Archive for the ‘Covenant’ Category
I contributed the following Advent reflection on Acts 2 to the Sovereign Grace Church blog, where this is crossposted:
After the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, Peter portrays God’s plan for history, and how he was accomplishing this through his son Jesus. As Christmas approaches, this helps us to remember where this baby in a manger was destined: a glorious king, seated on a throne with all things being put in increasing subjection to him, until he delivers the kingdom to the Father.
We recall that the flood was the first and last time God destroyed the earth itself; however, it was not the last time he brought an old creation to an end and established a new creation. To use prophetic and visionary language, in each of his covenants God tore down the sun, moon and stars of one fallen created order, and fashioned out of its very dust a new and better creation. Israel’s great exodus from Egypt was one such miraculous new creation. But even there our separation from God and the sting of the curse were highlighted: at Sinai, God’s glorious presence descended on a lofty mountain, Israel was forbidden to draw near, and only seventy elders could share a meal with God at a distance. Immediately afterwards, Israel fell into sin with the golden calf, and 3000 people were put to death. A newer and better creation was needed!
In his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus accomplished the last and greatest exodus from the old creation into the final new creation. In contrast with Sinai, at Pentecost God’s glorious presence descended directly on his people, all of whom are now welcome to draw near and commune with him in his own house. 3000 people were then added to God’s house: in Jesus, life, cleansing and healing are now contagious rather than death and curse. The sweep of Peter’s sermon also reminds us that Jesus’s whole life was wrapped up in this mission of “loosing the pangs of death” and of renewing all creation in himself. Not just his death but his life, obedience, teaching, prayers, healings, resurrection and ascension were all working to accomplish the condemnation and destruction of the old creation in its climactic failure, and at the very same time to prepare and begin to transfigure the old creation into the new. Even in the events of his birth we see battle lines beginning to be drawn.
And until the end, it remains a contest of loyalties, a war both without and within. Peter reminds us that we participate in this glorious new creation through identification with Jesus. Repentance breaks allegiance with the old creation and all that is both good and bad in it: we repent for our sin, and even for our attempts to deal with sin and find life apart from Jesus. Faith identifies with Jesus by continually laying hold of his sacrifice for sin and welcoming his rule over all things. Finally, baptism joins us with Jesus in an exodus from the old creation, just as Noah and later all Israel passed through the waters into a new creation.
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. . . . Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Some commentators suggest that the structure of the middle section of Deuteronomy follows the ten commandments. Moses, having meditated on the law over the course of thirty-eight years in the wilderness, preaches an inspired sermon to Israel reflecting on the greater meaning and application of the law. There is some minor disagreement as to the exact boundaries within this part of Deuteronomy, but one possibility is given by James Jordan in his book, Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy:
- First commandment: Deut. 6-11
- Second commandment: Deut. 12-13
- Third commandment: Deut. 14:1-21a
- Fourth commandment: Deut. 14:21b-16:17
- Fifth commandment: Deut. 16:18-18:22
- Sixth commandment: Deut. 19:1-22:8
- Seventh commandment: Deut. 22:9-23:14
- Eighth commandment: Deut. 23:15-24:7
- Ninth commandment: Deut. 24:8-25:3
- Tenth commandment: Deut. 25:4-26:19
This is in keeping with other places such as Proverbs and Matthew 5-7, where we see further wisdom drawn from reflection upon the law: Moses, Solomon and Jesus are all inspired commentators on the ten commandments. This also supports the church’s practice of striving to read and apply the commandments with maximum breadth. For example, Calvin writes that “in almost all the commandments, there are elliptical expressions, and that, therefore, any man would make himself ridiculous by attempting to restrict the spirit of the Law to the strict letter of the words.” He concludes that, “thus, the end of the Fifth Commandment is to render honour to [all] those on whom God bestows it” (Book II, Chapter 8, Section 8), since the Bible understands the term “father” quite broadly. In just the same way, the Westminster Shorter Catechism states that the fifth commandment requires us to bestow honor and perform duties “belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals.” Paul himself seems to make this application of the fifth commandment in Ephesians 6, if we consider all of verses 1-9 to be joined together. And Moses does likewise in Deut. 16:18ff as suggested above.
