Yesterday I concluded by saying, “Having studied all these matters from Old Testament times, we are now in a position to attack the problem stated in the previous number in this series. We are presented with the problem of seeing numerous allusions to an early return of the Lord, well within the lifetimes of the apostles, knowing that it not only didn’t happen, but even after some 2,000 years, it still hasn’t happened. Why is this?”
Our first call must be on Isaiah, at the time when he was shown the glory of the Lord in chapter 6. After experiencing this amazing vision, he was asked to take a message to the people of Israel. What was it? “Go and say to this people, Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes, lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (6:9-10)This is one of the strangest messages in the whole Bible. Why should God withhold His blessing judicially?Why indeed? But this passage was quoted by our Lord as He gave the series of parables of the Kingdom, and again later. All four Evangelists quote it. In days gone by it was often taught that the parables were home-spun tales to help the crowds believe. But the opposite was true. The parables were stated to be the means of preventing the people from seeing. The disciples alone were treated to the explanation. Once again we ask, why? Surely the Lord was not purposely withholding the means of grace from His nation? In point of fact He arrived on the chess-board of world history at the very point where the hardness of heart of the Israel nation was at its peak. Hence the crucifixion. It was the Father’s will that He should minister to the nation at this nadiral point. The judgment on the nation was ripe even before He was born in Bethlehem. We must return to Isaiah later, but hear now what else the Lord said about His nation.
In the days immediately preceding the crucifixion, certain words were spoken that give us a clue. The first concerns the fig tree that bore no fruit, and was found to be withered the next day, much to the surprise of the disciples. The fig tree had always been a symbol of the Israel nation. The Lord found no fruit on this tree. We are told that it was not the season for figs, in the beginning of April, but it should have been covered with “baby figs” known as Tagsh. If fig trees bore no tagsh in spring, they would bear no mature fruit later in the season. Therein was the lesson, both horticulturally and nationally. This tree, this nation, was showing no sign of fruit at that time, and so it would not bear fruit later. It had to be cut down. (See Matt.21:18, and especially Mark 11:12-14, and 20-21))
Next we read of Jesus saying, “I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” (Matt.21:43) One is reminded of the similar happening in the wilderness, when the promised land was prohibited to that generation, but was given to the children under 20 years of age. To which nation was the Lord referring, that would produce fruit?
A little later Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, . . . how often would I have gathered your children as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not. Behold your house is forsaken and desolate. You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Matt.23:27-39) These three prophetic pronouncements all spoke of disaster to the nation. The Kingdom of God, the administration of the world, could not be placed in the hands of a nation that was bent on killing the King.
However, in accordance with the mercy and lovingkindness of God, which was manifest in our Lord’s life more than in any who lived before Him, He made that wonderful plea whilst hanging in agony on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) To whom were these words addressed? Was it to the Romans who had crucified Him? No, it was to the leaders of Jewry. Without their actions, Pilate would have known nothing about it. The Jewish nation was in our Lord’s mind. Even though He had spoken about their demise a few days earlier, and in the strongest terms, He now asked His Father to forgive them, and if they were forgiven, they were in a place of new beginning, otherwise forgiveness has no meaning.
The awful truth had to be understood. It was God’s plan that His Son should enter this world at a time when He would be totally rejected and crucified. He would then become the Holy Lamb of God, the Great Sacrifice for sin, thereby breaking down all the barriers to man’s salvation. Once the horror of the cross was past, once the new dawn of resurrection day arrived, the most amazing truth broke forth, that God could bring a new beginning to everyone, and that this precious truth was to be preached first to the very agents of destruction who had been Satan’s tools in killing His Son.
And so, after the resurrection and ascension, Peter went forth at Pentecost with this message of forgiveness. “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins . . . for the promise is to you and to your children.” (Acts 2:38-39) Later he reiterated the call, by saying, “I know that you acted in ignorance as also did your rulers . . . Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send again Jesus Christ.” (Acts 3:19-20)
Notice carefully that Peter’s words were addressed nationally, (to you and to your children) and they contained mention of our Lord’s words on the cross (the ignorance), and the grounds for forgiveness, and the return of Jesus to the nation. In that way, if the nation repented, the Kingdom of God could be set up, with Jesus as King, having returned to the nation. This is the reason why there was such an emphasis in those days on the near return of the Lord. However, it depended on the nation’s response, but as Peter saw thousands responding positively at his address, he was sanguine that this glorious end might well be achieved.
Sadly, the flow of repentance soon dried up as a result of intense and hostile persecution being focused on the new movement by the Jewish leaders. It soon became apparent that they had no intention of repenting and accepting Jesus as their Messiah. The heart of the nation had not changed overnight. Within a short time it became impossible for the new converts to declare their faith openly, for fear of being dragged off to prison. The stoning of Stephen followed, and just before he died, he saw a vision of the Lord, standing at the right hand of God. (Acts 7:55) This would have been interpreted as a sign of judgment – i.e. “standing”, not “seated.” Saul of Tarsus then entered the picture, as one of those who acted with hostility to the new movement, consenting to Stephen’s death.
