Tuesday, October 02, 2007

All the Promises of God I


Two thousand years ago, an angel named Gabriel visited a Jewish priest named Zacharias. He told the priest that his barren wife would soon conceive and bear a son. This would be no ordinary child, for “he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15). “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:16, 17) These were rather astonishing claims, but the priest had heard them before. Four and a half centuries previous to this, God had foretold through the prophet Malachi that

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
And he will turn
the hearts of the fathers to the children,

and the hearts of the children to their fathers,
lest I come and strike the earth with a curse. (Mal. 4:5, 6)

Perhaps these words would have been all the more memorable to Zacharias because they were the last words of the Old Testament. They were the last recorded words that God had spoken to Israel through a prophet. Through Malachi, He told His people that He would send Elijah to them as a forerunner to judgment – to rekindle their faithfulness (Mal. 4:1-6). And now, Zacharias had just been told that his son would be that forerunner.

Six months later, Gabriel visited Mary, a lowly virgin who lived in an insignificant Jewish town. He told her that she had found favor with God. “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33) An angel also visited Mary’s fiancée Joseph in a dream and told him,

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus [lit. “Yahweh saves”], for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” (Matt. 1:20-23)

There was a family connection as it turned out, because Mary was related to Zacharias’ wife Elizabeth. After the angel had visited her, Mary went to see her pregnant relative. Both of them knew what was going on, and after some conversation, Mary said of the situation that

He [God] has helped His servant Israel,
in remembrance of His mercy,
as He spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed forever. (Luke 1:54, 55)

Three months later, after the birth of his son John, Zacharias prophesied of the coming events.

Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,
for He has visited and redeemed His people,
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of His servant David,
as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets,
who have been since the world began,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us,
to perform the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember His holy covenant,
the oath which He swore to our father Abraham...
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to His people
by the remission of their sins,
through the tender mercy of our God... (Luke 1:68-73, 76-78)

John was the forerunner, and Jesus was the Lord who had come to reign as King and bring salvation to His people. He had come to fulfill the promises made to the fathers and the oath made to Abraham. God had remembered His covenant, and Jesus was the proof of this. But the promises were not made for the sake of Israel alone. After the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to Assyria, Isaiah prophesied of a redeemer and a new covenant wherein God would restore His people and expand His covenant to include the gentiles.

“Behold! My servant whom I uphold,
My elect one in whom My soul delights!
I have put My Spirit upon Him;
He will bring forth justice to the gentiles….

“I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness,
and will hold Your hand;
I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,
as a light to the gentiles,
to open blind eyes,
to bring out prisoners from the prison,
those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” (Is. 42:1, 6, 7)

“And now the Lord says,
who formed Me from the womb to be His servant,
to bring Jacob back to Him,
so that Israel is gathered to Him
(for I shall be glorious in the eyes of the Lord,
and My God shall be My strength),
indeed He says,
‘It is too small a thing that You should be My servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also give You as a light to the gentiles,
that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.’”…

Thus says the Lord:

“In an acceptable time I have heard You,
and in the day of salvation I have helped You;
I will preserve You and give You
as a covenant to the people,
to restore the earth,
to cause them to inherit the desolate heritages;
that You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’
to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’” (Is. 49:5, 6, 8, 9)

Then the Lord saw it, and it displeased Him
that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no man,
and wondered that there was no intercessor;
therefore His own arm brought salvation for Him;
and His own righteousness, it sustained Him….

“The redeemer will come to Zion,
and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,”
says the Lord.

“As for Me,” says the Lord, “this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,” says the Lord, “from this time and forever more.”

Arise, shine;
for your light has come!
And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
and deep darkness the people;
but the Lord will arise over you,
and His glory will be seen upon you.
The gentiles shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Is. 59:15, 16, 20, 21; 60:1-3)

After Jesus was born, his parents brought Him to the temple so that sacrifices could be made for Him. While there were there, a man named Simeon also came to the temple “by the Spirit” (Luke 2:27). The Spirit had revealed to this man that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah (Luke 2:26), and when he saw Jesus, he took the child in his arms and proclaimed the fulfillment of the Isaianic promises saying:

Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
according to Your word;
for my eyes have seen Your salvation
which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
a light to bring revelation to the gentiles,
and the glory of Your people Israel.
(Luke 2:29-32)

He then told Mary that “this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34, 35)

During His earthly ministry, Jesus often rebuked His people for failing to see that He was indeed the fulfillment of the various OT promises that God had made to them. He once told a group of Jews that if they really believed the writings of Moses, they would believe Him, because Moses wrote about Him (John 5:44-46). After His resurrection when His disciples failed to recognize Him, He rebuked them for being slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken (Luke 24:25, 26). “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). A little later, He said to the disciples, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44 cf. Acts 10:43; 28:23).

