This is an argument made from the pre-tribulation perspective. The subject is tied directly to one’s presupposition of the church’s role in Christ’s kingdom-building process and its relationship to the first covenant with Israel. For many pre-tribulation authors, the role of the church is exclusive of all other groups, including Israel and Judah. Yet Jesus Christ was clearly a Jew, born into the tribe of Judah. The disciples God called to him were primarily from Judah, while Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin.
In previous articles, we’ve looked in depth at Paul’s understanding of the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles. Aside from Christ, Paul was the first of the disciples to take the gospel of the kingdom of God to the Gentiles. The revelation given to him, a Pharisee in regards to his knowledge of the law, provided the basis for his understanding of the continued work that God was doing in Israel (Philippians 3:4-11). A work, that at that time, would expand to include the Gentiles of the world.
The Mystery of God, Revealed in Christ
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses simple language and subtle contrasts to connect the work of God under the covenant with Israel and that of the new covenant in Christ. There he highlights how God, through Jesus Christ, predestined the Gentiles for adoption to himself as sons according to the purpose of his will (Ephesian 1:5). In Christ, Gentiles now have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of their trespasses, by the richness of his grace and mercy which he has lavished upon them (Ephesian 1:7-8). And part of the reason for this?
9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Paul continues in Ephesian 2 to recount the work God is doing in Christ to unify the faithful; those faithful under the old covenant, and those faithful under the new.
- Gentiles were once separate and alienated from the covenants of promise given to Israel, and without hope
- By Christ’s blood Gentiles have been brought near
- He makes both (Israel and Gentile) one, abolishing the law of commandments
- He reconciles both to God through the cross
- He is the source of peace to those who were near (Israel) and those who were far off (Gentiles)
- Both (Israel and Gentile) have access in one Spirit to the Father
- We are now fellow citizens with the saints (the faithful in Israel), members of the household of God
- We are being built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, of which Christ is the cornerstone
- In the Lord we are being made into a holy temple, a dwelling place for God
- All by the Spirit of God
He doesn’t stop there. Paul continues in Ephesians 3 to clearly define the context of the mystery.
1 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles – 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Let’s stop here and make some observations about Paul’s claims:
- Paul, a member of the house of Israel, and a recipient of God’s grace
- The mystery was made known to him by revelation. It was not evident in the scriptures.
- This mystery was not made known in previous generations
- But is now revealed by the Spirit of God
- There must be something already existing to which the Gentiles are;
- Fellow heirs with
- Members of the same body with
- Partakers with others of the same promises
The driving question is – with whom? In a companion article discussing the real connection between Israel and the Church, we reviewed a good portion of Paul’s discourse in Romans 11 on the subject. I’ll note some highlights, but I suggest you read the entire chapter.
- Paul points out his role as a minister to the Gentiles, in hopes of saving some of his fellow Jews through jealousy
- Though some were rejected for a time, he knows that their acceptance leads to resurrection and life
- Yeshua the Christ is the firstfruits, offered once for all. He is the root from which all faithful have life
Recall that Yeshua was the God of the Old Testament as well as the Lamb of God for the new covenant. Let’s continue to break down the details of what Paul is saying.
- Some natural branches (some in Israel) were broken off. Some, not all.
- And this so that wild olive shoots (Gentiles) could be grafted in among the others (those faithful in Israel who remain attached)
- Both are nourished from the root, that is Christ
- What separates those who were broken off from those who remain attached?
- Those broken off were so because of unbelief
- Those who remain do so because of faith
- There is no room or reason for arrogance on the part of Gentiles. Christ sustains both parts.
- If they (Israel) do not continue in unbelief, they can be grafted back into the olive tree
- How much easier it will be to graft them back into their natural olive tree
Clearly the mystery spoken of in Ephesians is what Paul is referring to here in Romans. It is with the faithful in Israel that the Gentiles are called to be;
- Fellow heirs with
- Members of the same body with
- Partakers with them of the same promises
If we continue in Romans 11, Paul clarifies this fact.
25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
27 “and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
Paul makes it clear that their rejection was temporary and had purpose in that it opened the doorway of salvation to the Gentiles (Romans 11:11-12). There is a time period established for this time of the Gentiles. As an aside, it doesn’t end when Christ returns as many believe.
Interested in the scope, origin, purpose, and fulfillment of the Mystery of God?
More importantly, Paul clarifies what he only inferred earlier, that those in unbelief will be grafted back into their natural olive tree. One thing Christ does fulfill after his return to earth is to remove ungodliness from Jacob (Israel). He will do this by making a new covenant with them in which he takes away their sins. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the same covenant he’s making now with those Gentiles being called.
Why Keep it a Mystery?
Now that we’ve established the basics about the mystery and who was involved, to understand it more fully we need to identify the underlying purpose behind the work that God is doing through his son, Jesus Christ. That is a very involved discussion, and beyond the scope of this short article. We can, however, provide a glimpse into why this was hidden in times past and eventually manifested in those called into Christ.
To discover more about the plans Christ has for Israel, read my recent book . . .
