Saturday, November 3, 2018

God’s Covenant People: A Response to Objections (Part Three)

Objection: Because of what we read in Galatians 3:29 and 4:21-29, those constituting the body of Christ should be understood as “spiritual Israel.”

Paul was not saying that the believing Gentiles to whom he wrote had somehow become literal descendents of Abraham. They had not miraculously become Israelites or Jews. There is a sense in which those who believe Paul's evangel can be considered as being “of Abraham’s seed,” but it's not a literal sense. So in what sense did Paul consider those who believed his evangel to be “of Abraham’s seed?” I think Paul explains what he means in the verse itself. Those to whom Paul wrote were considered “of Abraham’s seed” in the sense that they had become “enjoyers of [an] allotment according to promise” (the definite article does not appear in the Greek; thus, the verse may read as, “an allotment,” rather than as “the allotment”).

We know that God promised an eonian allotment to both Abraham and his seed (i.e., the faithful Israelites among his literal, ethnic descendents). The promised eonian allotment that they will be enjoying is life in the land which God repeatedly promised them (see Genesis 12:7; 13:15 15:18; 17:8; 24:7; Josh. 1:4; etc.). But Abraham’s literal seed are not the only people who have an allotment according to promise. Those who believe Paul’s evangel (and are thus “in Christ”) have also become “enjoyers of an allotment according to promise.” In Titus 1:2-3, we read, “Paul, a slave of God, yet an apostle of Jesus Christ, in accord with the faith of God's chosen, and a realization of the truth, which accords with devoutness, in expectation of life eonian, which God, Who does not lie, promises before times eonian, yet manifests His word in its own eras by heralding, with which I was entrusted, according to the injunction of God, our Savior...”

Being enjoyers of an allotment according to promise is something that members of the body of Christ have in common with Abraham’s literal seed. Paul is thus able to figuratively speak of us (members of the body of Christ) as being “of Abraham's seed.” But we are no more literally “of Abraham's seed” than we are literally the children of Sarah. And Paul gives no indication that, at the time he wrote Galatians, the allotment of Abraham’s figurative “seed” (members of the body of Christ) was the same allotment as that promised to Abraham and his literal seed.

It’s assumed that being “children of promise” (and thus like Isaac in this regard) makes members of the body of Christ a part of the same company of believers to which the twelve apostles (and all who were converted through their ministry) belonged. However, there’s no reason why believers belonging to two different companies of saints (and who have two different callings and eonian expectations) can’t both be considered “children of promise.” The fact that those constituting the believing remnant of Israel are termed “children of promise” and are being reckoned by God “for the seed” (Rom. 9:6-8) doesn’t mean that everyone who could be termed a “child of promise” (and who could be referred to as being of the “seed of Abraham”) was a part of the believing remnant (or part of the same company of saints to which the remnant belonged). Consider the following unsound argument:

1. Every believing Jew in Paul’s day who will be enjoying eonian life it the kingdom that is going to be restored to Israel could be considered a “child of the promise,” and to be “of the seed of Abraham.”
2. Every member of the body of Christ could be considered a “child of the promise,” and to be “of the seed of Abraham.”
3. Therefore, those constituting the body of Christ are a part of redeemed Israel, and will be enjoying eonian life in the kingdom that is going to be restored to Israel.

The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. The fact that Peter and Paul could both be considered “children of the promise” and to have had Abraham as their “father”[1] doesn’t mean Peter was a member of the body of Christ, or that Paul shared in Israel’s covenant-based expectation.

In Romans 4:16, Paul actually presupposed the existence of two separate categories of believers who could both be considered as being “of the seed and faith of Abraham.” In this verse we read,Therefore it is of faith that it may accord with grace, for the promise to be confirmed to the entire seed, not to those of the law only, but to those also of the faith of Abraham, who is father of us all...’”

