To Whom Do The Promises of God Belong

I continue on from my thoughts in the last post – Interpreting the Prophetic Words of the Old Testament. There is also much debate amongst people today about whether the promises of prophecy in the Old Testament are for Jews, Christians, or even both. Thus, I wanted to take this blog opportunity to try and establish what I believe is a healthy and Biblical answer to the question.

The first and foremost principle we must establish is that God’s promises and blessings are always spoken to His people. In the Old Testament God formed a people, which were recognized primarily by the name of Abraham’s grandson – Israel. The Hebrew people were to follow in the footsteps of their father Abraham who ‘believed the LORD, and he [the LORD] counted it to him as righteousness.’ (Genesis 15:6). The descendants of Abraham were to be a people of faith, believing their God, which would lead them to follow His ways.

We know the story, though, that most of Israel had forsaken their LORD to follow after false idols, thus breaking the covenant with God. Consequently, after many centuries of patient waiting, both kingdoms were taken into exile for their continued unfaithfulness and breaking of the covenant. Though their was a return many years later to the land of Judah, things were never quite the same as the Jews had hoped.

When the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, arrived on the scene, He came to initiate a new covenant. It was not altogether new, for it was built upon the covenant promises previously made to the patriarchs of the old covenant. But it was new in that it was fresh revelation, and not only that, but the final revelation concerning God’s redemptive plan for all peoples of all nations.

Therefore, when Christ arrived on the scene to establish such a new covenant, He did not do away with one people of God while setting another people in their place (rejecting Jews and accepting Gentiles). Rather, as intended, God’s people still continued in the same line as their father, Abraham. Those who were truly Abraham’s seed continued in faith, trusting in God.

Paul lets us know in Romans 9:6:

For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.

‘Israel’ is the name for the believing people of God, and so, God continues to have an Israel today – a people who have faith as their father, Abraham did. But the new covenant makes it clear that this faith is substantiated through faith in the Messiah that has come, that is Jesus Christ.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction [between Jew and Gentile]: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:21-24)

Paul does let us know in Romans 11:25-32 that God will continue to move amongst and save Jewish people. But we must remember that whether one is physically born Jew or Gentile, Abraham is the ‘father of all who believe’ (Romans 4:11). And it is this people of faith in Christ, both Jew and Gentile, that form the Israel of God:

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:15-16)

The Israel of God is that people who are not defined by a physical circumcision, but rather by a circumcision of heart (Romans 2:28-29).

Jesus even proclaimed to the Jewish leaders,

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. (Matthew 21:43)

The kingdom was now being handed over to another people, not so much the Gentiles, but a people producing the fruit of the kingdom rule of God – those Jew and Gentile who remained faithful to the covenant of God by submitting, in faith, to the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Though people might claim that I, and others alike, are embracing what is called replacement theology, I do not believe this is true. I have not stated that the Church replaces Israel. Rather I have tried to Biblically show that the Church, the Israel of God, is the continuation and fulfillment of God’s covenant people through faith in Christ. And this united people are gloriously made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Thus, I do not see this as replacement theology but rather as fulfillment theology, for it was Christ, through the new covenant, that came to completely fulfill all that had been spoken beforehand.

Thus, as the prophetic promises have always been spoken to God’s people, then it is His people that will receive those promises. And that people consist of both Jew and Gentile who walk in the footsteps of their father, those footsteps being faith in God through the Messiah, Jesus. Praise be to the One who is faithful to fulfill His promises to His people!

My next article will look at God’s desire to build a temple, but in a very unexpected way as expressed in the new covenant.

Interpreting the Prophetic Words of the Old Testament

This blog post continues on from my last blog post in regards to the nature of the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophetic words. There is much debate amongst Christians today of how to interpret the prophetic words of the Old Testament. And, of course, we should probably expect such questions to arise when considering the difficult nature of such portions of Scripture. Those Old Testament words are not the easiest in deciphering a clear cut understanding.

Therefore, when we turn to the prophetic words of the Old Testament, such as Isaiah or Amos, we must first remember that the Old Testament is not an entity in and of itself. It is part of the whole of Scripture, with the New Testament being the end of the story. The prophetic words of the Old Testament were spoken into a specific time in history, but were part of God’s overall redemptive plan for all peoples.

Think of it this way – Have you ever walked into a movie an hour late? It isn’t ideal, is it? But, if you pay close attention, you could probably catch the main storyline of the film. But, how much more devastating would it be if you had to leave a movie that had about thirty more minutes of play time? For me, though I might be able to guess the ending, that would seem much worse than the former.

It’s similar with the Scriptures. We need the whole story, and the Old Testament is the beginning of that story and the New Testament is the ending of that story. As new covenant believers, we cannot approach the Old Testament and look to simply interpret it without the ending of the story. Therefore, all Christians should keep in mind that the ultimate and best interpreter of the Old Testament is Christ Himself and the New Testament.

I love this short, yet poignant, statement found in 2 Corinthians 1:20:

For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.

For me, it would seem tragic if we considered trying to interpret the Old Testament without the New Testament. In his book, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, F.F. Bruce has this to say:

‘They [the Old Testament writings] found their fulfillment and had their meaning made plain in Christ; when people read them without using this key to unlock their significance, “a veil lies over their minds” (2 Corinthians 3:15).’

This has relevancy when we come to the topic of eschatology, for many a beliefs are founded upon the prophetic writings of the Old Testament such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah. But we must understand that, as new covenant followers of Christ, we are called to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. We are called to see the beginning words of Scripture interpreted through the living and final Word, that is Christ.

