by Phil Enlow

Those who place the Jews in the center of God’s plan often take great pride in the idea that they take the Bible “literally.” What do they mean by this? Essentially they mean that God’s mind and intent in promises and prophecies are to be determined in much the same way as the meaning of a contract would be determined in a modern western courtroom. A modern contract is presumed to communicate clearly the intent of those making it using the plain meaning of the words and grammar involved. Those entering into a contract generally take great care so that their words are not misunderstood. Thus the role of a court is not to “interpret” a contract but to enforce its plain intent. So if a man promises, in a legal document, to pay another man one million dollars that promise is to be understood in its plainest sense and not in some symbolic way.

It is understood that such things as poetic images in the Bible are not to be taken “literally” (hills don’t literally skip like rams!) but the general idea is that if something can be taken literally it should be. Well, that sounds very reasonable, doesn’t it? After all, God communicated using the language of men and He doesn’t lie so why shouldn’t modern courtroom logic govern the interpretation of scripture? And, to be sure, it would be wrong for men to simply use the words of scripture to mean whatever they wanted them to mean.

Before we seek an answer to that question one point needs to be understood. Those who hold the particular literalist view expressed above often tend to see themselves as the only ones who truly base their beliefs on the Bible. The truth, however, is that their beliefs actually rest, not on the Bible itself, but upon the belief that their method of understanding the Bible is the only correct one. If their belief is correct then they are right. But if their belief is mistaken then their conclusions about scripture based on that belief are likewise mistaken. Everything depends therefore on their belief being correct or not.

For many people, not believing in this method is the equivalent of not believing the Bible! In effect, their belief about how to interpret the Bible is given the same status as the inspired words of scripture themselves. If you question one, you question the other. I thoroughly agree with those who believe that the Bible is the inspired God-breathed Word of God. But no method of interpretation ever devised by man can rightly be said to be inspired of God—on a level with scripture itself. I have no doubt that, if it is put that way, most who believe in this particular sort of “literalism” would agree with me. But in practice many do seem not to understand that the real foundation they stand on is not God’s Word itself but their particular view of literalism as a method of understanding it.

However, we must understand this point. It is perfectly reasonable to raise questions about any method of interpretation and the conclusions that result without being accused of “not believing the Bible.” For example, suppose I met a man who insisted that the only correct way to look at the world is through blue-tinted sunglasses. Would I be wrong to question the use of those particular glasses? Is the world really blue? Of course not! But to this man it certainly would seem so. It would be “obvious” to him, yet to you and me it would be equally obvious that the world’s “blueness” is caused by the filter through which the man is observing it.

Beliefs such as this kind of literalism have a similar effect in that they “color” the way the Bible is seen. Seen through the glasses of dispensational teaching, the Bible is basically a Jewish book, a book about the special relationship between God and the physical descendents of a man named Abraham. There are some secondary blessings for Gentiles to be sure but Jews are at the center of things. But does God’s Word itself convey this message – or is it the “glasses” that make it seem so?

Why Not?
We raised the question, “Why shouldn’t modern courtroom logic govern the interpretation of scripture?” In order to properly answer that question there are a number of things to consider. In a human contract, both parties are—well, human! They speak the same language and are from the same culture. We’re talking about God. Can we dogmatically determine the thoughts and intents of His divine purposes by analyzing words and grammar alone? For one thing that would place a knowledge of truth within reach of the human intellect. All we would need would be some diligent study and we would have God pretty much figured out.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were no doubt very smart people, but consider Matt. 11:25-27. “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’” God does not expose His purposes to the intellectually curious. They can only be known by revelation—and that only by divine choice.

When the disciples asked why Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables Jesus said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” Matt. 13:11. If the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven is only for them to whom it is given how can any of them be accessed by simply applying “courtroom logic” – or any other interpretive method, for that matter?

In 1 Cor. 2:6-10 Paul said, “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’—but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” I think it should be obvious that “those who love him” are not confined to the “church.” Surely Old Testament saints are included. Yet Paul was only able to understand what God had prepared by revelation. His natural intellect was not enough. And neither is anyone else’s.

2 Cor. 3:14-15 informs us concerning the Israelites: “But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.” They were intelligent. They could read the old covenant. They were more familiar with the language and culture than we are. But they didn’t understand. Please note that their blindness was not just with respect to the new covenant but the old one as well.

