The New Covenant with Israel, Part I

Another Mystery

In reading and discovering the “mysteries” revealed in the Scriptures, we are finding that they must be understood with insight and spiritual revelation from the Holy Spirit. Too often supposed revelations about the End Times come from Bible teachers who reject much of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Believers.  

The Holy Spirit was given to be our Teacher, yet so many are finding prophetic revelations in historical events rather than the guidance of the Holy Spirit, leading to many false teachings.  

The mysteries of God are revealed truths, secrets that God has kept hidden, yet He desires to reveal them to His saints, the true believers found in the Body of Christ.  The following mystery, for example, cannot be grasped without seeking wisdom from the Holy Spirit.  

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, / He will remove ungodliness from Jacob. / This is My covenant with them, / When I take away their sins.”  (Romans 11:25-27)

Read this passage again if you need to.  To understand it, we must define a few terms, particularly “Israel” and “the fullness of the Gentiles.”

God is Timeless

To understand God’s will, we must first seek to view the Scriptures from His perspective.  This approach is encouraged by the Apostle Paul, who tells the believers in Corinth to be spiritual in their thinking, comparing them not to grownups who eat meat but to infants who subsist only on milk:

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able.  (I Corinthians 3:1-2)

See also this passage:

Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.  (I Corinthians 14:1)

In fact, the Apostle Paul at times has to resort to making literal statements to ensure that he was understood.  Paul takes this approach with the Galatian church since they have succumbed to the false teachings of those claiming that these gentile believers needed to follow the laws handed to the Israelites by Moses, including male circumcision.

After explaining to them again how he received the teachings of the Gospel through “a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:12), Paul makes clear the approach that comes from false teachers.  “Who has bewitched you,” he writes in both righteous anger and frustration.  

Paul then continues to exhort them:

This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  

Thus, the statements of Paul show that following a legalistic system of laws and regulations is ultimately fruitless.  It was only introduced by Moses because the original heirs of the Covenant God made with Abraham were disobedient.

Subsequently, the Law of Moses was essentially given to show that, aside from Jesus Christ the perfect Son of God, no one can possibly keep all of the provisions required perfectly; the Law was given to show that we need grace since we cannot obtain righteousness on our own:

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:24-26)

Living in such legalism is not what God desires for neither Jews nor Gentiles who comprise His Church under a New Covenant that had both fulfilled the promises made to Abraham and replaced the Old Covenant made with Israel through Moses.  

All of our own righteousness is only filthy rags, even though in our blindness we are deluded into thinking that we are good people. Thanks be to God, Who has made it possible to come into His presence in spite of our sin through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and High Priest.  

 

A Partial Blindness

Paul is qualified to speak to the “blindness” of the Jews, for he himself was a model Pharisee, a keeper of the Law and a strident persecutor of those who believed otherwise, even witnessing the stoning of Stephen.  

He relates in his Letter to the Romans that he grieves over the Jews’ unbelief, saying that if possible he would give up his own life if doing so would open their eyes to the truth.  

Indeed, the hardness of their hearts was prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah.  However, due to their unbelief and disobedience, God declares through His prophet that He is divorcing national Israel and making a New Covenant:  

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

This “New Covenant” sounds surprisingly like the covenant Christ promised during His first coming and instituted at the Last Supper, for it indeed puts the law of the Lord into the hearts of the people.  The Holy Spirit is poured out under this New Covenant, and their sins and iniquities are no longer merely be covered over with the blood of bulls and goats but cleansed with the blood of Jesus Christ Himself, who becomes the sacrificial Lamb.

This partial hardening of many Jewish hearts continued from Jeremiah’s time through the trial and execution of Jesus and on through the persecutions against the early Church.  Paul is clear, however, in saying that this unbelief does not include all Jewish people, for a remnant will be saved.  In fact, Paul declares that “all Israel will be saved,” most likely at the time of Christ’s Second Coming when the “times of the Gentiles has come in.”

