The Bible and Israel (5)

Having proven that the church is the same entity as Israel, the main difference being the spiritual maturity (or majority) of the former and the spiritual immaturity (or minority) of the latter (Gal. 3-4), the apostle Paul addresses the issue of motherhood—who is the spiritual mother of the believer, whether Jew or Gentile; and who is the spiritual mother of the unbelieving, carnal Jew?

Paul uses an allegory to illustrate this spiritual truth in Galatians 4, in which allegory there are two covenants, two Jerusalems, two mountains, and two kinds of sons of Abraham. First, there is “the Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children” (v. 25). This refers to unbelieving Judaism, whether in Paul's day, or in the modern state of Israel, and it refers to all persons (whether Jews or Gentiles) who seek salvation in the law of God and not through faith alone. A large number of members of the visible church, including the reprobate among the baptized children of believers in true churches, are offspring of the “Jerusalem which now is.” They are, to use Paul’s language, “in bondage,” that is, in the spiritual bondage of sin and death. They are “born after the flesh” (v. 23; see Romans 9:6-8) and, therefore, persecute the true children of God, who are born “after the Spirit” (v. 29). Even today, adherents of false religion persecute God’s children: thus they follow in the footsteps of their spiritual father Ishmael, and not in the footsteps of Isaac. These children of the bondwoman Hagar (vv. 30-31) are, like Hagar and Ishmael, “cast out” (v. 30). When Israel rejected Christ, there was a great casting out of the children of Hagar, and great gathering in of the children of Sarah.

Second, there is “Jerusalem which is above:” she is “free, which is the mother of us all” (v. 26). This heavenly, spiritual, true Jerusalem gives birth to children who are “the children of promise” (v. 28). We (that is, all believers in Jesus Christ, regardless of ethnicity) are children of the free Jerusalem, not children of the Jerusalem in bondage (v. 31). There are echoes here of Psalm 87, in which Psalm we sing, “And of Zion it shall be said, this and this man was born in her” (Ps. 87:5). In Zion are born not only Jews, but also Gentiles—Rahab (Egypt), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia: “this man was born there” (v. 4). “The LORD shall count, when he writeth up the people, that this man was born there. Selah” (v. 6).

Have you been born in Zion—not in earthly Jerusalem, but in the heavenly, spiritual Jerusalem? If you have, you enjoy all the blessings of Zion, God’s covenant fellowship, the promise of a rich inheritance, and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. If you do not believe in Jesus Christ, even if you can trace your lineage back to Benjamin himself, and even if you are a baptized member of a true church, you were not born in Zion—and you are a stranger to all the blessings of God. Instead, you are still in bondage to sin and death with the earthly Jerusalem and her children.

John develops this idea also in Revelation, where he identifies Jerusalem with the church. In Revelation 3:12 Christ commands John to write about “the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down from heaven.” That Jerusalem is the church, which becomes clear in chapter 21: “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride for her husband” (v. 2). The bridal imagery immediately reminds the reader of the church in Ephesians 5 and elsewhere. John becomes explicit in verse 9, “Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” What does John see—Jerusalem! “And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:10). The Lamb’s wife is the church; the church is the city of Jerusalem—the true, heavenly, spiritual Jerusalem, and our spiritual mother.

Paul has one more thing to say before he closes his epistle to the Galatians: “and as many as walk according to this rule, peace upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). What does Paul mean (and more importantly what does the Holy Spirit mean) by “the Israel of God” here? To answer that, we need to examine the text carefully. First, Paul pronounces a benediction (a blessing of peace and mercy) upon “as many as walk according to this rule.” The word “rule” is canon, which is a rule, standard or measuring rod. The immediate context, as well as the argument of the entire letter, demands that the rule be that of making no distinction in the church between believing Jew and Gentile, a rule which Paul defends vigorously in this letter. The rule is this great truth, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature” (v. 15); the rule is the conviction not to glory in anything except the cross of Christ (v. 14). Believers walk according to that rule, while the Judaizers, who glory in the flesh (v. 13), walk contrary to it.

Those who walk according to that rule, therefore, are partakers of the apostolic blessing of peace and mercy. All those who walk against that rule, by making in the church a distinction between Jew and Gentile, are strangers to the blessing of God, and partakers of his curse (1:8-9; 3:10, etc.).

Now, what about the Israel of God? If Paul meant to bless unbelieving, carnal, earthly Israel, as she existed as a nation in his day, he would be violating his own rule. How could Paul pronounce the apostolic blessing of peace and mercy upon unbelieving Israel? The meaning is clear: the Israel of God is (as we have seen in studying many passages of this epistle) the church. The Israel of God is the body of believers made up of Jews and Gentiles. In other words, the phrase “and the Israel of God” is simply a further explanation of the phrase “as many as walk according to this rule” and could be translated, as the Greek word kai is often translated, “even the Israel of God.”

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, and thus you walk according to this rule, God’s peace and mercy rest upon you, for you—and not the carnal, unbelieving, secular nation of Israel—belong to the Israel of God. If you do not believe in Jesus Christ, but you trust in your own works to be all or part of your righteousness before God, you are under the curse of the law: “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha” (1 Cor. 16:22).

To this there remains an objection—does not the word of God state that Israel is a nation forever? How then can the Christian reject the modern nation of Israel? To that we turn next time, DV.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Other articles:

The Bible and Israel (1)

The Bible and Israel (2)

The Bible and Israel (3)

The Bible and Israel (4)

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The Bible and Israel (4)

The purpose of these blog posts is to identify the true, chosen people of God—are the people of God the modern nation of Israel, or is it the church? We have seen already that believers in Christ, and therefore not unbelieving ethnic Jews, are the true children of Abraham.

Next we turn to the epistle to the Galatians. In Galatians 3, having proved that Abraham was justified through faith in exactly the same way as believers in all ages, Paul declares, “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham…so then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham" (vv. 7, 9). On the other hand, the unbelieving Jews and Judaizers (and all those today, whether Jew or Gentile, who teach and believe in justification by works) are under the curse (v. 10), from which curse Christ has redeemed us (v. 13). Thus, “the blessing of Abraham [has come] on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ: that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (v. 14). 

