Imagine an ancient Moabite gazing down upon the Tabernacle of Israel from a hillside. This Moabite is attracted by what he sees so he and his wife descend the hill and make their way toward the Tabernacle. They walk around this high wall of dazzling linen until they come to a gate and at the gate, they see a man.
“May we go in there?” they ask, pointing through the gate to where the bustle of activity in the Tabernacle’s outer court can be seen. “Who are You?” demands the man suspiciously. Any Israelite would know they could go in there. “We’re from Moab”, they reply. “Well, I’m very sorry, but you can’t go in there. You see, it’s not for you. The Law of Moses has barred all Moabites from any part in the worship of Israel” (Dt. 23:3).
The Moabites looked so sad and said, “Well, what would we have to do to go in there?” “You would have to be born again,” the gatekeeper replies. “You would have to be born an Israelite”. “Oh, we wish we had been born Israelites”, they say and as they look again, they see one of the priests, having offered a sacrifice at the bronze altar and cleansed himself at the bronze basin and then they see the priest enter the Tabernacle’s interior. “What’s in there?” they ask. “Inside the main building, we mean”. “Oh,” the gatekeeper says, “That’s the Tabernacle itself. Inside it contains a lampstand, a table, and an altar of gold. The man you saw was a priest. He will trim the lamp, eat of the bread upon the table and burn incense to the living God upon the golden altar”.
“Ah,” the Moabites sigh, “We wish we were Israelites so we could do that. We would so love to worship God in there and help to trim the lamp and offer Him incense and eat bread at that table”. “Oh, no”, the gatekeeper hastens to say, “even I could not do that. To worship in the Holy Place one must not only be born an Israelite, one must be born of the tribe of Levi and of the family of Aaron”. “And even if she was born of the tribe of Levi and of the family of Aaron, your wife couldn’t go in there, because only males are allowed” (Ex. 27:21). Sadly, the Moabite woman turned away. She had no hope in all the world of ever entering there!
The man from Moab sighs again, “I wish that I had been born of Israel of the tribe of Levi of the family of Aaron”, and then, as he gazes wistfully at the closed Tabernacle door, he says, “What else is in there?” “Oh, there’s a veil. It’s a beautiful veil I’m told and it divides the Tabernacle in two. Beyond the veil is what we call ‘the Most Holy Place’”. “What’s in the Most Holy Place?” the Moabite asks. “Well, there’s the sacred chest in there and it’s called the Ark of the Covenant. It contains holy memorials of our past. Its top is gold and we call that the mercy seat because God sits there between the golden cherubim. Do you see that pillar of cloud hovering over the Tabernacle? That’s God’s visible presence. It rests on the mercy seat”, said the gatekeeper.
Again, a look of longing comes over the face of the Moabite man. “Oh,” he said, “if only I were a priest! How I would love to go into the Holy of Holies and gaze upon the glory of God and worship Him there in the beauty of His holiness!’. “Oh no!” said the man at the gate. “You couldn’t do that even if you were a priest! Only the high priest can enter the Most Holy Place. Only he can go in there. Nobody else!”
The heart of the man from Moab yearns once more. “Oh,” he cried, “If only I had been born an Israelite, of the tribe of Levi, of the family of Aaron. If only I had been born a high priest! I would go in there every day! I would go in there three times a day! I would worship continually in the Most Holy Place!”. The gatekeeper looked at the man from Moab again and once more shook his head. “Oh no,” he said, “you couldn’t do that! Even the high priest of Israel can go in there only once a year, and then only after the most elaborate preparations and even then only for a little while”.
Sadly, the Moabite turned away. He had no hope in all the world of ever entering there!
That’s the old way. But it’s not the end! There’s more!
The new way
As Gentiles, the Moabites were, “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12NIV). But Jesus changed this situation. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off (like the Gentile Moabites) have been brought near (like theJewish High Priest) by the blood (death) of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). The old way to God, which was exclusive to the Jews, has been replaced by the new way, which is open to everyone. Here’s how it happened.
When Christ died “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” by an earthquake (Mt. 27:51, 54; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). This signified that all people could now have access to God through Christ’s vicarious (substitutionary) death. And they don’t have to come via human priests.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place (like the High Priest) by the blood (death) of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body, and since we have a great priest (Jesus Christ) over the house of God (all true believers, Heb. 3:6), let us draw near to God (in prayer, praise and worship) with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Hebrews 10:19-22). The curtain represented the body of Christ and its tearing represented His death. By this act, God indicated that all believers have access to God. They could be close to Him like the High Priest, not distant like the Moabites and the gatekeeper. This new way of approaching God is open to all who trust in Christ’s sacrificial death when they come in sincerity, assurance, salvation, and sanctification (Heb. 10:22).
