The Passing of Heaven and Earth

Planetary Metamorphosis

If our interpretation of the new heaven and earth is reflective of the biblical authors’ intent, we should expect to find an old heaven and earth passing away at the same time. Just as we looked at the coming of the new heavens and new earth, let’s take a look at the passing of the old to see if these passages make sense in a similar way.

First, there is Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24, given in response to at least three questions asked by his disciples:

Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and his disciples came up to show him the buildings of the temple.

And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

Now as he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:1-3)

If we miss the meaning of this passage, we will almost certainly head down a wrong-headed path in our eschatology. A common, and generally accepted, application of verse 3 is to apply the question on the destruction of the temple to that generation, but extend the questions on the coming of Christ and the end of the world far beyond that age – even to a time yet to come – and with reference to the end of the space-time universe. But the context of the passage does not allow this kind of interpretation without considerable violence to the text – a violence that we would not tolerate of any other passage.

Most Christians do not allow the text to say what it means because they won’t give themselves permission to think, even for a moment, that Jesus was speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem exclusively, and not the end of the universe. The most obvious answer is rejected out of hand by almost everyone who reads this passage.

There is nothing in the entire chapter of Matthew 24 to suggest that a division in time of nearly 2,000 years or more is necessary or spoken of. The disciples ask three questions relating to the same event and the same time of fulfillment. When the temple is destroyed, the world ends. The ending of the world is the coming of Christ. The coming of Christ is the fall of Jerusalem, or the destruction of the temple. From Matthew 24:4-14, Jesus speaks of things to come before the end of the world – that is, the Old Covenant age. The gospel was to be preached in the entire world for a witness –  and according to Paul this did, in fact, happen (See Colossians 1:6, 23; Romans 10:18). From Matthew 24:15-35, Jesus speaks of things to happen before and during his coming. The force of verse 34 is inescapable: “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” (Matthew 24:34)

All these things must refer to all of the things Jesus just mentioned, or he is guilty of a very strange use of language. Such a use of language falls outside any conventions of speech we know. It is clear from the New Testament writings that they took his words seriously: they anticipated fulfillment within their own generation.

Another attempt to support a conventional view of the second coming of Christ is to divide Matthew 24 between verses 34 and 35, and apply the latter portion of the chapter to some future time. This again is a strange use of language, or a strange way to compile Jesus’ teachings. Without a preconceived notion of the Second coming there is no coherent reason to divide this passage. Luke records the same teaching by Jesus but uses a different order. Luke was apparently unaware of more than one context for Jesus’ comments. See Luke 17 and compare Luke 17:37 with Matthew 24:28.

David wrote this concerning the passing of heaven and earth:

Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands.

They will perish, but You will endure; Yes, they will all grow old like a garment; Like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed.

But You are the same, and Your years will have no end.

The children of Your servants will continue, and their descendants will be established before You

(Psalm 102:25-28).

On the surface this passage might appear to be a reference to the material heaven and earth, but a closer examination will reveal otherwise: “Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands.” Laying the foundations of the earth is a common expression in Scripture, and seldom is it in reference to the temporal universe (See 1 Peter 1:20, 2 Timothy 1:9, Ephesians 1:4). The world in question is the Old Covenant world of the Law. David was speaking of a world formed after the calling of Abraham. “They will perish, but you will endure” (Psalm 102:26). This is similar to Hebrews 8:13: “…Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” David and the writer of Hebrews are in agreement here, and we must not take that agreement lightly. In fact, David’s prophecy is quoted word for word in Hebrews 1:10-12, and it is no strange coincidence that it appears in a context dealing with the coming in of Christ’s eternal kingdom, the theme of Hebrews 12:28.

Now look at the last verse, Psalm 102:28: “The children of Your servants will continue, And their descendants will be established before You.” After the old heavens and earth pass, Christ would remain, and his years would have no end (Ephesians 3:21). This was the substance of John’s message when he wrote these words:

And you know that he was manifested to take away our sins, and in him there is no sin.

Whoever abides in him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen him nor known him.

Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for his seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God (1 John 3:5-6, 9).

The Old Covenant Jew charged the New Covenant believer with sin, because he left the temporal system in accepting Christ. To the unbelieving Jew, this temporal system-departure entails a loss of identity with Abraham, placing one in a state of sin. But John answers these charges by showing that no sin is involved because his seed remains in him (Christ), and he who is in Christ has not been severed from the promised Abrahamic seed. Being born of God, therefore, or abiding in Christ where the seed now is, does not involve one in sin. This is further supported by Paul’s language in Galatians 3:29: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Join us next week as we see how Jew and Gentile alike – emblematic of all humanity – find their fulfillment in a New Covenant heaven’s and earth through the finished work of God in Christ.

Join us each Monday as we blog through The Spirit of Prophecy by Max King, where this post is drawn from. (And if you get impatient, of course, you can always get the book inspiring these posts here.) Stay tuned! And weigh in below.

Making Eschatology Personal: Waking Up to God’s Memory – Brian McLaren

Step without Feet

Brian’s Note: This is part of a chapter which we cut from A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. The eighth of the ten questions identified in the subtitle deals with eschatology – our vision of the future, the afterlife, etc.

I’m in my 50s as I write these words, and I’ve already been so blessed. If my life ended today, years short of the traditional “three-score and ten,” I would have had far more than my share of joy. So I imagine that my entry into life with God beyond this life will feel like an explosion of gratitude as I suddenly and fully realize all I’ve had and taken for granted.

I have also accrued a lengthy and grave list of regrets … and the older I get, the more readily these regrets spring to mind: a mentally retarded child (that was the term we used back then) to whom I was inexcusably cruel as a boy, being overly stern with my kids when they were young, letting some ugly and unhealthy ambitions drive me in my thirties and early forties, never managing my thought-life as I would have hoped to, being too preoccupied and in too big a hurry too much of the time. Somehow, I imagine that as I pass through the doorway of death, these regrets will somehow be both validated and put away: yes, you were right to be sad about those things, and many more like them, but now they are behind you. You were always forgiven, and now you can appreciate just how much this means.

