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5. The Fall of Man in God's Perfect Plan

Introduction

A few years ago, Delta Flight 191 crashed at Dallas-Fort Worth airport killing scores of people and injuring others. Pieces of wreckage were carefully removed and stored for further analysis. Since that time, the cause of the crash has been the focus of extended research, analysis, and even litigation. Understandably, the cause of such a tragedy is of great concern.

Few could deny that something seems desperately wrong with the world in which we live. This very day Kurdish people endure unimaginable suffering at the hands of the Iraqi army and even of nature itself. Innocent children starve to death. The Nazi regime cruelly slaughtered millions of Jews not so long ago, while the world knew better and chose to look away. Rampant crime, cruelty, corruption, and injustice exist side by side. Pollution, nuclear waste, disintegration of the ozone layer, acid rain, and a host of other maladies are bringing the earth itself to the brink of disaster. Among the informed, little optimism remains.

The desperate plight of our planet has convinced some that there is no God. Those who do believe in a God find God somehow responsible for all that is painful. They think God is either cruel or that He is not in control. But God is in control. His perfect plan does include the suffering and agony we see all about us. In answering “What in the world is going on?”, another question must be asked and then answered: “What in the world went wrong?” That question forms the basis of our lesson.

In this lesson we will trace sin and suffering to its earthly origins and causes. God’s Word clearly and emphatically tells us why the world is in such a pathetic plight: By divine permission Satan tempted Adam and Eve; they sinned, and God has graciously pronounced upon all creation a curse for which He has provided the cure.

We begin our study at the outset of human history as recorded in the first few chapters of Genesis. We will consider the biblical account of creation, the fall, and its consequences for mankind. We will show how the fall fits into God’s plan for man up to the present. Turning to the final chapters of the Bible where God concludes His plan for creation, we will see how the fall of man played a major role in the carrying out of God’s plan.

The Scene is Set: Genesis 1 and 2

The more I study the early chapters of Genesis the more convinced I have become of their purpose. Providing a scientific explanation of creation39 is not the purpose of chapters 1 and 2. Rather, their purpose is to set the scene for the fall of man, a major turning point in the history of creation.

Genesis 1 describes the creation of our world as it relates to God’s purpose for man. Man was created by God to rule over His creation:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1:26-31).

Man’s purpose was to exercise dominion over all creation, in God’s image. Adam and his wife were to rule over the earth. They were to reproduce, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Every plant and tree was provided for their food.

Genesis 1 portrays the big picture, the role Adam and Eve were to play in relation to the entire creation. Genesis 2 narrows the focus to the garden of Eden. Adam was placed in the garden to cultivate or keep it. This was no ordinary orchard; God had planted various trees in the garden to provide for man’s needs. All the trees shared the common characteristics of being “pleasing to the sight and good for food.” The “fruit” of the two trees in the center of the garden would provide either “life” or “the knowledge of good and evil.”

The fruit of all but one tree was provided for Adam and Eve to eat. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” though pleasing to look at and good for food, was not good for man. Eating its fruit would give the partaker a knowledge of good and evil, but it would also certainly produce his or her death.

When God formed every creature from the dust of the ground, He caused each to pass before Adam for him to name. Each had its own mate, its counter-part. These pairs of creatures were able to procreate and fulfill the mandate to multiply and fill the earth. Not so with Adam. He too needed a counterpart--a wife. God wanted Adam to sense this need, and then joyfully receive the one whom He fashioned to meet his need.

After showing Adam his need for a helper, God created one. Rather than create the woman from the ground, God put Adam to sleep and fashioned her from a rib which He took from Adam’s side. Neither Adam nor Eve had parents. Eve was brought into being through Adam’s flesh. Eve had no tie to her parents, but only union with her husband. Because of the nature of this first relationship between Adam and Eve, Moses parenthetically interjects the principle that when a man and woman come together, the husband must subordinate the tie he once had with his parents to the tie he now has with his wife (verse 24).

Before studying the fall of man in Genesis 3, let us pause to reflect on the setting described in the first two chapters. Genesis 1 serves as a commentary on the fall of man in chapter 3. According to this account, all of creation came into existence in response to one thing: the spoken Word of God. God spoke creation into existence. The key words of chapter one are, “God said . . .” The spoken Word of God is precisely what Satan first questioned, and then denied. What basis did Adam have for believing God’s word? God’s Word brought all of creation into existence. The God who said, “. . . from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (2:17) is the God who had said, “Let there be . . .” and with these words brought the world into existence.

Genesis 2 likewise is most significant when read in light of chapter 3. In chapter 3, Satan convinced the woman that God was holding back something “good” from her by prohibiting her from eating of the forbidden tree. With Satan’s prompting, Eve becomes convinced of her need to “know good and evil” and feels compelled to eat of the fruit of that forbidden tree. But all of chapter 2 denies what Eve assumed about God. Chapter 2 has a prominent theme: God provides what is lacking and necessary. Chapter 2 describes the creation of the garden, of Adam, and of Eve--all pointing to God’s provision of what was lacking and necessary.

No shrubs or trees were yet on the earth in chapter 2 (verse 4). There was no rain to water the plants or a man present to cultivate the land. God therefore planted a garden with trees providing all that was needed, a river for irrigation, and a man to cultivate the land. There was also a need for a helper for Adam, and so God fashioned the perfect mate. At every point of legitimate need, God created what was needed. How, then, dare Satan suggest (or Eve believe) that God had withheld something from her which she needed?

The Fall of Man: Genesis 3

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die.’ “ And the serpent said to the woman, “You surely shall not die! “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of Thee in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And the man said, “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman said,” The serpent deceived me, and I ate. “

And the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly shall you go, And dust shall you eat All the days of your life; And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel. “ To the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you shall bring forth children; Yet your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you shall eat the plants of the field; By the sweat of your face You shall eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.” By the sweat of your face You shall eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.”

Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living. And the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them. Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”--therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:1-24).

This lesson seeks to view the fall of man in the light of the overall plan of God for creation. Therefore, although a more detailed exposition of the text would be most profitable, we must limit ourselves to a few observations and comments. Hopefully, they will serve as a stimulus for your additional study.

(1) The fall seems to take place early, quickly, with no resistance at all. Paul’s description of his struggle with sin in Romans 7 evidences a very real struggle. Genesis 3 appears to have no struggle at all. Neither Eve nor Adam raise so much as one word of protest or argument against Satan. They appear to be easy prey for his cunning attack. One would have expected Eve to at least have said something like, “Well, what do you know, a talking snake. Adam, come over here. You’ve got to see this!” It all happened so fast, so easily. Even in his unfallen state, man was no match for the wiles of Satan.

(2) Satan and Eve are prominent in the account of the fall; Adam is less prominent. Adam’s sin is more passive in nature, while that of the serpent and Eve is more aggressive. The leader followed, and the followers led.

(3) The fall reverses the divinely established order of authority. The “chain-of-command” is God: Adam, Eve, creature (which surely includes the serpent). The order of actions related to the fall are: serpent, Eve, Adam. When God confronts those responsible for the fall, the order is that of His chain-of-command: Adam (verse 9), Eve (verse 13), the serpent (verse 14).40 It is little wonder that the one who rebelled against God’s authority over him (Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:12-15) would seek to overturn God’s order of authority.

(4) Eve was deceived; Adam was not. Eve did not know what she was doing as Adam did. Adam’s sin was the more culpable, both because he was the one who was to lead and because he sinned knowingly rather than ignorantly.41

(5) None of the participants assumes responsibility for their actions, and no one repents of their sin. Rather than assume responsibility for their own actions, Adam and Even passed the responsibility on. From their actions in Genesis 3:7-8 and Job’s statement in Job 31:33, we know Adam tried to conceal rather than confess his sin.

(6) Satan’s deception greatly distorted Eve’s perspective. The God who generously provided all things for Adam and Eve to “richly enjoy” is quickly perceived as a tight-fisted tyrant because one fruit is forbidden. The forbidden fruit was now seen as desirable even though it was deadly. The tree of life was overshadowed by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve saw only this one forbidden tree as “good for food” and as a “delight to the eyes,” when in reality every tree in the garden had these same qualities (see Genesis 2:9).

(7) Satan succeeded in persuading Adam and Eve to trust his words, while doubting and disobeying God’s Word. The Word of God which so recently brought the universe into existence (see 1:14) was first questioned and then denied once it forbade the fruit of the forbidden tree.

(8) Man’s disobedience in the garden is the fruit of unbelief, just as his obedience would have been the fruit of faith. Why was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil forbidden? Our text indicates a fascinating twist in Eve’s thinking. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil enabled one to know good and evil (see 3:22), which Eve deceptively believed was both necessary and beneficial.42 It was neither. Eve only needed to know that God had forbidden the fruit of this tree.

Had Eve trusted God, she would have found His Word sufficient. She needed only to know who had forbidden the fruit, not why the fruit was forbidden. Eve needed only to know what God had said--she did not need to understand why the fruit of that one tree was forbidden.

There is an important principle to be seen here: God desires from us the obedience of faith. Such obedience is not based upon our understanding of why we are to act as God requires, but simply because it is God who requires it.

The obedience of faith is based on our faith in God, not on our understanding of why God calls one thing good and another evil. Parents teach their children to obey on the same basis. You cannot explain to a young child why an electrical outlet is dangerous. You can only forbid them to touch it, because you said so, and because they trust your word.

How quickly we shake our heads and point our finger at Eve. “How foolish not to have trusted God and obeyed His clear command,” we say. Eve’s temptation is still with us, and her sin is routinely repeated without our even knowing it because of our warped perception. We say we desire to obey God, but we want to understand why we should obey Him before we do. We want to understand why God has commanded some things and prohibited others. When we fail to understand the reason, as quickly and easily as Eve, we reject God’s commandment.

One example relates directly to our text. Because of Eve’s part in the fall, women are now prohibited from places of preeminence and power in the church. Found in more than one text, Paul’s teaching is clear:

Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? (1 Corinthians 14:34-36).

Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments; but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness. Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint (1 Timothy 2:8-15).

Does anyone doubt the response Paul expected from his instruction here? Then why do churches all over the world place women in leadership positions in spite of the clear prohibition of Scripture? Because they find God’s reasons difficult to understand and even harder to accept. When God’s Word does not make sense to us, we disregard His teaching no matter how clear it may be. Just as Eve became convinced that God was holding back something good and desirable from her in the forbidden fruit, women wince at Paul’s words, believing he has restricted them from something which is both desirable and needed.

Following Eve’s footsteps is not limited to women. Like Adam, men find it easier to sit back and let the women take over rather than assume the leadership role God has given them.

In the Old Testament Law, distinctions between clean and unclean foods were made by God and imposed on the Israelites. After the coming of the Lord Jesus, these distinctions were set aside (see Mark 7:18-19; Acts 10-11). From a human point of view, I believe these distinctions were arbitrary. Some try to offer explanations for them, but I believe there are no explanations. God simply wanted His people to obey Him by observing these distinctions, even though they did not understand them. Understanding why God wants us to obey in a particular way requires leaning on our own understanding rather than simply trusting in Him. This is God’s way, as it has always been:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and turn away from evil (Proverbs 3:5-7).43

The fall of man occurred with unbelievable speed and ease. God’s response was prompt, pointed, and painful. In addition to the general curse of death, individual curses were pronounced on the serpent, Eve, and Adam. Each curse was particularly suited to the nature of the offense.

Satan’s curse was three-fold. First, all the days of his life, the serpent would eat dust and crawl on his belly. a humbling fate for one so proud and haughty. This one who desired to reign from on high was cut down to the earth (see Isaiah 14:12-14). Far from walking tall on the earth, the serpent must henceforth crawl in the dust.

Second, God put enmity between the woman and the serpent. Had Eve been more than willing to engage in conversation with the serpent? Never again, for she would now flee from him on sight. And third comes the most encouraging curse of all: Satan’s curse finally ends with his destruction. Did the serpent cause the woman to stumble and trip? One of her offspring will crush the serpent’s head with a fatal striking blow. In the process, Christ will suffer a bruised heel, an injury our Lord chooses to inflict upon Himself.44

Eve’s curse is two-fold. Her sin involved doubting and disobeying God, and also acting independently of her husband. Eve led when she should have been following. Her deliverance would be through her “seed,” who would crush the serpent’s head. The process through which her deliverance came would be painful to her seed (the bruised heel) and also to her. Child-bearing, the means of her deliverance, would be a painful event. Labor pains were a part of Eve’s curse, and for all women who follow in childbirth.

Eve’s second curse was to be ruled over by her husband. Had she taken charge in the fall? She would now be ruled by her husband. God created Eve to be her husband’s helper, not his leader. We must remember that Adam’s headship, even before the fall, was based on his prior existence and the fact that Eve was created from his flesh (see 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, especially verses 8-12). Even before the fall, Eve should have played a subordinate role to Adam, similar to the subordination of the Son to the Father. God’s words to Eve are: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16b).

At first glance it seems as though God is saying the woman will be attracted to her husband, and that he will rule over her. I believe the curse should be understood differently. The same expression which occurs in Genesis 3:16 is also found in Genesis 4 where God warns Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7b).

In this context, the sin crouching at Cain’s door desires to master him. God admonishes Cain that he must not let this happen. Cain must not let sin master him; instead, he must master sin. God’s words to Eve should therefore be understood in this way: “Your desire will be to dominate your husband, but your curse will be that he will rule over you.”

The woman’s curse brings for her the opposite of what she desires.45

Adam is cursed with labor pains of a different order. God identifies one of Adam’s sins as “listening to his wife.” “Listen” is synonymous with the term “obey.” Rather than lead, Adam followed, disobeying God. Rather than following God and her husband, Eve led. Because of this reversal of obedience, God pronounced two curses on Adam.

First, the ground was cursed and would rebel against Adam even as he had rebelled against God. Adam was to exercise dominion over the creation. His task was to cultivate the land. Before his disobedience, the land provided Adam with all he needed. Now, the land would be in rebellion against him, and he would have to fight for everything which the land only begrudgingly yielded to him. Thorns and thistles would now grow as willingly as food-producing plants once did. From this point on, nothing would come easy. Existence became a matter of survival by the sweat of his face.

Second, while Adam would spend his life fighting the ground for food for himself and his family, ultimately he would succumb to the ground. As he had come from the dust, in death he would return to the dust. The ground seems to win the life-long struggle which man’s curse destines him to wage with it.

The Curse Continues

The curses of Genesis 3:14-19 included not only Adam, Eve, and the serpent but also their offspring. It did not take long to see the consequences of these curses in the life of this man and his wife, as well as in their offspring.

Adam and Eve gained a knowledge of good and evil, one they would regret. Gone was the innocence they had once enjoyed. Their nakedness, which once caused them no shame (Genesis 2:25), now made them ashamed to stand before God. Hastily made loin coverings with fig leaves still made them feel naked and ashamed. The daily encounter with God to which they once looked forward they now sought to avoid. They were banned from the garden and from access to the tree of life (3:22-24). Their son Cain killed his brother Abel (4:1-11). Later, Lamech boasted to his wives about killing a young lad who had struck him (4:23-24). Genesis 5, a virtual graveyard, lists the life span and deaths of Adam and Eve’s offspring. When we reach the sixth chapter of Genesis, the whole earth has become corrupt, requiring the judgment of the flood.

When the world started afresh with Noah and the seven other members of his family, one might expect things to improve. They did not. Noah became drunk, resulting in the curse he pronounced on Canaan, his grandson (see Genesis 9:25-27). By Genesis 11, men join together to disobey the divine command to Noah and his descendants to disperse and populate the earth (9:1). When men banded together to build the city and the tower of Babel, God stopped them in their tracks by confusing their languages (11:1-9). Things went from bad to worse. Clearly, the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden was the fall of man.

The Curse and Its Consequences

Monumental consequences resulted from the fall of man in the garden of Eden. Those consequences were the result of the curses associated with the fall. God’s curses fell not only upon Adam and Eve but upon all of their offspring. Paul speaks in Romans and in 1 Corinthians of the on-going effects of Adam’s sin:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned--for until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:12-21).

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

The history of man, and especially of God’s people, bears constant witness to the sinfulness of man. Their sins were the result of the sins of their forefathers and of their own waywardness as well:

“Your first forefather sinned, and your spokesmen have transgressed against Me” (Isaiah 43:27).

“Now it will come about when you tell this people all these words that they will say to you, ‘For what reason has the Lord declared all this great calamity against us? And what is our iniquity, or what is our sin which we have committed against the Lord our God?’ “Then you are to say to them, ‘It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘and have followed other gods and served them and bowed down to them; but Me they have forsaken and have not kept My law. ‘You too have done evil, even more than your forefathers; for behold, you are each one walking according to the stubbornness of his own evil heart, without listening to Me” (Jeremiah 16:10-12).

The biblical account of the fall of man recorded in Genesis 3 explains the mess we see within us and in the world without. Adam’s sin explains the sin nature within each of us. We sin because we are like Adam, our father. The sufferings of man and all of creation are the consequences of the fall of man:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it (Romans 8:18-25).

Good News for a Fallen World

Are you perplexed by the evil, suffering, and injustice of our world? You need look no further for the explanation. Man and creation are suffering and groaning due to the consequences of sin. Something is wrong with the world: Satan, sin, and sinners. This is the bad news. The good news is that God included sin and suffering in His plan for creation. How can this be? The explanation is found in the Bible, which speaks of God’s plan for man and creation. Let us consider several reasons why a good God has incorporated man’s fall and its consequences into His plan for creation.

(1) God’s response to the fall of man demonstrates His glory. God’s dealings with sinful men most effectively manifest His glory:

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).

God’s purpose is to demonstrate His glory. Since the way He deals with sin reveals His glory, the fall of man is included in God’s plan for creation. The fall of man is the context in which God’s glory is revealed.

(2) God’s plan, established before the foundation of the world, anticipated sin and the suffering it would bring. More than this, God’s plan made provision for sin by means of the suffering of the Son of God. Do we think God is harsh in allowing sin to enter the world to produce pain and suffering? No one has suffered more because of sin than the suffering Savior:

He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:3-6).

“This Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:23-24).

Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God (1 Peter 1:18-21).

(3) In God’s plan the curse is a part of the cure. This is evident in the curses found in Genesis 3. The woman’s curse is pain in her childbearing, but her deliverance is in childbearing, for it is her seed who will crush the serpent’s head. Satan’s curse included his crushed head. That curse, when fully executed, spells deliverance from a sin ravaged world. Adam’s curse also points to our deliverance. The cursed soil means that Adam, though he labors hard, must look to God for his crops. And the curse of death pronounced on Adam is God’s means for our cure. It is the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, on our behalf, which saves us from our sins and provides us with the assurance of eternal life.

Everywhere--within us and without--the curse is evident. The suffering, chaos, and tragedy of our world shouts for our attention, telling us something is desperately wrong. God is gracious to give us this indication of trouble. Those most affected by the curse are, in Jesus’ words, the most blessed. God may well use men’s affliction to turn them to Himself:

And turning His gaze on His disciples, He began to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. “Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. “Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets” (Luke 6:20-26).

Suffering, the painful consequence of sin, is also the means by which God has chosen to produce our blessings. Suffering is not opposed to glory; it is the road to glory. So it was for our Lord, and so it is for us. The curse is a part of the process by which the cure is produced.

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 1:20-25).

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14).

(4) In God’s plan, sin and the curse made possible a cure with blessings better than those lost by Adam’s sin and the curse. Sin and condemnation are not the end of man’s hope, but the starting point. In His grace, God condemns men so that He might manifest His grace upon them: “For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32).

Sin does not slam the door on God’s blessings; it opens the door for His grace. Jesus did not come to provide salvation for saints, but for sinners. He came to seek and to save those who are lost. Until sin and the fall, there was no occasion for God to deal with men graciously. After sin and the fall, He could only bless men by dealing graciously with them. “But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20b).

Job’s experiences serve as an illustration. As described in chapter 1 of the Book of Job, Job is an ideal servant of God. God Himself says, “There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:8b). Job was not sinless, but he was an excellent example of a servant of God. In this state, Job was something like Adam and Eve before the fall.

Then Satan was allowed to afflict Job. Eventually, Job’s suffering got to him. While Job did not curse God, he surely acted in an unseemly way. He sinned. By the end of the book, we see a new Job, humbled by his suffering and by God’s rebuke but with a much deeper love and devotion for His God. He is now a man who more fully grasps the wisdom of God and who has experienced His grace. Job is not just more prosperous for the experience; He is nearer to God than he has ever been before. While Satan attempted to alienate Job from God, Job’s sin was the occasion for grace, bringing repentance, reconciliation, and a more intimate union with God. Job’s experience is the experience of all who receive God’s grace as a result of sin.

It is all too easy to think of God’s “cure” in Jesus Christ as a restoration, merely restoring everything to the condition in which it was found before the fall. This is simply not the case. The last state, as it were, is vastly better than the first, for all those who are the called according to His purpose.

If the first three chapters of the Bible explain the condition of mankind and the world due to the fall of man and the curse, the last two chapters of the Bible explain the depths of the cure made possible by God through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Here, as one radio commentator would say, is “the rest of the story:”

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true” (Revelation 21:1-5).

And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5).

As one compares the description of the new heavens and earth in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation with the paradise of Eden, a very clear message emerges.

(1) The last paradise is like the first. The tree of life, which was in paradise lost is in the heavenly city.

(2) The paradise of Revelation is not identical with that of Eden. The paradise of Genesis had a sun, a sea, and a night. The paradise of Revelation has no sun, no sea, and no night.

(3) In the paradise of Revelation, the curses of Genesis are removed.

(4) The paradise of Revelation is vastly better than the paradise of Eden.

For your meditation, I submit the evident differences between “paradise lost” of Genesis 2 and “paradise gained” in Revelation 21 and 22. In every case, the “paradise” of Revelation is a better paradise than that forfeited by man at the fall. Consider the following contrasts:

The Old Paradise

The New Paradise

Genesis 2

Revelation 21-22

An earthly paradise

A heavenly paradise (Hebrews 11:13-16)

Came through the spoken Word

Came through the Living Word

Genesis 1

Heb. 1:1-3; 1 John 1:1-3

A garden

A glorious city

A place for unfallen man

A place for redeemed men

A marriage of Adam and Eve

A marriage of Christ and His bride

Man fellowships with God from time to time

God dwells among men, continually
Men are one with God, in Christ

Men reflect God’s image

Men fully conformed to Christ’s image

Satan present

Satan absent forever

A threatened curse

No more curse

An earthly light

God is the light

Some precious metal found

Precious metal abounds (streets of gold)

Day and night

No night

Sea and land

No sea

Worship unmentioned

Worship unceasing

Two people walk with God

Men of all nations, the angels, all creation worship God

Son of God not mentioned

Son of God prominent

Conclusion

God’s eternal plan for creation included the fall of man and all creation. While there were painful consequences for sin, the curses were divinely purposed to serve as a part of the cure. In dealing with the sins of men, God’s glory is revealed. In forgiving the sins of men, the grace of God is manifested. And in the end, the last state of the believer is far better than the first. God purposed the fall of man for His glory and for our good.

As we conclude this lesson, let us reflect on two transforming truths. First, God’s plan is one that turns ruin to redemption and a curse into a blessing. Adam and his wife failed to trust and obey God. They made a tragic mistake which brought sin and condemnation on themselves and their descendants. No one has ever made a more tragic mess of their lives.

God’s plan included this tragic failure, as well as its painful consequences. But it also included a cure, a cure which would provide a better paradise than that which was lost due to sin. Adam and Eve’s life seemed to be ruined by their sin, but God promised a cure and a better paradise waits them.

What is true for them is true for every person who has “ruined” their life by sin. An unmarried girl makes some wrong decisions and becomes pregnant. She thinks her life is ruined, that things can never be what they once were. A prisoner sits in his cell, wishing he could turn back the clock and change the course of his life. He fears that his life is ruined irreversibly.

Things will never be the same for those who have fallen and whose lives are in ruin. But they can be better than they ever were. That is the good news of the gospel. That is the wonder of God’s plan. God takes what we have ruined by sin and makes it far better, through His Son. You cannot ruin your life beyond God’s ability to redeem it. God’s grace is always greater than your sin.

There is the matter of the curse. The natural man is still in Adam and thus condemned by the curse of sin and death. Only one way is provided for men to be delivered from the curse and to experience the blessing of God’s cure. That way is through faith in Jesus Christ. He bore the curse. He suffered and died for sinners. Those who are “in Christ” by faith are delivered from the curse and delight in the cure. Those who reject Christ remain in Adam, under the curse.

There in the center of the garden before the eyes of Adam and Eve stood two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They had a choice to make: either they could eat of the tree of life and live forever, or they could eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and die. Strange though it may seem, they chose to eat of the forbidden fruit.

We are not like Adam and Eve in that we were born in sin and are doomed to die. We do have a choice, however. It is a similar choice to that which faced Adam and Eve. We may either cling to our identification with Adam, and die, or we may be given a new identify in Christ, and live. To reject Christ is to remain in our sins. To trust in Christ is to die to sin and its curse, in Him. The choice which confronted Adam and Eve is now before you. Will you choose life or death, Adam or Christ? I pray that you will renounce your identification with Adam and find God’s cure in Christ, by trusting Him in simple faith.

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) What evidence does the Bible provide to assure us that what is described in Genesis 1-3 was a real, historical event and not just a myth or story?

Adam and Eve are referred to elsewhere in the Bible as real persons who sinned as described in Genesis 3. Adam is listed in the genealogies. The obedience of Christ is said to have reversed the sin of Adam and its consequences, for all who believe. Eve also is referred to as a real person, whose sin has consequences for all women. (For Adam, see Genesis 5:1-5; 1 Chronicles 1:1; Job 31:33; Hosea 6:7; Luke 3:38; Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:45; 1 Timothy 2:13-14; Jude 1:14. For Eve, see 2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Timothy 2:13).

(2) What in the world is wrong with the world? Is God to blame? Is the fall a part of God’s plan and purpose? If God’s purpose for creation is the demonstration of His glory, in what way(s) does the fall contribute to this end?

There is something desperately wrong with the world which is evidenced by chaos, violence, and suffering. The cause of all the world’s woes is sin and its consequences. God did plan for man to fall and for Christ to suffer and die for sinners. He did not in any way encourage the fall, although Satan was permitted to tempt and to deceive Eve.

The demonstration of God’s glory is the purpose of His plan. God’s glory is manifested through the revelation of His attributes as seen by His dealing with man’s sin (see Exodus 33:17--34:9). Apart from the black backdrop of man’s sin, the holiness, justice, mercy, grace, compassion, and longsuffering of God would never have been evident. A perfect world would not demonstrate all that God is and thus reveal all His glory. An imperfect world enables God to display His full splendor and glory (see Exodus 33:17-23; 34:5-9; Psalm 78; Ezekiel 20).

(3) What did Adam and Eve know before the fall which should have affected their response to Satan’s temptation? What did they not know? How did what they did not know affect them? Why does God not tell us things we would like to know?

Adam and Eve knew (as can be seen in Genesis 1) that all of creation came into being because God spoke the Word. They knew that the fruit of the one tree was prohibited because God spoke the Word, He told them not to eat of it. God’s Word had been proven reliable. All creation witnessed to the power of God’s Word. Satan’s word, which they chose to believe, had not been proven.

In chapter 2, the creation of the garden, Adam, and Eve are all described as God providing what was lacking and needed. There were no trees or shrubs nor was there rain to water them, so God provided a mist, and He planted a garden by four rivers. There was no man to cultivate the soil, so God created Adam. There was no suitable mate for Adam, and so God created Eve. God did not fail to provide for every true need. And yet with just a little prompting by the serpent, Eve is convinced that she really needs what the forbidden fruit will provide but that God has withheld it from her.

Adam and Eve did not understand what “good” and “evil” were, nor did they really grasp what life or death were. These were all beyond their experience. They would have to trust God, His definitions, His distinctions, and His prohibitions.

Not knowing required Adam and Eve to trust God. While our desire is to know and understand all, God conceals much that we would wish to know from us, so that we have to trust in Him and not in our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).

(4) What was the “fallout” of the fall? What changed as a result of the fall?

Because of the fall:

(a) He came under the curse of death.

(b) Men and women have curses associated with the roles played by Adam and Eve

  • His innocence
  • A hindered relationship with God
  • Damaged relationships with others
  • A changed (hostile) relationship with creation
  • Access to the garden and the tree of life
  • The joy of laboring
  • The dominion he once enjoyed
  • The privilege of reflecting as fully the image of God

Creation was thrown into chaos. There was a new relationship between the animals (they began to eat each other). Animals were now sacrificed. Man’s relationship with nature took on a more hostile quality.

From the time of the fall on, men inherit from Adam a sinful nature which is hostile toward God. If Adam were “neutral” toward God with respect to obedience, all of his offspring are born “negative” toward Him (see Romans 3:10-18; 5:12ff.; Ephesians 2:1-3).

(5) Compare Genesis 1:26--3:24 with Genesis 9:1-28.

Genesis 1-3 records God’s commissioning of Adam and Eve. The way they were to rule creation is similar to (though not identical with) the instructions God gave Noah in Genesis 9. Like Adam, Noah sinned, and this impacted his offspring. As there was a curse pronounced on Adam and his offspring in Genesis 3, there was a curse pronounced on Canaan, Noah’s (and his son Canaan’s) offspring. A pattern quickly develops. In the Genesis record, the sin and the curse only seem to grow as time passes.

(6) What role does the issue of authority play--in man’s call, in the fall, in the curse, and in the cure?

Adam was charged with two responsibilities concerning authority. He was to rule over creation, and he was to obey God. He failed in both these areas of authority. First, Adam listened to his wife instead of leading. Adam defaulted on his leadership responsibilities, allowing the serpent, a creature, and Eve to lead. In addition to failing to exercise his God-given authority, Adam failed to submit to God’s authority. God had commanded Adam not to partake of the fruit of that one tree, and Adam disobeyed. Adam failed to lead, and he failed to follow. Adam’s two failures were in the area of authority.

Eve failed to submit to her husband’s authority and to God’s authority, choosing to obey the serpent instead. Her curse was to be ruled over by her husband, even though her desire would be to rule him.

When our Lord came to suffer and die for our sins so that the curse of sin and death could be cured and sinners could be saved, He submitted to the authority of the Father rather than act independently. Our Lord’s submission to His Father is never more evident than when Satan sought to tempt Him (Matthew 4; Luke 4).

(7) What evidences of God’s grace are seen in Genesis 1-3?

God’s grace was evident in the prohibition to eat of the forbidden fruit. God forbade the fruit of that one tree because it would result in man’s death and loss of innocence. It was also evident in the provision of the skin coverings, in the sentence of death, in the curses imposed, and in the promise of Satan’s destruction and man’s deliverance through Eve’s seed.

(8) Why do you think God chose this one tree--the tree of the knowledge of good and evil--rather than some other tree?

God had revealed to Adam and Eve what was good and what was evil. All of God’s creation was, by God’s testimony, good. The only evil in that garden was the eating of the fruit of that one tree. If man is incapable of reasoning out what is good and evil (and so he is, Romans 7:7), then the only way he could know evil, apart from divine revelation, is to experience it, by sin, with the penalty of death.

God wanted men to demonstrate their faith in Him by obeying a command they did not understand and which seemed to be to their loss. God wanted Adam and Eve to sacrifice, as it were, the benefit of this one tree, as good as it looked to them, simply because they trusted the One who forbade the eating of its fruit.

(9) What do we learn about the nature of sin from Genesis 1-3?

First, sin is defined by God and not naturally discerned or rationally grasped by the mind of men. This is why man must trust in God’s definition of sin as found in His Word. God’s law defines sin that we would not have otherwise recognized as such (Romans 7:7). Our senses cannot be trusted to discern sin. Often, that which is evil is also desirable, as was the fruit of the forbidden tree. Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Sin looks good; it is tempting, but it is deadly. A seemingly insignificant sin can have wide-spread repercussions. Sin resists God’s purposes but never succeeds in overcoming them. Sin, like Satan, seeks to oppose God. Sin, in the plan of God, furthers His purposes.

(10) What do we learn about God’s commands from Genesis 1-3?

God’s commands define sin and provide the context for obedience. God’s commands are for our own good. God’s commands are to be obeyed, even when they do not make sense to us, simply because God gave them.

(11) If the cure for the curse were simply the reversal of the fall, what would the cure be like? From Genesis 3:8-24, what do we learn about God’s grace in providing a solution for sin?

Since the curse resulted from man’s disobedience to God’s command, the cure must involve obedience. In sin, man rebelled against God’s authority (His lordship); in the cure man must submit to His lordship. The fall was the fall of and by man. The cure must be a cure of and by man (the God-man, Jesus Christ). The fall resulted in death. The cure must result in life. The fall brought about chaos, confusion, and suffering. The cure must restore creation to peace, order, and blessing. The curse defaced man as a reflection of God’s image; the cure must restore man to the image of God.

(12) What cure does God promise or provide for man’s sin in Genesis 3:8-24?

The nakedness of man is covered by skins provided by God, so that men need not hide from His presence. Thus, there is a provision for sinners to have fellowship with God. The seed of the woman (though produced with pain) will bring about the destruction of Satan and the deliverance of man.

(13) What is the relationship between the curse (occasioned by the fall) and the cure (which overcomes or reverses the fall)?

There is a direct relationship between the curse and the cure. On the one hand, the cure reverses the curse. The curse promises pain for the woman and for the man (for the woman in child-bearing and the man in supporting himself and his family). The cure promises rest. The curse is death, the cure is life.

But the curse is a part of the cure. Death is a deliverer. How tragic for sinners to live eternally. Death is our escape from this life, this world, and this body. Beyond this, it is the death of our Lord bearing our curse on the cross which frees us from the curse. The woman’s pain in bearing children is a part of the process by which the promised seed will be born, through whom Satan will be destroyed, and sin and death defeated.

(14) What does the fall of man and its consequences, taught in Genesis 3, teach us about suffering? How does it help to explain the question raised in Psalm 44?

When Christians (and others) encounter suffering and trials in their lives they tend to ask, like Job and many others in the Bible, “Why me?” There are times when one’s suffering is directly the result of sin in his own life (as when David and Bathsheba suffered the loss of their first child, who was conceived in adultery). In Psalm 44, the psalmist admits that suffering is a just punishment for sin but maintains that the people have not sinned. Why the suffering then? Much of the suffering of this world is the result of sin’s entrance into the world (see, for example, Romans 8:18-25). God does not allow purposeless suffering. His plan incorporates suffering in a way that ultimately “works together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

(15) How does man’s fall and its consequences described in Genesis 3 fit into God’s plan?

The goal of God’s plan is to demonstrate His glory to men. His glory is best demonstrated by the way He deals with sin, both in judgment and in mercy (see Exodus 34:6-7). God’s plan included sin so that His glory could be displayed in its fullest dimensions.

God’s plan included sin and suffering and the loss of man’s garden paradise. His plan also provided for the coming of the Son of God, who would bear the curse in our place, and thus provide a paradise far better than the one which was lost.

God’s plan therefore included man’s fall and its consequences, for His glory and for the good of those who love Him.

(16) What is different between the sinless Adam in the presence of God in the garden and the sanctified saint in the presence of God in heaven?

The difference is that Adam was an unfallen man while we (who were fallen) stand before God as new creations in Christ. Adam was without sin; in Christ, we become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Through God’s promises, we have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Adam did not have Christ dwelling in him; we do. Adam was a man who had not sinned, but could. When we are delivered from our earthly bodies and are in heaven with God, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). We will be men who cannot sin, who have been made new, forever free from sin, in Christ. Adam was a man who was sinless only until temptation came his way. Believers are in Christ, Who did not fail when temptation came His way. Adam’s relationship to God was a kind of togetherness. Our relationship with God is oneness, unity. In Christ, we share the same union with God the Father which Christ has (see John 17:20-26).

Scripture Texts

The historicity of Adam and the fall

Genesis 5:1-3ff.; 1 Chronicles 1:1; Matthew 19:3-6; Luke 3:38; Jude 14

Before the fall

Genesis 1 and 2

The fall of man

Genesis 3

Consequences of the fall

Genesis 3:8ff; Isaiah 43:27; Jeremiah 16:10-15; Lamentations 5:7; Romans 1:18--3:20; 5:12-21; 7:7-25; 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 14:34-36; 1 Timothy 2:8-15

The fall of man and God’s plan

Acts 2:23-24; Romans 11:32; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:18-20 (Compare Israel’s fall in the plan of God, described in Romans 9-11)

Cure for the fall

Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 42-49

God’s better paradise

Revelation 21 and 22

Points to Ponder
Statements and Principles From our Lesson

A seemingly insignificant act (of disobedience) can have monumental results.

Just because something looks good, is desirable, and is available, is no proof that God wants us to partake of it. The existence of a desire does not demand its fulfilling (see also, 1 Corinthians 6:12-13).

When God gives us a command, we do not need to understand why God has given it to us, we need only to trust Him who gave the command, and obey it.

Suffering is not only the consequence of sin, but in the plan of God it is a part of the process for its cure. Christ’s suffering in our place is God’s means of saving us from the curse of sin. Even our own suffering has a purpose in the plan of God: “He who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” (1 Peter 4:1; see also Luke 6:20-26; Psalm 73).

Sin affects more than just the sinner; it affects many others.

The same principle which allows the sin of one man (Adam) to corrupt the world also allows the righteousness of one man (Jesus Christ) to provide salvation for the world.

Satan seeks to change our perspective first and then our behavior. Sin begins with a rebellious attitude toward God, which leads to a rebellious act.

Sin is conceived as unbelief, and then grows into disobedience.

In our lives, as in the Bible, sin precedes redemption. We cannot and will not receive God’s grace until we recognize and repent of our sin. The problem with those who perish is that they reject God’s grace because they do not believe they need it. Only sinners need God’s grace and only God’s grace saves sinners. The self-righteous sinner denies his sin and despises God’s grace. The penitent sinner admits his sin, repents of it, and gratefully receives God’s saving grace.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil began to look better, more desirable, to Eve than any of the other trees. In reality, every tree in the garden was equally appealing and desirable (see Genesis 2:9).

The fruit of tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the knowledge of good and evil; why, then, did Eve see the tree as desirable to make one wise (Genesis 3:6)?

God’s plan for creation included the fall of man, the curse, and the cross of Calvary, whereby the curse could be defeated, God could be glorified, and the good of the saints accomplished.

The God who included sin and suffering in His plan was also the God who planned that the greatest suffering would be borne by His own Son, even though He was without sin.

Job serves as an illustration of the wisdom of God in allowing sin and suffering, through the instrumentality of Satan. Job was indeed wealthier for having suffered and sinned and repented, but more than this, Job’s relationship with God was much richer and deeper from his experience with suffering, sin, and the grace of God.

Why is it that Satan always seems to be standing beside or behind a question mark?

It was no great marvel that God would come to Adam and Eve to fellowship with them in their sinless state. What was marvelous was that the Son of God would come to the earth to seek and to save sinners.

What Adam and Eve had in the paradise of Eden was good. God said so. But good is not the same as perfect. What you and I will have in the heavenly paradise, the New Jerusalem, is perfect.

Prompted by the serpent, Adam and Eve aspired to attain a likeness to God, and in rebelling against His word, they fell into sin becoming like their father, the devil. Jesus Christ, in obedience to His Father’s will, attained likeness to man in His incarnation, and by faith in Him we become partakers of the divine nature.

Nothing can be ruined beyond God’s redemption.

“Why is the world so troubled, and why is there so much suffering and evil?” Because, by divine permission Satan tempted Adam and Eve; they sinned, and God has graciously pronounced upon all creation a curse for which He has provided the cure.

The more I study the early chapters of Genesis the more convinced I become of their purpose. Providing a scientific explanation of creation46 is not the purpose of chapters 1 and 2. Rather, their purpose is to set the scene for the fall of man, a major turning point in the history of creation.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, though pleasing to look at and good for food, was not good for man. The eating of its fruit would not only give the partaker a knowledge of good and evil, but would also produce his or her death.

According to the creation account in Genesis 1, all of creation came into existence in response to one thing: the spoken word of God. God spoke creation into existence.

At every point of legitimate need, God created what was needed. How, then, dare Satan suggest (or Eve believe) that God had forbidden something which was needed?

Adam’s sin is more passive in nature, while that of the serpent and Eve is more aggressive. The leader followed and the followers led.

Even in his unfallen state, man was no match for the wiles of Satan.

Man and creation are suffering and groaning due to the consequences of sin.

And the curse of death pronounced on Adam is the means of the cure. For it is the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, on our behalf, which saves us from our sins and provides us with the assurance of eternal life.

Suffering is not opposed to glory; it is the road to glory. So it was for our Lord, and so it is for us. The curse is a part of the process by which the cure is produced.

Sin and condemnation are not the end of man’s hope, but the starting point. In His grace, God condemns men so that He might manifest His grace upon them:

It is all too easy to think of God’s “cure” in Jesus Christ as a restoration, merely returning men and creation to the condition in which it was found before the fall. This is simply not the case. Saved man’s last (???) state, as it were, is vastly better than his first.

If the first three chapters of the Bible explain the condition of mankind and the world due to the fall of man and the curse, the last two chapters of the Bible explain the depths of the cure made possible by God through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

There in the center of the garden before the eyes of Adam and Eve stood two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They had a choice to make: either they could eat of the tree of life and live forever, or they could eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and die. Strange though it may seem, both chose to eat of the forbidden fruit.

We are not like Adam and Eve in that we were born in sin and are doomed to die. We do have a choice, however. It is a similar choice to that which faced Adam and Eve. We may either keep our identification with Adam, and die, or we may be given a new identify in Christ, and live. To reject Christ is to remain in our sins. To trust in Christ is to die to sin and its curse, in Him.

The choice which confronted Adam and Eve is now before you. Will you choose life or death, Adam or Christ? I pray you will renounce your identification with Adam and find God’s cure in Christ, by trusting Him in simple faith.


39 In no way am I suggesting that the creation account is less than a historical account. Adam and Eve were real people, created just as God’s Word records the event. Adam’s name is included in the genealogies (see 1 Chronicles 1:1; Luke 3:38, Jude 14). Job referred to Adam’s sin and even his attempt at a cover up (Job 31:33). Jesus referred to both Adam and Eve as real people whose union was the basis for the permanence of every marital union (Matthew 19:3-6). Paul links man’s sin and death to Adam, just as he links man’s salvation and eternal life to Jesus Christ (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). To the degree that the Genesis account describes the creation of the world, it is completely accurate, scientifically and historically. Nevertheless, in the context of Genesis, the purpose of the creation account is to set the scene for the fall of man in chapter 3.

40 The order in which the curses are pronounced is the (reversed) order of the fall: serpent (verses 14-15), Eve (verse 16), Adam (verses 17-19).

41 See 1 Timothy 2:14; 2 Corinthians 11:3. Some have tried to make Adam into a kind of hero, who nobly chose to fall with his wife rather than let her fall alone. This explanation does not originate from the text, and it simply does not seem to explain matters satisfactorily. The words, “she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:7), are troubling. Was Adam with Eve all the time this discussion was taking place with Satan? If so, then why did he not speak up? At least it would explain why Adam so quickly took of the fruit and ate.

42 In her deception, Eve actually supposed the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would give her more than the mere knowledge of good and evil. In verse 6, we are told that Eve thought the tree was desirable to “make one wise.” As she overstated the prohibition, she also seems to have overestimated the provision of the tree. Satan delights in distorting our perception.

43 A word of caution and clarification is needed here. God does not want mindless obedience, but a reasoned obedience. He wants us to obey, not because we understand all of God’s reasons, but because we have reasoned that God is worthy of our trust and obedience. Abraham provides an excellent example of reasoned faith and obedience:

In hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform (Romans 4:18-21).

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” He considered that God is able to raise {men} even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type (Hebrews 11:17-19).

Abraham did not understand how or why God was doing what He was, but he did reason that God was trustworthy. Thus Abraham obeyed, based on a reasoned faith.

44 I find the heel injury of the woman’s seed fascinating. One might expect the serpent to bite Him on the heel, but instead we read that the woman’s Seed will receive a bruise on the heel. This is not so much a wound inflicted by the serpent, as it is a self-imposed wound by our Lord, suffered by the Seed in the process of dealing the snake a death-blow. The prediction of our Lord’s injury is thus consistent with its fulfillment. Satan cannot really be credited with doing harm to our Lord; our Lord brought injury to Himself in order to destroy Satan.

