Fundamentalism: The way forward

Can Fundamentalism survive? Even those who answer in the affirmative recognize that it will not happen if things continue as they are. What are some of the things that must change for Fundamentalism to survive, or, even thrive?

First, the name will have to be abandoned. The term “fundamentalist” is poisoned by Islamists and Christians alike. Whether the fundamentalist has explosives strapped to his chest and is preaching on the evils of the great Satan; or has a KJV in hand preaching on the evils of pants on women; one thing the world knows is that fundamentalists are nut jobs.

This seems like a bitter pill: how can fundamentalism survive if it is not even known as fundamentalism? But the biblical fundamentalist should be committed first and foremost to truth, not the labels that are applied to truth. This is not to say that we can simply call evil “good” and good “evil.” Names, labels, terms are important, but unless designated as such by Scripture they are not inerrant or eternal.

Secondly, there must be a greater emphasis on obedience to Scripture than interpretation of Scripture.  Fundamentalism has been a house built on sacred cows and shibboleths. All this was well and good when the surrounding culture still held to more-or-less the same values. Such externalism is no longer sustainable, and that is a good thing. No longer should spirituality be measured by the length of hair or hem. No longer should a drink of alcohol be condemned while frequent visits to Old Country Buffet are ignored.

This in no way denigrates the importance of believing right doctrine. Quite the opposite, this sharpens the focus on right doctrine. Fundamentalists would never go along with the argument of Christopher Hitchens that one can be devoted to the pursuit of truth, but never have a claim on it. Yet they must realize that belief in an infinite God demands that truth can only be apprehended, not comprehended. Dispensationalism is not a fundamental of the faith. Which is more biblically necessary: the belief that Jesus will rapture the church before a seven-year tribulation; or the pursuit of personal holiness in the light of Christ’s return? There are plenty who seek the second while having nothing to do with the first. But who is more likely to accepted in a fundamentalist church: a worldly pre-tribulationist or a spiritually growing post-millennialist?

Third, the independent church model must be radically overhauled. Christ did not die for a bunch of little churches each with her own peculiarities. He died for only one church. All the churches were to obey the decision of the Jerusalem counsel (Acts 15). The Corinthians were admonished to consider the custom of the whole church (1 Cor. 11:16). What Paul (Col. 4:16) and John (Rev. 2-3) wrote to one church was good for all. Fundamentalism has sacrificed the nurture and accountability of true ecclesiastical fellowship so that each church can have her own voice. As a result fundamentalism has no voice. What can fundamental churches and pastors do when other self-professed fundamentalists teach deviant doctrine or practice sexual predation? Nothing, except say we are not like them, we just call ourselves the same thing. As a result, the group is judged and known by its most vulgar species. Why can 20/20 lump together Hyles fundamentalism and BJU fundamentalism? Because they both claim to be fundamentalists.

Fourth, effectual change must be led by pastors. Christ has not promised to build his college, university, or seminary. Christ has not promised to build his missionary board or evangelistic crusade. Christ has promised to build his church. For fundamentalism to survive it must do so as a church movement led by the leaders Christ has ordained for his church.

In each of these things, the one needed thing is a focus upon biblical truth. I have written these things as an outsider. Yet as an outsider who wants to see biblical fundamentalism reform and thrive. I did not grow up in a church that identified itself within the fundamentalist movement. I do not pastor a church that identifies itself in the fundamentalist movement. To some, this serves as a disqualification for such judgments. I understand the sentiment. Yet I went to college and seminary at two of fundamentalism’s flagship institutions. Why? I did so in part because I wanted to learn the Bible in places that at least claimed to honor the Bible as God’s infallible word to mankind. In many ways, or at least in the most important ones, the survival of fundamentalism is as simple as just living up to what the name represents: belief and practice of what the Bible explicitly commands and teaches.

 

 

Is the Church the New Israel?

Old Testament- Israel

New Testament- Church

Genesis 12:1-3  Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Gal 3:7  Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.

Gal 3:9  So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Gal 3:14  so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:29  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Genesis 26:1-5  Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,   because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” Galatians 4:21-28  Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.  But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.
Genesis 17:12-13  He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Philippians 3:3  For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–

Romans 2:28-29  For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Exodus 19:5-6  Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” 1 Peter 2:9  But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Hosea 2:21-23  “And in that day I will answer, declares the LORD, I will answer the heavens, and they shall answer the earth, and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil, and they shall answer Jezreel, and I will sow her for myself in the land. And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.'” 1 Peter 2:10  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Romans 9:24-25  even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.'”