Notice that—the blessing of Abraham has come upon the (believing) Gentiles, while the curse of the law rests upon unbelieving ethnic Jews (and Gentiles)!

Verse 16 is pivotal. To whom was the promise of Abraham made, and what was the promise? Consider these texts: “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (Gen. 12:7); “all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever” (Gen. 13:15); "unto thy seed have I given this land” (Gen. 15:18); “and I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Gen. 17:7-8).

Did you notice the recurring word “seed” and the fact that “seed” is singular, not plural? Shamefully, modern translators of the Bible have obscured this truth by translating “seed” as “descendants.” But God does not make promises to Abraham’s descendants; he makes promises to Abraham’s seed. The fact that God makes promises to Abraham's “seed” and not to his descendants is highly significant, for it identifies for us the ones to whom God's promises are made.

God never promised anything to the mere physical descendants of Abraham, but to Abraham's seed. In Galatians 3:16 Paul identifies Abraham's seed: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” Furthermore, Paul identifies the seed of Abraham as those Jews and Gentiles (and there is no difference any longer, according to verse 28) who belong to, and believe in, Jesus Christ: “And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).

Do you see how earth-shattering and yet how wonderfully blessed that is? Paul explains it further in Ephesians 2-3. The Gentiles in Ephesus had, before their conversion, been “without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). But now, because of what Christ had done in his life, death, and resurrection, “ye who sometimes were afar off are made nigh by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). Paul's conclusion is this: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (vv. 19-20).

In the Old Testament, Gentiles were outside, but there was a way in which a Gentile could inherit the promises of God’s covenant—he became a Jew, and if he was a male, he was circumcised. This happened to Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah the Hittite, for example. Therefore, the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s covenant is in itself nothing new. The “new” aspect in which Paul rejoices, and which Paul calls the mystery, is that Gentiles are equal with the Jews through faith in Christ. They no longer have to become Jews—they are equally God’s children as Gentiles. Paul explains this “mystery” in Ephesians 3: “the mystery of Christ, which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (vv. 4-6). Notice those words—a “fellow heir” is one who receives the same inheritance as all the other heirs; “a member of the same body” (or a “co-member”) is one who partakes of the same blessings as the other members; and a “partaker” is a co-partaker, for he shares in exactly the same promise as the Jews. By using this language, Paul means to nullify in the minds of his readers any notion of a difference between (believing) Jews and (believing) Gentiles. Unbelieving Jews, however, have no inheritance, neither an earthly nor a heavenly inheritance; they are outside the body; and they receive none of God’s promises.

In Galatians 3-4, Paul teaches that the Old Testament people of God (elect Israel) is essentially the same people as the New Testament church (consisting of elect Jews and Gentiles in one body). The apostle does this by means of an illustration in which he compares a child with a mature adult. The Old Testament people of God (elect Israel) was a child, who, although she was the heir of God's promises, was in her minority, and could not receive the promises until the time of her maturity (see Galatians 4:1). During her minority period (when she was legally a child) she was under the law, which acted as a schoolmaster (3:24), a tutor, and a governor (4:2). Such schoolmasters were not mere teachers in a schoolroom—they were appointed by the father of the child to control the child’s life down to the slightest detail. The father gave the schoolmasters, tutors, and governors authority to legislate for the child, to determine her diet and clothing, to determine her religious and moral life, and even to punish her for disobedience. That is how we must understand the Old Testament law—the law determined Israel’s life, so that she was hemmed in on every side by precepts and ordinances: “But before faith came—that is, before the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, came—we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed” (Gal. 3:23).

Parents understand this. When your child is a two-year old, you determine their every move—you decide what they eat; you decide what they wear; you decide when they go to bed; you decide where they go; you protect them with barriers. But when a child matures, you give the child—for example, an older teenager—greater freedom: he determines his own schedule; he makes his own meals; he does his own laundry; he uses the car, and perhaps has his own car, for example. With freedom comes responsibility, however.

That is exactly Paul’s point. Old Testament Israel was a child kept under the law until she entered her maturity at the coming of Jesus Christ. When Christ suffered and died, rose again, ascended into heaven, and, crucially, poured out his Holy Spirit, he brought Old Testament Israel into the enjoyment of her inheritance. She no longer needs food laws, clothing laws, laws concerning sacrifices and other ceremonies, circumcision, and the temple, for she has the Spirit, the gospel, and the blood of Christ. Those laws that kept her distinctively “Jewish” pass away, never to return, because in her maturity she becomes the church of Jesus Christ made up of elect, believing Jews and Gentiles. Notice, however, when your two-year old grows up and becomes an eighteen year old, he matures—but he is essentially the same person. He is not a replacement person! Similarly, when Old Testament Israel grew up, entered her maturity, and became a free child of God, she was not replaced. The New Testament church of Jesus Christ is the same entity as the Old Testament people of God. Therefore, the church does not replace or supersede Israel (replacement theology or supersessionism), but the church is Israel—Israel in her maturity, Israel without the intolerable yoke of the law, Israel with the Holy Spirit! Therefore, the church must never seek to go back to her minority days—as if a teenager would go back to diapers—for she no longer observes the Old Testament restrictive ceremonial law. We do not keep the Old Testament feats; we do not observe Old Testament dietary restrictions; and we do not seek to be circumcised, for example (4:9-10).

The apostle is not finished, however, for he intends to explain who our spiritual mother is, namely “the Jerusalem which is above.” To that we turn next time, DV.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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The Bible and Israel (3)

Having identified the significance of the nation of Israel and having explained the meaning of Jew in the Bible, we move on to another important question—who are the children of Abraham?

Abraham is the father of the faithful, that is, the spiritual father of those who believe. Obviously, the Jews, as they call themselves, claim Abraham as their father: they boast physical and religious descent from him. This was so in the days of John the Baptist and of Jesus Christ, but they both repudiated the claim of the unbelieving Jews: “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). “If ye were the children of Abraham, ye would do the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). Paul makes the same assertion in Romans 9:6, 8: “They are not all Israel, which are of Israel… They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.”