45 We must see this not as just the tendency of women, but the tendency of every sinner placed under the authority of another. In our sinful state, none of us wants to be ruled. Our goal is to be in control of ourselves and others. The disciples of our Lord demonstrated this tendency in their attitude toward authority. Just as Satan resisted God’s authority and sought to assert his own authority, so every sinner, “like Satan,” wishes to throw off the authority over us and enhance our own authority over others.

46 In no way am I suggesting that the creation account is less than a historical account. Adam and Eve were real people, created just as God’s Word records the event. Adam’s name is included in the genealogies (see 1 Chronicles 1:1; Luke 3:38). Job referred to Adam’s sin and even his attempt at a cover up (Job 31:33). Jesus referred to both Adam and Eve as real people whose union was the basis for the permanence of every marital union (Matthew 19:3-6). Paul links man’s sin and death to Adam, just as he links man’s salvation and eternal life to Jesus Christ (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). To the degree that the Genesis account describes man’s account, it is completely accurate, scientifically and historically. Nevertheless, in the context of Genesis, the purpose of the creation account is to set the scene for the fall of man in chapter 3.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Hamartiology (Sin), Theology Proper (God)

4. Nature's Part in God's Perfect Plan (Psalm 19; Romans 8:18-25; Isaiah 65:17-25)

Introduction

As a class officer in college, I had the responsibility of putting together a chapel program for the student body. Everything was carefully planned and ready to go. But just hours before the presentation, our entire program fell apart. With less than 12 hours to go, I had to put together a completely new program.

My wife just happened to be doing her student teaching at the time. She also happened to have a Disney nature film she had planned to show her elementary school students that week. Quickly I wrote an introduction designed to show how very much nature47 has to reveal about God, and we watched the movie! True, the chapel program was not all it could have been, but now that we have come to our lesson on Nature’s Part in God’s Perfect Plan, I see the nature film was not all that bad. Nature does indeed tell us much about God and about man. No apologies need to be made for drawing man’s attention to nature.

Some of our great hymns turn our minds toward nature and incline our hearts to praise and worship God. Notice these selected stanzas:

How Great Thou Art (Second Stanza)

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze;
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee; How great Thou art!
How great Thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee;
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Great Is Thy Faithfulness (Second Stanza)

Summer and winter, and spring-time and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Fairest Lord Jesus (Second and Third Stanzas)

Fair are the meadows, Fairer still the woodlands,
Robed in the blooming garb of spring:
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,
Who makes the woeful heart to sing.

Fair is the sunshine, Fairer still the moonlight,
Robed in the blooming garb of spring:
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer
Than all the angels heav’n can boast.

When the Christian’s mind turns to nature, his heart turns toward God in worship and praise. But when the unbelieving mind turns to nature, it turns from God. On Earth Day, April 22, Tom Selleck hosted a one hour television special on saving our environment. Many Hollywood celebrities participated, focusing on different environmental problems and posing practical solutions we can do to help.

No mention was made of God. Nothing was said of man’s sin. Pollution means disposable diapers, styrofoam cups, and exhaust fumes. Man’s efforts to save the earth appeared to be man’s only hope. The unconverted mind simply does not think of God when it looks at nature. Indeed, the unbelieving mind sees nature as a god.

Our series seeks to explore the plan of God as it affects man and as it relates to all of God’s creation. This lesson considers nature as a part of God’s eternal plan for creation, focusing on nature’s role in relation to God and His plan for nature. May our study turn our hearts to the Creator and Sustainer of creation. I invite your careful attention to these texts from God’s Word on the subject of nature.

God Created Nature

The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it. For He has founded it upon the seas, And established it upon the rivers (Psalm 24:1-2).

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, And by the breath of His mouth all their host. He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap; He lays up the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the Lord; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast (Psalm 33:6-9).

The heavens are Thine, the earth also is Thine; The world and all it contains, Thou hast founded them (Psalm 89:11).

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created by Him and for Him (Colossians 1:16).

“Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (Revelation 4:11).48

One of the Bible’s very prominent themes is that of God as Creator. As Creator, God possesses the heavens and the earth,49 and He has the right to do with them as He pleases. In the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah, God often reminds those to whom He is speaking that He is their Creator.50 Many statements and promises are based on the truth that God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

God Sustains
and Controls His Creation

Thou dost visit the earth, and cause it to overflow; Thou dost greatly enrich it; The stream of God is full of water; Thou dost prepare their grain, for thus Thou dost prepare the earth. Thou dost water its furrows abundantly; Thou dost settle its ridges; Thou dost soften it with showers; Thou dost bless its growth. Thou hast crowned the year with Thy bounty, And Thy paths drip with fatness. The pastures of the wilderness drip, And the hills gird themselves with rejoicing. The meadows are clothed with flocks, And the valleys are covered with grain; They shout for joy, yes, they sing (Psalm 65:9-13).

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; Sing praises to our God on the lyre, Who covers the heavens with clouds, Who provides rain for the earth, Who makes grass to grow on the mountains. He gives to the beast its food, And to the young ravens which cry. . . Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion! For He has strengthened the bars of your gates; He has blessed your sons within you. He makes peace in your borders; He satisfies you with the finest of the wheat. He sends forth His command to the earth; His word runs very swiftly. He gives snow like wool; He scatters the frost like ashes. He casts forth His ice as fragments; Who can stand before His cold? He sends forth His word and melts them; He causes His wind to blow and the waters to flow (Psalm 147:7-9, 12-18).

When He utters His voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, And He causes the clouds to ascend from the end of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain, And brings out the wind from His storehouses (Jeremiah 10:13).

Nature is not independent of its Creator. Every day, creation must look to Him for His provisions: The young lions roar after their prey, And seek their food from God. When the sun rises they withdraw, and lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work And to his labor until evening. O Lord, how many are Thy works! In wisdom Thou hast made them all; The earth is full of Thy possessions. There is the sea, great and broad, In which are swarms without number, Animals both small and great. There the ships move along, And Leviathan, which Thou hast formed to sport in it. They all wait for Thee, To give them their food in due season. Thou dost give to them, they gather it up; Thou dost open Thy hand, they are satisfied with good. Thou dost hide Thy face, they are dismayed; Thou dost take away their spirit, they expire, And return to their dust. Thou dost send forth Thy Spirit, they are created; And Thou dost renew the face of the ground (Psalm 104:21-30).

God Employs Nature as His
Servant to Achieve His Purposes

The Bible always represents nature as under God’s control. The forces of nature are at His disposal, carrying out His purposes. While Job’s friend, Elihu, may have been wrong in his application of truth, he understood God to be in complete control of nature, His servant:

Listen closely to the thunder of His voice, And the rumbling that goes out from His mouth. Under the whole heaven He lets it loose, And His lightning to the ends of the earth. After it, a voice roars; He thunders with His majestic voice; And He does not restrain the lightnings when His voice is heard. God thunders with His voice wondrously, Doing great things which we cannot comprehend. For to the snow He says, ‘Fall on the earth,’ And to the downpour and the rain, ‘Be strong.’ He seals the hand of every man, That all men may know His work. Then the beast goes into its lair, And remains in its den. Out of the south comes the storm, And out of the north the cold. From the breath of God ice is made, And the expanse of the waters is frozen. Also with moisture He loads the thick cloud; He disperses the cloud of His lightning. And it changes direction, turning around by His guidance, That it may do whatever He commands it On the face of the inhabited earth. Whether for correction, or for His world, Or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen (Job 37:2-13).51

Nature is one Form of Divine Revelation
Creation Teaches us About God52

We can learn much about God by considering the works of His hands. Creation highlights a number of God’s attributes--His character traits. Notice His attributes in the following:

(1) Creation witnesses to God’s invisible attributes of eternal power and divine nature.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:18-20).

When Israel went forth from Egypt, The house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became His sanctuary, Israel, His dominion. The sea looked and fled; The Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, The hills, like lambs. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, before the Lord, Before the God of Jacob, Who turned the rock into a pool of water, The flint into a fountain of water (Psalm 114:1-8).

(2) Creation witnesses to God’s grace.

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:44-45).

(3) Creation witnesses to God’s faithfulness in caring for His creatures.

And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith? Do not be anxious then, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things (Matthew 6:28-32).

(4) Nature reveals God’s infinite knowledge.

Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31).

(5) Nature reveals God’s infinite wisdom. In Proverbs, wisdom speaks, as one present and involved at the creation of the world.

The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. From everlasting I was established, From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, When there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, Before the hills I was brought forth; While He had not yet made the earth and the fields, Nor the first dust of the world. When He established the heavens, I was there, When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep, When He made firm the skies above, When the springs of the deep became fixed, When He set for the sea its boundary, So that the water should not transgress His command, When He marked out the foundations of the earth; Then I was beside Him, as a master workman; And I was daily His delight, Rejoicing always before Him, Rejoicing in the world, His earth, And having my delight in the sons of men (Proverbs 8:22-31).

When Job questioned God’s dealings with him in all of his adversity, he questioned the wisdom of God. God rebuked Job, reminding him of His wisdom as seen in creation:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, “Who is this that darkens counsel By words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, And I will ask you, and you instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, Who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7; see all of chapters 38 and 39).

(6) Nature reveals God’s holiness. When God delivered His law to the people of Israel from Mt. Sinai, the forces of nature were present to bear witness to the holiness of the One speaking:

So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. And the Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (Exodus 19:16-20; see 20:18).

(7) Nature reveals God’s glory. In Psalm 19, David praises God for the two forms of revelation known to him--nature (verses 1-6) and biblical revelation, the Law (verses 7-14). David writes that nature continues to reveal the glory of God to men:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. there is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat (Psalm 19:1-6).

(8) Nature reveals God’s righteousness.

The Mighty One, God, the Lord, has spoken, And summoned the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth. May our God come and not keep silence; Fire devours before Him, And it is very tempestuous around Him. He summons the heavens above, And the earth, to judge His people: “Gather My godly ones to Me, Those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” And the heavens declare His righteousness, For God Himself is judge. Selah (Psalm 50:1-6).

The Lord reigns; let the earth rejoice; Let the many islands be glad. Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. Fire goes before Him, And burns up His adversaries round about. His lightnings lit up the world; The earth saw and trembled. The mountains melted like wax at the presence of the Lord, At the presence of the Lord of the whole earth. The heavens declare His righteousness, And all the peoples have seen His glory (Psalm 97:1-6).

(9) Nature reveals a certain standard of conduct. The expression “contrary to nature” or “unnatural” can be used to describe not only fallen man’s worship but also his behavior:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error (Romans 1:18-27).

The practice of homosexuality among men is inconsistent with the practice of nature. Man’s “natural function” is to worship God. Instead, man’s sin manifests itself in self-worship. The natural function of man is to be drawn to the opposite sex. The unnatural functions of homosexuality are the manifestations of man’s sin. Nature demonstrates a standard of conduct which sinful men violate.

Nature Teaches Us
About Life And Conduct

Repeatedly the Scriptures turn man’s attention to nature to illustrate lessons about life and conduct. Notice these passages in Proverbs which teach men about wisdom from nature:

Go to the ant, O sluggard, Observe her ways and be wise, Which, having no chief, officer or ruler, Prepares her food in the summer, And gathers her provision in the harvest. How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? “A little sleep, a little slumber, A little folding of the hands to rest” --And your poverty will come in like a vagabond, And your need like an armed man (Proverbs 6:6-11).

Four things are small on the earth, But they are exceedingly wise: The ants are not a strong folk, But they prepare their food in the summer; The badgers are not mighty folk, Yet they make their houses in the rocks; The locusts have no king, Yet all of them go out in ranks; The lizard you may grasp with the hands, Yet it is in kings’ palaces (Proverbs 30:24-28).

Nature is God’s picture book for man, much like the picture books we give to children who are not yet able to read. The pictures tell the same story the Bible tells with words. Like the Bible, fallen men cannot and will not grasp the meaning and the message God communicates to them. The teaching from nature, like that of the Bible, is turned upside-down and inside-out, to man’s condemnation.

God’s Instrument to Reward or Punish

Nature is God’s willing servant, subject to the will and the Word of God. God often employs the forces of nature to achieve His purposes. Consider the following uses God makes of nature:

(1) God employed the forces of nature in the flood:

The Lord sat as King at the flood; Yes, the Lord sits as King forever (Psalm 29:10).

(2) God employed nature both to bless His people for their faith and obedience, and to curse them for their rebellion. The cursings and blessings God promised His people were only possible through God’s control of nature:

You shall therefore keep every commandment which I am commanding you today, so that you may be strong and go in and possess the land into which you are about to cross to possess it; so that you may prolong your days on the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the Lord your God cares; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year. And it shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. And He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. Beware, lest your hearts be deceived and you turn away and serve other gods and worship them. Or the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit; and you will perish quickly from the good land which the Lord is giving you (Deuteronomy 11:8-17).53

(3) As the Protector of His people, God employed the forces of nature to defeat the enemies of Israel. The plagues God brought upon the Egyptians were largely accomplished through the forces of nature.

The Lord is a warrior; The Lord is His name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; And the choicest of his officers are drowned in the Red Sea. The deeps cover them; They went down into the depths like a stone. Thy right hand, O Lord, is majestic in power, Thy right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy. And in the greatness of Thine excellence Thou dost overthrow those who rise up against Thee; Thou dost send forth Thy burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff. And at the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were piled up, The flowing waters stood up like a heap; The deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall be gratified against them; I will draw out my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’ Thou didst blow with Thy wind, the sea covered them; They sank like lead in the mighty waters. Who is like Thee among the gods, O Lord? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders? Thou didst stretch out Thy right hand, The earth swallowed them (Exodus 15:3-12).54

Just as God employed the forces of nature to free His people from their Egyptian bondage, so He would use nature to give the Israelites victory over their enemies--in a way that would remind them that He had given the victory:

And I will send hornets ahead of you, that they may drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you (Exodus 23:28).55

So Joshua came upon them suddenly by marching all night from Gilgal. And the Lord confounded them before Israel, and He slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and pursued them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them as far as Azekah and Makkedah. And it came about as they fled from before Israel, while they were at the descent of Beth-horon, that the Lord threw large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died from the hailstones than those whom the sons of Israel killed with the sword (Joshua 10:9-11).

David understood that deliverance comes from the Lord. In giving praise for God’s intervention, he highlights God’s control over nature. His rescue was as though God had brought all of nature into play:

In my distress I called upon the Lord, Yes, I cried to my God; And from His temple He heard my voice, And my cry for help came into His ears. Then the earth shook and quaked, The foundations of heaven were trembling And were shaken, because He was angry. Smoke went up out of His nostrils, And fire from His mouth devoured; Coals were kindled by it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down With thick darkness under His feet. And He rode on a cherub and flew; And He appeared on the wings of the wind. And He made darkness canopies around Him, A mass of waters, thick clouds of the sky. From the brightness before Him Coals of fire were kindled. The Lord thundered from heaven, And the Most High uttered His voice. And He sent out arrows, and scattered them, Lightning, and routed them. Then the channels of the sea appeared, The foundations of the world were laid bare, By the rebuke of the Lord, At the blast of the breath of His nostrils. He sent from on high, He took me; He drew me out of many waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, From those who hated me, for they were too strong for me (2 Samuel 22:7-18).56

Nature Praises God

Nature also serves God by giving praise to Him. It may sound strange to our ears, but nature does praise God:

How lovely are Thy dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. The bird also has found a house, And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, Even Thine altars, O Lord of hosts, My King and my God. How blessed are those who dwell in Thy house! They are ever praising Thee. Selah (Psalm 84:1-4).

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the sea roar, and all it contains; Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy Before the Lord, for He is coming; For He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, And the peoples in His faithfulness (Psalm 96:11-13).

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre; With the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn Shout joyfully before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar and all it contains, The world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands; Let the mountains sing together for joy Before the Lord; for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness, And the peoples with equity (Psalm 98:4-9).57

God’s coming judgment is prominent in these praises. Just as we await the day of God’s judgment, which precedes the establishment of His kingdom, so creation praises God that this day is coming.

Nature Produces
Hope in the Promises of God

When God spoke through the prophets to tell Israel what He was going to accomplish, He often called upon nature as His witness. The God who speaks words of promise is the Creator of heaven and earth--and the Sustainer and Controller of creation. What God has done and continues to do through creation is our assurance of what He can do and will do. God’s Word brought the world into existence; God’s Word will also bring about His promises:

I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, And of the son of man who is made like grass; That you have forgotten the Lord your Maker, Who stretched out the heavens, And laid the foundations of the earth; That you fear continually all day long because of the fury of the oppressor, As he makes ready to destroy? But where is the fury of the oppressor? The exile will soon be set free, and will not die in the dungeon, nor will his bread be lacking. For I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea and its waves roar (the Lord of hosts is His name). “And I have put My words in your mouth, and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are My people’ (Isaiah 51:12-16).

For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. For you will go out with joy, And be led forth with peace; The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, And all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up; And instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up; And it will be a memorial to the Lord, For an everlasting sign which will not be cut off (Isaiah 55:8-13).

Nature’s Suffering and Nature’s Hope

Under His sovereign hand, nature ultimately does God’s bidding. But nature also has been placed under man’s dominion.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind”; and it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food “;and it was so. And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1:24-31).58

The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth He has given to the sons of men (Psalm 115:16).

Being under man’s dominion, nature also has suffered the consequences of man’s sin. Nature’s present state is one of suffering and groaning, awaiting in hope its day of redemption:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it (Romans 8:18-25).

Nature was subjected to its present state due to the fall of man. Its future deliverance will come when the redemption of man is completed, a future day known in this text as the “revelation of the sons of God.” On that day sin, death, and Satan will be removed and redeemed men will reign with Christ over all creation.

A Brief Survey of Nature’s
Role in the Outworking of God’s Plan

Let us briefly survey the role of nature in the outworking of God’s plan for creation.

(1) Nature before the fall. Nature’s state before the fall was one of peace and harmony. Men did not eat animals nor, it seems, did the animals eat each other. There was no shedding of blood.

Immediately after the fall, things changed, and nature began to suffer. Blood was shed to provide a covering for Adam and Eve and a sacrifice pleasing to God (see Genesis 3:21; 4:4). After the judgment of the flood, God put a fear of man in the animals59 and permitted man to eat the meat of all the animals, so long as the blood was removed:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood (Genesis 1:29-30).

When the Law of Moses was given to the Israelite nation, men were still allowed to eat meat. But now it was only certain “clean” meat and only when killed and eaten as God commanded. The prophets spoke of a future day when God’s redemption of man and nature was complete and man and nature would leave in harmony:

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the kid, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze; Their young will lie down together; And the lion will eat straw like the ox. And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord As the waters cover the sea. Then it will come about in that day That the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, Who will stand as a signal for the peoples; And His resting place will be glorious (Isaiah 11:6-10).

(2) Nature at the time of our Lord’s appearance on earth. Not surprisingly, nature responds to our Lord’s earthly appearance:

Nature reveals the place and the time of Messiah’s birth:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” . . . And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11).

Jesus demonstrated His power over nature when he turned the water into wine (John 2:1-11) and when He walked on the waters of the Sea of Galilee and stilled the storm (Matthew 14:24-33).60 Our Lord’s power over nature was evidenced at His triumphal entry, when He rode an unbroken colt of a donkey into the crowded streets of Jerusalem. When on the occasion of our Lord’s triumphal entry the Pharisees wanted Jesus to silence the praise of the crowds, Jesus refused. His words are most enlightening:

And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.” And He answered and said, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:39-40).

Had not one single person praised Messiah at His appearance, nature would have. Nature could not keep silence. Even the rocks would cry out. And nature did speak out. While our Lord was on the cross, darkness came during daylight hours, and men took note (Luke 23:44-47). When our Lord was raised from the dead, nature again played its part. In their own way, the rocks cried out:

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:50-54).

(3) Nature during the Great Tribulation. Fallen men have always wanted God to leave them alone in their sin. But in His lovingkindness and longsuffering, God perseveres with men. A day is coming when men will get what they want and what they deserve. The traumatic, troublesome time of the Great Tribulation looms before man. Nature again will be very much involved during the tribulation events.

Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, To make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises, And the moon will not shed its light. Thus I will punish the world for its evil, And the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud, And abase the haughtiness of the ruthless. I will make mortal man scarcer than pure gold, And mankind than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I shall make the heavens tremble, And the earth will be shaken from its place At the fury of the Lord of hosts In the day of His burning anger (Isaiah 13:9-13).

And I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, Blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered; For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem There will be those who escape, As the Lord has said, Even among the survivors whom the Lord calls (Joel 2:30-32).61

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob, Indeed, I will never forget any of their deeds. Because of this will not the land quake And everyone who dwells in it mourn? Indeed, all of it will rise up like the Nile, And it will be tossed about, And subside like the Nile of Egypt. And it will come about in that day,” declares the Lord God, “That I shall make the sun go down at noon And make the earth dark in broad daylight (Amos 8:7-9).

But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other (Matthew 24:29-31).

And I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. And the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:12-17).

And the fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were smitten, so that a third of them might be darkened and the day might not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way (Revelation 8:12).

The Great Tribulation gives men what they have wanted and deserved. But it will not be what men expect. The very God who has invisibly held nature together will suddenly release nature from His controlling hand. Creation will become random chaos, as God now allows it to run in the very fashion the unbelieving mind had thought. No order, no control, no predictability will exist. The sun may fail to rise, even though morning has come. The stars, once predictable in their courses, will begin to fall. Creation’s randomness will be frightening and deadly. Men will cry out, wishing to die rather than live with such conditions. Yet men will be getting exactly what they thought they wanted.

During this time of great disaster, God’s wrath will be poured out upon sinful men for their unbelief and rebellion against Him. History’s most dreaded time will have come--until hell becomes the place of final, eternal torment for those who reject God’s offer of His Son.

(4) Nature after the revelation of the sons of God. Nature’s last state is even better than the first state of Genesis 1 and 2. Revelation 21 and 22 describes the fulfillment of all the prophets foretold concerning nature in the kingdom of God.

It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain,” says the Lord (Isaiah 65:24-25).

In that day I will also make a covenant for them With the beasts of the field, The birds of the sky, And the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, And will make them lie down in safety (Hosea 2:18).

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I shall show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper. It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are those of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. There were three gates on the east and three gates on the north and three gates on the south and three gates on the west. And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And the one who spoke with me had a gold measuring rod to measure the city, and its gates and its wall. And the city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. And he measured its wall, seventy-two yards, according to human measurements, which are also angelic measurements. And the material of the wall was jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation stone was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, chalcedony; the fourth, emerald; the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, topaz; the tenth, chrysoprase; the eleventh, jacinth; the twelfth, amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was a single pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. And the nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it. And in the daytime (for there shall be no night there) its gates shall never be closed; and they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever. And he said to me, “These words are faithful and true”; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must shortly take place (Revelation 21:1--22:5).

Conclusion

Throughout Scripture, our study has revealed nature’s part in God’s plan for creation. What conclusions and implications for our lives can be drawn from our study? Allow me to suggest the following:

(1) God has revealed Himself by means of His Word. His word is revealed “in pictures” by creation. It is revealed in “proclamations” in His written Word, the Bible. His word was finally and fully revealed “in person” at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they (Hebrews 1:1-4).

(2) Nature is the work of God; to the degree it reflects the Creator, it bears testimony to His nature and attributes. Indeed, much can be learned about God from the Scriptures. But what we read about in words, we can also see in the world around us. Not many years ago, Christians were deeply involved in the sciences. Because of their understanding of God and His creation, they were able to take part in important scientific discoveries. I fear some Christians have distanced themselves from science because of the recent divorce between the sciences and Christianity. The conflict of some scientists and Christians over the theory of evolution probably explains this. Our study should have convinced us that God is the Creator, and creation is His handiwork. There can be no contradiction between true science and correct biblical interpretation. Let us therefore not forsake the sciences as though they were contradictory to our faith. Faith opens one’s eyes to the works of God. Unbelief blinds men from the message nature proclaims.

(3) Nature should prompt our worship. Those hymns which turn our hearts to God in worship are right to do so. Paul’s words in Romans 1 infer that the revelation of God in nature should have prompted men to worship--God. Instead, men chose to worship the creation, including man. While the revelation of God in nature is not sufficient to save a man, when rejected, it is sufficient to condemn him. Rejection of God’s revelation in nature condemns the heathen.62 Those who have come to know God in Christ should also be able to recognize Him in His handiwork of creation. When we behold the work of His hands, we must praise Him.

Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, Thou art very great; Thou art clothed with splendor and majesty, Covering Thyself with light as with a cloak, Stretching out heaven like a tent curtain. He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters; He makes the clouds His chariot; He walks upon the wings of the wind; He makes the winds His messengers, Flaming fire His ministers. He established the earth upon its foundations, So that it will not totter forever and ever. Thou didst cover it with the deep as with a garment; The waters were standing above the mountains. At Thy rebuke they fled; At the sound of Thy thunder they hurried away. The mountains rose; the valleys sank down To the place which Thou didst establish for them. Thou didst set a boundary that they may not pass over; That they may not return to cover the earth. He sends forth springs in the valleys; They flow between the mountains; They give drink to every beast of the field; The wild donkeys quench their thirst. Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; They lift up their voices among the branches. He waters the mountains from His upper chambers; The earth is satisfied with the fruit of His works. He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the labor of man, So that he may bring forth food from the earth, And wine which makes man’s heart glad, So that he may make his face glisten with oil, And food which sustains man’s heart. The trees of the Lord drink their fill, The cedars of Lebanon which He planted, Where the birds build their nests, And the stork, whose home is the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; The cliffs are a refuge for the rock badgers. He made the moon for the seasons; The sun knows the place of its setting. Thou dost appoint darkness and it becomes night, In which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. The young lions roar after their prey, And seek their food from God. When the sun rises they withdraw, And lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work And to his labor until evening. O Lord, how many are Thy works! In wisdom Thou hast made them all; The earth is full of Thy possessions. There is the sea, great and broad, In which are swarms without number, Animals both small and great. There the ships move along, And Leviathan, which Thou hast formed to sport in it. They all wait for Thee, To give them their food in due season. Thou dost give to them, they gather it up; Thou dost open Thy hand, they are satisfied with good. Thou dost hide Thy face, they are dismayed; Thou dost take away their spirit, they expire, And return to their dust. Thou dost send forth Thy Spirit, they are created; And Thou dost renew the face of the ground. Let the glory of the Lord endure forever; Let the Lord be glad in His works; He looks at the earth, and it trembles; He touches the mountains, and they smoke. I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. Let my meditation be pleasing to Him; As for me, I shall be glad in the Lord. Let sinners be consumed from the earth, And let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 104)

(4) Biblical teaching of nature’s part in God’s eternal plan exposes much error in the contemporary “save the planet” environmentalist movements. In the recent emphasis on “Earth Day,” I did not hear one word about God, the Creator. To the contrary, some in this new movement look upon nature as god and even suppose that the plants and animals have spirits. The mind of fallen man becomes more and more twisted; now some environmentalists suggest abortion to prevent harming the earth by added populations.

“Save the planet” movements do not view man’s role in God’s creation biblically. In their thinking, the earth belongs not to God but to man. They reject biblical teaching that this world must suffer and in the end be destroyed to be replaced with a new heaven and a new earth. To the unbelieving mind, this planet is all we have, and its destruction spells doom and disaster. There is frantic effort to save that which God has promised to destroy and replace.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:10-13).

Perhaps this movement’s greatest error is failing to see man’s sin as the real pollution contaminating the earth and the true source of the problem for all creation. The Bible speaks a great deal about sin’s pollution.

If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And you shall not take ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to live in the land before the death of the priest. So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. And you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel (Numbers 35:30-34).

They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons, And shed innocent blood, The blood of their sons and their daughters, Whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; And the land was polluted with the blood. Thus they became unclean in their practices, And played the harlot in their deeds (Psalm 106:37-39).

Behold, the Lord lays the earth waste, devastates it, distorts its surface, and scatters its inhabitants. And the people will be like the priest, the servant like his master, the maid like her mistress, the buyer like the seller, the lender like the borrower, the creditor like the debtor. The earth will be completely laid waste and completely despoiled, for the Lord has spoken this word. The earth mourns and withers, the world fades and withers, the exalted of the people of the earth fade away. The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant. Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and those who live in it are held guilty. Therefore, the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left (Isaiah 24:1-6).

God says, “If a husband divorces his wife, and she goes from him, and belongs to another man, will he still return to her? Will not that land be completely polluted? But you are a harlot with many lovers; yet you turn to Me,” declares the Lord. Lift up your eyes to the bare heights and see; Where have you not been violated? By the roads you have sat for them like an Arab in the desert, and you have polluted a land with your harlotry and with your wickedness. Therefore the showers have been withheld, and there has been no spring rain. Yet you had a harlot’s forehead; you refused to be ashamed. Have you not just now called to Me, ‘My Father, Thou art the friend of my youth? ‘Will He be angry forever? Will He be indignant to the end?’ Behold, you have spoken and have done evil things, and you have had your way.” Then the Lord said to me in the days of Josiah the king, have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there. And I thought, ‘After she has done all these things, she will return to Me’; but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. And it came about because of the lightness of her harlotry, that she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. And yet in spite of all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to Me with all her heart, but rather in deception, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 3:1-10).

And I will first doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted My land; they have filled My inheritance with the carcasses of their detestable idols and with their abominations (Jeremiah 16:18).

In light of God’s definition of pollution, the Hollywood celebrities’ protest against “pollution” and ways to save our planet are interesting. Pollution was reduced to styrofoam cups, disposable diapers, and exhaust fumes. But the pollution God hates most, that which He says defiles a land, Hollywood produces the most of: violence, sexual immorality, and idolatry.

(5) Christians do find instruction from the Scriptures which deal with nature. While Christians should be alert to the errors and dangers of the contemporary environmentalist movements, we also must be alert to our responsibilities to God and His creation.

We must first respect nature as God’s creation. We should have regard for the animals God has created:

“You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4).

A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast, But the compassion of the wicked is cruel (Proverbs 12:10).63

Second, we must take the defilement and pollution of His creation as seriously as He does. God drove the Canaanites out of the promised land and later the Israelites, because they defiled the land:

Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have visited its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land may not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 18:24-30).64

Man has been given charge of nature as a stewardship. As such, we will give account to God for the way we manage this responsibility. Some may think that since the earth must perish to be replaced by a new heaven and earth, what we do to this creation does not matter. We should be reminded that our bodies too must perish to be replaced by a new creation. Nevertheless, we are stewards of these earthly temples, and God takes this stewardship seriously (see 1 Corinthians 6:12-20). In whatever time remains for this creation and for our bodies, let us practice wise stewardship. Our relationship with God should be reflected in our treatment of His creation.

I believe our environment is sending us a message we should heed. The devastation and deterioration of our environment shouts to us about the sinfulness of man, the source of the earth’s woes. It also shouts that time is running out for the return of our Lord. There is only one hope. That hope is not in saving our planet, but in the salvation of men. The earth eagerly awaits the “revelation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). Its day of deliverance will come when the present heavens and earth are replaced by new ones. In that day, the Son of God will rule, along with the “sons of God,” those who have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Creator and Redeemer. These “new creations” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17) will rule His new creation. For that day, all creation eagerly awaits.

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) What is the purpose which God’s plan is bringing to pass? What role does nature play in this purpose?

The purpose of God’s eternal plan for creation is to display His glory (see Ephesians 1). Nature reveals the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). Nature not only serves to reveal God to men, but it is used by God to fulfill His purposes and promises. God uses the forces of nature to bless and to punish men and to overcome the enemies of His people (see Deuteronomy 11:10-17; 28:12, 23-24; Exodus 4-15; Joshua 10:11; 24:12). Nature bore witness to our Lord Jesus Christ (see Matthew 2:1-9; 27:45, 51). In the Great Tribulation, the chaos of nature will serve as a divine judgment on sinful men (see Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Matthew 24:29; Revelation 6;12-13; 8:12; 16:1ff.). Nature also takes part in the praise of God (see Psalm 84:1-4; 96:11-13; 98:4-9).

(2) What part did nature play in the program God established in the garden of Eden before the fall of man?

God created the earth as the sphere over which man was to exercise authority in God’s image. Adam was placed in the garden to keep or cultivate it (see Genesis 2:5ff.), and in the world at large to rule over it (Genesis 1:26).

(3) What part did nature play in the account of the fall (what elements of nature were involved)?

The serpent, which was a part of God’s creation, was the instrument by which Satan tempted Adam and Eve and orchestrated their downfall (Genesis 3:1). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a part of God’s creation; its fruit was the only fruit which was forbidden (Genesis 2:16-17). When Adam and Eve fell, the whole creation was corrupted by man’s sin and still awaits the day of its deliverance (Romans 8:18-25). The salvation which God promised man also includes the redemption of the rest of His creation (Colossians 1:19-20).

(4) What part does nature play in fallen man’s religion and worship (see Romans 1)?

Fallen man tends to worship the creation rather than the Creator. To do this, man rejects the revelation of God in nature and worships the works of his own hands (Romans 1:18-23). Natural man worships the creation because he wants to control his own fate. He worships fertility gods so his cattle and crops will reproduce. In contrast, God calls upon His people to trust and obey Him, and He will give the land rain and make their crops and cattle prosper (see Deuteronomy 28).

(5) How is nature presently affected by the fall of man and man’s sin?

Creation has been greatly affected by the fall. Once, all creation lived in harmony. There was no shedding of blood. The eating of meat and the sacrificial system changed this. Also, some animals in nature now feed upon others. The whole earth suffers and groans, waiting the future day of its redemption (see Romans 8;18-25).

(6) What part does nature play in God’s deliverance of His people and in His judgment on sinners?

God not only controls and sustains nature, He uses nature to accomplish His purposes. He uses it to bless and to curse His people (Deuteronomy 28). God employed nature to judge the Egyptians and to deliver His people from their bondage (see Exodus 4-15). God used the forces of nature (like hailstones and bees) to defeat Israel’s enemies (see Joshua 10:9-11; 24:12). In the Great Tribulation period, God will temporarily let nature run randomly, rather than in the order God designed for it. The results will be chaotic and traumatic, bringing God’s judgment on sinful men (see Isaiah 13:9-13; Joel 2:30-32; Amos 8:7-9; Revelation 6:12-17; 8:12).

(7) What is nature’s hope? How will nature be changed?

Nature’s present agony is the result of man’s fall and the curse of sin. Its hope is man’s redemption, and its own, through the appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ, His kingdom, and the revelation of the sons of God (Romans 8:18-25).

(8) What part did nature play in our Lord’s first coming?

Nature bore witness to the time and place of the Messiah’s birth through the star (see Matthew 2:1-11). Jesus demonstrated His power over nature by turning water into wine (John 2:1-11), by walking on the Sea of Galilee and stilling its storm (Matthew 14:24-33), at His triumphal entry by riding the unbroken colt of a donkey (Matthew 21:1-11). Nature bore witness at His crucifixion and resurrection by the darkness and the earthquake (Matthew 27:50-54; Luke 22:44-47).

(9) What can we learn from nature?

Nature reveals much to us about God and His character (see Exodus 19:16-20; Job 38 & 39; Psalm 19:1-6; 50:1-6; 114:1-8; Proverbs 8:22-31; Matthew 5:44-45; 6:28-32; 10:29-31; Romans 1:18-20). Nature has much to teach us about what is moral (Romans 1:18-32) as well as what is practical and wise (Proverbs 6:6-11; 30:24-28).

(10) Can we learn anything from nature which is not found in the Bible? Why are there “two books” so to speak, the book of nature and the Bible (see Psalm 19)?

I understand God to have revealed Himself in three ways: through natural revelation (His creation; Psalm 19:1-6); through Scripture (Psalm 19:7ff.); and, through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-3). The revelation of each of these means is consistent with that of the others. Each reveals God in a slightly different way--in such a way that all man’s senses and learning capabilities are addressed. All men have received at least the revelation of God in nature. To reject this revelation is to be found worthy of divine wrath. To come to a saving knowledge of Christ requires the proclamation and reception of the gospel (see Romans 10:6-15).

(11) How does our culture view nature? How does the Bible’s view of nature differ?

Our culture’s view of culture has changed significantly. Nature used to be seen as the handiwork of God. Then it became “mother nature,” making it possible for men to rationalize away God as the Creator. Recently, nature has become a kind of “god” in its own right.

In a very frightening way, some environmentalists are eager to “save the planet” at man’s expense. Some advocate abortion, so that overpopulation will not do further harm to the earth.

Nature, in the secular mind belongs to man. There is no hope of a “new heaven and earth;” thus, whatever we can do to save the planet must be done now. There is no concept of a stewardship, that the earth is the Lord’s and we are stewards of it. There is no concept of self-sacrifice. A comment something like this was made on a recent environmental film: “The cornerstone of the new environmentalists is self-interest.”

The Bible views creation as God’s handiwork. It reveals much about God and about wise living. It has fallen under the curse of man’s sin, and thus there is suffering and groaning. Nature not only reveals much about God and His righteousness but also about man and his sin. Nature gives men good reason to praise God. Nature itself joins in the praise of God. Nature awaits its future day of deliverance when the Son of God and the sons of God are revealed. Then the new heavens and the new earth will be ruled in righteousness and peace by God Himself and by those who love Him.

(12) What dangers Christians should be aware of with the contemporary “save the plant” movements?

The environmentalist movements of our day are almost entirely secular. Some are radical. Many seem to be a part of the “new age” movement. Some in the movement even seem to be returning to ancient, heathen nature worship. While we should be good stewards of God’s creation, we ought not to become “unequally yoked” with those whose goal and means are vastly different from our own (see 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).

(13) What about those who say they can worship God better out in the woods camping or out on the lake fishing or water skiing?

Nature does prompt men to worship God (Romans 1:18-23). Nevertheless, the worship of God involves sacrifices. The “worship” which men engage in “in the woods” or “out on the lake” is inclined to be either nature worship or mere self-indulgence. Worship can be individual and private, but this in no way replaces the corporate worship of the Christian (see Hebrews 10:19-25).

(14) What is our responsibility as Christians toward our environment? How should the fact that this world is going to be destroyed affect our attitudes and actions as Christians (see 2 Peter 3)?

We are to learn from God’s creation and to be good stewards of it, even though it will perish. Knowing it will perish, we are to look for and hasten the day of the Lord. Knowing that all of the things of this world will perish, we should avoid becoming attached to material possessions, but rather “lay up treasure in heaven” (see Matthew 6;19-21).

Scripture Texts

Genesis 1-3, 4, 9; 12:1, 7-8; 13:14-18; 14:19, 22; 15:12-21; 28:10-17
Exodus 4-14 (the plagues); 15:3-12; 19:16-20; 20:18; 23:28
Leviticus 18:24-30; 25:1-7; 26 (all)
Numbers 35:30-34
Deuteronomy 7:20; 11:8-17; 25:4; 28:12, 23-24
Joshua 10:9-11; 24:12
2 Samuel 22:7-18
Job 37:1-13; 38 & 39 (all)
Psalm 8; 18:7-15; 19; 24:1-2; 29:10; 33:6-9; 50:1-6; 65:9-13; 66:3-7; 68:7-10, 32-35; 75:3; 84:1-4; 89:11; 93:1-2; 96:11-13; 97:1-6; 98:4-9; 103:11-12; 104 (all); 106:37-39; 114:1-8; 115:16; 144 (all); 47:7-9, 12-18; 148 (all)
Proverbs 6:6-11; 8:22-31; 12:10; 30:24-28
Isaiah 11:6-10; 13:6-13; 14:8; 24:1-6, 17-23; 41:17-20; 45:8, 12, 18; 51:12-16; 55:6-13; 65:17-25
Jeremiah 3:1-10; 10:13; 16:18
Ezekiel 34:20-31; 32:7
Hosea 2:18
Joel 2:10, 30-32; 3:14-16
Amos 4:7-9; 5:20; 8:7-9
Jonah 4:5-11
Matthew 2:1-11; 5:44-45; 6:28-32; 10:29-31; 12:38-42; 13:31; 24:29-31; 27:50-54
Luke 8:22-25; 12:47-48; 19:39-40; 23:44-47
John 2:1-11
Romans 1:18-32; 8:18-25
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
2 Corinthians 5:17
Colossians 1:16-20
Hebrews 1:1-4
2 Peter 3:10-13
Revelation 5:13; 6:12-17; 8:12; 10:6; 16:1f.; 21 and 22.


47 Throughout this lesson, nature and creation will be used interchangeably. Technically speaking, creation includes more than just nature (land, sea, plants, animals, weather). Creation includes spiritual forces which are invisible to us, while “nature” speaks of what we can see. Nevertheless, the terms “nature” and “creation” will be used interchangeably to emphasize that nature is God’s creation. The secular mind thinks of nature as distinct from God (“mother nature”) or, worse yet, as a god (“mother earth”?).

48 See also Revelation 5:13; 10:6.

49 See Genesis 14:19, 22.

50 See Isaiah 45:8, 12, 18.

51 You will recall the “forces of nature” brought about much of the calamity in Job’s life. See Job 1:16, 18-19.

52 For an excellent description of the way nature has impacted the thinking of the heathen about God, I suggest you read the fascinating book by Don Richardson entitled, Eternity In Their Hearts, Regal Books, 1984 (revised edition).

53 See also Deuteronomy 28:12, 23-24; Leviticus 26.

54 See chapters 4-14 of Exodus, and for a shorter, poetic version, see Psalm 144.

55 See also Deuteronomy 7:20; Joshua 24:12.

56 Compare Psalm 18.

57 See also Psalm 148; Isaiah 41:17-20.

58 See also Psalm 8:6-8.

59 Was this fear a kind of self-defense so the animals man would kill would tend to hide from their hunter? At the very least, this fear had something to do with a dominion over nature much different from that before the fall and the flood.

60 See also Luke 8:22-25.

61 See also 3:14-16.

62 Some protest that the heathen are condemned without ever hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Man’s rejection of the revelation of God in nature proves that man would reject any other revelation of God as well. In the final analysis, God is gracious to those who are condemned on the basis of their rejection of natural revelation, for those who know more are more accountable and will suffer greater condemnation (Luke 12:47-48; see also Matthew 12:38-42).

63 See also Jonah 4:9-11.

64 See also Genesis 15:16.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)

27. “Outside the Camp” (Exodus 33:1-11)

Introduction

A number of years ago I saw a cartoon in the newspaper which applies to our study. It was a spoof on army life. In the first frame, the mess sergeant informs the commandant that they are all out of food, with the exception of peanut butter. His fear was that the troops would revolt at having this as the sole item on the menu. In the next frame, the commandant, with a sneaky smile, tells the mess sergeant not to worry. The final frame of the cartoon strip shows three large kettles arranged at the mess, with the first labeled “fried critter,” the second labeled “baked varmint,” and the third labeled “peanut butter.” All of the troops are happily standing in line for the peanut butter, while the commandant and the mess sergeant stand nearby, looking on with a knowing smile.

As we consider the old covenant, with all of its weaknesses and inadequacies, we are inclined to think of it like the “peanut butter” of the comic strip. Peanut butter may not be all that exciting if we have the option of eating steak and baked potatoes instead, but it is a real treat in comparison to “critter” and “varmint.”

As the story of Israel’s idolatry in the incident of the golden calf unfolds, the “peanut butter-like” old covenant begins to look better and better, at least from the standpoint of the Israelite of that day. If one had to choose between the old covenant or the New, there would be no question as to which one would prefer. But the only likely option for Israel seemed to be her destruction. The people had forsaken God and Moses, choosing to follow a golden calf, which Aaron made for them from their jewelry. In Moses’ absence, they began to worship the idol in a way that involved the additional evils of sexual immorality and the lack of all restraint (Exod. 32:1-6; cf. vss. 19, 25). God’s first words to Moses threatened the complete destruction of the entire nation, and the creation of a whole new people through the descendants of Moses (Exod. 32:7-10). When faced with the choice of survival or destruction, survival at almost any price seems better. Thus, the “peanut butter” provision of the old covenant is looking better and better all the time. Israel, like the finicky soldiers of the cartoon strip, would be delighted to accept the one thing God would offer—the Mosaic Covenant.

The latter part of Exodus chapter 32 leaves us with but a glimmer of hope for Israel’s preservation. Moses first destroyed the tablets of the Law and the golden idol, making the people drink the gold dust in their water (vss. 15-20). He then rebuked Aaron for leading the people in their disobedience, and letting them get out of control (vss. 21-24). Calling those who would serve God to his side, Moses instructed the faithful Levites, who identified with him as a group, to slay those who refused to follow God, so that 3,000 died (vss. 25-29). This severe action, however, did seem to prevent God’s total destruction of the people. In the closing verses of chapter 32 Moses petitioned God to forgive the people for their great sin. God could not set aside sin, and assured Moses that each person would have to bear the death penalty for his sin, but that this would come at a later time, probably when that whole generation died in the wilderness. God then sent a plague on the people, apparently to immediately evidence His anger.