 

Learning the Truth

The final authority must be Jesus Himself, and He was clear with Nicodemus that interpreting literally is not always the wisest choice.  Being “born again” does not mean entering again into the mother’s womb, as Nicodemus thought Jesus was saying. 

And Jesus certainly spoke figuratively when He gave to His disciples the bread and the wine during the Last Supper, though not all interpret Christ’s words figuratively. Unfortunately, some still insist on believing that the communion elements are the actual flesh and blood of Jesus that they are receiving, yet many teachers today who insist on interpreting the Bible literally would disagree with those who see the communion elements as being “transubstantiated.”

We must realize also, therefore, that God’s timeless perspective is not like our own.  In the flesh, we must perceive with our physical senses, senses that are subject to time.  We can only understand the past and the future in our minds, yet God sees and knows all things.  Therefore, we must continue in the Spirit what we have begun in the Spirit.

Those who teach that the Scriptures must only be interpreted “literally” must surely realize that Christ’s disciples were given the “mystery of the Kingdom of God,” a mystery which could only be interpreted figuratively.   Jesus even chided them for not understanding His figurative stories, or parables.  

Yet, those whom Jesus referred to as “those on the outside” were taught only in the form of parables so that they would not understand (Mark 4:11-12).  Presumably, if Jesus had taught them literally, not figuratively, then those who were skeptics or unbelievers would be able to understand the meanings for which they would ultimately be held accountable for, even in their unbelief.  

 

Interpreting End Times Prophecies Literally

The prophecies and dreams that reveal God’s plans for the future were delivered and written in the form of symbolic language, hence the strange “beasts” of Daniel’s and John’s dreams and visions, for example.  Yet so many Bible teachers today want to take these symbolic and metaphorical revelations and place them in a literal box, even though doing so makes the results nonsensical or unsound.  

For example, do those who seek a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, built for the purpose of reintroducing sacrifices, actually believe that God wants the Jews to return to the laws and practices of the Old Covenant, especially when the revelations given to Paul have declared them to be mere copies of the one true sacrifice already made by Jesus?  Don’t they realize that the temple destroyed in 70 A.D. was only a copy of the true Temple in Heaven, where Christ today sits on His throne as Prophet, Priest, and King?  And this was the Temple that would soon be destroyed in 70 A.D. because it was no longer to be the focus of the New Covenant?

This is what the writer of the Book of Hebrews declares: 

Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. . . .Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. (Hebrews 8:5, 9:23-25)

Since Jesus Christ came to do away with these “copies,” why would God want to have another mere copy made today, especially after Christ Jesus wept over Jerusalem and not one stone of the Temple would be left on another?  

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!  (Matthew 23:37-38)

 

 

The Promises Fulfilled

The justification for this conclusion, that the Temple will supposedly be rebuilt and sacrifices re-established, is that God’s promises made to Israel under the Old Covenant were never actually fulfilled.  However, a true reading of the Scriptures reveals otherwise:

 

  1.  God has indeed fulfilled the promises given to Israel concerning the land:  

So the Lord gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the Lord gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:43-45)

  1.  The idea that God has not fulfilled the promises made to Israel concerning earthly rule and governance, specifically the promises made to King David, were fulfilled through Jesus Christ. He said He came to fulfill the Law and be the One to receive the fulfillment of the promises of God (Matthew 5:17-20).  Christ’s New Covenant is based not on an earthly rule but on a kingdom not of this world: His Kingdom is a whole new nation, with the Gentiles joined together with the Jews and constituting a direct descent from the Covenant God made with Abraham:  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

 

Christ’s Kingdom Is Not of This World 

How does this method of interpretation relate to what the Scriptures tell us about Israel?  First, we must realize that even under the Old Covenant, it was never God’s will that the Israelites adopt the governing practices of the neighboring heathens.  He wanted His chosen people to be ruled by judges, not kings, in a form of “theocracy.”  

