Gentiles. Paul is happy to lay down his rights to avoid a conflict with James and to avoid mass Jewish stumbling.

One may question the "rightness" of the Jews who were still zealous for the law, the "rightness" of the proposal by James and the elders, or the "rightness" of Paul's course of action. But one may not question the coherence of Scripture. There is nothing in this account that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture on the topic of the law elsewhere. It is a beautiful description of a brilliant missionary-pastor driven by the cross.

What is the Law of Christ?

What exactly did the Apostle Paul mean when he spoke of "the law of Christ?"A lot of debate surrounds this little phrase, probably due to the fact that it only occurs one time in the whole New Testament. Galatians 6:2 says, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" [ton nomon tou Christou] (ESV). Paul uses a very similar phrase in 1 Corinthians 9:21: "To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ [ennomos Christou]) that I might win those outside the law." This verse could be translated "in-lawed to Christ."

Based upon these two occurrences and their surrounding contexts, I define the law of Christ as the pattern of rights-renouncing, self-giving love exemplified by Jesus on the cross.

Let's start with the Galatians passage. The first question to ask is what Paul means by "law?" He has used the word all over the letter and the vast majority of the time he is referring to the law of Moses given to Israel. Because of past usage in the letter, many think Paul is talking about the law of Moses here, just in light of Christ or some other variation. I don't think Paul is talking about the law of Moses in Galatians 6:2. First and foremost because he says law of Christ. Plus, throughout the letter, Paul has put Christ and the law in opposition to one another. This would be the first time to use them together in a positive way. The final reason that I think Paul is referring to some "other" law here comes from the passage we will look at next.There we will see that Paul explicitly says that the law of Christ and the law of Moses are distinct.

What then does he mean by "law of Christ"? Some think he means all the teaching of Jesus, a Messianic Torah of sorts. I simply do not think that much can be packed into these two verses. While it is obviously true that new covenant believers are bound to the teaching of Jesus, I just do not think that is what Paul means here by "the law of Christ."

Rather, I think Paul is pointing us to the example of Jesus. More specifically, the "pattern" Jesus shows us. Paul often uses word-plays and that's what he is doing here with "law" in Galatians 6:2. Right away, we see that fulfilling the law of Christ has something to do with bearing one another's burdens. It is by bearing one another's burdens that we fulfill the law of Christ. And Paul has shown again and again in this letter that Christ is the ultimate burden-bearer. He dies for our sake. He gives of self for our good - our salvation. That's what biblical love is: giving of self for the good of another. "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters" (NIV). He is the paradigmatic burden-bearer. He gave himself for our sins in order to deliver us from the present evil age (Gal 1:4). He gave of self for our good. He loved us and gave himself for us (Gal 2:20). Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. He gives of self for our good, bearing our burden. We, in turn, our called to do the same, thus fulfilling the pattern of Jesus.

Now, let's consider our second occurrence in 1 Corinthians 9. For a little more context, read 1 Corinthians 9:19-22: "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some."

We see clearly here that the law of Christ and the law of Moses are distinct. He says that he is not under the law, meaning law of Moses, but is under the law of God, which now means being in-lawed to Christ. He is neither under the law, nor outside the law. He is in another place altogether: in-lawed to Christ. He is law-less, not lawless but under the jurisdiction of Jesus.

These verses and their larger context in 1 Corinthians 8-11 are where I get the "rights-renouncing" part of the definition. A large portion of these chapters deal with food. With regard to eating food offered to idols, love should be the operating principle. Give up your right to eat to keep your brother from stumbling. "Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (1 Cor 8:9). Give up your rights for the sake of love for one another. If food makes another stumble, Paul says "I will never eat meat" (1 Cor 8:13). Chapter 9 is all about Paul's rights as an apostle. First Corinthians 9:4-5 says, "Do we not have the right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife?" Later he says he has a "rightful claim" to receive money for his labor, "nevertheless, we have not made use of this right" (1 Cor 9:12). The Apostle has all kinds of rights and claims "I have made no use of any of these rights" (1 Cor 9:15).