I am certain that in my case there will be many regrets like these, and I imagine I will experience them as bittersweet recognitions: wishing I had done better … given more generously, served more sacrificially, risked more daringly, waited more patiently, forgiven more freely, endured more graciously, and loved more selflessly … and grateful that I didn’t do worse. Interestingly – I’m simply reporting what I feel as I write these words – having this hope in me makes me want to do these very things now, on this side of death, while I still can.

I imagine, then, that dying will be like diving or falling or stepping into a big wave at the beach, and I will feel myself lifted off my feet, and taken up into a swirl and curl and spin more powerful than I can now imagine. But there will not be fear, because the motion and flow will be the dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the rising tide will be life and joy; the undertow will be love, and I will be drawn deeper and deeper in.

So I think I am being honest to say that I don’t fear death. I don’t look forward to the process of dying. I would be happy if it were short and painless and occurred in my sleep. I hope I can live a long life and enjoy watching my grandchildren grow and have children of their own. But because of who I believe God to be, I do not fear passing into a more direct experience of God. I begin to understand the pull that Paul wrote about (Philippians 1:20 ff). On the one hand, I feel a pull to stay here in this life, enjoying the light and love and goodness of God with so many people who are dear to me, with so much good work left to be done. On the other hand, I feel an equal and opposite pull towards the light and love and goodness of God experienced more directly beyond this life.

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two…

When I was a pastor, I had some indescribably intense and poignant moments with people who were very close to dying, or who had just witnessed a dying. On more than one occasion, someone took my hand or seized my gaze and asked me, in simplest terms, what I thought it would be like on the other side. Of course I thought of Paul’s words – “No eye has seen, nor has any ear heard, nor any human heart imagined what God has prepared….” I was tempted to say something general and comforting, but I somehow knew that the directness of their question was calling for a very personal response from me. They were asking me, not simply as a pastor, but as a fellow human being who is going to die someday. So in those holy moments, I would say something like this: Tonight, I might go home and fall asleep and have a dream about you. In my dream, you would say things you’ve never said and do things you have never done. What I know of you through my experience has created a version of you in my mind that, in a dream, can be activated and set free for a new existence.

Well, God’s knowledge of you is infinitely more full than my knowledge of you. God remembers every dimension of every dimension of your existence, even those that are completely unknown to you. So the version of you that God holds in God’s mind is the most real version of you anywhere. Not only is it accurate in this moment, but it is comprehensive across time.

I faintly understand this when I look at one of my adult children. When I look at one of my sons, I see a man in his twenties, but I knew that face when it was wrinkly and fresh from the birth canal, and when it was giggling in the bathtub, and when it was focused on a soccer ball that could be kicked through a goal, and when it was blowing out birthday candles, and when it was beaming on graduation day. In a sense, when I look at my son in this moment, I can recall my son through all my moments with him. Again, I multiply that kind of knowledge by a million, billion times, and I begin to imagine what it is like to be known by God.

So, when the atoms and molecules that sustain my life on this earth stop working, when the chemical reactions slow and stop and my embodied life is over, I am confident that I will be retained – saved, if you will, remembered like a computer saves data – in the loving mind of God. But of course, God is no computer: God is a creator. So just as I can set my knowledge of you free in a dream, I can imagine God setting God’s knowledge of me alive in some new way beyond this life, in ways and through mechanisms that I can’t begin to understand.

And one more thing. When I think of one of my sons or daughters, I don’t let his or her failures and faults dictate my view of him or her. Sadly, some people present God as if this were the case in God’s dealings with us. No, because I love my daughter, I interpret her failures and faults in light of her needs, her weaknesses, her struggles. And because I love my daughter, my understanding of her radiant strengths and glowing successes shine all the more brightly against the backdrop of her dark or weak sides. So I can’t know my son or daughter apart from my love for him or her, and I believe it is the same with God – not only as God deals with me, but as God deals with every single human who ever lived. To be known by God, to be remembered by God, is to be immersed in perfect love, perfect saving, perfect justice, perfect holiness, perfect kindness, perfect truth, perfect wonder, all perfectly integrated. This is one of the many reasons Jesus is so important to me: I believe that the way Jesus looked at imperfect, broken, needy people perfectly images the compassionate way God will always look at all of us. In the compassionate eyes and heart of Jesus, I see the character of God.

So when this body can no longer serve as the hardware to support the software of my life, I am confident that my complete program will saved on God’s hardware, so to speak. And I am confident that it will not only be stored there: it will be restored, reactivated, set free like a dream, set free to run and grow and live again. And that life will not be less than this; it can only be more, the dream come true. That’s why in the moment of my death, I want to let go of this life – with gratitude for all that has been – and trust myself to God – with hope for all that is to come.

So this is how I see my personal eschatology. I imagine that the closer I get to the crossing of the threshold, the more my understanding will grow. But when I compare what I can see here to what will be plain beyond the threshold, Frederick Buechner’s words come to mind, given at a commencement address at Union Seminary in Richmond. With God, I believe, every ending is a commencement:

The world is full of dark shadows, to be sure both the world without and the world within … But praise and trust [God] too for the knowledge that what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and that all the dark there ever was, set next to light, would scarcely fill a cup.

Brian McLarenBrian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. After teaching college English, Brian was a church planter, pastor, and networker in the Baltimore-Washington DC area for over 20 years. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for leadership gatherings in the U.S. and internationally, and is Theologian-in-Residence at Life in the Trinity Ministry.

Brian’s writing spans over a dozen books, including his acclaimed We Make the Road by Walking, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, and Naked Spirituality. A frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs, Brian is also an active and popular blogger, a musician, and an avid outdoor enthusiast. Brian is married to Grace, and they have four adult children. Find out more here.

 

A New Heavens and Earth

New Heavens & Earth

 

The contrast of worlds in the Scripture is not a contrast of the space-time universe with some future re-creation. Instead, it is a contrast of the Old Covenant world of the Jewish people with the New Covenant world in Christ (which the Jewish people would inherit along with the Gentiles). Seeing this, we can take a look at other passages describing heaven(s) and earth(s) and, if we are correct, they will make sense in light of this interpretation.

Consider, for example, the prophecy of Isaiah 65:

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; For behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people a joy.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in My people; The voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her, Nor the voice of crying (Isaiah 65:17-19).

