Sexuality, eschatology, Israel: and falling leaves
A recent letter from a believer outlined these issues as important when looking for a spiritual home amongst the range of churches and denominations. They are vital issues in our day.
This article is set in the context of current developments within the church and the world. We are seeing a world which has very substantially detached itself from the God of the Bible and His word as it is expressed within that book.
first published 28/ 10/2011
Falling Leaves and the prophetic word
We are also seeing a variety of collapse within that world as a result of this disconnect. It is happening in societal, geopolitical and economic systems (Heb 12:26).
Even the natural world is ‘groaning’ under severe and highly-unusual weather patterns and seismic upheavals (Rom 8:22).
What in the world is going on?
Meanwhile, on the matter of marriage and human sexuality, we are witnessing within the church worldwide (and most recently and tragically in the national Church of Scotland) the most serious departure from God’s truth since pre-Reformation times.
Sitting alongside these developments we are seeing both the nations and nature in turmoil. In the context of all of these things many are pondering on how to interpret these events. Even those with little sympathy for the Christian faith or understanding of God’s prophetic word are asking questions regarding the signs in this age. In answer to these immense and profound questions which cry out for a response, much – indeed most – of the church and its leaders remain conspicuously silent.
There are probably a number of reasons for this apparent reluctance to speak on such an important topic as end-time scenarios.
The subject is complex and contentious. It is time-consuming to explore, difficult to interpret and expound; and manifests many different and contrary views. Added to this are the perennial scandals of false prophets; many of whom – in their various predictions - flagrantly defy the Bible’s clear instruction that ‘no one knows the day or the hour’ Jesus’ return (Mark 13:32).
The sorry result of all of this is that those who are earnestly seeking answers – within and outside of the church – are left in ignorance.
What we don't know; and what we do
Notwithstanding the fact that the precise timing of Jesus’ return is known only to God the Father, we are giving clear instructions to ‘watch ’ (Mark 13:37): the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids reinforces the point (Matt 25:2).
The story is told of a father who, in the late Spring, had to depart for a period of months on a business trip, leaving his young son at home with his Mum. The lad was too young to understand ‘time’, but to give him something to go by, the father told his son that while he was going away for a longish spell, to "Watch the leaves on the trees." The father explained to his child: "Once they change colour and then start to fall, Daddy will soon be coming home.”
In the same manner, while God has withheld the exact day and hour, through His word He has given us an indication of the season. In fact Jesus used a sign from the world of nature. In the synoptic Gospels, Matthew chapter 24 provides for us the ‘spinal column’ of end-time prophecy into which all other prophecy must fit. Jesus said: "Now learn this lesson from the fig-tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near” (Matt 24:32).
Learn the lesson of the fig tree
The fig tree is used in the Bible as a symbol of Israel; and in Dr. Luke’s parallel account of the end of the age we are told: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees” (Luke 21:29). Could it be that we need to recognise two scenarios? The specific pointer (of the fig-tree that is Israel) along with the wider backdrop of ‘all the trees’ as the sign?
In the 20th century we have seen ancient prophesies fulfilled. In 1948 the nation of Israel was ‘born in a day’ (Is 66:8) and a mass movement commenced of exiled Jews making Aliyah (return) to the land of Israel – just as the prophets foretold (Is 11:11-12; 43:6; Jer 23:7-8; 31:7-8: Ezek 20:34; 28:25; 36:24; Amos 9:14-15). And God is yet going to ‘break’ those who stand against what He has destined to do. (Joel 3:2; Zech 12:1-6).
The issue of human sexuality is not only ‘separating out’ liberals from evangelicals, but also challenging those who say they ‘believe’ the Bible but who are apparently not prepared to stand for God’s Truth (cf Eph 6: 11-13). (As a consequence they render themselves unable to teach and preach on it with any credibility or authority.)
A 'litmus test'
However there is another facet of God’s prophetic agenda which is increasingly becoming a ‘litmus test’ amongst the churches: it is that of the future of Israel and the Jews.
Covenant Theology (enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, adopted by presbyterian churches around the world and which – in spite of the name – does not derive from the Biblical covenants) spawns a belief system commonly called ‘Replacement Theology’. This is the view that 'the church is now Israel’: that any promises made to the Jews and the nation of Israel have either been fulfilled, superceded or inherited by the church.
Yet the great 19th-century preacher J.C. Ryle, the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool addressed his fellow churchmen of his day:
Bishop J. C . Ryle
I believe it is high time for the Church of Christ to awaken out of its sleep about Old Testament prophecy.