So today, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). All true Christians have the same spiritual status. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11). As far as their standing before God is concerned, all believers are on the same level. No believer is spiritually superior to anyone else.
While the old way of approaching God illustrated the new way; the new way is superior to the old way.
This blogpost is based on an illustration in “Exploring Hebrews” (p.94-96) by John Phillips (2002), which was brought to my attention by Jared Wilson.
Written, March 2016
Also see: What does Galatians 3:28 mean?
Europe is fracturing over how to handle hundreds of thousands of immigrants fleeing the Middle East and North Africa. Many people don’t want refugees in their neighborhood. They look differently, speak differently and there is a lot of resentment. There is a cultural clash – the role of women in society and dress. The Dutch, Danes and French are in favor of gender equality, while the Muslim immigrants see differently.
The Christians in Galatia were being fractured by Jewish legalism. They were adding their previous religion to Christianity. So Paul corrected them vigorously. In this post we look at the meaning of the verse, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28NIV). We will see that instead of discriminating against each other, Paul tells them to concentrate on what they have in common.
The first Christians were Jews and Jewish proselytes (Acts 2:5, 8-11). After Christianity spread to other nations, the question arose as to whether the new Christians needed to follow Jewish practises. This was resolved at a meeting in Jerusalem in AD 49-50 (Acts 15). It was agreed that Jewish practices associated with the law of Moses, like male circumcision, weren’t required for salvation. This is the topic that’s being addressed in Paul’s letter written about AD 48-50 to the churches in Galatia. The theme is the contrast between the law of Moses and faith in Christ.
The major divisions of Paul’s letter are:
– Introduction (1:1-10),
– Paul defends his authority (1:11 – 2:21),
– Christian doctrine (3:1 – 4:31),
– Practical application of the doctrine (5:1 – 6:10), and
– Conclusion (6:11-18).
Galatians 3:28 is in the section on doctrine, which contains the following teaching:
– Faith or works of the law (3:1-14)? This contrasts Christian faith and “the works of the law” (3:2, 10).
– Law versus promise (3:15-22). God’s promise to Abraham was unconditional; it didn’t depend on works at all. The law was given to the Israelites to show humanity’s sinfulness.
– Children of God (3:23-4:7). After the day of Pentecost, Jews and Gentiles could be children together in God’s family. Both Jews and Gentiles as mature sons can inherit God’s blessings promised to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ.
– Paul’s concern for the Galatians (4:8-20). They were seeking God’s favour by following legal observances. While Paul sought their spiritual welfare, the Judaizers wanted to isolate them from Paul.
– Hagar and Sarah (4:21-31). Hagar represented the law and Sarah represented God’s grace. Hagar’s son (Ishmael) was a slave, while Sarah’s son (Isaac) was free. As Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the Judaizers persecuted the Christians. So don’t mix law and grace. Instead, get rid of the legalism.
Galatians 3:28 is in the subsection on “Children of God”, which teaches:
– Christians aren’t required to keep the law of Moses today. But in the Old Testament times the Jews were viewed as being under the guardianship of the law (3:23-25)
– Christians are children (“sons” in ESV, HCSB, NET) of God through faith in Christ. They share a kind of unity and the inheritance promised to Abraham which was fulfilled in Christ (3:26-29)
– The Christian Jews had changed from being slaves to the law to being sons of God. They have a great inheritance awaiting them (4:1-7).
In Galatians 3:28 Paul tells the Galatian Christians “you are all one in Christ Jesus”. What does this oneness mean? In this case it means a unity in Christ amongst their diversity. At that time “you are all one” was used to signify a common characteristic that was present amongst diverse objects. For example, those who plant and those who water share a common purpose (1 Cor. 3:8), God the Father and God the Son share divinity (Jn. 10:30), husband and wife share “one flesh” (Mt. 19:6; Mk. 10:8), and all Christians share a corporate body in Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17). In all these cases the word “one” describes a unity between diverse people, not between similar people. So it means that the diverse believers in Galatia were united in oneness in Christ. They had unity, not uniformity or unlimited equality.