Within Israel, even in the days of Christ, there were children of Israel or children of Abraham. And they were found in the most unlikely places! About Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, Jesus declared, “he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9); about a crippled woman, whom he healed on the Sabbath, Jesus testified, “this women, being a daughter of Abraham...” (Luke 13:16); about Nathaniel, Jesus exclaimed, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile” (John 1:47), clearly implying that not all Israelites were Israelites indeed—some were Israelites in name only! Others, such as the high priest, Caiaphas, or Judas Iscariot, and indeed the majority of the citizens of Israel, were not children of Abraham, Jews or Israelites at all! The same thing is true of the citizens of the modern State of Israel.

The apostle Paul develops the concept “children of Abraham” or even “seed of Abraham” at some length, and makes it very clear that the children or seed of Abraham include all those who belong to Jesus Christ and who make up what we call in the New Testament the “church.”  For this reason—wonder of wonders—believing Gentiles are also children of Abraham and partakers of the promises of Abraham!

We begin in the book of Romans. We have already seen that Paul restricts the term “Israel” to the elect Jews, excluding the reprobate from the number (Rom. 9:6-8). In verse 23 of the same chapter, having developed the subject of election and reprobation at some length, Paul writes, “that [God] might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles.”  

Now, notice how Paul proves his point that God elects and calls his people from the Jews and Gentiles. He quotes from the prophet Hosea: “As he saith also in Osee” (v. 25). This is a quotation from Hosea 2:23 and 1:10: “And I will sow her unto me in the earth; and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God” (Hosea 2:23). “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered; and it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God” (Hosea 1:10).

How shall the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea? The answer is—by the gathering of the Gentiles!

Peter also quotes Hosea in 1 Peter 2:10, applying it to the gathering of the Gentiles. In other words, believing Gentiles gathered with believing Jews into the church in the New Testament age are called “the children of the living God” (v. 26) and “the children of Israel” (v. 27). The ethnic, unbelieving Jews, no matter what their genealogical pedigree might be, are not the children of God, not the children of the promise, not Israel and not Jews!

I hope you are beginning to see the implications of this. Whatever God may have promised the Jews in the Old Testament, he did not (emphatically he did not) promise that to the reprobate, unbelieving majority in Israel, the “of Israel,” but only to the elect; and if a person can legitimately claim to be a Jew, an Israelite, an Israelite indeed, a child of Abraham, as all believing Christians can do, as we have seen, he or she can legitimately claim all the promises of God. And we do! No promises were ever made to the reprobate carnal seed; and therefore the reprobate carnal seed has no right to expect any blessings from God. 

But does this mean that God has finished with the Jews, those whose ethnicity is Jewish? No, for Romans 11 teaches that throughout the New Testament age God is gathering a remnant of elect, believing Jews. Paul himself is proof of this, for he was an ethnic Jew (v. 1). God's decree of election and reprobation is being worked out among the Jews: “there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (v. 5); “the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded [hardened]” (v. 7). Throughout the New Testament age, elect Jews and elect Gentiles are engrafted into the organism of God, which is fundamentally Christ himself (see John 15).

Paul explains God's purposes with the physical descendants of Israel: “blindness [or sovereign hardening] in part is happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved” (vv. 25-26). This does not mean that after the Gentiles have been gathered, God will return to his “programme with the Jews” (which supposedly has been postponed for some 2,000 years), but that in the way of gathering the elect Gentiles and (at the same time) a remnant from the Jews “all Israel shall be saved.” The word “so” in verse 26 does not mean “then,” but “in this way.” Romans 11 says nothing about a reconstituted Jewish state, a rebuilt temple or a mass conversion of ethnic Jews just prior to the second coming of Christ. Believing Jews and Gentiles together make up the church of Jesus Christ throughout the New Testament age. There is not, and there never shall be, another way of salvation. 

Before we leave the book of Romans, we examine chapter 4. There, explicitly, Paul teaches that the uncircumcision (a term used of the Gentiles) are the children of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. Abraham is “the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised” (v. 11). In fact, Paul repudiates the notion that those who are “of the law” (those who rely on their obedience to the law to be saved, i.e., unbelieving Jews) are the heirs of the promise: “if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect... Therefore it is of faith that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (vv. 14, 16).

Do you believe in Jesus Christ? You are a child, a son or a daughter, of Abraham, and therefore a child of God. Unlike the unbelieving, Christ-rejecting, ethnic Jews, we may legitimately claim Abraham as our father, and with him we may claim all the promises made to him (including inheriting the world, v. 13). 

Next time (DV), we continue our explanation by examining Paul’s teaching on the seed of Abraham in his epistle to the Galatians.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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The Bible and Israel (2)

In our first blog post, we demonstrated the status of Israel as a nation is not a political but a theological and exegetical matter. Whatever your political views concerning the Middle Eastern “peace process,” the Bible clearly defines who or what Israel is. We also demonstrated that, while many Christians, mostly of premillennial dispensational persuasion, view the “land promise” to Abraham as yet to be fulfilled, Abraham himself understood it very differently, although he never possessed the land, “no, not so much as to set his foot on” (Acts 7:5). He, despite living in the Old Testament, “spiritualized” the land promise (Heb. 11:13-16), and so should we.

The Teaching of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ—Who is a Jew?

When Christ, and before him, John the Baptist, arrived on the scene, Israel was under Roman occupation. Many of the Jews expected the Messiah to come, to expel the infidel Romans, and set up an earthly, carnal kingdom in Jerusalem. Many premillennial dispensational Christians still expect the same thing—after the church has been taken away in the so-called rapture! In fact, leading premillennial dispensational theologians teach that Christ’s initial purpose in coming to Israel was to offer to the Jews an earthly kingdom. When they rejected Christ’s offer and even crucified him, God used it for the salvation of the Gentiles, saving the Gentiles through the blood of the cross. Presumably, then, if the Jews had accepted Christ’s offer, there would have been no cross!

