God's promises concerning the earth
God's promises concerning the earth
In our first part, we have seen two classes of hope held out in Scripture: the hope of the believer, namely the redemption of the body; and the hope of creation, namely deliverance “from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God”. This latter is the great subject of the Old Testament prophets. It is effected by the return of Jesus with His saints to execute judgment on the wicked and set up His throne in righteousness.
But why these different modes of acting? Why this long concealment of the heavenly hope, and then, after its fulfilment, a return to the earthly hope, so long announced and so long deferred? The question is one of deepest interest, and like all other subjects which bring out the counsels and purposes of God cannot fail, if rightly apprehended, to display in brighter lustre the riches of His glory and the depths of His wisdom.
All Scripture is the history of two men, who are thus described: “The first man is of the earth, earthy; the Second Man is the Lord from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47). The New Testament unfolds the heavenly character and the heavenly work of the “Second Man”. The Old Testament treats of the relations of these two men with the earth. It records the history of the first man, created in innocence, falling under the power of sin, and ever manifesting in darker colours his ruin and his alienation from God. It foretells the triumphs of the Second Man, who retrieved the ruin brought in by the first, and glorified God in the scene in which sin had dishonoured Him. It was the entrance of sin and the ruin of the first creation that gave God the opportunity (if we may so speak) of bringing forth this Second Man, in whom all the glories of His person are displayed and all the treasures of His love unfolded. We shall see the character and extent of the ruin, and the failure of the first man in every position in which God placed him; and we shall see how the Second Man takes up the broken thread and carries to perfection the Divine purposes.
This will appear very plainly if we look at the various promises of blessing made to man on the earth. I shall show that none of the promises have yet received their complete (some of them not even a partial) fulfilment, and that all await their perfect accomplishment in the “revelation” of the Second Man, the Lord from heaven, according to the New Testament prophecies at which we have already glanced. The promises might be classified in various ways, but for our present purpose it will be sufficient to enumerate the following leading features:
First — That the woman's seed should bruise the serpent's head;
Second — That in Abraham's seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed;
Third — That Abraham's seed should possess the land of Canaan and should be head of the nations;
Fourth — That David's seed should reign over the earth, and that of his kingdom there should be no end.
I. Man was created innocent. His state in innocence was one of dependence upon God, subjection to Him, and communion with Him; of entire freedom from disease and death; and of headship over a creation which God had blessed and pronounced very good. But Satan, working on man's self-will and unbelief, brought in sin, and all was ruined. Man lost the sense of dependence upon God and gained an evil heart of unbelief. He exchanged subjection to God for subjection to Satan; communion with God for alienation and a desire to hide from His presence. He became the prey of disease and death. The physical world, the very ground, was cursed for his sake, so that from that hour the “whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” But while the first man is thus ruined, God speaks of One named the “woman's seed”, to whom the earliest promise is given. Adam had been overcome by Satan; but the woman's seed was to vanquish the victor, and though Himself wounded in the conflict, was to crush the head of the destroyer.
Two things are here noticeable. First, in the curse pronounced on Adam, not a word is said about anything beyond death. God's blessing on man had only set him in the earth as its head and ruler; and the curse goes no further than to revoke the earthly blessing. This is important as defining the sphere of Old Testament truth. From the New Testament we know that after death comes the judgment, also that the patriarchs desired “a better country, that is, an heavenly”, but on these matters the Old Testament is silent. Hence it is clear that the scope of the Old Testament is only God's purposes about the earth. Its silence as to anything after death does not imply that nothing was known; merely that this class of truth is outside its proper sphere, and should not be looked for in this portion of God's Word. The second thing to be observed is that there is no promise of the removal or mitigation of the curse, no hint of moral or spiritual improvement, given to the first Adam. A promise is given, but it centres in another, the woman's seed. The first man is driven from the garden, excluded from the tree of life, left helpless in the grasp of his conqueror. Disease and death, a groaning creation and moral alienation from God still subsist, the badges of his servitude and the witnesses of his fall. But complete triumph is promised to the Second Man. By Him alone can the enemy of God and the destroyer of man be stripped of his dominion and trampled in the dust.
