The Olivet Discourse: “This” Generation or “That” Generation (Part 1 of 4)


Much attention is being given these days to what is known as The Olivet Discourse, found in three of the four gospel accounts: Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Jesus delivered this famous address from the Mount of Olives just days before His crucifixion. Many today are linking this narrative to current events, such as recent large earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, Haiti, New Zealand, and Indonesia. They believe these are sure signs pointing to the end of the world.

   

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Is this how Jesus intended for us to view this prophecy? When He said, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32), was He speaking of a generation 2000 years into the future? Or was He speaking of His own generation, and events which were to take place in their time? When He said “this generation,” did He really mean “that generation” (one that was distant to His first century audience)? This is what we will be looking at in the four posts which will make up this series. We will examine all three accounts of this prophecy side-by-side, as I believe this will be helpful in seeing what Jesus was saying and how He intended to be understood.

In this first post, we will take a close look at the initial remarks made by Jesus’ disciples, His shocking response, and their resulting question(s) which led to His discourse. Here is that text, from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

MATTHEW 24:1-3

MARK 13:1-4

LUKE 21:5-7

1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?  1As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

 7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen, and what will be the sign that they are about to take place?

In all three accounts we see one or more of the disciples admiring the beautiful, massive stones which made up the Second Temple. According to some Jews who encountered Jesus early in His ministry (John 2:18-22), Herod’s massive expansion project had already been going on for 46 years. Indeed, history tells us that it began in 19 BC, and that the renovations continued until 65 AD, a mere five years before the temple was destroyed by the Romans. Tacitus (56-117 AD), the Roman historian and Senator, said that the temple “was famous beyond all other works of men.”

Jesus’ response to His disciples’ remarks must have been shocking, in light of the breathtaking sight before their eyes: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Of course, Jesus had said this before. His ominous prophecy, though, is what prompts their next question. Or is it questions (plural)? There is only one specific question asked in all three accounts. In the accounts of Mark and Luke, at least, there should be no doubt that it’s this question which Jesus spends the next 25 or 26 verses answering: “…when will these things happen, and what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?” The only thing Jesus had said would happen at this point was that all the temple’s stones would be thrown down.

Model of the Second Temple; Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jerus-n4i.jpg

Do we know from history that this temple, the same temple the disciples observed, was destroyed? Yes, we do. Josephus, the Jewish historian, for example, records in astounding detail how Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 AD after a horrendous 5-month siege (see here, here, and here to learn more about what happened). According to both Mark and Luke, the signs that Jesus gave in the next 25 verses (in Luke’s case) and the next 26 verses (in Mark’s case) were to precede the downfall of the temple. In the next couple of posts, we will look at those prophesied signs, which include earthquakes and other calamities. Many today are saying that these same prophesied signs are happening in our own day, and that this means we are only now about to see Jesus’ prophecies fulfilled. How can this be, though, if they were to happen before a prophesied event which we know took place 1,941 years ago?

Only in Matthew’s account do the disciples perhaps appear to ask two additional questions: [1] about Jesus’ coming and [2] about “the end of the age.” For those who believe that Matthew 24 has yet to be fulfilled, it’s often these questions which are said to indicate a required future fulfillment, despite the fact that they don’t even appear in Mark’s and Luke’s parallel accounts. It’s common these days to see a division of questions, as if the disciples asked about the near future as well as the very distant future, but as this study continues we’ll see that it wasn’t so common in earlier church history. Thomas Newton, a well-known English cleric, scholar, and author, said the following in 1754 about this passage:

‘The coming of Christ,’ and ‘the conclusion of the age,’ being therefore only different expressions to denote the same period with the destruction of Jerusalem, the purpose of the question plainly is, when shall the destruction of Jerusalem be, and what shall be the signs of it?

Background to Jesus’ Promised Coming: Matthew 10:23 and 16:27-28

What prompted the disciples to ask about Jesus’ coming, especially in the context of what He said about the temple’s impending destruction? Where had Jesus previously spoken of His coming, and what had He said about this event? Jesus had in fact spoken of His coming twice already in Matthew’s account. In Matthew 10:23, Jesus made this very interesting statement: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”[i] During the next couple of decades after Jesus said this, we can see numerous examples of Jesus and His followers doing this very thing (e.g. Matthew 12:14-15, Acts 8:1, Acts 9:23-25, Acts 9:29-30, Acts 14:5-6, Acts 17:4-10, Acts 17:13-14).