Israel, therefore would not be suddenly and completely wiped out. If for no other reason, this was to give the second generation of Israelites time to grow up, so that God’s covenant promises could be fulfilled through them. Also, Israel would go on toward Canaan, but God would not personally be present with them. As He told Moses in chapter 32: “But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you” (Exod. 32:34a).

The question no longer is, “Will the Israelites live?,” or even, “Will Israel possess the land, as God promised?,” but “Will God ever be present in the midst of His people?” The presence of God with His people is the great issue at stake in this episode. It is that presence of God which was visible, but distant, on Mt. Sinai, but was intended on an on-going basis to be manifested in the midst of the camp by means of the Tabernacle (Exod. 25:8). Moses has already received the detailed plans for the Tabernacle (chapters 25-31). Now the only question is whether or not God will manifest Himself in the Tabernacle, due to Israel’s sin at Mt. Sinai.

In this lesson we will study the first eleven verses of chapter 33. There is even more hope given the Israelites of having the presence of God among them, due to the events of our passage, and those which are still to follow. When the Israelites learn that God has threatened not to be present among His people, even though they will press on to possess the land of Canaan (vss. 1-3), they repent, mourning for their sin and putting off their jewelry (vss. 4-6).

In the midst of Israel’s sin, and the threat of God withholding His presence from being in the midst of the people, there is the “oasis-like” account in verses 7-11. There was a tent of meeting set up outside the camp, where not only Moses, but the people could go to seek God. This temporary place of meeting gave the people a means of worshipping God, and offered them a hope for a future, fuller, fellowship with God.

Let us look more carefully at verses 1-11 of Exodus chapter 33, for these are truly words of instruction and of encouragement to all who would seek to draw near to God.

God’s Remoteness and Israel’s Repentance
(33:1-6)

Sin always creates barriers between men and God. Some barriers are the result of man’s withdrawal. After Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God, even when He came to fellowship with them (Gen. 3:8-9). At other times, God may appear to withdraw from men. Exodus 32-34 is one such occasion. God has relented from destroying the nation outright, and has allowed this rebellious people to live, at least until a later time, but He has also appeared to withdraw from the people. In our text God continues to speak of the Israelites as Moses’ people (“the people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt,” 33:1; cp. 32:7). He promised to have His angel lead them into the promised land (32:34; 33:1-2), but He threatened to not go up with them in their very midst (33:3): “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, lest I destroy you on the way” (Exod. 33:3).

What irony there is here. Israel wanted Aaron to fashion an idol for them so that they could feel assured that their “god” was with them. The idol did precisely the opposite, for it threatened to cause their God to remove Himself from them. The very thing Israel tried to promote they nearly prevented.

The grace of God is seen even in God’s threat to remove Himself from their midst. God’s stated purpose for keeping a distance between Himself and the Israelites as they travel on toward the promised land was that their sinfulness would require Him to destroy87 them. Thus, to be in their midst was to greatly endanger the Israelites, while to be distant from them was to assure their safety, unless there was some means provided to deal with Israel’s sins, and thus to appease God’s righteous anger.

A casual reading might cause one to think that the “angel” which will lead Israel to the promised land is something new. Thus, it might appear that God once planned to personally lead Israel into Canaan, but that now a mere angel will do so. This is not accurate, for it was an angel that was promised to lead Israel to Canaan, even before the people sinned in the worship of the golden calf. God had said, “Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared” (Exod. 23:20, cf. also v. 23).

Most commentators have tried to explain the threat of God’s remoteness in terms of different angels. They suggest that it was the “angel of God’s presence” (cf. Exod. 3:2; Isa. 63:9) who was first to lead Israel into Canaan, but now, after Israel’s idolatry, it is some lesser angel, a kind of “buck private angel” who is going to do so. Initially, I felt this explanation was correct, but the more I have read the passages referring to the “angel” I have been uneasy about seeing different angels here. The angel seems to be the same. There is no effort to clearly distinguish the “angel” of chapters 32 and 33 with the “angel” of chapter 23.

If I am correct that the “angel” is the same angel in all the places where it is mentioned, then the question must be asked, “How is God threatening to be removed from His people?” The answer is to be found in a more careful look at what God said He would and would not do with regard to His presence. In Exodus chapter 25, when God was speaking to Moses about the Tabernacle, He said, “And let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The Tabernacle, which was to be in the center of the camp, was to be God’s dwelling place, so that He would dwell “among” them.

In Exodus chapter 33, God said, “… I will not go up in your midst” (v. 3). God was thus threatening to not dwell in the Tabernacle, in the midst of the camp. He was not threatening His complete absence, only that His presence would be manifested to Israel at a distance. God was present in the angel, who would go before the Israelites, leading them to Canaan (32:34). The presence of God was also manifested in “the tent” which Moses pitched “a good distance from the camp” (v. 7). The threatened consequence for Israel’s idolatry was that of losing the more intimate presence of God which the Tabernacle was designed to provide.

I believe that Israel’s response is a genuine act of repentance, and one of the first commendable things the people have done. First, I believe Israel is to be commended in grieving at all. If the hearts of the people were totally hardened, there would be very little cause for grief. After all, God has promised not to destroy the nation, and He has also promised to lead them to “a land flowing with milk and honey” (v. 3). Many of the originally promised benefits which God promised Israel are still assured the nation. The only thing missing is that God will deal with His people from a distance, rather than from within their midst.

Keeping God at a distance was Israel’s first inclination and request, as we saw in Exodus 20:18-21. Now, when God indicates that He will lead Israel into the blessings of Canaan, but from a distance, the Israelites mourn. I believe that they were mourning over their sinful actions in the incident with the golden calf. I believe that they mourned as well over the remoteness of God’s presence. The Israelites are no longer content with just a land of milk and honey, with a God who is far removed. They mourn the threatened loss of intimacy with God which they might have had.

The mourning of the Israelites was not only commendable, it was accompanied with the fruits appropriate to repentance (cf. Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20). The appropriate act of repentance here was that which God Himself had prescribed: “Now therefore put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what I will do with you” (v. 5b).

Why was Israel’s putting off of her ornaments an appropriate act of repentance? This requires a little more inquiry into the role which ornaments played, both in Israel’s apostasy in the golden calf incident, and in other occasions as well.88 A brief survey of the role jewelry has already played in Israel’s history, and throughout her history, will enable us to better appreciate what God required and what Israel did, as an act of repentance.

The first significant text pertaining to the use of ornaments and jewelry is found in Genesis 34 and 35, where Jacob’s sons killed the Shechemites for defiling their sister. After the male Shechemites had all been killed, the sons of Jacob looted the city:

Jacob’s sons came upon the slain and looted the city, because they had defiled their sister. They took their flocks and their herds and their donkeys, and that which was in the city and that which was in the field; and they captured and looted all their wealth and all their little ones and their wives, even all that was in the houses (Gen. 34:27-29).

After this, God told Jacob to go up to Bethel:

Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; and let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all their foreign gods which they had, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem (Gen. 35:1-4).

The plunder which Jacob’s sons took from Shechem included foreign gods and jewelry, both of which were considered idolatrous, and which thus had to be put away before Jacob and his sons could worship God by building an altar at Bethel. I would imagine that the earrings may well have had either the names of the idol-gods, or a small engraved impression of the image of that god, or both. For example, you can find bracelets, necklaces, and earrings with astrological signs on them today.

Later, in the Book of Judges, we read of the gold which is taken as spoil from the Midianites. After Gideon and his men had prevailed over the kings of Midian, the Israelites wanted to honor Gideon:

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son’s son, for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.” But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD shall rule over you.” Yet Gideon said to them, “I would request of you, that each of you give me an earring from his spoil.” (For they had gold earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) And they said, “We will surely give them.” So they spread out a garment, and every one of them threw an earring there from his spoil. And the weight of the gold earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the neck bands that were on their camels’ necks. And Gideon made it into an ephod, and placed it in his city, Ophrah, and all Israel played the harlot with it there, so that it became a snare to Gideon and his household (Judges 8:22-27).

Later, the prophet Ezekiel condemned Israel’s idolatry, more frequently than any other prophet, making reference to the gold ornaments and jewelry which was involved. It seems that almost the reverse of what happened in Exodus is described. The Israelites took the ornaments which belonged to God and turned them into abominable images (Ezek. 7:19-20). The abominable images or ornaments which Israel made for themselves of God’s gold were used to play the harlot (Ezek. 16:17; 23:40). Hosea condemned the same evil: “And I will punish her for the days of the Baals When she used to offer sacrifices to them And adorn herself with her earrings and jewelry, And follow her lovers, so that she forgot Me,” declares the Lord (Hos. 2:13).

Finally, in the Book of Revelation, the “Great Harlot” is described in all of her abominations as one who is decked out with gold and ornaments, which seem to play a part in her iniquity: “And the woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality” (Rev. 17:4; cf. 18:7, 16).

From all of these references to golden ornaments, I have concluded that idolatry and immorality are often linked to such items of jewelry in the ancient Near East. You will recall that the gold ornaments obtained from the Egyptians (Exod. 3:22; 11:2; 12:35) were actually plunder (12:36). I am inclined to believe that the gold ornaments had a direct association with the false worship of the Egyptians. I would not doubt that these ornaments had a direct connection with the idols which Amos spoke of much later, when he spoke of the “gods” which the Israelites brought with them out of Egypt: “You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves” (Amos 5:26).

Do you see why the putting off of Israel’s ornaments and jewelry was an appropriate act of repentance? Because these ornaments were similar to those which had been contributed to make the golden calf (Exod. 32:2-4). These images seemed to have an idolatrous association with the past, with pagan gods. Thus, to put off these ornaments was to show Israel’s repentance over the golden calf incident.

The Israelites, we seem to be told, never again put on these ornaments: “So the sons of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments from Mount Horeb onward” (Exod. 33:6).89 I believe that it is these ornaments, which the Israelites put off here, were later offered to God to be used for the furnishings of the Tabernacle (Exod. 35:21-22). As implements of idolatry, these golden ornaments were fit only for destruction. As tokens of Israel’s repentance, these ornaments were fit for use as tokens of God’s presence in the Tabernacle furnishings.

Moses and the Mysterious “Tent of Meeting”
(33:7-11)

The “tent of meeting” of Exodus 33:7-11 is mysterious to me, something like Melchizedek, who mysteriously appears in Genesis chapter 14. The first thing we must establish is that the “tent of meeting” is not the Tabernacle, which will appear later. That the “tent of meeting” and the Tabernacle are distinct entities can be seen from these lines of evidence:

(1) The “tent of meeting” was outside the camp, while the Tabernacle was within the camp.

(2) The “tent of meeting” was served by Moses and Joshua, while the Tabernacle was served by the Levites.

(3) The cloud of God’s presence came down to the “tent of meeting” only when Moses was there, while the cloud hovered over the Tabernacle at all times, except when Israel was to break camp and march.

(4) The structure of Exodus is such that the sections of Scripture dealing with the Tabernacle (chaps. 25-31, 35-40) are clearly set apart from the rest of the text.

The evidence all points to the fact that the “tent of meeting” described here is a unique, provisional place for God to met with Moses and the Israelites. On the one hand, it is inferior to the Tabernacle, but on the other hand, any place of meeting with God is better than none at all. The function of the “tent of meeting” and the Tabernacle was similar, in that the Tabernacle was also a “tent of meeting” (cf. Exod. 35:21), and thus superseded the mysterious “tent” of verses 7-11 of our text. Therefore, we will see references to the “tent of meeting” later on,90 but I think these are all referring to the Tabernacle.

The period of time which this “tent of meeting” was used is not made clear either. It had to be used for some period of time because the construction of verse 7 indicates that Moses repeatedly took the tent outside the camp and pitched it.91 This, I think, can be explained by the fact that while the Israelites camped at the base of Mt. Sinai, they would have had to move about to find pasture for their flocks. We cannot say for sure how long Moses and Israel made use of this tent, but I would suppose that it was until the time that the Tabernacle was completed. It may also be that God graciously provided this tent for Moses to meet with Him and to mediate for the people, rather than having to scale Mt. Sinai every time he wished to worship God.

There are four things which impress me with the account of the “tent of meeting” in verses 7-11: (1) that the “tent of meeting” was a place where the Israelites could seek out God; (2) the fact that the “tent of meeting” was “outside the camp” (v. 7); (3) the intimacy which Moses experienced with God; and, (4) the respect which the people showed for Moses when he met with God. We will consider all of these, as well as their inter-relationships.

The People’s Place of Meeting With God

The great wonder of the “tent of meeting” was not that Moses could go there to seek God, but that the Israelites could seek Him as well: “And it came about, that everyone who sought92 the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp” (Exod. 33:7b).

The God who had appeared at the top of Mt. Sinai, which the Israelites were not allowed to approach (Exod. 19:12-13), not even the priests (19:23-25), was now willing for people to seek Him in this tent, outside the camp.

“Outside the Camp”

The “tent of meeting” was located “outside the camp,” “a good distance from the camp” (v. 7). I believe that the principle reason for this was to fulfill God’s words to Moses, that He would not go up with Israel to Canaan “in the midst of them” (v. 3). When God’s presence was manifested at the tent of meeting, it was always outside the camp. When an Israelite would seek God, he or she would do so “outside the camp.” This tent symbolized the remoteness of God, due to Israel’s idolatry, yet also provided a nearness to God that was more intimate than anything the people had yet experienced. When any Israelite wanted to seek God, he would have to remove himself from the midst of his people, separate himself from their sinfulness, to seek God on His own holy ground.93

The Intimacy of Moses With God

In our text we see Moses enjoying an intimacy with God which is virtually unparalleled in the Old Testament. When Miriam and Aaron later on spoke against Moses, God Himself said,

“Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD shall make Myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. Not so, with My servant Moses, He is faithful in all My household; With him I speak mouth to mouth, Even openly, and not in dark sayings, And he beholds the form of the LORD” (Num. 12:6-8a).

No other prophet spoke “face to face”94 with God as Moses did here. And when Moses entered the “tent of meeting” the cloud, representing the presence and the glory of God, descended to the door of the tent (Exod. 33:9).

I believe that the intimacy of worship we see here is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Moses, made at the same place, before he had returned to Egypt: “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exod. 3:12).

The Israelites’ Respect for Moses

The actions of the Israelites in our text can only be appreciated in the light of their rejection and disdain for Moses as reflected in their words to Aaron: “… as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exod. 32:1).

When Moses had been gone for some time, the Israelites were not really concerned for his life or safety. They did not pray for him or send out a search party. They just concluded that he was gone and not coming back. Thus, they unofficially appointed Aaron to lead them, and to make a golden god for them to worship. They people could care less about Moses at the time of their rebellion against God.

Now, however, it is a vastly different story. Whenever Moses went out to the “tent of meeting” the whole congregation stood at the entrance of his tent and intently watched95 Moses, until he had entered the tent (v. 8).

And when Moses entered the tent and the cloud descended, the people then worshipped God (v. 10). The intimacy which God had with Moses was God’s way of emphasizing that Moses was the leader God had appointed, whom the people should respect and obey: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, I shall come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe in you forever’” (Exod. 19:9).

This statement was made before the giving of the Law, but it is even more significant after Israel’s apostasy, when Moses’ authority had been rejected. When God spoke to Moses from that cloud, the people saw it and learned that this man was God’s man, and that they had better not disregard him again. No wonder the whole congregation stood when Moses went “outside the camp.”

Conclusion

There are a number of lessons which can be learned from our passage. The first is a reminder of the grace of God. At the very point of Israel’s greatest sin, when the judgment of God appears imminent, God’s grace is still very visible. It is visible in the warnings which God has given. The warning of extermination (32:10), of death (32:34), and of a distant relationship (33:1-3). God did not warn the Israelites to torment them, however, but to turn them from their sin to repentance:

Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it, if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jer. 18:5-8).

God’s grace was evident in the provision of the “tent of meeting.” While God evidenced Israel’s sin by being present with His people at a distance, nevertheless, God was nearer to the people than He had ever been to this point in time. He was once only atop Mt. Sinai, where only Moses was permitted to go. Now, He will meet not only Moses, but those who seek Him at the tent. When men need God most, His grace provides a way.

God’s grace was evident as well in the provision of Moses as the mediator for the people. Moses and Joshua, the two men untainted by Israel’s sin, were those who served God at the “tent of meeting.” As the people well knew, their very lives, as well as their relationship with God, was dependent upon the mediation of Moses.

What a picture, what a prototype, of the grace of God in the provision of Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, as our mediator. We, in our trespasses and sins, are dead, with no claim on God, no hope of salvation, no future but death, have One who offers to be our Mediator with God. Just as Israel’s future rested with Moses, so all men’s future rests on Christ, for only He has paid the price for our sin, only He has continual access to God. Let us look to the Lord Jesus Christ, receiving the grace of God which has been offered through Him, and Him alone.

There is also a lesson to be learned from the “tent of meeting” which was “outside the camp.” God’s provision for the people was removed from and distant from their camp, and thus from their sin. So it was in Jesus’ day. When John the Baptist preached, it was in the wilderness, not in the Temple. That was because the Judaism of John’s day had become corrupt, just as Israel in Moses’ day had become defiled by their idolatry. If men wanted to repent and return to God, they had to dissociate themselves from their religious system which had become defiled. Those who trusted in the Lord Jesus were forced to do so in opposition to the leaders of Judaism. Jesus was crucified “outside the camp” (Heb. 13:12). The Jews did not like it, but they had to enter into the kingdom of God through what to them was a Gentile door (cf. Gal. 2:14-17).

There are many today who are a part of a corrupt religious system. It may once have been true to God’s Word. It may not. But for those who are trusting in a religious system, in a denomination, a church, and not in Christ, I urge you to come “outside the camp” where you will find God’s provision for your salvation in Jesus Christ alone.

There is a lesson for us to be learned in the repentance of Israel. The Israelites mourned because they had only the promise of prosperity, but not the promise of God’s intimate presence among them. In our day and time, prosperity is touted as the proof of God’s presence. It frankly is not true. If you can have prosperity in the presence of God, then you are blessed. If you can have either one or the other, I urge you to learn from the Israelites, who desired the presence of God more than mere prosperity.

Finally, there is an encouraging word for each of us whose former lives have been defiled by sin. There are many who mourn the days of their unbelief, when they defiled themselves with sins of the flesh. They may feel that because they have been thus defiled, they will have no use to God.

It is simply not true, my friend, as you should learn from the golden earrings and ornaments of the Israelites. Those earrings which were donated to Aaron for the making of the golden calf were destroyed and defiled, so that they would never be of use to man or God again. But virtually identical earrings, those which were the result and evidence of Israel’s repentance, even though they had been defiled in the past, were the raw material which God used in the Tabernacle, where He manifested His glory to men. If you have repented and turned from your pagan past, my friend, you have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. Old things have passed away, and you are now a vessel of honor, fit for God’s use.


87 The term “destroy” is a strong one, suggesting extermination or total annihilation, the very thing which God had threatened in 32:10.

88 Hyatt implies that Israel’s ornaments played a role in her idolatry, but without a great deal of biblical support when he states: “The refusal of Yahweh to go up with the people here, lest he consume them, may be based upon the fact that they were wearing ornaments associated with a foreign deity, though this is not clearly stated; thus the removal of the ornaments would have made it possible for him to accompany them.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 313-314.

89 The term “onward” is italicized in the NASB, indicating that it is not in the original text, but rather supplied to fill in the sense of the text. I do feel that this term does convey what the text was intended to teach us.

90 Other references to the “tent of meeting”: Exod. 35:21; Num. 11:24ff.; 12:4f., 10; cf. 1 Sam. 2:22; 2 Chron. 1:3, 13.

91 Davis agrees with the customary or habitual imperfect: “The structure of the Hebrew text at the beginning of verse 7 indicates that what Moses did here was not a single event but one repeated many times.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 293. Davis, in a footnote on the same page, deals more extensively with the grammar of the verse.

92 This term “sought” is a strong word in the Hebrew language, thus underscoring the intensity of the desire of the people to seek out God. This is a significant change from the rebellion and apostasy of the incident described in chapter 32.

93 Ironically, it would seem, the “tent of meeting” reverses what is true with the Tabernacle. When the “tent of meeting” is “outside the camp” that place is holy, while the camp is defiled by Israel’s sin. On the other hand, when the Tabernacle is in the midst of the camp, the camp is holy and “outside the camp” is profane, where the flesh of the sacrificial bull and its dung, for example, are burned (cf. Exod. 29:14).

94 Cole refers to Numbers 12:8 where God is said to speak to Moses “mouth to mouth” to explain the meaning of the phrase “face to face.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 224.

It should be pointed out that the expression “face to face” is an anthropomorphism, that is, a figure of speech, describing God in man-like terms. Since we will shortly read that Moses cannot look at God’s face (Exod. 33:23), we know that Moses spoke with God on intimate (“face to face”) terms, but that he did not actually see God’s face.

95 I am disappointed with the word “gaze” in verse 8, the choice of the translators of the NASB. Gaze implies a casual look, while the Hebrew term is one that conveys great concern and interest. It is the term used, for example, for the “looking” of the Israelites at the bronze serpent, so that they can be healed (Num. 21:9). Zechariah used this term to describe those who will “look upon” the Messiah, whom they have pierced (Zech. 12:10).

6. The Place of Blessing in God’s Perfect Plan

Introduction

I grew up in the country where I lived on a lake in the midst of many trees. I have a strong attachment to the land of my childhood where I spent so much time growing up. My homeland was “God’s country.” Unless there are snow-capped mountains and evergreen forests, I still wonder how anyone can possibly claim their homeland as “God’s country.”

“God’s country” is an expression men use even though they seldom agree upon its location. My wife and I came to Texas in mid-summer from Washington, “the evergreen state.” I must confess Texas did not look like God’s country to us. One of our church secretaries, Gail Humphries, comes from Tennessee. She and I compare pictures, each attempting to convince the other that God’s country is our home state.

In studying the Scriptures, I have concluded that God has a special attachment to a certain piece of real estate. Biblical revelation discloses that God’s country is not in North America. Rather, it is a small stretch of land known as Israel or Palestine. Both the Jews and the Arabs claim this very region as their land. Within the land of Israel is a very special city, the City of Jerusalem, known also as Zion. Israel is truly “God’s country” and Jerusalem, “His city.”65

“For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. “But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the Lord your God cares; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:10-12).

Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth, Is Mount Zion in the far north, The city of the great King (Psalm 48:2).

The Lord loves the gates of Zion More than all the other dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God. Selah (Psalm 87:2-3).

Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth (Psalm 50:2).

God has chosen to identify Himself in the Bible with a certain part of the world, with a special piece of land. We may legitimately call this place “God’s country.” In this lesson we will seek to learn about the place where God has promised to bless men, and the role which this place has in God’s eternal plan for creation.

The Key to History

God’s plan for creation is first unveiled in the Bible as a promise. God’s promise quickly begins to reveal a program as the Scriptures unfold God’s purpose for creation and His provisions for achieving it. The unfolding of God’s plan for man is disclosed first in God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 12:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

God’s promise to Abram introduces three major themes: (1) a place of blessing (“Go forth from your country . . . to a land which I will show you,” verse 1); (2) a blessing; and, (3) a seed, which is both the recipient (“I will make you a great nation, . . . And I will bless you,” verse 2) and the source of blessing for the rest of mankind (“And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” (verse 3).

The three themes of land, seed, and blessing can be traced through the Old and New Testaments. They provide the major elements of God’s plan for man. Each theme is extensive, requiring separate consideration in three lessons. This first lesson follows the theme of “the land,” the place of God’s blessing. Our next lesson will consider “the seed,” the source of God’s blessing. Finally, we will study the blessing itself, the nature of God’s blessing.

The Problem of Sin
and the Need for a Sacred Place

In one sense, there is no need for a special place of blessing. Long ago, David praised God because there was nowhere he could ever go that would take him away from the blessing of God’s presence:

Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Thy hand will lead me, And Thy right hand will lay hold of me (Psalm 139:7-10).

But there is a problem with God’s presence arising out of the conflict between God’s holiness and our sin. David raised the question in one of his psalms:

O Lord, who may abide in Thy tent? Who may dwell on Thy holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, And speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor takes up a reproach against his friend; In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the Lord; He swears to his own hurt, and does not change; He does not put out his money at interest, Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken (Psalm 15:1-5).66

This Psalm, like the Old Testament Law of Moses, sets the standard for who may abide in the presence of God--with Him. The problem: all men are sinners who fail to meet God’s standard:

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE. THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING, THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS; WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS; THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD, DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS, AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN. THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES” (Romans 3:9-18).67

Because of man’s sin and God’s holiness, no person can ever be expected to see God and live.

Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “Thou art a God who sees”; for she said, “Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?” (Genesis 16:13).

Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (Exodus 33:18-20).68

In the Old Testament, the solution to this dilemma was to designate a “sacred place,” a place where God’s presence could be manifested without being contaminated by man’s sin. Usually the solution involved some kind of barrier or separation between God and man, keeping sinful man at a distance.69 Throughout the Old Testament, God designated a place of blessing where men could enter into a certain level of fellowship with Him and from which God poured out His blessings. In the New Testament, dramatic changes take place. We will look first at the place of blessing in the Old Testament and then turn to the New.

The Place of God’s
Blessing in the Old Testament

Before the fall, the Garden of Eden was the place of God’s blessing. There God provided for all of Adam’s needs, including Eve. In the Garden as well, God met with Adam and Eve, and man was able to enjoy the “presence of the Lord” (see Genesis 3:8). With the fall came the curse. Part of the curse included the banning of man from the garden, especially from the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24).

Only a few generations later, man’s sin became so great that God brought yet another curse upon the earth. The curse came in the form of a flood which wiped out every breathing being, except those who were spared on the ark (Genesis 6-8). When Noah’s offspring sought to bring about their own blessings, they determined to work together to build a city and a tower. Once again God intervened, putting an end to this project by confusing man’s language (Genesis 11).

In Genesis 12, God chose to bless Abram. God’s promise of blessing contained His instruction regarding the place of blessing. God’s blessing was contingent upon being in the right place. But the place of blessing was not Abram’s own country. He was thus instructed to leave his homeland and his family:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

Abram (along with Terah, his father, Sarai, Abram’s wife, and Lot, his nephew) left Ur of the Chaldeans to enter the land of Canaan, getting as far away as Haran (see Genesis 11:27-32). In Haran, Terah died (11:32), and Abram was called by God to press on from Haran to a place not yet specified.

By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11:8).

Abraham was seventy-five years old when he, his wife, and his nephew Lot reached the land of Canaan (12:4-5). There God promised him the possession of Canaan as the place of His blessing:

And Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. Now the Canaanite was then in the land. And the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him (Genesis 12:6-7).

The land was not yet Abram’s. The Canaanites were then in the land (12:6). Someday it would be Abram’s land, even though it would be later when God would give it to Abram and his descendants.

A famine in the land of Canaan prompted Abram to leave Canaan and to sojourn in Egypt.70 Upon his return to Canaan, Abram and Lot found it necessary to separate. Abram gave Lot his choice of land, and Lot took what seemed to be the best land:

And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. Now the Canaanite and the Perizzite were dwelling then in the land. Then Abram said to Lot, “Please let there be no strife between you and me, nor between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. “Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me: if to the left, then I will go to the right; or if to the right, then I will go to the left.” And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere-- this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and

Gomorrah--like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar. So Lot chose for himself all the valley of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they separated from each other (Genesis 13:7-11).

Lot took the land which seemed to offer the best hope of blessing, a land much like the Garden of Eden (13:10). Abram took what was left. As history records,71 Lot’s decision proved to be unwise. Sometime later, God spoke more specifically to Abram about the land He was going to give him and his descendants. He also indicated a considerable wait would be required, with the seed of Abram sojourning in an unknown land for 400 years:

Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions. And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” And it came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite” (Genesis 15:12-21).

God indicated to Abram that He would give the iniquity of the Canaanites more time to mature into full bloom. He would then drive the Canaanites out of the land and give this land to Abram’s seed. Two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, the very place Lot had chosen to dwell, had already reached the point where judgment could wait no longer. God informed Abraham of His intention to judge the cities, and he pleaded with God for mercy. God promised to withhold judgment if but a handful of godly people ten could be found. Ten could not be found, and the cities were destroyed (Genesis 18 and 19).

Abraham began to understand that this land, the land of Canaan, was God’s special place of blessing. He did not yet understand that God could bless those outside the land as well. When Abraham and Sarah went to Gerar to sojourn, they were at the southern border, the very edge of Canaan. Abraham again passed Sarah off as his sister, and Abimelech took her for his wife. When Abraham’s deception became known to Abimelech, Abraham explained that he did not think God could protect him in this place:

And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What have you encountered, that you have done this thing?” And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place; and they will kill me because of my wife” (Genesis 20:10-11).

I believe it was for the benefit of both Abraham and Abimelech that God gave Abimelech these instructions:

“Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours” (Genesis 20:7).

And so Abraham did pray on behalf of Abimelech and his people, and the wombs of the women were once again opened (20:17-18).

Abraham’s son, Isaac, had twin sons: Esau, who was born first, and Jacob. Through treachery and deceit, Jacob acquired his brother’s birthright and his blessing. He also aroused his anger. Jacob’s parents arranged for him to travel to Paddan-aram, to the house of his uncle Laban to find a wife (Genesis 28:1-2). Jacob made his way from Canaan back to the place where Abraham had once lived. But before he left Canaan, Jacob had a most unusual dream:

Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place. And he had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. “And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:10-17).

In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder reaching up to heaven, a ladder which was to become very important later.72 But for Jacob, the significance of his dream was where the ladder was placed. He indicates by his words that he understood the significance of the place he was leaving. It was an “awesome place,” the “gate of heaven.” Somehow, the land of Canaan was the place where heaven and earth met, where men and God met. Leave Canaan though he might, Canaan was the place of God’s special blessings. Jacob would never forget it.73

By means of his two wives and their handmaids, Jacob had twelve sons who became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Due to his sons’ cruelty to their younger brother Joseph, Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt. Under the Pharaoh, he was elevated to a position of great power. Joseph sent for his family to prevent them from perishing in the severe famine which had come upon Egypt and Canaan. As a result, the nation Israel spent 430 years in Egypt, fulfilling the words God had earlier spoken to Abram in Genesis 15 (see Genesis 37-50).

In His appointed time, God raised up Moses to deliver His people, the Israelites, from Egyptian bondage and lead them into Canaan to possess the land (Exodus 1-4). Through the series of ten plagues, God delivered the Israelites and brought them through the Red Sea (Exodus 5-15). After passing through the Red Sea, the Israelites sang a song of joyful celebration. Their song looked forward to their possession of the land of Canaan, the place of God’s blessing:

“Thou wilt bring them and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, the place, O Lord, which Thou hast made for Thy dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established” (Exodus 15:17).

God’s presence had been with the Israelites from atop Mount Sinai. After the Israelites set out from the base of Mount Sinai toward the promised land, it was necessary for a dwelling place to be provided for God to accompany them on their way to the land. The solution was the tabernacle:

“And let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it” (Exodus 25:8-9).

In the tabernacle, at the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, God would meet with His people:

“And you shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I shall give to you. And there I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel” (Exodus 25:21-22).

The altar and the sacrifices made it possible for God to meet with His people:

“Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two one year old lambs each day, continuously. The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight; and there shall be one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a libation with one lamb. And the other lamb you shall offer at twilight, and shall offer with it the same grain offering as the morning and the same libation, for a soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the Lord. It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. And I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. And I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to Me. And I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God” (Exodus 29:38-46).

When Israel sinned by worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6), a serious problem arose. How would God dwell among this sinful, stiff-necked people? Their total annihilation was their initial threat (32:7-10). After Moses appealed to God for mercy, they had reason for great concern that God would send them into the land, but His presence would not go with them:

“Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, lest I destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:3).

To enable God to dwell in the midst of a sinful people, God provided the Law, the tabernacle, and the sacrifices.74

Once the Israelites reached the land of Canaan, God would designate the holy place where men could worship Him with their sacrifices and offerings:

“When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, then it shall come about that the place in which the Lord your God shall choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the Lord. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. Be careful that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every cultic place you see, but in the place which the Lord chooses in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you” (Deuteronomy 12:10-14).75

When David proposed building a house for God, God informed David that He did not need a house, promising instead to build a “house” (a dynasty) for David:

Now it came about when the king lived in his house, and the Lord had given him rest on every side from all his enemies, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within tent curtains.” And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your mind, for the Lord is with you.” But it came about in the same night that the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying, “Go and say to My servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt, even to this day; but I have been moving about in a tent, even in a tabernacle. Wherever I have gone with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel, which I commanded to shepherd My people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’”’ (2 Samuel 7:1-7).

Once established in the land, the sanctuary of the Lord was located in several temporary locations: Shiloh, Shechem, and Bethel. The permanent place for God’s sanctuary became known in a most interesting way, as described in 1 Chronicles 21 and 22.76 David had wrongly numbered Israel. As a result, God offered David three alternative forms of discipline. David chose discipline at the hand of God. The Lord sent a pestilence which killed 70,000. As the angel of the Lord was standing between earth and heaven, the hand of God was stopped at Jerusalem. At the instruction of the prophet Gad, David built an altar on the land he purchased from Ornan. He then offered burnt and peace offerings since God answered his prayer at this sacred place. God chose to have His name to dwell at this very place:

“‘Since the day that I brought My people from the land of Egypt, I did not choose a city out of all the tribes of Israel in which to build a house that My name might be there, nor did I choose any man for a leader over My people Israel; but I have chosen Jerusalem that My name might be there, and I have chosen David to be over My people Israel’” (2 Chronicles 6:5-6).

Some years later, David’s son Solomon built the temple on the very spot where God had appeared to David (Mount Moriah, see Genesis 22:2):

Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had prepared, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (2 Chronicles 3:1).

Solomon’s words, spoken on the occasion of the dedication of the temple, reflect the words of God spoken to his father years before:

“Now therefore, O Lord, the God of Israel, let Thy word be confirmed which Thou hast spoken to Thy servant David. But will God indeed dwell with mankind on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee; how much less this house which I have built. Yet have regard to the prayer of Thy servant and to his supplication, O Lord my God, to listen to the cry and to the prayer which Thy servant prays before Thee; that Thine eyes may be open toward this house day and night, toward the place of which Thou hast said that Thou wouldst put Thy name there, to listen to the prayer which Thy servant shall pray toward this place. And listen to the supplications of Thy servant and of Thy people Israel, when they pray toward this place; hear Thou from Thy dwelling place, from heaven; hear Thou and forgive” (2 Chronicles 6:16-21).

From this time on, the city of Jerusalem, also known as Zion, becomes the place of God’s presence in the hearts and minds of the Israelites. Zion is the dwelling place of God and of His appointed King. Zion is the place from which God hears and acts on behalf of His people:

“But as for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain” (Psalm 2:6).

Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion; Declare among the peoples His deeds (Psalm 9:11).

May He send you help from the sanctuary, And support you from Zion! (Psalm 20:2).

Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth, Is Mount Zion in the far north, The city of the great King (Psalm 48:2).

And His tabernacle is in Salem; His dwelling place also is in Zion (Psalm 76:2).

That men may tell of the name of the Lord in Zion, And His praise in Jerusalem (Psalm 102:21).

Those who trust in the Lord are as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever (Psalm 125:1).

For the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His habitation (Psalm 132:13).

May the Lord bless you from Zion, He who made heaven and earth (Psalm 134:3).

Because Zion was the “city of God,” its inhabitants, beginning with the king, were to live in accordance with the Law God had given His people. As God warned long beforehand, His people turned from Him and from His Law to worship and serve other gods. In time, Jerusalem became known not for her righteousness but for her wickedness.

The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, concerning Judah and Jerusalem which he saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth; for the Lord speaks, “Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have revolted against Me. An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand.” Alas, sinful nation, people weighed down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away from Him. Where will you be stricken again, as you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it, only bruises, welts, and raw wounds, not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil . . . . How the faithful city has become a harlot, she who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your drink diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, and companions of thieves; everyone loves a bribe, and chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, nor does the widow’s plea come before them” (Isaiah 1:1-6, 21-23).

For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their actions are against the Lord, to rebel against His glorious presence. The expression of their faces bears witness against them. And they display their sin like Sodom; they do not even conceal it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves (Isaiah 3:8-9).

The leaders of the nation were those who abused their position and power, oppressing the people, especially the vulnerable and helpless:

The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of His people, “It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing My people, and grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord God of hosts (Isaiah 3:14-15).

Israel did not heed the Law nor did it listen to the prophets warnings.77 Foolishly, Israel looked at the temple as the guarantee of God’s presence among them and of His unceasing blessings. Because of this, God would judge not only the people but the city and the temple:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah, who enter by these gates to worship the Lord!’” Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’-- that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the Lord. “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things,” declares the Lord, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you but you did not answer, therefore, I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brothers, all the offspring of Ephraim” (Jeremiah 7:2-15).

“For, behold, I am calling all the families of the kingdoms of the north,” declares the Lord; “and they will come, and they will set each one his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, and against all its walls round about, and against all the cities of Judah. And I will pronounce My judgments on them concerning all their wickedness, whereby they have forsaken Me and have offered sacrifices to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands” (Jeremiah 1:15-16).

“Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, ‘declares the LORD,’ and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land, and against its inhabitants, and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them, and make them a horror, and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. ‘Moreover, I will take from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones and the light of the lamp. ‘And this whole land shall be a desolation and a horror, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:8-11).

In the midst of God’s warnings was also the assurance of God’s mercy and compassion, and the certainty that His promises to His people would be fulfilled. There was thus also the promise of Jerusalem’s deliverance and restoration:

Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers And is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope. The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Thy faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him” (Lamentations 3:19-24).

There was also the promise that God’s time of judgment was limited. When God’s righteous anger was satisfied, God would restore His people. He would also punish the wicked who delighted in afflicting God’s people.

“‘Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the LORD, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation. ‘And I will bring upon that land all My words which I have pronounced against it, all that is written in this book, which Jeremiah has prophesied against all the nations. ‘(For many nations and great kings shall make slaves of them, even them; and I will recompense them according to their deeds, and according to the work of their hands.)’” (Jeremiah 25:12-14).

Then the angel of the LORD answered and said, “O LORD of hosts, how long wilt Thou have no compassion for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which Thou hast been indignant these seventy years?” And the LORD answered the angel who was speaking with me with gracious words, comforting words. So the angel who was speaking with me said to me, “Proclaim, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and Zion. But I am very angry with the nations who are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they furthered the disaster.” ‘Therefore, thus says the LORD, “I will return to Jerusalem with compassion; My house will be built in it,” declares the LORD of hosts, “and a measuring line will be stretched over Jerusalem.”’ Again, proclaim, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “My cities will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem”’“ (Zechariah 1:12-17).

The prophets spoke not just of a return from captivity in Babylon brought about by Cyrus, but of a fuller, final, deliverance. This deliverance would be brought about by the Messiah Himself, who would appear in Jerusalem to deliver His people:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; and the bow of war will be cut off. And He will speak peace to the nations; and His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:9-10).

And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. And you will flee by the valley of My mountains, for the valley of the mountains will reach to Azel; yes, you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the LORD, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him! And it will come about in that day that there will be no light; the luminaries will dwindle. For it will be a unique day which is known to the LORD, neither day nor night, but it will come about that at evening time there will be light. And it will come about in that day that living waters will flow out of Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern sea and the other half toward the western sea; it will be in summer as well as in winter. And the LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one. All the land will be changed into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem; but Jerusalem will rise and remain on its site from Benjamin’s Gate as far as the place of the First Gate to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the king’s wine presses. And people will live in it, and there will be no more curse, for Jerusalem will dwell in security (Zechariah 14:4-11).

As the history of Israel in the Old Testament period draws to a close, and as the time of the coming of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah arrives, two very different perceptions emerge concerning the “place of God’s blessing.” Because they set the scene for the place of blessing taught in the New Testament, we shall briefly pause to bring them to mind.

As seen from the Old Testament and the New, the ungodly, unbelieving Israelites thought only of an earthly place of blessing and of earthly, physical blessings. No wonder wealth meant so much to the Jewish religious leaders (Luke 16:14) and the temple had been turned into a market place (John 2:14). Israel was God’s dwelling place, particularly His temple in Jerusalem. Being born within Israel’s borders and living there made such Jews feel superior to others, including both the Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews. Much friction existed between the native Hebrews and the Hellenistic Jews (see Acts 6:1). When Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple, one can see how upsetting His words would be. One can also understand why the Messiah Himself could come to the temple, have His authority challenged, and even be put to death by those who claimed to revere it (see John 2:14-22; Luke 19:28--21:38). No wonder the enemies of our Lord also accused Stephen of speaking against “this holy place” (Acts 6:13).

But godly Jews saw things quite differently. They understood the “place of God’s blessing” was not an earthly city, but a heavenly one:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

They understood God’s blessings were not necessarily obtained immediately, but that God’s full and final blessings would be obtained after death and resurrection. The blessing was not so much that which God would bestow upon men, but God Himself. The ultimate blessing was, as Moses rightly understood, to see the glory of God (see Exodus 33:18). It was not so much that God would dwell in some place fashioned by men, but that men might dwell with God in His presence forever:

Thou wilt make known to me the path of life; In Thy presence is fullness of joy; In Thy right hand there are pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11).

Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6).

One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord, And to meditate in His temple (Psalm 27:4).

Let me dwell in Thy tent forever; Let me take refuge in the shelter of Thy wings. Selah (Psalm 61:4).

The Place of God’s
Blessing in the New Testament

Several key texts in the Gospel of John demonstrate the radical contrast of Jesus’ teaching on the place of God’s blessing with that of the Jewish religious leaders of His day. Let us briefly consider a few of these texts.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. . . . And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-4, 14).

In Old Testament times, God did dwell among men, but always at a distance and always with barriers. God was separate, removed from men even while among them. Moses was not allowed to draw too close to the burning bush. The foot of Mount Sinai was roped off with a barrier, so men could not get too close. Moses was not allowed to see God’s face, but only His “back side.” Those who did see the “angel of the Lord” got only a brief look. In the tabernacle, the veil separated people from God’s presence.

John tells us in the above verses that Jesus was not only God, but that He was God manifested in the flesh (see also 1 Timothy 3:16). Specifically, John says that Jesus “tabernacled among us” (see the marginal note at John 1:14). In Christ, God took on sinless humanity. Never before had God dwelt among men in this way.

The next day He purposed to go forth into Galilee, and He found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow Me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:43-51).

This text is one of the most marvelous verses in our study. Jesus had begun to present Himself to Israel as her Messiah. He was calling men to follow Him. He found Philip and called him. Philip found Nathanael and told him that they had found the Messiah. When Nathanael heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathanael responded in the way nearly any Jew would have thought: “Nobody important would come from Nazareth. Anybody who is somebody would come from Jerusalem.”

Nathanael saw that Jesus was truly the awaited Messiah when our Lord spoke to this godly man about his being under the fig tree. He said so. Jesus’ response to him is incredible. Our Lord refers to the Old Testament experience of Jacob described in Genesis 28. Jacob had dreamed of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending upon it. He was impressed because the ladder rested on the land of Israel, and it reached into heaven.

Jacob was right; the land he was leaving was very special. It was a sacred place, the place of God’s presence and of His blessings. But when our Lord speaks to Nathanael, His words draw our attention to the ladder, not the ground on which the ladder was placed. If Jacob was impressed with the place, Jesus’ words call attention to the Person, to the ladder. Jesus is the ladder. He is the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is the “door” (John 9:7-18). Through Him alone men obtain a way to heaven and to God’s eternal presence.

Nathanael was more concerned about the place than the person. The place did not make the person; the person made the place. The place of blessing was the place where God dwelt, the place of His presence. God was now dwelling (tabernacling) among men, in Christ. In John 2, the One in whom God dwelled came to His Father’s house, the temple. It was not a house of prayer, nor a place where men came to be in the presence of God to worship. It was a place of business:

And the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers seated. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the moneychangers, and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a house of merchandise.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Thy house will consume me.” The Jews therefore answered and said to Him, “What sign do You show to us, seeing that You do these things?” The Jews therefore answered and said to Him, “What sign do You show to us, seeing that You do these things?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews therefore said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken (John 2:14-22).