The paragraph v.26-29 is all about being children (or sons) of God. Paul describes how it happens (v.26), when it happens (v.27), what is changed from being under the law of Moses (v.28) and the resultant inheritance (v.29).
Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.
The subject of verse 28 is those “in Christ Jesus” (Christians), who are referred to as “you” in verses 26-29. This is in contrast to the previous paragraph (v.23-24) which is addressed to Jews who are indicated by “we”. So there had been a change from living under the law up to the Day of Pentecost to becoming children (or sons) of God through faith in Christ after the Day of Pentecost. Paul told the Galatians, “you are all children of God through faith” (v.26). They had a new spiritual status through their relationship with Christ.
Then Paul explains that the new spiritual status started when they were “baptized into Christ” (v.27). Although it takes place at the time of conversion (the baptism of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor. 12:13), it’s confessed publicly in water baptism. This public identification with Christ is like a soldier being identified by his uniform: they had clothed themselves with Christ (v.27). Paul has used this metaphor elsewhere for exchanging an old way of life for a new one (Rom. 13:12-14; Eph.6:11-14; Col. 3-10).
Then Paul says that true Christians are united through their common relationship with Christ – they are “all one in Christ Jesus”. In this respect there is no difference between “Jew” and “Gentile”, “slave” and “free”, or “male and female”. Each pair represents all of humanity. These are binary categories of people divided according to race, social class and gender.
We need to interpret Galatians 3:28 in terms of the contrast between the law of Moses and faith in Christ (which is its context). The implication is that in Christianity there is a unity within the categories of people that is absent under the law.
What kind of a unity is this? The doctrinal portion of Galatians (Ch. 3-4) is mainly about the differences between the law of Moses and the Christian faith. These were ways to enter into a relationship with God before/after the day of Pentecost and what that brings. So the unity involves entering a relationship with God and the resultant blessings. It meant that the way of salvation is the same now for both Jew and Gentile. And for both slave and free. And for both male and female. This is consistent with Paul saying that God’s salvation is equally available to everyone regardless of race (Rom. 10:11-13) and that this salvation removes ethnic barriers (Eph. 2:15-16).
Furthermore, all Christians have the same position in Christ regardless of their race, social class and gender. They are all born again, justified, forgiven, redeemed, adopted, a child of God, spiritually alive in Christ, a new creation, in God’s spiritual kingdom, citizens of heaven, seated with Christ, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and headed for heaven. Each also has eternal life and peace with God. So no one has an advantage in the kingdom of God because of their race, social class or gender.
Equality of inheritance of all God’s blessings maybe Paul’s main point because it’s the subject of the next verse: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (v.29). This means that no race or social class receives more inheritance than another and that males don’t receive more inheritance than females.
In the New Testament, salvation is described metaphorically as an inheritance which anyone may personally receive. Under the law of Moses, inheritance of land left by their fathers was restricted to Jewish free men (Dt. 21:15-17). That’s probably why Paul introduces slaves (or social class) and women (or gender) into Galatians 3:28. He’s saying that in Christ, Gentiles, slaves and women receive the inheritance in the same way as Jews, the free, and men. So everyone who receives the inheritance of salvation receives it in the same way.
On the other hand, under the law of Moses, Jews were privileged over Gentiles (Dt. 7:6; 14:1-2), and society was hierarchical and patriarchal, with a free man more favoured than a slave and a man more privileged than a woman. Jews were the children of God, while Gentiles were sinners (Gal. 2:15). What a contrast!
Principle and application
According to Grant Ritchison, the principle of Galatians 3:28 is “God does not recognize human distinctions in those who are in Christ”. Then he makes this application:
“Human role distinctions (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Ti. 2:11-15; Eph. 5:22-24; 6:1-8) have nothing to do with our spiritual significance before God. Christian feminists completely miss the point of this passage which says the male has no spiritual privilege over the female. Every person, male or female, rich or poor, has the same spiritual status before God”.
“When we make distinctions in people, we form a basis for prejudice against them, making some superior and others inferior. Christians should not make race, economic status, or gender a measuring stick of acceptance”.
“However, God maintains differences in roles within society. God designed differences in sexual roles so there are functional differences between men and women. He did not create unisex; He created gender difference. If so, where is the distinction? Spiritually, men and women are the same. Physically and functionally, they are different. Spiritual blessing is one thing but human function is another thing”.
What does it mean today?
