We thought last week about ‘lucky dip bible reading.’ This an approach to the bible that is based on the truth that God speaks to us through his word – we can all happily agree with that, but some people think that God speaks directly when we simply open the bible randomly and apply directly to ourselves whatever we read.
There’s a famous joke about a man who adopts this approach, he’s sufficiently knowledgeable to know that the New Testament is more relevant to his times so he opens firstly a random verse at the beginning of the New Testament, the bible falls open at Matthew 27:5: ‘Judas went away and hanged himself.’ Somewhat puzzled he randomly turns the pages for more guidance, this time to Luke 10:37 and alarmingly reads, ‘Go and do likewise.’ In a state of alarm, he feels he needs more of God’s word to explain this worrying word from the Lord, this time to John 13:27 where he reads ‘what you are about to do, do quickly!’ This is amusing and a clear lesson. It is sadly a lesson that many, many Christians do not take to heart.
- A message for the Hebrews
I guess I’ve heard scores of sermons on the book of Hebrews and I myself have spoken on one or two passages from this book. In all that time, I do not recall once hearing the speaker mention that the book is written to Hebrews! The book’s title is ‘The epistle to the Hebrews.’ That’s pretty clear. Imagine for a moment that my wife arrives home to find me in an excited state and I state that I’ve decided to buy a brand new flat in London, it’s two bedrooms, in a great location and only £1.2 million pounds! How on earth could I think we could afford such a place! I show her a bank statement that has just arrived at our house and it shows that there is 5 million pounds in the account. She looks at the address and quickly points out that the bank statement has not been sent to me – it has come to our address but is not for us! When we come to the epistle to the Hebrews, we must respect that the letter is not written to us! That doesn’t mean to say that it does not have important and helpful things in it that we can learn from, but to repeat, it is not written to us. As one theologian put it, all the bible has been written for us but not all the bible has been written to us.
This raises an reasonable objection. In Pau’s letter to the Galatians he makes this statement in the 3rd chapter: ‘28 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.’ On the surface it seems that Paul is saying that the previous distinctions of Jew and Greek have been removed and thus we can take the epistle to the Hebrews is indeed for us – we can take all of it directly for ourselves. This would be an incorrect deduction. In his Galatians letter, the apostle Paul was emphasising the unity of the gospel – there is no distinction in the way we receive the gift of rescue from sin – all must believe in Jesus Christ in the same way. Does this mean that Jews are now identical to Gentiles, with identical destiny and identical standing? If we look at Paul’s statement again, we see that distinctions remain – the statement is ‘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.’ Did this mean that there were no longer slaves and free men in Paul’s day – no! Did this mean that there were no longer male and female (with their distinctions) in Paul’s day – no! Did this mean that there were no longer Jews and Greeks in Paul’s day – again no! But these distinct groups were and are nonetheless ‘all one in Christ.’
This is all very well, but how can there be a distinction between Jews and Greeks, isn’t this just like saying that there is a difference between the Scots and the English? They are distinct nationalities, but th
ey are both British. This would be a false analogy. God has made specific and unconditional promises to Israel. God’s promises have not been fully realised – there remains the outworking of these promises for Israel. Paul makes this explicitly clear in his letter to the Romans. The issue at that time was that Israel had rejected the coming of the Messiah – they had murdered him and then they had formally rejected the coming of the Holy Spirit. As a result of this monumental rejection of God’s love they had been ‘cut off’ as branches on a tree. New branches have been grafted in (Gentiles). Paul makes it explicitly clear that this is not a permanent situation: ‘Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved (Romans 11: 25-26).’
Whilst we are on this theme, we should take some of the apostle Paul’s advice on how we should view the Jews in these current circumstances. There is a natural tendency to look down on the people who despite centuries of God’s instruction missed their opportunity to crown the Messiah as their king. As we saw last week, there is enmity between Satan and the woman, Israel – but there should by no means be enmity between the church and Israel. Sadly, over the years this has not been the case. Christendom has not been kind to the Jews. There has been an unforgivable antisemitism in the church down through the ages. Medieval Christian art often depicted two young women, Ecclesia and Synagoga. The former being an upright forward-looking young woman representing the church, the latter a downcast blind-folded woman bearing a broken lance. A good example is to be found at Strasbourg Cathedral (see picture). The intention was to denounce the failure of Israel and the success of the church. Some of the reformers, who surely ought to have known better practised a similar antisemitism. Martin Luther wrote: ‘What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews, First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools…second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.’ I suspect that the apostle Paul foresaw this sort of attitude, he wrote in Romans 11: ‘17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches.’ Enough said!
- The return of Israel
We live in days in which there has been no return of Israel to fellowship with God. They remain a people who continue to reject Jesus the Messiah. If they will once again return to the Lord, it seems entirely reasonable for us to ask how this will come about. I often look at the ‘what we believe’ pages of church websites. More or less all of them mention what the church believes with respect to the return of the Lord. They basically say Jesus will return, there will be a judgment, there will be eternal joy or punishment depending on faith and there will be a new heaven and earth. That’s not bad is it! But it surely doesn’t tell the whole story. I observe a trend in the church in the UK to at best relegate discussion of the return of the Lord to a simplistic reduction (as per the statements of faith) or to a theme that is best not discussed at all because it is too controversial. This seems to me to do a disservice to the word of God. Just as Jesus’ first coming involved a series of events covering a span of time (his birth, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his ascension), it should not at all surprise us that Jesus’ return should likewise cover a series of events in time rather than a single event (as at least implied by the standard ‘basis of faith’ most churches adopt).
