Vol. 19 New Series April, 1957 No. 2
THE RETURN OF THE SAVING WORK OF GOD TO ISRAEL

Gradually the issues and problems raised by "dispensationalism" and the attacks on it from various quarters have clarified themselves as, bit by bit, we have succeeded in cutting away the undergrowth of tradition and rash conjecture which hitherto has so effectively blocked every path to the truth of the matter and made taking our bearings a well-nigh impossible task.

Now, at last, we can discuss what may prove to be the final question. This was raised on Page 43 of our February issue, as follows :—When the saving-work of God begins to return to Israel, does it necessarily follow that the present conditions of reigning grace and the proclamation of the Evangel of the uncircumcision will have ceased to exist?

This question can be particularized by being stated in this form: Why should not one person receive righteousness as a Gentile and another receive righteousness as an Israelite? Such a thing cannot happen at present because, in rejecting Messiah, Israel have repudiated their covenant standing. Nevertheless, this state of affairs cannot be permanent; for in days to come God will conclude the New Covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. For that to be possible, all Israel will have to be converted; and for this to be possible the saving-work of God will have already returned to them and the Evangel of the circumcision proclaimed to them. When this begins to happen, does it necessarily follow that present conditions will have ceased and the saving-work of God withdrawn from the Gentiles?

To answer this, we have to pair off conditions as they are now and as they will be then, and ask ourselves whether these pairs of conditions can co-exist without confusion and clashing. Some of these pairs are reigning grace and the wrath of God set forth in the apocalyptic judgments, the absence of covenant obligations and the resumption of God's dealings in covenant with His People Israel, free and unfettered access to God by faith and access to Him only in the manner prescribed in the Law. The whole issue can, in fact, be summed up in one comprehensive pair: conditions as revealed in Paul's epistles and conditions as they were before the call of Paul. These matters ought not to call for detailed examination as, indeed, they have been discussed pretty thoroughly already; but some apparent difficulties still exist, which must now be cleared up.

To begin with, it would be best to recapitulate. The Apostle Paul's epistles were written at a time when the sentence of Isa. 6:9, 10 had been pronounced on Israel and they had nationally murdered their Messiah and, even when the Kingdom was unlocked to them by the Apostle Peter, refused to repent. So, as Romans 9 to 11 explains at length, they were cast away and insensitiveness in part had come to be on them. Meanwhile the saving-work of God had been sent to the Gentiles, and they were hearing it on their own account, without the mediation of Israel as before it was sent.

Objectors have pointed out, however, that Scripture does not actually say that the saving-work of God will leave the Gentiles eventually; though all except those blinded by "Catholic" tradition admit that it will return to Israel. Does this return necessarily mean that it will leave the Gentiles?

It could be replied that Scripture implies that it will; but this is not good enough unless it can be shown that this deduction is unavoidable.

Acts 28:28 does not simply say that the saving-work of God was sent to the Gentiles, and then leave it at that. If it did, the position would be much less clear. It adds, "and they will hear it for themselves"; not simply hear it, as the A.V. and the C.V. both say. The verb is in the Middle Voice, and this sense here best conveyed by "hear it on their own account." They could hear it before this, but only through Israel and as proselytes; but now such indirect approach was not only no longer necessary, but no longer possible. This last point is not actually stated; but it is implied in the fact that after the commission of Paul and the start of his ministry there is no record of any independent ministry of the Twelve or of any evangelism by them. What we do hear of Peter is largely his justification of Paul's actions to objectors of the Circumcisionist party, and the consequences of Peter's support of Paul. Everywhere the Evangel was preached by Paul and the apostles who were called with him. The change is not stated to be due to any change in the condition of the Gentiles themselves, for nowhere is it suggested that the saving-work of God was ever actually denied to them altogether, but in Israel, as the three verses preceding Acts 28:28 plainly state. These facts clearly suggest, even if they are not held actually to prove, that when the pronouncement of Isa. 6:9, 10 is reversed the whole accompaniment of it will be reversed as well. Indeed, it is very difficult to see how the matter could work out otherwise. The cause of the change of condition having ceased to operate, the change itself must necessarily cease to exist.

Could the saving-work of God ever have been despatched to the Gentiles so long as it was with Israel? Even when Isa. 6:9, 10 was pronounced in Matt. 13:14, 15 there was no trace of any sending of the saving-work to Gentiles, not till well after Pentecost when Peter at last locked the Kingdom to them and Paul received his commission. Israel's covenant rights were so powerful and tenacious that even when completely undermined they broke down only slowly, even after the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus and even after Pentecost. And it was not these things alone which enabled Matt. 13:14, 15 to come to complete fruition; Israel had also to reject the Pentecostal witness of the Holy Spirit. That being so, we must expect that the return of the saving work of God to Israel will at once involve its taking away from the Gentiles.