Notice how Paul had two categories of Abraham’s “seed” in view to which the “promise” would be confirmed: (1) those he referred to as “those of the law” and (2) those who he referred to as “those also of the faith of Abraham.” Who did Paul have in view as “those of the law?” It couldn’t have been unbelieving Jews, for the “promise” of which Paul wrote isn’t going to be confirmed to them. But nor could it have been a reference to those in the body of Christ (as demonstrated in part four of “God’s covenant people,” no one in the body of Christ - whether uncircumcised or circumcised - can be considered as being “of the law”). Rather, Paul was referring to those who comprised the believing Jewish remnant, which Paul elsewhere referred to as “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), and among whom we can include the “tens of thousands” of believing, law-keeping Jews referred to in Acts 21:20. It is these believers among God’s covenant people who are the true Israel, and who are being reckoned by God as Abraham’s seed (Rom. 9:6-8). Those in the body of Christ are referred to as Abraham’s seed as well (since we are “of the faith of Abraham,” making Abraham our figurative “father”), but we are not the seed of Abraham that is “of the law” (i.e., the “Israel of God”).

Objection: Those constituting the body of Christ should be understood as sharing the same eonian expectation as the twelve apostles because of what we read in Galatians 4:26.

Based on Paul’s statement concerning the “Jerusalem above” being “mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26), some understand Paul to have been affirming that members of the body of Christ share the same eonian destiny as the twelve apostles (whose names, we’re told in Rev. 21:14, are engraved on the twelve foundations of the city - the new Jerusalem - that will be descending from heaven to earth after the creation of the new heaven and new earth).

It must be kept in mind that Paul introduced the “Jerusalem above” as a contrast to the then-present Jerusalem of which the Judaizers were, figuratively, “children” (because of their being in slavery to the law). The imagery is simply a natural extension of his allegorical argument against the Judaizers, which begins in v. 21. And the reason Paul used an allegorical argument from the law in the first place is because it was under the law that some of saints in Galatia wanted to be under (due to the Judaizing influence there). Thus, Paul’s reason for mentioning the “Jerusalem above” in this letter was the fact that it was a fitting contrast to the present Jerusalem, which corresponded to mount Sinai/Hagar. But why would he refer to this future home of the saints of Israel during the final eon as “mother of us all?”

In Paul’s allegorical argument, Hagar (the “slave woman”) represents the old covenant and Mount Sinai, and corresponds to the “present Jerusalem,” who was “in slavery [to the law] with her children” (vv. 24-25). In contrast, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, corresponds to “the Jerusalem above,” who, we’re told, “is free.” Notice that, in verses 26 and 31, both the “Jerusalem above” and Sarah (the “free woman”) are spoken of as if they are the mother of the believers to whom Paul wrote. Obviously, Paul was using figurative, metaphorical language in both instances; neither Sarah nor the “Jerusalem above” are literally the mothers of those to whom Paul wrote. In the case of Sarah, believers are (figuratively) her “children” in the sense that we are like her son, Isaac. Isaac represents those who are “children of promise,” and, being free rather than slaves, are consequently “enjoyers of an allotment” (see Gal.  3:29; 4:7; cf. Rom. 8:17). Just as Sarah is figuratively described as our mother (and we her children) because we are like her son Isaac (we resemble him in some important sense), so the “Jerusalem above” is metaphorically said to be “mother of us all” because we are like her future citizens (we resemble them in some important sense). Notice that Paul said the “children” of the earthly Jerusalem were “in slavery.” That is, the earthly Jerusalem that was then present was, figuratively speaking, the “mother” of those who were in slavery (i.e., her law-enslaved citizens).

Since the “Jerusalem above is free,” it follows that her “children” are also free. Just as we are said to be “children” of Sarah because of what we have in common with Isaac (we are like Isaac in that we’re “children of promise”), so the Jerusalem above is metaphorically said to be our “mother” because of the distinguishing characteristic that we share with her future citizens (i.e., we’re free from the law of Moses, as will be the case for the future citizens of the new Jerusalem). But we have no reason to believe that Paul understood those to whom he wrote to actually be citizens of the “Jerusalem above.” Abiding in the new Jerusalem during the final eon is a blessing specifically for Abraham (as the circumcised father of the “Israel of God”) and his faithful, Israelite descendents among the twelve tribes (Heb. 11:8-10; Rev. 21:9-14; 22:3-5). Again, the only reason that Paul even made mention of the “Jerusalem above” in chapter four of Galatians is because it was a fitting contrast to the present Jerusalem, which corresponded to mount Sinai/Hagar.