In Matthew 16:27-28, He was even more descriptive about what His coming would accomplish, and within what timeframe it would take place: “For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay each person for what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

If this statement was fulfilled in His transfiguration six days later, as some contend, in what sense did Jesus “come with His angels” then and repay each person according to what he had done (a clear picture of judgment)? We know this didn’t happen on that occasion. We also know that none of His disciples died within those six days, but some were indeed martyred before 70 AD when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. To believe that Jesus hasn’t yet (in the year 2011) come back as He promised in this passage is to believe either that [a] He lied or [b] there are 2000 year old men still walking around on this planet.[ii] Let’s look at four aspects of this promised coming, as this should help us to know what was in the minds of Jesus’ disciples when they asked Him about His coming in Matthew 24:3.

1. IN HIS KINGDOM: From this text, we know that one purpose for His coming, which He promised would take place before all of His disciples had died, was to establish His kingdom. This fits perfectly with the following prophecy given to Daniel: “And in the days of those kings* the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people” (Daniel 2:44). [*Biblical scholars hold a virtual consensus that the four kingdoms in Daniel’s vision were Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Since Rome was destroyed in 476 AD, we know that, for this prophecy to be true, the kingdom was set up before that time.] A first century fulfillment fits; a 21st century fulfillment doesn’t. Furthermore, the kingdom was to be given to the saints (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27). This is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Parable of the Tenants that the kingdom of God would soon be taken away from the Jewish leaders and their nation and given instead “to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43) – a clear description of the body of Christ. This was to happen even as the stone was to crush those who would fall (verse 44) – 1.1 million Jews killed in August/September 70 AD by the Romans would seem to qualify as a fulfillment of this prediction.

2. TO REPAY EACH PERSON: The context of Jesus’ promise to come “to repay each person” for what they had done was His foretelling of His own death and suffering at the hands of the Jewish leaders (Matt. 16:21-23), and also of the suffering that His own disciples could expect (verses 24-26). In other words, it would be for vindication. This is similar in nature to what Paul promised to the Thessalonian believers when he told them that they could expect relief “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” (II Thessalonians 1:7), with the purpose being “to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (verse 6). This was imminent in their day, for Paul said that the wrath of God had already come upon the Jewish persecutors (I Thess. 2:14-16). He knew this to be true because Jesus had declared in no uncertain terms (Matthew 23:35-36) that the blood of all the prophets would be required of His own (first century) generation in Israel.

3. WITH HIS ANGELS: Just like Paul’s prophecy to the Thessalonians, Jesus’ promise to come while some of His disciples were still alive (Matt. 16:28) was also to involve His angels (“The Son of Man is going to come with His angels…”). As my good friend, Mark Church, has pointed out, all throughout the book of Revelation we see His angels pouring out judgment upon “the great city” where the Lord was crucified (Revelation 11:8) – that is, Jerusalem, the same city which was marked as a harlot because of its shedding of the blood of the saints and martyrs (Rev. 17:1-6), apostles, and prophets (Rev. 18:20-24). [For those who believe that Revelation remains unfulfilled, is there any modern nation or entity which is responsible for the martyrdom of the apostles?]

4. IN THE GLORY OF HIS FATHER: Jesus also promised to come “in the glory of His Father” (Matt. 16:27). As Don Preston well points out, this can be understood to mean that just as the Father had come in the past, Jesus would also come in the same manner. Don gives as an example Isaiah 64:1-3, where the writer declares that God had “come down” numerous times in the past:

“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood, and the fire causes water to boil – to make Your name known to Your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at Your presence! When You did awesome things that we did not look for, You came down, the mountains quaked at Your presence.”

Just as the Father’s comings in times past had not been bodily, visible, or physical in nature, neither would the coming of Jesus in judgment be bodily, visible, or physical. We will discuss this in more depth when we come to Jesus’ predicted coming in the clouds in Matt. 24:30/Mark 13:26/Luke 21:27. We will see that there are numerous examples in the Old Testament where God is said to have come in the clouds in judgment upon various nations and enemies of His people, even examples where the language is remarkably similar to the language used in The Olivet Discourse.