Of great significance is our Lord’s reference to the destruction of “this temple.” The physical temple would soon be destroyed (see Mark 13:1-2). Jesus was talking about His own body rather than the literal “temple.” Christ is God’s dwelling place among men. The One who came to “tabernacle” among men (John 1:14) is the “temple” (John 2:19). By so speaking, Jesus informed us that we should begin to think of the place of God’s blessing in terms of a Person--the Messiah--rather than a physical place.

In the third chapter of John, Nicodemus, a prominent teacher of the Law,78 could not think of entering into the kingdom of God in other than physical terms. To him, the expression, “born again,” could only mean a second physical birth. Jesus challenged Nicodemus to go beyond the physical to the spiritual realm. The kingdom of God could be entered into by faith in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s Savior, the One in whom God dwelled. The same emphasis is found in chapter 4:

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He” (John 4:19-26).

Jesus confronted the Samaritan woman at the well with her many marriages. Much like Nathanael had responded earlier, she perceived that Jesus was more than a mere man. She began to talk about the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews over the place where men should worship God. Jesus brushed aside the debate over the place of worship, and focused on the Person to worship--Himself. Once Jesus came to the earth, to “tabernacle” among men, men must worship God by trusting in Jesus as the Messiah and worshipping Him as God manifested in human flesh.

In John 5, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. The Jews, sticklers about the place, were also legalistic about the time. It was the Sabbath, they protested. Jesus should not have healed him on the Sabbath. Nor should Jesus have had this man carry off his pallet. Jesus’ answer clearly underscored that He and the Father were one:

But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God. Jesus therefore answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and greater works than these will He show Him, that you may marvel. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes. For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:17-29).

No longer is the place the issue; now the issue is the Person of Jesus Christ. To trust in Him is to have eternal life and the assurance of eternity in God’s presence. To reject Him is to be left in our sins, eternally separated from God.

Our Lord’s disciples, with the exception of Judas, had trusted in Jesus as their Messiah. They persisted in wanting to know more of the place and time of the kingdom. Our Lord’s words to them in the upper room just before His death puts their focus back on Him:

“Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me; otherwise believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:1-11).

There was a place of blessing; it would not be the “old Jerusalem” which was to be destroyed. It was to be the “New Jerusalem.” Jesus told His disciples He was going in order to prepare this place for them. He would return to them, with the place. They wanted to know more about the place and how to get there. Jesus told them to dwell on the Person--on Himself--for He is “the way” to the place. They wanted to know more about the Father; again Jesus informed them to trust in Him, for the Father and He are one. To have seen Jesus is to have known the Father. To have received Jesus by faith is to have become one with the Father.

The place of God’s blessing is still a part of God’s promise and the Christian’s hope in the New Testament. But the place of His blessing is now in Christ. To be “in Christ” is to be in the place of God’s blessing.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation-- having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:3-14).

Conclusion

God had come to dwell among men. Jesus had made the Father known to sinful men:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life--and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us-- what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

When Jesus spoke of leaving His disciples, they recoiled at the thought. They wanted Him to abide with them forever. Jesus had a far better way. For Him to dwell in the presence of sinful men was to continue in much the same way God had dwelt among men in the Old Testament. While our Lord was without sin, His disciples were not. The same old problem which began at the fall of man existed: sinful men cannot dwell in the presence of a holy God.

Jesus’ incarnation (His taking on of humanity, adding sinless humanity to His undiminished deity) and His sacrificial death provided a new and better way for men to be blessed. The blessing of God is first and foremost the blessing of dwelling in His presence. While men possess sinful, fallen, bodies and live in a world corrupted by sin, a Holy God cannot abide with them in the fullest measure.

Through Christ, God provided a way for Himself to dwell in the presence of men without dwelling in a place made by sinful men. Before Christ, the best that could be done for men was for God to dwell provisionally among men--but not permanently. Men could enjoy and appreciate Him only in part because of His holiness and our sin. Moses could not see the face of God nor could any other man. Even in the coming of our Lord, His full glory and majesty were “veiled,” seen only in part. On a few occasions, such as our Lord’s transfiguration, a greater amount of His glory was displayed--but only momentarily to be seen by a few.

God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness prohibit God’s dwelling among men. The Old Testament provisions were barriers, separators between God and men, so that men could not get too close to the holy God. In Christ, God came to men, as a man. By faith in Christ, sinful men become new men. Their sins are forgiven. They receive the righteousness of God, in Christ. And as new men, they can now enter boldly into the innermost presence of God. The veil of the temple was torn apart at the time of the death of our Lord for this reason:

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:50-54).

Now that Christ has come, men can be reconciled to God and become new creatures in Christ:

Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin {to be} sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

As new creatures, forgiven of sin and made righteous in Christ, Christians may now approach God differently than men ever have before:

Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:19-25).

Our access to God in Christ surpasses anything for which men could have ever hoped. Our union with Him will be perfect when we leave behind this fallen world and our mortal bodies, corrupted by sin, and enter into His presence blameless, where we shall see Him as He is.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:10-13).

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP IN VICTORY (1 Corinthians 15:50-54).

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (Jude 1:24-25).

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).

Indeed there is a place of blessing; that place is in Christ and with Christ. The joy of the new heavens and the new earth, particularly of the New Jerusalem, is that we are with God, dwelling forever in Christ.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them” (Revelation 21:1-3).

Beginning with the forgiveness of their sins, those who receive Jesus as God’s provision for every blessing will assuredly spend all eternity enjoying His presence. Those who do not will spend all eternity separated from His presence:

For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed-- for our testimony to you was believed (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

Have you found God’s place of blessing, in Christ? If so, then you may be assured of spending all eternity in His house, the New Jerusalem. If you have not, I urge you this day to trust in Jesus Christ as the only way to God’s presence.

There is a place of blessing. It is the place where God Himself is present and where men made new enjoy His presence forever. It is a place our Lord is now preparing. When He comes, He will bring the New Jerusalem with Him, and there we will enjoy God’s presence forever. No longer will God dwell in an abode made by human hands. Man will live in God’s abode which He Himself has made.

Until the time when He returns, we who know Him are assured of His presence with us. At the present time, God has chosen to dwell in His temple, the church:

For through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:18-22).

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. THEREFORE, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE,” says the Lord. “AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN; AND I WILL WELCOME YOU. AND I WILL BE A FATHER TO YOU, AND YOU SHALL BE SONS AND DAUGHTERS TO ME,” SAYS THE LORD ALMIGHTY. Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 6:14--7:1).

If we have trusted in Jesus Christ, we are in Christ. God is dwelling in and among us. What was true for the Old Testament saint is also true for us. A holy God cannot and will not tolerate sin. Therefore we must, by His grace, stand apart from sin and from any union with unbelievers which would be defiling. Let us not only stand apart from sinful men, but let us go forth, proclaiming to sinners the fellowship with God available to them through the blood of Jesus Christ. And let us do so, knowing that He is with us:

Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU,” so that we confidently say, “THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT SHALL MAN DO TO ME? . . . Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Hence, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come (Hebrews 13:5, 12-14).

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Let us go on then, knowing that the place of God’s blessing is in Christ. And let us share the offer of salvation in Him with others. This is the plan of God for the place of blessing.

How blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee; In whose heart are the highways to Zion (Psalm 84:5).

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) What problem makes it difficult for God to have fellowship with men?

The problem is that man is sinful, while God is holy. Our sin offends his holiness. The problem is something like a pet-loving person wanting to have a cat, but at the same time being highly allergic to cats.

It is not just that God is offended by sinful man; it is that sinful man finds God offensive, and thus the sinner neither seeks God nor desires fellowship with him. It was Adam and Eve who hid from God.

(2) What means did God provide so that He could dwell among men in the Old Testament?

God provided a temporary, provisional covering for man’s sins. In the garden, He gave Adam and Eve skins to cover their nakedness. From the garden onward, men offered blood sacrifices to God which made access to God possible for sinners.

God did not allow Himself to be fully disclosed to man, for if this happened men would have died. Even Moses saw only the back side of God and not His full glory.

God provided barriers between Himself and sinful men. Moses could not come too close to the burning bush. The Israelites were kept back from drawing too near to God’s presence on Mount Sinai. The veil kept God’s presence in the holy of holies distant from those who drew near to Him in worship.

The designated holy places in the Old Testament allowed God to draw near to His people, but they also set boundaries so that sinful men would not draw too near and be put to death.

(3) What means did God provide so that men could dwell in His presence in the New Testament? How is it better than what was available in the Old Testament times?

In the Old Testament, God provided temporary remedies for the root problem: man’s sin. Barriers and sacrifices enabled sinners to approach God and enjoy some intimacy with Him. In the New Testament, God solved the problem of man’s sin. God took on humanity in Jesus Christ. In His sinless humanity, the Lord Jesus took the guilt of man’s sin and bore the penalty of God’s wrath toward sin. By faith in Christ, sinners are forgiven and become new creations. In Christ, we are not only forgiven but righteous. In Christ, men can now boldly approach God and can enjoy his presence eternally.

The solution to man’s sin is something like a man who has a serious, communicable disease. He may be allowed to have a certain amount of fellowship with others by the use of a face mask or by looking at others through a glass window and talking to them through a microphone system. There is some communion, but it is less than perfect. God simply cures the disease, and now the individual may intermingle with others, without restriction. So it is with our fellowship with God. Christ cures the problem of sin, and thus we need no longer be in quarantine.

(4) In what way does God presently dwell among men?

When our Lord Jesus came to earth in human flesh, God dwelt among men through the body of Christ. All who by faith are “in Christ” are a part of His body, the church. The church is the dwelling place of God among men, the household of God. He indwells us by means of His Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:15-20; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Timothy 3:15).

(5) In what way will God ultimately dwell among men?

God will destroy the heavens and the earth, creating a new heaven and earth (2 Peter 3:10-13). The mortal bodies of the saints, corrupted due to sin, will be put off, and we will be given new bodies in which we can enter into God’s eternal dwelling in the New Jerusalem (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-58). God will no longer dwell among sinful men in houses made by men. Men will dwell with God, in the place our Lord Himself has prepared (John 14:1-2). We will then be able to see God as He is, and be transformed into His image (1 John 3:1-2).

(6) How did the godly Old Testament saint understand the place of blessing, as opposed to the ungodly?

The ungodly were concerned primarily with the physical blessings which he could obtain from God. Such people thought that if they were in the place of blessing God was obliged to automatically bless them, as they saw fit. Those who lived in Jerusalem felt smugly superior to others and believed that God was obliged to bless them, in spite of their character and conduct. The temple became a good luck token and a place to make a profit, not a place for prayer and worship.

When the Lord Jesus, the source of God’s blessings to men, presented Himself in Jerusalem, the Jews rejected Him because He threatened to bring an end to their sin and rebellion against Him. And so they put the Source of God’s blessings to death, in order to protect what they considered better blessings--position, power, and prestige.

The godly Old Testament saint came to understand that physical blessings were but a small part of the blessings God had for them. They realized that it was not an earthly city which God promised, but a heavenly one (see Hebrews 11:13-16). They came to grasp that the full inheritance of such blessings would come after their death and resurrection, and not in this life. They sought the Person of God and His presence more than just a place of blessing. They looked forward to spending eternity in heaven, with God, enjoying His presence forever (see Psalm 23:6; 73:16-28).

Scripture Texts:

The goal: Fellowship between God and man

  • Man enjoying the pleasure of God’s presence
  • God enjoying the praise of man
  • Psalm 16:11; 23:6; 27:4; 61:4

The problem: God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness

  • God’s holiness: Genesis 16:13; Exodus 19:12-13, 21-25; 33:18-20; Judges 6:22-23; 13:22
  • Man’s sin: Psalm 15:1-5; 101:6-8; 140:13; Romans 3:9-18

God’s provision for fellowship with men

    Old Testament Provision--A Sacred Place of God’s Presence

Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 13:7-18; 15:12-21; 20:11; 28:10-17
Exodus 3:1-12, 17; 4:27; 15:17; 19:7-25; 25:8-9; 9:38-46; 30:6; 33:3
Leviticus 9:1-7; 18:24-30; 20:1-8; 26:9-13
Numbers 5:1-4; 8:18-19; 19:20; 35:30-34
Deuteronomy 11:10-12; 12:2-5, 10-11; 14:23
Samuel 7:1-17
Chronicles 21 and 22
Chronicles 3:1-2; 6:1-21
Psalm 2:6; 9:11; 20:1-2; 27:4; 48:2; 50:2; 76:2; 78:68-70; 87:1-3

    The Problem: the sin of Judah and Jerusalem

Deuteronomy 4:1-31; Isaiah 1:1-23
Jeremiah 1:11--3:11; 7:1-15; 23:1-40
Ezekiel 5:5-6; 23:1-49; Amos 2:4-5
Micah 1:2-5; 3:1-12; Malachi 2:11

    The Penalty: divine judgment

Kings 13:23; 23:27
Isaiah 3:1-17; 10;11; 34:8-10; 64:10
Jeremiah 4:6; 7:12; 9:19; 13:9, 13; 15:1; 19:3; 23:39; 26:18
Lamentations 1:17; 2:1-15; 4:11
Ezekiel 5:11; 8:6; 12:19; 14:21; 24:21
Joel 2:1, 15, 32; Micah 3:12

    The Promise: restoration

Deuteronomy 4:25-31
Psalm 69:35-36; 102:13, 16
Isaiah 33:24; 60:13
Jeremiah 25:11-12; 32:37; 50:5
Ezekiel 14:22; 37:26, 28
Zechariah 1:14-17; 2:10

The Promise of full and final restoration:

Isaiah 2:3; 4:4-6; 24:23; 27:13; 28:16; 33:20; 40:2, 9; 46:13; 51:11, 16; 52:1-2, 16; 59:20; 60:14; 62:7, 11; 65:18-19; 66:20
Jeremiah 3:17; 33:16
Ezekiel 43:7-9; 45:3; 47:12; 48:8, 10, 21
Daniel 12; Joel 3:16-17; Micah 4:2, 7-8
Zechariah 8:3; 9:9; 12:10; 13:1; 14:4-11
Revelation 21:3

    Jerusalem in the days of Jesus

Matthew 21:12, 23; 23:16-21, 37-39; Acts 6:8-15

    Jesus changes the emphasis from the right place to the right person

John 1:1-18, 43-51; 2:13-22; 3:1-21; 4:1-26; 5:1-29; 7:14-53; 14:1-7

    God’s present dwelling place

John 15:1-4
Corinthians 6:12-20
Corinthians 6:14-18
Ephesians 2:14-22
Timothy 3:15; 1 John 4:12-16

    Our future dwelling place, with God

Psalm 16:10-11; 23:6; 73:21-28
Isaiah 65:17-25; 66:10-24
Zechariah 14:4-8
John 14:1-2
Hebrews 11:13-16, 39-40; 12:22-29
Peter 3:8-13
Revelation 21 and 22


65 It seems that just as God chose those who would trust in Him on the basis of His sovereign choice and not works (see Romans 9:6-18), and the nation Israel on the same basis (see Deuteronomy 7:6-8), so He chose the land of Israel (especially Jerusalem) to be His dwelling place, and David and his seed as king (see Psalm 78:67-70; 132:13; Zechariah 3:2).

66 See also Psalm 101:6-8; 140:13.

67 One should remember, as the marginal notes in your Bible may indicate, that these verses in Romans 3 are the citation of Old Testament texts describing man’s sin. Several of them come from the psalms.

68 See also Judges 6:22-23; 13:22.

69 When Moses approached the burning bush, God commanded him to keep his distance and to remove his sandals (Exodus 3:5). When God appeared from atop Mount Sinai, a barrier was set up which no one could cross without dying (Exodus 19:12-13, 21-25). The veil between the holy place and the “holy of holies” in the tabernacle also put a barrier between God’s presence and men.

70 From all indications, this was a bad decision, based not upon faith in God, but on fear. All that happened in Egypt suggests that Abram’s journey to Egypt was a mistake. He lied about His wife’s identity, thereby putting the promised “seed” at risk. He is rebuked by Pharaoh and “escorted” back to Canaan. In Egypt too he may have acquired Hagar, the Egyptian handmaid of Sarai, who would become the source of temptation and trials for Abram, Sarai, and the Israelites (see Genesis 16:1-16; 21:1-21).

71 See chapter 14 of Genesis , especially verses 11 and 12, and chapter 19

72 See John 1:51.

73 Note that while we are presently tracing the theme of the “place of God’s blessing,” in this dream God also reaffirmed the rest of the covenant which God first made with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.

74 See Exodus 29:38, 42, 45; 35:1ff.; Leviticus 20:1-6; 26:9-13; Numbers 5:1-4; 8:18-19; 19:20; 35:31-34.

75 See also Deuteronomy 14:23.

76 See also 2 Samuel 24.

77 See Jeremiah 2:30; 5:3; 7:27-28.

78 The Lord’s question, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?”, underscores that Nicodemus was a prominent figure in the religious community.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)

7. The Promised Seed: The Source of Blessing in God's Perfect Plan

Introduction

A friend of mine came away from a recent visit to the zoo impressed by the large number of animals in captivity listed among the endangered species. As time goes on and man continues to encroach upon the natural habitat of our wildlife, the list of endangered species grows.

To that list another endangered species must be added--Homo sapiens, man. Left to his own devices, man would quickly destroy himself. But for the grace of God, long ago man would have been removed from the face of the earth because of his sin. Yet mankind has been preserved, awaiting the salvation promised long ago in the Garden of Eden, when God said to the serpent,

I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel” (Genesis 3:15).

Satan successfully brought a curse upon Adam and Eve and all of their offspring. Nevertheless, God promised that from the seed of the woman would come One who would bring about man’s deliverance and Satan’s destruction. That “seed” was our Lord Jesus Christ. His death on Calvary defeated Satan and fully accomplished the salvation of all who would believe in the Savior.

As recorded in both the Old and New Testament, Israel’s history as a nation bears testimony to the outworking of God’s promise of salvation made first to Adam and Eve. With the passage of time, God reiterated His promise. At times, the covenant made with Abraham was simply reaffirmed with one of his descendants. More often, additional clarification and revelation was given.

Our previous lesson traced the theme of the place of God’s blessing. This lesson traces the theme of the seed of Abraham, especially as it relates to the coming of Messiah. The following lesson will endeavor to clarify the nature of the blessings which God promised Abraham and his seed.

The Promised Seed
in the Book of Genesis

Throughout Old Testament days, the hope of the Messiah’s coming rose and fell. One wonders what the angels must have thought as they observed God’s promises concerning the coming “seed,” yet witnessing the incredible ability of man to endanger the “seed.” Consider the way in which the theme of the “seed” is developed in the Book of Genesis.

At the time of their first son’s birth, Adam and Eve must have had a special measure of joy. With Abel came the hope that this “seed” might be the promised deliverer. When their first son, Cain, killed his younger brother, all hopes were dashed. Abel was no longer alive to deliver the death blow to the serpent, and Cain was no longer qualified to do so. With the arrival of their third son, Seth, hopes once again were raised. If this son was not the promised savior, at least he could be the forefather of the Messiah, and Eve knew it:

And Adam had relations with his wife again; and she gave birth to a son, and named him Seth, for, she said, “God has appointed me another offspring [literally, “seed”] in place of Abel; for Cain killed him” (Genesis 4:25).

With Seth came new hope, but in only two chapters away (Genesis 6) mankind is already in a mess. Things became so bad that God determined to wipe out both mankind and the animal kingdom with a flood:

Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. And the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD (Genesis 6:1-8).

Things looked very bleak. Had it not been for the ark, the promise of a “seed” who would destroy Satan would have been set aside. But the ark was God’s means of preserving the “seed”:

“You shall take with you of every clean animal by sevens, a male and his female; and of the animals that are not clean two, a male and his female; also of the birds of the sky, by sevens, male and female, to keep offspring [literally, “seed”] alive on the face of all the earth” (Genesis 7:2-3).

The next major promise of the saving “seed” was given to Abraham in what is known as the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

These few words spoken to Abraham are reiterated frequently in the Bible. Concerning this covenant, several observations are crucial to our understanding of the promised “seed.”

(1) The “seed” of Abraham are both the recipients of God’s blessings and the instruments through whom God’s blessings are passed on to others. Abraham’s seed will “be blessed” and will “be a blessing” (verse 2). Israel overemphasized the blessings they would receive, and as a rule, ignored their responsibility to be a blessing to others.

(2) God’s covenant with Abraham promised blessings not for just Jews alone, but for both Jews and Gentiles. God’s promise to Abraham includes Abraham’s descendants (“you,” verse 2) and “all the families of the earth” (verse 3).

(3) Man’s response to Abraham’s “seed” would determine whether they were blessed or cursed by God. Whether they were Abraham’s physical descendants or those of other nations, the Abrahamic covenant promised blessings only to those who bless Abraham’s “seed.” Those who reject the “seed” will be cursed.

(4) The Abrahamic covenant does not yet make clear that the “seed” of Abraham, which is to be the source of blessing or cursing, is the Messiah, Jesus Christ. This will be made clear in the New Testament.

Abram’s blessings rested in his “seed.” His blessing was to become a great nation, to have a great name (or reputation), and to possess a land which God would give to him and his descendants. Abraham’s blessings required offspring. At the time Abraham left Haran, he was seventy-five years old, and his wife Sarai was sixty-five (see Genesis 12:4; 17:17). If there was to be a “seed,” he and Sarai must have a son.

A famine in Canaan prompted Abram to leave the promised land and go to live in Egypt. Even at her age, Sarai was a beautiful woman. Abram feared some Egyptian might want her for his wife, and in order to have her, he might first make her a widow. To save his own life, Abram asked Sarai to lie about her identity. Thus, during their sojourn in Egypt, Abram and Sarai represented themselves as brother and sister. When Pharaoh wanted to take Sarai for a wife, it seemed to be an offer Abram could hardly refuse, at least in his mind. Both Abram and Sarai must have spent many sleepless nights in their deception. God intervened and spared them, sending them back to Canaan even wealthier than when they came.

It is crucial that we recognize how Abram’s deception threatened the promised “seed.” How could Abram and Sarai have a “seed” when Sarai was about to become the wife of another man? Abram’s actions were completely inconsistent with the covenant God had just made with him. Rather than cooperating with the covenant, Abram actively undermined it. Surely if there was to be a “seed,” Abram or Sarai could take no credit. Preservation of the “seed” was completely God’s doing.

Abram began to be distressed as time passed and he still had no son of his own. He wrongly concluded that his heir would be a child born in his household, and not of he or Sarai (Genesis 15:1-2). God assured him the promised “seed” would come from his own body, that the son would be his son (15:4). Like the stars of the heavens (15:5), his “seed” would be numberless. Abraham believed God’s promise, and due to his faith in the promise of a “seed,” he was justified (15:6).

Time continued to pass with no son in sight. Sarai concluded the time for her to bear a child had passed. She realized that it was God who had closed her womb. Perhaps, Sarai suggested to Abram, God meant for him to have a son through some other woman. And so Hagar,79 Sarai’s maid, was given to Abram as his concubine; through her, Abram could have a son. This presumptuous act brought painful consequences, both for Sarai and Abram. Hagar did bear a son, Ishmael. The Arab people, who came from Ishmael, have been a thorn in Israel’s side throughout their history.80

Fifteen years after God’s covenant was first made with Abram, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham to signify that His promise was not forgotten. Abram means “exalted father;” Abraham means “father of a multitude.” Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah (“Princess,” see 17:15). At this time God introduced the rite of circumcision (17:9-14). Every descendant of Abraham was to be reminded of God’s promise for his “seed.” Whenever an Israelite man engaged in sexual union, the covenant would be brought to mind by his circumcision.

Ten years passed from the time of Abraham’s circumcision until the time when the promised “seed” was born. Nine years passed before God announced the time of the birth of the “seed.” As the angels paused at Abram’s tent for a meal on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, they informed him that Sarai would bear a son at that same time the following year. Shortly after, Lot and his daughters fled from Sodom, barely escaping God’s wrath on that wicked city. Because Lot’s wife died in this ordeal, his daughters pragmatically arranged to become pregnant by their drunken father in order to preserve his “seed” (19:30-38). What tragic irony. The offspring of these unions were also a source of suffering and sorrow to Abraham and his seed.

Very near the time Sarai was to become pregnant with Abram’s “seed,” Abram went to Gerar with her (Genesis 21:1-18). Once again Abram passed Sarai off as his sister. This time Abimelech, the king of that land, took her as his wife. Again, God intervened, and the “seed” was protected--no thanks to Abraham or his wife.

With almost a sigh of relief, we finally read in Genesis 21 that at the appointed time the promised “seed” is born (21:1-7). Very soon, conflict flared between this “seed” and Abram’s other “seed,” Ishmael. God instructed Abraham to send Ishmael and his mother away (21:8-21). This left Isaac as Abraham’s only heir.

The greatest test of Abraham’s faith is described in Genesis 22. God instructed Abraham to take his son to Moriah and offer him up as a sacrifice. With great agony of soul, Abraham obeyed, trusting in God to raise his son from the dead (see Hebrews 11:17-19). In response to Abraham’s faith and obedience, God again reiterated his covenant with Abraham (22:15-18).

Later God confirmed with Isaac the covenant He had made with Abraham:

“Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. And I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (Genesis 26:3-5).81

In the very next verses, we find the account of Isaac going to live in Gerar with his wife Rebekah. There, not surprisingly, he represents her as his sister, just as his father Abraham had done before him (26:6-11). Isaac also jeopardized his “seed” in the process of trying to save his own life.

Isaac endangered the “seed” in yet another way. Like Sarah, his wife was barren (25:21). In answer to Isaac’s prayers, she became pregnant with twins. When Rebekah inquired of the Lord, He informed her,

“Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples shall be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

By divine election, God chose Jacob and rejected Esau as the “seed” through whom the blessings of God would pass.

In the light of God’s word to Rebekah, Jacob needlessly acquired his brother’s birthright. With Rebekah’s help, he also stole his brother’s blessing (see Genesis 27). We cannot in any way justify the actions of Jacob or his mother. But for now we must concentrate our attention on Isaac. He is eager to pronounce a blessing on his son Esau before his death. When he is wrongly convinced that Jacob is his son Esau, Isaac pronounces this blessing on him:

See the smell of my son Is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed; Now may God give you of the dew of heaven, And of the fatness of the earth, And an abundance of grain and new wine; May peoples serve you, And nations bow down to you; Be master of your brothers, And may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, And blessed be those who bless you” (Genesis 27:27b-29).

In his final days, Isaac sought to set aside God’s choice of Jacob as the one whose “seed” would be heirs of the Abrahamic covenant. If Jacob and his mother were wrong for their deception, Isaac was also wrong in trying to pass the blessings of the covenant on to Esau rather than to Jacob.

In the end, Isaac surrendered to the will of God and pronounced on Jacob the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant:

“May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you; that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.” Then Isaac sent Jacob away, and he went to Paddan-aram to Laban, son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 28:4-5).

In a dramatic way, God affirmed His covenant with Jacob while he was on his way to Haran to seek a wife:

And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13-15).

In Haran, Jacob found a wife, but things did not turn out as he had planned. He wanted Rachel, the younger daughter of Laban; instead, he was given Leah. Laban made him work seven more years for Rachel. Jacob loved Rachel, but he did not love Leah. Yet Leah bore him the first of his sons. Eventually, Rachel bore Jacob two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Joseph was loved more than any of the other sons. Clearly, Jacob wanted Joseph to rule over his family. In God’s sovereignty, it was not Ruben (the oldest son of Jacob; see Genesis 35:22; 49:3-4) but Judah who was designated as the “seed” through whom the blessings would be brought upon all mankind:

“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s sons shall bow down to you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:8-10).

While Judah was chosen to be the son through whom the “seed” would come, he certainly was not the kind of person we would have selected for this position. Unlike Joseph, who refused to enter into an illicit sexual relationship with his master’s wife (Genesis 39), Judah married a Canaanite woman (Genesis 38:2). He took what appears to be a Canaanite wife for his son (38:6). When two of his sons died because of their wickedness, Judah would not give his last son to Tamar as her husband. In so doing, he jeopardized his own “seed.” Tamar outwitted Judah, by playing the part of a Canaanite cult prostitute, and became pregnant by her father-in-law (38:12-19). Had God not providentially protected the “seed,” Judah would have irreversibly corrupted it. From this union of Judah and Tamar, the messianic line was continued (38:27-30).

The “Seed” in the Old Testament

Beyond the Book of Genesis, the Old Testament reiterates the promise God made with Abraham and his descendants. The Old Testament reveals increasingly more detail about the “blessings” of God and the “seed” of Abraham. As more details are given about the “seed” through whom the blessings of God will come, the more the field of candidates narrows. By the end of the Old Testament period, the promised “seed” can only be one person--a very unique person--who could possibly fulfill all of the promises.

While the Old Testament does narrow the field to a single person, it remains difficult to comprehend how one person could possibly fulfill all of the prophecies about him. The promises even seem to require more than one person. Consider the following characteristics of God’s promised “seed,” the Messiah.

(1) The physical line through whom Messiah was to come included Gentiles. The blessings of the Abrahamic covenant extended to the Gentiles. Beyond this, a few Gentiles were even included in the messianic line, the line of the promised “seed.” The Old Testament account includes these Gentiles in the lineage of Messiah: Tamar,82 Rahab,83and Ruth.84 While Gentile women are included, never is a Gentile man included in the line. This gives one food for thought.

(2) The coming “seed” was spoken of as a prophet, a priest, and a king. Moses told the nation Israel that God would raise up a prophet like him (Deuteronomy 18:17-19). In Genesis 14:17-20, Melchizedek is introduced, whom the writer to the Hebrews later shows to be a prototype of the promised “seed,” the Lord Jesus Christ (see Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 7:1-28). Repeatedly, the “seed” is identified as Israel’s “king,” who will sit on the throne of His father, David (see 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 2). The “seed” was somehow to combine the three offices of prophet, priest, and king, something no earthly man was allowed to do in Old Testament times.85

(3) The coming “seed” was described as both human and divine. The promised seed had to be both God and man. He was to be man in order to be the “seed” of the woman (Genesis 3:15), of Abraham (Genesis 15:4; 22:15-18), and of David (2 Samuel 7:12-16). He must also be divine in order to fulfill the prophecies concerning Him:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2).

In order for the “seed” to be both God and man, a very supernatural birth was required. The prophet Isaiah foretold of this supernatural birth:

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

(4) The coming “seed” was to be a triumphant king and yet also a suffering servant. Jesus was to be both a “lion” of the tribe of Judah (see Genesis 49:9; Revelation 5:5) and the “lamb” who takes away the sins of the world (see Isaiah 53:5-7; John 1:29; Revelation 5:6, 8, 12). As the King, He will rule over all people and triumph over His enemies:

And he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, and the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered. I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel, and shall crush through the forehead of Moab, and tear down all the sons of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also shall be a possession, while Israel performs valiantly. One from Jacob shall have dominion, and shall destroy the remnant from the city” (Numbers 24:15-19).

The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand, Until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet.” The Lord will stretch forth Thy strong scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of Thine enemies.” Thy people will volunteer freely in the day of Thy power; In holy array, from the womb of the dawn, Thy youth are to Thee as the dew. The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, “Thou art a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at Thy right hand; He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath. He will judge among the nations, He will fill them with corpses, He will shatter the chief men over a broad country (Psalm 110:1-6).

Elsewhere, this same “seed” is described as the suffering Servant of God:

Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted. Just as many were astonished at you, so His appearance was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men. Thus He will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand. Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors (Isaiah 52:13--53:12).

(5) The promised “seed” was described as gentle and yet also fierce. The Messiah was to be harmless and humble:

“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out or raise His voice, nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:1-3).

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).

Yet He was also described as fierce in His dealings with His foes:

He who sits in the heavens laughs, The Lord scoffs at them. Then He will speak to them in His anger And terrify them in His fury: “But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain. I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee. ‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Thine inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, Thou shalt shatter them like earthenware’” (Psalm 2:9).

The Lord is at Thy right hand; He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath. He will judge among the nations, He will fill them with corpses, He will shatter the chief men over a broad country (Psalm 110:5-6).

Israel’s Error Concerning the “Seed”

Even the most godly Israelite found it impossible to comprehend how God could possibly fulfill all of the promises pertaining to the “seed” in one person. As Peter writes:

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow (1 Peter 1:10-11).

From the New Testament Scriptures, several errors pertaining to the promised “seed” are evident in Judaism. These errors predisposed the Israelites of Jesus’ day to resist and reject Him, rather than submit to Him as the promised “seed.” The following errors are among those which prompted the Jews to react against Jesus rather than submit to Him.

(1) The fundamental error of the Israelites was to selectively accept the promises of God with regard to His blessings. The ungodly Israelites simply picked those promises which suited their sinful desires and ignored the rest. They embraced the promises of the “seed” as a blessing to Israel while ignoring the promises of His coming to judge sinners, whether Jew or Gentile.

(2) The Israelites of Jesus’ day placed too much emphasis on tradition, with too little regard for the authority of Scripture.86

(3) The Israelites thought the benefits of the Abrahamic covenant were primarily earthly and temporal, rather than spiritual and eternal.87

(4) The Israelites assumed God’s blessings automatically flowed to the physical seed of Abraham, apart from any other consideration.88

(5) The Israelites assumed that God’s blessings belonged solely to the seed of Abraham and not to others.89

(6) The Israelites forgot that the Abrahamic covenant involved obligations. The first obligation was that one must honor the promised “seed” of Abraham in order to be blessed. The second obligation was for Israel to be an instrument of God’s blessing for the whole world.

(7) The Israelites erred by taking credit for their blessings and becoming proud of their privileged position. They wrongly interpreted privilege to be the indicator of superiority and piety.

(8) The Israelites erred in thinking of the “seed” corporately and collectively, the nation Israel, rather than individually.

(9) Israel (including the Lord’s disciples) erred by rejecting the Scriptures regarding the suffering of the chosen seed.

(10) Wrongly, the Israelites thought the promised “seed” had come to sanctify the traditions of the Jews rather than to create something new. They felt the Messiah would come to bring back the good old days, to turn back the clock, rather than to bring about something completely new and better.90

(11) Jewish religious leaders erred in thinking God’s kingdom and blessings were administered and regulated by the Jewish religious leadership.91

(12) The Israelites failed to understand that the coming “seed” would be an occasion for the stumbling of many Jews.92

(13) The Israelites were wrong in thinking of the coming of the promised “seed” only in terms of blessing and not in terms of judgment.93 The Abrahamic covenant spoke of those who would be blessed and those who would be cursed. But the blessing or cursing of God is based upon the individual’s response to the “seed.”

(14) The Israelites were wrong in failing to understand that the promised “seed” was coming to save men from their sins, not to reward the self-righteous who believed they were saints.94

(15) Israel’s greatest error was in failing to recognize the Lord Jesus Christ as the promised “seed,” and rejecting and crucifying Him at Calvary.95

We may thus summarize Israel’s error: they became proud of their privileged position and failed to see their privilege as a manifestation of God’s grace to those who were undeserving.

Such pride was totally unfounded. God warned the Israelites against such pride, reminding them that they were slaves at the time God delivered them (Deuteronomy 5:15). They were not chosen because they were great in number or strength; they were chosen solely on the basis of God’s sovereign grace (Deuteronomy 7:7-11). When they worshipped, they were to acknowledge their ignoble origins (Deuteronomy 26:5).

Ezekiel 16 offers the most humbling indictment of Israel’s pride:

Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem, “Your origin and your birth are from the land of the Canaanite, your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleansing; you were not rubbed with salt or even wrapped in cloths. No eye looked with pity on you to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you. Rather you were thrown out into the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born. “When I passed by you and saw you squirming in your blood, I said to you while you were in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you while you were in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you numerous like plants of the field. Then you grew up, became tall, and reached the age for fine ornaments; your breasts were formed and your hair had grown. Yet you were naked and bare. Then I passed by you and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine,” declares the Lord God. “Then I bathed you with water, washed off your blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I also clothed you with embroidered cloth, and put sandals of porpoise skin on your feet; and I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk. And I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your hands, and a necklace around your neck.

I also put a ring in your nostril, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your dress was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey, and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you,” declares the Lord God. “But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame, and you poured out your harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing” (Ezekiel 16:1-15).

Israel’s history consistently bears witness of Israel’s waywardness and God’s faithfulness (see Psalm 78). If the coming of the promised “seed” were dependent upon sinful men, He would surely never have come at all. But since the coming of the “seed” was dependent upon God Himself, He has come indeed!

The “Seed of Abraham” in the New Testament

The Abrahamic covenant, recorded in Genesis 12:1-3, spoke of Abraham’s “seed” as the recipients of God’s blessings, as well as the instrument through which the blessing would be accomplished. New Testament teaching on the “seed of Abraham” falls into two categories: (1) the “seed” which provides the blessing of God; and, (2) the “seed” who receive this blessing. Let us consider what the New Testament has to say on each of these subjects.

(1) The “seed” that provides the blessings of God. The nation Israel was chosen to display the glory of God. They have done so, not because of their faith and obedience but by their unbelief and disobedience. Since the glory of God is demonstrated in the context of sin and of grace, God’s glory has been displayed through Israel.

Israel was chosen not only to demonstrate the glory of God, but also to be the instrument by which God’s grace was proclaimed to men of every nation. Israel was to be a blessing to the nations. They were to be a light to the Gentiles (see Isaiah 42:6; 60:3). Israel took credit for God’s blessings, rather than receiving them humbly and with gratitude. Their pride produced prejudice, so that they felt superior to the Gentiles. They thought themselves to be worthy of God’s blessings and the Gentiles to be unworthy. Like Jonah, they refused to take the good news to the Gentiles.

In response to Israel’s persistent rebellion (and according to God’s purpose and promises--see Deuteronomy 4:25-31; 28-31), God sent His Son to take Israel’s place, to do individually what Israelites could not do on their own or as a nation. Though Israel was called to be “God’s son” (Exodus 4:23), the Messiah was sent to become the “Son of God” in her place. And so it is in Isaiah’s prophecies that the promised “seed,” Messiah, becomes God’s Servant in Israel’s place. This is why it is often so difficult to determine whether the “servant” is Israel or Messiah:

And He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, in Whom I will show My glory.” But I said, “I have toiled in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely the justice due to Me is with the LORD, and My reward with My God.” And now says the LORD who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, in order that Israel might be gathered to Him (for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and My God is My strength), He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the LORD Redeemer of Israel, and its Holy One, to the despised One, to the One abhorred by the nation, to the Servant of rulers, “Kings shall see and arise, princes shall also bow down; because of the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You” (Isaiah 49:3-7).96

“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out or raise His voice, nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not be disheartened or crushed, until He has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law” (Isaiah 42:1-4).

Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted. Just as many were astonished at you, My people,97 so His appearance was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men. Thus He will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand (Isaiah 52:13-15).

And so it is that God sent His Son to become not only a man but to be the “seed” of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David. God sent His Son to be the “son” Israel had never been and could never be. This is why Matthew applied Hosea 11:1 to our Lord when He was brought out of Egypt by His parents as a baby:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call My Son” (Matthew 2:13-15).

What Israel failed to do as God’s “servant,” Jesus did as Israel’s Messiah, the “suffering Servant.” Our Lord not only took the sinner’s place, but in a sense He took Israel’s place, achieving for this people what they could not do. Paul points out in Galatians that the “seed” of Abraham through whom the world was to be blessed was none other than Jesus Christ:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us-- for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”-- in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ (Galatians 3:13-16).

As a nation, Israel did not bless the nations by her obedience. In the plan and purpose of God, Israel became a source of blessing to the nations by her disobedience. Israel’s rejection of Messiah brought about the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles. The gospel went to the Jew first, but Jewish rejection led to Gentile evangelism as the Book of Acts makes clear. As the apostle Paul said, we can be grateful for Israel’s failure, and we can also look forward to her restoration:

I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! (Romans 11:11-12).

In the plan and purpose of God, Israel has no basis for pride or prejudice. God’s blessings are the outworkings of His grace and not the result of Israel’s faith or obedience. God has fulfilled the Abrahamic covenant through His servant, the Lord Jesus Christ. The implications of this are profoundly significant for any who would be blessed “in Abraham,” according to the Abrahamic covenant.

(2) The “seed” which receives the blessings of God. Since the “seed” is Jesus Christ, then our blessing or cursing is the result of our response to Him. This is in accordance with the covenant God made with Abraham when He said,

And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

Contrary to Israel’s belief, one is not saved by being one of the physical seed of Abraham or of Jacob:

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants (Romans 9:6-8).

Those who would be blessed in Abraham must trust in God’s provision of a “seed.” We must trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. He came to bear our sins. He came to make us righteous in God’s sight. He came to bless us as His “seed,” His children:

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God (Romans 2:28-29).

For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist (Romans 4:14-17).

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:28-29).

Those who are blessed in Abraham are those blessed through His “seed,” Jesus Christ--those who become His children by faith:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).

Conclusion

From the first human beings God created and placed in the Garden of Eden, to the very last person born on this earth, our gracious God has offered salvation to sinners on the basis of faith in the promised “seed,” Jesus Christ. Before Messiah’s birth, Old Testament saints admitted their sin and trusted in the “seed” who was to come, and they were saved. Adam and Eve were given the promise of deliverance through their “seed” (Genesis 3:15), and they believed (see Genesis 4:25-26). So it was with Abraham as well:

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.” And Abram said, “O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Since Thou hast given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:1-6).

Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’; and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I shall be a liar like you, but I do know Him, and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” The Jews therefore said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:54-58).

For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, “ So shall your descendants be. “ And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Now not for his sake only was it written, that it was reckoned to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (Romans 4:16-24).

For the Old Testament sinner, the good news of the gospel was this: “Salvation is available to sinners who trust in the “seed” whom God will provide:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there, and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “ Abraham, Abraham! “And he said,” Here I am. “ And he said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place The Lord Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the LORD it will be provided” (Genesis 22:6-14).

The good news of the gospel is this: God has provided the promised “seed,” Jesus Christ. By faith in Him, sinners are saved and become the children (the “seed”) of God. They thus enter into the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant:

There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:9-13).

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:26-29).

Jesus Christ is the “seed” of Abraham. Your response to Him is the most important decision you will ever make. To trust in Him for salvation is to enter into God’s blessings. To reject Him is to bring upon yourself the curse of God. May you trust in Him for salvation and blessing.

Our study has shown that men are sinful and that God is faithful, in spite of man’s sin. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled in Christ, not because of man’s faithfulness, but in spite of his sin and rebellion. The blessings of that covenant flow to men because of God’s grace and His provision for sinners in Jesus Christ. In spite of our sins, the purposes and promises of God will be fulfilled. We find no basis for pride or presumption on our part, but only gratitude and praise to Him, through whom we are richly blessed. Let us boast in our salvation--not in ourselves--but in the God who has blessed us. Let us boast in the Lord.

But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD” (1 Corinthians 1:30,31).

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) Why is the Abrahamic Covenant of Genesis 12:1-3 so important to Christians living after the coming of Christ?

The Abrahamic covenant is not just the basis for the blessings of the Jews, it is the basis for God’s blessings for men of every nation. The blessings of the Abrahamic covenant are promised to the “seed” of Abraham, and every one who trusts in Jesus Christ is one of Abraham’s “seed” (see Romans 2:28-29; 4:1-17; Galatians 3:29). The Abrahamic Covenant tells us who will be blessed, who will be the blessing, and how the blessing will be received. It also warns of the curse which results from rejecting the promised “seed.” The Abrahamic covenant is the basis for the gospel.

(2) Trace the theme of the promised “seed” from Genesis 3:15 to Galatians 3:15-16.

The salvation of man and the destruction of Satan was promised in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15). The “seed of the woman” was later revealed to be the “seed” of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), of Isaac (Genesis 21:12; 25:19-26), of Jacob (Genesis 25:23; 27:27-29), and of Judah (Genesis 49:8-10). He was still later indicated to be the “seed” of David (2 Samuel 7:12-16). Further revelation indicated that He would both suffer for the sins of His people (Isaiah 52:13--53:12) and reign triumphantly as Israel’s King (Psalm 2, 110). He was to be both human (Genesis 3:15) and divine (Isaiah 9:6; Micah 5:2), born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14) in the village of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Jesus of Nazareth was the promised “seed,” fulfilling all of the prophecies related to his birth, suffering, death and resurrection (Galatians 3:13-16). He was rejected by the leaders of Israel and proclaimed among the Gentiles. This same Jesus is coming again, to triumph over His enemies and to rule over all creation (Acts 2:22-36; 7:2-53).

