In part 1 of this blog post, we discussed the mixed messages being sent by Christians during this pandemic. We discussed the meaning of Psalm 91 and our ultimate promise of divine protection. In this post we will dive deeper into the concept of God’s promises.
Which Promises in the Bible Are For Me?
Jen Wilkin wrote an excellent piece on the topic of bible promises. She listed several pitfalls to avoid. Some of these were 1) Confusing a promise with a principle 2) Ignoring the context and 3) Overlooking the “if.” Psalm 91 was written to the people of Israel who were living under the Mosaic law or the “Old Covenant.” We no longer live in this age. All the Bible is inspired, but it was not all written to every person of every age. Israel was a theocracy established by God who gave them the Law as their constitutional covenant. This covenant was a bilateral (two-sided) covenant and it contained conditional blessings. If you go back and read all the covenant blessings (and curses) given to Israel, you will notice how closely connected they are to “the land.” The blessings include things like protection from political enemies, large bounties of food supply, and overall national safety.
Old Covenant Promises
God laid out very specific blessings (for obedience) and very specific curses (for disobedience) for His people, Israel. Jen Wilkin states: “Promises that contain an “If” require some form of obedience before we can expect them to come to pass in our lives. They are conditional. If we want to claim them, we had better be ready to act in obedience to what they require … Often “if” promises of blessing are accompanied by corresponding “if” warnings about disobedience.” We find all these conditional blessings and curses spelled out in detail in places like Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. For example, Deuteronomy 28:20-22 says this:
The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish.
Or as we read in Leviticus 26:23-25:
If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me, I myself will be hostile toward you and will afflict you for your sins seven times over. And I will bring the sword on you to avenge the breaking of the covenant. When you withdraw into your cities, I will send a plague among you, and you will be given into enemy hands.
New Covenant Promises
I was trained for ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary under a system of theology called “Progressive Dispensationalism,” whose proponents see a clear distinction between Israel and the Church. The Church is the gathering of Jews and Gentiles, set apart by God to be cross-cultural. The Church does not function under the old covenant. We don’t sacrifice animals anymore or follow many the ceremonial or civil laws given to Israel. We are not tied to a geographical land or under a centralized government. We are also not promised the kinds of material blessings of the Old Testament, instead we are the recipients of spiritual blessings in Christ (Eph 1:1-15). The blessings of the new covenant include amazing promises of forgiveness, eternal salvation, the presence of God, spiritual gifting and much much more. But, these blessings of the new covenant are not primarily physical.
When we as New Covenant believers reach back into the Old Covenant, we can get into difficulty theologically if we don’t interpret these texts properly. Claiming the promises or blessings of the Mosaic covenant for obedience implies we must also be held accountable for the covenant curses for our disobedience. That’s the deal with law. We cannot pick and choose. If we want to go back under the law, then that means we have to go back under the whole law (Gal 5:3). It’s all or nothing. The main problem with the old covenant was that no one could keep it. The law pointed us toward our need for the Messiah and for His redemption.
Enter Jesus. Even in the midst of the Old Covenant there was a New Covenant predicted in Jeremiah 31, instituted by Christ at the last supper and enacted through His death and resurrection. Let me be clear, living under the Mosaic law is not a viable option for the Christian. The old covenant is now obsolete. (Heb 8:13). Paul states, “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:21 NIV) New Testament believers need to be very careful how they appropriate the promises found in the old covenant, a covenant involving very material and earthly rewards.
In this age, New Testament Christians experience hardship, trials and pain, but all with great hope. Sometimes we in the church may see God’s powerful hand in miracles, other times believers may sometimes get sick, sometimes even get infected with a virus, and sadly sometimes die. As Christians, we grieve these losses as a result of the Fall and we receive comfort from God (2 Cor 1:1-10; Matt 5:1-10). The comfort we receive is that we never grieve without hope. His promises include His unfailing presence, our future hope in heaven, and our ultimate bodily resurrection. Here is an example:
Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Rev 2:10)
We proclaim that God is still good even in the midst of the difficulty and His glory triumphs – even in our suffering. The apostle Paul says it this way:
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” (2 Cor 4:8-12, NIV).
The Key of Promise
John Bunyan in his classic allegorical work, Pilgrim’s Progress, writes about a scene that deeply moved me when I first read this work years ago. Toward the end of the book, the main character Christian, who has been on a journey to the Celestial city, (which is a metaphor for the Christian life), veers off the difficult path to try and find an easier, smoother way, and that’s when he and his traveling partner, Hopeful, get captured by a vicious sadistic giant named Despair. The giant found them sleeping on his property and brought them back to his home, called DOUBTING CASTLE, and threw them into his dungeon. They began to pray and suddenly Christian remembered something, “What a fool am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my (pocket) called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in (this) Castle.” So they tried the key of promise in the dungeon door and it opened.
Here’s the note from John Bunyan included at the bottom of the page — “Precious promise! The promises of God in Christ are the life of faith, and the quickeners of prayer. Oh how oft do we neglect God’s great and precious promises in Christ Jesus, while doubts and despair keep us prisoners.”
God’s promises are powerful in fighting despair. What are the promises we can hold onto? As Christians we long for Christ’s promise return. We have His promise of His Presence (Matt 28:19-20). We hold onto the Promise of His love (Rom 8:28-39). We have His promise of Wisdom (Js 1:1-5). We have His promise of strength in weakness (2 Cor 12:9-11). We have His promise of a peace that passes understanding (Phil 4:7). These are our great and precious promises (2 Pet 1:4).
Until Christ returns to make all things new, we live in between these times. We live in what theologians call the “already / and not yet.” We will discuss this concept further in Part 3.
Bunyan, John The Pilgrim’s Progress. Edited by Roger Sharrock and J. B. Wharey. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975). Originally Published in 1678.
Jen Wilkin’s full article referenced in this blog: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/which-promises-are-for-me/
Darrel Bock. Progressive Dispensationalism. (Ada, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2000)