An end before the End

– Part 3 of a series: Is this the end?


Salvation distress and glory for the Jew first

To the Jews were given, ‘the adoption as sons … the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised’ (Rom. 9: 4-5).  For the one and a half thousand years of the Sinai Covenant the children of Israel enjoyed a privileged relationship with God.  Yet, ‘from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded’ (Luke 12:48) and ‘judgment begins with the household of God’ (1 Pet. 4:17).

Every promise of the Hebrew Scriptures was for the Jew first, stemming from the promise to Abraham:  ‘I will bless you and through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.’  The intended blessing – as we have seen – is reconciliation to God through forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit – which are obtained through Abraham’s promised Seed (Gal. 3: 14).

The disciples proclaimed to their Jewish compatriots: ‘when God raised up His servant, He sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways’ (Acts 3:26). The apostle Paul affirms that ‘the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’ (Rom. 1: 16). Consequently, ‘there will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile …  [and] glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’ (Rom. 2: 9-10).

While the ancient rabbis wondered whether the advent of Messiah would bring about the punishment or glory of Israel, he would divide the nation and bring about each of these opposite outcomes for the different parts.  Response to Jesus was the basis for the division: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law … ‘” (Mat. 10: 34-35).

The devout and righteous Simeon was kept alive until he saw the Consolation of Israel, and prophesied  concerning  the boy Jesus, that he was ‘destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed’ (Luke 2: 34-35).

John the Baptist announced that the Kingdom that was near (Mat. 3: 2) but at the same time warned of ‘the coming wrath’ (Mat. 3: 7). The axe was ‘already at the root’ (Mat. 3:10). Concerning the Lord Jesus, he said, ‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire’ (Mat. 3:12).

Redemption was not for every Jew nor without condition, warned Isaiah: ‘The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins, declares the LORD’ (Isaiah 59:20). Consequently ‘all the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John’ (Luke 7: 29 – 30).

The apostle Peter explains: “For in Scripture it says:  ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’  Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,’ and, ‘a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for’ (1 Pet. 2: 6-8).  A destined outcome is neither unexpected nor accidental.

The apostle Paul speaks of Israel as one lump of clay that is divided and used for different ends:  ‘Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction?  What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?’ (Rom. 9: 21-24).

The prophet Joel foresaw Israel’s salvation and glory commencing at Pentecost, but also the trouble and distress leading to the events of AD70.

‘Afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.

Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.

And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls’

(Joel 2: 28-32).

While many wish to separate the glories of Pentecost from Israel’s distress and punishment, and defer that part of Joel’s prophecy to a future time, the Gospels announce their imminence and the apostolic writings treat Israel’s salvation and destruction, glory and punishment as contiguous.

Joel’s great and dreadful ‘Day of the Lord’ is distinctly the day on which the Lord God visits judgment and deliverance on Israel.  In the pattern of Israel’s earlier history the empires and nations roused as instruments of the Lord God’s wrath and punishment on Israel, later have a ‘Day’ of reckoning and retribution of their own (Ob. 1: 15; Jer. 25: 8-12; Joel 3: 12-16; Zec. 14: 1-3).

Malachi concludes the Old Testament. After all was said and done, this was the final word on Israel:

“‘Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace.  All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Mal. 4: 1-3).

Consuming judgment would come on Israel, but the survivors, the elect, would go forth to conquer the world. Their conquest of nations is both unto salvation and glory for those who believe, and unto punishment for those who do not – as it was with Israel.

Scripture leads us thus to a ‘two ends’ eschatology wherein Israel (as it then was) is saved and punished first and not last, and wherein Israel’s distress and glory precedes that of ‘all nations’ which comes later. The end of Old Covenant Israel inaugurates the Kingdom of God, the Gospel age of universal expansion, also called ‘the time of the Gentiles’ in which the scheme of (i) proclamation unto division and judgment (on the criterion of response to the Gospel), (ii) tribulation and (iii) glory and punishment, is replicated – until the end of the mortal age. After this the dead are raised from their graves, judged and assigned to their eternal habitations. The righteous of all ages inherit the new heaven and new earth, the home or righteousness.

The End

“As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”‘ (Mat. 24: 3).

The disciples’ question follows the Lord Jesus’ verdict on the Temple, namely that ‘not one stone here will be left upon another’ (Mat. 24: 2). The ‘age’ they refer to is that of Israel under the Old Covenant which ends concurrently with the Temple, when the daily sin offering (the ‘tamid’) and other blood sacrifices cease upon the altar.

The prophet Daniel spoke of the same end: ‘After the sixty-two sevens, Messiah will be cut off and have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: war will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed’ (Dan. 9: 26).

The Lord had earlier warned his disciples: ‘all men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ (Mat. 10: 22-23). Speaking directly and personally to his disciples, the ‘end’ the Lord had in mind here was clearly the end of the Jewish age within that generation, and by his ‘coming’ he meant his imminent coming in wrath, recompense and retribution.

