Keys To Understanding Bible Prophecy!
Lesson three - Promises and Covenants: A Prophetic Legacy
Prophecy begins with a promise God made in the Garden of Eden. Immediately after "that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan" (Revelation 12:9), lured Adam and Eve into committing their first sin, God said to Satan: ". . . I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel" (Genesis 3:15).
Here is one of the first and most far-reaching prophecies: the promise that God will rectify the problem of deception and sin brought on by Satan. He promised that from Eve, the first person to be deceived, would come a "Seed"-a descendant-who would "bruise" (crush) Satan's position of rulership (his "head") over humanity by which he deceives the world.
God revealed that the "seed" of Satan-people under his influence-would be hostile toward the "Seed" God had promised through the woman. Satan would succeed in temporarily disabling (like a severe bruise on the heel) the Seed promised by God.
Thousands of years later the life and work of that promised Seed were indeed interrupted, as God foretold, for three days and three nights by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Matthew 12:40).
On that foundational promise-that God would send a Seed, the Son of Man, as humanity's Redeemer to defeat Satan-stands a series of other promises God gave to His servants down through the ages. Collectively, these promises-each amplifying and expanding the original promise-form the basis of Bible prophecy.
Later God promised Abraham that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). That blessing was to come through Abraham's seed (Genesis 22:18). Centuries after Abraham, the apostle Paul wrote, "Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, And to seeds,' as of many, but as of one, And to your Seed,' who is Christ" (Galatians 3:16). Through Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, all nations on earth are to be blessed.
The legacy of two families
Adam, the natural, physical father of the human race, responded to Satan's deceptive influence through Eve and chose to trust his personal judgment rather than follow God's instruction. In contrast to Adam, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness" (James 2:23; Genesis 15:6). Therefore, God chose Abraham as the human father of another family, a spiritually oriented family of believers, that would accept and obey God's instruction.
That family would be composed first of Abraham's natural descendants through his son Isaac (Genesis 21:12). Later, a more important function of that family would begin through another descendant, Jesus, the promised Messiah (Galatians 3:29; Romans 8:16-18). Through Him, Abraham is "the father of all those who believe" (Romans 4:11).
Finally, God has promised, through the second coming of the Messiah, to give the members of this spiritual family eternal life in His Kingdom.
Along with the promise that a Seed of Abraham would become the Messiah came a promise of greatness for the descendants of Abraham. This promise is to the natural seed of Abraham. In other words, God's promises to Abraham are dual. They contain implications both physical (to the descendants of Abraham) and spiritual (to the followers of Christ). Both are integral to the success of God's master plan for the human race.
God told Abraham, "Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession . . ." (Genesis 17:8; compare 12:7; 24:7).
This was only the beginning. Many nations would develop from Abraham's descendants. For that reason God changed his name from Abram to Abraham. "No longer shall your name be called Abram [exalted father], but your name shall be Abraham [father of a multitude]; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you" (Genesis 17:5).
God did increase Abraham's family. However, He waited until Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were so old that they would not normally bear children. Then, miraculously, Isaac was born. Eventually all who will be considered Abraham's descendants must be miraculously "born" (John 3:3) into the Kingdom of God. Isaac was a type of things to come (Romans 9:6-9).
Isaac fathered two sons, Esau and Jacob. God chose Jacob, the younger one, to receive the physical promises He gave to Abraham. God similarly chooses those whom He will to have the opportunity to be among the spiritual descendants of Abraham to whom He will give the fulfillment of the eternal, spiritual promises (Romans 9:10-11). God places conditions, of course. All must first come to understand "the truth," then repent of their sins (1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9).
God changed Jacob's name to Israel. From his 12 sons sprang the 12 tribes of Israel, which God delivered from Egyptian bondage under the leadership of Moses. God gave the Israelites the land of Canaan, just as He had promised Abraham. Later, in the days of Saul and David, He established the Israelites as a kingdom.
But God did not limit His promise of greatness for the descendants of Abraham to the territory He had allotted to the ancient kingdom of Israel in the land of Canaan. God promised that Abraham would "surely become a great and mighty nation" (Genesis 18:18).
Paul tells us that God gave Abraham "the promise that he would be the heir of the world" (Romans 4:13).
God confirmed this ultimate expansion of Abraham's inheritance to Abraham's grandson, Jacob. ". . . The land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 28:13-14).
Eventually this continual expansion in all directions would embrace the whole earth. God would graft all peoples as His children into Abraham's family.