Well, surely the godly could understand. Really? Listen to the words of Peter concerning the Old Testament prophets: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.” 1 Peter 1:10-12. So not only didn’t angels understand, the prophets didn’t even understand things they themselves were prophesying! It wasn’t time. See Daniel 12:8-10 for one clear example.

Doesn’t it seem odd to you that the scribes and Pharisees who diligently studied the law had essentially the same view as many modern teachers regarding Israel? They saw Israel as God’s chosen nation and looked for a Messiah who would free them from foreign domination and exalt them above the nations in a great earthly kingdom in which Jerusalem would become the world’s religious capital. Yet Jesus had nothing good to say about them, even calling some of them children of the devil. John 8:44.

In Luke 17:20-21 we read, “Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is within you.’” Jesus didn’t for one moment suggest that the Pharisees were right in expecting an earthly kingdom.

Even his followers were affected by the common teachings of these religious leaders. Jesus had to explain to them the true meaning and intent of the Old Testament scriptures. Luke 24:25-27. Of course, much of this spiritual understanding came only after Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. See the words of Jesus in John 16:12-15.

Over and over in the scriptures, particularly in the New Testament, we encounter the fact that God is not only a God who reveals but a God who conceals. His purposes cannot be known, nor can scripture be understood by any mere method, no matter how sincere and well conceived. It is only as we come to Him with a spirit of childlike humility and dependence upon Him that there is any hope of understanding. It is my prayer that I – and my readers – will be given grace to do just that.

The picture that emerges from the scriptures as a whole is of a divine purpose that unfolds gradually over the centuries, often hidden, and only revealed within the scope of that purpose. That revelation grew clearer with the passage of time. The prophets looked forward to times and purposes they did not understand. The apostles looked backward with a clearer vision that enabled them to set the Old Testament in its proper place in God’s plan. Can we hope to understand the Old Testament apart from their inspired insight? Many seem to think so.

Understanding the Promises
We noted earlier that one category of promises to Abraham was the “national” promises. We also noted that God fulfilled every one of them: they took possession of the land, conquering the cities of their enemies; they multiplied greatly “like the sand of the sea”; during Solomon’s reign they occupied all of the land described in Gen. 15:17. So far, so good. But two key issues cause men to understand this differently. The first issue has to do with whether these promises were conditional or unconditional. The second has to do with how long these promises – particularly the national ones – were to be in force.

Here is where the logic of modern contract law comes into play. A contract is presumed to include all of the provisions agreed to, including any conditions that apply. If there is no condition specifically stated then, legally, there is no condition. Suppose I gave you a legal document that said, “I agree to give you one million dollars.” (We will ignore the obvious fact that I am in no position to make such an offer!) A document like that would be unconditional in the eyes of the court. No matter what you do I have an obligation to give you one million dollars. I could not come back and say, “If you climb Mt. Everest I agree to give you one million dollars.” I would be trying to turn an unconditional promise into a conditional one.

A modern court would not allow me to do that. But does that mean that we can apply our modern legal ideas to promises God made to Abraham thousands of years go – and not consider the rest of scripture that records how those promises were actually fulfilled? As we read Israel’s history, nowhere do we find the national promises, particularly, those relating to the land, applied unconditionally. The national relationship between Israel and God was always based on a covenant that required obedience. This is spelled out in both the law and the prophets in many, many places. Let’s just simply see what the scriptures say.

Ex. 19:5-6 says, “‘Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

Deut. 7:9-13 – “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him. Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees and laws I give you today. If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers.”

Deut. 19:8-9 says, “If the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he promised on oath to your forefathers, and gives you the whole land he promised them, because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today — to love the Lord your God and to walk always in his ways — then you are to set aside three more cities.” Think about what is said here! It is a direct reference to the promise in Gen. 15:17. Note carefully just how conditional this is. God refers to something He “promised on oath” and yet says, “IF.” Does that mean that God was lying when He promised? Of course not! Does it mean He went back on His word? Of course not! But it does mean that we had better consider the whole testimony of scripture and not just analyze words based on human reasoning if are to understand God’s intent.

Deut. 28:1-2 says, “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.” See the rest of chapter 28 as well.

Deut. 30:15-18 says, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”

2 Chronicles 15:2 says, “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Benjamin. The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.”

Jer. 17:24-25 says, “But if you are careful to obey me, declares the Lord, and bring no load through the gates of this city on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy by not doing any work on it, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this city with their officials. They and their officials will come riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by the men of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, and this city will be inhabited forever.”

In Jer. 18:7-10 we see an important principle: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.”