Second, the Apostle Paul does not refer to Israel according to contemporary terminology, as “national Israel.”  Instead, he likens the inheritors of the promises made to Abraham to a figurative “olive tree,” relating that a “partial hardening” has happened to Israel and that the unbelieving branches have unfortunately been broken off (see Romans 11).  Meanwhile, new branches have been grafted in, and these include all of the gentile believers from all over the world, a result of Christ’s Great Commission:  “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:15)

Thus, the promise made to Abraham is fulfilled, that all may receive the blessings of the Covenant made with Abraham:

“By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son [Isaac], your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”  (Genesis 22:16-18)

Paul is clear, however, that unbelieving Jews, the branches that have been broken off, may one day be grafted again, making them a part of the entire Olive Tree, or the Body of Christ, which makes up the New Covenant analogy.  

Paul makes this point clear to the Galatians in the following passage:

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.  (Galatians 3:23-29)

 

Conclusion

I’m confident that Paul would be just as frustrated with those teachers in the contemporary Church for seeking to return the Jews to the laws of the Old Covenant as he was with the Judaizers who were infiltrating the Galatian Church and telling them to be circumcised to follow the old Mosaic Law.  It’s time for us to follow Paul’s wisdom:  

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved. . . .Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.  (NASB Romans 11:25-26; Romans 12:6)

A Great Mystery

A Man and a Woman

One of the more enigmatic passages in the writings of the Apostle Paul concerns his teachings on marriage.  In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reveals a mystery to the church and instructs the believers concerning the marriage relationship, stating that it is like the relationship between Christ and His Body, the Church:

So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:28-33)

In many places in the Old Testament, the Old Covenant, the Lord God is described as a “husband” to Israel, as in the following passage:  

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like thecovenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

This new promise is fulfilled in the New Covenant, the New Testament, where Jesus Christ is compared to the bridegroom, and the Church is compared to His bride.  Even Jesus compares Himself to a bridegroom, such as in the following passage from Luke’s Gospel:

And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? But the days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.” (Luke 5:33-34)

The Covenant Relationship

The basis of this comparison, I believe, is the nature of the covenant relationship portrayed in the Scriptures.  One of the clearest examples is the covenant Jonathan, King Saul’s son and heir, makes with David, who at the time was merely a shepherd:

Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.Saul took him that day and did not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt. (I Samuel. 18:1-4)

The making of a covenant is portrayed in many other places in the Scriptures.  This sealing of a covenant literally means “to cut,” and the cutting entails the bleeding or shedding of blood as the basis of this sealing.  A covenant was “cut” when two people passed between the cut carcasses of slain animals after making an agreement together.

This ceremony is described in the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet speaks against those Israelites who have violated God’s covenant by not releasing their captives:  

Yet you turned andprofaned My name, and each man took back his male servant and each man his female servant whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your male servants and female servants.. . .I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not fulfilled the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts— the officials of Judah and the officials of Jerusalem, the court officers and the priests and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf.  (Jeremiah 34:16, 18-19)

Such a ceremony describes the making of a covenant in the Old Testament, and the parties might also have shared a meal as well, such as when Laban and Jacob made their covenant promising not to do harm to one another:  “I will not pass by this heap to you for harm, and you will not pass by this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.”(Genesis 31:52-3).

 

God’s Unilateral Covenant with Abram

For example, God’s covenant with Abram is sealed by the cutting of animals in two pieces.  God has made many promises to Abram, but Abram wants assurance.  How can he know for certain that God will do what He promises?  The following passage is lengthy, but well worth the reading, so think about reading the entire chapter when you can:

And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” He said, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds.The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. (Genesis 15:8-)

Abram is weary from making the preparations for the sealing of the covenant and defending the pieces of the animals from predators.  Therefore, Abram  falls into a sleep slumber.  Then God speaks to him:

“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13-16)

After making these promises to Abram, the Lord seals the covenant by moving between the pieces of the animals.  He does this alone, and Abram does not pass through the pieces, revealing that the covenant is unilateral.  It is a promise of God, to be fulfilled by Him alone:

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying,“To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. . .”  (Genesis 15:8-18)

Again, this covenant was essentially unilateral, or one-way, because Abram did not himself pass through the separated pieces.  Only God alone in the form of the oven and the torch passed through the animals.  Thus, it was only necessary for Abram to accept God’s offers by faith and allow the Lord to fulfill His promises.  