Today it means that the diverse believers in any place are united in a oneness in Christ. As the context is one’s standing before God and one’s spiritual relationships and blessings and not one’s functions or roles (in the family, in the church or in society), it means that racial, social and gender distinctives are irrelevant to salvation (entering into a relationship with God). These distinctives are also irrelevant to position before God and the blessings that accompany salvation.
Consequently, because of what we share in Christ, believers should accept Christians of a different race and respect their customs. It’s unity amidst ethnic (or cultural) diversity and not showing ethnic (or cultural) bias or favoritism. Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch because Peter was following the prejudice of His previous religion (Gal. 2:11-14).
Because of what we share in Christ, believers should accept Christians of a different social class and respect their position in society. It’s unity amidst social diversity and not showing social bias or favoritism.
Because of what we share in Christ, believers should accept Christians of a different gender and respect their gender. It’s unity amidst male and female and not showing gender bias or favoritism.
The same applies to all other differences between people that don’t affect salvation like: rich/poor, younger/older, literate/illiterate, socialist/capitalist etc. Christians who differ in these respects should also be accepted without bias or favoritism.
After all, Paul encouraged the Jewish and Christian believers in the church at Rome to live harmoniously (Rom. 15:5). His guiding principle for them was “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7). If Christ has accepted a person, then we should also accept them. Then he reminds them that the ministry of Jesus Christ includes Jews and Gentiles, and the implication is that we should welcome both as well (Rom. 15:8-13).
India is a large country with a range of races, languages, cultures, customs and religious faiths. It is multiracial and multicultural. In spite of this diversity, there is a sense of national unity and oneness among all the Indians that keeps them bonded together.
What doesn’t it mean today?
Be careful of using Galatians 3:28 to over-ride other verses in the New Testament. For example, it doesn’t mean that:
– we ignore or remove all ethnic or cultural customs, or
– we ignore or remove all social differences, or
– we ignore or remove all gender differences by assuming that their roles are identical. If this aspect is elevated to override the rest of Scripture, it can be used to justify homosexuality.
So the Christian faith wasn’t designed to abolish racial, social and gender distinctions. In fact, it’s impossible to obliterate one’s race or gender.
“You are all one” doesn’t mean you are all equal. Because people are equal in one respect (salvation and its blessings), it doesn’t follow that they are equal (the same) in other respects. For example, it doesn’t mean that men and women have interchangeable roles in the home and church.
Instead, the New Testament does recognize the distinction between races (Rom. 15:27; Gal. 2:14) and between slaves and masters (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22 – 4:1). It also recognizes the distinction between men and women. For example, the elders that lead the early church were always male (1 Tim. 3:2; Ti. 1:6). In order to practice the teachings of the early church it’s important not to be deceived by the emphasis on gender equality in the western world.
Instead, let’s accept a diversity of customs and social class and distinct male and female roles without unbiblical bias or favoritism. After all each of us has a particular race, a particular social class and a particular gender. But these differences don’t matter in one’s relationship with God.
Paul has expressed similar thoughts to this in other Scriptures.
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11). This verse refers to the “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (3:10). It follows references to the believer’s standing and state (or position and practice). He wants their state to be consistent with their standing (or their daily behavior to be consistent with their Christian faith). Verse 11 teaches that as far as their standing before God is concerned, all believers are on the same level. Christ “is in all” in the form of the Holy Spirit. So no-one is spiritually superior to anyone else. And Christians can no longer blame and excuse wrong conduct (such as anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying, v. 8-9) on racial background (“Gentile or Jew”) or social class (“barbarian, Scythian, slave or free”).
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:12-13). Each Christian is different (like a part of a body), but they share the fact that each is baptized by and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is the case regardless of their race (“Jews or Gentiles”) or social class (“slave or free”). So as far as salvation goes, ethnic and social distinctions are irrelevant.
So in AD 55 and AD 60, Paul told those in Corinth and Colossae that race and social class were irrelevant to salvation and wrong behaviour. And we have seen that in AD 50 Paul told those in Galatia that race, social class and gender were irrelevant to the way of salvation and their position “in Christ”. So Paul’s teaching is consistent over this ten-year period.
Practical applications in Galatians
Galatians 3:28 is in the doctrinal portion of this letter (3:1-4:31). The practical applications made in the letter are:
– Don’t tolerate legalism, like requiring believers to follow the law of Moses (5:1-12)
– Serve one another humbly in love (6:13-15)
– Express the fruit of the Spirit, not the acts of the flesh (5:16-26)
– Share each other’s burdens (6:1-6)
– Do good to all, especially to believers (6:7-10).
