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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Where are the Israelites in 2017?

Herbert Armstrong (along with many of the men he ordained as ministers) taught that white Europeans were the descendants and heirs of the ancient Israelites. Over the years since his death, however, many individuals have pointed out the many mistakes he made in interpreting the historical evidence; and our rapidly expanding knowledge of DNA has conclusively proven that those people are not biological Israelites. Even so, a few diehards have continued to point to what they call the "biblical evidence" to insist that Armstrong was correct.

According to the folks who subscribe to this view, they see what they characterize as the physical fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham in the peoples of the United States and Britain as proof of their identity as Israelites. They are fond of pointing out that these promises were never fulfilled by the ancient Israelites (a point on which we can all agree), but the next step in their reasoning process is where they run into trouble.

The thinking goes something like this:  Since God made those promises to Abraham and God always keeps his promises, we must sift through the histories of the nations of this world to see where those promises found fulfillment. Then, when we find the nation(s) who have inherited the promises, we must conclude that those folks are the descendants of Abraham - the heir(s) of the promises.

Let us lay aside for a moment the question of whether or not that reasoning is flawed and illogical. Instead, let us appeal to the very same scriptures which they say prove their point - the Bible. In short, we will examine in this post the nature of the promises themselves and what the Bible has to say about who is and isn't an Israelite.

According to Scripture, God made a series of promises to Abraham over the course of many years. The record of these promises begins in the twelfth chapter of the book of Genesis. After telling Abram to leave his native homeland, God says:  "I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you." (verses 2-3) Notice that some of these promises are very personal and apply specifically to Abram - not any descendants. Christians have traditionally understood the promise about all of the families of the earth being blessed through Abram as referring to Jesus Christ. (see Acts 3:25-26) Later, in that same chapter, God promises Abram that he would give the land of the Canaanites to his descendants. (verse 7) That promise was later ostensibly fulfilled when Moses led the Israelites into the Promised Land.

In the next chapter, we read that God told Abram to "Look as far as you can see in every direction - north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants <seed> as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted!" (verses 14-16) As we all know (or should know), the Israelites never received permanent possession of that land, and they were never so numerous that they could not be counted. Hence, if one puts any faith whatsoever in the Bible, it is reasonable to conclude that these promises must find fulfillment at some point in the future.

Later, in chapter fifteen, we learn that God promised Abram a son to be his heir. (verse 4) Afterwards, we are told that the Lord took Abram outside and instructed him to try to count the stars that were scattered across the night sky. "That's how many descendants you will have!" the Lord promised. (verse 5) Then the Lord predicts that Abram's descendants would be oppressed by foreigners for four hundred years, but that they would eventually return to the land of Canaan. (verses 13-16) In his final communication to Abram that evening, we are told that the Lord made a covenant with him and promised that he had "given this land to your descendants, all the way from the border <river> of Egypt to the great Euphrates River..." (verse 18) Of course, we all know that the Israelites never controlled all of that territory (not even during the time of David's and Solomon's kingdoms). Hence, once again, we are left to conclude that this promise must point to the future.

In chapter seventeen, the Divine promises to Abram are further delineated and summarized. We read there:  "This is my covenant with you:  I will make you the father of a multitude of nations...I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them! I will confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you. And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God." (verses 4-8) There are a couple of points to be made here:  1) Abraham (God changed his name during this episode) and his descendants were never in possession of the "entire land of Canaan" and 2) the promise of perpetual possession of any portion of that land must again refer to the future.

Interestingly, in this same chapter, we learn that the sign of the covenant - the physical symbol of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants was the circumcision of every male child born into his family. (verses 9-14) The significance of this sign will become apparent later on in our discussion.

In chapter twenty-two, we read of the test of Abraham's faith. According to this account, God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering, and then relented at the last minute. (verses 1-15) Then, as a consequence of his obedience, we learn that God swears an oath by his own name to fulfill certain promises to Abraham. (verse 16) We read:  "I will multiply your descendants <seed> beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will conquer the cities of their enemies. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed - all because you have obeyed me." (verses 17-18) Once again, we can all hopefully agree that these promises have not found fulfillment in the past or present and apply to the future.

For the sake of space and time, we will not include the reiteration and refinement of these promises to Abraham's son (Isaac) and grandson (Jacob). (See Genesis 26 and 28) For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that the promises which had been made to Abraham were confirmed to his immediate heirs. Thus, having established the nature of the promises, we will now turn our attention to what the New Testament has to say about them and the true identity of Abraham's descendants/heirs.

First, it should be noted that prior to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus Christ, the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke inform us that John the Baptist told the Jewish religious leaders of that time not to rely on their physical descent from Abraham as any guarantee of God's favor. (Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8) Instead, he warned them that God had the ability to create descendants for Abraham from the very stones that were strewn over the ground surrounding them! (same verses)

In the gospel according to John, we are informed of an incident where Jesus spoke to this same phenomenon (Jews relying on their physical descent from Abraham). We read there:  "'Our father is Abraham!' they declared. 'No,' Jesus replied, 'for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example...Abraham never did such a thing. No, you are imitating your real father.'" (John 8:39-41)

Paul further developed this concept about Christians being the true descendants of Abraham in his letter to the saints of Galatia. The apostle began by reminding his audience that "God gave the promises to Abraham and his child <seed>. And notice that the Scripture doesn't say 'to his children <seeds>,' as if it meant many descendants. Rather it says 'to his child' - and that, of course, means Christ." (Galatians 3:16) He continued:  "For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children <seed> of Abraham. Your are his heirs, and God's promise to Abraham belongs to you." (Galatians 3:26-29)

Later, he expanded on this theme in his letter to the Christians at Rome. Paul wrote:  "For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God's Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people." (Romans 2:28-29)

Finally, this message about Christians being Abraham's true children and the heirs to the promises made to him is further reinforced in the letter to the angel of the church in Philadelphia recorded in the book of Revelation.  We read there:  "Look, I will force those who belong to Satan's synagogue - those liars who say they are Jews but are not - to come and bow down at your feet. They will acknowledge that you are the ones I love." (Revelation 3:9)

Hence, when we look at the very scriptures from which Armstrong and his followers claim to derive their teachings, we see that the bulk of the promises to Abraham have found (or will find) their fulfillment in Christ and his disciples. In short, the New Testament casts the promises made to Abraham in a spiritual light and says that they will find their fulfillment in Christians, not in the physical descendants of Abraham. In other words, it was NEVER about a specific ethnicity or nationality - it was ALWAYS about a people derived from every nation, kindred, language and people on the face of the earth!   

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