This observation lends us an interesting bit of help in understanding how the Sabbath commandment can be transfigured in the new covenant from Sabbath to Lord’s day, from last day to first. In the fourth-commandment section (Deut. 14:21b-16:17), Moses mentions three of the seven feasts that God gave to Israel. We see the full list of feasts spelled out in Leviticus 23, beginning with the weekly Sabbath feast and culminating in the feast of booths. The three feasts that Moses lists here in Deuteronomy are the ones that God required to be celebrated at his house. Reading through the entire section, Moses’ application of the fourth commandment establishes the following principles:
- We obey the fourth commandment by bringing a tithe to God’s house
- We obey the fourth commandment by showing generosity and granting rest to others
- We obey the fourth commandment by keeping God’s appointed feasts at his house
These principles help us to understand how Saturday’s Sabbath is transfigured to Sunday’s Lord’s day in the new covenant. God’s house is the gathering of his people before him in worship, and in the new covenant all of the feasts of Leviticus 23 are fulfilled in one feast, the Lord’s supper. Connecting this to Moses’ application of the fourth commandment, we see that the Sabbath itself is fulfilled in the Lord’s supper. Certainly there is much more that needs to be said, but we can say this: when Jesus’s church gathers in his house to celebrate his feast with him and to bring him tribute, there the fourth commandment is being kept.
This also lends support to the practice of weekly communion.
The picture above was painted by my friend, the very talented Jermaine Powell.
God covenanted with Noah and the world:
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” — Gen. 8:20-22
Jeremiah later gave a prophecy that seems to allude to this:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the Lord of hosts is his name: “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.”
Thus says the Lord: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the Lord.” — Jer. 31:31-37
I have suggested elsewhere that there are some subtleties here in Jeremiah that we typically overlook. For one, given its context, this passage has a dual fulfillment, fulfilled proximately and partially in the return from exile, and ultimately and fully in Jesus (Heb. 8-10). Furthermore, this passage and the quotations in Hebrews seem more interested with the question of whether God himself will bring an end to the covenant, and less interested in the question of whether particular individuals might break the covenant (a possibility which Hebrews itself countenances; e.g., Heb. 10:29).
Jeremiah’s apparent allusion to Genesis strengthens the notion that he is stressing God’s commitment not to end the covenant. Through Noah, God covenanted with the world that he would not destroy it. Through Jeremiah and now Jesus, God covenants with his people that he will establish them forever, never again leaving them a mere remnant in the earth.
Here is where this prophecy’s ultimate fulfillment in Jesus comes into the foreground. There was to be a remnant of the true Israel at the establishment of the church (Acts 15:16-17, Rom. 11:5). But Jeremiah and Hebrews give us the amazing assurance that, from Jesus’s resurrection onwards, there will never again be a mere remnant of the church. After Israel put her husband to death, the resurrected husband was united to a resurrected bride, “never to die again” (Rom. 6:9).
In February, pastor Joost Nixon taught a parenting conference here in the Triangle: No greater joy: keeping our kids in the Christian faith.
We didn’t have a chance to attend, but are grateful for the recordings.
I’ve also enjoyed and profited from James Jordan’s lectures, Your child in God’s world.
In his 1992 essay Pig Out? 25 Reasons Why Christians May Eat Pork, James Jordan definitively refutes the notions that the Sinaitic food laws have any continuing applicability to the church, or that they ever had any intended health value. While he focuses on the food laws and their symbolism, his comments are also applicable to other can-do-no-wrong fads that search for some basis elsewhere in the ceremonial law, such as essential oils.
The Sinaitic dietary laws were not given for reasons of health or hygiene, but were symbolic. They applied only to Israelites during the period between Moses and Christ. Noah and Abraham were not under these laws, Gentile God-fearers were not under these laws, and New Covenant Christians are not under them either. Deciding how much meat to eat, how often, and what kinds is a matter for Christians to determine for themselves in terms of sanctified common sense and the evidence of dietetic science.