Parallel to this prophecy is Isaiah 66:22; “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me, says the Lord, So shall your descendants and your name remain.”

These prophetic passages advanced the hope of a new world in some future time. Involved in this new creation would be a New Jerusalem, where joy would prevail and weeping would be heard no more. To what time and creation do these prophecies refer? Is this a creation destined to follow the end of this material universe? It is possible, perhaps, but a careful study of the context of these chapters shows that the prophet was looking to the end of a covenantal era, with a vision of the messianic blessings that spiritual Israel would inherit.

The New Jerusalem of Isaiah 65:18 corresponds to the New Jerusalem of Galatians 4:26 and Hebrews 12:22. The new heaven and earth corresponds to the heavenly country of Hebrews 11:16. This was the world promised to Abraham (Romans 4:13), which his seed looked for. Nevertheless we, according to His promise, Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:13, “…look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” Peter was looking for the promise because Ishmael would soon be cast out, the end of all things is at hand, he also wrote in 1 Peter 4:7.

John, who was privileged to see this transition in his vision on Patmos, presents the new heaven and earth in Revelation 21:

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea.

Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:1-2).

This is the same heaven and earth of Isaiah 65:17, and the same New Jerusalem of Isaiah 65:18. It was a vision of the world promised to Abraham and his seed not of law-keeping, but of gospel abundance (Romans 4:13).

Many biblical scholars date Revelation around A.D. 96, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, who persecuted Christians. This places the date of John’s letter nearly a quarter century after the destruction of Jerusalem. There are, however, several problems with this assumption.

One, the language of Revelation shares the sense of immanency that characterizes the New Testament. John was writing of things that must shortly come to pass (Revelation 1:1), because the time was at hand (Revelation 1:3). So near were the events envisioned in this book that John was given these instructions, “…Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand” (Revelation 22:10). By way of contrast, it is interesting to note that Daniel was told to seal the prophecy of his book because the time was yet future (Daniel 12:4, 9). If both Daniel and John were to wait thousands of years for their prophecies to come to pass, it makes little sense for one to be told to seal his prophecy and the other urged not to.

In Revelation 11, John is told to measure the temple. This is an unusual command if the temple had been reduced to a pile of rubble since A.D. 70. Yet no mention is made of a previous destruction. While John was obviously having a vision, he does not find it remarkable that the temple is standing.

Some, clinging to a late date for Revelation, identify Rome as Babylon, the “great whore.” This too has problems. Rome was never in covenant with God that she might become an adulterous. You cannot be unfaithful to someone you have never married. Only Jerusalem, representative of the Jewish people, can be said to be adulterous for breaking covenant with God. Identifying Rome as Babylon also fails to satisfy the immanency of Revelation. Rome would not fall for nearly three more centuries, hardly an event at hand in A.D. 96.

Less compelling, perhaps, but not insignificant, is the probable age of the apostle. Most scholars assume that John was probably close to the age of Jesus when he was called to be a disciple. The later the date of Revelation, the less likely it is that John was alive and enough in possession of his faculties to write the book detailing his vision. With God, of course, all things are possible, but this does not absolve us from using some common sense when speculating about the date of Revelation.

Join us each Monday as we blog through The Spirit of Prophecy by Max King. (And if you get impatient, of course, you can always get the book inspiring these posts here.) Stay tuned! And weigh in below.

Making Eschatology Personal: What Is Judgment? – Brian McLaren

Field Mirror

Brian’s Note: This is part of a chapter which we cut from A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. The eighth of the ten questions identified in the subtitle deals with eschatology – our vision of the future, the afterlife, etc.

If we shed the Greco-Roman narrative discussed last week, death becomes the occasion, via God’s presence in the future, for all pretense and hypocrisy, like all hidden virtues and goodness, to be brought to light – because in God there can be no darkness or deceit or ignorance. This means that the true accounting, evaluation, or assessment of our lives cannot help but happen. (For more on this subject, see Romans 14:9-13; Hebrews 4:12-13.)

This true accounting, evaluation, or assessment will not be harsh, merciless, or graceless, as many assume, because in God, what we may think of as opposites – grace and truth, justice and mercy, kindness and strength – are beautifully and fully integrated. God never expresses justice at the expense of kindness, or vice versa, but every expression of justice is kind and every expression of kindness is just. God’s integrated judgment, then, could never be merely retributive – seeking to punish wrongdoers for their wrongs and in this way balance some sort of karmic cosmic equation. No, God’s judgment would have to be far higher and better than that: it would have to be restorative. It would aim far higher than merely convicting people of wrong (which is easy); its goal would be universal repentance, universal restoration, universal reconciliation, universal purification, universal “putting wrong things right,” which is a God-sized task. In this sense, achieving judgment means achieving a right outcome, which in turn means reconciling, not merely punishing; treating and healing, not merely diagnosing; transforming, not merely exposing; redeeming (or giving value), not merely evaluating.

So when we say, with the writer of Hebrews, that “it is appointed to human beings to die once, and after this, the judgment,” we are not saying, “and after this, the 1 condemnation.” (Hebrews 9:27)

We are saying, with John, that to “see God,” to be in God’s unspeakable light, will purge us of all darkness:

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! …Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this open in them purify themselves, just as God is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)

Since “what we will be has not yet been made known,” it is hard to say anything more, except this: In the end, God is all in all, and all will be well. (1 Corinthians 15:24-28.)

Does that mean there will be no cost, no loss, no regret, nor mourning? Of course not. Paul’s image of a cleansing fire is appropriate here. God’s fire can’t consume “gold, silver, and precious stones,” because in so doing, God would be destroying something good, which would render God evil. But the cleansing fire must destroy the “wood, hay, and stubble” of hypocrisy, evil, sin. Some of us, Paul said, will experience this as a great loss, suggesting that once the evil or worthless thoughts, words, and deeds of our story are burned away, there will not be much of our life’s story left. We will be saved “by fire,” he says; perhaps we’d say “by the skin of our teeth.” But others of us, recalling Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats, will be surprised in a positive way: thousands of forgotten deeds of kindness will have been remembered by God, and we will feel the reward of God’s “well done.