Note that none of these applications relate to gender roles or functions in the church. In fact, there is no mention of gender roles in the whole letter. Therefore, to apply Romans 3:28 to gender roles or functions in the church is “cherry-picking” (in this case taking a verse totally out of context and reading in a meaning that wasn’t intended by the author).
More on slavery and gender
We have looked at what Paul wrote (~ AD 50) in Galatians 3:28 about slavery. The Bible contains additional instructions for slaves that were written about AD 60-64 (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25; Phile.; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Ti. 2:9-10; 1 Pt. 2:18-21). These mainly involve obeying, serving and respecting their master. If Galatians 3:28 meant abolishing slavery, then we would expect this to be mentioned in some of these passages which were written 10-14 years afterwards. But it isn’t. This is consistent with Galatians 3:28 teaching that slaves and their masters can share the same Christian faith and have the same inheritance in Christ. This is equivalent to saying that people in all social classes and positions in society can share the same Christian faith and have the same inheritance in Christ.
We have also looked at what Paul wrote (~ AD 50) in Galatians 3:28 about gender. The Bible contains additional instructions for women that were written about AD 55-64 (1 Cor. 11:3-16; 14:34-35; Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Ti. 2:9-15; 1 Pt. 3:1-6). These mainly involve godly behavior, including submission to husbands. If Galatians 3:28 meant abolishing gender roles, then we would expect this to be mentioned in some of these passages which were written 5-14 years afterwards. But it isn’t. This is consistent with Galatians 3:28 teaching that women and their husbands can share the same Christian faith and have the same inheritance in Christ.
We have seen from Galatians 3:28 that in Christianity, ethnic (cultural), social and gender differences are demolished with regard to our salvation, our position before God and our inheritance. That’s why the labels that can separate believers are often replaced by the words “brother” and “sister”. All believers are saved the same way and all are entitled to the same privileges as children (sons) of God.
So, instead of discriminating against other Christians like the Galatians, let’s concentrate on what we have in common.
Hove R. W. (1999) “Equality in Christ? Galatians 3:28 and the gender dispute”, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois.
Ritchison G. <www.versebyversecommentary.com/galatians/galatians-338>, 1 March 2016
Written, March 2016
Also see: May we go in there?
Recently we saw the terror and devastation of bush fires in the Blue Mountains of Australia. It was a tough time for those in the path of the fire. They didn’t get much warning and had to escape for their lives. Afterwards, some returned to see their house in ruins. They searched through the rubble to recover what they could. What if our house and belongings are destroyed in a fire?
How do we respond when our dreams are shattered? When our relationships break down? When our health is threatened? Or when we are overcome by the emptiness of loneliness? Do we plunge into depression, despair and discouragement when there is disappointment, stress or tragedy? What can help us get through tough times?
Some say “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. But we will see that this is not God’s way. Today we are looking at how to survive tough times. We will see from Ezekiel’s vision that, because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times (Ezek. 37:1-14).
In particular, so we can survive tough times we will determine: Who will God rescue? How will God rescue? And when will God rescue?
Ezekiel was a Jew captive in Babylon. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BC was a tragedy for the Jews. Everything they lived for was gone and the Babylonian gods had triumphed over their God. They were devastated. The Bible says they had bitter memories in Babylon, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-4NIV). They could no longer sing the songs of Jerusalem or play their musical instruments. Jeremiah described their misery; “Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed” (Lam. 3:48).
The verses before the vision say they were scattered and in exile because of their murder and idolatry (36:16-21) and they also predict Israel’s restoration (36:22-38). The Jews will return to Israel from other countries. There will be a great spiritual revival and prosperity and other people will acknowledge God. God does the restoration, which is associated with their repentance. The words “I will”, are mentioned 15 times in 15 verses. He will give them a new heart, a new spirit and forgive their sins.
The verses after the vision also predict Israel’s restoration (37:15-28). The Jews from both Israel and Judah will return to Israel from other countries. They will have one king, “my servant David”, who is Jesus Christ, a descendant of David. They will live as God’s people and there will be no more idolatry. The result is that once again God will be their God and they will be His people (37:27).
The vision of the dry bones is about the restoration and revival of the Jewish nation because it’s mentioned both before and after the vision. After they were plundered, scattered and captured it looked like the end of the Jews. It was a hopeless situation. But God said no; I will intervene.