Which leads us back to our main passage in 1 Corinthians. He is free from all. He has that right, but he gives it up and becomes a servant of all to win as many as possible. To the weak he becomes weak. He becomes all things to all people to save some. He renounces his rights and gives of self for the good of others. That's precisely what it means to be "in-lawed to Christ."

Moving onto chapter 10, he basically defines the law of Christ for us: "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor" (1 Cor 10:24). Sounds like the Golden Rule, doesn't it? Or the Great Commandment? Must be onto something. At the end of the chapter he unpacks this pattern of Christ further: "I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved." He bears burdens, renounces rights, and gives of self. Then, overlooking the unfortunate chapter break, he ends this section with a command: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). Imitate me in this renouncing of rights and this giving of self because I am simply imitating Christ. I am simply fulfilling the law of Christ.

More could be said. More passages could be unpacked. Though the phrase "law of Christ" is not mentioned, I can't help but mention one more passage. The Christ hymn of Philippians 2 lays out this law of Christ beautifully. There Paul exhorts the Philippian believers to consider others better than themselves and to put the interests of others before their own. In other words, to give of self for the good of others. Then he commands them to have the mind of Christ, who though in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be used for his own advantage. Rather he emptied himself, took on human form, and died on a cross. Though he had rights (the form of God) he gave of self and bore our burden.

This is already long enough, but I think this view is easily confirmed by the writings of John. In fact, I think Paul is probably thinking of the episode recorded in John 13 where Jesus renounces his right to have his feet washed, "takes upon the form of a slave," and gives of self for the good of his disciples. Then the chapter ends with the new commandment to love others just as Jesus loved us. I hope a brief reflection on the context of the only two passages that mention the law of Christ is enough to see the validity of seeing it as the pattern of the rights-renouncing, self-giving love of Jesus - for the good of others and the glory of God.

The "From God" Righeousness

A couple of weeks ago, I preached on Philippians 3:4-11. Verse 9 is chuck full of gospel richness:

I want to gain the Messiah "and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ-- the righteousness from God based on faith."

In the sermon, I pointed out four things about this righteousness:

First, it is found “in Him.” All people are either in Adam or in the Last Adam. The doctrine of union with Christ is the key that unlocks the riches of Christ, the hub from which all the spokes of the blessing of salvation flow. Romans 3:24 says, "They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (my italics). Romans 8:1 reads "Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus" (my italics). Galatians 2:17 says "But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?" (my italics, ESV). Second Corinthians 5:21 reads, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (my italics, ESV). First Corinthians 1:30 reads, "And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (my italics, ESV). You get the picture. The status of righteous is found in union with Christ. Calvin, in the first paragraph of Book Three of The Institutes, says, “First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us” (3.1.1).

Second, it is not found by our own doing. Galatians 2:16 is emphatic in this regard. Note that the Apostle basically says the same thing three times in a row in this verse: "Know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified."

Third, it comes through faith in Jesus Christ. It is important to note that it is not mere faith that is acceptable to God, but faith in Jesus Christ. People assume that all roads lead to God, as long as you “have faith;” as long as you are sincere in what you believe. This is offensive in our pluralistic context, but sincerity is garbage to Paul (3:8). He was sincerely committed to Judaism, advancing beyond his peers. But he came to find out that he was sincerely wrong. Faith in Christ is the necessary and exclusive condition for being found righteous before a holy God.

Fourth, this righteousness is a gift of God (ek theou). Oh, and what a precious gift!? Infinitely more valuable than all the world’s gold, the highest academic pedigree, all the respect of all the businesses of the world. “Dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.” We needed an alien righteousness, one that we could not of ourselves produce, and God in his grace has provided it. Praise Him.

Secret Rapture?

A whole bunch of Christians believe in a secret rapture. In many pockets, it is a matter of orthodoxy. It's gospel. I have been surprised to find that many can't point to a single passage which teaches a secret pre-tribulation rapture. Yesterday, I read the main passage that Dispensational theologians will use to prove their doctrine: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. That passage reads,

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord's coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel's voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words"

I confess I simply don't see it. Let me point out three simple points about this passage, which make the pre-tribulation rapture view implausible:

First, there is nothing secret about this coming. There will be a shout; an archangel's voice; a trumpet. Unless we are dealing with a sort of "Christian dog whistle" here, Paul's point is that this is going to be a very loud event. Certainly not a secret one.

