It does what it says on the tin!

You've seen the advert; the one that tells you the product does 'what it says on the tin'.

I’m a simple guy, with recognisable and often noticeable limitations to my theological and academic abilities. Growing up in a church where the gospel was somewhat muted, grace nonetheless activated an interest in the Scriptures and brought me to faith in the only Saviour of men, the Lord Jesus Christ. I have grown in knowledge of those same Scriptures over the past 35 years but, for all my exegetical digging, commentary trawling, time-invested searching of the Good Book, most times I find that when it comes to understanding what Scripture is saying, the principle is simple... it usually does ‘what it says on the tin’! I’d like to take a brief look at ‘the tin’ to see if we can learn some principles for Christian living.

What if Genesis 12:3 really means: A Promise of Blessing?

I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you…

Some folk firmly believe Genesis 12:3 to be a promise of blessing to those who support Israel while others say the verse has nothing at all to do with supporting Israel. I recognise that we are all biased and that everyone has an agenda but some Christians have an aversion to anything to do with Israel and will not have this verse to rule over them; they will not be convinced that the promise has anything to do with Jewish mission. On the other hand, others are totally convinced of the abiding relevance of verse but are clearly misguided when they think God’s promise to Abraham guarantees his blanket approval of the Knesset’s every policy. But what if the verse really does mean what it says ‘on the tin’?

In 19th century Scotland, Robert Murray M’Cheyne was in no doubt as to the practical outworking of Genesis 12:3. His ‘Mission of Inquiry’, co-written with Andrew Bonar after their visit to the Holy Land in 1839, stemmed from a theological understanding that God had certain purposes for his ancient people. M’Cheyne and his team were sent by the Church of Scotland to inquire into the suitability of Palestine as a mission field and M’Cheyne attributed the revival that broke out in Scotland while he was away to the fact that the Church of Scotland had blessed Israel. In keeping with his promise to Abraham, therefore, God had blessed the Church:

‘It appeared also worthy of special notice and thanksgiving that God had done this in the very year when the Church of Scotland had stretched out her hand to seek the welfare of Israel and to speak peace to all their seed. “Blessed is he that blesseth thee… they shall prosper that love thee”.’ (p444 – Mission of Discovery)

I would like to suggest that M’Cheyne and Bonar had found that Genesis 12:3 did ‘what it said on the tin’.

What if Jeremiah 31:3, 35-36 really means: A Permanence of Divine Care?

I have loved you with an everlasting love… Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for a light by day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night… ‘If those ordinances depart from before Me … then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever’.

I could also have quoted Romans 11:28 – ‘…concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers’ – but the simple and, indeed, historical reality is that the nation of Israel is a unique mystery. Cared for, disciplined, enlightened, hardened, graced, dispersed, hated, hounded, protected and preserved – the list could go on.

It is increasingly common, however, to hear Christians declare bluntly that God has finished with Israel. The 19th century commentator John Brown, like M’Cheyne and others before him, believed what Jeremiah 31 said ‘on the tin’. He wrote: ‘As a people chosen by God for particular purposes, they are, even in their state of unbelief, the objects of his kind regards, the subjects of his particular providence, from a respect of the covenants entered into with their ancestors’.

What if Romans 1:16 really means: A Priority of Mission?

I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.

I could enter into an erudite discussion of the meaning of the Greek word for ‘first’ but, suffice it to say, when Jesus instructs us to seek ‘first’ the kingdom of God, he is certainly not speaking in terms of chronology; the verse does not mean we should seek God’s kingdom and, having found it, to go on to seek whatever we please. Likewise, it simply will not do to suggest that Paul meant the gospel was to go first to the Jews, and then into the Gentile world, never to return to Jewry! That is theological nonsense, and does not reflect the apostle’s life and ministry who ‘as his custom was’ went repeatedly to preach Christ ‘first’ in the synagogues (Acts 17:2).

Hudson Taylor, the pioneer missionary to China, believed the gospel was ‘to the Jew first’ and acted upon the principle by financially supporting Jewish mission. The great Charles Simeon believed the principle and preached upon it.

But, I hear you ask, ‘Are you serious?’ Aren’t we supposed to go into ‘all the world’? Doesn’t the soul of a heathen cannibal have the same worth as that of a Jew?

Well, in our normal daily activities we prioritise. We may need to postpone a task... for coffee! Or, more seriously, certain crises may take precedence over the pedestrian events of our lives. Romans 1:16 presents us with a precedent because of the crisis of Romans 2:9: “…tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first…’ Judgement comes ‘to the Jew first’ and, as M’Cheyne recognised, the doctor runs to the most needy patient first. It is necessary for us also to have the same sense of urgency and make ‘running’ to the needy ancient people a priority.

We need to look at ‘the tin’ again.

What if Romans 11:26, 27 really means: The People shall Turn?

And so all Israel will be saved … For this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins."

Controversial verses indeed, but only perhaps because of our lack of faith in the nature of our merciful God, or because of our historically-imbalanced prejudice against a stubborn ancient people. Some commentators may engage in exegetical gymnastics with the text but the guarantee on the tin seems clear, and many saints of old believed thus.

In the seventeenth century, the compilers of the ‘Westminster Standards’ – the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter and Larger Catechisms, the Directory of Publick Worship and the Form of Church Government – believed it important that every Lord’s Day prayer should be made for the salvation of the Jews. The Westminster Larger Catechism expressed a similar sympathy and hope.

J.C. Ryle, the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, believed, ‘The future salvation of Israel as a people, their return to Palestine, and their national conversion to God appear as clearly and plainly revealed as any prophecy in God’s Word.’

The New England pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards said similarly, ‘Nothing is more certainly foretold than this national conversion of the Jews in Romans 11.’

So, as I again simply take what it says ‘on the tin’ at face value, I see I’m in good company.

What if 2 Corinthians 8:4 really means: The Privilege of Service?

…imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints.

The Macedonian churches recognised their debt to Jerusalem and believed it a privilege to minister financially to the impoverished saints there. As the gospel expanded into Europe, Israel was not forgotten. As Gentile Christians, we should remember our spiritual debt to the Jewish people and regard service to them as a privilege.

I end, not with the respected saints of old, but with a personal story. After 20 years of regular pastoral ministry, I have ministered for CWI these past seven years, during which time all my family have come to faith and my two sons are preparing for the gospel ministry. I have a long-suffering wife, with whom I grow more in love each day, and we are now into our thirtieth year of marriage. Yes, I have borne the scars of pastoral ministry – I’ve got the T-shirt and anonymous letters to prove it – but has Genesis 12:3 worked for me? I find my present ministry with CWI the greatest privilege of my life, during which time I have known the greatest personal blessings in my life. After all, I’m a simple guy; I do what it says on the tin!

What if you did the same?

This article was first published in the Winter Herald 2011

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