Who will God rescue?
Ezekiel’s vision is a valley full of dry bones. They had been dead a long time. There was no life in them. Then God brings them back to life, first as a body lying on the ground and then as a body with breath that stands up. God says, “these bones are the people of Israel” and He calls them “my people” (v.11). They had been slain in battle and they rose as a vast army (v.9-10). It’s a picture of Israel’s army slain by the Babylonians.
What else do the dry bones symbolise? In the vision they say “our hope is gone, we are cut off” (v.11). The dry bones illustrate the hopelessness of the Jews in Babylon. They are over 1,000 km from their homeland and their capital city and temple has been destroyed. Although they are God’s special people they are spiritually dead with nothing to live for. Every day they are reminded of the demise of their nation and the Babylonian victory. They are captive in a foreign land with a foreign language (Jer. 5:15).
So, who will God rescue? His people. They will be rescued because they are God’s people, not because of anything else that they had done. Because of this promise they can survive tough times.
In 1980, 52 Americans were hostages in the US Embassy in Tehran in Iran for 444 days. They were treated cruelly, beaten, placed in solitary confinement and threatened with execution. An American military operation planned to rescue them, but this was aborted after a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft. In tough times we can feel like a hostage in a foreign land in a hopeless situation. It’s not unusual.
Christians are the people of God today (1 Pt. 2:9-10). The Bible says we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). And we will also be rescued because we are God’s people, not because of anything we have done. Like the Jews in Babylon, because of this promise we can survive tough times.
Now we know who God will rescue. But how will he rescue them?
How will God rescue?
In Ezekiel’s vision, God says how it will happen;“I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life” (v.5-6). Also, “ I will bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). Notice that “I will” is mentioned 5 times. So it’s all God’s doing, they had no part in it. They didn’t deserve it. He rescues them when they are in a seemingly hopeless situation and unable to rescue themselves. He’s a God of grace. God does the restoration and brings them to repentance after Ezekiel called them to repent (33:11; 36:31).
In the rescue they would return to their homeland and there would be a spiritual revival. God used an illustration to help them understand it. He said, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them” (v.12). The rescue will be like a resurrection, where a dead body comes back to life. It’s a radical change, from exile to their homeland and from spiritual death to spiritual life. The prospect of the rescue gave them encouragement and strength to endure the tough times.
It’s all part of the big picture in the Bible of God rescuing people from their sinful ways. Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, people are spiritually dead. At that time, God promised that He would defeat Satan. Since then He has carried out His rescue plan. For example, He rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. After the times of king David, God promised the Israelites that a Messiah would come to lead them. He was the servant-king predicted by Isaiah (Is. 42, 49, 50, 52-53). The New Testament shows that Jesus was this Suffering Servant (Mt. 12:14-21). This shows why God will rescue. It’s because it’s His main plan for humanity and the universe. To restore it to be like He made it in the beginning. It’s part of His character. He’s a rescuing God.
God also promises that Christians will return to their homeland (Jn. 14:1-3; Phil. 3:20-21). But our home is not Jerusalem, but heavenly Zion (Heb. 12:22-24). This rescue will include resurrection, when the dead come back to life (1 Cor. 15:50-55). And it won’t be a botched rescue, because it will be by the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. In this way, Christ is our Rescuer and Savior. This promise helps us survive tough times.
What about the promise of spiritual revival? When a person turns around to follow Jesus, they undergo a spiritual revival. They are now “in Christ”, a new creation and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 5:17). Because of their spiritual revival, Christians can survive tough times (1 Cor. 10:13).
Now we know who God will rescue and how he will do it. But when will He rescue His people?
When will God rescue?
In Ezekiel’s vision, God says when it will happen, “I will bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). It’s when they return to their homeland and are spiritually revived. This happened in part when some returned to Israel in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. God used the Persian king Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and allow these Jews to return to Jerusalem (Is. 45:1-8).
But the full extent of their restoration is yet to come; when their land will be like the garden of Eden (36:35), when all the 12 tribes will be united (37:15-22), and when their king will once again be a descendant of David (37:24-23). So there was a partial rescue after the exile, but their complete rescue is yet to come. Maybe this was illustrated in the vision when the bones came to life in two stages.
In 2006, two miners were rescued from a gold mine in Beaconsfield in Tasmania after being trapped underground for 14 days. When we go through tough times, we can feel trapped in a dark place with no way out. There were two stages to their rescue. First a 90mm hole was drilled to give them food, fresh water and for communication. Second a 1m hole was drilled to enable some miners to crawl in and get them out. In the first stage they were sustained. In the second stage they were released.