Second, if the secret pre-tribulation rapture view is right, Paul's encouragement (and that's the main purpose of this passage) would be strange. The confused Thessalonian Christians were concerned that the Day of the Lord has already happened (5:1-2). They were worried about their brothers and sisters who had already died. But if the Dispensational view was right, all Paul would have had to say was, "Look around sillies, we are still here on Earth so of course the secret rapture has not occurred yet."

Third, and most importantly, the word for "to meet" (apantesis) was a popular one in the Greek world. It was a word used when a visiting dignitary came to town. Much like today, if President Obama came to town, we wouldn't just let him mosey on in. The people of the city would go out of the city "to meet" him and escort him into town to his desired destination. Paul plunders imperial vocabulary here to say that when the Lord loudly returns, we who are alive will be raptured - meeting him in the air - in order to escort the King to his renewed earth, where we will be with him forever.

Universal Atonement?

I confess I like Greg Boyd. I know, I know. I am not supposed to, and I bet the doctrinal police will write my blog off for such a confession, but I do. I've read three of his books and enjoyed them very much. I think all American Christians would benefit from reading his The Myth of a Christian Nation. I have listened to many, many of his sermons. I think it is important for pastors to read and listen broadly. It helps keep the world big. I listen and read many "outside my tribe," but one of the things I love about Greg, in particular, is that he is theologically driven. Now, much of it is not my theology. Some of it is far from it, but I appreciate how he seeks to wrestle with Scripture even when I think he tapped out too soon.

All that to say, I was listening to one of his sermons recently from 2 Corinthians 5. He is not a universalist but does "empathize" with it because of passages like this one and a couple others. I hear this sort of reasoning from these key passages frequently so thought I'd blog my thoughts on them. Here are the three main passages:

  • 2 Corinthians 5:15 "And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised." (HCSB)
  • Romans 5:18 "So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is life-giving justification for everyone." (HCSB)
  • 1 Corinthians 15:22 "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive." (HCSB)

We have all heard the "Bible says all. All means all, so I believe it" kind of reasoning, but it is not quite that simple. If these "alls" are all without exception then the verses prove too much and universalism must be true. In other words, the only Evangelical options for these verses are universalism or definite atonement. If Christ was put forward as a wrath-bearing substitute for all without exception, then there can be no wrath for anyone. If he died for all without exception, then there will be life-giving justification for everyone. If he was the substitute for all without exception, then all without exception will be made alive. These verses pose a real problem for those who hold to exclusivity and a universal atonement.

So is universalism true? Hardly. That's an alien worldview imposed on the Bible. What's the solution then? Once one understands the corporate personalities of Adam and the Last Adam, these verses make perfect sense.

Let me paraphrase the verses: Jesus died for all whom he represents, so that all those he died for would no longer live for themselves. It would make no sense to say that Jesus died for all without exception so that all without exception should no longer live for themselves. If that were true, according to this verse, the cross of Christ is a failure because there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who live for one: self.

With regard to Paul's "Christ/Adam" theology, he is referring to the "all" within their respective representative heads. Adam is the representative head of all humanity; Christ is the representative head of the new humanity, the elect. So the verses are saying that there is condemnation for all represented by Adam but life-giving justification for all represented by Christ, the last Adam. In Adam, all under his headship die but all under Christ's headship are made alive. So, universalism is at odds with the rest of Scripture and universal atonement proves too much and leads to universalism. In my humble opinion, only a definite atonement makes sense of these three verses.

What Really Counts?

         Paul has a formula he likes to employ that goes like this: “Neither circumcision nor uncircimcision counts, but . . . .” This is the “rule” or “canon” of the new creation (canōn from Gal. 6:16). He uses it three different times in his preserved writings:

  •          Galatians 5:6 – “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (NIV) 

  •         Galatians 6:15 – “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation." 

  •          1 Corinthians 7:19 – “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts."