The covenant was renewed in subsequent renderings due to the disobedience of Abram’s descendants.  The covenant relationship between God and Israel is described as a “marriage,” but ultimately because of Israel’s “harlotry,” God divorces Israel, yet declares that He will make a new covenant:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

 

Christ’s Covenant With His Bride, the Church

In a similar way, Jesus Christ made a covenant with all who would accept Him.  In fact, Jesus Christ was the “mediator” of this better covenant Jeremiah describes, one better than the one made with Abraham (See Hebrews 7:22, 8:6, 12:24).  Jesus Himself was the “lamb of God,” sacrificed to establish this covenant by giving His life for us.  

This covenant is revealed in many places in the New Testament, particularly in the Book of Hebrews, but also in the Gospels where Jesus shared a meal with His disciples, when He said, “This is the new covenant in My blood” (Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20).

When Paul recited the account he had received from the Holy Spirit concerning the Last Supper, he quoted these words of Jesus speaking about the cup as “the new covenant in My blood” (I Corinthians 11:25).  This new covenant accomplished what the old could not, for it was made on the basis of better promises, including the removal of sin and the cleansing of the conscience:  

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)

 

The Marriage Covenant

Today, one rarely hears about two people cutting a covenant to become blood brothers.  The closest comparison we have to a Bible blood covenant today is the one Paul describes in Ephesians, a marriage between a man and a woman.

Just as in the more usual bilateral biblical covenants, in a marriage one party making the covenant with the other says, “What I have is yours and what you have is mine.”  Everything is shared, even the hardships and difficult times, hence the “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health” vow recited at ceremonial marriage “covenants.”

Unfortunately, today the marriage covenant has been diluted by “prenuptial agreements” and tacit understandings that “If things don’t work out, we will separate.”  

In a true covenant, the parties are “all in,”  and both parties can fully count on the resources of the other participant if they have need of them, just as David received Jonathan’s weapons and armor, and Jonathan’s son was received as a son into David’s house.  This was how Bible covenants worked, and this is how marriages should work today.

Unfortunately, while sexual practices today have descended into the depths of depravity and have led to the diminishing of the marriage covenant itself, the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, the Husband of the Body of Christ the Church, is everlasting for all who will call upon Him and turn to Him in repentance and loving commitment.

 

Paul’s Thorn, Part II

 

Why Wasn’t Paul Healed?

Many Bible teachers have taught that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a physical disease, in spite of the inconsistencies and false logic of this conclusion.  I believe these teachers have perpetuated this false teaching only to buttress another false teaching:  The gifts of healing passed away when the disciples and early apostles passed away.  

If Paul was sick and God refused to heal him even after three requests, why should we believe that God wants to heal us?  Why encourage people to believe for healing when it isn’t God’s will to heal today?  Isn’t that why we have doctors and physicians?

Clearly not everyone is healed every time there is sickness or disease, even though prayers are offered, though here is the promise the Apostle James gives the Church in his letter:

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. (James 5:14-15)

In spite of this promise, many churches no longer even anoint the sick or pray for healing, having decided that this verse is no longer relevant today in a post-apostolic “dispensation.” It is significant, however, that no denial of the forgiveness of sins promise is mentioned.  Why, when both are stated in the same passage, is forgiveness still a valid promise when healing is not?

Experience tells us, however, that not everyone is healed or appears to be healed, at least not in the ways we desire.  Is it because God wants us to be sick, indeed even causes us to be sick in order to keep us humble?  Isn’t that why Paul’s eye disease wasn’t healed?  

However, you will recall that the thorn Paul refers to was a “messenger of Satan,” not a messenger of God Himself.