So we can see from these two passages (Matt. 10:23 and 16:27-28) why Jesus’ disciples expected Him to come again in their own lifetimes. We’re also beginning to see why, in Matthew 24:3, they linked this coming to His dark prediction about the temple’s future. Other strong clues also exist in the previous two chapters (Matthew 22-23).[iii] Kevin Daly, from the South African ministry “Messianic Good News,” has this to say:

It is Jesus’ confirmation that the Temple’s fate is sealed that leads to the disciples’ question: ‘When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’

Some argue this to be three separate questions – so that Jesus’ answer in the subsequent verses must be unraveled and applied to three different events, namely (i) the temple’s destruction, (ii) his coming and (iii) the end of the age. But this is not supported by the parallel accounts in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels. These render the disciples’ question as follows:

‘Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?’ (Mark 13:4)

‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’ (Luke 21:7)

In Matthew’s wording of the disciples’ question, what Jesus prophesied against the Temple would, by implication, happen at our Lord’s coming in judgment and would also, by further implication, bring about the end of that age.

Matthew phrases the question in the prophetic language of the Old Testament, which was familiar to the Jewish audience for which his gospel was written. In this language, the execution of Divine judgment was commonly spoken of as a visitation of the LORD, as either His coming or His coming in the cloud. [Consider] Micah’s prophecy against the ‘high places’ of Judah – being localities of false worship, which the Temple in Jerusalem had now become:

‘For behold, the LORD comes forth from His place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains shall be melted under Him, and the valleys shall be cleft, as wax before the fire, and as the waters that are poured down a steep place. For the transgression of Jacob is all this, and for the sins of the house of Israel  …  What are the high places of Judah? Are they not Jerusalem?’ (Micah 1:3-5).

Source: Kevin Daly, When Will These Things Happen – Matthew 24 and the Vindication of Messiah. 2009.

Micah’s prophecy was fulfilled in 586 BC when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian armies. We know that God didn’t physically and bodily come down at that time, but He did still “come down” in judgment in fulfillment of this prophecy. It’s this same apocalyptic language that Matthew uses to speak of another and more final judgment which was about to come once again upon Jerusalem. History tells us that it did come. Some readers may be surprised to know that Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who preached the famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” once made this statement in his work titled “Miscellany #1199”:

“Tis evident that when Christ speaks of his coming; his being revealed; his coming in his Kingdom; or his Kingdom’s coming; He has respect to his appearing in those great works of his Power Justice and Grace, which should be in the Destruction of Jerusalem and other extraordinary Providences which should attend it [So in Luke 17:20 – 18:8].”

The way that the Olivet Discourse is popularly approached today has Jesus effectively saying this to His disciples: “You guys have asked a very interesting question about when this temple will be destroyed, but let Me ignore your question and tell you instead about some events which will begin and end about 2000 years in the future.” Rather than being about us, and our generation, Jesus addressed the concerns of His disciples regarding their own generation.

THE END OF THE AGE

Having now given considerable space to the question of Christ’s coming, we’ll give only brief space here to the disciples’ question about the end of the age. The King James Version used the expression “the end of the world” in Matthew 24:3, but most newer translations use the expression “the end of the age.” Clearly, Jesus tied the end of the age that they were speaking of to the time of His coming, which we have seen was promised to occur in their own generation.