John the Baptist was sent as a forerunner to the Jews, exactly because the people needed to be prepared spiritually for the arrival of the Messiah. The people of Israel had become carnal, unbelieving, and self-righteous, a people proud of their ethnic heritage who had to be shaken out of their security and called to repentance. John said to the Jews of his day: “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). Ethnic Jewishness, warned John, is no indication of salvation or participation in the kingdom of God. Jesus is even more explicit: “If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham... Ye are of your father the devil” (John 8:39, 44). Jesus even declared to fruitless Israel, “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Matt. 21:43). What that other “nation” was will be explained in future blog posts.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, neither of whom could be labelled as anti-Semitic, teach that to be a physical descendant of Abraham does not make one a true child of Abraham or a true Jew. “Jewishness” is a spiritual, not an ethnic or a political, concept. 

The Teaching of Paul—Who is a Jew?

Paul, another who is no anti-Semite and who is apostle to the Gentiles makes the same kinds of assertions. In Romans 2:28-29, Paul writes, “He is not a Jew which is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh, but he is a Jew which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Take Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister of Israel. According to Paul’s—and the Holy Spirit’s—definition of a Jew, Netanyahu is not a Jew. Take the most prestigious, most religious, most orthodox Rabbi who teaches in the leading synagogue of Jerusalem. That rabbi is not a Jew either. Take, on the other hand, a Christian who has never been to Israel, who has no Jewish blood whatsoever, and who is a “Gentile of the Gentiles.” He is, according to Paul’s—and the Holy Spirit’s—definition in Romans 2:28-29 a true Jew. Reader, whatever nationality or ethnicity you may have, if you believe in Jesus Christ you are a Jew! You will inherit all the promises of Abraham, while the ethnic, but unbelieving, physical descendants of Abraham shall be cast out.

Listen to the words of Jesus: “I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:11-12).

In Romans 9, Paul addresses the question: If God promised to save Israel, and if salvation is found only in Christ, why have so many Israelites stumbled at the gospel and perished? Paul's response is not to deny God’s promise, but to clarify or define the meaning of Israel. When God promised to save “Israel,” what did he mean?  “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect, for they are not all Israel which are of Israel. Neither because they are the seed of Abraham are they all children, but in Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (Rom. 9:6-8). Do you see what Paul is teaching here? There are two kinds of people. First, there are the “of Israel.” These people belong in an external sense to the family of Abraham, to his descendants, and to the nation of Israel. Second, there is “Israel.” These people are the elect, the chosen of God, and the ones to whom God promises and gives salvation. The ones who are merely “of Israel” do not really belong to Israel. They are not Israel, writes Paul.

In other words, none of the reprobate in Israel were truly Israel; they were not counted for the seed; and they were not Jews—when they perished, Israel did not perish. When David’s son Absalom perished, an Israelite did not perish, for Absalom did not belong to Israel, even though he was a physical son of David! The same truth applies in every age. The reprobate Jews living in Jerusalem today are not Israel; they are not the children of God; they are not Jews.

In Philippians 3:2-3 the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles writes, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.”  By these terms, the apostle refers to the unbelieving Jewish heretics who taught that salvation depends on circumcision and on keeping the Law of Moses. Paul does not call them “Jews.” He calls them “the concision,” which is an allusion to the word circumcision—it means mutilation! The circumcision of unbelieving Israelites, and especially of the Judaizers, is not a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith (see Romans 4:11), but is a worthless mutilation of the flesh, of no spiritual value whatsoever!  Paul defines who the truly circumcised are in verse 3: “for we are the circumcision,” where the pronoun “we” is a reference to all believers in Jesus Christ. In the context of Philippi, it is a reference to Gentile believers in Jesus Christ: “We—Gentile believers in Jesus Christ—are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” Thus, unbelieving “Jews” are really mutilators of the flesh, while believing Christians, of whatever ethnic origin, are Jews, for they (unlike the so-called Jews) have the spiritual reality of which circumcision was a sign and seal—they have the righteousness of faith and they are circumcised in the heart, or regenerated.

One other passage from Paul is Colossians 2, in which passage the apostle counters those who sought to persuade the Gentile Christians in Colosse to be circumcised. Notice how he argues—you are already circumcised, he says! The unbelieving Jewish heretics urged physical circumcision, but the Christians in Colosse had “the circumcision made without hands” (v. 11). Christ himself had circumcised the Colossians with an inner, spiritual, cleansing circumcision—why, then, should they seek physical circumcision? If Christ had put away “the body of the sins of the flesh” (v. 11), they did not need the Jew’s knife to cut off the flesh of their foreskin! Besides that, they had water baptism, which was a sign and seal to them of the washing away of their sins by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ (v. 12). Without the Jewish rite, they were “complete in [Christ]” (v. 10).

Are modern unbelieving Jews, living in the modern state of Israel, any different from the evil workers and concision mentioned here in Philippians 3 or the heretics alluded to in Colossians 2? Not at all! Indeed, the application is broader—all who teach and promote justification by works, of whatever religion or church, are dogs, evil workers and the concision; while all who embrace justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone are the true circumcision, the true Jews, the true Israelites, and truly Israel! 

The Teaching of the Book of Revelation—Who is a Jew?

In Revelation 2-3, the ascended Lord Jesus Christ sends messages to seven churches existing in Asia Minor in the first century AD, churches consisting of believers from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. To the church in Smyrna the ascended Christ declares, “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9). To the church in Philadelphia Christ says something similar: “Behold I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee” (Rev. 3:9). Here, then, is the assessment of the Lord Jesus Christ himself: the unbelieving Jews lie when they claim to be Jews. They are not Jews, but they belong to the synagogue of Satan, the accuser of the brethren and the adversary of God.