The Rapture Question: An Unfiltered View
Let’s look at another of Paul’s letters to get some additional insight into the reason for the mystery. After first establishing the preeminence of Christ in all things, Paul goes on to touch on the reason behind this; to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-23)
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
- If Paul was making the word of God fully known, that means there were those things which were not previously known from the word of God
- It is only now, in Paul’s day, that the mystery is being revealed to God’s elect, his saints
- The basis of that mystery – Christ in you, the hope of glory.
To understand how revolutionary this idea of Christ in you is, you only need to read about Christ’s encounters with the Pharisee and Sadducee leaders in Jerusalem as described in the Gospels. By reading the Old Testament from the viewpoint of those who lived it rather than from the filter of the New Testament, one can see that their expectation for Messiah was completely different than ours. Yes, some certainly maintained a faith in the resurrection to life, but it was a resurrection to physical life and a restoration of their national prominence. God was always kept at a distance from the people in Israel, constrained by the Holy of Holies in the inner temple. When anyone did approach God it was only the High Priest and only one day out of the year.
The author of Hebrews clarifies the distinction between the covenant, how the new covenant makes the old covenant obsolete. The reason for this is because the new is built on better promises. I’ve touched on the physical nature of the promises to Israel. I’ll leave it to you the reader to look deeper into the promises made in Christ; they’re significantly different. (Hebrews 8, 9, 10, 11)
Now the obsolescence spoken of regarding the covenant doesn’t apply to the people with whom the covenant was made, only to the covenant itself.
6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
8 For he finds fault with them when he says:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
At some point in the future, both Israel and Judah will be the recipients of the new covenant. This is what Paul was referring to in Romans 11, suggesting that Israel would not remain in unbelief.
For details on God’s plan to save all Israel, Discover more.
Note that the author of Hebrews is quoting from Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah is told what the Lord will accomplish and by whom, but not the specifics of how it will be accomplished (Jeremiah 23; 31). There are many prophecies that pointed to the coming of the Messiah, and there are many more prophecies about God’s future forgiveness of Israel and Judah. There are even prophecies that hint to the inclusion of the Gentiles into the promises given to Israel (Genesis 49:8-10; Deuteronomy 32:16,19-21). On three separate occasions the Lord proclaimed a blessing upon all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s offspring (Genesis 18:17-19; 22:17-18; 26:3-5).
Paul later summarizes the relationship in his letter to the Galatians. Chapter 3 especially outlines some of the underlying principles of how Christ’s redemptive work is a continuation of that started with Abraham.
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
And yet the nature of the work the Lamb of God would fulfill was kept hidden, and for good reason.
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
So that brings us to the obvious, yet often overlooked, answer as to why the Scriptures of old, when prophesying about the great tribulation, don’t mention the new covenant or those participating in it; the promises of the new covenant were hidden in the work of Christ. If those opposing God understood the means by which he would accomplish his victory over them, they would not have sought to kill the son of God. It was through death and resurrection that the Lamb of God gained victory over all opposing forces, and secured the future glory for all humanity, but especially for those faithful servants called into Christ.
Having identified the work the Lord is doing to unify the faithful in Israel with the faithful Gentiles by his redemptive work, it becomes clear that there is no requirement or expectation that those called into Christ should be mentioned at all in the Old Testament. That they are mentioned indirectly maintains the mystery, yet enables God to be glorified by fulfilling his work in Christ and his promise to Abraham.
The answer to the title question is true, but only in part. And not due to the assumed exclusiveness of the church as many profess. It’s true because the mystery needed to be hidden according to the will of God. In this way it works to the benefit of the Gentile firstfruits, a faithful remnant in Israel, and ultimately for the nation of Israel as a whole.
15 To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
To discover more about the plans Christ has for his body of believers, read my recent book . . .
The Rapture Question: An Unfiltered View
There is much more to learn about each of these topics and links have been provided to related articles. Those tagged with Read more lead you to related channel questions and their basic answers. Those tagged Discover more are part of a more in-depth study program. Any tagged with Learn more address methods, processes, and resources which can aid your approach to learning. All are free resources to assist you in gaining a more unfiltered view of God’s word.
At the close of each article, the relevant presuppositions that support it will be cited. This enables the reader to gain a clearer and deeper understanding of the context. To learn more about presuppositions, see the About page.
- The election of God is not limited to Gentiles in this age only. It started with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) and continues today. (Psalm 132:13-18; Galatians 3)
- The work of Jesus Christ and the will of God unites the faithful of the first covenant with the faithful of the new covenant. (Ephesians 2; 3; Romans 5; 8; 9; 10; 11)
- Faith, which is a gift of God, is the basis of the hope of salvation for all those committed to the Lord. (Romans 11; 1 Peter 1; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Jude 3)
- The grace of God is greater-than the sin of humanity (Romans 5)
- Christ’s work results in a new creation (Fourth Gospel 3:1-21; Romans 8:28-31; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 6:14-18)
- The divinity and supremacy of the Son of God – the creator and finisher of all things. He alone is given authority to judge in righteousness according to the will of God (Fourth Gospel 1:1-5; Psalm 96:10-13; Isaiah 11:1-5; Acts 17:30-31; Romans 2:5-11; Revelation 5; 19:11-16)
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