Ezekiel 16:4-7  And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Ephesians 2:4-7  But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

 

 

Jeremiah 31:31-34 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 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, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

 

 

Hebrews 8:6-13 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. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 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, 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. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  or I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

 

A review of Charles Ryrie “Why I am a Pretribulation Rapturist” from Isael My Glory. Part 2: Does 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 teach the Pretribulation Rapture?

After discussing “Who are Raptured?” Ryrie asks the question over which there is the most debate, “When is the Rapture?” Whether intentional or not, Ryrie seems to mock the posttribulation “timeline” of saints being raptured to meet Christ in the air only to continue with Christ back to earth. Ryrie’s apparent criticism of is unfortunate since the word “meet” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is used in only used in Matthew 25:1-10 and Acts 28:14-16 in exactly the sort of way that Ryrie seems to poke fun at: a group of people come leave their location to meet someone then escort that person to his intended destination.

Far more important to the discussion is Ryrie’s treatment of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4. Ryrie’s treatment of this passage has two flaws. First, Ryrie never defines what he believes the “Day of the Lord” is. From his discussion, it appears that Ryrie associates the day entire seven year tribulation period with the Day of the Lord. Whether or not this is true, Ryrie never demonstrates from the text that the rapture must precede the Day of the Lord. Why not? Because the text states the opposite position of Ryrie: which points to the greatest problem with Ryrie’s treatment of this passage.

To make 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 teach the pretribulation rapture, Ryrie completely ignores a portion of the text that contradicts his position. Below is presented the text as given by Ryrie and then as given in the ESV.

 

Ryrie

ESV

We ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by [a] spirit or by [a] word or by [a] letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.

 

Ryrie omits the first several phrases of Paul’s thought. As Ryrie presents the text, there is really nothing about the rapture at all in the passage. As Paul presents the test the rapture is plainly mentioned: “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him.” So why does Ryrie exclude Paul’s mention of the rapture when Ryrie is attempting to determine the time of the Rapture? This seems counter-productive.

Perhaps Ryrie omits the first phrases of this passage because they completely undermine the pretribulation rapture position. If the Day of the Lord refers to the seven-year tribulation, and if the Thessalonians believed the rapture occurred before the tribulation, Paul’s entire discussion is superfluous. The Thessalonians would have known the Day of the Lord had not come yet because they had not been raptured!

As the text stands, however, Paul disagrees with Ryrie in a few details. First, Paul includes the coming of Christ and our gathering together to him in the Day of the Lord. As unique and horrendous as the events of the tribulation will be, Paul marks the Day of the Lord off as something even greater. This aspect of the Day of the Lord including the coming of the Lord to earth and the simultaneous gathering of the elect is will attributed in the Old Testament (Coming- Joel 3:16; Hab. 3:16; Zech. 14:4; Mal. 3:2; Gathering- Isa. 11:11-12, 16; 27:13; Mic. 4:6-7; Zeph. 3:18, 19, 20). Secondly, Paul says that this Day which includes the coming of Christ and our gathering together to him occurs after the revelation of Antichrist not before. Ryrie is right, the Day of the Lord occurs after the Antichrist’s revelation. But by leaving out Paul’s mention of Christ’s coming and our gathering to him, Ryrie ignores the most pertinent information for the discussion. As one commentator notes, “The present verse [2 Thess. 2:1] brings to grief the popular notion that the rapture of the church will somehow take place before the tribulation.”[1]

For as systematic as it presents to be, the pretribulation rapture is built upon an atomistic treatment of Scripture. It is no coincidence that one of C.I. Scofield’s works is “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth.” Dispensationalism and the pretrib rapture position certainly excel in dividing the Scripture. But as Ryrie’s mishandling of just four verses demonstrates, the pretribulation rapture cannot stand up to a more holistic reading of Scripture.


[1] Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 301.

A review of Charles Ryrie “Why I am a Pretribulation Rapturist” from Isael My Glory. Part 1: Is this really what the posttribulation rapture position believes?

The January/February issue of Israel My Glory includes an article by noted theologian Charles Ryrie entitled “Why I am a Pretribulation Rapturist.”  I cut my teeth on a Ryrie study Bible: it is what accompanied me through Bible college. At said college, his Basic Theology was the text for theology classes. I profit from his sober and careful commentary on Revelation whenever I consult it. So what follows is not the result of any personal animosities or prejudices, but merely comes from a desire of furthering understanding of Scripture.