These words are not anti-Semitic—they are holy, inspired scripture! A true Jew is a believing Christian, circumcised in the heart, and, therefore, he is a true child of Abraham. To that question—the identity of the true children of Abraham—we turn next time, DV.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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The Bible and Israel (1)

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The Bible and Israel (1)

The belief that Israel is a nation before God forever is one held almost fanatically by many professing Christians, especially Christians of a premillennial dispensational persuasion. In fact, to deny that the modern “State of Israel” (as she is called) located in the Middle East is the people of God is heresy in some circles. Reformed Christianity teaches unashamedly that the church (made up of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ) is God’s chosen people. In some circles, that teaching will be labelled today as “replacement theology" (the belief that the church replaces Israel), “supersessionism” (the belief that the church supersedes Israel) or simply anti-Semitism (hatred for the Jews). 

Nevertheless, the question concerning Israel’s status is not a political or a social question, but a theological, biblical, and exegetical question. Neither the U.S. Department of State, nor the U.K.’s Foreign Office, nor the European Parliament, nor the United Nations General Council decides who Israel is; that question must be determined from the word of God.

While the world has its view of Israel, reflected, for example, in its preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, the Christian is interested in the Israel of God: “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). In this series of blog posts, we want to explore that question.

Israel: A Concise History

The name “Israel” first appears in Genesis 32:28 when the name of the man Jacob was changed to Israel. The nation or the people of Israel, therefore, derive their name from him. The origin of the people of God must be sought earlier, of course, in Abraham, who is the great father of Israel (and Jacob’s grandfather). Before that, God’s people were found (after Adam, Eve and Abel) among the descendants of Shem, as opposed to the descendants of Cain (Gen. 4:16-5:32).

The first mention of the land that should later be called Israel is in Genesis, where Abraham was promised the land of Canaan as his everlasting possession (Gen. 12:7; 13:15). Many Christians still believe that the people of Israel (the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc.) still possess an inalienable, divine right to the land. However, this betrays a gross misunderstanding of the significance of the land, a significance that even Abraham himself understood.

Abraham himself never possessed the land, “no, not so much as to set his foot on,” as Stephen puts it in his memorable sermon (Acts 7:5). Neither Isaac, nor Jacob, nor Jacob’s sons, nor his grandsons ever possessed the land, except for a small plot of land in which some of the patriarchs were buried. After the death of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons), the people of Israel did not occupy the land. Instead, they languished in Egyptian slavery for some four hundred years. Not until the time of Joshua did possession of the land begin, and not until the time of David and Solomon did the Lord give all the land to the twelve tribes, and even then they did not possess it for very long.

After the reign of Solomon, ten tribes split from Judah and existed as a separate kingdom for some two hundred years. These ten tribes were taken captive by the Assyrians and never restored. Some one hundred and fifty years later, Babylon took the remaining two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) captive and destroyed Jerusalem, which remained a heap of rubble for some seventy years. 

Therefore, Israel possessed the land in its entirety for only about a handful of centuries. This is a far cry from everlasting possession, if we take God’s promise to mean that Abraham and his children would be physical possessors of that plot of land in the Middle East forever, which, as we shall demonstrate, was never God’s promise to Abraham, nor did he expect it, and it is certainly not the promise of God to the modern, secular state of Israel today.

After the return from captivty, Israel as a nation never possessed the land again. Various nations (Persia, Greece, Egypt/Syria, and Rome) governed Israel during the so-called “intertestamentary period.” During that same time, when Rome rose to power, the Herods, who were descendants of Esau (and not descendants of Jacob) ruled over Israel, but even the Herods were appointed by Rome and were answerable to the Caesars. Israel, therefore, did not have her own king.

By the time Jesus Christ came into the world, Israel was a miserable vassal state of the mighty Roman Empire. A generation after the resurrection of Christ (70 AD), Jerusalem was again destroyed, and the Jews were scattered to the four corners of the earth. During that whole period no descendant of David ever sat on David’s earthly throne (the last Davidic king was Zedekiah), although in God’s covenant mercy the line of David itself was preserved until the coming of Christ. 

After AD 70, when Israel’s nationhood effectively ceased, the Jews remained scattered throughout the nations retaining their distinct identity as religious, ethnic Jews. We certainly admit that the Jews have been mistreated in history, even in nominally Christian countries, for the Christian church has a shameful, anti-Semitic history. Nevertheless, as awful and shameful as the persecution of the Jews is, which every right-minded Christian certainly condemns, we have no right to allow a natural sympathy for the Jews (or for any other people or ethnic group), or a rightful condemnation of such horrors as the Holocaust, to cloud our judgment on the subject of biblical interpretation.

In 1948 Israel’s nationhood was re-established, internationally recognized as an independent country by the United Nations. In 1967, having defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Israel annexed Jerusalem making it her capital city, although politically Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s modern capital is in dispute, many nations viewing Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Recently, the U.S. government officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, which is politically but not theologically significant.

Many Christians regard Israel’s restoration as highly significant in God’s prophetic calendar, and even as a sign of the second coming of Christ. Others expect a mass conversion of ethnic Jews and even the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, which has lain in ruins since 70 AD or for some 1,948 years. As we shall demonstrate, not only do Reformed Christians not expect the temple to be rebuilt, but we also abhor the concept of a rebuilt temple, which would be further evidence of the rejection by the Jews of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Again I say, if God’s promise to Abraham was the everlasting possession of an earthly landmass, how miserably God’s promise failed! Happily, however, that was not God’s promise to Abraham, for God’s promise can never fail (Rom 9:6). God’s promise to Abraham was richer, better, and more glorious than a measly plot of land in the Middle East: it was the possession of the new creation in Christ with all the saints of God (Rom. 4:13). Abraham understood it and rejoiced in anticipation of it (John 8:56; Heb. 11:13-16). Many Christians of premillennial dispensational persuasion, with their eyes fixed on the political events of the Middle East, have missed it. Let the modern Jews and Arabs fight over a plot of land in the Middle East (and let the world attempt in vain to broker peace between the warring factions), but all true children of Abraham, including Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ, look forward to the possession of a better, heavenly inheritance.

To that we turn next time, DV.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (17)

In the last blog post on this subject, we studied the Bible’s teaching on Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, and we took note of the significance of the sacrifice of Isaac for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thousands of years after the book of Genesis was written, Mohammed wrote the Qur’an (c. 609-632 AD), which makes very different claims about Abraham, Isaac, and (especially) Ishmael.