Making these dietary rules a matter of faith in the New Covenant is demonic. Unquestionably this is not the intention of earnest Christians who believe that they have uncovered health secrets in the book of Leviticus. We have to remember, however, that Satan is a great deceiver, and he will mislead the very elect of God. By focusing attention on the Sinaitic dietary laws, Satan diverts attention from the one God-given food law of the New Covenant, which is to fellowship with Him at His table. God invites us to come to His house on His day and bring along some bread and wine. How many Churches serve His meal on His day (not monthly, not quarterly)? How many use bread (not wafers, not crackers, not doughnuts)? How many use wine (not grape juice, not soft drinks)? How many include the children, whom God invited in the Old Covenant, and who are surely invited today (1 Cor. 10: 1-4)? How many Churches see this meal as a covenant renewal, a time of restoring our relationship with our God? How many Churches proclaim that there is health in this covenant renewal, and sickness in abusing it (1 Cor. 11:30)?
Too many pork-haters have a low view of the Church. They replace the sacramental interpretation of the Sinaitic dietary laws with an interpretation that is little more than “medicine man religion. ” They overlook the real health giving meal, the New Covenant sacrament. As a result, they mislead the people of God.
Jacob, Supplanter was his name
Uprooting other kingdoms until he alone remained
Just like Jesus the greater king to come
All His foes will fall until He is the only one
What are some ways in which Jesus fulfills and expands Jacob’s type?
Like Jacob, Jesus was promised a great inheritance (Psalm 2:8). Unlike Esau, the interlopers of this world were too savvy to sell the stolen inheritance for a pittance (Matthew 4:8), and required actual blood for their appeasement rather than “red stuff” (Matthew 2:16-18). To secure his inheritance, Jesus pulls off the greatest righteous deception in all of history. Herod (the Edomite), Caesar, Caiaphas and Satan all believe that they have secured their coup by killing the son (Luke 2:9-18). But Jesus’s death is the very means by which he receives his inheritance and begins to execute judgment on his enemies.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
– Psalm 2:10-12
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. — Ephesians 3:1-6
Paul speaks here of a mystery, and states clearly what it is: the Gentiles are fellow heirs with the Jews in Jesus. He has been sent to proclaim this good news to the Gentiles.
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, the same word for mystery appears in only one place: Daniel 2, 4. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is spoken of as a mystery. This mystery is revealed to Daniel, and its interpretation is this: including Nebuchadnezzar, four earthly kingdoms would arise in succession. Following these, a stone uncut by hands “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth,” meaning that it would “break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.”
God had previously promised a seed to destroy the serpent and undo the curse (Gen. 3). His heel would be bruised, and he would even die and be resurrected, as Abraham expected of Isaac (Gen. 22) and as every offering testified. God had further promised David that this seed would be a son of his, and that his throne would be established forever (2 Sam. 7). The mystery of the old covenant revealed to Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel is that the promised seed would not just be king of Israel, leading the many nations in righteousness, but that he would be emperor of one kingdom that would fill the earth. So we see that in this phase of Israel’s history, even the world emperors became types of the Messiah (Isa. 44-45).
This gives us added insight into Paul’s mystery. Paul further reveals that the Messiah would not establish this world-wide kingdom either by leading Israel in victory over the nations, or by bringing the nations to be incorporated into Israel. Instead, the Messiah establishes a new kingdom that is forged equally out of Israel and the nations. Israel as much as any other nation must submit to this king and kingdom. Thus, Jesus is not only a new Isaac, David, and Cyrus, but he is even pre-Abrahamic: a new Adam, a new Noah, a new Melchizedek. He is the firstborn of an entirely new creation.
This is not entirely unexpected; with each new covenant, Israel had to die to the past and submit themselves to God’s plan for the future. So, for example, when God created a new Israel in David, it took Israel seven and a half years to repudiate Saul and accept David (2 Sam. 2-5). Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years because of their refusal to repudiate Egypt and Egypt’s gods. This is repeated in the forty years between Jesus’s ascension and the destruction of Jerusalem.
We can also understand Paul’s mystery in terms of Babel (Gen. 11). Jesus will ultimately overcome all of the effects of sin and the curse, so that Babel will progressively be undone. But the way in which this happens is a mystery, a great surprise. The kingdom of Jesus does not return to a single language, either by dominating or destroying all other languages (sorry, Esperanto). Instead, Jesus subverts Babel by welcoming every language into his kingdom, causing every nation and language to confess his lordship. The confusion and cacophony of tongues becomes a harmony and symphony of tongues.
Pentecost, then, is a gospel event, the beginning of the accomplishment of Paul’s mystery, the good news that all nations are brought in to Jesus. We all stand on equal footing before the king of kings.