John Wesley comments: ‘Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel – make what haste ye will; till the Son of man be come – to destroy their temple and nation’.

While we tend to associate ‘coming’ with a physical and bodily return, the Greek word παρουσία (parousia) used here and elsewhere in the Gospels, and then in 1st Corinthians 15, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians and also in Peter and John’s letters, is defined by Strong’s as,  ‘… a being near …  specially, of Christ to punish Jerusalem, or finally the wicked [of all nations]’.

In modern English, to ‘peruse’ means to give one’s attention, to undertake a careful overview or survey. That the Lord God draws near to oversee His judgments upon the earth is described allegorically as a descent from heaven, or as His ‘coming’.  We see this at the destruction of Babel (Gen. 11: 5 -7) and in prophecies concerning Israel:

‘For behold, the LORD comes forth from His place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth.  And the mountains shall be melted under Him, and the valleys shall be cleft …  For the transgression of Jacob is all this, and for the sins of the house of Israel  …  What are the high places of Judah?  Are they not Jerusalem?’ (Micah 1: 3-5).

‘For behold, the LORD comes out of His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain’  (Isaiah 26: 21. Cf. Mat 23: 35-36 and Rev. 18: 24).

By the Lord Jesus’ promised return or ‘coming’, we must understand His being near or present for deliverance or punishment, first at the appointed end of the Jewish age at that time, and finally for all nations at the end of the Gospel age.

According to Jamieson, Fausset and Brown (Commentary on Matthew 10: 23): “‘The coming of the Son of man’ has a fixed doctrinal sense, here referring immediately to the crisis of Israel’s history … when Christ was to come and judge it; when ‘the wrath would come upon it to the uttermost’;  and when, on the ruins of Jerusalem and the old economy, He would establish His own kingdom. This, in the uniform language of Scripture, is more immediately ‘the coming of the Son of man,’ ‘the day of vengeance of our God'”.

The end of the Sinai covenant and of Israel under that covenant

The Covenant made with the fledgling nation that emerged from Egypt contained exceptional benefits for obedience, but also terrible curses for breaking its terms (Deut. 28 ). From the outset Israel’s history was marred by unfaithfulness and disobedience. While the Law of Moses granted life to all who obey its commandments and terms (Lev. 18: 5), there is no righteousness or life in disobedience apart from God’s mercy. The apostle Paul affirms this as the only basis on which a remnant of Israel was ever preserved, namely that:  ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’ (Rom. 9: 15; 11: 5). On account of God’s mercy, then, a portion of the covenant nation was kept in every age – the so-called ‘remnant of grace’ – until Messiah appeared.

While it stood, the Temple and its sacrifices were the vehicle for atonement and forgiveness – namely, the ministration of God’s aforesaid mercy. While the Law and its sacrifices were only ‘a shadow of the good things to come’ (Col. 2: 17, Heb. 10: 1), they were effective nonetheless in preserving the remnant of God’s people until the ‘once for all’ eternally and universally effective sacrifice for sin was offered and consumed.

With the Temple’s destruction in AD70, the ‘means of grace’ provided under the Old Covenant was removed. Since that day, forgiveness and mercy, righteousness and life are found in the New Covenant only.

The idea that modern Jews continue as ‘Israel’, or can be restored after AD70 as a nation of God, on any terms other than the New Covenant, is unsustainable. The New Covenant was made two thousand years ago with ‘the house of Judah and with the house of Israel’ (Jer. 31: 31-34), for the very purpose of its preservation, namely that a remnant of Israel should ‘never cease to be a nation’ before God (Jer. 31: 35-37). This remnant ‘Christ redeemed … from the curses of the Law’ (Gal. 3: 13).

Gentile believers are not party to the New Covenant, but are grafted into Israel and become part of the covenant nation (Eph. 2: 12). Every Jew, by contrast, who had not by AD70 obtained righteousness by faith in Messiah was ‘cut off from among his people’ (Acts 3: 23 citing Deut. 18: 19) and could not afterward be restored into Israel except by faith in Messiah (Rom. 11: 23).

While David Pawson argues that ‘[none]of the seventy-four New Testament references to ‘Israel’ … refer to the Church’ (Unlocking the Bible, Joel, p. 465, etc.) – in support of the idea that Israel continues even now to exist apart from the New Covenant church – he fails to consider that the Sinai Covenant endured for a full forty years between Pentecost and AD70, and that Israel remained at that time validly constituted in terms of the Old Covenant, irrespective of her acceptance or rejection of the Messiah. The books of the New Testament were written in that time and refer much to historical Israel, whose role and fate in the transition to the Kingdom age are crucial.