Ishmael the Prophet

First, in Islam, Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael are revered prophets:

Say ye: “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus (Joshua), and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them; and we bow to Allah” (Surah 2:136).

We have sent thee inspiration, as we sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him. We sent inspiration to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus (Joshua), Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David we gave the Psalms (Surah 4:163).

Also mention in the Book (the story of) Ishmael: he was (strictly) true to what he promised, and he was a messenger (and) a prophet. He used to enjoin on his people prayer and charity, and he was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord (Surah 19:54-55).

Notice that Ishmael is equal in his status of prophet with the other prophets, although the Bible nowhere indicates that Ishmael was a prophet. In fact, the Bible barely recognizes Ishmael as a believer. (Theologians are divided on whether Ishmael was an elect child of God or a reprobate, a discussion of which would distract us from the main point of this article).

The Sacrifice of Ishmael

Second, most Muslims teach that Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac, but Ishmael. (Although Ishmael is not named in the pertinent passages of the Qur’an, most Muslims believe that the Bible is wrong when it teaches that Isaac is the subject of Genesis 22). Two passages of the Qur’an are relevant at this point:

He [Abraham] said, “I will go to my Lord. He will surely guide me!” “O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!” So we gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear. Then, when the son reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said, “O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: now see what is thy view!” (The son) said, “O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou wilt find me, if Allah so wills, one practicing patience and constancy!” So when they had both submitted their wills (to Allah), and had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), we called out to him, “O Abraham! Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!” Thus indeed do we reward those who do right. For this was obviously a trial. And we ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice. And we left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times: “Peace and salutation to Abraham!” Thus indeed do we reward those who do right, for he was one of our believing servants. And we gave him the good news of Isaac, a prophet, one of the righteous. We blessed him and Isaac: but of their progeny are (some) that do right, and (some) that obviously do wrong, to their own souls (Surah 37:99-113)

Surah 37 does not give the name of the “righteous son” for whom Abraham prayed. Most Muslims assume that the son is Ishmael, but that is an interpretation, not what the text explicitly teaches. The Qur’an presents Abraham and his son (supposedly, Ishmael) as cooperating in the sacrifice: Abraham tells his son (supposedly, Ishmael) about the vision, and (supposedly) Ishmael agrees to be sacrificed. In the Bible, Isaac seems not to know what is going to happen, at least not until they reach the top of the mountain: “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). In both accounts (Gen. 22 and Surah 37) the sacrifice does not take place and Abraham’s son is ransomed (see Genesis 22:13, where a ram in a thicket is sacrificed). The Qur’an’s account specifies that the son to be sacrificed will have reached “the age of serious work,” which would make him a young teenager or older.

The son in Surah 37 could be Isaac, not Ishmael. Nothing in Surah 37 demands that we identify the son as Ishmael. In Surah 37:101, for example, God announces “good news” concerning a son, but the same expression, “good news,” is used of Isaac in Surah 37:112. Could not the “good news” of Surah 37:101 and 112 be the same “good news,” i.e., the “good news” of Isaac? (In the Bible, God does not announce good news concerning Ishmael, for Ishmael is not the promised child).

Abraham and Sarah also receive “good news” (or “glad tidings”) in Surah 51, where the reference is surely to Isaac, not Ishmael (the parallels with Genesis 18 are clear):

They [the angelic messengers] said, “Fear not,” and gave him glad tidings of a son endowed with knowledge. But his wife came forward (laughing) aloud: she smote her forehead and said: “A barren old woman!” They said, “Even so has thy Lord spoken, and He is full of wisdom and knowledge” (Surah 51:28-30).

The angels’ announcement, Sarah’s unbelieving laughter, and the reference (in Surah 51:31-37) to the angelic messengers’ errand to Sodom are clear parallels with Genesis 18, where the reference is to Isaac, not Ishmael. In both Surah 37 and 51, the Qur’an references “good news” or “glad tidings” concerning the birth of a son: that son is Isaac, not Ishmael.

One Muslim apologist seeks to discredit the Biblical account of Ishmael’s expulsion in Genesis 21, for if Ishmael was not cast out, then he could certainly qualify as the son who was sacrificed. (This would also contradict the apostle Paul in Galatians 4). His main objection to the story is that Ishmael is presented as a child in Genesis 21, whereas we know that he was a teenager (considered an adult in that day). The Hebrew word translated “child” (Gen. 21:14-20), however, is not specific to young children: the word is used of Joseph (who was seventeen years old) in Genesis 37:30, Naomi’s adult sons in Ruth 1:5; and Rehoboam’s immature advisors in I Kings 12:10. It is also not unusual for Ishmael not yet to have been married, since Isaac did not marry until he was forty years old (Gen. 25:20). Esau was also forty years old when he married his first wife, Judith (Gen. 26:34). Therefore, to insist that Ishmael should have been married in his teens is mere conjecture.

Ishmael and the Kaaba

Third, Abraham is supposed to have journeyed to Mecca, where he and his son, Ishmael, (not Isaac) established the Kaaba, which is a stone structure in the center of Islam’s most holy mosque. To this mosque, every Muslim is required to make a pilgrimage at least once in his life, as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The devout Muslim faces this Kaaba when he prays five times a day.

We covenanted with Abraham and Ishmael that they should sanctify my House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer) … And remember Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundation of the House (with this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: for thou art the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing” (Surah 2:125, 127).

While Surah 2 does not specify the location of the house of worship that Abraham and Ishmael supposedly built, Surah 3:96 makes reference to Bakka (or Makkah), which is (probably) Mecca in Saudi Arabia: “The first house (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka (Makkah), full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings” (Surah 3:96). Another passage mandates pilgrimage to this “sacred house”:

Behold, we gave the site to Abraham, of the (sacred) House, (saying), “Associate not anything (in worship) with me; and sanctify my house for those who compass it round, or stand up, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). And proclaim the pilgrimage among men: they will come to thee and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways” (Surah 22:26-27).