From these two fountain-heads, the fallen Adam and the woman's seed, flow two streams, the one dark as death, the other rich with the promise of blessing and ever broadening and deepening into fuller glory. The history of ruined man, the first stream, rolls on in gathering gloom, till it issues in the rejection of the Christ and the reception of the Anti-Christ. The unfolding of God's purposes in His Son, the second stream, also moves on without interruption, each accession of human guilt only adding to its volume, and bringing out the glory of God and His chosen one with more striking beauty. Man left to himself goes on from bad to worse. Science and art flourish, cities are built, wealth accumulates; but the earth was corrupt and filled with violence, and God said “I will destroy man whom I have created”. The flood came, “the world that then was" perished, and Noah issued forth into an earth cleansed from pollution. This earth God blesses, because of the sweet savour, the type of Christ, which He smelled; but man's character remains unchanged. “And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seed-time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:21–22).
But besides the removal of the curse from the soil, God entrusts the sword of government to man, ordaining that “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed“ (Gen. 9:6). Thus man is placed on a renewed earth, and with civil institutions directly sanctioned by God. All, however, is of no avail. Noah, so far from showing himself able to govern the earth, cannot even govern himself. Man uses government for the purpose of godless self-exaltation, and it is confounded at Babel. Before Abraham's time the worship of God Himself had been given up for the worship of devils. “Your fathers”, says Joshua, “dwelt on the other side of the flood (the river Euphrates) in old time: even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods“ (Josh. 24:2). That these other gods were devils we learn elsewhere. “They sacrifice unto devils, not to God", says Moses in his song (Deut. 32:17). And again, “They sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils” (Ps. 106:37). So, too, the Apostle Paul writes: “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils” (1 Cor. 10:20).
II. But the increasing wickedness of man only serves to show forth more conspicuously the boundless resources of God. He calls Abraham from the midst of this idolatry, leads him forth into a distant land, and there makes to him and to his seed two closely-connected but distinct promises. One of these, often repeated, and variously expressed, is thus first announced: “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). This is repeated in almost the same words in Gen. 18:18, but somewhat later, after the obedience shown in giving up Isaac, it takes a different form: “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). In this last shape it is renewed to Isaac (Gen. 26:4). Again Jacob is told “In thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed“ (Gen. 28:14). Now here, though the blessing is said to be in Abraham, it is clear that the seed, and not Abraham, was the object of God's thoughts. Abraham was the root of blessing only as he was the father of this promised seed. This is obvious from the reference made to this promise in the New Testament. “Now to Abraham and his seed”, writes Paul, “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). And this is spoken with reference to the whole of the promises, even those in which no mention of the seed was made (v. 8). So that the seed spoken of in these passages is not the nation of Israel, but Christ. Here again, therefore, the promise is not in the first man, but in the Second, that same seed of the woman who, according to the earliest promise, was to crush the head of the serpent.
III. There is, however, another promise given to Abraham. “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great, and thou shalt be a blessing, and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee” (Gen. 12:2–3). This promise was accompanied by another, “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (v. 7). Still later, Jehovah said to him “Lift up now thine eyes and look from the place where thou art, northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward; for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever” (Gen. 13:14–15). The boundaries of the gift are afterward stated — “Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18); and the perpetuity of the possession is further guaranteed — “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“ (Gen. 17:8). Moreover their supremacy over other nations is promised — “In blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies” (Gen. 22:17). The promise is renewed, without material variation, to Isaac (Gen. 26:3–4). But in the prophetic blessing bestowed on Jacob by his father, we have the addition “Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee; be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee; cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee“ (Gen. 27:29). The same promise is further given to Jacob at Bethel (Gen. 28:13–14), and once more after his return to the land (Gen. 35:11–12). In the vision of Balaam, we have this strain again renewed. “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which Jehovah hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations, his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee“ (Num. 24:5–9).