Gentiles grafted onto Israel
How does this happen? Through Jesus Christ both physical Israelites and non-Israelites may receive the promises made to Abraham. Paul explains: "Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth . . . were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:11-13, NIV).
Anyone who is not a natural-born descendant of Abraham can nevertheless become an heir to the inheritance promised to Abraham's family. Regardless of lineage, all can become part of the spiritual "Israel of God" through Christ (Galatians 6:15-16). To be partakers of those promises, they must be grafted into the family of Israel.
Paul compares this to grafting a wild olive shoot onto a domesticated olive tree. "But if some of the branches [of Israel] were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot [gentiles], were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you" (Romans 11:17-18, NRSV).
Then Paul warns the gentiles whom God grafts onto Israel not to feel superior to Israelites who have not yet accepted Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. "You will say, Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in. That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you" (verses 19-21, NRSV).
Israel must be redeemed
Extending the promises from Abraham's physical descendants to spiritual believers began shortly after Christ's death and resurrection. Jesus' own countrymen rejected Him and refused to accept Him as the Messiah (Matthew 21:42-43; Luke 17:25), so the message of Jesus as the Messiah was extended to the gentiles. Soon many gentiles became part of the "Israel of God," the True Bible Believing Church (Galatians 6:15-16).
But Abraham's physical descendants are not permanently alienated from God. They are redeemed and reconciled to Him. Paul explains the role they play in God's plan. "They are Israelites," writes Paul, "and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah . . ." (Romans 9:4-5, NRSV).
Paul continues: ". . . Has God rejected his [Israelite] people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew" (Romans 11:1-2, NRSV).
Paul then addresses the Israelites' present spiritual blindness: ". . . Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day." (verses 7-8, NRSV).
"So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling [over Christ, their stone of stumbling] (1 Peter 2:7-8) salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous [in the future]. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!" (verses 11-12).
Did you grasp the significance of Paul's words? Most descendants of Israel continue to reject Jesus as the Messiah. But God has not rejected them. They will be included in the redemption process of the Messiah when He returns as King of Kings. Understanding this truth is essential if we are to understand prophecies pertaining to the people of Israel at the end of the present evil age.
Admittance into the eternal inheritance promised to Abraham-for Israelites and gentiles alike-is possible only through the Messiah. "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29). "Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring-not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all" (Romans 4:16, NIV).
Birthright and scepter
We have noted a duality in God's promises to Abraham. Although some aspects of the promises relate to an eternal inheritance through the Messiah, others concern a national and material inheritance. The fulfillment of these promises was passed on to Isaac and then to Jacob [whom God renamed Israel]; (Genesis 32:28).
Shortly before Jacob's death, God inspired him to reveal to his 12 sons the manner in which the physical heritage of Abraham would affect the generations of Israel. "And Jacob called his sons and said, Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days'" (Genesis 49:1). Jacob explained what would happen to each of his son's descendants-the 12 tribes of Israel.
Significantly, the core promises God made to Abraham were to pass only to Joseph and Judah. To each came a different promise, a separate heritage.
The Bible summarizes: ". . . Though Judah became prominent among his brothers and a ruler came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph" (1 Chronicles 5:2, NRSV).
Because of that birthright promise, Joseph's descendants would enjoy inconceivable prosperity-possessing the finest material blessings-and achieve great military superiority because the hand of God would be with them. Their territory would increase and expand, like branches growing over a wall (Genesis 49:22-26).
To Judah and his descendants, however, went the promise of a scepter -a staff held by a king as the emblem of his sovereignty. It signified that from Judah would come a dynasty of kings that would culminate in the reign of the Messiah. Jacob explained that "the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet . . ." (Genesis 49:10, NASB.).
The promises to Abraham concerning rulership, salvation and the Messiah would be fulfilled through the Jewish people, the descendants of Judah. Jesus Himself said that "salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22). That is why He had to be born into a Jewish family as a physical descendant of Judah (Matthew 1:1-16; Luke 3:23-38).
Promises to David
Long after Abraham, through King David of the tribe of Judah, the scepter promise finally took on even greater significance. God gave David the kingdom of Israel and promised that from him would spring a dynasty of kings that would continue forever.
God sent the prophet Nathan to David with this message: ". . . Thus says the Lord of hosts . . . I will make for you a great name . . . I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body . . . I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever . . . and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:8-16, NRSV).