If Abraham and Ishmael made a journey to Mecca to build a sacred house, the Bible is silent about it. In fact, such a journey is impossible to reconcile with the book of Genesis. God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans (modern day Iraq) and commanded him to dwell in the land of Canaan. The Bible records two forays outside of the Promised Land, both of which were examples of Abraham’s spiritual weakness, not his faith. In Genesis 12:10, Abraham travelled without divine sanction to Egypt to escape a famine. In Egypt, Abraham sinned grievously by deceiving the Egyptians about his wife. In Genesis 20:1-2, again without divine sanction, Abraham journeyed to the land of Gerar, where he committed the same sin. Clearly, it was God’s will that Abraham remain in the land of Canaan as a pilgrim and stranger.

The distance between Ur and Jerusalem is approximately 2,900 km (or 1,800 miles). Since God commanded Abraham to dwell in Canaan, not to leave that land, the land that God promised to give him and his seed, why would Abraham leave Canaan in order to travel some 1,700 km (or 1,055 miles) southwards to Mecca in order to set up the “house of God,” and then return to live out his days in Canaan? Why would he do that when the Bible clearly teaches that Abraham erected altars in Canaan and when eventually God mandates his house to be built in Jerusalem, not in Mecca? (In the New Testament, of course, there is no fixed place for the worship of God: “The hour cometh,” said Jesus, “when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” [John 4:21]).

Conclusion

The Word of God is clear—God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans (and out of idolatry) and commanded him to sojourn in Canaan, which, apart from two brief departures from the land, he did. In Canaan, God promised Abraham a son, a son who would not be born as a result of the efforts of either Abraham or Sarah, but as a result of a miracle. Abraham believed God’s promise:

And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God: and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:19-22).

Ishmael was born as the carnal seed, not as the spiritual seed of promise. Therefore, when Ishmael expressed his enmity against Isaac, he had to be sent away, lest he share in Isaac’s inheritance: “the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). With Ishmael gone, Abraham was tested to the limit, for God commanded him to sacrifice his only (remaining) and his only (truly legitimate) son, the child of the promise, even Isaac, the one through whom God would realize his promise of salvation for all nations. Abraham, having sustained the examination of his faith, was strengthened, and Isaac went on to be the one through whom Jesus Christ would come.

And all those who believe in Jesus Christ, as he is set forth in the gospel, are the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and they partake of all the spiritual blessings of salvation that are found in Christ alone.

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ: that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:13-14).

One final point: the Muslim will object that the Qur’an is true and that the Bible (Genesis, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, etc.) has been corrupted. Nevertheless, to corrupt the Bible in this way would require a corruption of the entire text of the Old Testament, for God is consistently called “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and Jacob” and never “the God of Ishmael.” In addition, for a Muslim to believe that the text of the Bible is hopelessly and irretrievably corrupt requires him to reject the Qur’an, for the Qur’an teaches that Allah gave the law and the gospel and even encourages the reader to find the truth in those sources:

It is he who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and he sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and he sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong)(Surah 3:3).

Let the people of the gospel judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better) than those that rebel. To thee we sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that hath come to thee (Surah 5:47-48).

If Allah sent the law (including the book of Genesis) and the gospel (the four gospels accounts were written centuries before Mohammed’s birth), and “guarded [them] in safety,” how could they be corrupt—how could they be corrupt already in Mohammed’s day (c. 609-632)? And if they were (already) corrupt, how could the people of the gospel “judge by what Allah hath revealed therein”? If, on the other hand, the (alleged) corruption took place later, we have plenty of ancient manuscript sources of the text of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, which date to centuries before Mohammed. Either way, the Qur’an compels the reader to consult the Bible for truth!

That is what we urge the reader of this blog to do—seek in the Bible, which is the word of God, for the truth concerning Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, and, most importantly, Jesus Christ!

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (16)

It has been several months since I addressed Islam on the blog (blog post Islam 15 dated May 25), so it is time to pick up the subject again. In this blog post, I intend to address the differences between Christianity and Islam with respect to Abraham, Isaac, and especially Ishmael. I will divide the material into two blog posts: first, I will explain the Bible’s teaching; and, in the next blog post (DV), I will contrast this with the teaching of Islam.

Isaac and Ishmael

We begin with what the Bible teaches on this subject, before we contrast this with the teaching of the Qur’an. God called Abraham, who at that time was named Abram, and his wife Sarah (or Sarai) out of Ur of the Chaldees in Genesis 12:1-2. Over the course of many years, God repeatedly promised a son to childless Abraham (and to his barren wife); indeed, God promised him numerous descendants, centered on a promised seed (Gen. 12:2, 7; 13:15; 15:4-6, 18; 17:1-7, 15-17, 21; 18:9-15; 21:1-8).

Notice two things about God’s promise to Abraham. First, God had a definite son in mind, a son whose father would be Abraham (“he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir” [Gen. 15:4]), and whose mother would be Sarah (“I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son” [Gen. 18:10]). Second, although Abraham did have other sons, namely Ishmael (Gen. 16:16), born when Abraham was 86 years old, and the sons of Keturah, born after the death of Sarah (Gen. 25:1-4), only Isaac was the son of the promise, the true heir, and the one in whom God established his covenant:

And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him (Gen. 17:18-19).

But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year (Gen. 17:21).

in Isaac shall thy seed be called (Gen. 21:12).

Ishmael, therefore, is not the promised son with whom God establishes his covenant. This is true for two reasons. First, Ishmael is not the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, but of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. Second, and more seriously, Ishmael is the product of the foolish and sinful impatience of Abraham and Sarah: instead of waiting for the promised miracle, the aged couple attempt to produce the promised child by a work of the flesh. This is unacceptable to God because God must receive the glory by fulfilling his promise in his time. The birth of a child in such a sinful manner leads to tension in Abraham’s household with the result that Hagar flees with the child from the wrath of Sarah (see Gen. 16:4-7).