Therefore, the disciples weren’t asking about the final days of this planet. Their question was about the end of the Old Covenant age. That age came to an end along with the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. This “end” was spoken of by Daniel and other Old Testament prophets. The book of Hebrews even speaks of the Old Covenant “becoming obsolete and growing old…ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). It vanished along with the temple. We are now in what the New Testament frequently called “the age to come.” A great transition took place a long time ago, and we are privileged to live in the New Covenant age. The heavenly Jerusalem is a present reality for God’s people (Hebrews 12:22-24). Regarding “the end” spoken of in both Matthew and Daniel, Kevin Daly provides this helpful chart:

you will hear of wars and rumours of wars … but the end is not yet

war will continue until the end

and there will be famines and pestilences and earthquakes in different places

and desolations have been decreed

 then the end will come

the end will come like a flood:

 Matthew 24:6,14

Dan 9:26b

“The end” spoken of in Daniel’s prophecy was clearly to be the destruction of “the city and the sanctuary” (Daniel 9:26). We know as an indisputable fact of history that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 AD. That brought about the end of an age, the Old Covenant age. It is popularly taught today that we are living in what the Bible calls “the last days,” and that these last days began on the Day of Pentecost because of Peter’s reference to Joel’s prophecy about an outpouring in “the last days.” However, this cannot be true, because Hebrews 1:1-3, Hebrews 9:26, and I Peter 1:18-20 tell us explicitly that Jesus’ incarnational ministry took place in the last days. Therefore, Jesus appeared and ministered in the last days of an age that had clearly begun quite some time before He appeared. That age still had not ended when Paul wrote his epistle to the Corinthian church, but it was drawing even closer to the end, for he told his readers that they were those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (I Corinthians 10:11).

Rather than open this up further, or to try to defend this premise in greater depth here, I’d like to point to an earlier post on this subject which I believe you’ll find to be a good explanation of these things (HERE). You’ll see that the New Testament placed Jesus’ ministry, death, etc. in “the last days” and at “the end of the age,” and that after Jesus’ ascension the apostles still spoke of their time in the same terms. Jerry William Bowers Jr. has also compiled a very informative article, based on David Green’s 101 Time Statements showing that John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church were not only consistent, but also correct, when they repeatedly stated that certain events were near, at hand, about to take place, etc. That article can be seen (HERE).

In the next post, we will look at the beginning of Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ question about the signs which would lead to the destruction of the temple, His coming, and the end of the age. We will examine Matthew 24:4-14, Mark 13:5-13, and Luke 21:8-18 side-by-side.

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A THOUGHT: Do you find it interesting that John, in his gospel account, omits the Olivet Discourse entirely, even though he was no doubt present when Jesus spoke these things? One likely reason for this curious fact is that the book of Revelation, which he authored, actually functions as his exposition of the Olivet Discourse, though in much greater detail. Therefore, he felt no need to include the Olivet Discourse passage in his gospel account, especially if the book of John was written after the book of Revelation.

QUOTES TO NOTE

Eusebius (314 AD): “If any one compares the words of our Saviour with the other accounts of the historian (Josephus) concerning the whole war, how can one fail to wonder, and to admit that the foreknowledge and the prophecy of our Saviour were truly divine and marvelously strange” (Proof of the GospelBook III, Ch. VII).

John Wesley (1703-1791): “Josephus’ History of the Jewish War is the best commentary on this chapter (Matt. 24). It is a wonderful instance of God’s providence, that he, an eyewitness, and one who lived and died a Jew, should, especially in so extraordinary a manner, be preserved, to transmit to us a collection of important facts, which so exactly illustrate this glorious prophecy, in almost every circumstance” (Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 1754).

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[i] John Wesley (1703-1791) is one of many in church history who taught that Jesus was referring in Matt. 10:23 to a judgment coming in 70 AD in which He would “destroy their temple and nation” (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 1754).

[ii] John Wesley, again, is one of many in church history who taught a 70 AD fulfillment of Matthew 16:27-28, saying, “For there is no way to escape the righteous judgment of God. And, as an emblem of this, there are some here who shall live to see the Messiah coming to set up His mediatorial kingdom with great power and glory, by the destruction of the temple, city, and polity of the Jews” (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 1754). Some believe this is also identical to the prophecy Jesus gave in Revelation 22:12, revealing why John’s 1st century audience was to understand that He was about to come: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing My recompense with Me, to repay everyone for what he has done.”