To begin his article Ryrie offers brief definitions of the various rapture positions. For the posttribulation rapture position Ryrie writes, “Posttrib has the church living through the entire Tribulation and enduring many of God’s judgments.” Ryrie is a capable and responsible theologian; and contributing to Israel My Glory certainly does not require the same amount of rigor as contributing to a theological journal does; but such a definition of the posttribulation rapture position is neither fair nor accurate. One might just as well state that a pretribulation rapturist believes Christians will never face any troubles in life. Neither this hypothetical definition of the pretrib position, nor Ryrie’s proposed definition of the posttrib position represents the truth.[1]

Whether intentional or not, Ryrie’s definition poisons the well and erects a straw man that is easily thrashed. What Christian wants to believe that he will experience any, let alone “many,” of God’s judgments? The Scripture clearly and repeatedly relieves believers of such worries. The promise of being kept from God’s wrath is one that all believers should hold (John 5:24; Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 1:10). When the posttribulation position is defined in such terms, it is not too difficult to assert a lack of Scriptural support.

Toward the conclusion of the article, Ryrie offers more precise language: “Posttrib rapturists think they’re going to live through the Tribulation. They say the phrase I will keep you means God will protect the Christians as He protected Israel in Egypt.”

This is a much more accurate picture of the posttrib rapture position. While the experience of the Israelites in Egypt is probably the best illustration, it is certainly not the only illustration of the kind of existence and protection envisioned by those who believe the rapture will follow the Tribulation. Mention could also be made of Noah who was saved through the flood, not from it; of Job who was not saved through disaster and illness, not saved from it; of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were saved through the fire, not from it; of Daniel who was saved through the lion’s den, not from it; and preeminently of Christ who was saved through the crucifixion, not from it. One might say that these are special examples of God’s providence that are not meant to exemplify God’s normal dealings with his people. But we would do well to remember the promise of Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Is it stretching the data of Scripture and history to assert that God does not keep his children from trouble but keeps them through it?

Ryrie seeks to gain more ground in this area by stating, “There will be earthquakes, tsunamis, and water turning to blood. People in the Tribulation will turn on a faucet and get blood. If they can find water, it will be bitter. It seems highly unlikely that an earthquake or other disaster that affects millions will not touch Joe and Sarah Christian who live in the same area as everyone else.”

First of all, on a very practical level, such deliverance is not necessarily as far-fetched as Ryrie makes it out to be. We know that Antichrist will make war with the saints and that they will have no way to buy and sell in the open market. What is likely to happen in such a situation? More than likely some form of ghetto-ization. While it might seem counter-intuitive for believers to gather together thereby making them an easier target, Revelation 12:6 seems to present just such an occurrence. Ryrie mentions that during the plagues the Israelites lived in Goshen which made it more possible for corporate protection. Why would saints during the Tribulation not seek the increased safety and provision of communal or corporate life? Ryrie simply assumes that “Joe and Sarah Christian” will be living with everyone else. I do not see that as necessarily, or even as likely, true.

Second, is there not a difference between suffering from affects of judgments and suffering the judgments themselves? For thousands of years believers have suffered and died because of God’s judgment on sin. For thousands of years believers have lived and died because of God’s judgment on sin even as they are promised that their sins have been fully judged in Christ and that death no longer has dominion over them.

Third, Ryrie wants to paint a picture of complete global chaos and indeed in many ways it will be. But careful attention to the details of Revelation reveals a constant refrain in the series of judgments: they are targeted on Antichrist and his followers:

  • Rev 9:4  [The locusts] were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
  • Rev 16:2  So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.
  • Revelation 16:5-6  And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!”
  • Rev 16:10-11  The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.[2]

As far as I know, no responsible posttribulation rapturist teaches that believers will suffer God’s judgment. By asserting the contrary Ryrie may score some points with the home team, but he does nothing to further meaningful dialogue between those who teach a different rapture position.

Pretribulationists and posttribulationists alike agree that there will be believers, or saints, of some sort on earth during the tribulation.[3] Let us lay aside whether they are “the Church” or “Tribulation saints.” Ryrie’s position does nothing to answer how those people experience the protective provision of God. The pretribulation rapture position teaches that the church will not be on earth during the Tribulation because the church is promised deliverance from God’s wrath. Yet it also must teach that there are believers of some sort on the earth during the Tribulation and that those believers will in some way endure God’s wrath.