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. — Hebrews 11:39-40
In my previous post I wrote that Paul’s argument in Ephesians 2 is both more subtle and more profound than it seems at first glance. We’ve established that Paul was not saying that either Gentile or Jew had no possibility of salvation before Jesus. So what was Paul saying? I suggest that there are two main categories for understanding what Paul is saying Jesus accomplished in the new covenant: the quality and quantity of salvation.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. — 1 Corinthians 15:23-26
Jesus is presently reigning as king over the whole earth (Rev. 1:5). Everything is presently in subjection to him though we do not yet see it fully realized (Heb. 2:8). Thus, theologians speak of the “already” and the “not yet” of Jesus’s kingdom. In this framework, we may speak of the old covenants as being a time of essential “not-yet-ness,” a time of promise and not fulfillment. Equally, we may speak of the new covenant as a time of essential “already-ness.” We are not now waiting for the promises to be fulfilled, only for them to be experienced in their fullness. We have presently “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). We are presently seated with Jesus in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). There are certainly ways in which this characterization does not capture everything perfectly — Israel truly tasted God’s goodness (Ps. 34:8), and even today we see in a mirror dimly compared to what we anticipate in the resurrection (1 Cor. 13:12). Yet this does capture the essential difference between the old covenants and the new.
This is the culmination of a pattern that God repeated in each new covenant. Adam seized the promised judicial authority before his time, but God freely gave this authority to Noah (Gen. 9:1-7). Abraham is promised that kings will come from him (Gen. 17:6), and this is fulfilled in God’s covenant with David. Ezekiel and Jeremiah promise the exiles that the Spirit will be poured out on them in more powerful ways when they return from exile (Ezek. 37, Jer. 31). In one sense these promises were fulfilled in each new covenant, but in another sense they are not truly fulfilled until Jesus establishes his church. Perhaps the best way to understand this is that the old covenants were powerless in themselves to accomplish anything. What power they had was borrowed against the hope of the new covenant, so that all blessings enjoyed before Jesus were enjoyed in Jesus, foretastes of future life breaking through the chinks of time into the distant past. It is only through Jesus the promised seed that Adam and Eve were preserved.
In terms of Jew and Gentile, Paul is emphasizing two things: first, that both Jew and Gentile now have the same access to God, and second, that Jew and Gentile have a degree of access to God that far exceeds anything available in the old covenant.
Again this is a matter of degrees. We have seen that Gentiles did have access to God before Jesus. God heard the prayers of all old-covenant believers. And yet, by comparison, Gentiles were largely kept farther away from God’s house. In order to approach God’s house to offer a sacrifice, a Gentile had to follow the laws of cleanness and thus in a small symbolic way repudiate his Gentile-ness. Jews themselves were kept apart from God by degrees — most Jews could not enter the tabernacle or temple, only priests could enter the holy of holies, and only the high priest could enter God’s earthly throne room once a year on the day of atonement. We, too, have direct access to God at any time in prayer. But by contrast, in our weekly worship, we do not stand outside God’s house to offer our sacrifices, but rather enter all the way in to stand before his throne.
Peter Leithart points out that “the movement [between covenants] . . . is from rituals and signs of distance and exclusion . . . to signs and rituals of inclusion and incorporation.” You might even say that, while the old covenant was a time in which uncleanness and death were contagious, in the new covenant it is holiness and life that is contagious (consider Matt. 9:20-22). What this means is that we are all made priests, we are all made clean once and for all by our baptisms. Salvation and priesthood are collapsed into one in the new covenant, and there are no longer any degrees of holiness and separation in God’s house.
It should have been no surprise to Israel that Gentiles would be saved. This is pointed to in so many ways — by the inclusion of unclean animals on the ark, by the seventy representative elders who ate with God on the mountain (Ex. 24), by the seventy weeks of Daniel’s vision (Dan. 9). What was less clear, the “mystery” that Paul refers to in Eph. 3, is that the Gentiles would receive salvation by being made priests, but not by being made Jews. Jesus’s circumcision counts for all, so that we only need to be baptized into Jesus but not circumcised into Israel (Col. 2:11-12). While the seventy elders could not go all the way up the mountain, the seventy nations may now stand face to face with Jesus. While Gentiles could not partake of Passover without first becoming Jews, all Gentiles may now freely partake of the church’s weekly Passover feast.