[iii] In Matthew 22:1-14 we read the Parable of the Wedding Feast. In this parable, speaking of the kingdom of heaven (vs. 2), a king (God) was to prepare a wedding feast for his son (Jesus), but those who were originally invited (the Jewish nation) refused to come (vss. 3-5) and even killed the king’s servants who had invited them (v. 6). Therefore, these murderers were destroyed (cf. Matthew 23:29-38; Rev. 16:4-7, 17:6, 18:20, 18:24), and their city was burned (cf. Rev. 18:8-10, 18; 19:3). This is precisely what we see having happened in Jerusalem’s destruction and burning in 70 AD. The invitation then goes out to others (Gentiles as well as Jews; vss. 9-10), but only those with proper wedding garments were allowed to remain (vss. 10-14; cf. Rev. 19:8). Those who lacked these garments remained in outer darkness and were not part of the chosen people of God (vss. 13-14; cf. Matt. 8:11-12).

In Matthew 23:29-38, we see that in the 7th woe pronounced upon the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus charges them with shedding the blood of all the prophets (vss. 29-31). He even says that they will kill, crucify, flog, and persecute others from town to town (verse 34). As a result, He says, they would be held responsible for all the shed blood from generations past up until their own generation. He concludes, “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (verse 36). He then lifts up a lament for Jerusalem, whose house, He said, was left to them desolate. This would naturally remind His listeners of Daniel 9:26, where it was said that “the city and the sanctuary” would be destroyed, with desolations decreed. The expected timeframe for this judgment was “this generation” (Jesus’ first century audience).

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No Alienation from the Commonwealth of Israel


(Thoughts on Ephesians 2:12)

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a remarkable book, one that is full of wonderful expressions of truth. In the first three chapters Paul lays out, in glorious fashion, the riches of the grace we have in Christ. His adoration for the gospel just keeps spilling out, and he even gets long-winded (in a good way) as he does so. Take a look at some of his gospel-saturated, lengthy sentences which span several verses at a time (e.g. 1:7-10, 1:15-21, 3:14-19). Some of the most magnificent portrayals of the New Covenant are found in this book.

With this in mind, it’s amazing to consider that today there is a popular teaching insisting that the New Covenant which Paul describes here in Ephesians and elsewhere is NOT the same New Covenant which was foreseen by the Old Testament prophets (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:26-27). This is despite the fact that the author of Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah’s prophecy and explicitly states (Hebrews 8:6-13) that this New Covenant had been established in his own time (i.e. in the first century AD). The “problem” seems to be that Jeremiah and Ezekiel addressed their prophecies to “the house of Israel.” Dispensationalism and Christian Zionism are notoriously unwilling to acknowledge that the Church IS spiritual Israel, and their proponents often have harsh words for those who believe this. Shortly we will see that Ephesians 2:12, being just one such example in the New Testament, does not allow their position to stand.

[Please bear with this brief explanation before we get back to looking at Ephesians. Prior to Progressive Dispensationalism taking root in western Christianity within the last few decades, Classic Dispensationalists like H.A. Ironside, Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, and John Walvoord claimed that the Old Testament never foresaw the coming of the Church age, and that God will one day bring an end to the Church age and resume His program with national/ethnic Israel. This was the teaching of John Nelson Darby, who founded this theological system in the 1830’s, and of C.I. Scofield, who published his famous reference Bible in 1909. These men and others also taught (or teach) that the New Covenant is reserved for a future millennium period! Consider the following statements regarding Jeremiah’s prophecy of a coming New Covenant:

[1] “This covenant must follow the return of Christ at the [yet future] second advent… This covenant will be realized in the [yet future] millennial age… the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 must and can be fulfilled only by the nation Israel and not by the Church” (Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, 1958).

[2] “…the new covenant is with Israel and the fulfillment [will be] in the millennial kingdom after the second coming of Christ… the new covenant as revealed in the Old Testament concerns Israel and requires fulfillment in the millennium kingdom” (John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, 1959).

[3] “The Church, then, is not under the new covenant…it is Israel which is God’s covenant people” (Harry Ironside, Notes on the Prophecy of and Lamentations of Jeremiah, 1906).

One proposed solution by more recent Progressive Dispensationalists is that there are two new covenants (!) in Scripture, one for the Church (now) and one for national/ethnic Israel (later). This belief seems to be true for those who would affirm that the Church presently lives in the New Covenant (and experiences the taking away of sin), but who also assert that Romans 11:26-27 (“And in this way all Israel will be saved…and this will be My covenant with them when I take away their sins”) will only be fulfilled in the future for ethnic Jews. This belief doesn’t stand up either, as we will see. For a much fuller treatment of the implications of this facet of Dispensationalist teaching, please see the first half of this post from our series on Revelation 20.]