Ryrie rightly teaches that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. Whoever the saints are on earth during the tribulation one thing is clear: they must be saved by faith in Jesus Christ. This causes at least two problems for the pretrib position. First, if so called “Tribulation saints” who believe in Jesus Christ for their salvation experience God’s protective provision during the Tribulation, why couldn’t the same grace be given to any and every saint? Second, how can someone who trusts in Jesus Christ for his salvation not be considered a member of Christ’s body, the church?


[1] As I look at the article in the magazine, the five definitions are offered apart from the main text of the article within a text box inside of a full page picture. I suppose it is possible that Charles Ryrie is not even responsible for the definitions, but that they were included by the editors of the magazine. In the end, however, my dispute is with the statement more than with who said it.

[2] To this list could be added the judgments that have the same result of this 5th bowl judgment: i.e. those who survive do not repent thus specifying that God’s enemies were the ones who experienced judgment (Rev. 9:20-21; 16:9).

[3] The following references from Revelation all indicate that there will be believers of some sort on earth during the Tribulation: Rev. 6:9-11; 7:2-3; 8:3-5; 9:4; 13:7, 10; 14:12-13; 16:5-6; 17:6; 18:24. More often than not, the word used for these people is “saints”: the standard New Testament word for believers in Jesus Christ.

Wilhelmus à Brakel Comes out swinging against Dispensationalism

The conclusion of à Brakel’s chapter “The Word of God” in The Christian’s Reasonable Service is an excellent portion entitled Guidelines for the Profitable Reading of Scripture. I hope to summarize its contents in a future post, but one thing that really caught my attention was an item in his list of things to be avoided in reading the Bible.

à Brakel writes:

The second practice to avoid is that of forcing everything into a framework of seven dispensations, as the entire concept of seven dispensations is erroneous. It would be tolerable if this were limited to the Revelation of John; however, it would prevent one from ever ascertaining the correct meaning of the book of the Revelation. It is unacceptable to search for seven dispensations throughout the entire Bible, subordinating every scriptural issue to a dispensation. That would take away the true meaning, spirituality, and power from the Word.[1]

 I will not comment on Brakel’s evaluation of dispensationalism as a system, other than to say that on the whole I agree with his estimation of the fruits of it. What really surprises me is that a à Brakel knows about dispensationalism at all. I expect a Reformed theologian to criticize dispensationalism: but not one in à Brakel’s day. The Christian’s Reasonable Service was published in 1700. Everyone pretty much agrees that dispensationalism as a system was not formalized until the late 1800s and early 1900s. Where does à Brakel’s knowledge of dispensationalism come from then?

 I consulted the standard treatment on the system, Dispensationalism by Charles Ryrie, and think I found the answer:

 Pierre Poiret was a French mystic and philosopher (1646-1719). His great work, L’OEconomie Divine, first published in Amsterdam in 1687, was translated into English and published in London in six volumes in 1713. The work began as a development of the doctrine of predestination, but it was expanded into a rather complete systematic theology. In viewpoint it is sometimes mystical, represents a modified form of Calvinism, and is premillennial and dispensational.[2]

 Ryrie also lists the seven dispensations of Poiret which have a different demarcation than those of Scofield, but are nonetheless seven. As Ryrie is right to remind critics of the system, dispensationalism did not exactly fall out of the sky in 1900. Even if Ryrie’s citation of patristic authors is rightly dismissed as egregious cherry-picking, critics of the system should look for the true roots and sources of it rather than focusing all their attention on Darby and Scofield. Dispensationalism is older than you think.


[1] Willhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 79.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 65.

Who is a true Jew? Revelation 2:9 & 3:9

I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Revelation 2:9

Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie–indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Revelation 3:9

Twice in the letters to the seven churches of Asia, Jesus mentions a group of people identified as, “Those who say they are Jews and are not.”  As if that statement were not perplexing enough, both times rather incendiary descriptions are added to this group: they are synagogues of Satan, liars, and will worship at the feet of Christians.  Immediately a very large section of American evangelicals are put on the defensive.  Here, in the same breath, we have mention of Jews, liars, synagogue of Satan, and God humbling said group.  The antisemitism bullets are ready to be fired!

But let us divorce the phrase “those who say they are Jews and are not” from the context in an attempt to take some of the passion out of the exegesis.  Just looking at that phrase alone what can we determine about the group?

What does it say?

The first thing that needs to be determined is, “What does the phrase actually imply?”  What is the truth that is assumed by the phrase?  In an attempt to further remove any prejudices, put the phrase in other terms.  If you heard someone say, “he says he is a professional baseball player, but he is not,” what could you safely assume?  I believe you could safely assume two things:

  1. There really is such a thing as a professional baseball player:  such a person actually exists.
  2. The person making the claim is not truly a professional baseball player.