Both Gentiles and Jews are now fully priests, kings and prophets. The new Adam has brought us into everything the first Adam should have attained, and more. He is a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
But there is an additional dimension here. Paul is not saying that some small number of Jews and Gentiles will now truly experience God’s nearness. He is saying that the Jews and the Gentiles — the nations — as such, will experience this. So while David spoke of the nations opposing God (Ps. 2), we may now speak of the nations themselves being discipled (Matt. 28:19-20), and of the nations themselves becoming “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6). At present, we do not yet see it, but Jesus intends to save Jew and Gentile wholesale, and that by bringing them into one united body, his church. Now we are all priests, ministering to the remaining strongholds of unbelief.
The one who was born king of the Jews (Matt. 2:2) died and ascended to become king of the nations (Rev. 1:4, 15:3-4). He passed the test of Adam, being unwilling to seize his inheritance (Matt. 4:8-10) but waiting for it in patient faith.
God is not content to save a few.
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” — Isaiah 49:6
There is more going on in Ephesians 2:11-22 than meets the eye:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have 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 members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. — Ephesians 2:11-22 ESV
In my previous post, I suggested that the preceding passage addresses historia salutis rather than ordo salutis. But in the passage above it is much more clear that the beginning speaks of a moment in history when Jesus initiated these things: a once and for all abolishing, which begins an ongoing process of creating, reconciling and preaching.
But Paul is saying something both more subtle and more profound than it seems at first glance. There is, after all, a sense in which Gentiles were not without hope and without God.
God always intended to save Gentiles in every generation. Gentiles were not without a promise of salvation. Before the flood, the seed of the younger son Seth appear to have been in a sort of priestly relationship to the world, in which calling they failed (the “sons of God” in Gen. 6:2). After the flood, Noah appears to establish the younger son Shem in a priestly relationship towards Japheth (Gen. 9:27). There is a possibility that Shem’s priestly ministry was narrowed to the line of Eber, in that the Bible calls attention several times to the fact that Abraham was an Eberite (e.g., Gen. 14:13). In any case, the priestly ministry to the nations is narrowed to the line of the younger son Abraham in God’s covenant with him (Gen. 12:3, 18:18).
Genesis 10 lists seventy nations descended from Noah, and this establishes a biblical symbolism whereby the number seventy often symbolizes the nations of the earth. One of the clearest instances of this symbolism is in Exodus 15:27, where Israel camps by twelve springs feeding seventy palm trees. God intended by this to signify their priestly and life-giving responsibility (as twelve tribes) towards the world of seventy nations.
While the Gentile stranger-sojourner could not participate in the feast of Passover without becoming an Israelite (Exodus 12:48), Gentiles were invited to the feasts of Pentecost and in-gathering (Deut. 16). In particular, the feast of in-gathering (or booths), the climactic feast of the festal calendar, was meant to symbolize that Gentiles would be gathered in to God’s house at the climax of the old covenant. Over the first seven days of this feast, a total of seventy bulls were sacrificed (Numbers 29) on behalf of the nations, with a final bull offered on the eighth day for Israel. The feast of booths followed the day of Atonement; taken together, this indicates that Israel’s priestly ministry to God was not only on behalf of their own sin but also on behalf of the sin of the nations, and for the very purpose of welcoming the nations into God’s feasting and fellowship.
While Israel’s priestly ministry in one sense placed them in a position of honor compared to the nations, it also placed them in a position of servanthood. The Pharisaical situation in the New Testament where Jew and Judaizer despised Gentile was never part of God’s plan. In fact, Gentile stranger-sojourners could present offerings to God at the tabernacle and temple (Num. 15:14-16). The arrangement in Herod’s temple, where Gentiles were separated from Jews (Acts 21:28), was contrary to God’s law. And while clearly the laws of uncleanness had symbolic implications for the nations (Acts 10), individual Gentiles are nowhere as such declared unclean. Since they could enter the assembly to present offerings, it was therefore entirely possible for a Gentile to satisfy the requirement of cleanness (Lev. 7:19-21).
In all this we see that Gentiles did possess a promise, a hope, and a salvation. Gentiles could be saved in one of two ways: either by incorporation into Israel through circumcision; or by remaining a Gentile, submitting to and placing their trust in Israel’s priestly ministry, and supporting and sponsoring this ministry. By these two means, many millions of Gentiles received salvation before the time of Jesus.