I’m amazed at how many Bible teachers preach that the Bible is the “inerrant” Word of God, without error or fault in all its teaching, yet they delete or omit some of the verses in the Bible because they believe they no longer apply to today. 

If this passage in James is part of the infallable and inerrant Word of God, therefore, why are some believers not healed according to the affirmative promise in James and other passages in the Bible?   

One reason is that we don’t believe in the first place, or we just give up, especially when our prayers aren’t answered right away.  We forget that though miracles may be instantaneous, healing takes time and we need patience.  Even Jesus the Son of God could do few mighty works in His own home town because of the unbelief of the people who lived there.

All too often, Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is used to confirm this kind of unbelief.  How many times have we heard people say,”My back pain is just a thorn in the flesh God has given me to teach me something,” or something similar?  

In the World You Shall Have Tribulation

Sufficient evidence exists to oppose the meaning of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as referring to an eye disease, or “opthalmia.” 

First, Paul describes the thorn as a “messenger of Satan,” a description that seems to reveal cogniznce and intent.  Paul says he implored the Lord three times to be delivered of this messenger, but the Lord responded with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9).  What is weakness but a condition that demands help and assistance in its worst forms?  

Paul then describes the weaknesses that, taken together, comprise the essence of what the thorn is:

Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.  (II Corinthians 12:9)

We might summarize all of these conditions under the terms “tribulations,” and even more specifically, “persecutions.” These are condition we have not been redeemed from.  In fact, Jesus declared that we would all suffer similar kinds of persecutions:

Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:31-33)

The word “tribulations” in Paul’s message to the churches in Galatia, quoted in Acts 14, however, is significant, for it further affirms what is the true meaning of this metaphor:

The next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe. After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations [emphasis mine] we must enter the kingdom of God.” When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:18-23)

 

The Thorn in Context

Consider the following passages, all of which contain references to thorns.  See if you can find similarities in meanings:

  • But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live. (Numbers 33:55)
  • Know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you; but they will be a snare and a trap to you, and a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good land which the Lord your God has given you. (Joshua 23:13)
  • Now the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land which I have sworn to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you, and as for you, you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me; what is this you have done?  Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they will become as thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.’” When the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the sons of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. So they named that place Bochim; and there they sacrificed to the Lord.  (Judges 2:1-5)
  • And the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, set your face toward Sidon, prophesy against her and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God,

    “Behold, I am against you, O Sidon,
    And I will be glorified in your midst.
    Then they will know that I am the Lord when I execute judgments in her,
    And I will manifest My holiness in her.
    “For I will send pestilence to her
    And blood to her streets,
    And the wounded will fall in her midst
    By the sword upon her on every side;
    Then they will know that I am the Lord.

    And there will be no more for the house of Israel a prickling brier or a painful thorn from any round about them who scorned them; then they will know that I am the Lord God.”   Ezekiel 28:20-24)

A careful and thoughtful analysis of these passages shows that they all relate the “thorn” to adversaries and instruments of persecution.  The connection is clear, therefore:  The thorn in the flesh Paul is writing about represents the constant and unrelenting persecution Paul endured in his ministry.

Readers of the stories on the life of the Apostle Paul are usually astounded at the many instances of persecution in his life. He experiences constant opposition to his ministry and teachings, both physical and mental.  Instead of being an instrument of persecution against the Church himself, as he was in the early chapters in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul became the one who was persecuted, receiving the most severe and painful forms of physical torture imaginable, including being stoned and left for dead, beatings, and public ridicule.  

 

Why Did God Allow the Persecution of Paul?

Paul relates in his defense to the Jews in Jerusalem that he was the one who persecuted those who followed Christ (the “Way”):

I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished.    (Acts 22:4-5)

After his conversion, however, he became the object of persecution.  He relates to the Corinthian Church, for example, the following list:

To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.  (I Corinthians 4:11-13)

He continues to list the persecutions he has endured in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.  For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.  (II Corinthians 4:7-12)

While the source of these persecutions appears to be nonbelievers, those people who opposed the teachings and worship of the Lord, the primary source is demonic, a messenger of Satan sent to inflict persecution on the chosen people of God.