It is necessary to repeat, for the point is vitally important, that Paul does not simply say that the saving-work of God was despatched to the Gentiles, but also that they (emphatic) will hear it for themselves, on their own account; that is to say, without the need of any mediation by Israel. For the essence of Israel's position is its uniqueness. It is not that Israel had certain rights which others had not, but that these rights were exclusive rights. So long as the way to God was through covenant and circumcision, it necessarily had to be that way and no other. This stands out in the Hebrew Scriptures and also in the Gospels. If the Lord Jesus had been commissioned in any way for any people other than the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24), He would not have been commissioned for them (Israel) at all. He did give the Canaanitish woman what she wanted, but as a puppy eating the scraps of bread left over by the children, not as one who had the smallest acknowledged right to it—and this to a woman who possessed Israel's greatest need, faith, in a degree which He, Himself, described as "great," The account shows that this woman possessed in a superlative degree the one main qualification which Paul calls for in Romans and commends without stint in 1. Thessalonians—and yet, by comparison with faithless Israel, she was still utterly subordinate. Is there, then, the smallest reason to suppose that when the saving-work of God returns to Israel the Gentiles will be in any better case than she was (and they were) at that time? And we must bear in mind that this took place after the pronouncement of Matt. 13:14, 15. Until that decree took full effect the saving-work of God could not be despatched to the Gentiles. They could hear it as utterly subordinate to Israel; they could not hear it on their own account, independently.

That is the essential characteristic of covenant privilege: it automatically cuts out all other means of approach.

But had not covenant privilege ceased with the pronouncement of Isa. 6:9, 10? This is a very natural question, but it would not be necessary to ask it if we paid careful attention to what Scripture actually does say, instead of reading our own ideas into it. The wording of Matt. 13:14, 15 is quite explicit. It specifies something which was happening to Israel, not to the Gentiles, not even to God's plans. These latter were involved in what was happening to Israel, as a consequence of it; but they are not part of it. This point comes out when the pronouncement is repeated in Acts 28, for there are two very significant differences in their context. The Acts account says that the pronouncement was made "toward your fathers" and, in fact, it had been made a generation before; and it adds the comment that the saving-work of God was despatched to the Gentiles. Mr. Welch has asserted that what was declared in Matt. 13:14, 15 was only de jure and that it was made de facto in Acts 28; and there is just enough truth in his mistake to explain how he made it. The pronouncement actually taken from Isa. 6:9, 10 was filled up in Matt. 13:14, 15, but the consequences of it for the Gentiles did not manifest themselves till later; so it is not untrue to say that the consequences existed then only de jure so far as the Gentiles were concerned, though it adds a needless complication of what is essentially quite simple.

"But," it may be objected, "we do not doubt that Israel's full privileges will return to them when they are, once more, the Covenant People. Our contention is that this will not occur until the New Covenant is concluded. Much has to take place before then, and we consider that during the interim period the conditions now in existence will continue to exist."

This would be unanswerable if it corresponded with the facts, if Israel's standing as the Covenant People depended on them all keeping their covenant and not simply on having it. In the account of Matthew 15:21-28 Israel still retained their exclusive covenant privileges in spite of what had been said by the Lord Jesus in Matt. 13:14, 15. Even if we were to concede that Mr. C. H. Welch was right in declaring that in Matt. 13:14, 15 the pronouncement to Israel was only de jure and did not become de facto till Acts 28:26-28 (which, needless to say now, is entirely wrong); the fact remains that when the supposed de facto pronouncement was made, the saving-work of God had already been despatched to the Gentiles.

Nobody has any right to expect to "have it both ways." If Israel could retain any of their privileges as the Covenant People while the Old Covenant was fading away (2. Cor. 3:12-16) they can resume them, when God wills it, before the New Covenant is concluded, while it is still only legalized, instituted (Heb. 8:6) and while their future standing under it is being prepared. What holds them up now is not the vanishing of all trace of covenant but the pre-eminence of Paul's Evangel, which is incompatible with covenant privilege. As soon as the saving-work of God begins to be despatched to Israel, it will be of Israel, it will have to function by and through covenant. Where Israel is, there is covenant also. Where no covenant exists, no Israel exists either in any effective sense; the individual may be of Israel according to flesh; but where no covenant is, no standing according to flesh can exist. Such standing is intrinsically of covenant. True, the essence of covenant is that it is according to flesh; but this fact cuts both ways: when covenant breaks down, what is according to flesh loses all validity, and only when covenant again begins to resume its validity does what is according to flesh resume its significance. When it begins to do that, standing which is not according to flesh must lose its own validity.