A cloud of witnesses
Through faith . . . women received back their dead by resurrection . . . — Heb. 11:35
And the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. — 1 Kings 17:22
But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. — Luke 4:25-26
The best-known example of Gentile salvation through incorporation into Israel is the mixed multitude that came with them out of Egypt (Ex. 12:37-38). Earlier the patriarchs had circumcised all of their numerous servants, resulting in their participation in Israel. Now, in the wilderness, God used a time of intense trial to forge a nation out of Israel’s clans and the mixed multitude. At the time of entry into Canaan, all males were circumcised (Joshua 5). All mention of the mixed multitude has vanished by this point — it appears that they were wholly incorporated into the tribes during their forty years of trial. (A similar thing happened to bring about the mixing of Jew and Gentile in the time of testing of the early church, in the forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem.) Caleb is perhaps the foremost example of this incorporation — he was a Kenizzite rather than an Israelite (Num. 32:12) and yet he is listed as a chief of the tribe of Judah (Num. 34:19).
Another case where many Gentiles converted to Judaism is in the book of Esther (Esther 8:5). While the ESV translates this “declared themselves Jews,” “became Jews” is more accurate. While some of these conversions may have been insincere, there is no reason in context to believe that this is not an overwhelming victory for the gospel. Circumcision is not something entered into lightly. One of the ways that God overcomes his enemies is by their conversion.
There are many examples of Gentiles who remained Gentiles but were saved by covenanting with and sponsoring God’s priestly people, in keeping with God’s promise to Abraham. In fact, the Bible has a name for such Gentiles: God-fearers. This term appears in the Psalms, where several times Israel, the house of Aaron, and God-fearers are listed separately (Ps. 115:9-13, 118:2-4, 135:19-20). Given the overall context of Psalm 66 (“all the earth,” “peoples”) it is likely that Psalm 66:16 also refers to God-fearers. God-fearers appear in Acts 13:16,26, and the Gentile Cornelius is also named a God-fearer (Acts 10:2). Job was not an Israelite (possibly he was the Edomite king Jobab of Genesis 36), and he too is a described as a righteous God-fearer (Job 1:1).
One particularly important group of God-fearers are the Gentile sponsors of some of God’s covenants. Melchizedek sponsors God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 14-15), Jethro (elsewhere called Reuel and Hobab) sponsors God’s covenant with Moses (Exodus 18-19), and Hiram the king of Tyre sponsors God’s covenant with David and Solomon (2 Sam. 5-7; 1 Kings 5-6). Cyrus (probably the same man as Darius the Mede) sponsors the restoration covenant with the return of exiles and the building of the temple. Artaxerxes (likely the same man as Darius the Great and Ahasuerus) further sponsors this covenant by sending Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem itself. These men feared God, trusted in and sponsored Israel’s priestly ministry, and no doubt led many of their people in the fear and worship of God (the widow of Zarephath mentioned above is part of Hiram’s legacy). Melchizedek is a particular type of Jesus’s priestly ministry (Heb. 5-7), and Cyrus and Ahasuerus as God’s “anointed” (Isa. 44-45, literally “Messiah”) are also types of Jesus.
Although the time of exile does not coincide with a generally recognized covenant, Nebuchadnezzar was also appointed by God, with Daniel’s assistance, to care for Israel during this time. He, too, seems to be genuinely converted. During their exile, Israel conducted missionary work in Babylon beyond converting Nebuchadnezzar; we see fruit of this in the wise men from the east who visit Jesus after his birth (Matthew 2). These men are likely the descendents of faithful God-fearers discipled by Daniel. Familiar with Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27), they were waiting for the end of 490 years just like Anna and Simeon, and knew to seek a prince among the Jews.