Specifically regarding the prophetic words of the Old Testament, another theologian states:

‘The Old Testament is no longer the last word on end-time prophecies since the Messiah of prophecy Himself has come as the last Word. The New Testament has been written as the ultimate norm for the fulfillment and interpretation of Israel’s prophecies. A Christian would deny his Christian faith and Lord if he reads the Old Testament as a closed entity, as the full and final message of God for Jews irrespective of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, and apart from the New Testament explanation of the Hebrew writings.’ (Hans K. LaRondelle. The Israel of God in Prophecy: Principles for Prophetic Interpretation)

These are pretty harsh words – ‘a Christian would deny his Christian faith and Lord’ – maybe a bit too strong. But in all, we must remember that we can never read the Old Testament without first seeing that Christ is the great fulfillment of such. Though we refer to this passage mainly when discussing the relationship of the Law to the Christian, I think there is something bigger going on in Matthew 5:17:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Did you catch that? Christ didn’t just say He came to fulfill the Law, but also the Prophets. The phrase ‘the Law and the Prophets’ is synonymous with the whole of the Old Testament canon (see also Luke 24:27, though the word ‘Moses’ is used in place of ‘Law’). Thus, for a first-century Jew, it would have been clear that Jesus was declaring that He was the fulfillment of all that was written beforehand in the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament). He came to fulfill it all through His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And that is good news!

God has never failed in fulfilling His promises, but we must not limit the fulfillment of God’s word. Fulfillment has come, but it has come in an even greater way than the prophets could have ever imagined. For as Paul said, ‘all the promises of God find their Yes [or Amen] in him’ (2 Corinthians 1:20). God truly is faithful to far more abundantly than all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20)!

Understanding the Fulfilment of Biblical Prophecy

I want to start a series, but one connected to something I already began looking at many weeks ago. This is all centred around the topic of eschatology, which simply means ‘the study of last things’. Over the next few articles, I specifically want to look at the prophetic writings of the Old Testament and hopefully gain a general, as well as helpful, understanding of these oft-misunderstood words.

When it comes to the nature of the fulfilment of Biblical prophecies, especially in the Old Testament, there are truly many questions that arise:

  • When will these words be fulfilled?
  • How many times will a specific prophecy be fulfilled?
  • Are these words spoken to Israel or the Church?

And I am sure the list could go on and on.

When looking to grasp the fulfilment of the words of the Old Testament prophets, I believe there are four terms that will be helpful in considering such a topic:

1. Single Fulfilment
This is when a prophecy is spoken and it is to be fulfilled one time and one time only. An example would be that of Isaiah 14:24-25:

The LORD of hosts has sworn: ‘As I have planned,
so shall it be,

and as I have purposed,
so shall it stand,

that I will break the Assyrian in my land,
and on my mountains trample him underfoot;

and his yoke shall depart from them,
and his burden from their shoulder.’

This is a specific prophecy about the destruction of Assyria. From studying history, we know that the nation of Assyria was destroyed in 612 BC, their lead role in the world assumed by the Babylonians. Due to this destruction, we recognize this prophecy has a single fulfilment.

2. Double Fulfilment
When we speak of double fulfilment of prophecy, we mean that the specific prophecy spoken will be fulfilled twice. Most times, it is first fulfilled in the not to distant future, probably sometime around the time it was spoken. Yet, there is also a greater fulfilment that is to come in the distant future. We could also look at an example in the writings of Isaiah:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

From my understanding of the context and life of Isaiah, this prophecy was initially fulfilled through the birth of the uniquely named Maher-shalal-hash-baz, as found in Isaiah 8:1-10. Some scholars believe this was a son of Isaiah, born to him by his second wife, referred to as a ‘prophetess’ in Isaiah 8:3. Nevertheless, we are all aware that this prophecy was fulfilled in a greater way through the birth of Jesus Christ (see Matthew 1:18-25). He was the great sign of Immanuel, God with us in the flesh!

3. Cumulative Fulfilment
This might no be as common a term, but when we speak of something being cumulatively fulfilled, it means the prophecy will be fulfilled progressively, or increasingly throughout time. We can again look at an example in Isaiah:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

This is a prophecy concerning the coming increase of God’s kingdom. Though we could state that this prophecy was initiated through the birth of Christ (vs6), it is being fulfilled more and more throughout history (vs7). The ‘mustard seed’ of the kingdom of Jesus Christ is growing ever more into the full tree (see Matthew 13:31-32). It is quite like our promise to love our spouse at our wedding – we could say there is an initial fulfilment found at the wedding, but there is a lifetime of seeing it fulfilled more and more.

4. Prophetic Foreshortening

In his book, The Bible and the Future, Anthony Hoekema defines this as:

‘…events far removed in time and events in the near future are spoken of as if they were very close together.’

We can look at a mountain range for an illustration of this concept. When one stands far away from a mountain range, it seems as if each mountain peak follows one after the other, all with no gap in between them. Yet, as one walks, or drives, through the range, you realize that there are quite large gaps between each particular mountain, maybe even miles.

This is the idea behind prophetic foreshortening. We can specifically note this through prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. The prophets specifically spoke of Him as both a suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) and a victorious king (Isaiah 11:1-4; Micah 5:2). When these prophecies were first spoken (or penned), the prophets might have imagined them as being fulfilled simultaneously as some point in the future. Yet, as history moved forward, we have seen that there was actually a ‘gap’ existing between these two prophetic descriptions of the Anointed One. In Christ’s first coming, He was mainly a suffering servant, but in His final return He will fully reign as the victorious King.

In all, I hope these four categories have been found helpful in learning the nature of the fulfilment of prophetic Scriptures. They have not been given so that we might categorise each and every prophecy found in the Bible. Rather, they are simply definitions to give us a working knowledge concerning the fulfilment of prophetic passages, especially those found in the Old Testament.

In the next article, I plan to look at the topic of understanding how to interpret the words of the Old Testament prophets.

Click here to read my articles about the topic of ‘the rapture’.