It is little wonder, then, that Paul asks the Lord to have this thorn of persecution removed from him.  The Lord’s response to him in contained in the following message:

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.

Paul was blessed with the manifold wisdom and revelations of God in order to communicate the full plan of salvation and sanctification of the Lord, much of which was in great contrast to the legalism and obligations of the Old Covenant.  Paul consequently became the focus of extreme persecution to keep this Good News of the Gospel from being shared, not only with his fellow Jews, but also the gentiles.  And through his letters to the churches, Paul’s imparted wisdom is still being used to share the love of Jesus Christ to the whole world. 

 

What About Me?  Will I Ever Have a Thorn in the Flesh?

Paul explains why the thorn in the flesh is present in his life:  “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!”  (II Corinthians 12:7).  

No one today who refrains from self-exaltation would make such a claim as having such a thorn in the flesh as the one Paul endured.  

However, Paul did explain to his disciple Timothy that persecution will follow all who desire to follow Christ and seek to proclaim His gospel:

Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me! Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.  (2 Timothy 3:10-12)

Unless someone today can compare the manifest spiritual revelations or evangelical accomplishments with those of the Apostle Paul, there is no true basis for claiming to have a “thorn in the flesh” as so many people tend to do   People do so because although they have prayed, God has not apparently answered their prayers, particularly for healing from some sickness or disease.

As we have discovered, however, Paul’s thorn was not a physical infirmity in spite of the word “infirmities” in II Corinthians 11:30:  “If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”

We must take the words Paul uses in context to avoid misinterpretations.  The word “infirmities,” however, is better translated “weaknesses” or “persecutions,” all of which are listed in the previous verses in this same chapter:

Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments,beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.  have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?  (II Corinthians 11:23-29)

Indeed, an amplified context for this word is in the next chapter (none of which exist in the original text), for Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified because of “weakness”:

 For indeed He [Jesus] was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.  (II Corinthians 13:4)

 

Conclusion

Paul tells Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  While we may not all have the kinds of persecution and weaknesses that Paul experienced, we all will be persecuted if we will only live a life of visible testimony.

cjenkins.newsong@gmail.com

Paul’s Thorn, Part I

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More Than Just a Splinter!

For the first five years of my life, I lived in a town surrounded by a desert.   And even in my young adult years, I lived with desert environments nearby.  I will never forget viewing the cactus varieties at the Botanical Gardens just a mile or two from my house, and I especially recall the many cactus plants growing in the yards of neighbors, mainly because I was painfully stuck a few times by thorns on the way to see a friend.

The thorn is an especially vivid image in people’s minds, mainly because of the danger and pain it may bring.  It’s not surprising that the Apostle Paul would choose such an image to describe his condition in his letter to the Corinthians:

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!  Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.  And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.  (II Corinthians 12:7-10)

Our understanding of Paul’s meaning in this passage, especially as it concerns the metaphor of the thorn, has been much debated in the Church, one indicator that the meaning is a “mystery.”  A perfect topic for this Blog!

God wants to reveal His secrets to us if we are spiritually discerning.  However, we must use exegesis (i.e. out of), not isogesis (i.e. into).  We must take the meaning from the passage of Scripture, as well as its context in the whole of Scripture (out of), not impose our own meaning on the text (into).  In this Blog, we are seeking God’s wisdom, not imposing our own thoughts and beliefs on God’s message.  