The patriarchs carried on a ministry of establishing altars and leading in worship, making God’s name known and spreading blessing through the Abrahamic promise. For example, Abraham established altars at Shechem, east of Bethel, and Hebron (Gen. 12-13). Abimelech covenants with Abraham (Gen. 23). The sons of Heth recognized him as a “prince of God” and unanimously desired to honor him (Gen. 23). Isaac and Jacob both establish altars, and another Abimelech actively seeks out Isaac after his departure in order to covenant with him (Gen. 26). By the end of Genesis, we have a preliminary, if temporary, fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise, in that the whole world is blessed through Joseph (Gen. 41:57). Pharaoh and many of the Egyptians seem to be genuinely converted. Pharaoh recognizes that the spirit of God is in Joseph, after Joseph has testified of God’s power over the land of Egypt (and by implication, its gods; Gen. 41). Pharaoh also submits to Jacob’s blessing (Gen. 47). The greater always blesses the lesser (Heb. 7:7), and Pharaoh submits to a second blessing even after Jacob’s testimony of God-given trials. Moreover, Pharaoh and his servants seem genuinely glad and unresentful to welcome Joseph’s family. Joseph marries the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen. 41); she is converted, and possibly her family. Much of Egypt is probably converted at this time, even if later Pharaohs and priests rebel against Yahweh.
While David was on the run from Saul, at several points he stayed with Achish king of the Philistine city of Gath (1 Sam. 21, 27-29). This involved some wise deception on David’s part. But what is interesting is that there is a Gittite in David’s retinue (2 Sam. 15, 18). Another Gittite named Obed-Edom has the great privilege of housing the ark of Yahweh (2 Sam. 6; 1 Chron. 13). Even more astounding, Obed-Edom’s household has an honored place in Israel, among the Levitical musicians (1 Chron. 15-16). Presumably they were circumcised into the tribe of Levi. Finally, when Jeremiah prophesies against the cities of the Philistines (Jer. 25:15ff), one of the five cities is conspicuously absent: Gath. Taken together, all of this seems to suggest that Gath itself may have entered into a God-fearing covenant with Israel.
Earlier we see a similar case with the Gibeonites and their covenanting with Israel (Joshua 9). They do not escape God’s declaration that all of Canaan will be devoted to him. In their case, they are devoted not to destruction but to the honor of service in God’s house (Joshua 9:27). Generations later, we find them still engaged in faithful service (1 Chron. 16:39, 21:29), and God avenges on their behalf (2 Sam. 21).
In the book of Jonah we see the Assyrians repent and serve God (Jonah 3). While the subsequent generation faltered, there is again no reason to doubt that the repentance was genuine or that this was a great victory for the gospel. Just as God appointed a fish to carry Jonah (Jonah 1:17), he was also preparing Assyria to carry Israel for a time.
The Bible is not primarily concerned to tell us about the work God was doing outside of the seed line, so we get only fleeting glimpses of it. Among others, we know of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5), whose subsequent loyalty to God’s people may have extended to serving as a spy (2 Kings 6:12). We know of Uriah the Hittite, Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth the Moabite, and the queen of Sheba (the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26ff is part of her legacy). Ahab’s righteous steward Obadiah is believed by some to be an Edomite, and others to be a Tyrean.
What, then, of Paul’s statement? In what sense were the Gentiles alienated, without hope, and without God? I’ll address that in my next post.
In my previous post, I suggested that Ephesians 1:3-4:16 forms a historia salutis section of the book, where Paul reviews the history of salvation climaxing with the new covenant, and the formation and structuring of God’s new-covenant people, the church.
We commonly read Ephesians 2:1-10 as ordo salutis, the work of salvation in the life of an individual believer. But this outline suggests that we should consider reading it first as historia salutis, Jesus’s once and for all historical accomplishment of our salvation. It is clear that the passages immediately preceding and following (Eph. 1:15-23, 2:11ff) refer to Jesus’s work on the cross, so reading the passage in those terms is actually quite natural. This requires that we read “you” as referring to the Gentile world, but this is consistent with the rest of the chapter.
Certainly God works resurrection in the lives of individual believers in a small image of the pattern of his great resurrection work in history. It is precisely because of Jesus’s death and resurrection that the Spirit is at work giving life to us here and now, so we have ample warrant to make a secondary application of this passage to our personal histories. If Jesus had not died for us, then what is described here would have been true of us — rebellion, death and wrath! But we should be careful in how we state the application: first of all since we want to grasp the fullest extent of what Paul is exulting in here, and second, because the details will be more or less true of the actual histories of individual believers. Even though this may have been overwhelmingly true of those who were converted in Ephesus, it cannot have been entirely the case even for the original audience: for example, 2:2 would not apply to the covenant children addressed in 6:1-3.
Praise God for the “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus!”