Having expressed these thoughts, let’s now look at a very pivotal section in Ephesians 2, verses 11-22. I don’t want to take anything away from the very valuable things Paul expresses earlier in this chapter, and in fact verse 11 begins with “therefore,” meaning that what Paul says next is based on what he has just said earlier. So here’s a quick summary of the first half of the chapter: Paul reminds the believers in Ephesus that they were once dead in their sins (verses 1-3), but that God in His mercy and love had made them alive in Christ (verses 4-5). They are now seated with God in Christ in heavenly places (verses 6-7). It was not by any works of their own that they were saved, but only by grace through faith. Their salvation was a gift from God, and they were created anew for the purpose of walking in good works (verses 8-10). With this as context, here’s what Paul says in verses 11-22:

11Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once werefar off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17And He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18Forthrough Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

It would certainly be profitable to break this passage down verse-by-verse, and there are so many rich truths here, but I’d like to mainly zero in on verse 12 which is highlighted above. First, we should note that Paul is specifically addressing Gentile believers (verse 11), that is, non-Jewish followers of Christ. One of his reminders to them is that they were once “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.” By speaking this way, Paul clearly indicates that they are now part of “the commonwealth of Israel.”

There is simply no getting around the idea that Gentile (non-Jewish) believers are part of God’s people, Israel, here in Ephesians 2:12. And make no mistake about it, Jewish believers are part of this same covenant people of God, but no more so and no less so: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on Him” (Romans 10:12); “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). There are no spiritual blessings which are available for males but not for females, nor are there any spiritual blessings which are available for Jews but not for non-Jews. Does Scripture leave us any room to believe that a future age will come along and change this reality? No, it does not.

In Ephesians 2:12 Paul also reminds His believing Gentile audience that they were once “strangers to the covenants of promise.” Again, by speaking this way, Paul clearly indicates that they are now recipients ofthe covenants of promise” which were made to Israel. In the next chapter, Paul explicitly defines the mystery of Christ (which had been kept hidden in generations past) as the joining together of Jewish and non-Jewish believers in the partaking of the promise in Christ through the gospel: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). In Galatians 3 Paul likewise declares that all the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring. He then defines Abraham’s “offspring,” contrary to what many might expect, as singularly Christ (Gal. 3:16). He finally adds that those who belong to Christ—with zero regard for ethnicity, gender, or status (Gal. 3:28)—are heirs of those promises (Gal. 3:29). So Paul says here in Ephesians 2 exactly what he also says in Galatians 3.

With these things established, can it be possible that any Old Testament covenants or promises are yet to be fulfilled for ethnic Jews only? Can Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:26-27 (which promised a coming New Covenant) be awaiting a fulfillment which Gentile believers will have no part in? No. Such an idea does great violence to all that Paul argues in Galatians, Ephesians, and elsewhere. Those who are still looking for such a covenant to arrive are about 2000 years too late, and far too narrow in their view of to whom this covenant belongs. The New Covenant is already here, and the heavenly Jerusalem is already a reality for God’s people (Hebrews 12:22-24).

I also highlighted Ephesians 2:19 because Paul refers to the Church as “the household of God,” very similar to the way he calls the Church “the household of faith” in Galatians 6:10. It would seem that these phrases are a New Testament equivalent to the oft-used expression in the Old Testament, “the household of Israel,” used by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel as we have seen. As mentioned near the beginning of this post, it seems that Dispensationalists and Christian Zionists tend to trip up over the Old Testament phrase, “the household of Israel,” because they are somehow convinced that the promises made to ancient Israel must only be fulfilled among their physical descendants.