Without any doubt at all the next great event in the history of God’s dealings with this world will be the return of Jesus to this world to receive his church. Time and space does not permit a full explanation of this, but the key point is that Jesus does not come to the earth, rather he comes to the clouds and believers are ‘caught up’ to be with him (read 1 Thessalonians 4 for more on this). What is left behind? A world that in which Satan has free reign! At some time after this great event, it seems that God will start once again to work with the Jews. Note that in Jesus’ return to the earth (see for example Zechariah 14), he will stand once again on the earth, but to where will he come? Jerusalem (the mount of Olives to be even more precise)! Why Jerusalem? Because he will come for his people Israel. Jesus coming for his people Israel is conditioned on their repentance. The time after the church is removed is Israel’s time to experience terrible judgment (much of Revelation concerns this judgment). This judgment brings about a remarkable thing however, Israel will repent, and come to its senses, they (to quote Zechariah 12) ‘They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.’ Israel will be ready to receive their Messiah and to crown him king! All of God’s promises to Israel will at last be realised!
We were studying Deuteronomy in our bible study last Thursday and we noted that in Deuteronomy 30, just as the people were about to enter the promised land, they were warned that they would receive curses for disobedience and blessings for obedience. After all the curses and blessings would be realised, the people would ‘return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul (Deuteronomy 30:2).’ On this turning to the Lord, God would respond in six specific ways, 1) He would gather them from the nations over the earth in which they had been scattered, 2) God would give them possession of the land he had promised them, 3) God would change the people, they would be enabled by an internal transformation to love God with all their heart and with all their soul, 4) Israel’s enemies would be cursed, 5) The people will become obedient and 6) they would be made prosperous. There is no doubt at all that at no time in the history of Israel have these conditions been realised. If God’s word means anything, these events remain future. I should say in passing that the fact that there is an Israel in existence (despite the efforts of Nazi Germany and many in the West who ought to know better) seems to be an indicator the time when these events will take place may not be far away. Surely this is a good prompt to us to invest our time, talents and resources judiciously.
In view of all of this, wouldn’t it make some sense if some advice and teaching was available to Israel when it goes through the fire of persecution and comes through with a new-found faith?
- In these last days
Jacob was effectively the father of Israel; he is the man who had 12 sons who formed the 12 tribes of Israel. As he lay on his death bed, he gathered his boys around him and told them what would happen in ‘days to come.’ Abraham used a very specific phrase which in the Hebrew is בְּאַֽחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים which I understand to be the words athkm bachrith. These Hebrew words are translated ‘last days’ in the King James bible and as ‘days to come’ in the NIV. In some respects, Judah was to be the most important tribe and here’s what Abraham told Judah: ‘10 The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.’ Abraham looks into the distant future and sees the Messiah reigning with power over the people of the earth. There are no fewer than 14 occurrences of this identical phrase in the Hebrew of the Old testament (see footnotes below for each of these references). Each of the passages that use this phrase look to a future time when Israel will experience judgment, when Israel will return to the Lord and when the Messiah will come and reign on the earth. There are two exceptions in Jeremiah that relate to the final fate of two nations – but even these passages look to the same specific period of time. It seems therefore that when this specific phrase is used it relates to the time of Israel’s return to the Lord and is associated with the prior judgment that brings about their repentance and most importantly with the coming of the Messiah.
Armed with this information we come to verse two of Hebrews 1 which states: ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.’ Why would the writer to the Hebrews write specifically to the Hebrews when during the ‘church age’ there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles (i.e. the time when Israel’s condition is one of ‘broken off branches’)? And why would he specifically address Hebrews? It seems most likely that this piece of scripture is specifically written to Jews and Israel during the period when God will turn his attention back to them. To be more specific, it seems that this letter has been written for future time Jews who will come under intense persecution and who will be preparing for the coming of the Messiah.
As we come to study the book proper next time, we need to bear this important context in mind – if we don’t, we could well become victims of lucky dip bible reading!
Occurrences of בְּאַֽחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים (last days) in the Old Testament
- Genesis 49: 1 - Then Jacob called for his sons and said: ‘Gather round so that I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. V10 10 The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,[c] until he to whom it belongs[d]shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
- Numbers 24: 14 14 Now I am going back to my people, but come, let me warn you of what this people will do to your people in days to come.’…v17 ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.
- Deuteronomy 4:30 30 When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him.
- Deuteronomy 31:29 29 For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall on you because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord and arouse his anger by what your hands have made.’
- Isaiah 2:22 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
- Jeremiah 23:20 20 The anger of the Lord will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart.
In days to come you will understand it clearly.
- Jeremiah 30:24 24 The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart. In days to come you will understand this.
- Jeremiah 48:47 47 ‘Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab
in days to come,’ declares the Lord.
- Jeremiah 49:39 39 ‘Yet I will restore the fortunes of Elam
in days to come,’ declares the Lord.
- Ezekiel 38:16 6 You will advance against my people Israel like a cloud that covers the land. In days to come, Gog, I will bring you against my land, so that the nations may know me when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.
- Hosea 3:5 5 Afterwards the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days.
- Micah 4:1 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it.
- Daniel 10:14 14 Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.’
- Daniel 12:13 13 ‘As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.’