In addition to the above remarks, the conspicuous absence of Paul’s name from the foundation of the new Jerusalem (in contrast with the twelve apostles) is, I believe, inexplicable if he’s to be understood as part of the same company of saints to which the twelve apostles belonged, and as having the same calling and expectation as they have. But of course, the new Jerusalem has no need or room for a “thirteenth apostle.” Paul does not belong there, and we should not try to force him or the rest of the saints in the body of Christ into this expectation. Nor should we try to force Peter, James and John into the expectation that belongs to those in the body of Christ. 

Objection: Based on Galatians 6:15-16, circumcision should be understood as irrelevant to anyone’s salvation. 

In Gal. 6:15-16, Paul – writing to members of the body of Christ – wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation. And whoever shall observe the elements of this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, also on the Israel of God.”

In order to better appreciate the radical nature of what Paul wrote here, it would be helpful to consider what circumcision meant to Israel. Circumcision is, of course, the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendents through the line of Isaac and Jacob (Israel):

Then Elohim spoke to Abraham: As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you, throughout their generations. This is My covenant that you shall keep between Me and yourselves and your seed after you: Every male among you is to be circumcised. Namely you will be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and this will be the covenant sign between Me and yourselves. Throughout your generations, every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, anyone born in the household or acquired with money from any foreigner’s son who is not of your seed. He shall be circumcised, yea circumcised, the manservant born in your household or acquired with your money. Thus will My covenant be marked in your flesh as an eonian covenant. As for the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, this soul will be cut off from his people; he has annulled My covenant. (Genesis 17:9-14, Concordant Literal Old Testament)

In the ordinary course of things, circumcision was to be performed on eight-day-old male descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There were, of course, exceptions to the more regular practice of circumcising male infants; God himself declared that newly-acquired male servants had to be circumcised as well. And any male Gentile who chose to become a member of God’s covenant people (i.e., a proselyte) would’ve had to undergo circumcision in order to do so. Moreover – and as is evident from the above passage - circumcision was (and, I believe, continues to be) no trivial or inconsequential matter to God. He himself instituted circumcision as the covenant sign between himself and Israel, and the covenant of circumcision is said to be “throughout [their] generations” (i.e., Israel’s) and “an eonian covenant.” And those who think that Paul was teaching that circumcision had, at some point, become irrelevant to God’s covenant people, Israel, are, I believe, very much mistaken.

Concerning the subject of the relevance of circumcision during the apostolic era, one believer who rejects the “two gospels” doctrinal position asked the following question on Facebook: “Did Peter or James and John require that new Israel (scattered Israelites) believers be circumcised in order for their salvation to be complete?” I’m honestly not sure who, exactly, this individual thought constituted the “new Israel” to which he referred, as I’m not aware of any reference in scripture to uncircumcised, scattered Israelites constituting something called “new Israel.” If the scattered Israelites to which this believer referred are to be understood as members of God’s covenant people, Israel, then why were they uncircumcised (for as noted earlier, even male proselytes were circumcised)? In Acts 2:5-11 we read of Jews (as well as proselytes) who were dwelling in Jerusalem for Pentecost, and are told that they were from “every nation under heaven.” As I have little doubt that these Jews and proselytes would’ve all been circumcised, I’m really not sure who, exactly, the believer had in mind when he referred to a scattered company of uncircumcised Israelites constituting “new Israel.” His question - and the unusual scenario it presupposes - simply raises more questions: Did these scattered, uncircumcised Israelites not realize they were Israelites? Were these scattered, uncircumcised Israelites not circumcised because they didn’t want to be circumcised, despite understanding its covenantal importance? Or, did they simply not understand the covenantal importance of circumcision? Although the person who asked the question concerning uncircumcised scattered Israelites may not consider these important questions, I think they’re extremely relevant to the subject of the covenant sign between God and Israel, and the connection between it and the salvation of God’s covenant people.