(3)In what ways was the “seed” endangered or threatened in the Old Testament? How was this danger overcome?

The promised “seed” was constantly endangered by sinful men. Cain, the first “seed” of Adam and Eve, killed Abel (Genesis 4). Man’s sin led to the universal judgment of the flood, which destroyed all the “seed” with the exception of Noah and his immediate family (Genesis 6-8). Abraham, and later his “seed” Isaac, jeopardized their “seed” by identifying their wives as their sisters (Genesis 12, 20, 26). Judah threatened the messianic line by marrying a Canaanite woman and then refusing to give his youngest son to Tamar as her husband (Genesis 38). Jacob’s sons were willing to put one of their brothers to death (Genesis 37). Israel’s sin invited divine judgment on the entire nation (Exodus 32; Numbers 25).

The preservation of the messianic line and the coming of the promised “seed” was in spite of man’s sin, and due solely to the providential protection and intervention of God.

(4) How has Israel been a blessing to the world?

The “seed” of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob should have been a blessing to the world by their faith and obedience to the God who chose them to be a blessing. Had they obeyed, they would have been a “light to the Gentiles” by sharing their faith with them. Instead, they thought the Gentiles were unworthy of God’s blessings and refused to proclaim salvation and blessing through faith in God’s promise and provision of a “seed.” Jonah provides a very good illustration of Israel’s attitude toward God and others (see the Book of Jonah). God used Israel’s disobedience as the means of blessing the Gentiles. When the nation Israel rejected Jesus as their Messiah, the gospel was then proclaimed to the Gentiles.

The physical descendants have been a blessing to the world by being the instrument through which the Old Testament Scriptures and the Messiah came into being (see Romans 3:2; 9:4-5).

(5) How did the Jews misinterpret and misapply the Old Testament teaching on the “seed”?

Essentially, the Jews wrongly concluded that mere physical descent from Abraham and the patriarchs assured one of God’s blessings, as promised in the Abrahamic covenant. This disregarded the actual words of the covenant, which made God’s blessings (and cursing) the result of one’s response to the promised “seed.” This “seed” was Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:13-16).

Because Gentiles were not the physical descendants of Abraham, the Jews disdained them and thought them unworthy of God’s blessings. Judaism felt the only way any Gentile could enter into the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant was by embracing Judaism as a proselyte.

Three words sum up Judaism’s error regarding the Gentiles and the Abrahamic covenant: pride; prejudice; and presumption. The Jews were proud of their privileged position, as though they deserved it, and not humbly grateful for God’s grace bestowed on an unworthy, stiff-necked, and rebellious people. They were strongly prejudiced against the Gentiles, thinking them unworthy of God’s blessings and taking pleasure in the incorrect thought that Gentiles would be condemned to hell because they were not Jews. Israel’s presumption was to be seen in the assumption that God owed them blessings because of their superiority over all other peoples.

(6) Concerning the coming “seed,” what was it about the Old Testament prophecies which puzzled the prophets and others (see 1 Peter 1:10-12)? How did many (most) of the Jews resolve the problem? How did God resolve it?

The Old Testament prophecies concerning the “seed” seemed contradictory. The term “seed” sometimes applied to the nation Israel or certain faithful Israelites, while at other times it referred to God’s Servant, the Messiah. And so, in the Abrahamic covenant, the “seed” of Abraham referred to both the recipient of God’s blessings and the instrument of His blessings.

Even when the term “seed” was applied to the Messiah alone, the descriptions of Him seemed contradictory. He was the suffering Servant in some instances (Isaiah 52:13--53:12) and the triumphant King in others (Psalm 2, 110). He was man (Genesis 3:15) but also God (Isaiah 9:6; Micah 5:2). As Peter tells us, the prophets were puzzled by their own writings, because they spoke of the “seed” both in terms of His suffering and His glory.

Men of faith had to believe all of the prophecies concerning Messiah, even though they seemed to be contradictory and inconsistent. The unbelieving Israelite tended to ignore the unpleasant prophecies (especially those pertaining to Messiah’s rejection and suffering) and to emphasize only the “positive” prophecies--those which spoke of Messiah’s triumph over Israel’s enemies.

The final solution is that the “seed” was prophesied to come to the earth twice. The first time He came as the suffering Servant. The next time He will come as the triumphant King. In this way all of the prophecies pertaining to Messiah will be fulfilled.

(7) How did the themes of difficult or impossible births (e.g., Sarah’s barrenness) and resurrection play a part in preparing for Messiah’s coming?

All through the Old Testament, seemingly impossible barriers to the coming of the promised “seed” were faced and overcome. The miraculous births of those in the line of the Messiah were a foretaste of the even greater miracle of the virgin birth of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

(8) In what sense is the Lord Jesus Christ Israel’s substitute?

Jesus took the place of Israel, accomplishing all that they, in their sin and rebellion, either would not or could not do. Jesus fulfilled the Law which they rebelled against. Jesus overcame Satan’s temptation and persisted in His submission to the will of the Father. Jesus suffered for sinners and defeated Satan on the cross of Calvary. Jesus was the light to the Gentiles which the Jews refused to be. Thus, Jesus was God’s “son” and “servant” in ways that Israel should have been, but failed to be.

(9) Why could no ordinary Israelite be the “seed”?

The host of qualifications and descriptions of Messiah laid out in the Old Testament Scriptures exclude all but one Person--the Lord Jesus Christ. No ordinary man could be the “seed” for which the expectant, godly, Israelite looked.

(10) How do you explain the Gentiles being in the genealogy of our Lord and thus a part of the “seed”? Why are the only Gentiles in the line women and not men?

Gentiles were in the line of the Lord Jesus Christ, as we see from the Old Testament and New Testament genealogical records (see Matthew 1:3-5). In no instance am I aware of any Gentile male in the line of Messiah, but only women. I believe God protected the male line, assuring that only those men in the promised line were to be fathers of the promised “seed.” The Gentile women who were included in the line were all women of faith, and thus, from a New Testament point of view, of the “seed” of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). It should also be noted that while all of the men who were listed in the line of the promised “seed” were not necessarily “saints,” they were physical descendants of Abraham, thus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.

Scripture Texts

The promised “seed” in Genesis:

3:15; 4:1-8; 6:1-13; 12:1-3; 13:15-16; 14:17-24; 15:1-6; 16:1-6; 17:1-22; 18:1-15; 22:1-18; 24:1-9; 25:19-26; 26:1-11; 27:1-46; 28:3-4,13-15; 29:31-35; 38:1-30; 39:1-23; 48:1-22; 49:8-10

The “seed” specified in the Old Testament:

The seed of the woman (Eve) - Genesis 3:15; 4:25
The seed of Abraham - Genesis 12:2-3; 13:15-16; 15:1-6;17:1-21; 18:9-15; 21:8-12
The seed of Isaac - Genesis 21:12; 25:9-36; 26:1-4, 23-24
The seed of Jacob - Genesis 25:23; 27:27-29; 28:3-4,12-15
The seed of Judah - Genesis 49:8-10
Seed of David - 2 Samuel 7:12-16
Seed of a virgin - Isaiah 7:14
Seed is divine - Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2

The “seed” in the New Testament:

The “seed” is Christ - Galatians 3:13-16
Those in Christ by faith - Romans 2:28-29; 4:1-25
are Abraham’s seed - Galatians 3:26-29

Gentiles in the “seed”

Tamar: (Genesis 38:29-30; Ruth 4:18-22; Matthew 1:3)
Rahab: (Joshua 2; Matthew 1:5; Hebrews 11:31)
Ruth: (Ruth 4:13-17; Matthew 1:5)

Threats and obstacles to the promised “seed:”

(1) Barrenness

Sarai: (Genesis 11:30; 16:2; 18:11-13)
Rebekah: (Genesis 25:21)

(2) No descendants

Judah: (Genesis 38)
Naomi: (Ruth 1:1-5; 4:13-22)

(3) Immorality with Canaanites

Judah: (Genesis 38)
Israel: (Numbers 25; Ezra 9 and 10; Nehemiah 13:23-29)

(4) Death

The sacrifice of Isaac: (Genesis 22)
Murder (Cain and Abel): (Genesis 4)
Herod’s attempt on life of Jesus: (Matthew 2)

(5) Divine judgment

The flood: (Genesis 6-9)
Divine judgment: (Exodus 32)

(6) Virginity

Mary: (Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1:30-35)

Divine preservation of the “seed”--a righteous remnant preserved

Genesis 45:7; 2 Kings 19:29-31; Ezra 9:13-15; Isaiah 6:13; Romans 9:29; 11:1-5, 25-27

The Two Streams of Messianic Prophecy
(see 1 Peter 1:10-12):

 

The Suffering Savior

The Triumphant King

Genesis 3:15; 22:1-19

Numbers 24:15-19

Exodus 12 (Passover lamb)

2 Samuel 7:10-17

Leviticus 16

Psalm 2, 110

Psalm 16, 22

Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1-5; 40-9-11; 42:10-13

Isaiah 42:1-4;

Jeremiah 23:5-6

52:13-53:12

Ezekiel 37:24-28; Daniel 7:13-14

Zechariah 12:10-12; 13:7

Micah 5:1-5;

 

Zechariah 9:8-10; 14:9; Joel 3:16

Other themes:

Messiah, the prophet: Deuteronomy 18:17-19
Messiah, the priest: Genesis 14:17-20; Psalm 110:4
Messiah, the king: 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 2, 110

Israel’s errors concerning the coming Messiah and His kingdom:

Matthew 3:5-12; 5-7; 7:13-27; 19:16-24; 21:33-46; 22:23-34; 23:1-39
Mark 10:35-45
Luke 4:21-30; 5:27-39; 5:33-6:11; 9:16-27; 12:37; 15:1-32; 16:14-31
John 1:46
Philippians 3:1-11


79 Hagar was an Egyptian (Genesis 16:3). I believe she was acquired by Abram while he and Sarai were in Egypt. Perhaps she was even a part of the dowry which Pharaoh gave Abram (see 12:14-16). Our sins do find us out.

80 Note, however, the blessing which God gave this nation because they were Abram’s offspring, even though not the chosen seed (see 16:10-12).

81 See also 26:23-24.

82 Compare Genesis 38:29-30 with Ruth 4:18-22 and Matthew 1:3.

83 Compare Joshua 2:1-3; 6:22-25 with Matthew 1:5.

84 Compare Ruth 4:13-17 with Matthew 1:5.

85 First Samuel 13 describes Saul’s sin of offering the sacrifice in Samuel’s place, for which Saul loses his kingdom (1 Samuel 13:8-14).

86 See Matthew 15:3, 6; 22:23-32; John 5:36-47.

87 See Matthew 22:23-33; John 18:36; Hebrews 11:13-16.

88 Matthew 3:7-12; John 8:37-47.

89 See Luke 4:21-30.

90 See Luke 5:33-39.

91 The frequent questions which challenged Jesus’ authority reflect this mindset (see Matthew 21:23; Mark 11:28; Luke 20:2, 8). So it was also with the authority the Jewish religious leaders held over the heads of men (see John 9:1-34).

92 See Romans 9:33; Isaiah 28:16.

93 See Joel, chapters 1 and 2; Matthew 3:1-12; John 3:16-21; 5:21-29; Acts 2:14-40.

94 See Isaiah 53:4-6; Mark 10:45; Luke 5:32.

95 See Isaiah 53:3-4; Zechariah 12:10-14; Acts 2:22-36.

96 See also Isaiah 44:1-3.

97 This expression, “my people,” has been supplied by the editors of the NASB, indicating their understanding that the “servant” includes Israel, though the following verses will indicate that the “suffering Servant” is most prominent here. The translation of this verse in the NASB shows how thin the line sometimes becomes between Israel, the servant of God, and Messiah, the Servant of God.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Theology Proper (God)

28. The Presence of God With His People (Exodus 33:12-17)

Introduction

Several times I have considered keeping a spiritual journal, as some of the saints of the past have done. The biggest problem I have with doing this, in addition to the discipline it requires, is that I hate to have my thoughts in print. Imagine, for a moment, the possibility of having all of your prayers recorded, and then published for all to read. I can tell you that the mere thought of such a thing makes me break out in a cold sweat.

I am realistic enough to know that all of the prayers of Moses weren’t worthy of being published either, but the prayer which we find in our passage surely is a worthy one, both for our study in this message, and for our imitation in our own prayer life. It is one of the most noble prayers of the Old Testament. There was an urgency to this prayer of Moses, due to the great sin which Israel has just committed in Moses’ absence.

The Israelites, less than 40 days after having pledged to keep the Law which God gave to them from Mt. Sinai, have already broken it by their worship of the golden calf, which Aaron made at their urging (Exod. 32:1-6). God was so angered by their reveling and immorality that He threatened to wipe the entire nation out, replacing it with a new nation from the offspring of Moses (Exod. 32:7-10). Moses petitioned God to spare this people, so that He might fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and thus God allowed the people to live (32:11-14).

Going down the mountain, Moses broke the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, signifying that Israel had broken her covenant with God. He also smashed the idol, burned it, and then ground it into fine powder, which he made the people drink (32:15-20). Aaron was then rebuked and the faithful Levites struck down 3,000 of their fellow-Israelites, who had refused to pledge their allegiance to God (32:21-29). Moses interceded with God for the people, but God warned that a future day of judgment would come for this generation (32:30-35). Nevertheless, God would fulfill His promise to give Israel the land. He would send His angel to lead the people to Canaan.

In chapter 33, God clarifies the brief statement of 32:34, instructing Moses to leave the mountain and to take Israel on toward Canaan. He further explains that He will remain at a distance, rather than to dwell in the midst of the camp (33:1-3). At this word, the Israelites repented, putting off their gold ornaments as God had instructed them through Moses (vss. 4-6). Verses 7-11 then describe the “tent of meeting,” that tent which was set up “outside the camp” at some distance (33:7), where the Israelites could go to seek God, and where Moses went to commune with Him. When Moses went out, the people stood in respect and then worshipped at the doorway of their tent. When Moses entered the tent, the presence of God was manifested at the doorway of the tent.

The mediation of Moses has thus far “persuaded” God to relent from His threatened extermination of the entire population of the Israelites. Further, it has resulted in God’s commitment to bring Israel into the promised land of Canaan. It has even resulted in minimizing the remoteness of God, to the point that God is now manifesting Himself to the nation outside the camp. But Moses will not be content until God is intimately present, in his own life, and in the lives of the people whom God has called him to lead. That intimacy will be assured Moses in the text we are considering in this lesson. Our text will describe one of the intercessory prayers of Moses, which I believe took place in the “tent of meeting.” This prayer is a model prayer for Christians today, as well as a divinely provided means for the recovery of the nation Israel. Let us listen well to these majestic words of Moses, the mediator.

The structure of the remainder of Exodus chapter 33 is interesting and informative. There are basically three sections: verses 12-14, 15-17, and 18-23. Each section begins with a petition of Moses in which he requests something from God. The section then ends with God’s response. God’s response then becomes the basis for a further petition of Moses, until Moses is assured of the presence of God in the midst of His people. Once this is done, Moses makes a personal request to see the glory of God. I have arranged the text of the NASB to illustrate the structure of the passage:

Then Moses said to the LORD, “See,96 Thou dost say to me, ‘Bring up this people!’ But Thou Thyself hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me. Moreover, Thou hast said, ‘I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found favor in Thy sight, let me know Thy ways, that I may know Thee, so that I may find favor in Thy sight. Consider too, that this nation is Thy people.”

And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Then he said to Him, “If Thy presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not by Thy going with us, so that we, I and Thy people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?”

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight, and I have known you by name.”

Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!”

And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”

Moses’ First Petition
(33:12-14)

For a while, it looked as though Israel’s history would abruptly end with a period. Her almost year-long encampment at Mt. Sinai almost ended in total destruction of the nation, due to their worship of the golden calf. Now, due to the mediation of Moses, this sojourn has proven to be but a comma in the saga of Israel’s journey to Canaan. Due to the intervention of Moses and God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham, there is still a future for the nation. Thus, God commands Moses to ready himself and the people to move out and to lead the nation toward Canaan.

In one sense, this command is not new at all. This is implied by the wording of verse 12, which is well rendered by the NIV: “Moses said to the LORD, ‘You have been telling me, “Lead these people,” but you have not let me know whom you will send with me’” (emphasis mine). The participle (rendered “have been telling”) suggests that God has been giving Moses the command to lead Israel up to Canaan over a period of time. Such has been the case. It was first given in Exodus chapter 3, where God told Moses, “Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exod. 3:10). The same command has been reiterated as recently as chapter 32, verse 34: “But go now, lead the people where I told you.”

Unlike the first call of Moses, in chapters 3 and 4, Moses is not as troubled by what he has been told as by what he has not. God has clearly commanded Moses to lead the Israelites on toward Canaan. He has not, however, told Moses whom He is sending with him.

Now this would have been a very serious matter for Moses. If Moses had good reason to be concerned about facing Pharaoh and the Israelites alone at his initial call (chapters 3 and 4), he had even more to be concerned about now. Moses no longer needed to fear about facing an angry and powerful Pharaoh, but he did have to think about all of the Canaanites whom he must face and fight. He has already had a taste of this in the war with the Amalekites in chapter 17, a war only won be prevailing prayer. Moses now is even more aware of the rebelliousness and waywardness of the Israelites. And Aaron, who was such a comfort to him initially has so far proven to be a liability, for he served only to facilitate the idolatry of the Israelites in his absence. And the Mosaic Covenant, which gave such hope initially, is now known to pronounce only a curse, and not to promise blessing, due to the sinfulness of the people.

No wonder Moses is concerned about setting out for Canaan. And no wonder Moses would like to know just who it is who is going with him, as God has promised: “… But Thou Thyself hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me” (Exod. 33:12).

The term “angel,” as one of our body reminded me last week, is a generic term, meaning “messenger.” Thus, when we read the term “angel” we should not allow ourselves to think in a stereotyped fashion, of a female appearing creature in a gleaming white robe and having wings. Sensing the vagueness which the term allows, Moses would very much like a little more precise identification of this “messenger” whom God is sending along with Moses to lead the Israelites. After the disappointments Moses has experienced with Aaron, who can blame him for being apprehensive about his fellow-laborer, this “messenger”?

Moses has not yet asked for anything specific. This he will do in verse 13. But first he will lay a more substantial foundation for his request. He reminds God that He has said to him, “I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight” (v. 12).97

These two statements are not recorded before this. Obviously God said things to Moses which he did not record for all to read. Essentially, these two statements assure Moses of his standing in favor with God. It is only on the basis of God’s favor that one dares to make a petition of Him. Thus, since Moses has been divinely chosen (“I have known you by name”) to be the object of His favor (“you have also found favor in My sight”), Moses felt free (in fact was bold) to make this petition: “Now, therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found favor in Thy sight, let me know Thy ways, that I may know Thee, so that I may find favor in Thy sight. Consider too, that this nation is Thy people” (v. 13).

Our understanding of Moses’ petition here will be enhanced by making several observations concerning the text.

(1) There is a boldness to Moses’ petition.

(2) Moses’ petition is based on God’s word. Moses argues from the known to the unknown, from, “Bring this people up …” to “Thou hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me.” From what God has said to a request, based on what God has said. Thus, Moses reminds God that He has said, “I have known you by name,” and “you have also found favor,” and then asks God to let him know God’s ways.

(3) The basis for Moses’ petition and for his boldness was his privileged status with God.

(4) Moses’ petition had, both as its basis and as its goal, God’s favor. Moses petitioned God to know His ways because he was chosen to be favored of God, and because he desired to continue in His favor.

(5) Moses’ petition was two-fold: First, that God would make known His ways to Moses, and second, that God would view Israel as His people. The first request was more personal, the second, more public or collective in nature. We will consider both petitions.

First, Moses’ requested that God make “His ways” known to him (v. 13). Our understanding of this petition hinges on our definition of the term “ways.” What “ways” does Moses wish to know here? Some have suggested that Moses wishes to know the “way” to Canaan.98 That is, Moses wants to know not only the person God is sending with him, but also the plan God has for the people. This hardly squares with the way the term “ways” is used with reference to Moses and Israel, however. Consider the following texts:

Make me know Thy ways, O LORD; Teach me Thy paths. Lead me in Thy truth and teach me, For Thou art the God of my salvation; For Thee I wait all the day. Remember, o LORD, Thy compassion and Thy lovingkindnesses, For they have been from of old (Ps. 25:4-6).

All the paths of the LORD are lovingkindness and truth To those who keep His covenant and His testimonies (Ps. 25:10).

“For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart, And they do not know My ways. Therefore I swore in My anger, Truly they shall not enter into My rest” (Ps. 95:10-11).

The LORD performs righteous deeds, And judgments for all who are oppressed. He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the sons of Israel. The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness (Ps. 103:6-7).

And many nations will come and say, “Come and let us go up to the fountain of the Lord And to the house of the God of Jacob, That He may teach us about His ways And that we may walk in His paths.” For from Zion will go forth the Law, Even the word of the LORD from Jerusalem (Micah 4:2; cf. Isa. 2:3).

I understand that Moses is seeking to know God even more intimately than he already knew Him. That he desires to know God’s character, as reflected in His way of doing things. To know God’s ways is thus to know God, and to better understand how one should live in a way that pleases God.99

Second, Moses petitioned God to consider the Israelites as His people. Ever since the Israelites chose to worship a golden calf rather than God, God has referred to this people as Moses’ people: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, ‘Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves’” (Exod. 32:7). Moses wants to reverse this. Moses wants God to view the Israelites as His chosen people. Thus, he makes this petition. God’s response to Moses’ petition is recorded in verse 14: “And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest’” (Exod. 33:14).

There is tremendous encouragement here. God assured Moses that He would be personally present with him as he led the Israelites to Canaan. The messenger whom God promised to send was therefore the “angel of God’s presence” (cf. Isa. 63:9). God promised Moses the means to getting the Israelites to Canaan. Furthermore, He promised Moses that the end, the Israelites living safely in Canaan, would be realized. This is indicated by the term “rest” as it is used here and elsewhere in the Old Testament:

“When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God shall choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the LORD” (Deut. 12:10-11).

“And now the LORD your God has given rest to your brothers, as He spoke to them; therefore turn now and go to your tents, to the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the LORD gave you beyond the Jordan” (Josh. 22:4).

Now it came about after many days, when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their enemies on every side, and Joshua was old, advanced in years (Josh. 23:1).

Almost always in the Bible, “rest” conveys the concept of putting an end to an evil, an enemy, hostility, or adversity. When God promised Moses “rest” He assured him that those things which Moses must have feared most would be overcome, and that the task which God has given him to do will be completed.

Moses Second Petition
(33:15-17)

God’s words would have been a great encouragement to Moses, but they fell short of what Moses was seeking for the Israelites. God’s assurance of His presence and of “rest” were only specified for Moses, and not for the nation. When God assured Moses, “My presence shall go with you” (v. 14), the words “with you” are supplied by the translators. Whether this “you” is singular or plural thus cannot be determined. The second “you” (“I will give you rest”) is singular, however. Thus, the assurance of God’s presence and of “rest” is only guaranteed Moses, not the nation Israel as a whole. In Moses’ petition in verses 15 and 16, he sought for this assurance for the nation.

Moses began by asking God not to lead the nation up from Sinai if His presence did not accompany them (v. 15).100 Moses then argues the necessity of God’s presence with Israel. He reasons that the one thing which distinguishes God’s people from all other peoples of the earth is His presence in their midst: “For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not by Thy going with us so that we, I and Thy people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (v. 16).

Notice how Moses twice links himself with Israel. He is not willing to enjoy God’s favor alone, while Israel’s destiny hangs in the balance. God’s presence, he petitions, must not only be with him, but with them also. God’s answer this time assures Moses that He will be present with Israel, as well as with him: “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight, and I have known you by name” (v. 17). While God grants Moses’ request, it is only due to his standing in favor with Him, not due to any good on the part of Israel. Israel’s future is totally dependent upon Moses, and his standing with God.

Conclusion

There are many applications of this passage,101 but since this is Easter Sunday, I want to focus on the presence of God as it relates to the coming, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that the presence of God in the midst of men is provided.

The promise which God has just given Moses is a wonderful one. God has assured Moses that He will not only be present with him personally, but He will also be with His people, Israel. This poses a problem, however, based upon God’s words in this chapter: “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, lest I destroy you on the way” (Exod. 33:3).

The problem is this: HOW CAN A HOLY GOD BE PRESENT WITH A SINFUL PEOPLE, AND NOT DESTROY THEM? What God said in verse 3 still holds true. The presence of a holy God in the midst of a sinful people is exceedingly dangerous for the people. There must be some solution for the sins of the people, lest God destroy them.

In the Old Testament, the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system was God’s temporary provision for the sins of the people. The sins of the people were not taken away, but they were put off, until the time when sin could once and for all be remedied and removed in Christ (cf. Rom. 3:25). With this temporary provision for sin, the Israelite’s highest privilege and blessing was recognized as the presence of God, which was especially comforting in times of adversity and affliction:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear not evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; Thou has anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23).

When my heart was embittered, And I was pierced within, Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before Thee. Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou has taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:21-28).

Both psalmists, David (Ps. 23) and Asaph (Ps. 73), have found great comfort and consolation in the assurance of God’s presence in the present, especially in adversity. Beyond this, however, both anticipate being with God, in His presence in eternity, after death. This is the height of Israel’s hope in the Old Testament. It is also the pinnacle of New Testament hope as well.

At the very beginning of the New Testament, in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we read the words of an angel of the Lord, spoken to Joseph, when he learned that Mary, his wife to be, was pregnant, and he was considering whether or not to “put her away” (that is, to break their engagement):

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us” (Matt. 1:20-23, emphasis mine).

God with us! That was the name of the Christ child. The presence of God with His people was no more real, no more intimate than it was at the time of His incarnation. Thus, the apostle John could write,

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

God was physically present in the person of Jesus Christ, John wrote, and thus fellowship with God was possible through Him. God was truly present in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Through His teaching and miracles, many recognized that God was present in the person of Christ. But, as time went on, it became apparent that many did not want God present with them. As opposition increased and the time of His departure drew near, the Lord began to speak of His “going away,” and of the coming of the “Comforter” (cf. John 14:25-31; 16:7ff.). These words were not comforting at the time, however. Nor would they be until after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

When the Lord Jesus was crucified and placed in the tomb, the disciples were devastated. Their hopes of God’s presence abiding forever in their midst were momentarily dashed. As one of them said to Jesus, not knowing it was He, “But we were hoping that it was he who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things have happened” (Luke 24:21). The depths of the despair of the disciples can only be conjectured. The One in whom God was present was gone.

The sight of the resurrected Lord was indeed a great joy to those who loved Him. But it was apparent that things were not going to be as they had been those three (or so) years of His public ministry. This was evident in His words to Mary, who sought to cling to Him when He appeared to her near the tomb: “Stop clinging to Me; for I have not yet ascended to the Father …” (John 20:17).

There was something different about our Lord’s relationship to His disciples, for He did not live among them, as He had formerly done, but He only appeared to them, from time to time, during those days between His resurrection and His ascension. Thus, there was a lingering disappointment and bewilderment among the disciples, as can be seen by Peter’s decision to “go fishing” (John 21:3ff.). Not until Pentecost, did the joy of the disciples return, in fact a greater joy was experienced, for now, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, God dwelt not only among His people, but within them. The Holy Spirit thus mediates the presence of God in this age, so that our intimacy with God is even greater than that of the disciples. It is J. I. Packer who has stated this perhaps more clearly than any other writer since the New Testament was written:

What is the essence, heart, and core of the Spirit’s work today? What is the central, focal element in his many-sided ministry? Is there one basic activity to which his work of empowering, enabling, purifying, and presenting must be related in order to be fully understood? Is there a single divine strategy that unites all these facets of his life-giving action as means to one end?

I think there is, and now I offer my view of it—a view that I focus … in terms of the idea of presence. By this I mean the Spirit makes known the personal presence in and with the Christian and the church of the risen, reigning Saviour, the Jesus of history, who is the Christ of faith.102

Thus, the presence of God can be more intimately ours than it has ever been before. There is, however, a day when the presence of God will be even more intimate and precious. It will commence with the coming of our Lord for His own:

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thes. 4:16-17).

In the second epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, the word “coming” (cf. 2 Thes. 2:8, 9) is literally the term “presence,” as can be seen from the marginal note in the NASB. When He comes again, it is to manifest an even more intimate presence, a presence that will surpass any that man has ever known, even Moses. While Moses was not allowed to see the “face of God” (Exod. 33:23), all who know God through Christ will see His face in heaven: “And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3-4).

What a privilege is ours now, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit! What a privilege it will be some day, when we are with God around His throne, and we shall see His face. That privilege is not for all, however, but only for those whose faith is in Jesus Christ. The Law provided a temporary provision for man’s sin, so that God could dwell among them in their midst, in the Tabernacle. Jesus Christ has come to the earth, to perfectly fulfill the requirements of the Law, and to die in accordance with the Law to bear the penalty for the sins of all who trust in Him. Thus, a permanent provision for sin has been accomplished, and men may dwell forever in God’s presence.

For those who do not trust in Him, there awaits the dreaded certainty of an eternity spent banished from the bliss of His presence: “And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thes. 1:9).

My prayer is that on this Easter Sunday, each of us will determine, like Moses, not to go another step until we have the assurance of God’s presence with us, forever. That is possible by simply trusting in Jesus Christ as God’s solution for your sins, and God’s means of making His presence a permanent part of your life.


96 I am puzzled and somewhat disappointed by the way the NIV and the NASB render the term translated “see” in verse 12. The NIV ignores it altogether, and then translates the same Hebrew word “remember” in verse 13. The NASB strangely renders the same term differently (“See” in verse 12, and “consider” in verse 13). I fear that this may obscure what might be a structural clue to the text.

97 Of the first expression, “I have known you by name,” Gispen writes, “… the meaning is ‘to know well or intimately,’ as in the case of a king who knew only his closest servants, and also ‘to know on the basis of election.’” W. H. Gispen, Exodus trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 307.

Of the second, he writes, “‘Favor’ is derived from a verb that indicates the showing of unmerited kindness; the word thus indicates condescending, free, and gracious kindness, goodness not based on obligation.” Ibid.

98 Ibid, p. 308.

99 “… Driver, referring to Deuteronomy 32:4 and Exodus 34:6f., interprets ‘ways’ to mean ‘the Lord’s ways of dealing with men,’ and ‘so I may know you and continue to find favor with you’ to mean ‘to understand what your nature and character is, and shape my petitions accordingly, that so I may find favor with you, and my future prayers may be answered.’” Quoted, by Gispen, p. 308.

100 The translators, in a way similar to that found in verse 14, have supplied the words “with us” in verse 15. When he went on to say, “Do not lead us up from here,” the “us” here is plural, thus verifying the “with us” supplied earlier.

101 Let me suggest just a few avenues of application which the reader can pursue. First, there is the role of Moses as the mediator of the people. This can be compared and contrasted with the mediatorial role of Jesus Christ, especially as played out in the Book of Hebrews. Secondly, there is the whole area of Moses’ motivation. What was it that was important to Moses? Especially important is his servant-like attitude (cf. Philippians chapter 2). Third, there is the application of this text to the subject of prayer. We can learn a great deal about prayer from the prayer of Moses in this chapter.

102 J. I. Packer, Keep in Step With the Spirit (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984), p. 47.

8. The Promised Blessings and Their Fulfillment in God’s Perfect Plan

Introduction

I have become a cynic when it comes to promises received in the mail. Almost daily, some bulk mailing assures me I am the “lucky winner of one of several prizes.” All I need do is contact them to identify my prize. Routinely, such letters go in the trash without my even opening them. I know that no matter how good their promises sound, they simply are not true.

Some preachers and teachers promise God’s blessings as confidently as the mail promises a free gift. Such men say if we employ the right approach, (their approach, usually for a donation), success is assured. One only needs enough faith to be confident God hears and answers our prayers as we desire.

Divine blessing certainly is not well understood. Often, the Old Testament Israelite had a mistaken concept of God’s blessings. The Israelites of Jesus’ day also held a distorted view of divine blessings. This is one of the reasons Jesus’ teaching and His offer of the kingdom was rejected. Jesus simply did not fit the mold of Jewish expectations. His blessings were not the kind they wanted.

So it is today. Few understand the blessings of God as they should. The same errors which plagued the Israelites and Christians of old are popular in evangelical Christianity today. If we would understand what in the world God is doing in these days, we must understand what the Bible teaches about divine blessing. God’s plan is purposed to bring glory to Himself and blessing to us. If we do not understand God’s temporal blessings, and His eternal blessings, we will not understand the plan of God.

As we come to the study of divine blessing in our series, we begin by considering God’s promised blessings in the Old Testament. Next we will look at our Lord’s teaching on blessing before turning to the rest of the New Testament to study divine blessing.

The Importance of
Blessings in God’s Perfect Plan

The primary goal of God’s perfect plan is to demonstrate the glory of God. A secondary goal is to accomplish the good of those who love God: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

The ultimate good is that which manifests God’s glory. For the Christian, “good” includes the blessing of all those who are the called in Jesus Christ. The promised blessings of the Bible are the good which God has purposed and promised. The Christian life should be lived out in the light of the superiority of God’s promised blessings in comparison to the “blessings” an ungodly world holds out to us (Hebrews 11:24-26). As we study the promised blessings of God, my hope is that the present pleasures of this life will fade in the light of the glory awaiting us.

Blessings in the Old Testament

When Adam and Eve disobeyed the command of God and sinned in the Garden of Eden, sin entered the human race. Along with sin came the curse. Eve was cursed with pain in child-bearing and with the dominion of her husband over her. Adam was cursed with hard labor, providing for his family by the sweat of his brow. Both were cursed with death by being banned from the Garden and the tree of life.

The blessing of God directly relates to two matters: (1) the overcoming of God’s curse, and (2) the cursing of Satan which promises his condemnation and destruction. The Abrahamic covenant takes up the promise of blessing:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

God promised to bless Abraham and his offspring. He also promised Abraham that he would become a blessing to all who would bless him. What an amazing promise--a promise which will surely be fulfilled! But just what has God promised to do for Abraham? How will Abraham be blessed, and how will he become a blessing to others? By tracing the fulfillment of this promise through the Scriptures we will better understand God’s blessings. We shall see what they are, what they are not, and when they will be fulfilled.

God’s promise to Abraham included a “land” and a “seed.” Abraham’s seed was to begin with a son. This child was not merely an adopted “heir,” but Abraham’s own son (Genesis 15:1-6). He was not only to be the son of Abraham but of Sarah as well (Genesis 17:15-21). The first recorded promise of Abraham’s son was made when Abraham was seventy-five years old (Genesis 12:4).98 Yet the child was not born to Abraham and Sarah until he was one-hundred years old (Genesis 21:5). Abraham had a twenty-five year wait for the blessing of a son.

God’s promise to Abraham was not merely the promise of a son. He also promised to make him a “great nation” (Genesis 12:2; 15:5; 17:5-6). The son was just the beginning. Abraham was one-hundred and sixty years old when Jacob and Esau were born. The “great nation” was still one seed, Jacob. It was not in Abraham’s lifetime that the promise of a great nation was fulfilled.

God also promised Abraham a great land that his “seed” would possess. This was the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:5-7; 13:14-15) whose boundaries were more fully defined in Genesis 15:18-21. At the time of Sarah’s death, the land of Canaan was possessed by the Canaanites (Genesis 12:6) and Abraham did not own any part of the promised land. Abraham had to buy a small parcel of ground for a burial site for his family (Genesis 23:1-20). In his lifetime, Abraham would not possess the land of Canaan.

God clarified the promise of the land in Genesis 15:

And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions. And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete (Genesis 15:13-16).

From later history, we know that because of Joseph’s ill-treatment by his brothers, he was enslaved in Egypt. As a result, Jacob and his family moved to Egypt where they became a great nation. The land of Canaan was not to be possessed until Abraham’s offspring had been oppressed and enslaved for four hundred years. Nearly six hundred years passed from the promise of possessing this land to the time his “seed” actually acquired the land. God was in no hurry to fulfill His promised blessings.

God’s blessings took time to fulfill, and the process of fulfillment involved suffering and adversity. Abraham’s life had its own trials. He suffered because of his deception concerning Sarah. He suffered because of his impatience in acquiring a son through Hagar. Abraham’s life was not one of uninterrupted bliss, yet he was blessed of God in every way (Genesis 24:1).

The promise of blessing passed from Abraham to Isaac (Genesis 26:24) to Jacob (Genesis 27:27-29; 28:12-15). One would not have chosen Abraham’s life to illustrate blessing. He struggled with Esau from the womb until the day he left Canaan. He and his mother struggled with Isaac and Esau. Jacob struggled with Laban (see Genesis 31:42). Jacob saw much strife in his family and suffered much over the loss of Joseph and then Benjamin. In summing up his life before Pharaoh, Jacob gave an account not of unceasing bliss but of much affliction:

So Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning” (Genesis 47:9).

Joseph, one of the Bible’s great heroes and a son of Jacob, suffered a great deal in his early life. Later Judah and his brothers suffered much over their ill-treatment of Joseph (see Genesis 37-45). The Israelites were greatly blessed in number while they sojourned in Egypt (Exodus 1:5-7). Their numerical growth concerned the Egyptians and brought about a time of great persecution and affliction. Foolishly, they sought to keep the Israelites subject to them as slaves and to keep them from leaving their land (Exodus 1:8-22).

The trials and afflictions of the Israelites did not end with their exodus from Egypt. Their journey to the promised land held many trials. These trials came from the hand of the God who had promised to bless them:

And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him (Deuteronomy 8:2-6).

God’s earthly blessings were dependent upon Israel’s obedience to His Law. If His people forsook the Law, then earthly cursings were promised:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You shall not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).

God’s national blessings and cursings were conditional. If a nation repented of its sin and turned to God, its threatened judgment could be averted. If a nation turned from God, its promised blessings would be taken away:

At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it” (Jeremiah 18:7-10).

Many were the times in Israel’s history when God brought calamity upon His people due to their sins, yet the nation Israel never seemed to learn her lesson (see Psalm 78). At other times, Israel’s suffering was not due to her unbelief and rebellion. These were much more perplexing times as we see from the agony of this psalmist:

Thou art my King, O God; Command victories for Jacob. Through Thee we will push back our adversaries; Through Thy name we will trample down those who rise up against us. For I will not trust in my bow, Nor will my sword save me. But Thou hast saved us from our adversaries, And Thou hast put to shame those who hate us. In God we have boasted all day long, And we will give thanks to Thy name forever. Selah. Yet Thou hast rejected us and brought us to dishonor, And dost not go out with our armies. Thou dost cause us to turn back from the adversary; And those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves. Thou dost give us as sheep to be eaten, And hast scattered us among the nations. Thou dost sell Thy people cheaply, And hast not profited by their sale. Thou dost make us a reproach to our neighbors, A scoffing and a derision to those around us. Thou dost make us a byword among the nations, A laughingstock among the peoples. All day long my dishonor is before me, And my humiliation has overwhelmed me, Because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles, Because of the presence of the enemy and the avenger. All this has come upon us, but we have not forgotten Thee, And we have not dealt falsely with Thy covenant. Our heart has not turned back, And our steps have not deviated from Thy way, Yet Thou hast crushed us in a place of jackals, And covered us with the shadow of death. If we had forgotten the name of our God, Or extended our hands to a strange god; Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart. But for Thy sake we are killed all day long; We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. Arouse Thyself, why dost Thou sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not reject us forever. Why dost Thou hide Thy face, And forget our affliction and our oppression? For our soul has sunk down into the dust; Our body cleaves to the earth. Rise up, be our help, And redeem us for the sake of Thy lovingkindness (Psalm 44:4-26).

While the Old Testament records many instances in which Israel suffered for their sins, texts like this one in Psalm 44 indicate there are times when God’s people suffer innocently, “for His sake” (see verse 22). Such suffering serves as a test of our faith and obedience as we see from Job’s experiences.99 Precisely at times like these, God’s people find their perspectives changing and discover God’s presence as their true source of blessing:

Surely God is good to Israel, To those who are pure in heart! But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling; My steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant, As I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pains in their death; And their body is fat. They are not in trouble as other men; Nor are they plagued like mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; The garment of violence covers them. Their eye bulges from fatness; The imaginations of their heart run riot. They mock, and wickedly speak of oppression; They speak from on high. They have set their mouth against the heavens, And their tongue parades through the earth. Therefore his people return to this place; And waters of abundance are drunk by them. And they say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; And always at ease, they have increased in wealth. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, And washed my hands in innocence; For I have been stricken all day long, And chastened every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” Behold, I should have betrayed the generation of Thy children. When I pondered to understand this, It was troublesome in my sight Until I came into the sanctuary of God; Then I perceived their end. Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places; Thou dost cast them down to destruction. How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, Thou wilt despise their form. When my heart was embittered, And I was pierced within, Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before Thee. Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:1-28).

At times like these, the Word of God becomes much more precious and meaningful:

Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Thy word (Psalm 119:67).

It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Thy statutes (Psalm 119:71).

I know, O Lord, that Thy judgments are righteous, And that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me (Psalm 119:75).

If Thy law had not been my delight, Then I would have perished in my affliction (Psalm 119:92).

In the Old Testament we find that while the righteous were those who believed God’s promise of blessing, they were also those who suffered innocently.100 David suffered for his sins (Psalm 32), but he also suffered innocently for the Lord’s sake (see Psalm 22). In the early days of David’s life, he was misunderstood and chided by his brothers (1 Samuel 17:20-30). After David was anointed as Israel’s future king, and Saul’s replacement, David spent his days fleeing for his life from Saul who was bent on killing him (1 Samuel 18-31).

All of the prophets of Israel were resisted, rejected, and persecuted because they spoke to men for God:

And the Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, until there was no remedy (2 Chronicles 36:15-16).101

The prophets suffered themselves and also spoke of the Messiah to come as the One who would suffer for the sins of men (Isaiah 52:13--53:12). Somehow, in God’s perfect plan and according to God’s promises, God’s blessings would not come apart from suffering. The blessings of God are not inconsistent with suffering.

Perhaps the most puzzling passage in the Old Testament concerning God’s blessings comes from the Book of Proverbs:

It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, And He adds no sorrow to it (Proverbs 10:22).

I believe this text provides the key to understanding God’s blessings, especially their relationship to suffering and adversity. The full and final blessing of God is not accompanied with sorrow. Thus, the blessings of the Old Testament are partial and provisional. Only with the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ does permanent blessing come into clear focus.

Blessings in the New Testament

When our Lord presented Himself as Israel’s Messiah, He taught a great deal about the blessings of God. His teaching was radically different from that of the Jewish religious leaders of His day. His teaching was different not as the result of a change in God’s plan, but due to the Jew’s misconceptions concerning God’s promised blessings. Judaism’s errors concerning divine blessings can be summed up in these statements.

(1) The Jews thought of God’s blessings primarily in terms of the here and now, while God’s Word speaks of the fulfillment of His promised blessings in terms of the future.

(2) The Jews thought of God’s blessings in primarily physical and material terms and not in spiritual terms.

(3) The Jews thought of God’s blessings in terms of material prosperity and His cursings in terms of material adversity and physical affliction. Since the Mosaic covenant spelled out God’s blessings and cursings in this way in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28-30, this is not difficult to understand.

(4) The Jews of Jesus’ day thought of God’s blessings not in terms of grace but in terms of works.

(5) The Jews of our Lord’s time believed suffering was incompatible with God’s blessings. When Jesus began to teach His disciples concerning His coming rejection, suffering, and death in Jerusalem, even His disciples reacted. Peter rebuked our Lord for speaking of His own suffering (see Matthew 16:21-22).

(6) The Jews concluded those who prospered were pious (spiritual, righteous), while those who suffered were sinners.

(7) The majority of the Jews in Jesus’ day concluded that Jesus could not be the promised Messiah because He failed to meet their expectations and desires.

A review of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God and about the blessings of God explains why His teaching was found unacceptable by the Jews. One can imagine how shocked men were to hear Jesus teach about God’s blessing and cursing precisely opposite from their own view:

And turning His gaze on His disciples, He began to say, Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets. But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” Luke 6:20-28).

Jesus turned the teaching of the Jews upside-down. He called those “blessed” whom the Jews regarded as accursed. Jesus called “blessed” those who were poor, hungry, and sorrowful. The accursed were those who were rich, well-fed, and happy. All of this made no sense to the Jews.

The adversity of those whom Jesus called “blessed” made them discontent with this world, causing them to look ahead to the promised blessings of the kingdom of God. Paul later put it this way:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you. But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I BELIEVED, THEREFORE I SPOKE,” we also believe, therefore also we speak; knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:7-18).

