In the first installment of how to understand the end times, I introduced two crucial questions: (1) Should we distinguish between Israel and the Church for understanding end times prophecy that deals with the return of Jesus and the kingdom of God on earth? and (2) Since the Old Testament promises given by God to Israel through covenants is part of the earthly kingdom of God, how should we interpret those covenants? In this discussion we’ll drill down into the covenant with Abraham and how whether one sees this covenant as already fulfilled or not produces different positions on end times prophecy.
Most Bible students who are into end times prophecy assume that we should expect things in the future like a literal millennium after Jesus returns. One important preparatory step to this was, so the viewpoint goes, the re-establishment of Israel as a nation-state in 1948.
While these ideas are defended on the grounds of literal interpretation, they actually derive from the expectation that the land promises given to Abraham (and hence Israel) are still in effect and as yet unfulfilled. This expectation is in turn based on the assumption that these promises were unconditional—that Israel’s disobedience to the Mosaic Law, another covenant God made with Israel, did not nullify the promises of the land.The Abrahamic Covenant: Conditional or Unconditional Promises?
Let’s start with what’s certain. We can be quite sure that there were conditions put on inheriting the promises of the Abrahamic covenant. All we need to do is read certain passages in the Old Testament for that point. The starting points for this covenant are Gen 12:1-3 and Gen 15:1-7. The latter passage is the one that includes a covenant ceremony and expands on the land promise of Gen 12:2. In Gen 15:7-16, God promises the land to Abraham and his descendants. God alone passes through the ritually slain and prepared animals, sealing the covenant (Gen 15:17-21). It would seem that, since Yahweh alone passes through the slain animals that God obligated only himself to fulfill the promises, not Israel. But that’s a misguided conclusion.
While the fulfillment of the promises depends on Yahweh's ability, it is an entirely different question as to who will be on the receiving end of the promises Yahweh fulfills. Yahweh will indeed fulfill the promise of the land to someone in some way—that’s the unconditional part. But just who received them depends on conditions, namely a believing loyalty to Yahweh and his truth along.
In Gen 12:1-3, the first passage concerning the covenant with Abraham, we see Abraham obeying what he is told ("and he [Abraham] went"; Gen 12:4). After the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15, God reiterates the covenant in Genesis 17:2. But Gen 17:1 lays down a clear condition. Here are the two verses together:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.”
Notice that the language of v. 2 clearly refers to the earlier covenant of Gen 12 and 15. But this time there is a clear condition: “walk before me and be blameless.” God goes on in Gen 17 to repeat all the elements of the original covenant, so the context for these conditions is certain:6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
God then he demands that Abraham and all in his household be circumcised (Gen 17:9-14)—another condition. Here's the point: In the original context of this covenant, only Abraham's circumcised descendants—those obedient to the covenant stipulation—are eligible to receive the promises. Refusal to obey meant you weren't going to be part of the promises. God would ultimately make sure the promises got fulfilled (his plan wouldn’t be thwarted), but the person who refused to obey wouldn't be on the receiving end.
We see more of this conditionality in Genesis 18. The dual elements are crystal clear:
17 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
The conditional language doesn’t stop here. In Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of Isaac, we see very clearly that the promises to Abraham were contingent on his faithfulness. Abraham obeyed God’s horrifying command to sacrifice Isaac—only God’s own intervention saved Isaac’s life. After God stepped in to stop Abraham, we read this:15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
The text could not be more clear: God would fulfill the promises to Abraham and his seed because Abraham obeyed (v. 18). And God did indeed multiply Abraham’s offspring and give them the land promised to them centuries after Abraham’s death. But the conquest of that land wasn’t complete (Judges 1) according to the parameters of the land delineated to Abraham (Gen 15:18-20). That naturally suggests Abraham’s descendants needed to continue the conquest and obey God to get the full promise and remain in the land. This is precisely what we read in Leviticus 26—and the requirement there that Israel not worship other gods lest they be expelled from the land is very clear:14 “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: . . . 27 “But if in spite of this you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me, 28 then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I myself will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. 29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. 30 And I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars and cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols, and my soul will abhor you. 31 And I will lay your cities waste and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing aromas. 32 And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. 33 And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. . . . 38 And you shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. 39 And those of you who are left shall rot away in your enemies’ lands because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them. Was the Abrahamic Covenant Given to the Church When Israel Sinned?
We all know the Old Testament story. Israel did indeed go after other gods. God did indeed expel them from the land. In effect, Israel “sinned away” the promises through her apostasy. Many interpreters say that doesn’t matter. They point out that Israelites returned to the land after the exile. This, they say, tells us the land promise is still in effect—and will one day be totally fulfilled in the millennial kingdom. The return of Israel to nation-state status in 1948 is preparatory to the land promise fulfillment.
But there’s a problem with this approach. Only Judah, the southern kingdom comprised of but two of the twelve tribes of Israel, actually returned to the land. The rest were, as Leviticus 26 describes, “scattered to the wind” and never returned. Several Old Testament passages viewed the end of the exile as including all twelve tribes—the full complement of Israel and Judah, northern and southern kingdoms—under the Davidic shepherd, the messiah (e.g., Ezek 37:15-23; Jer 33:4-16). Until this happens, Israel would still be in exile.
Many Bible students say that the answer to this comprehensive, total resolution of the exile is the millennial kingdom. But others say the resolution has already happened in the events of the first coming and particularly events at Pentecost. This view points to the events of the book of Acts, where Jews living everywhere they had been scattered throughout the known world were reconciled to God through the gospel of the risen Christ. The kingdom of God had come to all believers—an idea seemingly indicated by Paul’s comment that believers (Gentiles in this case) had already “been transferred into the kingdom of [God’s] dear son” (Col 1:13). They also point to passages like Galatians 3, which explicitly says that after the cross, the seed of Abraham was anyone—Jew or Gentile—who believed the gospel. And in making this point, Paul cites the Abrahamic covenant language of Genesis 12 and 15:7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. . . . 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
And so now the questions: Did national Israel corporately forfeit the promises? Is the kingdom of God therefore the Church? On what grounds would we look to a national kingdom in Israel in the future if the circumcision-neutral body we call the Church inherited the promises? Since it is those who *believe* that inherit the promises, what Paul says in Galatians 3 makes perfect sense. But is that the end of the story? Interestingly, the other side will point out that Paul doesn’t specifically mention the land promise of the covenant in Galatians 3. This is taken as evidence that, despite what Galatians 3 clearly says, the land promise is still in effect. Others, however, will point out that the Church is global—and so the kingdom is the entire earth.
Hopefully the problem is clear. The idea of a millennium and the assumption that 1948 has something to do with fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant (or keeping it alive in a literal sense) is not at all self-evident in light of Galatians 3. And Galatians 3 is not the only passage that says such things. But the other side isn’t exactly nailed down, either. One has to make certain assumptions which produce certain positions about prophetic fulfillment. There is no “obviously biblical” view.
And there’s a whole lot more to consider than this. This is but oneissue.