These scriptures are just a sampling of the many that clearly reveal a conditional relationship between Israel and God. Apart from a remnant God preserved throughout Israel’s history the nation persistently rebelled against Him and suffered devastating judgments.

How Long is “Forever”?
But what about that “forever” word? Didn’t God use words like “forever” and “everlasting” in His promises to Abraham. Don’t those words override all those conditional passages? Let’s consider.

The Hebrew word most often translated “for ever” – particularly in the King James Version – is owlam. This is an example of a word whose meaning is difficult to convey in English. “For ever,” or “forever,” in the English language literally means “time that has no end.” But it is not difficult to demonstrate that owlam is not a direct equivalent to “forever.” Dictionary definitions include expressions like “a long time,” “time out of mind,” “lasting,” etc. It is not only used of the future but also of the past.

For example, Deut. 32:7 says, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”

In Joshua 24:2, we read, “Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods.”‘“

In 1 Sam. 27:8, it says, “Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites. (From ancient times these peoples had lived in the land extending to Shur and Egypt.)”

Each of these scriptures is an example of owlam used of the past. It is obvious that the word does not mean the eternal past but is rather a rough equivalent to modern expressions such “in the olden days.”

In most cases owlam is used of the future yet there are clear examples where, for one reason or another, it cannot mean “forever” as we use the word. One example can be seen in the institution of laws concerning bondservants (Deut. 15:12-18). When an Israelite got into financial trouble one way out was for him to become a bondservant to a fellow Israelite. That Israelite would settle his debts and in return he would serve him for six years. At the end of the six years the servant had a decision to make. He could choose to leave and make a new start on his own. If he chose to leave then his master was obligated to help him liberally.

Deut. 15:16-17 says, “But if your servant says to you, ‘I do not want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his ear lobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life.” The King James Version translates this as “for ever,” which makes no sense at all. Are we really to understand that such a man is to be the other man’s servant for all the ceaseless ages of eternity to come? Of course not! While it was an irrevocable decision on the part of the servant, the actual term of service was limited by his life span.

Another similar use occurs in the account of Samuel the prophet. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had prayed earnestly for a son, vowing to dedicate him for the Lord’s service. In time her prayer was answered and Samuel was born.

In 1 Sam. 1:21-22 we read, “When the man Elkanah went up with all his family to offer the annual sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vow, Hannah did not go. She said to her husband, ‘After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always.’” Did Hannah really mean that Samuel would serve in the tabernacle literally for all eternity or was she simply giving him to the Lord with no reservations? Samuel’s actual tabernacle service was limited by his divine call to be a prophet, and, of course, by his life span, just not by Hannah.

Instructed by his father, David, Solomon built a magnificent temple for the Lord, even though he recognized that the heavens themselves could not contain Him, much less the house he had built. 2 Chron. 2:6, 6:18. Nonetheless when it came time to dedicate the temple Solomon said, “I have built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.” 2 Chron. 6:2. Did Solomon really mean “for all eternity”?

Solomon then made a long prayer appeal to God that the temple would be a place where the people could seek God’s favor and forgiveness as they had need. In 1 Chron. 7:12-22 God gives his answer. In 2 Chron. 7:16, the Lord says, “I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.”

Yet in 2 Chron. 7:19-22, the Lord continues, “But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. And though this temple is now so imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and say, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the Lord, the God of their fathers, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them — that is why he brought all this disaster on them.’”

Here we see the Lord using the “forever” word yet setting out conditions under which both people and temple would be rejected. Surely it is fair to say that while the Lord made a wonderful commitment in verse 16, that commitment was not without condition. As long as the people walked in His covenant and served Him God would faithfully do His part, but He had no obligation to those who would forsake Him to serve other gods. Thus owlam conveyed a commitment – with conditions – for a long time, but not “time without limit.” Read 2 Kings 21:1-17 for an account of what happened under the wicked reign of King Manasseh and God’s response.

In the beginning of 1 Samuel we see an old priest by the name of Eli in charge of the tabernacle. But he had two sons who were very corrupt and he did not restrain them. The Lord sent a man to him with a message: “‘I promised that your house and your father’s house would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.’” 1 Samuel 2:30. Does this mean that God broke His promise? Surely not! God was committed but because Eli honored his wicked sons above God he was rejected.

Ordinances of the Law
When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership he established a covenant of laws at Mt. Sinai. There were many commands and promises contained in those laws and quite a number of times the word owlam is used.