So returning to the text we can safely assume two things:

  1. There really is such a group as Jews:  true Jews.
  2. Those making the claim to be Jewish are not truly Jews.

To paraphrase a T-shirt– there is a Jew, and you’re not him.

What could it mean?

So who are these people who say they are Jews but are really not?  I can think of three broad options:

  1. They are Gentiles who for some reason claim to be Jews.  Perhaps they do not really want to worship the Emperor, so they seek exemption under the umbrella of Judaism.  Maybe in Smyrna and Philadelphia there was some economic incentive to be Jewish.  For whatever reason, this group refers to Gentiles calling themselves Jews.
  2. They are ethnic Jews who are not practicing their faith according to Scripture.  Whether intentionally or not, they are practicing an apostate form of Judaism.
  3. They are ethnic Jews who have misidentified what being a true Jew is.  This is somewhat different than the second category.  These people practice an orthodox faith, yet the orthodoxy itself flawed.

What is the question?

In all of this, the real question is, “What is a true Jew?”  The statement under examination, “those who say they are Jews and are not,” is based on the fact that true Jews exist.  By condemning the “false” Jews, Jesus acknowledges the “true” Jews.  But who might Jesus say is a false Jew and a true Jew?

Comparing spiritual things with spiritual

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a clear answer to this question in the text.  So might the Scripture answer this question elsewhere?  Does the Bible speak about this true vs. false Jew dichotomy in other places?  In fact Scripture addresses this subject in various places and diverse manners.

Both Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8 record John (the baptizer) assailing ethnic Jews with the statement, “…and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”  This certainly leads in the direction of asserting that there is more to being a child of Abraham- hence, a Jew- than physical genealogy.  At the very least, John asserted that being a physical descendant of Abraham merited his audience members nothing with God.

While I assume this is what John meant, I know it is what Paul thought.  At the end of Romans 2 we read, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”  If this is not the jackpot, it is certainly a very handsome consolation prize.  Paul is seeking to answer the very question we are asking, “What is a true Jew?”  A true Jew is not a physical child of Abraham, but a Spiritual child of God.  It is not the physical circumcision made by man that counts, it is the heart circumcision made by the Spirit that matters.

Paul returns to a variation of this theme in Romans 4:11-12.  Again the question is, “Who is a true son of Abraham?”  Again Paul answers that physical circumcision is meaningless, but that whoever has the faith that Abraham had can claim Abraham as “father.”  This is also the argument of the entire chapter of Galatians 3.  The precise statements include:

Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.  And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.”   So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. (3:7-9)

that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (3:14)

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (3:26, 29)

In Philippians 3:3 we see more about this circumcision of faith, “For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh…”  Again we see that physical descent is meaningless (no confidence in the flesh).  Writing to the church, Paul says they are “the circumcision.”  What makes Christians in Philippi “the circumcision?”  Their relationship with the Trinity: they worship God, in the Spirit, while rejoicing in Christ Jesus.

Summary and Conclusion

So a true Jew is:

  1. Not necessarily a physical descendant of Abraham (Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8; Rom. 2:28; 4:11-12; Phil. 3:3).
  2. Someone who has the same faith Abraham had (Rom. 4:11-12; Gal. 3).
  3. Which faith includes a work of the Holy Spirit circumcising the heart (Rom. 2:28-29; Phil. 3:3).
  4. Which heart circumcision brings one into worshiping relationship with the Holy Trinity (Phil. 3:3) by way of one’s union with Christ (Gal. 3:26, 29).

What Scripture makes abundantly clear in the New Testament is that true Jews are more commonly known to us as Christians.  If you have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ to worship God, you are a true Jew.

So who are “those who say they are Jews and are not?”  While the first option above was Gentiles claiming to be Jews, I find it completely irrational and cannot find anyone who seriously suggests it as an interpretive option.  As for options 2 and 3, there is not much difference since both deal with ethnic Jews: the same people addressed and rebuked in Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8; Rom. 2:28-29; Gal. 3; and Phil. 3:3.  Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 speak to and rebuke the same false Jews: all those physical sons of Abraham who have no relationship with God.  Those who say they are Jews and are not are still with us: worshiping on Saturday in the synagogue, denying the Lord who bought them.  Many Evangelicals call them Jews, the apple of God’s eye, God’s chosen people, etc.  Jesus simply says they “are not.”

Praise God for the circumcision not made with hands.