Likewise there are two stages to our rescue. First, through God’s power when we chose to turn around and follow Jesus, we are rescued spiritually. We change from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. Second, through God’s power when we die, our spirits go to be with the Lord and when Christ returns our bodies will be resurrected and changed (1 Cor. 15:50-55). So the two stages of our rescue are a spiritual revival, which sustains us in tough times; followed by a homecoming, which releases us from the tough times. At present we are half way. We can look back to stage one and ahead to stage two.
So, because through Christ’s death and resurrection Christians have spiritual life which sustains us, we can survive tough times. And because of the promise of being with the Lord and released, we can survive tough times. Clearly we can only survive tough times, in God’s power.
If you lack this power to get through tough times, then this is a reason to turn your life around to follow Jesus. The saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” is wrong because we don’t need to toughen up and work hard to survive tough times. Instead, let’s rely on God’s saving power in Christ and His sustaining power in the Holy Spirit.
It would be wrong to use Ezekiel’s vision to claim that God will remove our tough times on earth. Ezekiel probably died in Babylon before the partial return to the homeland (he would have been ~85 years of age if still alive when the first exiles returned to Judah under Zerubbabel in 538 BC). Even though he didn’t reach stage 1 of the rescue, the promise helped him endure the tough times. Recently I spoke to a believer struggling with a chronic disease. He felt he had nothing to live for. He was disappointed in God, saying, “What’s God doing about it? It would be a great witness if I was healed”. In the Bible Abraham told the rich man in Hades, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Lk. 16:29-31). People are not convinced by miracles. How often do we pray for a miracle, when God promises survival through tough times on earth, not removal of these tough times? After all, we are in stage 1 of the rescue, not stage 2.
Because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times
So let’s remember the vision of the dry bones that came back to life. When they were doing it tough in Babylon in the darkest period of their history, God gave the Jews comfort and strength. Because He promised to rescue them, they survived the tough times. Some of them returned to Israel and Christ was born about 500 years later. After another 2,000 years more Jews have returned to Israel and it is a nation once again. And God has promised there will be a spiritual revival when they recognise Christ as their Messiah in a coming day.
Because God is a rescuer, we can survive tough times. We have seen:
– Who He rescues: His people. In future, all believers will be fully rescued from their tough times.
– How He rescues: by spiritual revival and bringing us home.
– And when He rescues: partially now and fully later.
He has already rescued us and promises to rescue us even more in the future. This gives us encouragement and strength. Remember this promise when you are going through tough times.
Because we know that God will rescue us, we can survive tough times.
Written, November 2013
I received a comment on my blog claiming that the Hebrew language didn’t exist until the Jewish exile in Babylon. So, what does the evidence say?
According to the Bible, all people spoke the same language until around 2200 BC when God caused different languages to develop at Babel and people scattered to form different nations across the earth (Gen. 11:1-9). This was the source of the diversity of human languages.
The Hebrew nation settled in Canaan in the 14th century BC. They occupied Canaan until the first Jewish captives were deported to Babylon in 605 BC and the second wave were exiled in 586 BC when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed (Dan. 1; 2 Ki. 25).
According to Wikipedia, the Siloam inscription records the construction of Hezekiah’s tunnel. The NIV Study Bible states that Hezekiah was king of Judah between 715 BC and 686 BC (2 Ki. 18:1-2). The tunnel, leading from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, was designed as an aqueduct to provide Jerusalem with water during an impending siege by the Assyrians, led by Sennacherib (2 Ki. 20:20; 2 Chr. 32:30). The inscription, which was discovered in the tunnel in 1880 and has been dated at 701 BC, is written in the “Biblical Hebrew” language, which uses the ancient Hebrew alphabet. So here we have a written example of the Hebrew language that dates at least 100 years before the Jewish exile.
Hebrew belongs to the Semantic family of languages which were used in the middle east. Geographically it was a Canaanite language like Phoenician, Ugaritic and Moabite. The Bible notes that Jacob’s language was different to Aramaic (Gen. 31:47). Scholars believe that Hebrew was spoken in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah during the 10th to 7th centuries BC.