To those who equated wealth and ease with piety and the blessing of God, the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) was shocking and disturbing. Death turned earthly, external appearances upside-down. The rich man spent eternity in hell while Lazarus spent eternity enjoying the blessings God promised in Abraham.

Jesus’ teaching concerning His own suffering and death took His disciples by surprise:

From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds” (Matthew 16:21-27).

How could it be that the blessed Son of God could suffer? Peter rejected the thought out of hand. But Peter was wrong for supposing that God’s blessings were incompatible with suffering. Our Lord’s suffering and sacrificial death were God’s means of blessing us:

“It is you who are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ “For you first, God raised up His Servant, and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:25-26).

For what does the Scripture say? “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED. BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT” (Romans 4:3-8).

It is in Christ, the “seed” of Abraham, that we are blessed. It is by “blessing” Him that we enjoy God’s blessings, rather than the curse of sin. Christ is the source of all our blessings; indeed, He is the blessing:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation-- having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:3-14).

Peter, who once rejected the idea of suffering, later has much to say about suffering in his epistles. Just as our Lord suffered because of His identification with sinful men, so God has purposed that we who trust in Him should suffer because of our identification with Him. As God’s suffering brought blessing to us, so our suffering is viewed as a blessing for us and a potential blessing for others. Suffering is both a blessing, and a means of blessing, when it is suffering for Christ’s sake:

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21).

To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing (1 Peter 3:8-9).

And who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong (1 Peter 3:13-17).

If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God (1 Peter 4:14-16).

God not only accomplished our salvation by the means of Christ’s suffering, but He uses suffering to draw men to Himself (Luke 6:20-23). Suffering is also a blessing because it is a part of God’s process of sanctification. Through suffering we are blessed in many ways:

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:3-5).

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:2-5).

While not a pleasant experience in itself, suffering can be the source of comfort and assurance. When we struggle with sin and the flesh (Romans 7), we know it is because we have become a new creation in Christ. We now loathe that which we once loved. We now desire that which we once found offensive and repulsive. We seek to obey God when we used to delight in disobedience. Satan, once our master, has now become our enemy.

Living in the midst of a fallen world itself suffering from the curse of sin (Romans 8:18-25) results in a suffering of soul for the Christian. Like Lot, we find our righteous souls vexed by sin (2 Peter 2:7-8). There is a sense in which our suffering bears testimony to the end of sin’s dominion in our lives (1 Peter 4:1).

Suffering at the hand of a gracious God is a comfort, for our chastening evidences that we are God’s sons:

For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that {the limb} which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed (Hebrews 12:3-13).

Perhaps best of all, our suffering for Christ’s sake deepens our love for our Lord and our fellowship with Him:

More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-12).

The Difference Between
Temporal and Eternal Blessings

God’s temporal blessings are not inconsistent with suffering. In fact, suffering can be a blessing in the hand of God. If we are a child of God, we know His eternal plan allows only those things into our lives which result in our ultimate and eternal good:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

But what of God’s eternal blessings? These blessings fit the definition laid down in Proverbs 10:22:

It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, And He adds no sorrow to it.

These blessings are not fulfilled in this life, but in the next. They are not experienced in time, but in eternity. These are the blessings our Lord Himself brings to pass in His second coming. They are based upon His sacrifice at Calvary but are realized in His coming to judge the earth:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. “He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:1-8).

And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5).

Conclusion

The Book of Hebrews brings the Old Testament faith into focus and clearly describes the nature of the blessings God promised and for which believers waited in faith. The Hebrews were Christians who came out of Judaism by faith in Jesus Christ. Their identification with Jesus Christ had brought on them the reproach of Christ and the opposition and persecution of unbelieving Jews. Things were bad and about to get worse. Some toyed with the thought of turning back into Judaism to escape persecution. The temporal “blessings” of Judaism were tempting in the light of the affliction they faced as Christians. The unnamed author of this epistle reminds these Christians of their Old Testament roots. He points them to the true blessings which are in Christ.

The complete and final fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham is yet to occur. It is the blessing to which Abraham and every other Old Testament saint looked forward. They understood that the blessings God promised were not material, but spiritual, and that they were not temporal, but eternal. They knew these blessings would not come in life, but after death and resurrection:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

Unlike many Israelites in the Old Testament, and most of the Jews of Jesus’ day, Abraham looked for a better blessing. He looked for a heavenly city, a city which God would prepare. I believe this is the dwelling of which our Lord Jesus spoke just before His death:

“Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

It is that New Jerusalem which comes down from heaven at our Lord’s return (Revelation 21:1-2). It is the blessing which comes from faith in Jesus Christ and not from human effort or achievement.

Unfortunately, many Christians today hold to the same basic errors held by the Jews of Jesus’ day. They think of God’s blessings primarily in terms of that which is physical and material.102 They believe that because Christ has come, every promised blessing can be ours, now, if we but believe and ask for them in faith. All too much like Job’s friends, they equate present affliction with sin, and they see it as a curse. They would do well to give more thought to the blessings of God as defined in Scripture. They would do especially well to give careful thought to this text in Hebrews:

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Hebrews 11:32-40).

Our text speaks only of Old Testament saints. “All,” as the writer informs us in verse 39, “gained approval through their faith.” All,” as he also reminds us, “did not receive what was promised” (verse 39, see also Hebrews 11:13). All of those referred to were people who obtained God’s approval through their faith in God’s promise. Not one of them received the promised blessing. The reason, we are told, is that God wanted them to enter into blessings with us, at the same time. They have been waiting for us to join them in entering into God’s promised blessings.

The point I wish to underscore here are the two very different categories of saints. The difference between these two categories is not that one group has faith while the other does not. It is not that one group is more spiritual than the other. The difference is that one group seems to succeed on the basis of faith while the other group suffers by faith.

The first group--those who succeeded by faith--are described in verses 32-35a. By faith, these saints conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises,103 shut the mouths of lions, received their dead back to life, and so on. How were these saints so successful? They were blessed by God, through faith.

The second group--those who suffered and endured by faith--are described in the last half of verse 35 through verse 38. These saints also had faith, but their faith resulted in perseverance rather than in success or prosperity. These are the very ones who would be chided today for their lack of faith. Like Job, they would be badgered by their “friends” to find the sin in their life, and confess it so they could be blessed.

From the Scriptures, we have seen that suffering is neither incompatible with faith nor inconsistent with God’s blessings. The suffering of some saints should be no more troublesome to us than the success of some saints, or even the success of some sinners. Only in eternity will the full blessings of God be poured out on God’s people. It is also only in eternity that the curse of God will be fully poured out on sinners.

Because all of God’s blessings are a gift of His grace, through the work of Jesus Christ, we have no basis for demanding His blessings. Neither do we have basis for complaint if and when He withholds His blessings. They are His to give; they are also His to withhold. This is the profession of Job:

And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

Let this profession be ours as well.

The simple fact is that our prayers betray us. Our prayers reveal an understanding of God’s blessings virtually identical with the mistaken view of the Jews in Jesus’ day. When affliction and adversity comes into our life, we conclude that suffering is incompatible with blessing. We begin to make decisions and to pursue a course of action which takes away the pain. Those honest enough to admit it reason something like this: “God wants to bless me. That means He wants me to be happy. I am not happy. This is not a blessing. I must do whatever it takes to be happy, even if that involves disobedience to God’s revealed Word.”

Most of us are not quite this honest in our thinking, nor quite so bold in our rebellion against God and His Word. Yet our prayers betray us. When affliction comes into our life, we do not pray for God’s grace, nor do we ask God for wisdom, patience, or endurance. We ask God to take away the pain and the circumstance. When we suffer, we do not ask God for the mind of Christ, or the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we ask God to bless us by giving us a life free from the pain and sorrow we are currently experiencing. And in so doing, we actually miss the blessing God has for us in affliction. If suffering is meant to result in our spiritual growth, in a deeper level of commitment, and in greater intimacy and communion with our Lord, we must accept suffering as a part of God’s good and perfect plan for our lives, one purposed to result in our good, in a blessing for us. Whether God in His goodness enables us to succeed, or whether His grace enables us to endure our suffering, let us realize that God is able to make use of suffering to produce blessings.

Neither God’s blessings nor His wrath are fully manifested in this life. We must therefore live by faith. We must live by faith trusting God to fulfill His promises, even when our eyes tell us the opposite is happening now. As Asaph protested centuries ago in Psalm 73, the wicked may prosper, and the righteous may suffer. We must view such “blessing” and “suffering” as temporary and not eternal. We must see that in the midst of our suffering, we are drawn nearer to God, and recognize this as true blessing.

God’s blessing is not only the gift of those things which are good and desirable but the removal of the curse. First and foremost, God’s blessing involves the forgiveness of our sins, the defeat and destruction of Satan, the passing away of that which is old and corrupted by sin, and the creation of that which is holy and acceptable.

God’s blessings are the fulfillment of His promise and the conclusion of a process which includes suffering and sorrow. Only God can make something good from that which seems evil at the moment. If you have not trusted in God’s promise of blessing in Jesus Christ, then you are under the curse of sin. Trust in Him, and you will be blessed. Your blessings in this life will be mixed with sorrow. Your blessings in eternity will not.

As I conclude this lesson, let me share a quotation by Harold Stigers in his commentary of the Book of Genesis:

“God designs certain tests and trials in regard to earthly things so that we may see that our inheritance resides in God Himself--in our finding them nothing without Him, and Him everything even without them.”104

For Further Study and Meditation

Principles Pertaining to Divine Blessing

(1) God’s blessing refers to His purpose, pronouncement, and process of bringing about a person’s good.

(2) God’s curse is the process of bringing about man’s deserved retribution of divine judgment.

(3) God’s blessing is opposed to cursing. His blessing is the reversal of the curse (see Genesis 12:1-3; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28).

(4) God has the right to bless or to curse men (see Romans 9:19-21). He blesses men out of His grace and curses out of His holiness.

(5) God is able to bless men because He has borne their curse in Christ, and thus His holiness is maintained in His grace (see Romans 3:24-26).

(6) God’s glory is revealed in both His blessing and His cursing (see Exodus 34:5-7).

(7) Divine blessing is based upon divine grace and not human merit or effort. God not only graciously blesses men, He also graciously delays the curse so that men might be saved (see Romans 9:22-24).

(8) Divine cursing or condemnation is based upon an individual’s decision and works. Men are not only condemned because they are destined to destruction, but because they deserve it and have decided for it (see Genesis 12:1-3; Deuteronomy 28; John 3:18; Revelation 16:5-6).

(9) Blessing or cursing are not necessarily evident in the means God employs to produce His desired goal. Cursing may be accomplished by what appears to be God’s blessing. Blessing may be accomplished by what appears to be God’s cursing. The story of the rich man and Lazarus underscore this principle (see Luke 16:19-31).

(10) Blessing and cursing have present manifestations, but they are not fully manifested until the second coming of Christ. Blessing and cursing are both temporal and eternal, the temporal being partial and mixed with sorrow, while the eternal is full and complete. Temporal blessings are experienced by sinners, living in a sin-cursed world. Eternal blessings are experienced by saints who have been transformed into the image of Christ, whose mortal bodies are left behind and who live in a new world free of sin, of Satan, and of the curse (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-58; 1 John 3:2; Revelation 21 and 22).

(11) Ultimately, blessing or cursing are the result of one’s response to God’s provision of forgiveness and righteousness in Jesus Christ, the promised “seed of Abraham” (see Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6; John 3:18; 14:6; 1 John 5:12).

(12) God’s temporal blessing is neither synonymous with prosperity nor incompatible with suffering.

(13) Adversity and suffering is not synonymous with sin and cursing.

(14) God blesses all men physically and materially in this life out of His common grace. He blesses only Christians spiritually and eternally.

(15) Since divine blessing is based upon the sovereign grace of God, we cannot demand it, and we dare not protest when God’s dealings with us do not appear to be a blessing.

(16) One of the blessings God gave Abraham and his “seed” (which includes us as believers) is that of being a blessing to others. When God promised Abraham that his “seed” was to be a blessing to all nations, this was a part of Abraham’s blessing. In God’s economy, serving others is a privilege and not a curse. Our Lord Himself took upon Himself the task of serving.

(17) The blessings our Lord accomplished on the cross of Calvary will not all be poured out on men in this life. Full and unhindered blessing can only take place in heaven, when Satan is bound, sin and death defeated, and the things corrupted by sin (including our bodies and this world) made new.

(18) Christians will suffer--and not just for sin. When Christians suffer for Christ’s sake, it is a blessing.

(19) God’s promised blessings do not assure us we will escape the wrath of men toward God, but only that we will escape the wrath of God toward men.

(20) If God’s blessing cannot be equated with prosperity and ease, neither can it be said that His blessing is automatically associated with asceticism (denying ourselves of earthly pleasures). Put simply, God’s blessing does not mean that we are free to indulge in every sensual pleasure, but neither does it mean that we must deny every earthly pleasure. God’s blessing is found in trusting and obeying God and in the resulting enjoyment (blessing) of His presence and fellowship.

Questions to Stimulate
Further Study and Meditation

(1) What is blessing? How is it related to cursing? What is the basis for blessing and cursing?

Divine blessing refers to God’s purpose to bring about the good of an individual or nation, His proclamation of this purpose by His promise, and a program of bringing about this blessing which includes suffering and adversity.

God’s blessing is the overturning and removal of the curse due to sin. In Christ, God bore the curse of sin and death and provided for us eternal life in its place.

God’s blessing is not based upon human merit or works, but upon His grace. We can never, in and of ourselves, be worthy of divine blessings. In Christ, we receive every blessing because He is worthy (see Ephesians 1; Revelation 5:9-14). Humanly speaking, men are blessed or cursed on the basis of their response to Abraham’s “seed,” Jesus Christ (Genesis 12:3; Psalm 24:3-6; 32:1-2; 84:4-5; 89:14-18; John 3:16-18; 14:6; Acts 3:26; Romans 4:6-8; Galatians 3:9, 13-16; 1 John 5:11-12). Obedience, stemming from gratitude, faith, love, and hope, which is empowered by God’s Spirit, brings the temporal blessings of God, while disobedience brings a curse (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28; Psalm 106:3; 112:1; 119:1-2; Proverbs 8:32; Isaiah 44:3; Daniel 12:12; John 13:17; James 1:12; Revelation 14;13).

(2) In what ways does God bless all men? In what ways does God bless only Christians?

God’s “common grace” is extended to all men, without distinction. God gives rain and sunshine to men, and in His grace He delays judgment, giving opportunity for repentance. This is to be the pattern for the Christians’ dealings with others, including our enemies (Matthew 6:44-48; Acts 14:15-17; 17:30-31).

God blesses the Christian by bearing our curse in the person of Jesus Christ. He blesses the Christian temporally by His presence, by producing our growth and maturity, and by creating a hunger for the full and final blessings of heaven.

(3) What is the relationship between blessing, faith, and obedience?

God’s blessings are based upon His grace and not our works. His blessings are offered in the form of a promise, and this promise must be believed by faith (see Genesis 15:1-6). Our faith in God and in His promise will result in the obedience of faith (Genesis 17:9-14; Romans 4:9-24; Hebrews 11:13-31; James 2:14-26). Faith and obedience are both necessary because each calls upon us to act, not on the basis of what we see, but on the basis of what He has said.

(4) What, if any, are the differences between temporal and eternal blessings?

Temporal blessings are those blessings which God bestows upon sinful men, living in a fallen world, flowing from His grace. Temporal blessings are incomplete and never without a measure of sorrow and suffering. (Marriage and children are both a blessing, but neither is without its trials and suffering.) Temporal blessings are not to be measured so much in terms of material prosperity, physical health, or the absence of pain, as in the enjoyment of God’s presence. Eternal blessings are full and complete, the enjoyment of physical and material prosperity, the full manifestation of God’s goodness and glory, and the absence of sin, Satan, death, and the curse.

(5) What errors concerning divine blessing can we see in the Jews of old and also in Christians of today? How do you explain these errors? Why are they wrong?

The Jews of old and many Christians and others today think of God’s blessings in terms of the immediate enjoyment of physical and material pleasures and the absence of pain. They suppose prosperity is one’s reward for being spiritual and that suffering is the consequence of sin. To be spiritual they say is the assurance of earthly pleasures; to be sinful is to bring upon oneself pain and suffering. To have enough faith is to have the means to move God into blessing us as we think best, they say. God’s blessings are not sovereignly bestowed in the way He chooses but are mechanically obtained by doing the right things. This false view of blessing justifies one’s expectations of no pain and all pleasure in this life. The true view of temporal blessing seeks the enjoyment of God’s presence whether in pain or pleasure.

(6) How can a clear understanding of divine blessings help us to better understand God’s eternal plan, especially as it relates to man?

The plan of God is to bring about His own glory and the Christian’s good (or blessing). That plan incorporates “all things” (Romans 8:28), which includes pain, suffering, and sorrow. When we understand the difference between God’s temporal blessings and His eternal blessings, we learn to expect suffering and trials as a part of His plan, and as a part of His program to bring about eternal blessing for us. While we should not seek suffering in this life, we should expect it, recognizing it as a part of the plan of a loving God who is bringing about our good and His glory.

(7) How do the temporal “blessings” and “cursings” which God promised the nation Israel relate to the life and experience of the Christian today?

God chose Israel as the object of His blessings. His desire was to demonstrate His blessings to all men so that men from every nation would seek blessing in Him. Those who identified with Israel and Israel’s God would also be blessed, as God told Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3).

As Israel trusted in God and obeyed His Law by faith, God poured out the blessings promised in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. When Israel turned from God, the promised cursings came. But in addition to the deserved suffering of Israel, many godly Israelites suffered. They suffered for God’s sake and not for their own sins (Psalm 44:22).

With the coming of Christ, the blessings of God are more spiritual than material, and they come to those who appear not to be blessed as men would appraise blessing (see Luke 6:20-23). Our blessings are “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). In our identification with Christ, we enter into His rejection and persecution by men, and in so doing are blessed by a closer walk with Him, a deeper fellowship with Him, and a growing hunger for heaven and the full blessings of God (see 2 Corinthians 4 and 5; Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 2-4).

Scripture Texts

Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6, 13-20; 17:15-21; 26:24; 27:27-29; 28:12-15; 47:9
Exodus 1:5-22
Deuteronomy 8:2-6; 28; 30:15-20
2 Chronicles 36:15-16
Job 1 and 2
Psalm 22; 24:3-6; 44; 73; 78; 94:12; 119:67, 71, 75, 92
Proverbs 10:22
Jeremiah 18:7-10
Zechariah 8:13; 14:11
Matthew 16:21-27
Luke 6:20-28; 16:19-31
John 14:1-3
Acts 3:25-26
Romans 4:3-8; 5:3-5; 8:18-25, 28; 12:14
2 Corinthians 4:7-18
Galatians 3
Ephesians 1:3-14
Philippians 3:8-12
Hebrews 11 and 12
James 1:2-5
1 Peter 2:21; 3:8-9, 13-17; 4:1, 14-16
2 Peter 2:7-8
Revelation 21 and 22


98 This verse tells us that Abraham was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. It does not tell us that he was seventy-five when he first received the promise of a son. Abraham may not have left Haran immediately which would mean that Abraham was younger when the promise of a son was first given to him. Thus, his wait would have been more than twenty-five years.

99 See also Deuteronomy 8:2-3.

100 When I speak of innocent suffering here, we must all understand that no mortal is ever innocent, save in the blood of Jesus Christ. All of us deserve to suffer for our sins. But in the case of these innocent sufferers, their suffering was not attributed to their sin but was the outgrowth of their righteousness.

101 See also Matthew 23:29-39; Acts 7:52.

102 This is not to say they do not believe in spiritual and eternal blessings, but only that their emphasis is on present material prosperity.

103 Notice that while these saints “obtained promises” (verse 33) they did not receive “what was promised” (verse 39). The writer may have meant that they were given promises, but they did not receive them. More likely, he meant that they received some of the promises but not the promises which could only be fulfilled at the second coming of Christ, promises which are still future for us. Some Christians seem to be saying that we can be assured of receiving all the promises now. The writer to the Hebrews differs with such thinking. So too does history and our own experience.

104 Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), p. 135.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Theology Proper (God)

9. The People of God in God’s Perfect Plan

Introduction

Today, as in the history of the ages, many claim to be numbered among the people of God. When the Lord Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah, He informed the nation Israel that many who thought themselves to be the “people of God” were mistaken:

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:17-23).

Many professing “Christians” today mistakenly believe they are a part of God’s people. Like their Jewish counterparts of years gone by, they believe they have done many good deeds in the name of God. The concept of the “people of God” is not well understood by those who believe themselves to be numbered among God’s people.

The study of the “people of God” is important for several reasons. First, it is important because God’s Word makes a point of the fact that God has chosen a people for His own possession and purposes. In the Old Testament, the “people of God” are those who are associated with God’s purposes and promises related to Israel, and especially to the God of Israel. In the New Testament, the “people of God” are those who have come to faith in Israel’s promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, and who are thus members of the body of Christ, the church. The Bible uses the same Old Testament terminology in referring to the Israelites as the “people of God” as it does for New Testament saints (compare Exodus 19:5-6 with 1 Peter 2:5, 9).

Second, we live in a very individualistic age. The focus of our society is inward, not outward. We urge people to act for their own benefit, and we suspect something is psychologically wrong when someone is concerned about the impact of their actions on others. The Bible’s emphasis on a “people of God” necessitates that we think and act collectively about our faith and duty and not just individually.

Third, some Christians emphasize the differences between Israel and the church so much that the similarities between these two groups are overlooked. While there are differences between Israel and the church, both groups play a similar role as the “people of God.” Studying the “people of God” highlights the way in which the church currently carries on many of the functions of the nation Israel.

Fourth, there is a great need for God’s people to be reminded anew of the basis for the creation and preservation of the “people of God” and of the responsibilities which accompany this great privilege.

Finally, the creation, preservation, and perfection of the “people of God” is one of the primary elements in God’s eternal plan for creation. From the beginning of time until now, God has been calling out a people for Himself. If we are to understand the plans and purposes of God, we must surely understand His purpose to create a “people of God” for His own possession.

In this lesson, we shall consider the “people of God” in the Old Testament and in the New. We will see that there has always been a “people of God.” We shall also see that the basis for being included among God’s people has always been the same and that the responsibilities are very similar. The dangers and temptations which threaten to keep God’s people from many of His blessings are also similar. Those who are God’s people are so because of His grace and not because of man’s good works. Let us heed well the Word of God as it speaks to us on the subject of the “people of God.”

The People of God
in the Old Testament

God’s perfect plan for creation included a nation which He chose to set apart as His “people.” This chosen “people” was the nation Israel:

“Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:7).

“I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” (Leviticus 26:12).

God took pity on the Israelites, delivering them from slavery in Egypt and bringing them into the promised land of Canaan:

And the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings . . . . Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:7, 10).

The nation Israel became the people of God. They were a people with a very special calling. They were to be a “holy nation” and a “kingdom of priests.” God therefore made a covenant with them and gave them His law as a standard of His holiness to which they were to conform:

And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel’” (Exodus 19:3-6).

God set apart a special place for His people--Jerusalem--the place where God’s name might dwell and from which His chosen ruler David, and his offspring, might reign:

“Since the day that I brought My people from the land of Egypt, I did not choose a city out of all the tribes of Israel in which to build a house that My name might be there, nor did I choose any man for a leader over My people Israel; but I have chosen Jerusalem that My name might be there, and I have chosen David to be over My people Israel” (2 Chronicles 6:5-6).

Those who wished to become a part of God’s people did so by faith, as they identified themselves with God and His people:

But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).

People like Ruth the Moabitess and Rahab of Jericho (Joshua 2 and 6) not only become part of the people of God, they actually became a part of the promised line of Messiah (Matthew 1:5).

We should hardly be surprised that such people were included among the people of God. After all, the Israelites had nothing to boast about concerning their ancestry. They had no reason to feel superior to their Canaanite neighbors. Indeed, the Israelites were of similar stock and no less heathen in their religious practices. God wanted them to remember from where they had come, and that their blessings were entirely a matter of grace, not merit:

Then it shall be, when you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and live in it, that you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground which you shall bring in from your land that the Lord your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “I declare this day to the Lord my God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.” Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. And you shall answer and say before the Lord your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now behold, I have brought the first of the produce of the ground which Thou, O Lord hast given me. And you shall set it down before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God; and you and the Levite and the alien who is among you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and your household (Deuteronomy 26:1-11).

And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:2, 14-15).

“Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem, “Your origin and your birth are from the land of the Canaanite, your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite”’“ (Ezekiel 16:2-3).

“Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel? You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves” (Amos 5:25-26).

Before, during, and after the exodus of God’s people from Egypt, they practiced idolatry like the heathen around them. God wanted His people to know that their selection was by divine election, apart from any merit on their part:

“For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face. Therefore, you shall keep the commandment and the statutes and the judgments which I am commanding you today, to do them” (Deuteronomy 7:6-11).

Not all Israelites were included among the people of God. While some Gentiles were included among God’s people, some Israelites were excluded, because they did not trust in God and keep His commandments. Some transgressions resulted in being “cut off” from the people of God:

“‘Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel’” (Exodus 12:15).

“‘But the person who eats the flesh of the sacrifice of peace offerings which belong to the Lord, in his uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from his people. And when anyone touches anything unclean, whether human uncleanness, or an unclean animal, or any unclean detestable thing, and eats of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace offerings which belong to the Lord, that person shall be cut off from his people’” (Leviticus 7:20-21).105

The New Testament clearly indicates that simply being one of the patriarch’s physical offspring does not automatically make a person one of the people of God:

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God (Romans 2:28-29).

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU”) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist (Romans 4:13-17).

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants (Romans 9:6-8).

The setting apart of a “people of God” was for a purpose. They were to be God’s own possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation:

“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel” (Exodus 19:5-6).

God’s people were to act as God’s servant through whom He would display His glory:

And He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, in Whom I will show My glory” (Isaiah 49:3).

God servant Israel was also called to be a “light to the Gentiles,” showing them the truth so they too could enter into God’s blessings:

He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).106

Israel’s privileged position brought with it awesome responsibilities. God’s people must be a holy people, because their God is holy:

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).107

The Law set the standard of holiness which God’s people were to uphold. They were to diligently keep the covenant God had made with His people and to carefully observe His laws:

“You should diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6;17).

“You shall therefore love the Lord your God, and always keep His charge, His statutes, His ordinances, and His commandments” (Deuteronomy 11:1).

The Mosaic covenant established the guidelines for God’s dealings with His people on the basis of their obedience to His Law. When Israel, as a nation, obeyed God’s Law, God would bless them. When His people forsook His Law, cursings awaited them:

And it shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. And He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. Beware, lest your hearts be deceived and you turn away and serve other gods and worship them. Or the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit; and you will perish quickly from the good land which the Lord is giving you (Deuteronomy 11:13-17).

Because of their sin, Israel did not live up to the standard which God established for them. Moses warned the Israelites concerning the temptations which lay ahead of them, especially when they entered into the promised land of Canaan. These are among those things about which Israel was warned:

(1) Idolatry (see Deuteronomy 4:9-19; 5:8-10; 6:13-15; 11:16; 12:30).

(2) Fear of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 1:28; 3:22).

(3) Intermarriage and alliances with the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:2-5).

(4) Grumbling and putting God to the test (Deuteronomy 1:27; 6:16).

(5) Adding to or taking from the Law (Deuteronomy 4:1-2; 12:32).

(6) Forgetting their covenant with God and forsaking His Law (Deuteronomy 4:23; 8:11).

(7) Taking credit for God’s gracious blessings and becoming self-righteous and self-sufficient (Deuteronomy 8:11-20).

(8) Neglecting the poor and the needy (Deuteronomy 15:9).

Moses summed up the warnings in these words:

“Beware lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And it shall come about if you ever forget the Lord your God, and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you would not listen to the voice of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:11-20).

Old Testament prophecies warned that Israel would indeed forget these warnings and forsake the God who had chosen them. Moses reminded the Israelites of the events which brought them to the border of the promised land. Consistently, the Israelites had rebelled against God, yet God had remained faithful to fulfill His promise to the patriarchs (Deuteronomy 1-3). He told the Israelites their future would be like in the past. They would be unfaithful to their covenant, but God would be faithful for the sake of the fathers. Although they would break the Mosaic covenant, God would not break His covenant with Abraham and their forefathers:

And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you shall be left few in number among the nations, where the Lord shall drive you. And there you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice. For the Lord your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them (Deuteronomy 4:27-31).108

Even at such a happy occasion as the dedication of the temple, Solomon anticipated Israel’s unbelief and disobedience and the need for her repentance and restoration:

When they sin against Thee (for there is no man who does not sin) and Thou art angry with them and dost deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; if they take thought in the land where they have been taken captive, and repent and make supplication to Thee in the land of those who have taken them captive, saying, “We have sinned and have committed iniquity, we have acted wickedly”; if they return to Thee with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies who have taken them captive, and pray to Thee toward their land which Thou hast given to their fathers, the city which Thou hast chosen, and the house which I have built for Thy name; then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven Thy dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive Thy people who have sinned against Thee and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against Thee, and make them objects of compassion before those who have taken them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are Thy people and Thine inheritance which Thou hast brought forth from Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace), that Thine eyes may be open to the supplication of Thy servant and to the supplication of Thy people Israel, to listen to them whenever they call to Thee. For Thou hast separated them from all the peoples of the earth as Thine inheritance, as Thou didst speak through Moses Thy servant, when Thou didst bring our fathers forth from Egypt, O Lord God (1 Kings 8:46-53).

Israel’s history precisely followed the prophecies which outlined Israel’s relationship with God. The first chapter of the Book of Judges records Israel’s failure to expel the Canaanites from the land. In chapter 2, the cycle of blessing and cursing, of bondage and deliverance described typifies Israel’s relationship with God during the days of the judges:

Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the Lord to anger. So they forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtaroth. And the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and He gave them into the hands of plunderers who plundered them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies around them, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. Wherever they went, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil, as the Lord had spoken and as the Lord had sworn to them, so that they were severely distressed. Then the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. And yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do as their fathers. And when the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge and delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them. But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways (Judges 2:11-19).

When the people of Israel demanded a king like all the other nations (1 Samuel 8), God gave them Saul as a king. Due to Saul’s sin, he was set aside (1 Samuel 15), and David and his descendants were designated as God’s choice for a king (1 Samuel 16). David’s son, Solomon, started out as a very wise and godly king, but he failed to heed the warnings God had given in His Law concerning foreign wives. God rebuked him and told of a coming division in the kingdom (1 Kings 11:1-13). Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, foolishly rejected the advice of his senior counselors and the petition of the people. He was thus left with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to follow him (1 Kings 12). The wicked Jeroboam became king of the other northern tribes and quickly led Israel109 astray.

Prophets such as Elijah and Elisha admonished Israel’s for her persistent sin, but to no avail. After much warning, God sent them into captivity by means of the cruel hand of the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:7-23). The southern kingdom of Judah should have heeded the example of her sister’s judgment, but she did not and so was taken captive by the Babylonians (2 Kings 24 and 25).

Ezekiel 16 vividly describes Judah’s sin in symbolic terms. Ezekiel likens Judah to her “sisters” Samaria (Israel) and Sodom. Her judgment, due to her sin, was designed to bring her to repentance and restoration. The promise of judgment was given to encourage God’s people and remind them that God’s blessings ultimately rest on His grace and not on man’s goodness:

“Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both your older and your younger; and I will give them to you as daughters, but not because of your covenant. Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, in order that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I have forgiven you for all that you have done,” the Lord God declares (Ezekiel 16:60-63).110

The godly Israelite considered Israel’s history from the divine point of view. They understood the nation’s fate in the light of Israel’s sin and God’s faithfulness. Psalms 78 and 106 share this perspective. Nehemiah’s prayer, recorded in the ninth chapter of Nehemiah, acknowledges Israel’s sin and God’s grace in allowing His people to return to the promised land. Daniel’s prayer does likewise:

In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of Median descent, who was made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans--in the first year of his reign I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. And I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly, and rebelled, even turning aside from Thy commandments and ordinances. Moreover, we have not listened to Thy servants the prophets, who spoke in Thy name to our kings, our princes, our fathers, and all the people of the land. Righteousness belongs to Thee, O Lord, but to us open shame, as it is this day--to the men of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are nearby and those who are far away in all the countries to which Thou hast driven them, because of their unfaithful deeds which they have committed against Thee. Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against Thee. To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him; nor have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His teachings which He set before us through His servants the prophets. Indeed all Israel has transgressed Thy law and turned aside, not obeying Thy voice; so the curse has been poured out on us, along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against Him. Thus He has confirmed His words which He had spoken against us and against our rulers who ruled us, to bring on us great calamity; for under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what was done to Jerusalem. As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come on us; yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our iniquity and giving attention to Thy truth. Therefore, the Lord has kept the calamity in store and brought it on us; for the Lord our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice. And now, O Lord our God, who hast brought Thy people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and hast made a name for Thyself, as it is this day--we have sinned, we have been wicked. O Lord, in accordance with all Thy righteous acts, let now Thine anger and Thy wrath turn away from Thy city Jerusalem, Thy holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Thy people have become a reproach to all those around us. So now, our God, listen to the prayer of Thy servant and to his supplications, and for Thy sake, O Lord, let Thy face shine on Thy desolate sanctuary. O my God, incline Thine ear and hear! Open Thine eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Thy name; for we are not presenting our supplications before Thee on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Thy great compassion. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Thine own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name” (Daniel 9:1-19).

Israel’s history bears witness to man’s sinfulness and God’s faithfulness. In the Old Testament, the “people of God” were those Israelites and people from other nations who joined with them in worshipping and serving the One true God, the God of Israel. The people of God were not nearly as numerous as it might seem, for many who were physical Israelites were not God’s people. God’s faithfulness preserved this people until the time of Messiah’s coming.

The People of God
in the New Testament

Simply because of their physical ancestry, a number of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day had come to think of themselves as automatically numbered among the people of God. John the Baptist, followed by the Lord Jesus, challenged this mistaken idea:

Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12).

“I know that you are Abraham’s offspring; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God” (John 8:37-47).

These Jews assumed they were numbered among the people of God. Both John and Jesus assured them they were not. Even when men professed to be His people and practiced deeds which appeared to be God’s work, many of those were not His people. The people of God were not the many, but the few, who chose the narrow way:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Those who would be numbered among God’s people must receive the Lord Jesus as God’s Messiah. Jesus was the “narrow gate,” through which men would enter into God’s kingdom:

Jesus therefore said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture . . . . I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:7-9, 14-16).

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).

Jesus indicated in John 10 that those included in the “flock” (the people of God) were more than just Jews. He had “other sheep not of this fold” (verse 16).

Whether Jew or Gentile, those who would enter into the kingdom and become a member of the “fold” (the “people of God”) must enter by faith in Jesus Christ. Because of the perversion of Judaism by the Jews, men had to renounce their identification with the Judaism of that day and publicly identify themselves with Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. This they did through baptism. Baptism symbolized a breaking away from faith in Judaism, as a system of works and blessings based solely on one’s physical forefathers. Baptism also symbolized an identification with Jesus as Messiah and the only way into the family of God.

The faith in Messiah which gained one entrance into the “people of God” was also the kind of faith which produced obedience. Thus, just as the Old Testament “people of God” were set apart by their obedience to God’s Law, so those who trusted in Jesus were to be known by their obedience:

And a multitude was sitting around Him, and they said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are outside looking for You.” And answering them, He said, “Who are My mother and My brothers?” And looking about on those who were sitting around Him, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers!” For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35).

The ones who become a part of the “people of God” are those who have trusted in Jesus as the Messiah, but they are also those who have been chosen by God:

“No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you” (John 15:16).

The “people of God” are eternally secure because the One who has chosen them is faithful to keep them:

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30).

In the Old Testament, the “people of God” were the true “sons of Abraham,” those who by faith trusted in God’s promise of a “seed” who would save His people from their sins and therefore bless them. The “people of God” were never synonymous with the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. In the New Testament, the “people of God” are those who have put their faith in Jesus as the promised “seed of Abraham” through whom salvation and blessings flow to men. The “people of God” are those who are in Christ, by faith.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).

And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13).111

Men did not become the “people of God” by means of the old Mosaic covenant. Rather, the “new covenant,” of which the prophet Jeremiah spoke in the Old Testament, was the basis for becoming one of the “people of God:”

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

The “new covenant” was based upon the sacrificial death of Jesus, the promised Messiah:

And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:19-20).112

Thus, the rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (communion) are the initial (baptism) and the continual (communion) symbols which depict the entrance of one into God’s kingdom and into the “people of God.”

Those who are “in Christ” by faith are, as a result, the “sons of God” (John 1:12; see Romans 8:12-25). In Christ, we are God’s servants. We are also the “light of the world” (John 1:4; 8:12; Matthew 5:14). In Christ, the great High Priest, we become a “kingdom of priests,” a “holy nation,” and a “people for God’s own possession,” called “to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us from darkness to light” (1 Peter 2:4-10). And so it is that the terms (“son,” “servant,” “priest”) which were used of Israel are used of the Lord Jesus and of those who are in Him by faith.

The New Testament Gospels reveal that both the religious leaders and most of the nation Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah. As the days of His public ministry drew to a close, Jesus told a parable which greatly upset the religious leaders of the nation Israel. Jesus summarized Israel’s history as a nation and informed this wayward nation that God was going to replace Israel as the “people of God” with another “people:”

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey. And when the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. And the vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize his inheritance.’ And they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers, who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER STONE; THIS CAME ABOUT FROM THE LORD, AND IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. And when they sought to seize Him, they feared the multitudes, because they held Him to be a prophet (Matthew 21:31-46).113

Judaism strongly resisted including the Gentiles entering into the blessings of Abraham because they considered them unworthy. This is evident in the reaction of the Jews in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) and in the on-going opposition of the Jews to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, as recorded in the Book of Acts. They understood that the preaching of the gospel broke down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles and made possible one people, made righteous by their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ:

Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands--remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Israel was unfaithful to her calling as a nation, as God’s people. What Israel could not and did not do, God did, in Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. Israel, God’s son, failed in her mission, and so God sent the Lord Jesus, His Son, to accomplish Israel’s task. The Lord Jesus was faithful to His calling. He came as a “light to the Gentiles.” And through His sacrificial death, He became the source of blessing for all who would believe in Him. What Israel failed to do as God’s servant, Jesus accomplished as the Servant of the Lord.

Israel’s Future Hope

Is there no longer any hope for the nation Israel to receive God’s blessing as a nation? Has Israel been absorbed into the church and lost all identity? Some believe this to be so. Paul’s teaching indicates otherwise:

“I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘LORD, THEY HAVE KILLED THY PROPHETS, THEY HAVE TORN DOWN THINE ALTARS, AND I ALONE AM LEFT, AND THEY ARE SEEKING MY LIFE.’ But what is the divine response to him? ‘I HAVE KEPT FOR MYSELF SEVEN THOUSAND MEN WHO HAVE NOT BOWED THE KNEE TO BAAL.’ In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.”

“. . . I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too.”

“. . . For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, ‘THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB. AND THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.’ From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Romans 11:1-5, 11-16, 25-32).

God made specific promises to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While Israel has been unfaithful in fulfilling their obligations to the Mosaic covenant, God remained faithful to His promises. Paul words in Romans inform us that God has not given up on Israel. For a time, the nation Israel has been set aside as the “people of God.” As God warned through the prophet Hosea, they are “not His people” (see Hosea 1:9). Israel’s hope lies in the faithfulness of God, and in His promise to preserve a remnant, through whom His promises will later be fulfilled (Isaiah 1:9; 10:20-23). As the prophets promised, Israel will be restored:

Yet the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered; and it will come about that, in the place where it is said to them, “You are not My people,” It will be said to them, “You are the sons of the living God” (Hosea 1:10).

“And I will sow her for Myself in the land. I will also have compassion on her who had not obtained compassion, and I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they will say, ‘Thou art my God!’” (Hosea 2:23).

“Also, O Judah, there is a harvest appointed for you, when I restore the fortunes of My people” (Hosea 6:11).

God has preserved Israel’s hope by preserving a remnant on whom His promised blessings can be poured out as He promised. Israel’s hardening, due to her sin, especially the rejection of Messiah, is only partial and temporary. Israel’s disobedience has been the occasion for God’s blessings to be poured out on the Gentiles. Her obedience will mean only greater blessings for the Gentiles. When God’s purposes for the Gentiles have been fulfilled, He will turn to the nation Israel, bring them to repentance, and then pour out on this people His promised blessings. Israel indeed has hope--not in her own merit--but in God’s faithfulness to His covenant made with the patriarchs.

Conclusion

At present, the church, the body of those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, is the “people of God.” Any Israelite or Gentile can become a part of this people by faith in Christ. But understand this clearly: those who reject Christ are not a part of the privileged “people of God.”

With the privilege of being the “people of God” come the same dangers and the same responsibilities which were true of the “people of God” in the Old Testament. Because God remains true to His Word, both in blessing and in judgment, we find the New Testament writers turning to the pages of the Old Testament to encourage, instruct, and admonish New Testament saints.

Consider two texts from the pen of the apostle Paul which speak to present day Christians about the lessons we should learn from the “people of God” in the Old Testament:

“But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, ‘THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB. AND THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.’ From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Romans 11:13-32).

“For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, ‘THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY.’ Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:1-12).

Several important truths emerge from these texts which are supported by other Scriptures. Ponder these truths as we conclude our study.

(1) It is a great privilege to be one of the “people of God.” Those of us who have become the “people of God,” by faith, should be humbled by the knowledge of our own sinfulness and of God’s infinite grace. We are in no way better than others for having been chosen as God’s people. Just as Israel’s roots were not a basis for boasting, neither are ours:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

(2) Being one of the “people of God” is a stewardship which brings great responsibility. God’s blessings were never poured out on men only to be indulged in for selfish purposes. God blesses men in order that they might become a source of blessing to others. Israel, like Satan (Isaiah 14; Ezekiel 28), began to think of their privileges as something they owned, rather than as a stewardship. Like Rehoboam of old, they ceased to think in terms of serving men, but more in terms of being served (see 1 Kings 12:1-15).

The same was true for the Israelites of Jesus’ day, especially the religious leaders (see Matthew 23). They used their power to “steal widows’ houses” rather than protect the widows and the orphans. They, like Jonah before them, sought to hoard God’s blessings and to keep them from the “heathen.” No wonder so many of our Lord’s parables concerned stewardship. No wonder Jesus had so much to say to His disciples about the difference between spiritual and secular leadership (see Matthew 16:21-27; Mark 10:35-45). To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).

(3) The “people of God” face the same dangers and temptations in every age, which should cause us to have no confidence in ourselves but to trust only in God.

(4) God’s purposes and His program do not rest upon the faithfulness of men but upon His faithfulness, power, and grace.

(5) Many may profess or appear to be a part of the “people of God,” but there are far fewer than it may seem. Jesus spoke of the “broad” gate leading to destruction and the “narrow” gate leading to salvation (Matthew 7:13-14). Paul reminds us that while many experienced God’s grace and blessings as they came out of Egypt, few of them were pleasing to God (1 Corinthians 10:1ff.). There are many who think they are a part of the “people of God.” Many are those who are self-deceived. One enters into the privileges of the “sons of God,” not on the basis of ancestry nor on the basis of one’s deeds, but only on the basis of the provision of God in Jesus Christ. Are you one of those who wrongly thinks of himself as one of God’s people? Are you one of those privileged few who have entered by the “narrow gate”?

There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death (Proverbs 16:25). Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, But the Lord weighs the hearts (Proverbs 21:2).

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me (John 14:6).

And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

(6) Worship plays a critical role in the lives of the “people of God,” for good or evil. Chapters 10 through 14 of 1 Corinthians have a great deal to do with the Christian’s worship. The Lord’s Supper (chapters 10 and 11) commemorates the basis of our salvation. False worship corrupts the basis of our salvation. When we fail to worship God as we must, we have begun to fall and to fail. No wonder the first commandment is that we love God alone and that we have no other “god” before Him.114

(7) We are no different than, and certainly no better than, the people of Israel. When all is said and done, I believe it will be evident that the “people of God” in this age will have done no better than the “people of God” in days gone by. The same besetting sins which plagued the “people of God” in the Old Testament continue to plague the “people of God” in the New. For this reason, Paul can use the failures of Israel to instruct and admonish New Testament saints in 1 Corinthians 10 and elsewhere. Paul states that “there is no temptation but such as is common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Just as man has not changed, neither has God, who still faithfully will provide a way of escape.