The essential point is not whether any vestige of covenant exists, for, as a matter of fact, the position stated in 2. Cor. 3:12-16 still continues. The Old Covenant is still fading away, it has not yet vanished. What matters is the other governing fact of the present situation, namely, that what is according to flesh is now entirely nullified. The Old Covenant remains; but it is perpetually on the verge of vanishing, of nullification, because the essential of covenant, that is, standing according to flesh, no longer exists. While this state of affairs remains in force covenant is entirely inoperative, for the simple and sufficient reason that there is nothing on which it can operate.

The fact is, these two concepts interlock. Because Israel, the Covenant People, finally repudiated their covenant, their standing according to flesh broke down utterly. Because what is according to flesh no longer has any force, covenant can no longer operate. The difficulty some find in grasping the point comes from the fact that, in God's grace and mercy, the breakdown of what was according to flesh manifested itself gradually. The history of this process is one aspect of the total history in the Gospels and Acts. From Matthew 13 onwards, the train of events which completed itself in Acts 28:28 was a foregone conclusion. We can perceive this now; but to most of the actors in the drama it was hidden.

So it all comes to this. In present conditions all is in spirit; what is according to flesh has no significance at all. So. long as present conditions last, so long must this be true. But the moment God begins once more to reckon with Israel, the Covenant People, AS Israel in any way at all; by that very fact what is according to flesh will matter once more, and control the situation, so what is not according to flesh will no longer have any place.

The objection we presented above therefore falls to the ground—unless Israel once more becoming the Covenant People, according to flesh, and the conclusion of the New Covenant are to be simultaneous events. Are they?

Before we discuss whether this is the case, let us make sure that we understand what it involves. It means that the individual of Israel according to flesh is, and will remain, a Gentile (in God's dealings with him and in his approach to God) until the day when the Nation as a whole is converted and God concludes the New Covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. Until then (on this assumption) there is no Israel, no difference whatever in practise between those of Israel by descent and Gentiles by descent. So therefore, until that day, God can have no dealings with Israel, as Israel.

Yet, when we read Matthew 24 and the Apocalypse, we find, long before the conclusion of the New Covenant, passages which seem to imply, to say the least, that God will then be dealing with Israel as His Covenant People, even though breakers of His covenant and still with the guilt of their sins and iniquities upon them.

Starting with Matthew 24, we ask: Who will be hated by all the Gentiles because of the name of Jesus? (v. 9) Who will have to endure to the consummation to be saved? (v. 13) Can either be true of ourselves, in the face of what Paul writes? What have we to do with the Abomination of Desolation standing in the Holy Place? (v. 15) Is there, in fact, any "Holy Place" for us, members of the church which is Christ's body? And why should members of Christ's body in Judea only be fleeing into the mountains? Will there be no members of the body elsewhere to be persecuted by the Gentiles? And what will have become of the Jews? Do let us view these matters sanely and soberly, and ask how can they possibly apply to present conditions when the fleshly privileges of Israel have no standing or meaning?

Turning to 2. Thessalonians 2, who is going to build the Temple of God? The Jews? But if they are not then recognized by God as the Covenant People, how comes it that He is to recognize their Temple as the Temple of God?

Coming to the Apocalypse (Revelation or The Unveiling), who is it to whom God will be giving authority over the Gentiles, to shepherd them with an iron club, to crush them as vessels of pottery, because be is conquering and keeping God's works? (2:27) Someone who is nevertheless not in covenant with God? How are the 144,000 to be sealed out of every tribe of Israel's sons (7:4) with Israel cast away as she is now? These things are to take place before the New Covenant is concluded; yet how can God do them when He is ready if Israel are not yet the Covenant People once again?

No. If present conditions are to continue right up to the time when the Nation of Israel is converted and the New Covenant concluded, there simply is no room for the fulfilment of the prophecies concerning Israel, such as those quoted above, which must come first.

We arrive then at the conclusion, as we are bound to, that Israel's status as the Covenant People depends on the fact that they have covenant with God, not that they keep it. In the period covered by the first twelve chapters of Matthew they were certainly the Covenant People, and they had been for centuries before; yet we know that as a nation they had not kept their covenant and even that no individual had managed to keep it flawlessly. The position simply was that they had not then broken their covenant so heinously as to nullify it utterly, as they subsequently did in rejecting and crucifying Messiah.

Thus it is that when God chooses once again to resume His dealings with Israel as His Covenant People, this time in order to lead them to the point when He can conclude His New Covenant with them, the position will be as it was before they were cast away, for them access to Him will be in the Law, and for Gentiles through Israel and not on their own account as now. No covenant, no direct access, will be the rule.

Such a rule is utterly out of keeping with present conditions. In this respect these are set out explicitly in Rom. 5:1, 2. Such a statement as this simply cannot be true when the Temple of God is, once again, in existence. Access to God must then be there, and there alone, as it was before the Lord Jesus declared that Jerusalem's house was left to her desolate (Matt. 23:38).