"I think we have made great mistakes, and it is high time that we should confess it! I warn you that unless you interpret the prophetical portion of the Old Testament in the simple, literal meaning of its words, you will find it no easy matter to carry on an argument with an unconverted Jew. Will you dare to tell him that Zion, Jerusalem, Jacob, Judah, Ephraim, Israel, do not mean what they seem to mean, but mean the Church of Christ?
[Oh, reader! If you are a man of this mind, take care what you are doing! I say again, take care! I think we should remember that we must reject Protestant traditions which are not according to the Bible, as much as the traditions of the Church of Rome.]
I believe it is high time for the Church of Christ to awaken out of its sleep about Old Testament prophecy.
From the time of the Old Fathers Jerome and Origen down to the present day men have gone on in a pernicious habit of spiritualising the words of the prophets until their true meaning has been well nigh buried. It is high time to lay aside the traditional methods of interpretation and to give up our blind obedience to the opinions of such writers as Pool, Henry, Scott and Clark, upon unfulfilled prophecy.
It is high time to fall back on the good old principle that Scripture generally means what it seems to mean, and to beware of that semi-sceptical argument: "Such and such an interpretation cannot be correct, because it seems to us carnal."
It is high time for Christians to interpret unfulfilled prophecy by the light of prophecy already fulfilled. The curses on the Jews were brought to pass literally; so also will be the blessings. The scattering was literal; so also will be the gathering. The pulling down of Zion was literal; so also will be the building up. The rejection of Israel was literal; so also will be the restoration. It is high time to cease from explaining the Old Testament prophecies in away not warranted by the New Testament.
What right have we to say that the words Judah, Zion, Israel, and Jerusalem ever mean anything but literal Judah, literal Zion, literal Israel, and literal Jerusalem? What precedent shall we find in the New Testament? Hardly any, if, indeed, any at all. I can only discover three senses in which the word Israel is used:
First, it is one of the names of Jacob;
For centuries there has prevailed in the churches of Christ an unwarrantable mode of dealing with the word 'Israel'; it has been interpreted in many passages of the Psalms and Prophets as if it meant nothing more than Christian believers.
Second, a name given to the Ten Tribes which separated from Judah and Benjamin and became a distinct Kingdom, often called Israel in contradistinction to the Kingdom of Judah;
Third, the name given to the whole Jewish (sic) or Twelve-Tribed nation.
Have promises been held out to Israel? Men have been told continually that they are addressed to Gentile saints.
Have glorious things been described as laid up in store for Israel? Men have been incessantly told that they describe the victories and triumphs of the Gospel in Christian churches. The proofs of these things are too many to require quotation. Against that system I have long protested, and I hope I shall always protest as long as I live . . .
What I protest against is the habit of allegorising plain sayings of the Word of God concerning the future history of the Nation Israel, and explaining away the fullness of their contents in order to accommodate them to the Gentile church.
I believe the habit to be unwarranted by anything in Scripture and to draw after it a long train of evil consequences. Where in the whole New Testament, shall we find any plain authority for applying the word Israel to anyone but the nation Israel? I can find none.
We are often told in the New Testament that under the Gospel, believing Gentiles are 'fellow-heirs and partakers of the same hope' with believing Jews (Eph. 3:6), but that believing Gentiles may be called 'Israel' I cannot see anywhere at all.
To what may be attributed that loose system of interpreting the language of the Psalms and Prophets?
To nothing so much, I believe, as the habit of inaccurately interpreting the word Israel and the consequent application of the promises to the Gentile churches, with which they have nothing to do. Beware of that system of allegorising and spiritualising and accommodating, which the School of Origen first brought in and found such an unfortunate degree of favour in the Church.
In reading the words which God addressed to His Ancient People, never lose sight of the primary sense of the text.
Ryle said what he did at a period in world history when he had absolutely no reason to believe it, other than what he believed Scripture plainly taught.
But what of today?
There are many evangelical churches today which are – or appear to be – either ignorant, apathetic or downright hostile to Ryle’s view. And accordingly, if the Anglican clergyman is right, set on an agenda which is in direct conflict with the revealed purposes of the Almighty Sovereign God.
Jesus himself rebuked the disciples on the road to Emmaus: "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25).
So, far from being a sign of a believer having ‘psychological issues’ these matter of sexuality, eschatology and Israel are of critical importance in judging the Biblical fidelity of preachers, churches, denominations and individual believers.
Ultimately it is for each disciple to ‘be a Berean’ (Acts 17:11), but to be set on a contrary course to God’s purposes is a matter of ultimate consequence.
Rebellion against or ignorance of God’s statutes regarding sexuality and end-time purposes, sets an individual or nation, church or denomination in the place of judgment. It is certainly no place to be.