Promises, promises

by James Johnson

There is a confidence trick which is so widespread that it is no exaggeration to say that it affects everybody in the whole world, directly or indirectly. Yet it is legal. In fact, if it were not perpetrated, the world as we know it would collapse.

In my pocket I have a £20 bank note. On it is printed a promise signed by the Chief Cashier:

"I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds."

Why is it a confidence trick?

If I went to the Bank of England and asked for twenty pounds, I would be given another piece of paper - not gold or silver to that value. In other words, that promise is valueless - as many promises of human beings are.

It is true that paper money is convenient to use, but there is nothing to back up the promise. As long as people have confidence in the paper, all is well. However, history is full of examples when the system collapses, because people do not believe the promise.

On an individual level, promises are broken. With all the best will in the world, promises are broken because of death, disease or disaster, beyond the control of mankind.

But God, the omnipotent and omniscient God, has no such constraints. He can and does keep His promises. The promises given by God to the patriarch Abraham affect everybody in the whole world, directly or indirectly.

These words are to be found in Numbers 23:19:

"God is not a man, that He should lie, or a son of humanity, that He should feel regret. Does He say it and then not do it ? Does He promise and then not carry it out?"

Do YOU believe those statements are true? Abraham did, and it was counted to him as righteousness.

God spoke directly to Abraham and the other patriarchs and prophets. Then God spoke to the Hebrew nation through His Son. We have a record of what Christ said in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Acts.

But can we believe God's promises if what Christ told His disciples didn't happen? Let's not glibly pass over this. It is serious. Deuteronomy 18:15 records what Moses told Israel:

"A prophet from among you, from your brothers, like me, shall Yahweh your Elohim raise up for you. To Him shall you hearken."

He then explains in verse 22 how to distinguish whether a message has been spoken by the Lord or not:

"When a prophet should be speaking in the Name of Yahweh, and the word neither comes to pass nor comes about, then it is a word that Yahweh did not speak. In arrogance did the prophet speak it. You shall not shrink away from him in awe."

So let's examine three Scriptures that Christ Himself spoke to His disciples. Matthew 10:23:

"Now, whenever they may be persecuting YOU in this city, flee into a different one, for, verily, I am saying to YOU, under no circumstances shall YOU be finishing the cities of Israel till the Son of Mankind may be coming."

Matthew 16:28:

"Verily I am saying to YOU that there are some of those standing HERE who under no circumstances should be tasting death till they should be perceiving the Son of Mankind coming in His kingdom."

(Yes, Christ was seen in glory later on the mountain by Peter, James and John, but He did not come in His kingdom.)

Matthew 24:34:

"Verily, I am saying to YOU that by no means may this generation be passing by till ALL these things should be occurring."

We may try to wriggle out of the plain meaning of what Christ said, but these words are specific and emphatic. "I am saying to YOU HERE", "under no circumstances" and "by no means".

So Christ's reputation as a prophet, let alone as the Messiah, depends upon the truth of these statements. Not only that, Christ said that He didn't speak His own words. He only spoke the words the Father gave Him. God's reputation is also at stake.

To solve the puzzle we need to understand an important fact.

To explain, let me use a modern analogy. Future historians of these first decades of the 21st Century may well designate the events of the 11th September 2001 as a turning point in human affairs. They will compare what was said and done before and after the '9/11' attack on the USA. They are bound to see differences; the world as we knew it changed. To avoid misinterpreting events it will be necessary to know when something was said and done. Was it before or after '9/11'?

Let us do the same with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Acts and Paul's letters. So what was the '9/11' event of the 1st Century, the great turning point nearly 2000 years ago?

But first, what led up to that event?

Right at the beginning of the creation of the nation of Israel, Moses knew exactly what the people were like. What God told Moses shortly before they entered the Promised Land, is recorded in Deuteronomy 31:16-17:

"Behold you are about to lie with your fathers. Yet this people will rise and prostitute after the elohim of the foreigners of the land where they are entering to be among them; and they will forsake Me and annul My covenant that I contracted with them. My anger will grow hot against them on that day, and I will forsake them and conceal My face from them.'

Moses then told the people (Deuteronomy 31:27):

".. for I know your rebellion and your scruff of obstinacy. Behold in my day, while I am still with you alive, you have been rebellious against Yahweh, how much more so after my death!"

All the prophets from Moses to John the Baptist had one message for the House of Israel. They had a burden. The enormity and seriousness of their message was a heavy load on their shoulders. God told them the people would reject them and persecute them. Also that if they, the watchmen, did not warn the people, their blood was on their head.

The message of the prophets was always the same. In a nutshell, "Repent and flee from the wrath to come." It was urgent. Repent! Not when you feel like it, but today, now, this minute. John the Baptist's words are recorded in Matthew 3:2:

"Repent, for near is the kingdom of the heavens."