Now it is clear from the language spoken to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that the seed referred to in these promises is not Christ, but a multitude, like the sand of the sea-shore; and the words put by the Spirit of God into the mouth of Baalam show that this multitude was the nation of Israel. This may seem at first sight to be at variance with what I have before said — that all the promises refer to Christ, and that all blessings come to the earth through Him. I shall show, however, that the contradiction is only apparent, that these promises have not yet had their fulfilment, but failed through the sin and corruption of the first man, and will only receive their accomplishment when the Second Man is brought forth, and by means of the work He performs.
A short examination of the promises compared with the history of Israel will make it clear that in this history they receive only a very partial and imperfect fulfilment. In the first place, the promises were given to the patriarchs absolutely without condition.
But the Israelites have never had an unconditional possession of the land of Canaan. The terms on which they entered were these: “If ye will walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments and do them, then I will give you rain” and other promised blessings. “For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful and multiply you, and establish My covenant with you“ (Lev. 26:3–9). “But if ye will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments I will bring the land into desolation, and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it; and I will scatter you among the Gentiles, and will draw out a sword after you; and your land shall be desolate and your cities waste”(vv. 14–33). The same thing is repeated in still stronger language in Deuteronomy 28. The Israelites never had, therefore, anything more than a conditional tenure of the land, and it is needless to say that a conditional gift is no fulfilment of an unconditional promise. This is not left to our own judgment, however, for we are plainly told in the language of Pau, “that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise, but God gave it to Abraham by promise“ (Gal. 3:17–18).
Again, except for a short time in the latter part of David's reign and the beginning of Solomon's, Israel did not possess the gates of her enemies, nor were other nations blessed or cursed according as they blessed or cursed her. On the contrary, her history is one of failure, servitude and defeat, ending in complete overthrow and captivity.
Moreover, the boundaries of the land taken possession of by Israel, instead of extending “from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates”, comprised a mere fraction of this territory. And even within the limited portion which they professedly occupied, no mean part was really in the hands of their enemies.
Lastly, the land was given to the seed of Abraham “forever,” or as it is elsewhere expressed, “for an everlasting possession.” That this was not the case with Israel's possession of Canaan is certain. But has the Lord forgotten His promise? Or are we to assume that the promise was not meant for Israel? So far from it, we find that in the same prophecy in which the Lord speaks of the conditional tenure, and foretells the casting out of Israel in case of disobedience, He points forward to the time when the promise made to Abraham will receive its true fulfilment. “When they be in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them“ (Lev. 26:44). He says also: “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land“ (v. 42). The conditional and temporary possession enjoyed by Israel is not, therefore, the fulfilment of the covenant with the fathers.
We see, then, that Israel never received the promise. A partial fulfilment doubtless took place, and this we shall find to be God's general mode of acting. When a promise is given, the first man is tried to see whether he can inherit it. This is the partial fulfilment, and the result invariably is to prove the inability of man after the flesh to receive any blessing from God's hands. This, however, does not cause God to change His purpose or the promise to remain unfulfilled. He has in reserve, as the focus in which all the promises centre, the Second Man, the man of His own right hand, whom He will bring forth in His own time to receive all that the first man has failed to obtain, and to do all that the first man has failed to accomplish. The Scripture evidence that Israel's national blessing and glory are fulfilled in the reign of Christ, as well as the character of that reign, will occupy us hereafter; though when we look, immediately, at the fourth promise, we shall find enough to satisfy us on this point in the present stage of our inquiry.
IV. The third promise awaits, as we have seen, its complete fulfilment. It had, however, a partial and tentative fulfilment in the entrance of the Israelites into Canaan — and their subsequent chequered history in the land. At length God called to their head a man after His own heart, and to him He gave the last of the four leading promises above enumerated. The passage containing this promise is remarkable. “I took thee”, says the Lord, “from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, to be ruler over My people, over Israel: and I was with thee whithersoever thou wentest, and have cut off all thine enemies out of thy sight, and have made thee a great name, like unto the name of the great men that are in the earth. Moreover I will appoint a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime, and as since the time that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel, and have caused thee to rest from all thine enemies. Also Jehovah telleth thee that He will make thee an house; and when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for My name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be My son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men. But My mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever“ (2 Sam. 7:8–16).