In Ex. 27:20-21 God said, “Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning. In the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain that is in front of the Testimony, Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening till morning. This is to be a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come.” Does this apply today? A billion years from now? The King James Version calls this “a statute for ever.” Is that literally what the Lord intended to convey?

There are many references to Aaron and his sons with respect to the priesthood and to various ordinances connected with it. Ex. 29:9 says for example, “The priesthood is theirs by a lasting ordinance.” Ex. 30:21 gives particular regulations and then continues, “This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.” In this and many other examples the King James translates owlam in these passages as “for ever” and “perpetual.” See Ex. 28:43, 29:28, 31:16-17, 40:15, Lev. 3:17, 6:18, 22, 7:34, 36, and many other scriptures.

But how could the priesthood of Aaron and his sons be “forever”? Do all these ordinances and promises apply today? Does not the New Testament make very plain the fact that the priesthood of Aaron and his descendents was temporary, forever replaced by Christ, the High Priest of the everlasting covenant? Of course it does! Surely everyone who takes the Word of God seriously will recognize that. The whole Book of Hebrews is devoted to the subject. Yet there is that word owlam repeatedly applied to things that we know from the inspired Word of God were not “forever” as we use the word. The priesthood of Aaron and his sons indeed lasted a long time but it did have an end.

If you simply read the many scriptures about Aaron and his sons by themselves you might well conclude that the ordinances were indeed “forever.” How do we know they weren’t? We know it because we see these scriptures as part of the larger context of the Word of God as a whole. That Word helps us to understand how the ancient word owlam was meant to be understood as well as how Aaron’s priesthood fits into God’s larger purpose.

Does owlam never mean “forever”? Certainly it can. Consider Psalm 90:2 – “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” In this and many other scriptures the word is applied to God. The entire context of scripture paints a clear picture of a God Who is without limit as to time or anything else. Where owlam is applied to a bondservant there is a limit because human life itself is limited by death. But such is not the case with God!

Virtually everyone that I have heard or read who makes the Jews the main focus of the Bible leans very heavily on the idea that God’s promises to Abraham were unconditional and forever. That conclusion, rooted as it is in modern legal logic and an analysis of words and grammar, is allowed to dictate the way the rest of scripture is read and understood. But is the promise of earthly blessings to Abraham’s offspring really the heart of God’s purposes revealed in the scriptures? Is that what the Bible is all about? Or is it rather a small and temporary part of a much larger purpose that is eternal and looks beyond this present evil world?

Can we really analyze and understand the Old Testament without seeing it through the inspired eyes of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and other New Testament writers as the Holy Spirit reveals? I don’t think so! At one time Paul thought God’s purposes centered in the Jews. It was only by revelation that he came to understand God’s larger purpose to gather a people from every nation, Jew and Gentile alike. I believe that we today need that same revelation. My prayer is that every reader will make these things a matter of honest prayer.

Abraham’s Children
When it comes to God’s purposes, who are Abraham’s children anyway? That’s an interesting question. How would Jesus answer such a question? Consider the things he said in John, chapter 8.

Jesus was carrying on a conversation with a curious and skeptical crowd when in verse 30 we read, “Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him.” That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it! Read on.

In verses 31 and 32 we read, “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” Well, they didn’t like that too much! They immediately protested, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Of course, Jesus was talking about slavery to sin, not to human slave owner.

As the conversation continued their true spiritual condition was exposed but one thing is significant: Jesus acknowledged in verse 37, “I know you are Abraham’s descendants.” So there is no question whatever that these people with whom Jesus was talking were, in fact, physically descended from Abraham. No doubt, they could trace their genealogy right back all the way to Abraham and in their minds that made them special in the eyes of God. I might add that many today believe the same thing of those descended from Abraham. But what did Jesus say?

In John 8:37-38 Jesus said, “I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your father.” Well, since they were Abraham’s descendants it seemed rather obvious to them who their father was so they immediately said, “Abraham is our father.” Verse 39.

John 8:39-41 continues, “‘If you were Abraham’s children,’ said Jesus, ‘then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.’” Wait a minute! That sounds like Jesus was saying that Abraham was not their father! How could that be? Their reaction to this was, “‘We are not illegitimate children,’ they protested. ‘The only Father we have is God himself.’”

Jesus’ answer at this point spells it out: “‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.’” John 8:42-47.

Think about what Jesus is saying. You are descended from Abraham but he is not your father. God is not even your father. Your father is the devil! The evidence is that you do not do the things Abraham did but rather want to carry out the devil’s desire. Also, you don’t hear me because you do not belong to God.