He warned the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:11-12):

"For I, indeed, am baptizing you in water for repentance, yet He who is coming after is stronger than I, whose sandals I am not competent to bear. He will be baptizing you in holy spirit and fire, Whose winnowing shovel is in His hand, and He will be scouring His threshing floor, and will be gathering His grain into His barn, yet the chaff will He be burning up with unextinguished fire."

(The baptism of fire is the burning of the chaff in judgement.)

John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ. Paul tells us what Christ's job was in Romans 15:8:

"For I am saying that Christ has become the servant of the Circumcision, for the sake of the truth of God, to confirm the patriarchal promises. "

The first words recorded of the ministry of Jesus are in Matthew 4:17. Does He have a different message? NO!

"Thenceforth begins Jesus to be heralding and saying, 'Repent! for near is the kingdom of the heavens!'"

'The Kingdom of the heavens' was the indestructible kingdom longed for by the Jews. No world empire would be able to usurp it. And Christ said it was near, at the door. His audience knew exactly what He was referring to. This was a literal kingdom on earth.

Christ, like John, also had something to say to the Pharisees and scribes, but He could equally have been speaking to the nation as a whole. Matthew 23:29-32:

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are building the sepulchre of the prophets and adorning the tombs of the just, and you are saying, 'If we were in the days of our fathers we would not be participants with them in the blood of the prophets.' So that you are testifying to yourselves that you are sons of those who murder the prophets!"

Stephen was stoned to death when he said (Acts 7:51-52):

"Stiff necked and uncircumcised in your hearts and ears, you are ever clashing with the holy spirit. As your fathers, you also! Which of the prophets do not your fathers persecute?"

So nothing had changed.

Acts 1:3 tells us what Christ told His disciples after His resurrection:

"And telling them that which concerns the kingdom of God."

It was still the message of an earthly kingdom coming soon. Hebrews 2:3 tells us that Christ's words were confirmed to us by those who hear Him.

So what did Christ's disciples teach after Christ's return to heaven? The message is the same.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter recounts the prophecy of Joel about the last days and the promise God made to David that the fruit of the king's loins would be seated on his throne. He then avers to the Jews,

"Repent and be baptised each of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the pardon of your sins."

What galvanized those early disciples to action was the belief that any day soon, Christ would return to set up His prophesized kingdom and punish the wicked.

So why didn't it happen? Despite what some believe, Christ did not return in power in AD 70 or AD 1914 or any other date. The nation of Israel is not yet the world's super-power.

The reason that Christ did not return then is the BIG IF of world history. The nation as a whole did not repent, even though some individuals did repent. That puts a whole new perspective on what Christ promised. IF Israel had repented at the time, the history of our world would have changed. That would have been the great turning point.

They were given long enough to repent, but there came a time when the offer was withdrawn. The announcement of that withdrawal is the great turning point and it is recorded in Acts 28:25-28:

"... Paul making the declaration, that 'ideally the holy spirit speaks through Isaiah the prophet, to your fathers, saying, "Go to this people and say, 'In hearing you will be hearing, and may by no means be understanding. And observing, you will be observing, and may by no means be perceiving.' For stuttered is the heart of this people. And with their ears heavily they hear. And with eyes they squint, lest at some time they may be perceiving with their eyes. And with their ears they should be hearing, And with their hearts may be understanding. And should be turning about, And I shall be healing them. Let it be known to you, then, that to the nations was despatched this salvation of God, and they will hear."

Paul's declaration ends the Book of Acts. A new chapter in the history of the world begins. They could have entered the Promised Land of Christ's kingdom, but refused to repent.

So let us see what a difference it makes now that God has put His promises to Israel in abeyance. The promises of God to His people Israel are 'on hold', not broken or rescinded. God will keep every single one of His promises. Christ's words in Matthew are still true.

"under no circumstances SHOULD you be finishing the cities of Israel till the Son of Mankind MAY be coming." "Verily, I am saying to you that by no means MAY this generation be passing by till all these things SHOULD be occurring."

We need now to know when the Greek Scriptures were written. Or more accurately, to know whether a particular book related to events before or after Acts 28? If they relate to events before, we can expect believers at that time to be still waiting for Christ's presence at any moment.

But as time went on, many became increasingly disappointed and discouraged. So it was necessary for the message of the apostles to be; "Keep Calm and Carry On. Believe God's promises."

Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:9:

"The Lord is not tardy as to the promise, as some are deeming tardiness."

In the previous verse, he wrote:

"With the Lord a day is like a 1000 years and a 1000 years are like a day."

He warned that in the last days, scoffers will come. They will say (2 Peter 3:3-4):

"Where is the promise of His presence? For since the fathers were put to repose, all is continuing thus from the beginning of creation."

Don't be hung up on dates, Peter writes, because the day of the Lord will come like a thief. But that wasn't the only problem they faced. They were being persecuted from within and without because of their beliefs. But supposing it was all one big con-trick? Could it be that the promises weren't worth the paper they were written on?