Through David God did indeed establish a dynasty of kings. God promised that a greater future King would come from David's descendants. God sent an angel to Mary who told her: ". . . You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:31-33).
The kingdom over which Jesus Christ will rule is to last forever. He will establish that kingdom when He returns to earth. Understanding that truth is of primary importance if we are to comprehend the messages of the prophets who followed David.
David's kingdom divided
At David's death his kingdom passed to his son Solomon. God gave Solomon great wisdom and wealth, but in his old age he allowed his many foreign wives and concubines to turn his heart away from God (1 Kings 11:1-8). The kingdom lapsed into worship of false gods.
Shortly after Solomon's death, God divided the kingdom He had given David into two nations. The tribes of Judah, Benjamin and some of Levi remained loyal to Solomon's son, Rehoboam, preserving David's dynasty. This much smaller kingdom was known as Judah or the house of Judah. It retained Jerusalem as its capital.
Ten tribes-the majority of the kingdom -seceded and retained the name Israel, eventually establishing Samaria, in the territory of Ephraim, as its capital. (Years later this northern Israelite kingdom was conquered and taken into captivity by ancient Assyria. Its people disappeared from recorded history, becoming known as "the lost 10 tribes.")
The division of the kingdom politically and in fact separated the scepter promise from the birthright promise. Judah retained the scepter and the throne of David.
The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the direct descendants of Joseph, dominated the northern kingdom and retained the birthright. From this point forward the history and future of these two promises, the birthright and the scepter, must be traced along separate paths until the house of Israel and the house of Judah are once again reunited as one nation under the rule of the Messiah.
A reunited kingdom
The restoration of Israel as one nation under the rule of Christ is a theme that appears in the writings of many of the prophetic Bible books. That reunion will occur shortly after Jesus Christ's return as King of Kings. Notice God confirming, through Ezekiel, that Israel and Judah will be reunited as one people.
". . . Thus says the Lord God: I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms. They shall never again defile themselves with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. I will save them from all the apostasies into which they have fallen, and will cleanse them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children's children shall live there forever; and my servant David shall be their prince forever" (Ezekiel 37:21-25, NRSV).
God had promised David that his kingdom would last forever. When the world sees these two divisions reuniting under the rule of Jesus Christ, it will know that the Eternal God keeps His promises.
Speaking of the reunited people of Israel, God continues: "I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Ezekiel 37: 26-27, NRSV).
God confirmed many of His promises through special covenants, beginning with Abraham. "On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying:To your descendants I have given this land . . ." (Genesis 15:18).
Later the Israelites bound themselves and their descendants to God as His special servants. God told them: ". . . If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people . . ." (Exodus 19:5). They responded, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (verse 8). God's covenant joined Israel to God much as a wife is bound to her husband in marriage (Jeremiah 3:20; 31:32).
The purpose of covenants
Every biblical prophet from the time of Moses forward used this covenant as the standard for evaluating and judging the behavior of God's chosen people. Each judged the Israelites by whether they were faithful to their covenant with God.
God's covenants all have the same purpose. They define the relationship parameters between Him and the recipients of His covenant. They explain what He requires of His people if they are to continue to receive His blessings, or benefits of His promises. They set the obligations His people must meet to continue receiving His favor, or grace.
A covenant is a pact between the people and God. Those who break that covenant lose God's favor-the blessing of His grace. The degree to which God gives His people favor is based on their compliance with His covenants.
The covenant God made with ancient Israel is especially significant in Bible prophecy. It documents, in great detail, the conditions Israel had to meet to stay in God's favor.
Although the Ten Commandments summarized Israel's central obligation to God, the people were obligated to obey all of His instructions. God promised: ". . . If you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, . . . the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 28:1-2).
In the subsequent 12 verses God listed the marvelous blessings of physical prosperity Israel would receive. But the agreement did not end there. God also spelled out the consequences that would befall the Israelites if they rejected the conditions of His covenant. "But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you" (Deuteronomy 28:15, NRSV).
The remainder of this chapter describes what would happen to them if they ignored or rejected their covenant with God.
Stable foundation for prophecy
God's promises and covenants-especially the promise of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience that are included in His covenant with Israel-provide the foundation for biblical prophecy.
Let's look at the specific work and messages of God's prophets, men such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
Let's learn why they committed their prophecies to writing. Few people understand the importance of their prophecies to a blinded world.
Proceed to lesson four (a) - The Credibility Of Prophecy!