Therefore, the reader’s comment seems to be inconsistent with the evidence available. It can be shown that the Hebrew language originated well before the Babylonian exile. In fact, Wikipedia claims that there is evidence of “Biblical Hebrew” as far back as the 10th century BC, which extends to the days of king David (2 Sam. 5:4). The Gezer calendar is dated in this time period. Likewise, the earliest known example of the Hebrew alphabet discovered at Tel Zayit is dated in the 10th century B.C.
Written, March 2013
According to the Bible, Abraham left polytheism to follow the God who made the universe. Abraham lived about 2,000 BC and he and his descendants were known as Hebrews (Gen. 14:13). In fact the Pentateuch was written by Moses in the Hebrew language. Isaac was Abraham’s son and Jacob his grandson. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28; 46:1). Since this time Israel’s descendants were known as the children of Israel or Israel or Israelites. Israel’s family moved to Egypt where his son Joseph was second in command to the Pharaoh. In Egypt the Israelites grew to 2 million people when they subsequently migrated to Canaan in the Middle East under the leadership of Moses and Joshua.
After the Israelites invaded Canaan, they were ruled by the kings Saul, David and Solomon. King David lived about 1,000 BC. After this, the kingdom was divided into two, with 10 tribes in the northern kingdom of Israel and two in the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 12; 2 Chronicles 10). Samaria was the capital of Israel and Jerusalem the capital of Judah.
The Hebrew noun “Yehudi” (“Jew” in English; Strongs #3064) is derived from the name Judah, who was one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel, which was named after him. “Yehudi” occurs 76 times in the following books of the Old Testament:
– 11 times in Jeremiah (written about 600BC), where it describes Judeans,
– Twice in 2 Kings (written about 550BC), where it describes Judeans who lived about 750BC and 590BC,
– Once in Zechariah (written about 520BC), where it may describe both Judeans and Israelites,
– 52 times in Esther (written about 460BC), where it describes those dispersed after the Babylonian invasions and living in the Persian kingdom, including Mordecai a Benjaminite (Est. 2:5; 5:13), and
– 10 times in Nehemiah (written about 430BC), where it describes exiles who returned to Jerusalem.
A related word “Yehudain” (Strongs #3062) only occurs in the books of Daniel and Ezra (written about 530BC and 440BC respectively). So the most robust answer to our question, “When did the Hebrews or Israelites become known as Jews?” is from about 600BC.
Originally, the word referred to members of the tribe of Judah, but later it described anyone from the kingdom of Judah. This would include those from the northern kingdom of Israel who moved to Judah, including Mordecai’s ancestors. Also, as those who returned after the exile settled in Judea, they were called Jews regardless of their ancestoral tribe. In the New Testament, the words, “Hebrews”, “Israelltes”, and “Jews” are used interchangeably to describe the descendants of Jacob (Jn. 4:9; 2 Cor. 11:22). And this is the case today – the words “Hebrews”, “Israelltes”, and “Jews” are used as synonyms.
In 722 BC, Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians and the Israelites were dispersed into surrounding nations (2 Ki. 17). As they assimilated and now have no national identity, they are known as the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”. However, they weren’t all lost because some remained in Israel and some moved to Judah (2 Chron. 15:9; 35:18).
In 605 BC and 598 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia invaded Judah and in 586 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed. Many of the Jews were taken to exile in Babylon. When the Persians conquered Babylon in 538 BC, the Persian King Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to their homelands and many returned to Judah. After the Babylonian exile, “Jew” replaced “Israelite” as the most widely-used term for these survivers. This was because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were descendants of the kingdom of Judah. Also, the Jewish religion was known as Judaism.
After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. Although the terms “Hebrew” and “Israelite” continued in use into the New Testament period (Rom. 9:4; 2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5), by then the term “Jew” was more commonly used. At His death, the Romans referred to Jesus as the “king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37).
In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Despite these difficulties, the Jews maintained their identity, even in foreign lands. The need to find a homeland for Jewish refugees led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
How amazing – the Jews survived 1,900 years of exile! No other people has ever gone into exile and survived this long and returned to re-establish a national homeland. And the Jews went into exile twice! They also survived the persecutions of the the Hamans and Hitlers of this world (Est. 3:1-15). Surely this is evidence of the Bible’s inspiration, and of the existence of the God who promised to preserve the Jews, return them to their homeland, and bring them to a time of great national blessing in the last days.
In common speech, the word “Jew” is now used to refer to all of the descendants of Jacob and those who adhere to Judaism.
Written January 2013; Revised August 2015