This kind of hope for life beyond death changes the way you live before death. It makes you eager to use your wealth to make others rich, not to hoard it; to use your power to empower others, not to protect yourself; to give and give so that you will finish this life having given more than you received, thus “laying up treasures in heaven.” It encourages you to try to be secretive about your good deeds because you would rather defer the return on your investment to the future. In fact, this hope makes you willing to give up this life for things that matter more than life itself. Dr. King knew this. His hope beyond death emboldened him to say: To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory. (From A Christmas Sermon on Peace, December 24, 1967. (Widely available online, including here.)

We’ve all heard the cliché about someone being “so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good,” and we’ve probably met people – and congregations, and denominations – on whom the cliché fits like an old bedroom slipper. But I hope now it’s becoming clear: there is also a way of being so earthly minded that you’re no earthly good, and there’s a way of being heavenly minded so that you are more earthly good than you ever could have been any other way. To be liberated from the fear of death – that’s one of the greatest liberations of all. To believe in a new creation that arises from within this creation – that’s a source of true hope and courage. To participate in a network of relationships that begins before death but isn’t limited by death in the slightest degree…that’s an invitation to live life abundant, life to the full, life of the ages.

So, making my eschatology personal, what do I expect to happen when I die? I expect to experience death as a passage, like birth, like passing through a door. I don’t know how that passing will come … like a slow slipping away in disease, like a sudden jolt or shock in an accident, like losing my grip and feeling that I’m falling, only to discover that I’m not falling out of life, but deeper into it.

On the other side, I imagine I will be in the unimaginable light of God’s presence, a goodness so good, a richness so rich, a holiness so holy, a mercy and love so strong and true that all of my evil, pride, lust, greed, resentment, and fear will be instantly melted out of me. I imagine that I will at that moment more fully understand how God has in mercy and grace born the pain of forgiving and cleansing me, because I think forgiveness is indeed agonizing, as Jesus’ suffering on the cross embodies. I imagine that at that moment, because I will know more than ever how much I have been forgiven, I will more than ever be filled with love…for God, and with God, for everyone and everything.

I imagine I will feel a sense of reunion – yes, with loved ones who have died, but also with my great-great-great-great-grandparents and my thirty-second cousins whose names I’ve never known but to whom I am related. I imagine that sense of relatedness that I now feel with closest of kin will somehow be expanded to every person who has ever lived. And I doubt it will stop with human beings, but will expand infinitely outwards to all of God’s creation. I imagine that I will feel the fullest, most exquisite sense of oneness and interrelatedness and harmony that I approached vaguely or clumsily in my most ecstatic moments in this life.

I imagine that I will instantly feel differently about my sufferings. I will see, not the short-term pain that so preoccupied me on the past side of death, but instead the virtue and courage and compassion that were beaten into me through each fall of the hammer of pain. On the future side of death, I imagine that I will bless my sufferings, and feel about them as I feel about my pleasures now; I may in fact feel about many of my pleasures then as I feel about my sufferings now. What has been suffered or lost will feel weightless compared to the substance that has been gained through the suffering and loss. I imagine that in all this, I will feel a sense of … “Ah yes, now I see.” What I longed for, reached for, touched but couldn’t grasp, will then be so clear, and all of my unfulfilled longing on this side of death will, I imagine, enrich and fulfill the having on that side of death.

Continued next week!

Brian McLarenBrian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. After teaching college English, Brian was a church planter, pastor, and networker in the Baltimore-Washington DC area for over 20 years. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for leadership gatherings in the U.S. and internationally, and is Theologian-in-Residence at Life in the Trinity Ministry.

Brian’s writing spans over a dozen books, including his acclaimed We Make the Road by Walking, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, and Naked Spirituality. A frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs, Brian is also an active and popular blogger, a musician, and an avid outdoor enthusiast. Brian is married to Grace, and they have four adult children. Find out more here.

 

Abraham’s Sons: A Tale of Two Worlds

Two Covenant Worlds

Continuing our conversation, another way of framing the shift from outer to inner, from Law to Presence, is that Abraham gave birth to two worlds. He had two sons, each typifying a world to come. Ishmael typified the original covenantal world of the Hebrews. Since Hagar, the bondwoman, represented this Sinaitic covenant, her son Ishmael represented the children born of that covenant: the biological descendants of Abraham. It was not uncommon to refer to this people and their culture and their law system in terms of a world.

Isaac typified the early ecclesia – the church – and the world to come. Since Sarah, the freewoman, represented the New Covenant from Mount Zion, her son Isaac represented Christians (named as such in Antioch – “little Christs”) born of this covenantal world. This was a new world, a new heavens and new earth. Bible teaching, especially Bible prophecy, spends a lot of time with these two worlds. Neglecting this can lead to all kinds of interpretive problems – and it has. Especially when a fusion of either of these two worlds with the material heaven and earth is attempted – mass confusion in understanding God’s unfolding redemption is the result.

According to Paul, a promise was given to Abraham that he and his seed would inherit a world.

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13).

The question that arises out of this verse is, what world would Abraham and his seed inherit? Some might say the world in question is this present material world, the earth and everything in it. Some might suggest a new material world to come.

From the context, however, we can see that the world Abraham was to inherit was the one typified by Isaac in contrast to the world typified by Ishmael. This promise was not given, nor was it going to be received, through the Law. It was not the Old Covenant world. Since it was a promise declared to come through the righteousness of faith, or the gospel, it seems logical that the world of Romans 4:13 is the New Covenant world. If this is the case, we might expect to find evidence of it elsewhere in scripture.

There is a twofold promise found in Genesis 12:1-3 that is connected to the allegory of Abraham’s two sons:

Now the Lord had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.

I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).’