The apostle Paul also faced these same problems with his people. This is shown in his letters written before Acts 28. His people were suffering, as Romans 8:18 records:

"For I am reckoning that the sufferings of the current era do not deserve the glory about to be revealed for us."

He compared the pain to childbirth. Childbirth pains are immediate, not in some distant future.

Some suppose that Paul was deceived or deceiving others when he wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:15:

"According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that WE who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep."

Verse 17:

"After that, WE who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds."

Paul, at that time, really did believe he would still be alive to witness this event, because he relied on what the Lord Himself had told the Twelve.

This is a subject where it is vitally important that we rightly divide the Word of Truth. In our Bible, the letters of Paul are not listed in their chronological order. Many of Paul's letters were written before Acts 28. The so called Prison Letters were written after that time. Even a casual reader can see a difference.

In Romans, Paul's last letter before Acts 28, he writes (13:11-12):

"This, also, do being aware of the era, that it is already the hour for us to be roused out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believe. The night progresses, yet the day is near."

In other words, "Wake up! Christ's return is near." This is the same message Christ gave the Twelve.

But Paul, in prison, has a new message. He reveals a promise which God had never given to His people Israel. It had been hidden. The evangel of the Secret was not the subject of promise. God Himself made it known to the apostle Paul by direct revelation. It was a message of Grace.

We Gentiles, who used to be apart from Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and guests of the promise covenants, had no expectation and were without God in the world. But now, we are no longer guests and sojourners, but are fellow-citizens of the saints and belong to God's family.

Yes, incredibly, in spirit the nations are to be enjoyers of an allotment, and a joint body, and joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus, through the evangel of which Paul became the dispenser.

It may be that Paul knew the secret before Acts 28, but was not allowed to reveal it until afterwards. Until then what did Paul preach? Acts 17 records that Paul came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. Verses 2-3:

"Now, as was Paul's custom, he entered to them, and on three Sabbaths, he argues with them from the Scriptures, opening up and placing before them that the Christ must suffer and rise from among the dead."

1 Thessalonians 1:10 adds what he also taught:

" ... and to be waiting for His Son out of the heavens, Whom He rouses from among the dead, Jesus, our Rescuer out of the coming indignation ."

He preached from the Scriptures - the 'Old Testament' and the words that the Lord had spoken by them that heard Him. Nowhere in the Prison Letters does Paul talk about God rescuing us from the wrath of God - 'the Day of the Lord'.

Another example of Paul's preaching before Acts 28 is given in Acts 26:22-23. This is what he said before King Agrippa:

"Until this day I stand attesting both to small and to great, saying NOTHING outside of what both the prophets and Moses speak of impending occurrences."

During the Book of Acts, the temple was still standing in Jerusalem. Services carried on, sacrifices were being offered, the Jewish Feasts were observed. As a believing Jew, Paul continued to observe the Feasts. Acts 20:16 is just one example.

In Acts 16:3, Paul observed the rite of circumcision on Timothy. Acts 21:24-26 describes how four men took a vow, and, in the sanctuary, Paul was purified together with them. Paul is careful to show that he walked orderly and kept the law.

Are we today, as Gentiles, called to the evangel that Paul preached then? If we are, then our standing is exactly the same as those to whom Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost.

But why should we settle for an earthly promise, when we have a far greater celestial calling? Why settle for paper money when we can have gold?

The message we have for the world today is not, "Flee from the wrath to come!" Our message reflects the change in God's dealings with the world today, and it is, "Be conciliated to God."

Paul said that humanly speaking that he had much to boast about in his past. But this is what he told the Philippian ekklesia in 3:8-9:

" ... I am also deeming all to be a forfeit because of the superiority of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, because of Whom I forfeited all, and am deeming it to be refuse, that I shall be gaining Christ, and may be found in Him, not having my righteousness which is of law, but that which is through the faith of Christ ..."

What did Paul do with his past beliefs? (Philippians 3:13-14):

" ...forgetting, indeed, those things which are behind, yet stretching out to those in front - toward the goal am I pursuing for the prize of God's calling above in Christ Jesus."

Only those who are mature will accept this. We are not looking for an earthly kingdom. Paul continues in verse 20:

"For our realm is inherent in the heavens - out of which we are awaiting a Saviour also, the Lord, Jesus Christ - Who will transfigure the body of our humiliation, to conform it to the body of His glory, in accord with the operation which enables Him even to subject all to Himself."

Paul told the Ephesians in 4:11 that God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors to adjust the saints for the work of dispensing and the upbuilding of the body of the Christ. Their understanding needed to be adjusted to become mature - not remaining minors with wavering teaching.

What practical change resulted? No longer were there 'signs and wonders following'. These were for Israel's days of immaturity. Today, if we are looking for great signs and miraculous healings, we shall be greatly deceived. Today those who are mature do not put their trust in man's promises. Or even, claim for themselves promises that God has given to a different people at a different time and place.

We have the Gold Standard - God's promises to us of the prize of God's calling above in Christ Jesus!

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©James Johnson

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