Now this promise evidently has a double application. It refers in part to David's immediate successors, who did commit iniquity and were chastened with the rod of men. But it is manifest that the terms of the prophecy correspond only in very small measure with the history of the Jewish sovereigns, and that nothing has yet taken place at all resembling the permanent dominion here described. There can be no doubt, then, that the prophecy has yet to receive its fulfilment, and that this fulfilment is to be found in “the Second Man”. Indeed, the language of Hebrews makes this plain, for there a portion of this prophecy, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to Me a son”, is expressly quoted as referring to Christ. But the prophecy brings out another thing, connected with the promise to Abraham we were last considering.
Though this prophecy was uttered at the moment of Israel's greatest glory, God speaks of their establishment in peace and security as still future — “I will appoint a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more;” and He further connects this stable possession with the reign of the Son of David of whom He said — “I will stablish the throne of His kingdom for ever.” This dominion of the seed of David is also associated in a prophecy closely resembling the above, with the blessing of the whole earth, promised through the seed of Abraham. Among the glories of the kingdom established by David's Son, we read, “His name shall endure for ever; His name shall be continued as long as the sun; and men shall be blessed in Him; all nations shall call Him blessed“ (Ps. 72:17).
Thus we find the two promises to Abraham and the promise to David linked together, all awaiting their fulfilment in that Second Man who will take up God's purposes of blessing concerning the earth, and carry them into execution for His glory. Committed to the first man, they have utterly failed. Entrusted to the Second Man, they will be triumphantly accomplished. He it is who will crush the head of the deceiver of the world; He it is in whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; He it is that shall deliver Israel out of the hand of her enemies to serve Him without fear; He it is who shall have dominion from sea to sea, and of whose kingdom there shall be no end. He alone, as the myriads of angels declare; is “worthy … to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12).
THE PROMISES NOT FULFILLED BY CHRIST'S FIRST COMING
THE question now arises, When and how do these promises receive their fulfilment? It is agreed that so far as they are yet unaccomplished, they will receive it in the person and work of Christ. But here the agreement ends. Most interpreters hold that the promise as to the land has already been fulfilled, and that the other promises either have been or will be fulfilled as the immediate or ultimate result of the first coming of Christ. I have already shown that the former of these views is a mistake. I shall now inquire whether there is any better foundation for the latter.
The interpretation which makes all the promises flow out of Christ's first coming, rests on two assumptions:
I. That the Church is the same seed of Abraham to which the promises are given; and
II. That the universal reign of David's seed, the blessing of the nations and the bruising of the serpent's head will all be fulfilled by the conversion of the world to Christianity.
Before examining these propositions, I will ask one question. Could any thoughtful and spiritual Jew, before the time of Christ, reading his own prophets and trusting God, have believed that God's promises did not refer to national blessing and restoration but to blessing of a different kind and given to a different people, blessing which must begin with the dispersion, and end with the absorption, of his own nation? If not, the prophecies, as above interpreted, could only deceive him. But let us examine these rules separately.
I. The first rule of interpretation is that the Church is the seed of Abraham to which the promises are given. Now, that believers are the children of Abraham is not disputed. The question is whether they absorb into themselves, and divert from Israel, the promises given under this head. In one of the Abrahamic promises, the seed named is Christ Himself; in the other it is a countless multitude. To this innumerable seed was promised the perpetual possession of a certain geographical area, together with national supremacy in the earth. Now how can this be interpreted as the portion of the Church? But since it has not yet been given to Israel, and since it is not the portion of the Church, the promise still has to receive its fulfilment outside the Church. In other words, the Church does not set aside Israel, or usurp the promise of national blessing and glory.