There is a temporal and spiritual promise contained in this passage, and, as seen in Paul’s allegory, the temporal promise would be developed and fulfilled first. This accounts for the fact that throughout the Old Testament, the fleshly promise overshadows the spiritual promise. While Hagar bears children, Sarah is barren and stands in the background. However, the fact that the temporal promise was first, and received primary consideration throughout the Hebrew Bible, does not mean it has a greater value or standing than the spiritual promise: quite to the contrary. We have already seen that the purpose of the Law was to serve as a shadow or pattern of good, or better, things to come

The temporal promise was not the one on which Abraham set his heart. His hope was in Isaac, not Ishmael. His faith was extended beyond Canaan, the inheritance of his fleshly seed, to the land typified by Canaan that would be inherited by Isaac his spiritual seed. In other words, he did not look for inheritance in the Old Covenant world, but rather the New Covenant world, to which the Old Covenant world pointed. This truth is conveyed in Hebrews 11, where the spiritual promise is brought forth and given preeminence over the temporal promise:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.

By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise;

For he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.

Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude-innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland.

And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return.

But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:8-16).

The first thing we want to see in this text is in verse 9. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwelt in the Promised Land (Canaan) as though in a strange country. Two things tell us that this temporal land was not the country Abraham was looking for: he regarded it as a strange country, and he and his people continued to dwell in tents, living as nomads. The reason for this is explained in verse 10: “for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” What Abraham really was looking for was not in Canaan or the temporal promise, but the spiritual promise. What he really wanted would not come through Ishmael but Isaac. What did he desire, and see by faith? What made him confess that he was a stranger and a pilgrim in Canaan? Hebrews says, in 11:14, that he was looking for a country, but not Canaan, for he was already in that land. Nor was it his native land of Ur of Chaldea, for he could have “returned to this place…But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:15-16).

Abraham was looking for the world that he and his seed should inherit, and this world, says Paul, did not come through the Law but rather the Gospel – the good news of the New Earth breaking forth by God’s will through the actions of Christ.

The city Abraham looked for was the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22), or the Jerusalem above (Galatians 4:26). This is the new heaven and earth promised to Abraham and his seed, of which the Old Covenant world (the old heaven and earth) was a forerunner. The New Testament saints, born of Abraham’s spiritual seed, looked for this new world (2 Peter 3:13) in anticipation of the time symbolic Ishmael would be cast out, or the old heaven and earth would pass away. The time was drawing near when the letter to the Hebrews was written, “…Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13).

Hebrews 12 also speaks of this distinction in terms of different mountains:

For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest,

and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore.

(For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.”

And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”)

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels,

to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect,

to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.

See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven,

whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.”

Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.

For our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:18-29).

And so: There are not just two worlds, but two mountains. The writer of Hebrews is making use of several contrasts, “For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched…” (Hebrews 12:18). This was Mount Sinai – the mountain and covenant of Abraham’s temporal seed. Those who follow Christ, however, are not children of the bondwoman. As children of the freewoman, we have come to mount Zion, and to the city of the living God (the one Abraham looked for while in Canaan), the heavenly Jerusalem (the one that belongs to the heavenly country mentioned in Hebrews 11:16).

Notice that the writer uses the present tense to describe their status. They were already approaching Mt. Zion, and this new world was something they could participate in. It was not a world in contrast to the material heavens and earth, but rather in contrast to the Jewish world. It is easy to misunderstand this distinction. The world promised to Abraham’s spiritual seed stands in contrast to that world promised his fleshly seed, and this is the new heaven and earth that replaces the old heaven and earth. The present material world has nothing to do with either one of the worlds involved in God’s scheme of redemption as typified by Ishmael and Isaac. Hebrews 12:25-28 shows the shaking of the first heaven and earth (the Old Covenant system) in order to make way for a new heaven and earth that cannot be shaken. Things that are shaken, as of things that are made refers to the temporal nature of the Jewish system, that was destined for destruction. The things that cannot be shaken refers to the intangible, spiritual nature of the Christian world or system, which cannot be destroyed by earthly foes. Hebrews 12:28 makes it clear that the writer was speaking of the Christian world – “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.”

The destruction of Jerusalem – on the one hand the inevitable, all-too-human result of violence, misused power and ego – was paradoxically a crucial point in God’s unfolding redemption, representing the end of one world, and the perfection and beginning of another world that had been born on Pentecost. This was the world promised to Abraham and his seed (Romans 4:13), arriving in the fullness of prophetic time.

Join us each Monday as we blog through The Spirit of Prophecy by Max King. (And if you get impatient, of course, you can always get the book inspiring these posts here.) Stay tuned! And weigh in below.

Making Eschatology Personal – Brian McLaren

Making Eschatology Personal

Brian’s Note: This is part of a chapter which we cut from A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. The eighth of the ten questions identified in the subtitle deals with eschatology – our vision of the future, the afterlife, etc.

In the chapter I suggest that most of our conventional eschatologies are deterministic, working from the assumption that the script of future is already written, or the movie of the future is already filmed. As an alternative, I propose a participatory eschatology where the creation of our future is a joint venture between humanity and God, and I offer a reading of a key biblical text as an example of that alternative approach. In my early drafts of the book, I attempted to deal with both the personal and the global/historical dimensions of a participatory eschatology. It became clear as the book grew in length and complexity, however, that it would be wiser to limit the book’s scope to the issue of what kind of future we expect for planet earth in history. That left the personal dimension – what we can expect for ourselves as individuals after death. I hope to return to that important subject in much more detail at some point in the future, but for now, here is the material, slightly re-edited, that we cut from A New Kind of Christianity.

[A participatory eschatology is] all very beautiful and inspiring,” someone is saying right about now, “but what about the afterlife for me personally? You’re talking so much about God’s future for all creation, and what your saying is certainly more hopeful and more challenging than what I’ve heard in the past. But mortality rates are pretty high and I’m not getting any younger. So what does this participatory understanding of eschatology have to say about the afterlife – for me as an individual?

This is a fair and important question, because eschatology is a personal matter, not just a cosmic one. For us mortals, the crazy-looking guys in the sandwich boards are right: the end will surely come in a matter of days, years, or decades. As I’ve tried to rethink this important subject outside the old familiar six-line, Greco-Roman narrative [a topic explored in chapters 4, 5, 6, and 18 of the book], and in the context of the three biblical narratives as we’ve explored them in these pages, I’ve found a vision of death and the afterlife that are, for me, even more wonderful, humbling, motivating, and hope-filled than I had before. I could sum up my emerging understanding of the afterlife by returning to our previous diagram, but this time, adding God to the picture. [This diagram presents three primary biblical narratives – the Genesis narrative of creation, the Exodus narrative of liberation, and the Isaiah narrative of reconciliation and height, length, and depth, creating what I call in Chapter 18 a 3-D story-space instead of a 2-D story-line.]