Perhaps what the questioner was “getting at” was whether or not Peter, James or John would’ve told an uncircumcised believer from among the nations that their salvation was “incomplete” apart from their getting circumcised. And in response to this question, I think the clear answer would be “No.” Through the events described in Acts 10, Peter - the chief apostle of the Circumcision - had learned that those among the nations who feared God and acted righteously could be saved apart from becoming proselytes (which involved getting circumcised and keeping the law of Moses), and thus learned that circumcision and law-keeping was not a requirement for salvation for the uncircumcised. Peter learned, in other words, that it was wrong for anyone to compel someone who wasn’t already a member of God’s covenant people (such as the uncircumcised Greek believer, Titus) to be circumcised, and would’ve sided with Paul on this issue. Circumcision was all about becoming a member of God’s covenant people, and this took place either involuntarily (as was the case for eight-day-old Hebrew babies), or voluntarily (as was the case for certain adult Gentiles who chose to become members of God’s covenant people). But to tell a believer from among the nations that they had to become a member of God’s covenant people in order to be saved was wrong.

Did this fact make circumcision irrelevant for God’s covenant people? By no means. Circumcision was (and still is) the sign of God’s covenant with Israel, and everything that we’re told God said to Abraham in Genesis 17:9-14 remained just as true and authoritative during the apostolic era as it was when God first spoke these words to Abraham. Thus, the very fact that, in Gal. 6:15-16, Paul stated that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mattered for those “in Christ Jesus” should tell the reader that Paul wasn’t referring to believing members of God’s covenant people here. Rather, he had in mind a different company of believers altogether.

The key to understanding Paul’s words in Gal. 6:15-16 is, I believe, found in the words, “in Christ Jesus.” What did Paul mean by these words? Before we consider what Paul meant by these words, it would be helpful to consider what the apostles of the Circumcision (e.g., Peter and John) meant by being “in Christ.” In 1 John 2:24-25 and 28-29, we read, Let that which you hear from the beginning be remaining in you. If ever that which you hear from the beginning should be remaining in you, you, also, will be remaining in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise which He promises us: the life eonian…And now, little children, remain in Him, that, if He should be manifested, we should be having boldness and not be put to shame by Him in His presence. If you should be perceiving that He is just, you know that everyone also who is doing righteousness is begotten of Him.”

Notice that the promise of “life eonian” is only said to be for those who are remaining in the Son and the Father, and it is only those who remain in Christ who we’re told will not be “put to shame by him in his presence.” And – based on v. 29 – we know that those who remain in Christ are those who are “doing righteousness” and are “begotten of him.” Concerning what it meant to be “remaining in Christ,” John went on to say: “…everyone who is remaining in [Christ] is not sinning...let no one deceive you. He who is doing righteousness is just, according as he is just. Yet he who is doing sin is of the Adversary…everyone who is not doing righteousness is not of God, and who is not loving his brother” (1 John 3:6-7). John also stated that the way in which those to whom he wrote could know that they were “in [Christ’” was that they were walking according as He walks” (1 John 2:6).

What did John mean by “walking according as He walks?” John was, of course, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and had observed Jesus’ “walk” very closely for approximately 3 ½ years. And what did John observe? Did John observe Jesus breaking the precepts of God, and living a life of lawlessness? Or did John observe Jesus faithfully keeping God’s precepts? Obviously, John observed Jesus faithfully keeping the precepts of God as found in Scripture, and living by “every declaration going out through the mouth of God.” And it is according to the “walk” of the One of whom John had been a disciple for 3 ½ years that those to whom John wrote were exhorted to walk in order to “remain” in Christ. From these and other verses and considerations, it is clear that John understood being “in Christ” as a conditional state of affairs that involved both the faith and the obedient conduct of those whom John exhorted to “remain in him.”

Everything John wrote in these and other verses is in perfect accord with what John learned from Christ himself during Christ’s earthly ministry. In John 15, we read that Christ provided his disciples with a “grapevine” parable in order to help them better understand their relationship with him. Christ told his disciples that every branch in him not bringing forth fruit would be removed by God (v. 2). And if someone didn’t remain in Christ, we read that they’d be “cast out as a branch,” which would then wither and be cast into the fire (v. 6). Those “cast out” are undoubtedly the ones who, according to John, will be “put to shame” by Christ in his presence (and who, in the words of Hebrews 10:26-27, will have “a certain fearful waiting for judging and fiery jealousy”).