Here are some of the more obvious examples of interpretations that are the opposite, merely attempts to promote a particular agenda (which we will explore in Part II):

  • Paul suffered from some acute form of bodily disease. Those who argue this position suggest such diseases as  malaria, Malta fever, epilepsy, convulsive attacks, and chronic ophthalmia. 
  • The most common disease mentioned is acute ophthalmia, said to originate when the light which flashed round him at Damascus.    (See http://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/2_corinthians/12.htm)
  • Some other theories of the thorn’s meaning include temptation, migraines, epilepsy, and a speech disability.
  • Some even say that the thorn refers to a person inspired by Satan who sought to discredit Paul and his ministry.  One such man was Alexander the coppersmith, who did Paul “a great deal of harm” (2 Timothy 4:14).   
  • Others theorize that the exact nature of Paul’s thorn is deliberately vague because Paul wanted it to apply to any difficulty Christians may face.    (http://www.gotquestions.org/Paul-thorn-flesh.html)
  • Finally, those arguing that Paul refers to his conflict with sensual passion, citing Romans 7:8, Romans 7:23,  and I Corinthians 9:27. 

Eye Disease

One of the most troubling of these interpretations of the thorn is the idea that the thorn is the “acute opthalmia” Paul supposedly had as a result of his blindness on the Road to Damascus.  

Reading the account in Acts Chapter 9, read that as Paul  was struck blind by the light of Christ as he was traveling to Damascus to persecute the Jewish Christians,

Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him;  and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.  (Act 9:3-9)

This passage is used not only to attempt to explain what Paul’s thorn was, but also how it came to plague him later in life. Additional evidence for this view is provided from Galatians 4:15, where Paul says, “Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.”  Advocates of this view believe that Paul’s condition was so serious and apparent that the Galatians would gladly have given him their own eyes in gratitude for giving them the Gospel.

As further evidence for this eye disease theory, it is submitted that Paul appeared to use his helpers to take Paul’s dictation of at least some of his epistles (an amanuensis). One person mentioned is Tertius, who copied the book of Romans, most likely from Paul’s dictations.  Tertius even added his own greeting to the church in Rome (see 16:22).  In addition, Paul added salutations with his own hands (see I Corinthians 16:21 and II Thessalonians 3:17), and he wrote his own words with large print, as he writes in Galatians 6:11: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.”

In opposition to these theories are two arguments.  

First, the bolt of light was not a “messenger of Satan” but a message from Jesus Christ:

As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Act 9:3-6)

Second, we see clear proof in the Book of Acts that Paul is healed of his blindness after his stunning experience on the Damascus road. Jesus commands a very fearful, reluctant Ananias to go to Saul, the enemy of the believers in Damascus. Ananias is instructed to administer the Holy Spirit to Saul, to heal Saul’s blindness, and give him instructions for the future, saying, “for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake:  

So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened.  (Acts 9:17-19)

In further opposition to this theory, therefore, surely those whom the Lord heals are healed indeed!   Therefore, diagnosing Paul with chronic eye disease seems incorrect.  Even supposing an aging apostle who may be experiencing far-sightedness seems a more likely explanation for his large letters, just as some people need large-print Bibles!  

Another possibility for Paul’s use of an amanuensis is the fact that Paul was not writing in his native language, especially in his letter to the Galatian people who were Celtic in origin.  Perhaps Paul was not as familiar with their script as he was with other cities forms of writing, and he wanted his letter to be legible to them.

Finally, the results of Paul’s thorn were intended to diminish Paul’s pride, to help him realize that the many revelations given to him were a result of God’s grace in his life, not a consequence of his own abilities or insights.

When Paul writes to the Galatian Churches, reminding them of their gratitude to him for sharing the Gospel with them, he says, “For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me”  (Galatians 4:15). He indeed may be referring to a physical infirmity he had, but it would not be the one he obtained on the Road to Damascus. Instead, he only recently had been stoned and left for dead:

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city. (Acts 14:19)

This story continues to describe Paul’s journey with Barnabus to the other cities in Galatia, leaving them with a message that is quite significant:

The next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe. After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:18-23)

Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra, a city of Galatia. The next day Paul walked to Derbe, another city of Galatia, and began preaching the good news of Christ to them.   Most likely, Paul may have had runny, puffy eyes, along with multiple cuts and bruises, but they were not the result of some disease. They were the result of having just been stoned.

 

Part II

In the next article in this series, some reasons why these dubious interpretations are taught will be explained, and a more convincing understanding of Paul’s thorn will be provided.

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