Where do we locate God? Is God in the past, before the original singularity that erupted in the Big Bang? Yes, God must be in the past, or the past must be in God: the past can’t be lost or forgotten to God. And is God in the present, with us as the universe expands and our story unfolds? Yes, God must be in the present. And can we also say that God is in the future and the future in God, and that life is, in a sense, an invitation to move toward God in the future and toward the future in God? Yes, God must in some real sense be in the future, as are past and present.

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Now even though I’m placing God’s name in three places, we need to remember there is only one God – the God who was, who is, and who is to come. The God who was with us yesterday in the past and is with us today in the present and will be with us tomorrow and forever in the future is the same God. (We could picture this by placing our expanding 3- D universe in a larger sphere called God, but that might create some other problems – as all diagrams and illustrations seem to do.) So, with that realization in mind, death could never mean leaving God, because there is nowhere we can escape from God’s presence, as the Psalmist said (139:7). Instead, death simply means leaving the presence of God in this little neighborhood of history called the present. Now assuming that the past is actually past so we can’t go back to it, what does that mean? It means, I suggest, that in death we join God in the vast, forever-expanding future.

This helps me understand what Jesus may have meant when he said that to God, all who ever lived are alive (Luke 20:38). In that light, death is merely a doorway, a passage from one way of living in God’s presence (in the present) to another way of living in God’s presence (in the open space of unseized possibility in the future). The amazing grace that has “brought us safe thus far” will “lead us home” through the doorway of death. This approach locates heaven — or the center or headquarters, so to speak, of presence of God — not in another realm (like the realm of Platonic forms), and not above us (as if God were in the sky), but instead ahead of us in time, or perhaps better said, in the flow of possibility which the future constantly brings to us.

The experience of joining God in the future necessarily entails crossing a threshold called judgment. But sadly, that word has been defined for us – and thoroughly spoiled for us – in the old Greco-Roman narrative. In that linear narrative, judgment means condemnation, and as such, is bad news for all of us sinners. It means little more than punishing wrong. But in this 3-D narrative, judgment means more than condemnation and punishment. It means setting things right, dealing decisively with evil and freeing good to run wild. For the oppressed and persecuted, that means liberation and vindication, and for the hypocrites and oppressors, it means exposure and accountability. But in the end, to have evil decisively exposed, named, dealt with, and removed…in the end, that’s good news for everyone.

Continued next week!

Brian McLarenBrian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. After teaching college English, Brian was a church planter, pastor, and networker in the Baltimore-Washington DC area for over 20 years. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for leadership gatherings in the U.S. and internationally, and is Theologian-in-Residence at Life in the Trinity Ministry.

Brian’s writing spans over a dozen books, including his acclaimed We Make the Road by Walking, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, and Naked Spirituality. A frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs, Brian is also an active and popular blogger, a musician, and an avid outdoor enthusiast. Brian is married to Grace, and they have four adult children. Find out more here.

 

Abraham’s Sons: A Tale of Two Covenants

Old to New Covenant

Last week we looked at how Paul allegorized the story of Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, to give us a paradigm for understanding the symbolic nature of prophetic language’s fulfillment in an all-inclusive spiritual Israel, fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant to bless all people.

A related purpose of Paul’s was to show the essential difference between Old Covenant and New, and the difference between the temporal and the spiritual, or flesh and spirit. Ishmael was born after the flesh (Galatians 4:23) and Isaac was born after the Spirit (Galatians 4:29). This contrast of flesh and spirit with respect to the birth of these two sons is based upon the manner that each came into being. Ishmael was born after the flesh in that his birth was according to the common course of nature, his parents being of a reasonable age; there was nothing uncommon or supernatural in his birth. The birth of Isaac to the elderly Sarah was above and beyond the ordinary course of nature, involving the promise of God, and calling forth from Abraham and Sarah an act of faith. In response to this act of faith in the purpose and power of God, God gave them Isaac, miraculously allowing barren Sarah to conceive (Romans 4:17-21; Hebrews 11:11). Both were physically born, but the power by which they were born was different.

The birth of Ishmael of a bondwoman, according to the natural course of nature, became a fitting representation of Abraham’s temporal descendants, and the state of their bondage under the Old Covenant. By contrast, the birth of Isaac to a freewoman was symbolic of Abraham’s spiritual seed born of faith through Christ, and their freedom under the New Covenant.

Bondage and death were the states of the nation of Israel under the Law, “Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3). In contrast to this was freedom and life for those born of Christ, the spiritual seed of Abraham. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free,” Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, “and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” Flesh and spirit are, therefore, contrasting terms for the Old and New covenants. It is common for us to apply these terms to the physical and spiritual aspects of humanity, but this is not how Paul uses these terms. An example is Galatians 3:3, “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit [New Covenant], are you now being made perfect by the flesh [Old Covenant]?” Terms used in a similar way are “letter” and “spirit” – “who also made us sufficient as ministers of the New Covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6; see also Romans 7:6).

Leaving the Old Covenant and coming into the new, then, is a matter of rebirth, “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Pet. 1:23).

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).

Another aspect of this story that might have some application to our study is that the barren Sarah would have more children than Hagar. Both Hagar and Sarah were to have a large number of descendants, but according to prophecy, Sarah was to have the larger family. This is implied in the original promise of Genesis 12:3, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The prophet Isaiah sets forth this fact more explicitly in Isaiah,

“Sing, O barren, you who have not borne! Break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who have not labored with child! For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord.

Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings; Do not spare; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes.

For you shall expand to the right and to the left, and your descendants will inherit the nations, and make the desolate cities inhabited” (Isaiah 54:1-3).

The more numerous children of the desolate, the spiritual seed of Abraham, were to include both Jews and Gentiles, a fact that was shrouded in mystery until the coming of Christ. Paul was an apostle of this mystery,

How that by revelation He made known to me the mystery…

which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets:

that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel (Ephesians 3:3, 5-6).

