Many Christians wonder about God’s timetables for history. Jesus was clear with His disciples that His Father didn’t intend for them to know dates and details about events. But Jesus repeatedly exhorted His disciples to be wise about God’s ways.
In this essay, I am going to look at God’s calling of Abraham and the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land as a basis for a God-centered, distinctively Christian understanding of history. And on that basis I will examine the Call of the Church in the New Covenant.
In Ezekiel 36:23 God declared that His purpose in the New Covenant was to prove Himself holy to the nations of the earth through His people. My thesis in this essay is that history is not random. Nor is it simply a time log of the saving of souls. Rather, the proving of God’s holiness in the earth through the obedience, growth and maturity of His people is the driving motive in history. Or, said another way, the timetables of history timetables run based on the growth and maturity of God’s people as God builds His kingdom thru them to show forth His glory and prove His holiness in the earth.
So, let’s begin with one of the most striking stories in Scripture about God’s ways in Genesis 15:16, where God said to Abraham, “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
This is more profound than we may at first recognize. The fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham was to coincide with God’s timing of judgment for the peoples of Canaan. These two events, one a judgment for sin, the other a blessing of promise, were prophesied to occur simultaneously.
Thus, when the sin of the Amorites reached its full measure, God brought Israel to the Promised Land to fight and win what God had promised. But they rebelled and would not fight; they did not have faith in God’s promise. What, then, of God’s judgment of the peoples of Canaan? Their sin had reached its full measure when he brought Israel to the edge of the Promised Land or else God would not have commanded the Israelites to go in and slay them.
It is of supreme importance here to recognize that God did not resolve this conflict by “judging Canaan Himself”. Instead, we see that God’s concern is always for the maturity and growth of His people. God commanded them to conquer the land as a pathway of discipleship to develop greater maturity, strength and faith. He was not going to forego the discipleship of His people.
Notice also that the promise and the calling were one and the same. Israel was given a promise that God would give them the land. At the same time Israel’s multi-generational calling was to fight and conquer the land. The calling and the promise were one and the same. Every promise is “yes and amen” in Christ, but God’s covenantal dealings with His people in history always involve their obedience in the outworking of His promises.
In a similar way, it is worth pointing out that God does not call or deliver His people for no earthly purpose. God said to Abraham, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” (Gen. 15:7). And He later said to Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.” (Lev. 25:38).
God delivers His people out of bondage for a calling. He sets them apart to be His people for His purpose. And here, in what is arguably the central story of the Old Testament we see that 4 distinct decrees of God — Israel’s inheritance, God’s judgment of the wicked, the growth of Israel’s maturity and faith, and Israel’s victory over the wicked — were all one in the same. The promise, the maturity of His people, the judgment, the victory… they were all wrapped up in the promise and the calling.
For us today, it is of particular relevance to recognize that possession of their promised inheritance required obedience of heart; it required that they recognize and believe God’s promise. When they did not obey they were judged and consigned to 40 years in the wilderness during which they had time to disciple the next generation.
As a side note, this story is not an analogy to personal, eternal salvation for us today any more than it was for any of the Israelites at the time. This is a look at God’s earthly covenantal dealings with His people. This is an analogy to God’s earthly promises to His people in the New Covenant and the Church’s earthly calling.
In God’s earthly covenantal dealings with Israel, He judged the generation that did not recognize His promise and sent them into the wilderness for 40 years of trial. The older generation had time to reflect on what happened at the edge of Canaan and tell the younger generation about their calling and the promised inheritance.
In the next generation, the judgment of Canaan did finally occur, but notice that judgment of the Canaanites was not the driver of God’s timetable in this story. Rather, the maturity, faith and readiness of God’s people were the driving factors as to when the timetable of history would move ahead. Both judgment (Canaan) and blessing (Israel) hinged on the obedience or disobedience of God’s people, on whether they would believe His promise and act in faith on that promise.
This story is a parable for the Church of the first order. What are God’s promises and the Church’s calling in the New Covenant? Those promises are expounded throughout Scripture, but they reside deeply in the Prophets and the Psalms of the Old Testament. If the Church is to properly recognize God’s earthly promises and calling it must recognize that the Church of Jesus Christ is “Israel Under the New Covenant” (link to essay). The Prophets and Psalms are full of promises to the Church which define her calling. Today, however, much of the Church is cut off from those promises because we do not properly recognize Israel in the New Covenant. Here is an excerpt from the essay, “Israel Under the New Covenant”:
“One major ramification of understanding the identity and role of Israel in the New Covenant is that it helps us understand the two seemingly contradictory prophetic themes in the in the Old Testament: 1) the judgement of Israel and 2) the glorious future of Israel. The judgment of Israel refers to the judgment of the unfaithful branches of Old Covenant Israel (Romans 11:17) while the glorious future of Israel is now properly understood as referring to the faithful Jewish remnant (Romans 11:5) plus the in-grafted, believing gentiles (Romans 11:17), in other words, the Church of Jesus Christ.
This understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Covenants provides a solid Biblical basis for understanding prophesy in the Old Testament. Prophesy in the Old Testament may refer to Israel under the Old Covenant or Israel under the New Covenant. It is context and other markers which indicate how we should interpret each passage.”
However, regarding our inheritance in the New Covenant, I will only mention further that Jesus clearly teaches that His people inherit the earth. (Mt. 5:5). And the nations which are Christ’s inheritance (Psalm 2) are the inheritance of His brothers as well. We, like Israel under the Old Covenant, have work to do to accomplish our earthly covenantal inheritance. Thus, we are commanded to win the nations and the earth by discipling the nations in the authority of Christ.
Final Meditation – Numbers 14:7-9
“The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. 8 If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”