This is enough for our purpose, for if the Church does not embrace all the unfulfilled promises, the common interpretation fails. It may be well, however, for the sake of clearing up what to some is a real difficulty, to look at the passages on which this interpretation rests. Romans 4:11–17 says that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had, yet being uncircumcised; that he might be the father of all them that believe though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also; and the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. For the promise that he should be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. (For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect; because the law worketh wrath, for where no law is, there is no transgression.) 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, as it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations.”
But the promise here is not the promise of the land. It is a summary of God's promises announcing His purpose to make Abraham the root of blessing. Thus believers are morally Abraham's children, as the father of the faithful. This is all that the passage states as to relationship. They will inherit the world as joint-heirs with Christ, and the promises to Abraham are varied and extended in God's grace to include them. This is all that the passage says about the promises. The specific promise to the descendants of Abraham is not transferred to the Church, and is altogether inapplicable to it. And so far are the literal seed from being set aside by the spiritual seed, that the promise is expressly stated to belong to the seed “which is of the law” as well as to that “which is of the faith of Abraham”.
In Galatians 3:7, we are told “that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham”. In verses 27 to 29, we read “As many of you as have been baptised into Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise.” Here the promise is the blessing of all nations in the seed, that is in Christ. Of this promise believers are heirs as made one with Christ. The chapter does not name the promise given to the multitudinous seed, much less show the Church as taking this promise away from Israel.
But again, it is written “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” (Rom. 2:28–29). Also, “We are the circumcision, which worship God in the Spirit“ (Phil. 3:3). So too, ”As many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God“ (Gal. 6:16). Do not these passages, it may be asked, show that Christians have now become the true Israel and the true circumcision? The first passage, however, is not written about Christians at all but about Gentiles who fulfilled the law as compared with Jews who broke it. The second simply warns believers against going back to symbols, on the ground that they have that which these symbols only typified. In the third, the expression “Israel of God” is figuratively applied to those who for the time had taken Israel's place as the special object of God's favour.
The collective testimony of these passages, then, is that believers are spiritually the children of Abraham; that in Christ they are heirs of the promises; that they have the thing which circumcision outwardly signified; and that they possess the place of priority in God's present dealings which Israel once enjoyed. But that the specific promises made to Israel are handed over to the Church is a notion which none of the passages even suggests, and which one of them expressly refutes, by reserving the promise to the seed, “which is of the law”. In like manner the Apostle Paul, while fully disclosing the counsels of God in setting aside Israel for a while, declares that still to the Israelites “pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises“ (Rom. 9:4). Of the positive side of this question, however, I shall speak more fully hereafter. I merely quote this verse in passing as a direct refutation of the inference that is often drawn from a hasty interpretation of the portions above cited.
II. The second rule of interpretation is that the universal reign of David's seed, the universal blessing of the nations and the bruising of the serpent's head are all brought about by the conversion of the world to Christianity.
Now assuredly nobody denies the untold wealth of blessing flowing out to the nations of the earth from Christianity. So magnificent is the believer's portion that, were we left to our own thoughts, we might well suppose these blessings to fulfil all God's purposes of grace. But Scripture teaches otherwise. Speaking of Israel and their present rejection, it says: “Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles, how much more their fulness“ (Rom. 11:12). The world's complete measure of blessing, then, is only brought in by the “fulness“ of Israel. But it may be asked, Does not this mean the conversion of the Jews to Christianity? The Word of God does not say so, and all the reasoning of the chapter points to the contrary conclusion. For, first, it is said that “as concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sakes; but as touching the election they are beloved for the fathers' sakes” (v. 28). Now, if they come into the same blessing and in the same way as the Gentiles, where is the contrast? Secondly, the Gentile is warned that he may be cut off, and this warning becomes a dark certainty, when we find that his tenure of privilege depends on a faithfulness in which he has entirely failed (v. 22). But thirdly, Israel's exclusion “until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in“ (v. 25) shows that the period of Gentile blessing will end and that Jewish blessing cannot go on at the same time as Gentile; in other words, that the blessings are of a character incompatible with each other. Fourthly, the whole reasoning of the chapter points to the cessation of Gentile, and the renewal of Jewish privilege, as a great dispensational change marked by the “Deliverer“ coming out of Zion and turning “away ungodliness from Jacob“ (v. 26), a description wholly without meaning as applied to the conversion of Israel to Christianity. Thus the reign of David's seed and the blessing of the Gentiles, instead of being brought about, as this rule of interpretation requires, by the Christianising of the world, only begins in its largest sense after Christianity has ceased and Israel as a nation has been restored.