As Paul tells the story, we can see that Ishmael is the nation of Israel at the time of Paul’s writing. Isaac was the infant church, now made up of Jews and Gentiles both, waiting to be vindicated. Isaac’s mother would bear the greater fruit, the greater number of descendants. It remained only for Ishmael to be cast out. Ishmael and Isaac could not continue to coexist. The son of the bondwoman could not inherit with the son of the freewoman.

In the same way, the early church awaited the putting away of the Old Covenant system. This was not some macabre joy at the loss of life for their Jewish brothers and sisters, but the sign of the coming of the kingdom was clear: Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. The center and heart of prophecy is not Pentecost (the birth of Isaac) so much so as the fall of Jerusalem (the casting out of Ishmael).

Join us each Monday as we blog through The Spirit of Prophecy by Max King. (And if you get impatient, of course, you can always get the book inspiring these posts here.) Stay tuned! And weigh in below.

Abraham Had Two Sons

Two Sons

In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul uses Abraham’s two sons as an allegory that helps us a great deal in understanding Biblical prophecy. Here we find important keys, ideas and concepts that will help us make sense of the biblical prophetic idiom. Paul gives us a working demonstration of the new understanding Christ brings to the interpretation of prophecy. Paul himself writes, “For all the promises of God in him are Yes, and in him Amen, to the glory of God through us” (2 Cor. 1:20). Jesus is important not only to our liberation, but to our study of interpretation or hermeneutics.

It is appealing, and seems simple enough, just to take the Bible “literally” whenever possible, and a great number of Bible teachers advocate just such a method. One well-known rule of thumb is to take a passage literally unless it is obvious that the usage is figurative.

This paradigm has a lot to commend it, but it overlooks an important fact: there is a considerable language and cultural barrier between the New Testament and the contemporary reader. Discerning between figurative and literal language is not always so easy. And it really doesn’t help our dilemma any: one person may say, Christ has obviously not returned, so we must take the time statements figuratively; another may say, Christ said his return would be signaled by the destruction of Jerusalem, so we can’t take the descriptions literally.

The proof of any system of interpretation is in its consistency:

Can it be consistently applied, and does it make sense?

Like a hypothesis in scientific method, we are trying to make sense of all the available data. We have already seen that there is biblical precedent for understanding descriptive language figuratively.

In addition to literal vs. figurative, there is another fault line involving temporal and spiritual. What Paul gives us in Galatians 4 is a picture of how we can understand the difference between these concepts:

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?

For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.

But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise,

which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—

for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—

but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.

For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.”

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.

But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.

Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.”

So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free (Galatians 4:21-31).

In his effort to show the essential difference between the Law and the Gospel, and to keep believers from turning away from their faith, Paul turns to an allegorical argument from the Old Testament. He urges the Galatians to consider a story well-known to them from Jewish history. Paul allegorizes this story in order to reach beyond its plain, historical meaning, and draws out a second meaning that God intended for them to have. In other words, he takes a literal story and draws a figurative application from it.

Paul, writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit, did not simply choose an apt metaphor, but his choice gives us a glimpse into the rich imagery that God invested in the history of Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). We might think of God as an epic poet, using the history of the Hebrew people as the Divine medium. What appears to be simply a story in the life of Abraham turns out to have great spiritual significance in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan.

First, Paul tells us that Abraham had two sons. They were born into the same household, but of different mothers. Each mother represents a different covenant, and each son represents a different covenant people. Hagar was an Egyptian bondwoman in the household of Abraham, representing the Old Covenant given on Mt. Sinai. The Sinaitic covenant was also represented by the literal Jerusalem that was standing at the time of Paul’s writing. Ishmael represents the people of that covenant, the nation of Israel, who were under the bondage of sin and death (Galatians 5:1).

Sarah, the freewoman, represents the New Covenant that went forth from Mt. Zion, which is also represented by the New Jerusalem, or the heavenly Jerusalem, which is free with her children (Hebrews 12:22). Isaac, the son of the freewoman, represents the people of the New Covenant.

The purpose of Paul in this allegory was threefold: First, to show that Abraham had two sons, which existed side by side for a time in the same household. We must not miss this point of the story. These two sons are types of the two Israels of God, one born after the flesh (Old Covenant), and the other born after the Spirit (New Covenant). The spiritual follows the temporal. Ishmael was the first born and, as such, stood to receive the inheritance. Without Ishmael’s being disinherited, Isaac could not receive the firstborn’s portion. This was the meaning and strength of Sarah’s words when she said, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac” (Genesis 21:10).

As long as Ishmael and Isaac coexisted, neither received the inheritance. In order for Isaac to receive full inheritance, it was necessary to cast out Ishmael. Paul’s purpose, therefore, was to motivate all to become and remain children of the freewoman, for the inheritance was not going to be shared by the children of the bondwoman. Temporal and spiritual Israel coexisted from Pentecost (the time of Isaac’s birth) until the destruction of Jerusalem (the time of Ishmael’s casting out). Part of Paul’s mission was to encourage the children of the freewoman to be faithful while exhorting the children of the bondwoman to change direction.

There was a bitter struggle between temporal and spiritual Israel while they coexisted, as typified in Ishmael’s persecution of Isaac.

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now (Galatians 4:28-29)

Much of the New Testament was written to encourage the Christians to hold fast under religious persecution, for deliverance would come soon. Ishmael was going to be cast out, and then Isaac would be delivered from mockery, and be in a position to receive the promised inheritance.

Those who teach that the inheritance of spiritual Israel is yet future have not given careful consideration to this allegory, nor to the time element involved in prophecies and Scriptures that deal with the giving of this inheritance. They have Isaac still waiting (nearly 2,000 years) to receive what would be his when Ishmael was cast out. Either Isaac has received the adoption, or Ishmael has not yet been cast out – there is no in-between position for us today.

The persecutors typified by Ishmael were the Judaizers, Jews who were trying to persuade the early church that Gentile converts must be circumcised and follow Jewish law. These were Jews by birth who sought for the inheritance, or blessings of the covenant, through the temporal ordinances of the Old Covenant. Frequent reference is made in New Testament Scripture to the severe persecution directed against first-century Christians by these groups,

Brothers and sisters, you became imitators of the churches of God in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus. This was because you also suffered the same things from your own people as they did from the Jews. They killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out. They don’t please God, and they are hostile to the entire human race 16 when they try to stop us from speaking to the Gentiles so they can be saved. Their sins are constantly pushing the limit. God’s wrath has caught up with them in the end. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; see also Hebrews 10:32-39; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-10).