Saul of Tarsus then rose to become the prominent figure in the new move to quench, destroy, eliminate, this new addiction to the teaching of the One whom the Sanhedrin believed was an anti-messiah, the One whose words and works didn’t accord with their own exegesis of the Old Testament. But God decided to do one of the most amazing things recorded in the history of the nation. At this point in history we are shown the conversion of Saul, who called himself “a man born out of due time.” (1 Cor.15:8) Why did he use this expression? First of all, let’s see what the Greek word EKTROMA means. Our Lexicon has this to say.An untimely birth, a miscarriage. What could this possibly mean? If a child be born before its proper time,it would need special care and attention to ensure its survival. But I think I see a deeper meaning here. Was Paul saying that from the point of view of prophetic history, his conversion took place well before it slotted into the revealed scheme of things? Remember the words of Zechariah, “they shall look upon Him whom they pierced and shall mourn for Him.” (Zech.12:10) The nation would be in this position in future days, but Paul was shown this vision individually, well before it was due to the nation. What followed concerning the scales on his eyes being removed was God’s way of saying that Isaiah’s judgment (“seeing they shall see and not perceive”) was removed. Later on Paul was writing that he was “the chief of sinners.” (1 Tim.1:15) He not only spoke of himself, but of his whole nation.
Now we are on the point of understanding what God planned in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. It was the Lord’s purpose for the message of salvation to be spread throughout the world to all peoples. The gate of salvation was opened, not only to the Jewish nation, but to all people. But Israel had refused to become the missionary nation to the world, (which was God’s intention, even from the days of Moses) and so he picked up one man to do the job instead. He became “the apostle of the uncircumcision.” (Gal.2:7) The purposes of God could not be thwarted. His great love to all mankind was not going to be prevented by a nation that resisted His grace. Those of us today who, as Gentiles, have entered into the joy of the Lord, been born again, and received a new spirit, are therefore wholly indebted to the Apostle Paul and his writings.
But this is not the end of the story as far as we are concerned in this study. The account that Luke has given us in Acts of the progress of evangelism is most instructive. Paul was insistent on using the term “to the Jew first.” (Rom.2:9-10) On his travels he always went to the Jew first, and only after they had rejected his message did he go to the Gentiles. This was a very important part of his ministry, because even though he was primarily the minister to the Gentiles, God had a job for him to perform along the way. What was this job?
Perhaps this is not fully understood , but the justice of God demanded that the good news of the Messiah’s death and resurrection should be conveyed to the whole house of Israel, and that included all the many outposts of the Jews in the Diaspora. Even a cursory reading of what took place at Pentecost will show just how many Jews travelled to Jerusalem for the festivals. And these represented but a few of the dispersed Jewish nation. Not until they had all been given the opportunity of believing could the judicial sentence against the nation be carried out.
Paul concluded this task when he reached Rome. This was the last outpost. He called together all the leaders of the Jews, and had a whole day conference, during which he “testified to the Kingdom of God, trying to convince them from the law of Moses and the prophets concerning Jesus.” (Acts 28:23) The result was nothing short of an uproar of dissention between a few who accepted what he was saying and the rest who rejected it. Just as they were all filing out, Paul had one last word for them. He referred to that passage in Isaiah 6 – “How right was the Holy Spirit, saying, Go to the people and say, You shall indeed hear, but never understand, . . .” And then he made the important declaration – “Be it known to you therefore, that this, the Salvation of God, is sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear.” (Acts 28:28) It was all about “hearing.” The Jews’ ears were closed, but the ears of the Gentiles were being opened.
I am aware that Dispensationalists often make this verse a Grand Turning Point in history. I heartily concur, even if I cannot accept all that they say based on it. Yes, it is a moment of judicial sentence on the Jewish nation of those days. They had rejected their Messiah, they had crucified Him. They had been forgiven, and offered a new chance, a new beginning, but had rejected that as well. Paul expressed himself with great feeling to the Thessalonians, when he spoke about “the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us, and they please not God, and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins always, for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” (1 Thess.2:14-16)
That wrath fell upon the nation in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was sacked by Titus, and over one million Jews lost their lives according to the Jewish historian Josephus. The rest were carried away captive to Rome as slaves. The Temple was destroyed, and the city burned. The centre of Judaism was obliterated. Henceforth the land of Israel became the home of other people, and remained that way until 1948.
We have now reached the most important part of this study. We have seen that the Acts period was a Time of Transition. It was as though the hand of God was held back from judgment, waiting for the outcome of His gracious entreaty to His people Israel. Judgment was delayed, but many other things were also in the balance. How many of the prophetic utterances relating to the “time of the end” were thereby prevented from fulfilment by this one act of treachery? And of greatest importance, what about the words related to the near-return of our Lord? According to Peter at Pentecost, Jesus would only come back if the nation repented. Because the nation refused God’s offer, He didn’t return to that generation, and has not returned since. How does this affect our understanding of the “signs of the times” connected with His return? Do they still have meaning, or are they “out of date” because many centuries of history have caused them to be of little significance to a 21st century world?
Maybe some of our readers imagined that we should be using this series just to examine Matthew 24, etc., with the signs of the times. No doubt we shall have to in due course, but the main thrust of these last three editions has been to show that Matthew 24 cannot be properly understood apart from the knowledge of God’s purposes within that Transition Period. There is much still to do in this study. We have not as yet finished with Isaiah 6. But let me finish today’s portion by quoting Paul in Romans 11:25. “I would not have you ignorant, brethren, . . . that hardness is happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.” We believe that Paul was waiting for the accomplishment of that word within his own generation, and still expected the Lord’s return within his own lifetime, as well as the prophecies relating to“all Israel will be saved.” This will be a good starting place for our next study.