(8) Our task today is fundamentally the same as that given to the “people of God” in the Old Testament. The “people of God” were to be a “light to the nations.” Often, they did not go out from the nation but those who wished to know and to serve God came to Israel to embrace God, along with His people. In particular, people were to come to Jerusalem to seek God and to worship Him. In this age, the “people of God” have been called to go “outside the camp” as the Lord Jesus did (Hebrews 13:11-13). The church was not commanded to go to Jerusalem, but from Jerusalem, with the gospel. In so doing, God promised to be present with His people (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).

Let us be humbled by our calling as the “people of God.” And let us be faithful stewards to His calling. Let us learn from the failures of those who have gone before us. Most of all, let us look to Him who is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).

But you are a CHOSEN RACE, A ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR GOD’S OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; . . . (1 Peter 2:9-10a).

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) Why did God set apart a chosen people?

God set apart the nation of Israel as the object of His blessings, and as the instrument through which these blessings would be poured out on other nations (see Genesis 12:1-3). It is this people who are to demonstrate God’s character to others. They are to be holy, as He is holy, and gracious as He is gracious. They are to care for the widows, orphans and strangers, as a manifestation of His care for the defenseless. God’s power is demonstrated through His care and protection of His people.

(2) On what basis does God choose this people?

The “people of God” are not chosen on the basis of their merit or worthiness for this position of privilege. The “people of God” have, as a group, not been those whom natural men would have chosen for their calling. Israel was, in its origins, exceptionally small and idolatrous. The church has no more to boast in than Israel, other than in God and His grace (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). The basis for God’s choice of those whom He will bless is always His sovereign grace and not man’s merits.

(3) On what basis are men included among God’s people?

Men are included or excluded from the “people of God” on the basis of their response to God, especially His promised Messiah. All of the “people of God” are those who trust in God’s provision for salvation--Messiah. All of those who are excluded from the “people of God” are those who reject the promised Messiah. The “people of God” in the Old Testament trusted God on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant and conducted themselves on the basis of the Mosaic covenant. The “people of God” in the New Testament trust in God on the basis of the New covenant (predicted by Jeremiah and inaugurated by Jesus Christ). They also conduct themselves according to the standards of God’s holiness as revealed in the Word (which includes the Law).

(4) How are the “people of God” in the New Testament similar to and different from the “people of God” in the Old Testament?

The “people of God,” in the Old Testament or the New are those who have trusted in God’s provision for salvation. The Old Testament “people of God” trusted in the coming Savior. New Testament “people of God” trust in the Savior who has come. Both are a chosen people, a people for God’s own possession, a people who are a priestly nation, and through whom the holiness and power of God are demonstrated. The Old Testament “people of God” went to Jerusalem to worship and serve God. The New Testament “people of God” have gone out from Jerusalem to worship and serve Him, as a light to the nations. The “people of God” throughout history have been fallible sinners, whose blessings were based only on God’s grace and faithfulness.

(5) What are the responsibilities of the “people of God”?

First and foremost, God’s people are to trust in God and to obey His commandments. They are not to worship or serve any other gods. They are to be a holy people and to serve God as a priestly nation. They are not the owners of God’s blessings, but stewards of them. They are to trust in God for His blessings, and to be the instrument of God in sharing these blessings with others.

(6) What dangers face the “people of God”?

The dangers which face God’s people are numerous, including idolatry, the fear of men rather than God, sinful alliances and associations with those who are heathen and godless, grumbling against God and putting Him to the test, changing God’s Laws, forsaking their covenant with God, turning grace into an occasion for sin, or taking credit for God’s grace toward them, and neglecting the needy. Many of these dangers listed in the Old Testament Scriptures are summed up in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12.

(7) What can we learn from the “people of God” of the past?

We can learn that God’s calling and blessings are a privilege, based upon His grace, and not a result of man’s merits or works. We can learn that man is fallible, but that God is always faithful to His covenant with men. We can learn the sins and failures of men in the past what dangers to watch out for in our own lives.

Scripture Texts

The “people of God”:

  • Old Testament: Exodus 3:7, 10; 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Ruth 1:16; 2 Chronicles 6:5-6; Jeremiah 31:31-33
  • New Testament: Luke 22:19-20; see Hebrews 7:22; 8:6-13; 9:15-22; 10:10-31; 11:25; 12:24; 13:20-21; John 1:12-13; 10:7-9, 14-16; Acts 10-11, 15; Romans 9-11; Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:4-10; 1 John 5:11-13

God’s selection of His people is not based upon their worthiness, but on God’s sovereign grace:

  • Israel: Deuteronomy 7:6-11; 26:1-11; Joshua 24:2, 14-15; Ezekiel 16:2-3; Amos 5:25-26
  • The Church: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

There are those who think they are God’s people who are not:

  • Those “cut off from Israel:” (Exodus 12:15; Leviticus 7:20-21; 17:8-10; 18:29; 20:3,5,6,17,18; 22:3,24; 23:29; 26:30.)
  • Those who assumed physical descent from the patriarchs was the basis for being one of God’s people: (Matthew 3:7-12; 7:17-23; John 8:37-47; Romans 2:28-29; 4:13-17; 9:6-8)

God’s purposes for setting apart a “people of God”

  • Exodus 19:3-6; Leviticus 11:44; 19:2; 20:7; Deuteronomy 7:6; 1 Peter 1:14-16; Isaiah 49:3,6; 1 Peter 2:9-10

The obligations of God’s people:

  • Deuteronomy 6:17; 11:1, 13-17

The warnings given to God’s people:

  • Idolatry: Deuteronomy 4:9-19; 5:8-10; 6:13-15; 11:16; 12:30)
  • Fearing the Canaanites: Deuteronomy 1:28; 3:22
  • Intermarriage and alliances with the Canaanites: Deuteronomy 7:2-5
  • Grumbling and putting God to the test: Deuteronomy 6:16
  • Adding to or taking away from the Law: Deuteronomy 4:1-2; 12:32
  • Forgetting their covenant with God and forsaking His Law: Deuteronomy 4:23; 8:11
  • Taking credit for God’s grace; becoming self-sufficient and self-righteous: Deuteronomy 8:11-20
  • Neglecting the poor and needy: Deuteronomy 15:9

Prophecies of Israel’s future:

  • Deuteronomy 4:27-31; Deuteronomy 28-32 ; 1 Kings 8:46-53

An overview of the history of the Old Testament “people of God”

  • During the period of the judges: Judges 1 and 2
  • From Jacob to David: Psalm 78
  • From Egypt to captivity: Psalm 106
  • From creation to the end of Judah’s captivity: Nehemiah 9:5-38
  • A summary of Israel’s sin and God’s grace: Daniel 9:1-14
  • Symbolic histories: Isaiah 5; Ezekiel 16, 23
  • Jesus’ survey of Israel’s history: Matthew 21:1-46
  • Stephen’s summary of Israel’s history: Acts 7

The basis for Israel’s future hope:

  • Deuteronomy 4:27-31; 30:1-10; Jeremiah 31:31-40; Ezekiel 16:60-63; 37; Daniel 9:24-27; 12:1-13; Hosea 1:10; 2:23; 6:11; Romans 9-11

Lessons we can learn from the “people of God” in the past:

  • 1 Corinthians 10:1-12; Romans 11:11-32; Hebrews 11:25

Remember me, O LORD, in Thy favor toward Thy people; Visit me with Thy salvation, That I may see the prosperity of Thy chosen ones, That I may rejoice in the gladness of Thy nation, That I may glory with Thine inheritance. Save us, O LORD our God, And gather us from among the nations, To give thanks to Thy holy name, And glory in Thy praise. Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, From everlasting even to everlasting. And let all the people say, “Amen.” Praise the LORD!


105 See Leviticus 17:8-10; 18:29; 19:8; 20:3, 5, 6, 17, 18; 22:3, 24; 23:29; 26:30, etc.

106 Here, as well as in Isaiah 42:6, the “Servant of the Lord” is the Messiah. He is the One who will fulfill Israel’s mission, which His people failed to accomplish. Israel did understand that they were to be a light to the nations, however, as Paul states in Romans 2:19-20.

107 See also Leviticus 11:44; 20:7; 1 Peter 1:14-16; Deuteronomy 7:6.

108 For the longest and most detailed account of Israel’s future, see Deuteronomy 28-32.

109 From this point on, the northern kingdom is generally known as Israel, while the southern kingdom is often referred to as Judah.

110 See also all of Ezekiel 23.

111 See also Romans 3:21-26; 4:1-25; 5:12-21.

112 See Hebrews 7:22; 8:6-13; 9:15-22; 10:10-31; 12:24; 13:20-21.

113 Compare Acts, chapters 2 and 7.

114 See Exodus 20:2-6; Deuteronomy 5:6-10; 6:5; Matthew 5:35-38.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Man (Anthropology), Theology Proper (God)

10. The Place of the Lost in the Perfect Plan of God

Introduction

Funerals are one of my greatest challenges and opportunities as a preacher. I am particularly aware at these times of the desperate need for the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the face of death, no hope exists apart from the gospel. My great privilege and responsibility is to proclaim the good news that God has provided salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ.

The unbeliever attending a funeral does not fully grasp the danger of eternity beyond death apart from God. But the believer in Jesus Christ does understand the reality of eternity away from God. My difficult task is to provide comfort for the believer whose loved one has died without trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. The Christian knows that an eternity of torment awaits the unbeliever once he has passed over the threshold of death.

How can the Christian be comforted when an unbelieving loved one dies? Our lesson explores the only comfort of which I know: The fate of the lost is a part of the perfect plan of God. We shall pursue the teaching of Scripture on the part which the unsaved play in the plan of God. If you come to this lesson as a Christian, I hope you will find comfort in the knowledge that the destiny of the unsaved is a part of the perfect plan of God. If you come not as a born again Christian, I pray the truths of this lesson will torment you until you find rest and peace in Jesus Christ, God’s provision for your salvation. In so doing, you will escape the eternal torment of hell.

Our topic is the most important matter you will ever consider--your own eternal destiny and the destiny of those whom you love. May you grasp the truth of God’s Word concerning the place of the unsaved in the perfect plan of God.

Our Approach

Our study must first set forth foundational biblical truths as a starting point. From the teaching of three biblical texts, we will then consider the fate of the lost, endeavoring to understand what God has in store for those who reject Him. Finally, we will turn to the Bible as a whole to find principles and truths which offer comfort for the Christian concerning the lost whom they love and who die apart from Jesus Christ.

Foundational Principles

The Christian must operate within certain “givens” which provide the basis for our thinking and actions. The following principles are foundational truths to our study:

(1) All men have an eternal future; all men live eternally after death. There will be a day of resurrection when every person will be raised from the dead.

(2) Man’s eternal destiny holds one of two outcomes: eternity in the presence of God (heaven) or eternity removed from God’s presence (hell).

Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. And those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever (Daniel 12:1-3).

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:24-29).

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12-15).

Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying (Revelation 22:14-15).

(3) The difference between heaven and hell is one’s decision to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16-18).

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).

And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (1 John 5:11-12).

(4) When judged according to their deeds, all men deserve to spend eternity in hell, while no man is worthy of God’s heaven.

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving, The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:9-23).

(5) Those who will spend eternity in heaven are those who have trusted in Jesus Christ; those who will spend eternity in hell are those who rely on themselves.

Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24-26).

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:1-10).

(6) Since God is man’s Creator, He has the right to use His creations as He chooses, to save some and to condemn others.

The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord saying, “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I shall announce My words to you.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make. Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:1-6).

So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? (Romans 9:18-21).

(7) The fate of all men rests ultimately in the sovereign choice of God. All men deserve to spend eternity in hell. Those who spend eternity in heaven rejoice that God has judged their sins in Christ and that He has chosen them as “vessels of mercy.” Those who spend eternity in hell suffer eternally for their own sin and because God has chosen to glorify Himself by demonstrating His righteousness by the condemnation of sinners. God sovereignly chooses to judge some men for their sins and to spare others. Those He condemns are “vessels of His wrath” and those whom He saves are “vessels of His mercy.”

For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires . . . . What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Romans 9:15-18, 22-24).

All men, by nature, rebel against God. No one seeks for God (Romans 3:11). It is only because God first chose us, then sought us, and called us that any come to salvation and enter into His heaven.115 If it is true that only those who trust in Jesus Christ for salvation go to heaven, it is also true that only those whom God has chosen will ever trust in Him.

God has not only the right to do with men as He pleases, He is in control of the fate and destiny of every person. He is in complete control. What happens to men, heaven or hell, is from His sovereign hand.

The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, Even the wicked for the day of evil (Proverbs 16:4).

(8) God glorifies Himself in both the expression of His judgment and in the expression of His mercy.

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight, and I have known you by name.” Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” . . . And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 33:17-19; 34:5-7).

(9) Even though men may believe in hell, hell comes as a great and unexpected shock to those who find themselves there. Some refuse to believe there is a hell. One survey over twenty years ago indicated that 58% Methodists, 60% Episcopalians, 54% Presbyterians, 35% American Baptists, and 22% American Lutherans deny hell is a specific place after death.116

According to a recent Gallup poll, about 78 percent of the public believe in a heaven where people who have led good lives are rewarded. And 60 percent believe in a hell where those have led bad lives are eternally damned. Even many who claim no religious belief expect life to go on after death: 46 percent believe in heaven, 34 percent in hell.117

Obviously hell will be a shock for one who denied its existence and, in hell, realizes that his eternal existence is now the very place he denied.

In the New Testament, Jesus spoke about heaven and hell to those who believed in both destinies. The words of our Lord indicate there will be many surprised people in hell. Though men may believe in hell, those who find themselves there were not expecting it:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) considered later in this lesson caught our Lord’s audience off guard. They did not expect to hear that a rich man would spend eternity in hell while a poor beggar would enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven. Self-righteousness is not only sin, it is highly offensive to God. Self-righteousness is also deceptive. Those who find themselves most shocked to be in hell will be the self-righteous who thought themselves worthy of heaven.

The Fate of the
Lost in the Scriptures

Many texts in the Bible speak of the fate of those who reject God. A few incidents are of monumental importance because they set a precedent for the future and are later referred to as examples of the expression of God’s wrath toward sin and sinners.118 While our overview does not allow opportunity for detailed study of each text, we will try to determine their major implications.

The Flood: Genesis 6-8

Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” . . . Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. And the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch” (Genesis 6:1-3, 5-8, 11-14).

Only a few chapters from the beginning of recorded history, and three chapters from the account of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, we find the world in such a state that divine judgment is required. Sin had begun to run rampant. The “sons of God” were marrying the “daughters of men,” resulting in a race of giants known as the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).

The condition of the world came as no surprise to God. It was all a part of His eternal plan. But the consequences of man’s sin did grieve the heart of God. The whole earth had become corrupt due to man’s sin. The whole earth would have to be judged. God purposed to destroy the earth with a global flood. Only Noah found favor in God’s sight. God therefore provided for the deliverance of Noah and his family.

An ark was the means of their deliverance; the construction of the ark took 120 years. During this time Noah served as a preacher of righteousness, proclaiming by every stroke of his hammer the day of divine judgment approaching this generation. The time spent building the ark was no mere delay; it was a manifestation of divine grace. God gave men 120 years of warning and 120 years to repent. Judgment waited so that men might repent.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water (1 Peter 3:18-20).

Men rejected God’s grace and the warning of Noah’s unusual preaching. While the delay in judgment could have resulted in men’s deliverance, the rejection of grace brought upon Noah’s generation even greater condemnation:

By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith (Hebrews 11:7).

Preaching which can result in salvation also brings about greater condemnation when rejected.

Several truths become apparent in the account of Noah’s preaching and the flood:

(1) The ark, which became God’s instrument of condemnation for the world, became God’s instrument for salvation for Noah and his family.

(2) God preserved Noah and those on the ark through the flood rather than delivering them from the flood. Though this distinction may seem trivial, it is not. The salvation of Noah and his family is a prototype of the salvation God later provides in Christ. Peter makes this point in the third chapter of his first epistle (1 Peter 3:18-22). By faith we are “in Christ,” and it is in Him that we are judged and justified. Our sins have been paid for, in Him. In Him we have the righteousness of God. As Noah and his family survived the flood in the ark, so every Christian survives the judgment of God in Christ. As the floods beat upon the ark, the wrath of God was showered down upon the Lord Jesus. We who are Christians will be delivered from the coming wrath of God, but we must never forget that we have already been delivered through His wrath. Those who have suffered for sin in Christ need not suffer again.

(3) Noah and his family faithfully preached of sin, judgment, and deliverance, but the world, about to suffer divine wrath, went on about their business refusing to face up to their sin or God’s wrath.

For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so shall the coming of the Son of Man be (Matthew 24:37-39).

It will be business as usual for the world until the very moment God’s wrath suddenly and unexpectedly comes upon them.

The Judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah

Now the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.” And they said, “So do, as you have said.” So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread cakes.” Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf, and gave it to the servant; and he hurried to prepare it. And he took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate. Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Behold, in the tent.” And he said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’ “Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah denied it however, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

Then the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. And the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? “For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” And the Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. “I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”

Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the Lord. And Abraham came near and said, “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? “Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” So the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.” And Abraham answered and said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. “Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?” And He said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” And he spoke to Him yet again and said, “Suppose forty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it on account of the forty.” Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak; suppose thirty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” And he said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord; suppose twenty are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the twenty.” Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the ten.” And as soon as He had finished speaking to Abraham the Lord departed; and Abraham returned to his place. Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. And he said, “Now behold, my lords, please turn aside into your servant’s house, and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise early and go on your way.” They said however, “No, but we shall spend the night in the square.” Yet he urged them strongly, so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he prepared a feast for them, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. Before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, all the people from every quarter; and they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them.” But Lot went out to them at the doorway, and shut the door behind him, and said, “Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly. Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Stand aside.” Furthermore, they said, “This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them.” So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door. But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves trying to find the doorway. Then the men said to Lot, “Whom else have you here? A son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomever you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the Lord that the Lord has sent us to destroy it. “ And Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, and said, “Up, get out of this place, for the Lord will destroy the city.” But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting. And when morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two daughters, who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.” But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the Lord was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city. And it came about when they had brought them outside, that one said, “Escape for your life! Do not look behind you, and do not stay anywhere in the valley; escape to the mountains, lest you be swept away.” But Lot said to them, “Oh no, my lords! Now behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have magnified your lovingkindness, which you have shown me by saving my life; but I cannot escape to the mountains, lest the disaster overtake me and I die; now behold, this town is near enough to flee to, and it is small. Please, let me escape there (is it not small?) that my life may be saved. “ And he said to him, “Behold, I grant you this request also, not to overthrow the town of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I cannot do anything until you arrive there.” Therefore the name of the town was called Zoar. The sun had risen over the earth when Lot came to Zoar (Genesis 18:1--19:23).

The judgment of Noah’s day came after over a century of warning while the ark was being built. From a casual reading of Genesis 18 and 19, it might appear that the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah came with no warning at all. This is inconsistent with the facts supplied by the inspired Scriptures. Much had been graciously revealed by God to Sodom and Gomorrah.

First, Sodom was the place where Lot and his family lived. While we may not think so, the Bible says Lot was a righteous man who agonized over the sins of this city:

And if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:7-9).

In addition to the testimony of Peter, we have the words of the people of the city of Sodom:

Furthermore, they said, “This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them.” So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door (Genesis 19:9).

It seems this was not the first time the people of Sodom had heard Lot’s protests. They intended to make it his last.

But there is more, much more, that God had graciously revealed to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah found in the fourteenth chapter of Genesis. Having always read this chapter with Lot in mind rather than the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, I now understand the events of this chapter as God’s gracious dealings with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Genesis 13, Lot seemed to choose the better land. This relocated him in the city of Sodom (13:12), while Abram continued to live a nomadic life some distance away. In time, Lot found himself caught up in a power struggle between the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah (along with some other nearby kings) against an alliance of more distant kings who had dominated them for twelve years (14:1-4). Five kings, including Beta, king of Sodom and Birsha king of Gomorrah, joined to throw off the yoke of their foreign masters. Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, along with his allies, attacked Sodom and the surrounding rebel kingdoms and defeated them, taking the people and the goods of those cities as their booty (14:11).119

While not a large scale military operation, Abraham was intent on rescuing his nephew, Lot. He mustered 318 men to go after these kings and secure Lot’s release (14:14). Abraham defeated these kings and returned with the people and goods they had taken, including his nephew Lot. His greeting by the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah in the “Kings Valley” (14:17) must have been something like the reception of General Norman Schwarzkopf as he returned from the Persian Gulf. How easy it would have been for Abram to take credit for great military strategy and might.

The meeting between the grateful king of Sodom and Abram and his men did not go as expected. The king of Sodom did not get so much as a word of praise out of his mouth before another “king” came on the scene and spoke. This “king” was Melchizedek, the mysterious “king of Salem” (14:18-20). Melchizedek blessed Abram with these words:

“Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Genesis 14:19-20).

When the king of Sodom offered Abram the spoils of war, he was attempting to bless Abram for the return of his people. Abram’s response to the king of Sodom reflects the impact of Melchizedek’s words spoken a moment before:

And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their share” (Genesis 14:22-24).

Much can be learned about Abram and some about Melchizedek here, but let us not overlook what the king of Sodom learned. He was defeated by Chedorlaomer, and his city was sacked. His people and his goods were taken off, giving he and his people much to think about as they were being carried off. Would they survive? Would they ever return to Sodom again?

As they were being taken away, did Lot share with these people about the God of Abram? Did he speak to these people about sin, righteousness and judgment? Did he suggest to them that their defeat may have been from the hand of a righteous God? And what of the words they had heard from Melchizedek and from Abram in the King’s Valley? It seems the events described in Genesis 14 were not only for the benefit of Abram and Lot, but for the people of Sodom as well. They knew much more about the God of Abram than we might have thought.

Several truths are apparent from the description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as described in our text.

(1) Sodom was a wicked city, a city whose time for judgment had come. Neither Abraham nor Lot interceded for the wicked people of Sodom. The description of the conduct of those living in Sodom reveals that they were worthy of judgment. While God waited several hundred years to judge the sins of the Amorites (Genesis 15:16), the time for the judgment of Sodom was now--their sins were ripe.

(2) Sodom evidenced no repentance and no faith in God, in spite of the presence of Lot and their deliverance at the hand of Abram. Nowhere in the sacred text is there any acknowledgment of sin from any citizen of Sodom. The men of Sodom turned down Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters, intent on nothing less than the rape of Lot and his guests. Their anger toward Lot overflows in this last incident which took place at Lot’s house.

(3) Abraham’s appeal to God was not for a delay in judgment or for mercy for this city, but for God to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. Abraham did not appeal to God for a delay in His judgment. He did not protest God’s assessment of the sins of this city or its need for divine judgment. His appeal was for justice, and justice required that the righteous be distinguished from the wicked:

And Abraham came near and said, “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25).

Abraham’s appeal was for God to spare the city for the sake of the righteous. He knew God’s justice demanded that He deal with the righteous differently than with the wicked. He knew also that the wicked are blessed by a delay in judgment, not only to give them time to repent but also to protect and preserve the righteous.

(4) Though a righteous man, Lot had been adversely affected by the sin of the city in which he chose to dwell. It would be error to fail to point out the weakness of Lot. His wife did not survive, because she disobeyed God by turning back to look on the destruction of the city. His daughters would seek to preserve Lot’s seed by getting him drunk and by getting themselves pregnant by their father. Lot was removed from the city forcibly. He did not really wish to leave (19:15-22). While he refused to take part in its sin, he was too attached to the city.

(5) In contrast to the deliverance of Noah through the wrath of God, Lot and his daughters are delivered from the wrath of God. Noah was preserved through the flood by being inside the ark. Lot was delivered from God’s wrath by being plucked from the city. If Noah’s deliverance foreshadows our salvation in Christ, Lot’s deliverance is a prototype of the deliverance of the saints from the coming wrath of God.

For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come . . . . For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; 5:9-10).

(6) Up to the final moments before judgment came, the righteousness of Abraham and Lot is contrasted with the sins of the people of Sodom. In response to the revelation of Sodom’s coming judgment, Abraham spent his time in intercession. Lot devoted himself to sparing two strangers from the wickedness of Sodom. But the men of Sodom spent their last moments attempting to practice the very wickedness for which they would be judged. Take note of the persistence of the wicked men of Sodom as Moses described it:

So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door. But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves trying to find the doorway (Genesis 19:9b-11).

Imagine this scene. The men of Sodom were pressing hard against Lot, intending to rape him and his two guests. The angels reached out, pulled Lot inside, and shut the door. They then struck the men of the city with blindness. Would you not think this blindness would have gotten their attention? Would the men of Sodom not have stumbled toward their homes, pondering what had happened to them? But they did no such thing. They “wearied themselves trying to find the doorway.” They intended to carry through with their sin even when divinely blinded.

How persistent are sinners in their pursuit of sin, death, and eternal hell. Jonathan Edwards wrote: “As men gather sticks in this world for their own fire they continue to do so even when they are actually engulfed in the flames!”120

Lessons to be Learned

The inspired writers of the Old and New Testament turn to the events of the flood121 and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah122 to instruct the saints of a later day. As we leave these two instances of Old Testament judgment, let us focus on two lessons God intended us to learn from them.

(1) Divine judgment will come quickly and unexpectedly upon the wicked.

“And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it shall be also in the days of the Son of Man: they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same as happened in the days of Lot: they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building; but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:26-30).

(2) The unrighteous people of Sodom were less blinded by their self-indulgent sins than the people of Israel with their sin of self-righteousness. The people of Sodom were sinners. But the sin of the Jews in Jesus’ days was even worse. They saw and heard the Lord Jesus, and yet they rejected Him as their Messiah demanding more and more miracles as proof of His identity:

“And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you” (Matthew 11:23-24).

While the people of Israel were more respectable than those in Sodom, they were not more spiritual. With their greater knowledge came greater condemnation for rejecting God’s warning of coming judgment and deliverance through Jesus Christ.

(3) God is faithful to judge sinners and rescue the righteous from judgment.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:4-9).

The Rich Man and Lazarus

“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house-- for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:19-31).

Whether this story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable or the story of two historical men does not matter. Jesus meant for us to learn from it. Jesus told the story in the presence of the Pharisees, who loved money (Luke 16:14) and who measured one’s spirituality by external indicators like wealth (16:15). They assumed wealth was proof of piety and poverty or sickness was proof of sin. Thus, they cut many corners to obtain wealth, even if it included depriving widows of their homes (see Matthew 23:14).

Jesus told this story about the rich man and Lazarus to shake His listeners. He wanted them to understand that heaven and hell were not a continuation of earthly ease or suffering, but often the reversal of circumstances. He told of the rich man who lived his earthly life in ease and luxury now spending eternity in agony and suffering. But Lazarus, who suffered throughout his earthly life, now would spend eternity in Abraham’s bosom, enjoying the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The lesson is clear: one’s spiritual condition and thus one’s eternal destiny, cannot be determined from the “blessings or adversities” of one’s earthly life.

Each man’s eternal destiny became evident after their deaths. No doubt the rich man had a glorious send off as he was buried in style. The body of Lazarus might even have been cast into the rubbish heap without a proper burial. But after he died, Lazarus was escorted by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man died and was buried.

Neither man’s fate was decided by his earthly circumstances. In Jesus’ story, we are not told what got these men to their eternal destiny. The rich man’s wealth did not condemn him but neither did it get him into heaven. The poverty and pain of Lazarus did not prove him a sinner nor make him more pious than the rich man. Material possessions, contrary to popular thought, were not the cause of eternal bliss or suffering. It was something else. We know that the deciding factor is man’s response to the One telling the story, Jesus Christ.

It is crucial to note that the fate of each man was decided before death, and it was irreversible after death. There was no opportunity for the rich man to repent once he was in hell and no evidence that he did repent in hell. He was filled with regret but not with repentance. The rich man’s agony in hell could not be reduced.

The agony of hell was great. The rich man could see Lazarus at a distance and was fully aware of his bliss in contrast to his own agony. He knew he could no longer live in ease and that he could never cross the chasm from one side to the other. His doom was sealed. Even worse, he knew others in his family would join him in his torment. But he was no longer in control of his world as he had once appeared to be.

Even in hell, the rich man failed to understand the depth of man’s depravity and the blindness of his sin. He asked that someone be sent to warn his brothers. He was told they had Moses and the Prophets--and that was all they needed. Even if one were to rise from the dead, as Jesus would do, this miracle in and of itself would not convince or convert anyone.

Heaven and hell are the outworking of divine justice. Lazarus’ sufferings were forever put out of mind by eternal bliss. The rich man had already experienced his bliss. The sufferings of the saint in this life will be compensated for in eternity. Likewise, those who choose the present pleasures of sin will have an eternity of suffering. Heaven and hell must not be considered in terms of continuity, but in terms of contrast. Suffering is the road to glory, and self-serving pleasure is the path to destruction.

The Ultimate Judgment: The Cross of Calvary

And they came to a place named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.” And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.” And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground, and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by. And He was saying, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for Thee; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt” (Mark 14:32-36).

And they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. And they tried to give Him wine mixed with myrrh; but He did not take it. And they crucified Him, and divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified Him . . . . And when the sixth hour had come, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” And when some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:22-25, 33-39)

The greatest judgment of all time took place on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem. It was the hell which our Lord Jesus endured in the sinner’s place, as God’s provision for man’s salvation. The salvation which God provided for man was not a setting aside of divine wrath, but the satisfaction of divine wrath, as it was poured out on the sinless Son of God. In this way, men may be delivered through the wrath of God, in Christ. In this way also, God may show mercy to men in a way that does not violate His justice:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation123 in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:23-26).

Mortal men simply cannot grasp the infinite measure of God’s eternal wrath; yet the intensity of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane reflects His understanding of God’s wrath. Judgment comes to sinners suddenly and unexpectedly; our Lord willingly came to His own judgment knowing what it required of Him. No wonder our Lord was in such agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Our Lord drank the cup of divine wrath to the full, grasping in His omniscience all that the cross involved. In His grace, He refused the “wine mixed with myrrh,” (Mark 15:22) because it would have served as a kind of tranquilizer. Jesus’ calling was to suffer the full measure of God’s wrath so that those who trust in Him need never fear the eternal wrath of God which will someday be poured out upon sinners.

The essence of hell is eternal separation from the presence of God. Our Lord’s words uttered from the cross sum up this separation, the very words of Psalm 22:1:

“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34).

Hell is man’s eternal separation from God (see 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Jesus bore the agony of that separation on the cross. Nowhere in the Bible is the agony of hell more evident than on the cross of Calvary. Jesus suffered hell in our place so that we might enjoy the blessings of God in heaven.

Comfort for Christians

For the Christian, there should be no surprises in the three accounts of divine judgment we have reviewed. If we have trusted in Jesus Christ, we will never experience the agony of hell; rather, we are assured of the eternal joys of heaven.

But what of those whom we know and love who have not placed their trust in Jesus Christ? How can the Christian find comfort concerning the fate of the lost? Consider these truths which should be a source of comfort.

(1) God’s perfect plan includes both the wicked and the righteous. Heaven and hell, as well as the individual destinies of each and every person, are a part of God’s eternal plan.

The Lord has made everything for its [or, His] own purpose, Even the wicked for the day of evil (Proverbs 16:4).

For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Romans 9:15-24).

And all who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear. If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints (Revelation 13:8-10).

(2) The eternal destiny of all men ultimately lies within the sovereign will of God and not in the will of men.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13-14).

So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy (Romans 9:16).

On whom would you rather have your destiny depend--yourself or God? In whose hand would you rather place the destiny of a loved one? With a righteous, holy, and compassionate God or with sinful men? By whom would you rather have justice meted out? By men or by God? God and God alone does all things well:124

The Lord is righteous in all His ways, And kind in all His deeds. The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him; He will also hear their cry and will save them. The Lord keeps all who love Him; But all the wicked, He will destroy (Psalm 145:17-20).

(3) God neither delights nor takes pleasure in the destruction of the wicked; His desire is for men to be saved. The judgment of God is His “unusual work,”125 because it is His desire that men be saved. Only reluctantly and after man’s persistent rebellion does God’s judgment come upon sinners. As Peter has written, the delay in divine judgment is due to the patience of God and His desire for men to be saved.

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

“For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord God. “Therefore, repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:32).126

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time. And for this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1 Timothy 2:1-7).

(4) God employs the unrighteous in His plan in such a way that they fulfill His purposes, even by their disobedience.

For the wrath of man shall praise Thee; With a remnant of wrath Thou shalt gird Thyself (Psalm 76:10).127

(5) God is glorified not only in the salvation of sinners but also in the condemnation of sinners. Both hell and heaven are to the glory of God.

And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:5-7).

Enter the rock and hide in the dust From the terror of the Lord and from the splendor of His majesty. The proud look of man will be abased, And the loftiness of man will be humbled, And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day (Isaiah 2:10-11).

Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; And their honorable men are famished, And their multitude is parched with thirst. Therefore Sheol has enlarged its throat and opened its mouth without measure; And Jerusalem’s splendor, her multitude, her din of revelry, and the jubilant within her, descend into it. So the common man will be humbled, and the man of importance abased, The eyes of the proud also will be abased. But the Lord of hosts will be exalted in judgment, And the holy God will show Himself holy in righteousness (Isaiah 5:13-16).

(6) Heaven and hell are necessary for the outworking of justice; they are the means by which the injustices of life are eternally set right. Men and women reap in eternity what they have sown in life:

“Because I called, and you refused; I stretched out my hand, and no one paid attention; And you neglected all my counsel, And did not want my reproof; I will even laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes, When your dread comes like a storm, And your calamity comes on like a whirlwind, When distress and anguish come on you. Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they shall not find me, Because they hated knowledge, And did not choose the fear of the Lord. They would not accept my counsel, They spurned all my reproof. So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way, And be satiated with their own devices. For the waywardness of the naive shall kill them, And the complacency of fools shall destroy them. But he who listens to me shall live securely, And shall be at ease from the dread of evil” (Proverbs 1:24-33).

The integrity of the upright will guide them, But the falseness of the treacherous will destroy them. Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, But righteousness delivers from death. The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way, But the wicked will fall by his own wickedness. The righteousness of the upright will deliver them, But the treacherous will be caught by their own greed (Proverbs 11:3-6).

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony” (Luke 16:25).

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8).

(7) Divine judgment takes into account all the facts, including those which men cannot know.

And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).128

(8) Divine judgment condemns men on the basis of what they have done with what God has revealed to them.

And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides. For whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him” (Mark 4:24-25).

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them (Romans 1:18-24).

For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law (Romans 2:12).

(9) Divine judgment metes out punishment which is precisely appropriate to the sin committed.

“And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:47-48).

And while all the people were listening, He said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation” (Luke 20:45-47).

(10) Divine judgment is pronounced and executed by Him who poured out His wrath on the Lord Jesus and on those who reject salvation in Him. Those who suffer eternally in hell are those who reject Christ, who suffered “hell” in their place. Those who suffer condemnation are those who reject the divine offer of grace in Christ. They have also neglected the grace of God in delayed judgment.

(11) No mention is made in Scripture of the righteous in heaven agonizing over the fate of the lost in hell; mention is made of those in hell who agonize over the coming judgment of their loved ones who are lost (Luke 16:27-28).

(12) We should have a legitimate concern for the fate of the lost which motivates us to warn men of the wrath of God to come. Our responsibility is fulfilled when we have sounded this warning.

“And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:25-27).

Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences . . . . Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:11, 20).

(13) God’s judgment means that we neither have the means to judge men now nor the need to do so. We can forgive men, leaving judgment and revenge to God who judges perfectly.

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? (James 4:12).

(14) In Christ, the mystery of suffering and glory has been revealed and ultimately resolved. In heaven, when we see Him as He is and are conformed to Him, we will understand life from God’s point of view. We shall thus praise Him eternally for all His deeds, including the judgment of the wicked, even those whom we love. This is the reason men on earth have petitioned God in prayer to judge the wicked. It is also the reason the saints in heaven will eternally praise God for the judgment of the wicked.

Your hand will find out all your enemies; Your right hand will find out those who hate you. You will make them as a fiery oven in the time of your anger; The Lord will swallow them up in His wrath, And fire will devour them. Their offspring Thou wilt destroy from the earth, And their descendants from among the sons of men. Though they intended evil against Thee, And devised a plot, They will not succeed. For Thou wilt make them turn their back; Thou wilt aim with Thy bowstrings at their faces. Be Thou exalted, O Lord, in Thy strength; We will sing and praise Thy power (Psalm 21:8-13).

Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations which do not know Thee, And upon the kingdoms which do not call upon Thy name. For they have devoured Jacob, And laid waste his habitation. Do not remember the iniquities of our forefathers against us; Let Thy compassion come quickly to meet us; For we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Thy name; And deliver us, and forgive our sins, for Thy name’s sake. Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let there be known among the nations in our sight, Vengeance for the blood of Thy servants, which has been shed. Let the groaning of the prisoner come before Thee; According to the greatness of Thy power preserve those who are doomed to die. And return to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom The reproach with which they have reproached Thee, O Lord. So we Thy people and the sheep of Thy pasture Will give thanks to Thee forever; To all generations we will tell of Thy praise (Psalm 79:6-13).

But the Lord has been my stronghold, And my God the rock of my refuge. And He has brought back their wickedness upon them, And will destroy them in their evil; The Lord our God will destroy them (Psalm 94:22-23).

And the third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of waters; and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous art Thou, who art and who wast, O Holy One, because Thou didst judge these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and Thou hast given them blood to drink. They deserve it. “ And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Thy judgments” (Revelation 16:4-7).

“And they threw dust on their heads and were crying out, weeping and mourning, saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, in which all who had ships at sea became rich by her wealth, for in one hour she has been laid waste!’ “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her” (Revelation 18:19-20).

It has been said that a preacher’s job is to make the comfortable uncomfortable and to comfort the uncomfortable. No topic can better accomplish this than the part of the unbeliever in the perfect plan of God. You, my friend, may feel confident that you will never experience the agony of hell--and be totally shocked to find yourself there for all eternity.

There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death (Proverbs 16:25).

The only “way” which is right and which delivers one from eternal torment is the Lord Jesus Christ:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me (John 14:6).

My task is not to convince you that what we have been studying is the truth. This is the work of the Spirit of God. I urge you to listen to Him, to believe God’s Word, and to trust in God’s Son for your salvation. Jesus said:

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper [Holy Spirit] shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:7-11).

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) What is the fate of the lost?

Those who do not trust in Jesus Christ for salvation are eternally lost, apart from God’s gracious intervention which turns them from their unbelief and rebellion to trusting and obeying God (see Ephesians 2:1-10). There is a present manifestation of divine wrath upon sinners which turns them over to their sin (see Romans 1:24-32). This, in the eyes of some, may look like a blessing, for there is a certain pleasure in sin (see Hebrews 11:25). When our Lord returns for the second time, He will judge sinners, and the time of their eternal torment will begin (Romans 2:1-11). This judgment, which will come quickly and unexpectedly, is irreversible (1 Thessalonians 5:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12).

In hell, men will suffer eternal torment. They will be aware of the blessings of the saved and all too aware of their own torment. They will agonize about loved ones who are lost. They will receive precisely the punishment they deserve, and they will not be able to change their condition or reduce their agony (see Luke 16:19-31). There will be no repentance in hell--only regret.

(2) How do people in general respond to the biblical teaching about a literal hell? How do the cults and false religions deal with hell? What is it that people dislike about hell?

Generally, unbelievers deny the existence of a literal hell. They are inclined to not want to think about it, saying something like, “I cannot think that a loving God would ever send anyone to hell.” Those unbelievers who do believe in a literal hell are self-deceived, thinking they will avoid it and that their enemies will not. Thus, many of the Jews of Jesus’ day thought hell was for the Gentiles and heaven was for the Jews. Jesus rocked them with His teaching in texts like Matthew 8:10-12 and Luke 4:22-28.

Christian Science believes there is no final judgment. The Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that lost men will have a second chance and that those who reject this offer of salvation will be annihilated. Mormonism maintains that all non-Mormons will be sentenced to eternal torment, along with those Mormons who are thus judged worthy of it. Unitarians refuse to believe in the finality of death, believing that through mind action we resurrect ourselves from the dead. Modern theology insists that a loving God could never subject anyone to such punishment. [See “The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error” (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), a pamphlet compiled by Keith L. Brooks].

People do not like the painful thought of hell, the reminder of their own sins, of God’s holiness, of divine wrath, and the consequences of sin. They want to live their life their way and to answer to no one for the way they live. They want to be free from God, His standards, and His judgment. What they do not realize is that in serving themselves and indulging in the flesh, they are slaves of the flesh, of sin, and of Satan (see Romans 6:12-23; Ephesians 2:1-3; 2 Timothy 2:26).

(3) What is hell like?

Hell is a place of eternal punishment for those who have not trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation. It is a place of agony, of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51; Luke 16:23-24). Hell is a place of eternal fire (Revelation 21:8), prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Hell is within sight of heaven so that those suffering are aware of the blessings of those who accepted the offer of salvation in Christ (Luke 16:23; Revelation 22:14-15). Those who have died without Christ are raised from the dead to dwell eternally in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15). Hell is a place where men are kept from the presence of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

(4) How important is the doctrine of eternal punishment (hell)?

According to the Scriptures, the doctrine of eternal judgment is one of the fundamental doctrines of the faith (Hebrews 6:1-2). The Holy Spirit convicts men of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8).

(5) According to the gospel, how has God provided an escape from the torment of hell? If hell is such a terrible fate, why do so many reject the gospel?

In God’s holiness and justice, He must punish sinners. In His grace, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear the penalty of sin for those who would receive Him. Jesus endured the agony of hell so that men need not experience it themselves. In this way, God is just and merciful in providing salvation for men. He is merciful in forgiving men for their sins; He is just in bearing the penalty in His Son.

Hell is a terrible fate. Most people deny sin, especially their own personal sin. They also deny the consequence of their sin--eternal judgment. When confronted by the truth of the gospel, men reject Christ’s provision for their sins because they do not think they need grace, and they certainly do not want it. Most people think they are good enough to avoid hell and gain heaven on the basis of their own merit. The gospel is incompatible with human pride. Only sinners need grace.

(6) Are there degrees of punishment in hell?

Yes, the Scriptures teach that there are degrees of punishment in hell. Justice requires not only that God distinguish between the righteous and the wicked (see Genesis 18:23-25), but that those whose sin is greater receive the greater punishment. The Bible therefore teaches that just as there are degrees of reward in heaven, there are degrees of punishment in hell (see Luke 12:47-48; 20:45-47).

(7) What is the basis for the condemnation of the lost or the eternal blessing of the saved?

The basis for man’s eternal condemnation is his works (see Revelation 20:12-13). The basis for man’s eternal salvation is the work of Christ (Romans 5:12-21; Ephesians 1 and 2; Colossians 1; Titus 3:4-7; Revelation 5:9-14). Those who are saved are sinners who have received God’s gracious provision for their sins in Christ. Those who are lost are those who have rejected this provision and thus must suffer for their own sins (see John 3:16-18).

The Bible does speak of good works when referring to the Christian (see, for example, John 5:29). The “good works” of the righteous are the result of salvation and not the means of it. We are saved “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10), not “by good works” (Titus 3:5).

(8) How can a loving God send anyone to hell?

The eternal damnation of man is not only a part of God’s plan, it is a fate which God sovereignly imposes on men. This fate is the consequence of man’s sin and of God’s holiness. God is glorified by the salvation of men and by the punishment of the unrighteous. Men are not forcibly sent to hell, against their will. They resist God’s will, and they press hard toward hell. Men desire hell (they don’t want God in their life), and they deserve it. When God sends men to hell, He gives them what they want, what they have earned, and what they deserve. He does so because they have rejected Jesus, whom God sent to suffer the agony of hell in their place.

(9) How can we explain the delay in the judgment of sinners?

God’s future and final judgment of sinners has been delayed for a long time. This has given many the opportunity to repent and be saved (see Romans 2:4; 9:22-23; 2 Peter 3:9). Unbelievers misinterpret God’s delay in judging men, supposing that judgment is not coming at all (2 Peter 3:3-10).

(10) How do you explain that men will perish eternally who have never heard a clear presentation of the gospel?