It is in view of this persecution that Paul asks the question,

Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. (Gal. 4:30)

Without giving any hint of the nearness of the destruction of Jerusalem, Paul, by adopting these words of Sarah addressed to Abraham, emphasizes the need for the Galatians to stand clear of a way of living doomed for destruction. Just as there could be no joint inheritance between Ishmael and Isaac, so there could be no fusion or amalgamation of the Old and New Covenants. Temporal Israel could not be combined with spiritual Israel.

Join us each Monday as we blog through The Spirit of Prophecy by Max King. (And if you get impatient, of course, you can always get the book inspiring these posts here.) Stay tuned! And weigh in below.

Pause and Presence – Gareth Higgins

Gareth Higgins Presence

Recently, after beginning to read John O’Donohue’s conversations with John Quinn, I woke up in the middle of the night with these thoughts forming:

I think many of us are not present to our own lives; it’s as if we see the outline of ourselves but can’t quite occupy them. We’re either living smaller than we’re made to be, or outside the frame of who we really are.

I’m not one to believe that there is a guiding hand that decided for us in advance what kind of person we would turn out, but something emerges in formative years, aspirations mingling with wounds to produce a sense of calling. Later this solidifies into the answer to the questions about what brings both healing to the world and joy to the person doing the healing.

How to fill the space that has been given you – no less and no more.

Try to become a presence in your own life.

Try to be present with all that is in your life.

This is the meaning of spiritual discipline, of having dominion over yourself.

That you can take the pauses you need to take.

Let there be spaces, even between breaths.

The echoes of the wonder you used to feel call you – not because you have lost them, but because they are still alive in you. You are not alone on this path. It is not a path back to Eden, to some magical childhood innocence.

It is, rather, a path forward, toward the wholeness that has always been with you, and just hasn’t fully formed itself yet.

It takes breathing, and intention to bring it to fullness.

You are invited to make spaces between things, to nurture sacraments of interruption, to make spaces between things.

And to find the hidden place where the whole you has always stood.

Gareth HigginsGareth Higgins was born in Belfast in 1975, grew up during the northern Ireland Troubles, and now lives in North Carolina. He writes and speaks about connection to the earth, cinema and the power of dreams, peace and making justice, and how to take life seriously without believing your own propaganda. He’s happy to be a work in progress. You can find out more about Gareth here. He also invites you to join him at the festival of stories and light in Albuquerque this May for Movies and Meaning!

Elements of Fulfillment: Land

Sacred Land

Our reflection on the elements of fulfillment in biblical prophecy would not be complete without bringing into proper focus the role land promises form in the biblical narrative. The land, earth, or world, are terms used to designate the dwelling place of God’s people. Again one is faced with the indisputable fact that the Bible deals with two worlds, earths, or lands – depending on which Israel is being examined.

Abraham’s temporal seed was given a land promise, that was fulfilled in their possession of Canaan. Some deny that temporal Israel inherited all the land promised them in order to have a complete fulfillment of this promise at some future time. But the Scriptural narrative affirms that they received it all (Joshua 21:43-45; 23:14). Possession of the “larger land of Canaan” is sometimes questioned, but David recovered “his border at the river Euphrates” (2 Samuel 8:31); and Solomon reigned over all from the land of the Philistines, unto the border of Egypt (1 Kings 4:21); so evidently if David recovered it and Solomon reigned over it, Israel possessed it.

The controversy, of course, centers in the land promises given during and after Babylonian captivity, which assumes an eternal possession of the land. But the problem has been in our failure to realize what land, or world, is under consideration in such passages. Remember, there are two Israels involved in God’s plan, so the question is, To which Israel were these land promises given? Can one insist on giving spiritual Israel a physical land, or must one make the land correspond to the nature of the Israel that is to receive it?

For example, the tabernacle promise in Amos 9:11-12 was confirmed in Acts 15:13-19 as having its fulfillment spiritually under the gospel. Why isn’t the same true of the land promises? It is the writer’s belief that it is, for in the same chapter of Amos, chapter 9:15, it is also stated, “I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them, says the Lord your God.”

The land to be received would be just as spiritual as the tabernacle, the city, the throne, the temple, or the people involved in it. Canaan was a type of this land to come, just as David was a type of Christ, or old Jerusalem was typical of the New Jerusalem.

The residence of God’s people today is in the new earth promised, which is just as spiritual as everything that belongs in it. Of this earth and this inheritance, Jesus spoke in Matthew 5:5:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

In connection with the prophecy of Amos 9:15, Christ said:

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28).

The clause, “neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” is a fulfillment of Amos 9:15. Christians are the true seed of Abraham, and they are planted in Christ Jesus. They have citizenship in a kingdom that cannot be moved. Concerning this spiritual seed Paul said:

“For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13).

What world was promised to Abraham and his seed? Not the one through the law (Canaan), but the one through the gospel (Hebrews 12:28; Ephesians 3:21). Our next blog series will develop these ‘two worlds’ more fully.

This series has sought to show the essential difference between the two states of the law and reality. The law was a system of temporal types, shadows or patterns of things to come. Reality is the spiritual state of those things as typified under the law. Under truth, there is a complete and full restitution of all things spoken by the prophets of God, and witnessed by the law (Acts 3:21). Beyond this one cannot go, nor from this can there be a return or departure. All saints stand complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10), and are made free in the truth (John 8:32; Galatians 5:1).

Abraham had two sons, and the difference between Ishmael and Isaac is the difference between the old and the new economies. The spiritual principle of interpretation receives its support in Isaac, just as the literal or reality principle inheres within Ishmael, and cannot be applied to Isaac. “We are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.”

Join us each Monday as we blog through The Spirit of Prophecy by Max King. (And if you get impatient, of course, you can always get the book inspiring these posts here.) Next week we’ll examine the nature of Land as depicted in biblical prophecy.