After His resurrection, Jesus commissioned His apostles to make disciples of all nations. They did this by proclaiming that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promises. Paul told a group of Israelites that after God had removed Saul as king of Israel,

He raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, “I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will.” From this man’s seed, according to the promise, God raised up for Israel a Savior – Jesus – after John had preached, before His coming, the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel….

For those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they did not know Him, nor even the voices of the Prophets which are read every Sabbath, have fulfilled them in condemning Him. And though they found no cause for death in Him, they asked Pilate that He should be put to death. Now when they had fulfilled all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the tree and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead. He was seen for many days by those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are His witnesses to the people. And we declare to you glad tidings – that promise which was made to the fathers. God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus. As it is also written in the second Psalm: “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.” (Acts 13:22-24, 27-33)

Years later, Paul told King Agrippa, “And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers. To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain. For this hope’s sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews. Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:6-8) The Jews were looking for the promised hope, but they would not believe Paul when he proclaimed the fulfillment of that hope in Jesus.

As the Scriptures had foretold, Jesus was the gospel of God, having been declared the Davidic Messiah-King through the resurrection (Rom. 1:1-4). He had become “a minister to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and that the gentiles might glorify God for His mercy” (Rom. 15:8, 9). This occurred because “Isaiah says:

‘There shall be a root of Jesse;
and He who shall rise to reign over the gentiles,
in Him the gentiles shall hope.’” (Rom. 15:12 referring to Is. 11:1, 10)

God had long ago chosen the Jews to be His priestly people. They were to mediate His goodness, presence, and glory to the world. But the time had come for the nations to see the salvation of God. Though they were once without God and without hope, the gentiles would now be joined with the faithful Jews. Both would have access to the Father because of the Son (Eph. 2:11-18).

Six centuries before the Annunciation, the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed a message of judgment and captivity for the Southern Kingdom of Judah (the Northern Kingdom of Israel had already fallen and the people sent into exile years earlier). The people had been unfaithful to the covenant. As a result, the covenantal curses would come upon them. A foreign nation would invade their nation, devastate all that they had, and carry them off into exile (cf. Deut. 28). But along with the proclamation of this judgment, Jeremiah also described a day when God would gather His people together again and reform them via a new covenant. The prophet stated that the days were coming when God would “bring back from captivity My people Israel and Judah... And I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it.” (Jer. 30:3) In that day, God’s people would be freed from their yoke to serve the Lord their God and David their king (Jer. 30:8, 9). The Lord would be God to all the families of Israel (Jer. 31:1) and He would rebuild Israel (Jer. 31:4). He would gather His people to Himself again, because “I am a Father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn.” (Jer. 31:9) This would be nothing less than the redemption of the people from their sins (Jer. 30:12-15; 31:11, 18-20). This would be the replanting of Israel and Judah (Jer. 31:27, 28).

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah — not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. (Jer. 31:31-34)

This would be a joyous time in which the city of God would be rebuilt (Jer. 31:38) such that it would never be thrown down again (Jer. 31:40).

After the fall of the Southern Kingdom at the hands of the Babylonians, Ezekiel also foretold of the new covenant that God would make with His people.

Thus says the Lord God: “I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord,” says the Lord God, “when I am hallowed in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. (Ezek. 36:22-28)

There is a real sense in which this promise came to fruition when, after the 70 year exile, God brought His people back to the land. Jerusalem was rebuilt and a new temple was also built. We are told of this restoration in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. This was a real restoration of the people to the land but it was clearly not the end of the matter. For Ezekiel had foreseen a new city and temple that the restored versions simply could not match (e.g., Ezekiel’s amazing temple had a river of living water that flowed from it “toward the east” to give life wherever it went. Additionally, there were trees along the river that would bear fruit every month, and their leaves would be for healing: Ezek. 47:1-12. Jewish proselytizing among the nations certainly increased and was significant during this restoration covenant era, but from our perspective today, we can see that it was but a small foreshadow compared to the life giving flood that flowed and is still flowing from Jesus and His Church.)