Men are not saved apart from faith in God’s promise concerning salvation in His Son. The Old Testament saint looked forward to it (see Romans 4); the New Testament saint looks back to the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. While men need to hear the gospel to be saved (Romans 10:9-15), they do not need to hear the gospel to be condemned. Men are condemned on the basis of their rejection of the revelation they have received concerning God (Romans 1:18-32). There is a sense in which God is gracious to those who die apart from the hearing of the gospel. Since they have received less revelation, their judgment will not be as severe as those who have heard the gospel and rejected it (see Matthew 12:38-42; Luke 12:47-48).

(11) In what way should the Christian’s knowledge of hell and eternal torment affect his life?

Knowing that hell is a fate we all deserve, the Christian should be grateful to God for the gift of salvation and the deliverance from hell God has provided in Christ. Furthermore, knowing the fate that awaits unbelievers, we should be motivated to share the gospel with the lost. Knowing how seriously God takes sin, we should endeavor to live lives which are holy and pleasing to God. We should also be looking for the coming of His heavenly kingdom where righteousness will dwell forever (see 2 Peter 3:11-13).

(12) How do unbelievers and their eternal punishment in hell fit into God’s eternal plan?

God’s eternal plan is designed to bring glory to Himself. God is glorified in judging sinners and in saving sinners. God, as the Creator, has the right to deal with men as He sees fit. God has therefore chosen to save some, as “vessels of mercy,” and to condemn others, as “vessels of wrath” (Romans 9:19-23). He has chosen to use the unbelief and sinful rebellion of some to achieve His purposes, to His glory, and the faith and obedience of others to achieve His purposes, to His glory. The eternal punishment of sinners reveals the holiness of God and His hatred of sin. Men’s rejection of God’s provision for their salvation in Christ shows the immensity of man’s sin and the degree to which he deserves eternal torment.

(13) What comfort can one find in the death of a loved one who died as an unbeliever?

God’s perfect plan includes both the wicked and the righteous. The eternal destiny of all men ultimately lies within the sovereign will of God and not in the will of men. Hell is the measure of man’s sinfulness and of God’s holiness. God does not delight or take pleasure in the destruction of the wicked; His desire is for men to be saved. God employs the unrighteous in His plan in such a way that they fulfill His purposes, even by their disobedience. God is glorified in the condemnation of sinners. Hell is necessary for the outworking of justice; it is the means by which the wrongs of life are eternally set right. Divine judgment is just, taking into account all the facts, including those which men cannot know. Divine judgment condemns men on the basis of what they have done with what God has revealed to them. Divine judgment metes out punishment which is precisely appropriate to the sin committed. Divine judgment is pronounced and executed by Him who poured out His wrath on the Lord Jesus and on those who have rejected salvation in Him. In Christ, the mystery of suffering and glory has been revealed, and ultimately resolved. In heaven, when we see Him as He is and are conformed to Him, we will understand life from God’s point of view, and thus we shall praise Him eternally for all His deeds, including the judgment of the wicked, even those whom we love.

Scripture Texts

Genesis 6-9; 14, 18 & 19
Exodus 5-15; 33:17--34:7
Deuteronomy 8:18-20; 28:63
Psalm 21:7-13; 34:19-22; 59; 73:18-20; 94:22-23; 145:20;
Proverbs 1:24-26, 32; 11:3; 16:4
Isaiah 2:10-11, 17; 5:16; 28:21; 30:31-32
Ezekiel 5:13; 18:23-32; 22:14
Matthew 5:22,29,30; 7:23; 8:12; 10:28; 13:30, 47-50; 18:4-10; 22:13; 25:15,33
Mark 9:42-43; Luke 10:24; 12:47-48; 13:28ff.; 16:19-31; 20:45-47
John 3:1-21; 5:19-29
Romans 1-4 (2:8-9; 3:19), 6:23; 9-10; 12:19
1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 2:1-16
Galatians 6:7-8; Ephesians 2:1-3; 5:3-6
Philippians 1:28; 3:19-21; Colossians 3:5-7
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 5:3, 9; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10
Hebrews 6:1-2; 10:27, 29, 39; James 4:12
2 Peter 2:1-9, 12, 17; 3:3-13; Jude
Revelation 6:15-16; 13:8; 14:9-11; 16:4-7; 17:8; 18:20; 19:15; 20:1-15; 21:8


115 See John 6:44; 8:43; 10:26-29; 15:16; Acts 13:48; 16:14.

116 “The Crisis of the Church,” Christianity Today, Harold Lindsell, September 11, 1970, pp. 4ff.

117 “Heaven and Hell: Who will go where and why,” Christianity Today, May 27, 1991, p. 29.

118 It has become popular to say, “God loves the sinner, but He hates the sin.” I do not find this statement made or supported by Scripture. God pours out His wrath on sinners. He “loved Jacob” and He also “hated Esau” (Romans 9:13).

119 It seems from the words of Genesis 14:10 that one or both of the kings from Sodom and Gomorrah were killed in battle. This would mean that the kings who later met Abraham (14:17-24) were their replacements.

120 Cited by John Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards On Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 67.

121 See Isaiah 54:9-120; Ezekiel 14:13-20; Luke 17:26-30; Hebrews 11:7; 1 Peter 3:18-20; 2 Peter 2:4-9.

122 Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:9; 13:19; Jeremiah 23:14; 49:18; 50:40; Lamentations 4:6; Ezekiel 16:44, 48, 49, 53, 55, 56; Amos 4:11; Zephaniah 2:9; Matthew 10:15; 11:23-24; Luke 10:12; 17:29; Revelation 9:29; 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 1:7; Revelation 11:8.

123 Propitiation refers to the satisfaction of God’s wrath when Christ bore the penalty for man’s sins.

124 See also Mark 7:37.

125 Isaiah 28:21.

126 See also Ezekiel 33:11.

127 See also Romans 9:17.

128 See also 1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Corinthians 4:4-5.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Soteriology (Salvation), Theology Proper (God)

11. God’s Plan for the Future

Introduction

Over the past few years it has been my privilege to minister in a number of prisons in Texas and elsewhere through the auspices of Prison Fellowship. This organization facilitates the ministry of “free world” Christians to prison inmates.

One means of Prison Fellowship’s ministry is In-Prison Seminars. It has been my joy to teach a number of these seminars. Following the teaching, a team of Christian volunteers works together to listen and to share in small discussion groups. Volunteers come from a broad spectrum of denominations and theological positions. Our focus must be on the fundamental truths we hold in common, not on the areas of our differences. Prison Fellowship requires all volunteers to set aside their distinctives and focus on the essential truths of the gospel. I heartily agree and find ministry in this environment personally enriching and exciting. It also reminds me that many of my distinctive views are non-fundamental. Jesus called these “gnats” (as opposed to “camels” ( see Matthew 23:24).

Our study of God’s plan for the future requires this same commitment to the fundamentals while avoiding speculative and controversial matters.129 In the study of biblical prophecy, much is not revealed. And that which is revealed has produced different interpretations. Our goal in this study is to survey the major events which make up the plan of God for the future as revealed in the Bible. We will then consider the implications for our attitudes and actions.

Setting the Scene for Our Study

Why do Christians feel so strongly about prophecy? Why do they differ so strongly with their fellow-believers? Allow me to suggest some of the reasons Christians may differ with one another over prophecy and some of the fundamental issues underlying these differences.

(1) It is right that Christians feel strongly about prophecy, because it is so important to Christian faith and practice. The Bible contains a great deal of prophecy, and the study of biblical prophecy is a matter of great importance. God’s plans for the future and His promised blessings are the basis for our hope and for our conduct. Prophecy is the fuel for the Christian’s faith and hope and the motivation for our endurance, even in the midst of great adversity or affliction. People feel strongly about the things which matter most, and prophecy is rightly perceived to be a subject of great import to all men. Since our eternal destiny is inter-twined with the prophecies of the Word of God, we should have strong feelings about prophecy.

(2) Evangelical preachers and teachers teach their eschatological130 beliefs dogmatically and with conviction, while attacking the positions held by others as biblically unacceptable and unscholarly. Some who strongly hold their own views sincerely find the positions held by others unacceptable. A number of teachers privately admit that one or more opposing positions may have some merit, but they will not say so from the pulpit. They seem to feel compelled to teach everything with the same conviction and dogmatism. They do not clearly distinguish between the “gnats” and the “camels” of Scripture. As a result, those who listen to such teaching conclude that prophecy is not as mysterious as it is. This suggests that anyone with his eyes open and a reasonable intelligence should see prophecy clearly--anyone who sees prophecy differently has failed in some way.

(3) Our prophetic views are often motivated by our own ambitions, desires, or even sinful lusts. Sinful men never approach the Bible with an open mind but with hearts which are deceitful beyond our own comprehension. Our sinful biases distort our perception of biblical teaching concerning the future, because we look at it as “our” future. What we want often influences what we believe.

(4) Differences in interpretation of biblical prophecy are often the result of different premises in approaching the subject. Some Christians who expect to suffer believe that Christians will suffer as the purposes and program of God are fulfilled. Other Christians who believe that suffering is incompatible with Christianity, or at least undesirable, view prophecy in a way that excludes Christians from tribulation. How literally we take prophecy has a great bearing on our interpretation of prophecy. The definitions we give to key prophetic terms and phrases 131 significantly impacts our prophetic views.

Our doctrinal presuppositions dictate which views we find intolerable and unacceptable. Prophetic interpretations which collide with our doctrinal presuppositions132 are not even given their “day in court.” We do not even consider interpretations which we have ruled unbiblical in principle by means of our presuppositions.

(5) Differences exist between sincere Christians over matters of prophecy because our knowledge of prophecy is partial, and our understanding is imperfect.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:9-12).

I imagine that when our Lord returns and Christians are united in heaven, those who have written books on prophecy will find some excuse to sneak into the “library of heaven” and remove their book from the shelf. I am convinced that when all of God’s promises concerning the future are fulfilled, no one will be patting himself on the back for having figured it all out.

Jesus Christ came the first time to pay the price for sin, to die in the sinner’s place, so that men might escape the horrors of hell and live eternally in the presence of God. The Lord Jesus Christ is coming again to punish the wicked and to reward the righteous. These are truths which all Christians hold in common with great conviction. Christians disagree over the details concerning the sequence of events associated with His second coming. We must recognize that no one understands God’s plan for the future fully--by divine design. Scriptural revelation concerning the second coming has been given to produce faith, hope and love. As Paul urges in 1 Corinthians 13, love should govern our attitudes and actions toward our fellow-Christians with whom we differ concerning future events.

What the Bible Teaches About Prophecy

The Bible itself is the best teacher on the subject of prophecy. Not only does God reveal His plans for the future by means of biblical prophecy, He also uses His Word to teach us how to approach and apply biblical prophecy. We shall lay out the major events yet to take place revealed in biblical prophecy and show how the future should change our perspective. We must first look to the Bible to gain a biblical perspective of prophecy. Permit me to summarize my understanding of prophecy as taught or implied by Scripture.

(1) Biblical prophecy is certain. The Bible contains certain promises of blessing and warnings of judgment which are contingent upon man’s response to God’s commands.133 But the promises of God associated with His covenant are certain.134 A reflection of the certainty of prophecy is seen in the use of the “prophetic perfect” in the Old Testament. Future events are often not expressed by using the future tense (“I will . . .”), but with the past tense (“I have . . .”). When God thus promises to do something, it is as good as done.135

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

(2) Biblical prophecy is often contradicted by false prophets and their false prophecies.136 God’s prophets speak for God, and they speak from His perspective. They speak of His plans, purposes, and promises. They call men to repent and to obey God’s commandments. False prophets speak from their own lusts and desires. They appeal to men on the basis of fleshly desires and appetites. Where there is one who speaks to men for God, in God’s name, there are those who will speak to men as though from God, but who deny and dispute God’s revealed Word. Biblical prophecy calls upon sinful men to submit and conform to the standards of a holy God. False prophecy seeks to adapt and conform God to man’s standards.

(3) Biblical prophecy is perplexing. Some prophecy is perplexing because of its nature. Not all prophecy is in the form of a declaration, made by one who was recognized as a prophet of God. Some prophecies are found in the experiences of others. Joseph’s suffering at the hand of his brothers seems very prophetic of the suffering of our Lord although never specifically called prophecy. The judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah was prophetic of future judgment, and thus we find frequent reference to this historical incident because of its prophetic message. Jonah’s rebellion against God in seeking to forsake his calling, and God’s use of him as an unwilling servant, is a picture of Israel and her relationship to God. David’s sufferings as Israel’s kings are prophetic of Christ’s sufferings (see Psalm 22). Hosea acted out Israel’s unfaithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to His people.

Prophecy is often perplexing because it seems to exceed the limits of language. The prophets spoke of events which would take place long after their death. How would an ancient prophet describe the recent war in the Middle East with its tanks, guided missiles, night vision equipment, helicopters, jet planes, and computers? Who, in his day, could possibly understand what was meant by a description of what is now modern-day war?”

The prophet’s task was even more difficult than this, however. The prophet’s task was to not only describe future earthly events, but to portray the indescribable blessings of heaven and the unfathomable horrors of hell. How can one possibly describe those things which surpass our comprehension?

Men are perplexed not only by what they do not, or cannot, understand in prophecy but by what they do understand. The Old Testament prophets understood some messianic prophecies to speak of a suffering Savior and others to speak of a triumphant King. How could both lines of prophecy be true?

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow (1 Peter 1:10-11).

(4) Some prophecy was not even recognized as prophecy until after it was fulfilled and declared to be prophecy. When Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus, His parents were instructed to take Him to Egypt. As Jesus was brought out of Egypt, prophecy was fulfilled--a prophecy no one understood to be prophecy:

And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call My Son” (Matthew 2:14-15).

Some Old Testament messianic prophecies were recognized as such by men of old. Other prophecies (like that of Hosea 11:1 above) were not. When fulfilled, these prophecies and their fulfillment were pointed out.

(5) Men faced the problem of harmonizing prophecy with other prophecies. The Old Testament prophecies presented the prophets and others with a problem: the prophecies were like individual pieces of a puzzle which did not seem to fit together to form a single picture. As already seen from Peter’s words in the first chapter of his first epistle, the prophets rightly discerned their prophecies concerning Messiah were of two types: (1) a suffering Messiah; and, (2) a triumphant Messiah. The Messiah was a sacrificial “Lamb of God” and the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.” How could both streams of prophecy be true? They could not figure it out. All they could was hold to both sets of prophecy, along with the tension this produced. Only the coming of Jesus as Messiah as the Suffering Servant, and His teaching concerning His second coming as the Triumphant King, resolved the apparent tension.

(6) Biblical prophecy is literally and precisely fulfilled. There is a precision to divine prophecy. While details concerning the timing or fulfillment of certain future events is sometimes deliberately withheld, prophecy often is specific as to timing and other aspects. These specific prophecies are fulfilled precisely. And so the promise of God concerning the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is fulfilled to the very day:

And it came about at the end of four-hundred and thirty years, to the very day, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:41).

Evidence indicates that the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 pertaining to the first coming of our Lord was precisely fulfilled when our Lord made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and was crucified on the cross of Calvary.

(7) Biblical prophecy is precisely fulfilled in a way men did not expect and did not understand until after its fulfillment. Nowhere in the Old or New Testament do we see the saints looking on as God’s promises are being fulfilled, fully understanding the events they are witnessing as fulfilled prophecy. People watched God’s hand at work with amazement much more than with understanding. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? (Romans 11:33-34).

But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but just as it is written, “THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND WHICH HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM.” For to us God revealed them through the Spirit, for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:7-10).

(8) Even when the fulfillment of biblical prophecy was recognized as such, it was understood imperfectly and in part. Those who were privileged to have their eyes opened to prophecy and its fulfillment were not enabled to understand prophecy as a whole, but only prophecy in one of its parts. At the birth of our Lord, many prophecies were being fulfilled. The birth of Jesus was proclaimed to those privileged witnesses and participants as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. What they knew was partial. They watched prophecy being fulfilled, rejoicing, but perplexed. They did not see the picture as a whole but only as a small part, one piece of the puzzle.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this can be seen in the life of Mary, the mother of our Lord. By divine revelation, Mary is made aware that the Messiah will be her child through a miraculous conception produced by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, when God’s working is evident to her, we are told,

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2:19, see also verse 51).

(9) The fulfillment of God’s promise was recognized by those who yearned for the Lord’s coming, whose hearts and minds were divinely opened--not by scholars nor with those with a highly developed prophetic scheme. The biblical scholars of Jesus’ day miserably failed to recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. They knew some of the details (the gnats),137 but they missed the message (the camels).

Those who recognized the hand of God in the first coming of our Lord were not scholars. Most were simple people who loved God and who looked for His coming. They did not seem to understand the details of prophecy or grasp the plan of God. They did know that the One who would be their salvation was coming. They looked for and prayed for His coming. Those whose heads were filled with prophetic details missed the joy of beholding God’s hand at work. Yet those whose hearts were prepared for His coming saw it and rejoiced. It was indeed not to the scholars but to the simple, child-like people that Jesus revealed Himself.

(10) Those whom Jesus chose to be His disciples did not have a great grasp of prophecy. The disciples did not seem to understand Old Testament prophecy very well. Even those with a quick mind and an open heart did not immediately grasp how Jesus could be the promised Messiah.138 All too often the disciples resisted our Lord’s efforts to obey the Father by fulfilling those prophecies pertaining to Him and His ministry.139 Part of the proof of our Lord’s identity as Messiah, and of His ministry, was the change which took place in the thinking of His disciples. Over a period of time, they came to trust in Jesus as the Messiah of the Old Testament Scriptures rather than the “messiah” of their own sinful and distorted ambitions.

(11) Biblical prophecy is not given so that we might understand God’s plan in advance and how what is currently happening fulfills His plan; it is given so that we might recognize all history as the fulfillment of God’s plans and purposes after it has been accomplished. We have seen that men would never have planned what God did nor would they have achieved their goals in the way God ordained them to be accomplished. Biblical prophecy is probably as profitable in retrospect as it is in prospect. Prophecy has as much to say to us in looking back on its fulfillment as it does in looking forward to its fulfillment.

In the Old Testament, God employed prophecy to demonstrate His superiority over the non-existent “gods” of the heathen. Heathen gods could not create; they were the creation of human hands. God was the Creator. The gods of the heathen could not walk or talk; their worshippers carried them along. God spoke, and He was the One who carried His people along. Heathen gods did not control history. They did not foretell the future, and they were unable to bring events to pass. God set Himself apart by declaring in advance what He would do, and then doing it, just as He declared.

“Present your case,” the Lord says. Bring forward your strong arguments,” The King of Jacob says. “Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; As for the former events, declare what they were, That we may consider them, and know their outcome; Or announce to us what is coming. Declare the things what are going to come afterward, That we may know that you are gods; Indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together. Behold, your are of no account, And your work amounts to nothing; He who chooses you is an abomination” (Isaiah 41:21-24).

“Because I know that you are obstinate, And your neck is an iron sinew, And your forehead bronze, Therefore I declared them to you long ago, Before they took place I proclaimed them to you, Lest you should say, ‘My idol has done them, And my graven image and my molten image have commanded them’” (Isaiah 48:4-5).

God declares in advance what He will do at a later time so that when prophecy is fulfilled, He will be shown to be a God who is sovereign, who accomplishes all that He set out to do. Prophecy testifies to the sovereign power of God and His ability to carry out His plan. God has a plan for His creation. Prophecy is the revelation of that plan in advance. History is the outworking of the plan.

The Plan of God for the Future

From the Days of the Disciples to the Day of the Lord (Mark 13:1-37)

We will now describe the plan of God for the future in a very broad, general way. Our concentration will not be the details of God’s future plans but the major events which are a part of His plan as revealed in biblical prophecy. Many biblical texts provide bits and pieces concerning the future. Fewer texts lay out God’s plan for the future in a more general way. I have chosen two major texts which, together, provide an outline of future events--from the time of our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection to the coming of the New Jerusalem and the time of man’s eternal blessing or torment.

Our texts are Mark chapter 13140 and Revelation 19-22. Mark’s account takes us from the time of the disciples to the time of Christ’s second coming. Revelation 19 carries on with the most detailed account of the events which accompany and follow our Lord’s second coming. I understand both passages to deal with future events chronologically. On the following page is a chart of the sequence of events pertaining to the second coming of our Lord as outlined by these two texts.

As the final days of our Lord’s earthly ministry drew to a close, Jesus was with His disciples in Jerusalem. Greatly impressed with the beauty and splendor of the temple, the disciples expressed this to Jesus. But Jesus cautioned them not to become too attached to the temple since it would soon be leveled with not so much as one stone left upon another. This destruction took place in the lifetime of most of the disciples. In 70 A.D., the Roman army under Titus sacked the city of Jerusalem, not only leveling the city but torturing and killing many of the Jews.

Our Lord’s statement concerning the destruction was rightly understood by the disciples as a part of the program which consummated the end of the age and ushered in the kingdom of God. They responded to our Lord’s words by asking what sign would signal the end. Jesus’ answer, recorded in Mark 13:5-37, identified and characterized the major events leading up to His second coming.

Jesus did not begin by telling His disciples of coming events and their timing. He began by warning them of the dangers which these times posed for His followers. Unbelievers, oblivious to their eternal destiny, find the Lord’s return coming upon them suddenly, unexpectedly, and irreversibly (Matthew 24:37-39). The danger for some Christians is the same. They may not be waiting and watching for the coming of our Lord’s kingdom (see Matthew 24:25-51).141

For some Christians, there is an opposite danger. Those who eagerly await our Lord’s return may be convinced by the bold claims of a false “messiah.” Those who are eager for the Lord’s return, for trials and tribulations to cease, and to enter into the glories of heaven, may become the victims of deceivers, many of whom will appear in the latter times.

Sequence of Events
in the Lord’s Second Coming

Event

Text

Parallel Texts

The Setting: Temple to be Destroyed

Mark 13:1-2

Matt. 24:1-2; Luke 21:5-6

The Question: What will be the sign of your coming?

Mark 13:3-4

Matt. 24:3; Luke 21:7

Characteristics of the Latter Days

Mark 13:5-13

Matt. 24:4-14; Luke 21:8-19; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3-4; 2 Peter 2-3

The Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation

Mark 13:14-23

Dan. 9:26-27; 12:10-12; Matt. 24:15-28; Luke 21:20-24;

The Coming of the Son of Man (Removal of Saints) (Day of the Lord

Mark 13:24-27

Matt. 24:29-31; Luke 21:25-28

Lessons from the Last Days

Mark 13:28-37

Matt. 24:32-51; Luke 21:29-36

The Marriage of Christ to His Bride

Rev. 19:1-10

 

The Banquet of the Buzzards: The Defeat and Destruction of Christ’s Enemies

Rev. 19:11-21

 

The Millennial Reign of Christ
(Binding of Satan)
(Resurrection of O.T. saints)
(1,000 year reign of Christ)

Rev. 20:1-6

Rev. 20:1-3
Rev. 20:4-6

 

The Final Battle
(Satan Released)
(National rebel against God)
(Enemies devoured by fire)

Rev. 20:7-9
Rev. 20:7
Rev. 20:8
Rev. 20:9

 

Resurrection of the Wicked and Judgment
(Satan’s Doom)
(Resurrection and Judgment of the Unrighteous Dead)

Rev. 20:10-15

Rev. 20:10
Rev. 20:11-15

John 5:28,29

Dan. 12:2

The Creation of the New Heavens and New Earth

Rev. 21-22

Heb. 11:13-16; 2 Pet. 3:10-13; John 14:1-2

I know the danger of high expectations. In the Pacific Northwest, I occasionally went salmon fishing. Normally I used a heavy flasher followed by a herring with a hook. The flasher accomplished two purposes: It was bright so that it would flash under the water, and it wobbled in the water causing a flashing sensation, which made the herring weave about as though it were injured. Supposedly, this was an irresistible combination for salmon.

The inexperienced, highly expectant fisherman struggled with the tugging sensation produced by the flasher. When the lure was pulled slowly through the water, it continually produced a tugging action much like a small fish would produce. Hoping to catch a fish, each tug heightened my sense of expectation. Thinking there was a fish on the line, I would reel in the line to look--no fish! When the lure got caught on a piece of seaweed, the thrill was even bigger. The end of the pole would bend and then came a steady drag. I had to reel in my line to remove the weeds.

Until I caught my first salmon, I could not imagine how I would ever know when I really had a fish on the line. After my first catch, I seldom agonized over those little tugs again. You know when you have a salmon on the line!

A fisherman in the Northwest was fishing from a small boat and bringing in a salmon on his line. Suddenly his pole bent, and the line began to reel out rapidly with the boat moving in the direction of the fish. With amazement, the fisherman saw that a killer whale had swallowed the salmon on his line. Wisely, he cut the line, leaving the salmon to the whale.

Our Lord’s coming is like this. There will be little “tugs” by those who claim to be Messiah but who are not. When the Messiah does come, we will have no doubt. The Christian will know. The whole world will know. The claims of false messiah’s must be recognized as false and the men as counterfeits. Christians must be especially alert, for they will be one of the prime targets (see Mark 13:22).

Having been a father six times, I have begun to appreciate the sequence of events leading up to the moment of delivery. The early symptoms in no way indicate that the time of birth is at hand. They do, however, assure the parents that the process is underway.

The same is true of the second coming of our Lord. There are early symptoms predicted in prophecy which tell the process has begun, even though the day of our Lord’s coming may still be distant. In verses 7-13, Jesus described for His disciples some of the evidences pointing to the distant day of His return. These, He cautioned, were not an indication of the end, but “merely the beginning of birth pangs” (verses 7-8). These are not the last days, but we might think of them as the latter days.

Jesus describes in verses 7 and 8 the political and environmental chaos of the latter days. There will be wars and rumors of wars. In addition to political conflict between nations, there would be natural disasters, including earthquakes and famines. Things apparently go from bad to worse as the time of our Lord’s return approaches.

Verses 9-13 describe a growing opposition to our Lord expressed by the hostility and persecution of believers by their fellowmen. This includes not merely isolated instances of persecution but opposition carried out by means of the political and judicial system. Persecution is carried out officially--it is wide-spread and generally accepted. Persecution comes to the point where even members of one’s own family turn against him because of the gospel (verse 12). Men oppose Christians because of their hatred of the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 13).

All of this is merely a prelude to times of even greater trouble. At verse 14, Jesus turns to the time of the Great Tribulation. As earlier described by the prophet Daniel, this time will be easily identified when the abomination of desolation takes place in Jerusalem and involves the Jewish sacrifices and worship (see Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). The abomination of desolation, as Daniel speaks of it, is one of the fixed points in time from which the remaining 1290 days (and 1335 days) mentioned in Daniel 12:11 and 12 are counted. All who can should flee from Jerusalem to the mountains without delay or turning back. Were these days of tribulation not shortened, no life would be spared. For the sake of the elect, God shortens them. As I understand our Lord’s words, believers will be present during this time of tribulation, but they will be removed before the day of God’s wrath commences (13:24-27). God does not promise to deliver His people from tribulation but from the outpouring of His wrath which takes place after the tribulation (see 1 Thessalonians 5:9).

After the tribulation (verse 24), the second coming of Christ is immediately preceded by great cosmic signs. The sun is darkened, the moon gives no light, the stars fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven are shaken (verses 24-25). Then the Lord will come in the clouds of heaven with great power and glory (verse 26).142 At this time our Lord will gather up His own, removing them from the earth and from the midst of the wicked so the righteous will not suffer God’s wrath with the wicked (verse 27).143

The Lord does not provide details of what occurs as a result of His second coming. That we shall learn from chapters 19 through 22 of Revelation. In the final verses of Mark 13, Jesus sought to impress upon His disciples the practical implications of the prophecy He had just revealed to them. In verses 28-32, Jesus used the parable of the fig tree to show His disciples that while the exact day of His return could not be known, the season of His second coming should be evident. The conditions He has just described indicate the nearness of His return. Once the signs of the final events appeared, the day of His return would not even be a generation away (verse 30).

While heaven and earth would pass away, His eternal Word would not. His disciples should value in this life that which will last through eternity. Material things will not last, but His Word will endure. Let those who trust in the Living Word come to value His written Word. Whatever events the future held, His Word concerning the future was sure. Time causes some things to go away and other things to change. God’s Word endures--changeless through time--like God Himself. In those volatile times ahead, with changes and tumult constantly present or threatening, His disciples must rest their faith and hope in Him who is changeless and in His changeless Word.

The final verses of chapter 13 sound much like the first. There is a strong note of warning, a great need for caution. The last days require alertness. We do not know when the Lord will return. Those who are watchful will discern the season of His coming. His return should not catch us asleep, oblivious concerning the times, and unfaithful with regard to our duty. Jesus’ final words on the subject of His second coming are commanding: “Be on the alert!” (Mark 13:37).

From the Second Coming of Christ to Eternity (Rev. 19-22)

The Book of Revelation describes the final events of world history with great detail. Its vivid description is very symbolic and thus difficult to interpret with certainty.144 I believe this is by design. In the light of eternity, all of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation will be seen as having been precisely fulfilled. Someone has rightly summarized the message of Revelation as, “God wins!”

Chapters 6-18 describe the events leading up to the second coming of our Lord. Chapters 19-22 describe the events flowing out of the second coming of Christ, taking us into the final phase of God’s eternal plan.145 Let us now consider the events God employs to bring history to its culmination and absorb time into eternity.

Revelation 19 contains two different contrasts. In the first ten verses of the chapter, there is contrast between the judgment of the great harlot (unbelieving Israel) and the marriage of Christ to His bride (the church). The second contrast is between the feast associated with the marriage of Christ and His bride and the “feast” of the birds who devour the victims of God’s wrath on sinners.

Revelation 19 sums up the fulfillment of two main purposes for our Lord’s return: (1) the rewarding of the righteous, and (2) the judgment of the wicked. These two events are described as the result of the return of the Lord from heaven to earth. Those who have served Satan and opposed God will be defeated. The beast and the false prophet will be cast into the lake of fire (19:19-20).

The focus of chapter 20 is the millennial reign of Christ. Satan is bound for 1,000 years. During this time, he cannot deceive or influence men (verses 1-3). The righteous dead, the Old Testament saints, are resurrected, so that the promises which God gave them might be literally fulfilled (verses 4-6). At the end of this 1,000 year period, Satan will be released for a short time (verses 3, 7). He will find among men a sizable group who do not want the perfect rule of God and who gladly join with him to resist the rule of God. As these enemies of God gather to do battle, fire from heaven destroys them (verse 9). Satan is thrown into the lake of fire, joining the beast and the false prophet (verse 10). There they will be tormented forever.

There is now a second resurrection. This is for those who have entered into the second death, due to their rebellion against God (see verses 6, 11-13). These resurrected unbelievers refused to trust in the work of Jesus Christ; consequently, they are judged on the basis of their own works. They are cast into the lake of fire, along with Satan, the beast, and the false prophet (verse 15). In addition, death and Hades are also thrown into the lake of fire. It is a horrible eternal fate but one that is deserved (see 16:6).

Revelation 21 and 22 describe the passing away of the old heaven and earth and the coming of the new (21:1). The New Jerusalem descends from heaven. The city is 1500 miles in length, width, and height (21:16). There is no temple in the city. The Lord God and the Lamb are the sanctuary (21:22). Inside the city are all those who have trusted in the Lord Jesus, whose names have been written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27; 22:14). Outside are those who have rejected Him, who look on with a view of the glory which they rejected and refused (22:15).

The Book of Revelation, and the Bible, ends with an invitation to all to enter into the blessings of this city (22:17) and a word of warning to any who would tamper with the words of this revelation (22:18-19).

Conclusion

These are the major events which take place from the time of our Lord’s first coming to die for sinners and make men righteous to the time of His second appearance on earth to judge sinners and to reward the righteous. Many details have not been included in this brief survey, and many issues and questions have not been raised or resolved. Some questions may have been raised but not answered.

What is the purpose of the prophecy we have surveyed in this lesson? What are we to gain from it? Let me conclude by summarizing some of the ways biblical prophecy relates to us today.

(1) Biblical prophecy reveals to men the plan of God for the future, which we would not know apart from divine revelation. Prophecy reveals God’s plan. If God had not revealed His plan for the future, we would never have conceived of it. In its simplest form, the plan is this : Jesus Christ, who came first to save men from their sins, will come again to complete their salvation, and to judge all who reject it. He is coming to rule and to reign as the King over a new heaven and a new earth. He will reign from the heavenly Jerusalem, the dwelling place of all who have been made righteous through faith in His shed blood.

(2) God’s plan for the future is the basis for faith and obedience to God’s Word. Prophecy not only sets God apart from all other “gods,” it sets His Word apart as both true and reliable. Prophecy proves that God says what He means and means what He says. It shows not only that God has a plan but that He is able to bring that plan to pass.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Fulfilled prophecy enables us to reiterate the words of Peter when he said,

“We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).146

(3) God’s plan for the future testifies that the plan is already in motion and that the day of His return is drawing ever more near. We should see all around us the evidences that we live in the latter days and that the last days may be quickly approaching. When they do, our Lord’s return is less than a generation away.

(4) God’s plan for the future (prophecy) should motivate us to faithfulness and obedience.

Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! (2 Peter 3:11-12).

The second coming of our Lord, one of the fundamental truths of the Scriptures, should be a source of great encouragement and motivation. It plays a major role in nearly all of Paul’s epistles. Notice, however, the central role which the hope of our Lord’s second coming plays in his first epistle to the Thessalonians. Every chapter of his epistle turns our attention to our Lord’s return:

For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).

Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He will also bring it to pass (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, 23-24).

(5) God’s plan for the future is the basis for our comfort in the face of death and our endurance in the midst of persecution.

For I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our other man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:19-21).147

It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 1:11-13).

(6) God’s plan for the lost in the future should motivate the Christian to warn the lost of the horror of hell and proclaim the gospel and the hope of heaven.

And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:38-40)

Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (2 Corinthians 5:9-11).

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).

(7) The revelation of God’s plan to us in Scripture testifies to our intimacy with God. The fact that God has revealed His plans to us shows us that we are His friends and not merely His slaves.

Then the man rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. And the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:16-19).

No longer do I call you slaves; for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you (John 15:15).

The broad outline of God’s plan for the future has been revealed in His Word. Its fulfillment is as certain as the faithfulness and sovereignty of the God who planned and revealed it to us. That plan leads to but one of two destinies: eternal blessing or eternal torment. Fos provided in His plan for all to be saved through the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus on Calvary. To trust in Him is to be assured of eternal life in His presence. To trust in anything or anyone else is to spend eternity outside of the New Jerusalem, away from God’s presence and in eternal torment. May God’s plan for the future be a source of salvation, comfort, and hope as you trust in His Son.

And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and let the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and let the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star.” And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes takes the water of life without cost (Revelation 22:10-17).

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) What do we know about the future for certain?

We know that Jesus Christ, who came the first time to suffer God’s wrath in order to pay the penalty for sin, will come again to overthrow His enemies and to establish His kingdom. Upon His return He will reward the righteous and punish sinners. Satan, and those who have followed him, will be cast into the lake of fire. All those who have died will be raised from the dead either to suffer eternal torment, or to enjoy the blessedness of God’s presence.

The latter days will be characterized by political and natural chaos. Christians will be persecuted for their faith, but this will provide an opportunity for bearing witness to the gospel. Those who have trusted in Christ for salvation will experience the wrath of men but will be delivered from the wrath of God. The time of the great tribulation will be indicated by the abomination of desolation, a defilement of great magnitude in Jerusalem. Satan will raise up those who will assist him in opposing God, but they will be defeated and cast into the lake of fire. The return of our Lord will be preceded by great cosmic signs. His coming will end the suffering of the saints and commence the day of God’s wrath on His enemies. Satan will be chained, and Christ will rule over men on the earth, but even after a time of just rule, many will turn to Satan (who is released for a time from his captivity) and try to overthrow the rule of God. In a final battle, the enemies of God will be defeated and destroyed.

The heavens and the earth will be destroyed and replaced with a new heaven and a new earth. The New Jerusalem will descend from heaven, and this will be the place of God’s presence to be shared with all the saints. The unbelievers will forever remain outside in eternal torment.

(2) What do Christians disagree about concerning the future? What is the basis for this disagreement? How should we relate to fellow-Christians with whom we differ over matters of prophecy?

Other than the fundamental truths outlined above, Christians disagree over almost everything else. They differ over the timing and sequence of events. They differ over the meaning of certain terms and over the degree to which prophecy can be taken literally. They disagree over whether the saints will endure any of the tribulation and whether there is a literal millennial reign of Christ. They disagree about what conditions must be met before Christ returns.

The disagreement which exists between serious Christians who have given study and thought to the matter of biblical prophecy is primarily because many of the details of prophecy are not clearly taught. Those fundamental truths with which all evangelical Christians agree are those truths which are taught clearly and repeatedly in Scripture. Aside from this, Christians differ because of their preferences, their presuppositions, their teaching, and their associations. The end product of one’s study of the Bible is determined by the principles by which the Scriptures are studied and interpreted. By and large, Christian differ over prophecy because they differ over their way of approaching and interpreting prophecy.

I believe 1 Corinthians 13 provides us with the guiding and governing principle--the principle of love. Paul teaches in this chapter that biblical prophecy is not complete and that our knowledge is much less than complete or perfect. Our relationship with those Christians with whom we differ should be governed by love. In addition, we would find much less friction among Christians if we admitted that most of our views concerning prophecy fall into the category of personal convictions and not foundational and fundamental truth. Our attitudes and actions would thus be dictated by Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10.

(3) What is God’s purpose in revealing what He does about His plan for the future?

God’s purpose is not to enable us to perfectly understand His plan for the future in advance of every stage of its fulfillment. He does not expect us to predict the future, nor to recognize or understand every event as it relates to the fulfillment of His perfect plan.

Prophecy is given to men to promote God’s glory. Prophecy spells out God’s plan in advance, so that when He has fulfilled His promises all will know that God not only has a perfect plan but that He always brings His plans to completion. Prophecy is given so that we might look forward to what God has promised and also so that we may look back on what God has fulfilled.

Prophecy is given to Christians as the basis for faith and hope. Prophecy provides us with God’s plan and with His promises. It provides us with the goal toward which Christians are headed which we shall surely (by God’s grace) attain. Prophecy shapes our perspective and rearranges our priorities. It should be the basis for our personal plans and goals. Prophecy is a source of comfort and encouragement, and it is also the basis for our motivation to suffer and to serve in the present, in the light of the blessings God has promised.

(4) What is God’s purpose in not revealing certain things about His plan for the future?

God has revealed all that we need to know. We do not need to know all the details of His plan. We do not need to know the exact time of His return or of other events. This necessitates a greater faith and diligence on our part. His purpose in what He reveals is not to satisfy our curiosity but to motivate us to love and good deeds. Much of what God has not revealed is that which we do not need to know or would not be able to understand even if it were revealed to us.

(5) Why does God not reveal the exact time of our Lord’s coming?

This is not for us to know. If we take the words of our Lord while on the earth seriously, it was not for our Lord to know either. This is for the Father to determine. Not knowing the exact time of His return necessitates that we be watchful and diligent, always looking for His return, or indications that the season is near.

(6) How does the revealed plan of God serve the purpose of manifesting the glory of God?

The plan reveals God’s infinite wisdom. The accomplishment of the plan demonstrates God’s sovereignty, His absolute control over human history.

(7) What good should the revealed plan of God for the future produce in the lives of His people?

Wonder. Gratitude. Humility. Praise. Obedience. Watchfulness. Endurance. Witnessing to the lost.

By informing His children of His plans, God has demonstrated the intimacy of His relationship with us (see Genesis 18:16-19 and John 15:15). We are shown to be His friends, and not just His slaves.

(8) What are some of the dangers or abuses of prophecy to which we should be alert?

One danger is curiosity. We want to know more than we should and especially more than God revealed. Another danger is that of making the study of prophecy a kind of intellectual or academic game, a puzzle which we seek to fill in. Any approach to prophecy which avoids or minimizes its practical demands is a distortion of the truth and of God’s purpose for revealing it. There is also the danger of speculation and of divisive argumentation over details. There is the danger of straining the gnats (the petty details) and missing the “camels” (the main points of emphasis). Most of all, there is the danger of failing to heed warnings and entering into the blessings to which prophecy points.

Scripture Texts

Psalm 2; 89; 96:10-13; 98:7-9; 110
Isaiah 2:12-21; 11; 13:6-16; 41:21-26; 44:6-7; 48:5; 60; 62; 65 and 66
Jeremiah 9:23-26; 23; 25:30-38; 30-33
Ezekiel 13:1-16; 16; 20; 30:1-5; 34; 36-39
Daniel 2; 7-9 (especially 9:24-27); 11-12
Joel 1:15; 2:1-2, 10-11, 30-31; 3:14-16
Amos 5:18-20; Obadiah 1:10-21
Zechariah 1:14--2:13; 12:10-14; 14:1-21; Malachi 4:5-6

Matthew 24 and 25; 26:63-64
Mark 13
Luke 17:20-37; 21:1-36
John 14:1-11; 15:15; 16:12-13
Acts 1:6-11; 2
Romans 2:4-11; 8:18-25; 11:25-32
1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 15:20-28, 50-58
2 Corinthians 4:16--5:21
Philippians 1:19-21; 2:5-11
Colossians 2:16-17
1 Thessalonians 1:8-10; 2:17-20; 3:11-13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23-24
2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; 2:1-12
1 Timothy 4:1-5; 6:13-16
2 Timothy 3:1--4:8
Titus 2:11-13
Hebrews 11:13-16, 39-40; 12:18-29; 13:14
James 4:13-17
1 Peter 1:3-12; 2:12; 4:4-5, 12-19
2 Peter 1:12-21; 2:1--3:18
1 John 3:1-3; 4:17
Jude 17-25
Revelation (all, especially chapters 6-22)


129 This is a good policy to apply much more broadly. See 1 Timothy 6:4; 2 Timothy 2:14, 22-24; Titus 3:9.

130 Eschatology is the doctrine of future things. Biblical prophecy is the foundation for the study of future things. Eschatology is the doctrine which men derive from prophecy as they seek to arrange and harmonize prophecy systematically.

131 The definition of terms such as “wrath” and “tribulation” and expressions such as “the kingdom of God” and the “day of the Lord” play a crucial role in determining our understanding of eschatology.

132 Presuppositions are beliefs or opinions which we have already concluded to be true, whether they are indeed true or not. Once we presume something true or false, we often do not investigate further. And so while some of our presuppositions predispose us to certain prophetic conclusions, they also rule out other views as a possibility.

133 For example, the promised “blessings and cursings” of Deuteronomy 28 are clearly conditional. Other prophecies may appear fixed but are conditional as well. For example, the threatened judgment on Nineveh (Jonah 3:4) was put off for a time, based upon Nineveh’s repentance and upon the principle laid down by God in Jeremiah 18:1-12. It is obvious that Jonah knew his threat of impending judgment was conditional (see Jonah 4:1-2).

134 See, for example, Romans 11:28-29.

135 In the well-known messianic prophecy of the suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, the verb is in the past tense, yet the events described are still future.

136 See, for example, Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:18-22; 1 Kings 22; Jeremiah 6:9-15; 23:16-22; 2 Peter 2.

137 See Matthew 2:1-6.

138 See John 1:44-46.

139 See Matthew 16:21-23.

140 Mark 13 is paralleled by the other synoptic accounts of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 24 and Luke 21.

141 This text may not be speaking of the true believer but only of the professing Christian. These “unexpectant servants” are doomed. These are not those “saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). Our Lord and the apostles warn Christians about adopting the same callousness to His return as characterizes the unbeliever (see 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).

142 See also Matthew 26:63-64.

143 See Genesis 18:23-25.

144 My personal conviction is that to the degree God desires us to understand the details of Revelation, this book is best understood in the light of the prophecies which precede it. A study of the Old Testament prophets makes the prophecy of Revelation come alive with meaning.

145 In my opinion, chapters 6-18 are more highly symbolic, and thus more difficult to understand than chapters 19-22. These chapters deal with the culmination of history in quite literal terms. It seems as though God wants us to understand the “end” more than the “means.”

146 It should be pointed out that the basis for Peter’s words is quite different from that which I have emphasized. I have said fulfilled prophecy gives greater confidence in the Scriptures, for God has always faithfully fulfilled His Word. Peter’s confidence in the prophetic Word is based upon the witness God Himself gave to the person of Jesus Christ and His word at the Mount of Transfiguration. The conclusion is the same; the basis is different. Nevertheless, we can express our confidence in the Scriptures with the same words Peter used.

147 See also 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come), Theology Proper (God)

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