After the birth of Isaac, who is the promised child, Ishmael, who is not the promised child, is cast out of the household because Sarah sees him mocking Isaac on the day that Isaac’s weaning is celebrated (Gen. 21:9). If Isaac was weaned at about two years of age, Ishmael was a teenager at the time. (Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born; Abraham was 99 years old when Ishmael was circumcised at thirteen years of age; Abraham was 100 years old at the birth of his son Isaac, which means that Ishmael was fourteen years old at the time; therefore, when Isaac was aged two, Ishmael was sixteen or so).

After Hagar and Ishmael were cast out of Abraham’s house, Genesis 21 describes how God miraculously supplied their needs in the wilderness, and relates God’s promise to Hagar to make of Ishmael “a great nation” (Gen. 21:18). Ishmael grew up away from Abraham’s household (“in the wilderness of Paran”) and married an Egyptian. Later in Genesis 25, the Bible relates the generations of Ishmael as “twelve princes” (Gen. 25:12-17), and records Ishmael’s death at the age of 137 years (Gen. 25:17). The rest of the history of the Bible, however, focuses on Isaac’s, and not Ishmael’s, descendants: Jacob (Israel) and his children, through whom the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, came.

Therefore, while it is true that Ishmael was a son of Abraham, and even blessed by God (Gen. 27:20), although God did not bless Ishmael’s generations, Ishmael was not the promised seed. After Ishmael was cast out, Abraham had no further dealings with him (except that Ishmael was present at his father’s burial).

The Sacrifice of Isaac

This is important to remember when we consider the history recorded in Genesis 22. We do not know how much time elapsed between the expulsion of Ishmael (Gen. 21:10-13) and the sacrifice of Isaac, but the Bible does mention “many days” (Gen. 21:34). It is very likely that years, perhaps even decades, had passed before Abraham was put to the test to sacrifice Isaac. The Bible calls Isaac a “lad” (Gen. 22:5, 12), but the word so translated has a wide range of meaning. Certainly, Isaac was old enough to have a conversation with his father (Gen. 22:7-8) and old enough to carry a substantial amount of wood for the burnt offering (Gen. 22:6). He was not a two-year old or a toddler, but a teenager or older.

In Genesis 22 God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, whom God calls Abraham’s “only son” (vv. 2, 16), as a burnt offering. To this the Muslim objects, “Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Abraham had another son, his firstborn, Ishmael.” (In fact, as we shall see, Muslims generally believe that Ishmael, not Isaac, was sacrificed some years before Isaac was even born!). Nevertheless, Isaac is rightly called Abraham’s only son for two reasons. First, Isaac was the only son left in Abraham’s household. Ishmael, although he was still alive, lived away from Abraham. Therefore, it was obvious to Abraham that, when God spoke of his “only son,” de did not have Ishmael in mind. God did not tell Abraham to seek out Ishmael and sacrifice him. (Ishmael would have been a married man by then with children of his own living in the wilderness). In fact, Abraham might well have been relieved if that had been God’s meaning, for then he could have sacrificed Ishmael and spared Isaac (whom he loved). Second, and more importantly, Isaac, not Ishmael, was the son of the promise, the true heir, and the one through whom Christ should come. That is what made God’s command so painful, and that is why it was such a difficult trial for the aged patriarch:

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of (Gen. 22:2).

This is also the New Testament perspective of Isaac. In Romans 9 the apostle Paul explains that God’s promise to save “Israel” does not mean the salvation of every single Israelite, for “they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (Rom. 9:8). Therefore, to use Paul’s language, Ishmael, or his descendants, did not count. In verse 7, the apostle writes, “Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, in Isaac shall they seed be called.” Therefore, God did not call Ishmael, or, at least de did not call Ishmael’s descendants, to salvation. This is good news for the Gentiles because physical descent from Abraham neither guarantees salvation nor excludes a person from salvation. The issue is not, “Are you a physical descendant of Abraham?” but “Are you in Christ?” And, praise be to God, one can be “in Christ” even if one has no Jewish blood whatsoever, for the Gentiles are included in the salvation of Christ!

In Galatians 3, Paul identifies the “seed of Abraham” not as Ishmael, not even as Isaac, but as Jesus Christ: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, and to seeds, as of many; but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Since Christ is Abraham’s seed, all those who are “in Christ” (whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, bond or free) are also Abraham’s seed: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). In chapter 4, Paul contrasts Ishmael and Isaac—Ishmael, the son of the “bondwoman” (slave), is “born after the flesh” (Gal. 4:23), while Isaac, the son of the “freewoman” (Sarah), is “by promise” (Gal. 4:23). The one “born after the flesh” (Ishmael) persecuted the one “born after the Spirit” (Isaac), which, says Paul, is still the case today—unregenerate, unbelieving people (even unregenerate, unbelieving, religious people) persecute God’s regenerate, believing children (see Gal. 4:29). Therefore, concludes Paul, the Galatians (Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ, and, therefore, Christians in all ages) “as Isaac was, are the children of promise” (Gal. 4:28).

The Significance of the Sacrifice

Given the importance of Isaac—and not Ishmael—as the promised son through whom the Messiah, Jesus Christ, came, the writer to the Hebrews writes the following about the events in Genesis 22:

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promise offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called, accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure (Heb. 11:17-19).

Isaac was not merely the beloved son of a doting father, the son of his old age. Isaac was much more significant—in Isaac Abraham had all the promises of salvation. In Isaac Abraham saw Jesus Christ! When he laid Isaac on the altar, he sacrificed (and showed himself willing to sacrifice) all hope of salvation, and he prefigured what God himself would do in giving his Son on the cross for the sins of his people. The main difference is, of course, that for Jesus there was no substitute. A voice cried from heaven to spare Isaac, but no voice cried from heaven to spare Jesus. Instead, Jesus willingly bore the wrath and curse of God against the sins of his people on the cross, the punishment that Abraham, Isaac, and all of God’s people deserve to bear.

What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things? Who shall say anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us (Rom. 8:31-34).

Next time, DV, we shall examine what Muslims believe about Abraham and his sons—they believe that Abraham sacrificed Ishmael, and not Isaac!

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Read the other articles in this series.

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