But again, if this system of interpretation is correct, if all the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament receive their fulfilment in Christianity, how is it that the New Testament is so silent about them? Why do the writers, inspired by the Holy Ghost to unfold the truth of Christianity, make hardly any allusion to them? The prophecies of Isaiah abound with glorious predictions of the exaltation of the Lord's mountain above the hills, of the beating of swords into ploughshares, of the knowledge of Jehovah covering the earth as the waters do the sea. Preachers constantly quote these prophecies as having their fulfilment in the triumphs of the gospel. Did Jesus in His teaching ever do so? Did Paul ever do so? Why not? Was Paul less keenly alive to the prophetic glories than these preachers? Why then is his language so different from theirs? His silence on this inviting theme would be inexplicable, unless he had been taught by the Spirit that the Old Testament prophecies were not to be fulfilled in Christianity, but in quite a different way.
But it is not merely the silence of Scripture, however suggestive, that clashes with this rule of interpretation. The New Testament furnishes the strongest evidence that Christianity, instead of overspreading the earth and bringing in the final period of blessing foretold in ancient prophecy, will have a sadly different history. We have already looked at a passage in which the Gentile is told that God's goodness is extended to him “if thou continue in His goodness; otherwise thou also shalt be cut off” (Rom. 11:22). Thus the Gentiles are placed as a whole in the same position of responsibility and trial as the Jews were of old. Will anybody say that the Gentiles have been more faithful to the trust put in their hands than the Jews were? Will anybody say that they have, as a body, continued in God's goodness? If not, they must be cut off. And if God had intended to plant them securely as He has promised to plant Israel, would He ever have spoken of their being cut off? This passage, then, instead of predicting the universal spread of Christianity, declares by implication that it will cease, and that God's purposes of blessing for the earth will be accomplished by other means.
We have, however, other indications of the future of Christianity as a professing system in the world. Paul warns the Ephesian elders: “After my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them“ (Acts 20:29–30). Here we have the seeds; let us look at the plant. “Now the Spirit speaks expressly that in the latter time some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1). Such are the “latter days” of Christendom as foretold by the apostle. Now hear the “latter days” spoken of by the Hebrew prophet. “Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek Jehovah their God, and David their king; and shall fear Jehovah and His goodness in the latter days” (Hosea 3:5). Are the apostle and the prophet writing of the same thing? Impossible! But if not, the Old Testament prophecies have not their fulfilment in the Church and Christianity. These, however, are only the “latter days”. Does the Spirit, then, give us any brighter picture of the “last days?“ Listen to the words of Paul. “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, truce-breakers, false-accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:1–5). So, too, Peter speaks of false teachers “who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them,” and through covetousness should “with feigned words make merchandise of you“ (2 Peter 2:1–3). Is this followed by improvement? On the contrary: “Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:3–4). Jude warns believers, “Remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, how that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit” (Jude 17–19). John also writes, “Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time” (1 John 2:18).
This shows that one mark of the “last time“ is the appearance of antichrists, which in principle — so early did corruption set in — had already begun.
Contrast all this with the “last days” spoken of by the prophet. “And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of Jehovah's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow into it; and many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, to the house of the God of Jacob: and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of Jehovah from Jerusalem; and He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more“ (Isa. 2:2-4). Is it possible to conceive a greater contrast? And yet, according to the interpretation we are examining, Isaiah is speaking of the same thing, and describing the same epoch in its history, as Paul and John.