However, we must let Scripture interpret Scripture. First, how often did Jesus and the apostles make the point that being able to physically trace one’s self to Abraham means nothing? Observe what Jesus said in John 8 to the Jews of His day who appealed to Abraham as their father, and observe whom Jesus said was their father instead. Observe what Paul says in Romans 9:6-8, “…For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring… This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” Here Paul equates being a part of Israel with being a child of God. In this New Covenant age, then, can you be a child of God and not be a part of Israel? (Of course, I’m not referring to that nation in the Middle East which happens to bear this same name. By “Israel,” I mean God’s covenant people.) In Romans 2:28-29, Paul further says that “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly…a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart…” In Galatians 6:15-16, Paul declares that only a new creation counts for anything, and then pronounces peace and mercy upon “the Israel of God.” If, despite the evidence above, you are one of the many who believe that Paul’s use of this phrase, “the Israel of God,” must refer only to Jewish believers, please examine this very well-written and informative article by Michael Marlowe.

Secondly, an honest appraisal of the New Testament will show that the inspired writers of the NT clearly apply many specific promises once made to ancient Israel to the Church, the body of Christ. Shall we rebuke them for promoting the allegedly false teachings of “replacement theology”? As we have seen above, the NT authors also declare that the Church is no longer alienated from ANY of the promises and covenants, because they are recipients of ALL of them. They are all found in Christ, but they are not to be found outside of Christ. Again, Jews are not left out, for a remnant from among them would call out to the Lord and be saved (they have done so throughout the last 2000 years). Paul makes this clear (see Romans 11:1-6, where he uses himself as an example).

Let’s look again at what Ephesians 2:12 says: “[R]emember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.” What is “the commonwealth of Israel”? What is it not? As we consider how we are not alienated from this entity, if we try to replace this phrase with “national Israel” or “ethnic Jews,” we’ll see that this doesn’t work. If you are a non-Jew (ethnically speaking), can you say that because of Christ you are now fully integrated into the political nation of Israel? Or can you say that you are very much a part of the worldwide ethnic Jewish community? No, but I believe you’ll find that this explanation given by Albert Barnes in 1834 makes sense:

Being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel – …This means more than that they were not Jews. It means that they were strangers to that ‘polity’ …or arrangement by which the worship of the true God had been kept up in the world, and of course were strangers to the true religion. The arrangements for the public worship of Yahweh were made among the Jews. They had his law, his temple, his sabbaths, and the ordinances of his religion; see the notes at Romans 3:2… The word rendered here as ‘commonwealth’ – πολιτεία politeia – means properly ‘citizenship,’ or ‘the right of citizenship,’ and then ‘a community,’ or ‘state.’ It means here ‘that arrangement or organization by which the worship of the true God was maintained.’”

Indeed, Paul says this of his own “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3),

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5).

Paul, who agonized over his own people so much that he could have wished himself “accursed and cut off from Christ” (verse 3) for their sake, yet affirms to the Gentile believers in Ephesus that they were present heirs of all the promises and covenants which were articulated to the commonwealth of Israel in times past. All alienation had ceased. It hasn’t resumed since then, it hasn’t resumed in our day, and it won’t resume in the future. It’s gone because of the work of the cross, and that alienation is gone forever. Please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you are a follower of Christ, it doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is. You are a full-fledged member of the commonwealth of Israel, and all of God’s promises are yours through Jesus Christ.

Prioritizing God’s Kingdom Is An Antidote to Anxiety


(A Study of Matthew 6:25-34)

This blog was started back in August 2009 when our Bible study group decided to post our studies on the book of Revelation, for the purpose of being able to reference them long-term and also to be a blessing to others. Since completing our study of Revelation, the blog has expanded somewhat, although we are no longer posting our weekly Bible studies online. We’ve gone on to study several New Testament epistles, and we are now in Matthew.

I’d like to make an exception by looking at a portion from Matthew 6 which we studied on Wednesday night (April 13th). This chapter is at the heart of Jesus’ most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount. In this portion, Jesus addresses the subject of anxiety. This text really spoke to my soul because for the last six months (exactly 6 months, actually) I’ve had far more reason to be anxious, worried, hurt, fearful, angry, etc. than I have at any other time in my life. Most who read this will have no idea what’s going on in my life, and that’s OK – although if this is enough information to compel you to pray I won’t turn you down. In any case, I believe we will see that as Jesus brings this subject to a conclusion, He not only urges us to prioritize His kingdom above all else, but He sets this forth as a perfect antidote to the anxiety which would like to take a prominent place in our lives. Let’s look at what He has to say, and feel free to share your own thoughts on how His words speak to you in the comment section below.