The superficial reader will, no doubt, at once jump on this remark, pointing out (with justice) that the Temple was still in existence, and functioning, at the time when Romans was written. Yes, and almost certainly when some at least of the Prison Epistles were written, too; but the point is that by then it was no longer the Temple of God, as it had been previously, and as it will be when 2. Thess. 2:4 is fulfilled.

The word naos, temple, occurs some 46 times in the Greek Scriptures, of which 16 are in the Apocalypse and 9 in Matthew, together more than half the total. "The Temple of God" is referred to twelve times: in Matt. 26:61; 1. Cor. 3:16, 17 (twice); 2. Cor. 6:16 (twice); 2. Thess. 2:4; Rev. 3:12; 7:15 (His Temple—referring to God); 11:1; 19 (twice: the second "His Temple"). In the first of these twelve it is used by two false witnesses, so we cannot bring it in as evidence, except possibly against the idea that the Temple was then still the Temple of God. Otherwise, apart from 2. Thess. 2:4 and the references in the Apocalypse, it is not used of the building; and 2. Thess. 2:4 is as much in the future as the five final ones are.

I must confess that until I started this particular investigation I had not perceived this point about the Temple. Yet it is absolutely decisive. Access to God must be in the Temple of God—whether, under covenant, in the building made with hands; or, under reigning grace, in the human body wherein by faith the Spirit of God is homing. How significant it is that this revelation is made to the most notably carnal church of the Greek Scriptures, that of the Corinthians!

The word enoikeo occurs five times in the Greek Scriptures: Rom. 8:11; 2. Cor. 6:16; Co1. 3:16; 2. Tim. 1:5, 14. These link together this great truth, and should be carefully pondered.

One further point. The Temple (Greek, naos) comprises the actual Temple building, that is, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. It must be distinguished from hieron, the whole sacred area, referred to some 24 times in Acts but only once, 1. Cor. 9:13, in all the epistles. The Temple (naos) is not mentioned at all in Acts. These things must be kept in mind if misunderstanding and confusion are to be avoided.

Now, it is most important that we should perceive plainly what all this means.

Access for the Israelite under covenant—and there is no other sort of Israelite—is through the Temple. It is, as always, by faith, but faith, directed through the channels prescribed by his covenant obligations: the Law and the Temple offerings. Access for the Gentile under reigning grace—and there is no other sort of Gentile who can come into this-is through righteousness by faith and in the temple of a body in which God's Spirit has homed, made His home. Neither approach is cancelled out at any time: either becomes inoperative solely on account of the arrival of circumstances under which there is nobody qualified for it. When any exist qualified for the one approach, none exist qualified for the other; for the effective co-existence of both involves a self-contradiction of each. The physical existence of the Temple fabric did not matter after Matt. 23:38; for the building was no longer the Temple of God and there were, anyhow, no longer any Israelites qualified to use it. The fact that the Twelve were themselves exceptions to this abrogation makes it even more plain. They were themselves inoperative as the Twelve except for their own special Kingdom appointment related in the earlier chapters of Acts. No longer was there any talk by them, except in Acts 1:6, of Israel's covenant standing and obligations and hopes. Such matters were wholly outside the scope of Acts as was, specifically, the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. These assertions are not as anomalous as they sound; for the Kingdom appointment was not purely the affair of the Covenant People; it was to unlock the Kingdom to Jews and Gentiles. Already, then, any purely covenant evangel was out of the picture; and any covenant evangel which, is not purely and exclusively a covenant evangel is self-contradictory. Apart from that, the Twelve are not seen again in history except as conceding the validity of Paul's Evangel; and the last historical reference to them under that title is in Acts 6:2, well before the call of Paul. They remained as individuals. Their calling over Israel (Rev. 21) could never be taken away from them; but it had ceased to be operative.

The peculiar conditions of the present period are the results of Israel's casting away. It is not that they are failing to keep their covenant, as in the period which ended with Matt. 13:14, 15, but that they have repudiated their covenant. In due course, God will once again command them to repent. Some will. Others will not, and will descend to even greater depths than before. In spite of that, God will be dealing with them as Israel, as He is not dealing with them now. So, after present conditions have ceased, there will be a period when Israel will once again be the Covenant People but not yet converted nationally, and therefore before the conclusion. of the New Covenant.

No doubt this finding can be confirmed from various sources. One, at any rate, is the prophecy of the Seventy Sevens. The seventieth, at least, has yet to take place, and must before the conclusion of the new Covenant; and throughout the seventy Israel is recognized as the Covenant People.

In turn, this finding throws light on the Secret of Israel's Insensitiveness. Some have suggested that the entering of the complement of the Gentiles, the ending of the insensitiveness, all Israel being saved, the arrival of the Rescuer and the conclusion of the New Covenant (Rom. 11:25-27) are simultaneous, or practically so. We see now that this cannot be the case, and that they are successive and will cover a period of years.

R. B. WITHERS. Last updated 22.3.2006