In contrast with what John wrote to the believing Jewish recipients of his letter (and with what Christ himself declared to John and the other apostles during his earthly ministry), when Paul referred to himself and those to whom he wrote as being “in Christ Jesus,” he did not have in mind a conditional state of affairs that depended on the faith and righteous conduct of those to whom he wrote. Rather, what Paul had in mind was an inseparable spiritual union with Christ that is distinctively characteristic of every person who, upon believing the evangel of the Uncircumcision, is spiritually baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27; Eph. 1:13; cf. Rom. 6:3-10). 

Those who believe that anyone and everyone who could’ve been considered a “believer” in Paul’s day was “in Christ Jesus” in the sense that Paul had in mind here are, therefore, actually presupposing that every believer in Paul’s day was, in fact, in the body of Christ. But that, of course, is to beg the question against the very position being defended in this series of articles. Although the idea that everyone who could’ve been called a “believer” in Paul’s day was in the body of Christ may be consistent with the “one gospel” position to which most Christians hold, it’s not consistent with scripture as a whole.

The understanding of Galatians 6:15 defended above is, I believe, confirmed by the verse that immediately follows: ”And whoever shall observe the elements of this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, also on the Israel of God(v. 16). Notice how Paul referred to the “Israel of God” as a distinct category of people on whom he desired God’s mercy in connection with what he’d just said concerning the observance of “the elements of this rule” (the “rule” being that which was expressed in v. 15). Who constitutes the “Israel of God” referred to here, and why would Paul specify “mercy” as being that which he desired would be “on” this distinct category of people (instead of simply “peace,” as he desired would be on everyone else referred to)? Although most Christians seem to want to understand the “Israel of God” to be another reference to the body of Christ, this interpretation is simply not tenable. In order to understand the “Israel of God” as another reference to the body of Christ, one must not only understand the word “Israel” in a way that Paul never used the word elsewhere in his letters (see, for example, Romans 11), but they must ignore or “explain away” Paul’s use of the word “also” (which indicates that Paul is now referring to a category of people distinct from those whom he had in view previously).

When we understand the expression “Israel of God” in a literal and straight-forward way, it becomes clear that Paul was simply referring to the believing remnant among God’s covenant people, Israel (i.e., those believing Israelites who, by virtue of their faith in Christ, share in Israel’s covenant-based expectation, and will be among the “all Israel” that will be saved when Christ returns). And while some within this category of believing Israelites correctly acknowledged and respected the fact that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mattered for those within the body of Christ (e.g., Peter), not all did. In fact, some within this company of believers were very much opposed to what Paul called the “elements of this rule.” Hence – for the sake of those who did “observe the elements of this rule” - Paul expressed his desire for God’s mercy on the entire category of Jewish believers constituting the “Israel of God.”



[1] A person could be considered a “son” or “child” of someone or something if there was some resemblance or shared characteristic between them, or if they exemplified some particular characteristic or quality. For example, James and John were figuratively referred to by Christ as the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), Satan is said to have been the “father” of the unbelieving Jews (John 8:38, 44), Judas is referred to as the “son of destruction” (John 17:12), and Christ’s disciples were commanded to love their enemies “so that [they] may become sons of [their] Father Who is in the heavens...” (Matt. 5:44-45). Peter - addressing those who literally were of the seed of Abraham - even told the female Jewish recipients of his letter that they “became” the children of Abraham’s wife Sarah (1 Pet. 3:6). The sense in which they “became” her children is not the same sense in which they already were her descendents, by birth. This likely has to do with their becoming like her through their faith in God and their obedience to their husbands.

Whether circumcised or uncircumcised, those who believe Paul’s evangel can be figuratively referred to as “sons” of Abraham (and Abraham may be figuratively referred to as our “father”) in virtue of the fact that there is an important resemblance and connection between us. Just as Abraham believed God and was declared righteous by God, apart from works (and prior to his being circumcised), we, too, have been justified by faith, apart from works. When an uncircumcised member of the nations believes Paul’s evangel, they are “observing the elements of the faith in the footprints of our father Abraham” (Rom. 4:12). Because believing Gentiles share with Abraham the distinguishing characteristic of believing in God apart from works or circumcision for their justification, Abraham can be figuratively referred to as our “father,” and we his “sons.”

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