Verse 25: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

The word “therefore” refers back to the previous section on money, where Jesus gives this sober warning about attempting to maintain a divided loyalty: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” If the pursuit of wealth, and the laying up of perishable earthly treasures (verse 19), can lead to idolatry and distraction in our lives, so can worry and anxiety over the things we want and need in life.

What we eat, drink, and wear are some of the basics of life, but these decisions can cause anxiety if we let them. This cuts to the heart of where our trust lies. Can we trust God for basic provision? If not, what does this say about our capacity to trust Him when life’s circumstances become most unbearable? We can walk in our divinely-ordained callings in life all the more if we’re not weighed down by such concerns.

Verse 26: Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

Jesus poses this as a question, but clearly we are meant to understand that we are of more value in His sight than the birds. If God faithfully takes care of and provides for them, how much more will He do so for His people? This is not, of course, an excuse to intentionally avoid work.

Verse 27: Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

Jesus speaks to the folly of being filled with worry, which likely springs from a lack of trust. Increased anxiety can actually shorten our lives, or at least lessen the quality of life. We also often worry about negative outcomes which don’t materialize. Such worry ends up being a complete waste of our energy, time, and focus. Any and all worry works to keep us from the more important things in life. Trusting in God rather than ourselves requires humility.

Verses 28-30: And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will He not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”

These verses don’t appear to speak directly to the issue of vanity or showing off to others, but rather a person’s worry about being able to afford the basic clothes that they or their family members might need. Just as the birds don’t obtain their provision through their own striving, the flowers of the field don’t obtain their beauty through their own toil. God takes care of them, and they need God to take care of them. It would seem that the materially rich don’t need to worry about being able to afford clothing (or food/drinks/other basics), but they might miss out on the blessings of being in a position where one needs to depend on God in faith for regular provision.

Verses 31:32: So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

When we fret, especially about basic needs, we begin to behave as if we don’t belong to God and as if we don’t need Him. Unbelievers lack a regard for God, and one of the ways this disregard is demonstrated is through trusting in themselves rather than in Him. As those who do know God, there is no reason why we should mirror those who don’t by the way that we carry on in our everyday lives. God’s people should be distinct from the ways of the world. At the same time, God acknowledges that we do need these basic things.

Verse 33: But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The key to avoiding anxiety is to prioritize the kingdom of God. It’s more about what we pursue (“the kingdom of God and His righteousness”) than what we avoid (anxiety over the basics of life). Being that this is true concerning anxiety over what is basic, it’s also true when it comes to heavier issues which may appear in our lives. Even the most devastating of circumstances can fade as concerns if we are in passionate pursuit of His kingdom. Losses that we may suffer during our short time on this earth need not strike us with such devastating force if we hold loosely to what is of this world, and we hold tightly to God’s kingdom, which cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-28, esp. vss. 27-28).

From verses 9-10 we see that God’s kingdom involves His honor and fame, His reign, and His will, along with a desire that these aspects of His kingdom become true where we live just as they are already true in heaven. We’re promised that the very things we’re urged not to fret over (provision of food, drinks, clothing, and the like) will come naturally to us when we prioritize God’s kingdom and His righteousness. At this point I’ll ask, but not answer, a somewhat difficult question: How do we reconcile this promise with the fact that there are faithful believers who pursue God’s kingdom and His righteousness, who also endure significant stretches of their lives lacking food and other basic comforts (perhaps or perhaps not as a result of persecution)?

Verse 34: Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

What does it mean to say that “tomorrow will be anxious for itself”? As mentioned already, sometimes when we anticipate troubles, they don’t materialize. Even if that trouble does materialize, worrying about it in advance won’t be profitable. Each day God is more than able to provide the grace that we need for what we will face that day.

The book of Lamentations was written at an extremely low point in Israel’s history, during the aftermath of Babylon’s destructive invasion of Israel in 586 BC. In the midst of great tragedy, sorrow, and suffering, the author writes, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in Him’” (Lam. 3:22-24).