Unmistakably, God reckons the children of Abraham differently than men do. If you had asked any onlooker to this scene if these Jews were Abraham’s children, they would have immediately said, “Yes, they are.” But Jesus said they weren’t. It should be very evident that being a child of Abraham is a spiritual thing and not merely one of physical descent. Jesus was interested solely in what they were spiritually and that wasn’t good!

Who is a Jew?
What did Paul—himself a Jew—have to say about this issue? In Rom 2:28-29 he writes, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”

Paul, like Jesus, was clearly acknowledging that the sort of man in question was, in fact, a Jew as men reckoned such things. He had even undergone the rite of circumcision that God had instituted in Genesis 17:9-14. By every human measure this man was a Jew! However—and this is a big however—the man was only a Jew outwardly. Like those to whom Jesus spoke in John 8 he did not have faith as Abraham did. Note: Paul did not say that such a man is a natural Jew and God has a different plan for him; he simply said that he is not a Jew.

In addition, such a man’s circumcision had no spiritual value in God’s eyes since it was only outward. This distinction between physical and heart circumcision is not only referred to in the New Testament but also in the Old. For example Jer. 4:4 says, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done — burn with no one to quench it.” This was spoken to Israelites who had no doubt been circumcised physically and it shows that God was interested in their hearts and not the physical rite alone. See also Jer. 9:25-26.

Paul’s words represent God’s point of view, not man’s. As the Lord told Samuel in 1 Sam. 16:7, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” In considering the place of the Jew in God’s plan is it not fair to ask the simple question, “Who is a Jew?” Men have their ideas and opinions but God’s opinion is the only one that counts! If God says a man is not a Jew then he is not a Jew!

Consider a hypothetical modern example. A man lives in Jerusalem and is of Jewish ancestry. He is an Israeli citizen and faithfully attends a synagogue. However, like the people in John 8, he is spiritually unable to recognize Christ as his Messiah, but rather walks in the religious traditions of his fathers. The simple question is this: is such a man a Jew? Every human observer would say, “Yes.” But, based on Paul’s words, the answer to that question would be that he is not a Jew, not in God’s reckoning or for His purposes. Does that shock you? It shouldn’t—if you believe the Bible!

Who is an Israelite?
Consider what Paul says beginning in Romans 9. In 9:1-5 he writes, “I speak the truth in Christ — I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”

Without question Paul is talking about the physical descendants of Abraham who were the recipients of God’s wonderful promises. Yet it is obvious that their spiritual blindness caused him great anguish. I have no doubt that Paul himself wondered how such a thing could be. Were the Jews not special? Were they not God’s chosen people? How could they not recognize the very Son of God who had walked among them with such grace and power? What was the answer to this perplexing problem?

The answer is given in Rom. 9:6-8—”It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.”

Is this not plain? The answer is the same one we see in John 8 and Romans 2. Great promises were given to Abraham and his children, BUT merely being his children naturally did not make anyone an heir of those promises. Nor did it give such children any claim upon or any relationship with the God of Abraham. God did not even reckon them as Israel or Abraham’s children.

And so we see offspring of Abraham who are not his children, Jews who are not Jews, Israelites who are not Israelites, and natural children who are not God’s children! What about Rev. 2:9 where the Lord says to the church at Smyrna, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan”? And how about what the Lord said to the church at Philadelphia? Rev. 3:9 says, “I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars — I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.”

Brood of Vipers!
John the Baptist was a very plain-spoken man. He had a God-given role in preparing the way spiritually for Christ. The principle means used in his ministry was a “baptism of repentance.” Listen to his words in Matt. 3:7-10—”But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’”

I’ll bet they were happy to hear that! “You are children of snakes. Wrath is coming. Being descended from Abraham won’t help you. God can raise up children for Abraham from stones! If things don’t change you’re going to wind up in the fire.”

Of course John’s pointed words didn’t apply to all the people. Among the people of Israel there were true children of Abraham. One example was in John 1:47–”When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.’” Jesus understood the difference. Those who ultimately were able to recognize and believe in Jesus were the true children of Abraham, a remnant in the midst of a nation of unbelievers.

Can we afford to read the Old Testament and ignore these truths? We need to read the history of Israel in the greater light of the New Testament. When we do we can readily see a spiritual family that was begun in Abraham and supernaturally preserved through centuries of terrible spiritual darkness. We can see in every generation those who were the true children of Abraham and those who were not. It is only in the light of that knowledge that we can begin to understand who God’s chosen people truly are.

To be continued.

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