Even so, during this time of ‘overlap’ of the two covenants, the apostles taught concerning the Old:

  • that Jews who had once seen the light of Messiah could not revert to it for righteousness with God or salvation (Heb. 2: 1-3, 6: 6, 12:25);
  • that it was ‘obsolete and aging’ and would ‘soon disappear’ (Heb. 8:13);
  • that it was typified by Hagar and gave birth to children of slavery, whereas Sarah represents the New Covenant which gives birth to the children of promise.  Like Ismael, the children by natural birth are cast out after the children of promise are born of the Spirit (Gal. 4: 21-31).

That the Temple was previously destroyed at the time of Nebuchadnezzar, and then rebuilt; and that Israel was restored after seventy years ‘without temple, priest or sacrifice’ is held out as a precedent for a similar restoration now or in the future.

That restoration was however a temporary measure with Messiah’s advent already in view (Jer. 33: 15; Dan. 9: 25; Zec. 3: 8). Only two tribes were restored from exile until Messiah made his covenant with many (Dan. 9: 27). This occurred within the 490 years understood by the prophet Daniel’s ‘seventy weeks’ vision.  The Temple was rebuilt, but its future destruction was announced even before construction began (Dan. 9: 26).

The Ark of the [Old] Covenant did not return, nor would it be missed, writes Jeremiah (Jer. 3: 16). The Old Covenant, its worship and sacrifices, are ‘types and shadows’ of eternal realities now revealed in Christ, and that covenant has since faded and passed away.

That a completely new era was dawning with the advent of Messiah is clear from the New Testament proclamation that, ‘the Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it’ (Luke 16: 16; Mat. 11: 13). In this new era, which the Lord Jesus said ‘is coming and has now come,’ the true worshippers no longer worship at Jerusalem, but worship the Father ‘in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks’ (John 4:23).

The transition from a nation governed by a king and priests in a defined territory by means of a written code, to a Kingdom in which the Lord God rules directly over the faithful of all nations  – to the ends of the earth – by means of the Holy Spirit, is permanent and irreversible. It is this Kingdom that shall never pass away (Dan. 2: 44; 7: 18); it endures beyond this mortal age to all eternity and is perfected when the faithful dead are raised in the presence of God and the wicked removed forever.

Not one stone left upon another

From their knowledge of the Mosaic Law and the Temple’s history, the disciples would not have missed – as we do today – the significance of the most crucial detail of the Lord’s verdict on the Temple, namely that ‘not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down’ (Mat. 24: 2).

Leviticus 14 prescribes remedies for leprosy (festering rot or mildew) in stone buildings. The remedies begin with quarantine, scraping, the removal of affected stonework and re-plastering, but in the end, if the previous measures fail, prescribes that the house be demolished completely and its stones and debris removed to an unclean place (Lev. 14: 43-45).

The Temple or ‘Holy House’ as it is termed in Hebrew, was shielded against these prescripts by a ruling of the Rabbis that excluded houses within the city boundaries of Jerusalem from Leviticus 14 (Babylonian Talmud, Tohoroth, tractate Nega’im).  The prophets, however, taught otherwise:  ‘From the days of Micah (3:12, Jer. 26:18), the prophets had never ceased (cf., e.g., Jer. 7:14, 26:4-6, Ezek. 5:11) to warn the people that, in punishment for its religious and moral transgressions, the Temple would be destroyed, despite the belief, prevalent among the masses, that ‘the Temple of the Lord’ could not but continue forever (Jer. 7:4)’  (Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 15, p. 946).

While Nebuchadnezzar’s earlier destruction of the Temple left the stonework mostly intact – so that the returning exiles needed wood only for the Temple’s reconstruction (Ezra 3: 7. Cf. 1 Kings 5:15-17), the Lord Jesus a much harsher verdict.  All earlier and lesser measures had failed and it was now time for the Temple’s complete demolition, its final end.

While leprosy is an outward and visible condition, it was the Temple’s spiritual decay and continued defilement by those who practiced corruption within its courts (e.g. Mark 11: 17), that led to its ultimate destruction. When the Lord Jesus told the Pharisees, ‘destroy this Temple and I will raise it up in three days’, they responded that it had taken Herod forty-six years to build. ‘But the temple he had spoken of was his body’ (John 2:21).

While it stood, the Temple in Jerusalem was under constant threat of defilement: entrance was prohibited to women, lepers and Gentiles. Those living under the Law of Moses were defiled by childbirth, emissions, and by contact with the dead, lepers and with women during their menstruations. The Law of Moses could not permanently cleanse those who came to worship, nor could its Temple serve as an inviolable dwelling place of God among men – as its sad history proves.

But the Lord Jesus touched lepers and a woman who had bled for twelve years and made them clean. He is the Temple that cannot be defiled.  It is in Him that we find God’s abiding presence, His eternal dwelling place among Man.

Jesus has replaced the Jerusalem Temple as the meeting place, the point of contact, the nexus between man and God. At the conclusion of his visions on Patmos, the apostle John sees the new Jerusalem descending from heaven, with God and man reunited in eternity.  Even so, he did not ‘see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’ (Rev. 21: 22).

The Old era and its worship were not suspended in order to be resumed at a future time, but came to a full and final end.