But did not Jesus Himself, in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, predict the conversion of the world? Everybody knows that the parables are constantly so interpreted. But is such an interpretation correct? They form part of a group of three in which Jesus unfolds to His disciples, to whom it was given “to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”, the mysterious form in which it was about to be established. The first parable discloses that in this form of the kingdom the wheat and the tares would grow side by side till “the end of the age”. It is not, therefore, of true believers but of Christendom that Jesus speaks, and in Christendom, instead of the universal triumph of the gospel, the wheat and the tares grow side by side until the end.
Now it is impossible that the two parables immediately following this can contradict it. What, then, is their true meaning? The first likens the kingdom of heaven — this mixture of wheat and tares — to a grain of mustard seed “which, indeed, is the least of all seeds, but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32). What is there here about the conversion of the world? All that the parable shows is that the kingdom of heaven, or Christendom, grows from a very small thing to a tree, the symbol for a great earthly power, in which the birds of the air — clean and unclean things — have their habitation.
The other parable compares the kingdom to “leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened” (Matt. 13:33). According to the received interpretation, the meal is the world, the leaven the gospel, and the leavening of the mass the universal spread of Christianity. But what is the authority for this interpretation? According to all Scripture symbols, the meal signifies what is good, whereas this interpretation makes it signify what is bad; according to all Scripture symbols, the leaven signifies what is bad, whereas this interpretation makes it signify what is good; according to all Scripture symbols, the leavening of the meal signifies the corruption of what is pure, whereas this interpretation makes it signify the purifying of what is corrupt. The connection declares that the kingdom of heaven will be spoiled by Satan's work and that the damage will endure to the end; the traditional interpretation would make Satan's work to be eradicated and the damage not to endure to the end. Finally, the parable, as ordinarily understood, derives no confirmation from fact; whereas the parable understood according to the usage of Scripture and the immediate context is in painful accordance with the history of Christianity in all ages.
There is only one other point on which it is necessary to touch. We have shown that the hope of the believer, held out in Scripture, is the coming of Christ to take the Church to Himself. The inconsistency of such a present hope, with the supposed conversion of the world to Christianity, I need not again insist upon. I only now allude to it as showing how perfectly harmonious the Word of God is with itself, and how invariably opposed to the theological dogmas and traditional interpretations which a corrupt Christendom has placed upon it. Being ignorant of the mystery of God's working, Christendom has become wise in its own conceits; instead of fearing, it has been high-minded; it has boasted itself against the branches, and laughed to scorn the solemn warning, “If God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spare not thee”. And what is the result? Instead of enjoying its own heavenly blessings, it has appropriated the Jewish earthly blessings. It has run the streams of prophecy into Church channels, through which they were never meant to flow, and, on the strength of predictions which do not belong to it, has forgotten that if it does not continue in God's goodness, it also shall be cut off. Judaism, confident in the promises, blind to the signs of the times, and moving on presumptuously to unforeseen destruction, was a spectacle that moved the soul of Jesus to tears. What are His thoughts as He gazes down upon Christendom, equally confident and equally blind, boasting itself in its fancied security and ignorant of the terrible judgment towards which it is recklessly hastening?
And now let us look back for a moment at what we have found to be the testimony of Scripture concerning the question whether the Old Testament promises are fulfilled in Christianity. We have seen that although believers, through God's grace, are brought into the circle of Abraham's seed, and so made partakers of the promises, there is another class, the natural seed, to whom the promises are still said to belong; that it is not until this class, Israelites according to the flesh, receive their portion, that the full blessing to the Gentiles will be secured; that there is no foundation for the belief that the world will be converted through the preaching of the gospel, but the strongest evidence to the contrary; and that the hope of the Lord's coming is inconsistent with this traditional expectation. We must still seek, therefore, what information Scripture gives as to the mode in which those mighty promises of earthly blessing are to receive their fulfilment.
Extracted from: "THE LORD'S COMING, ISRAEL, AND THE CHURCH"