Ethnicity doesn’t count. What matters is keeping the commandments of God. Although some point to this verse to say that we must obey the Torah, we know this is not the case from what Paul says just a couple of chapters later: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law" (1 Cor 9:20-21 ESV). Here Paul clearly distinguishes the Torah (law – nomos) from the law of God, which now consists in being under the jurisdiction of Jesus. This is how Paul can say that obeying God is all that matters! This is a word the Corinthians needed to hear.

Ethnicity doesn’t count. What matters is the new creation. In Christ, the new creation has come. All the promises of God are yes in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20). Second Corinthians 5:17 reads, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" Christ has come and delivered us from the present evil age and through his resurrection has ushered in the age to come in the here and now. The cross and resurrection is the pivot point of the ages and this is all that counts!

Ethnicity doesn’t count. What matters is only faith working through love. This verse would probably have been shocking to its first hearers. Throughout the letter, Paul has contrasted faith and works. For example, he makes this contrast three times in the scope of a single verse! Galatians 2:16 reads, "know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified." So, we are fundamentally called to trust God – but as James shows us with force: faith without works is dead. True faith “goes public” in good works. Saving faith is never static, but issues forth in love. And of course love is a fruit of the Spirit – who was promised as an end-time gift of the new creation (Isa 32:15, 44:3, Joel 2).

Circumcision doesn’t matter. But neither is there any special merit in uncircumcision. All that counts is keeping God’s commands, the new creation, and faith working through love.

Not By Works - But For Works

Both Protestants and Catholics believe that good works are important – vitally so! One cannot read the New Testament and come away thinking otherwise. But the way we approach good works differs greatly. We believe that good works flow from the reality that good works can’t save us. We have such a high view of good works that we realize someone must intervene. Our works are insufficient. We need help.
 We believe that the gospel teaches us that our good works are not our ultimate ground of confidence before God. Our confidence is found in Christ crucified in our place. Our only boast is in Christ. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. So one of the clearest principles gleaned from the Protestant Reformation is that we are not saved by works.

We are not saved by works, but we are saved for works. The “by” and the “for” are so important for Christian living. God desires that we walk in the confidence that he is pleased with us because we are “in Christ” by faith. As Luther put it, “God does not need your good works – your neighbor does.” In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (ESV). The Apostle Paul is constantly jealous for the glory of God. He wants his readers to know that when they rightly understand God’s plan and purpose, they will realize there is zero room for human boasting. This whole thing is not your own doing! It is not about you! Faith, grace, and all salvation is God’s gift. This is not a result of your working, to keep you from boasting.

He doesn’t stop there though. He now makes a statement that is grounded in the reality of salvation by grace through faith: For (gar) we are God’s handiwork (NIV - poiēma). We are his poem created in his Messiah for good works! We are not saved by works, but for works, which God has already laid out beforehand to be our “way of life” (NRSV).

            Paul lays out this same order in Titus 3. There we read:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people." (Titus 3:3-8)
Notice that the Holy Spirit moves Paul to write that God our Savior has appeared and saved us – not because of works done by us in righteousness but according to his mercy. In other words, we are not saved by our works but because of God’s mercy. Again, Paul is not through yet. Later on in verse 8, we read that we should be careful to devote ourselves to good works! So we are not saved by works but must be careful to devote ourselves to them. The fact that good works does not and cannot save us is meant to be the foundation from which are zeal for good works flows.

Pastor Tim Keller aptly writes, “Religion operates on the principle ‘I obey—therefore I am accepted by God.’  But the operating principle of the gospel is ‘I am accepted by God through what Christ has done—therefore I obey.”[1]  The order makes all the difference in the world. This order is what separates Christianity from every other religion. This is what makes the gospel unique and salvation exclusive. We are not saved by works – but for them.

[1] Tim Keller, The Reason for God (NY: Dutton, 2008), 179-80.

Apostolic Exegesis

"We must learn from how the New Testament writers themselves interpreted the Old Testament. When we do this, we will see that the Old Testament prophecies concerning the nation of Israel are fulfilled in Christ and in the gospel."

-Ben Merkle, "Old Testament Restoration Prophecies Regarding the Nation of Israel: Literal or Symbolic?," The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14.1 (Spring 2010), 21.