Moreover, the second temple was in a real sense incomplete. It was, after all, supposed to be the place where God dwelt with His people. When the tabernacle was finished, the Shekhinah – the glory cloud manifestation of God’s special presence – covered the tabernacle so that “the glory of the Lord” was there (Ex. 40-34-38). After the first temple was built, God’s Shekhinah again settled on His house (I Kin. 8:10-13). This glory cloud of God’s presence departed the first temple just before He sacked Jerusalem and sent the people into exile (Ezek. 10; 11:22, 23). But after the restoration, God did not return to His people in this special way. The Shekhinah never entered the second temple. Part of the promise of the restoration involved God’s return to His people. They would be His people, and He would again dwell with them. But even after the restoration from exile, this was not a fulfilled reality.

Finally, we can point out that many Jews had not returned to the land. This situation became permanent and there were entire communities of Greek-speaking Jews who lived outside of Palestine. And those who did return to the land were still under foreign rule. Thus, we can say that the ultimate fulfillment of the promised new covenant had not yet arrived. The restoration from the Babylonian exile was a foreshadowing of the new covenant but the full glory of that covenant remained a promise.

But the true new covenant and the full realization of the promises would eventually come. During what was supposed to be the Mosaic covenant meal of the Passover, Jesus took a cup of wine and told His disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.” (Luke 22:20) Years later, Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth that he and his fellow workers were “ministers of the new covenant” (II Cor. 3:6). The writer of Hebrews made the connection most obvious. After discussing the instruction given to Moses regarding the tabernacle, he told his readers that Jesus had obtained a more excellent ministry because He was the mediator of a better covenant. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them [i.e., the people], He says...” (Heb. 8:7, 8) What follows is a quotation of Jeremiah 31:31-34.

This was meant to explain that Jesus was the high priest (Heb. 8:1) and mediator of a better covenant (Heb. 8:6). The old covenant ordinances were weak, temporary, and symbolic (Heb. 7:11-19; 9:1-14). They were “tutors” that would lead Israel to Jesus (Gal. 3:22-24). They were guardians and stewards given to teach and raise children up to become mature in Him (Gal. 4:1-5). “And for this reason, He is the mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” (Heb. 9:15) Therefore, the writer told his audience that because the new covenant in Jesus had arrived, the old was about to expire. “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Heb. 8:13) And thus, Christians had not come to the old covenant of Mount Sinai and Moses (Heb. 12:18-21) but to Mount Zion (Heb. 12:22) and to “Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (Heb. 12:24). Jesus had returned to His people as King to announce the end of the old order and the dawn of a new one. This was, in fact, the promised gospel.

In sum, Jesus is the answer to the old covenant symbols, prophesies, and promises. With His First Advent, He confirmed the promises made to the fathers by ministering to the Jews and by bringing the reign of His kingdom to the gentiles. God promised this in the old covenant, and He stayed true to His word through Christ. “But as God is faithful, our word to you was not yes and no. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us... was not yes and no, but in Him was yes. For all the promises of God in Him are yes, and in Him amen, to the glory of God through us.” (II Cor. 1:18-20) All of God’s promises are brought to fruition in Christ.

This is the good news. This is the big deal and the central focus of the New Testament documents. God has been faithful to the promises that He made to His people and to the world. He returned to His people as King, brought them back from exile, and brought the covenant relationship of salvation to the gentiles as well. All of this was accomplished by Jesus. The Father sent the Son in the Spirit to fulfill these promises – promises which amount to “the restoration of all things” (cf. Acts 3:19-21). This restoration was definitively begun by Jesus during His First Advent, and His Church in the Spirit will work out the effects of His First Advent until He returns again to consummate history and deliver the kingdom to the Father. This gospel is the core promise of the Old Testament but there are many aspects to it and it has many implications for the nature and shape of God’s covenant with His people. The following posts will describe the fulfillment of this promise from a number of angles in order to illuminate some of these aspects and implications. Focus will be placed on how Jesus transformed the old covenant into the new covenant by fulfilling the old covenant promises, types, and ordinances. These angles often overlap, and when taken together, they paint an amazing, intricate, and comprehensive portrait of God’s mercy and faithfulness.



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