Who is Israel?
God knows the end from the beginning therefore, He knew that Israel would ultimately fail. God knew that Israel would not achieve the divine plan announced at Sinai. But this does not mean that God wanted Israel to fail, or that He caused them to fail, or that He did not do enough for them to succeed. We often find God lamenting and mourning the spiritual condition of Israel, such as:
What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? Why, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes. Isa. 5:4.
Here we see God saying that He has done everything possible – He has exhausted every possible solution. And what was God looking working in His vineyard for? – What was he hoping to accomplish? Answer: simply that Israel would produce the right fruit – that Israel would have a change of heart.
And we hear Jesus lamenting over the same failed potential that God was trying to achieve with Israel:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Matt. 23:37.
God always had a solution to the stiff necked/ hard hearted condition. And the solution was always available, and it was always within reach, it was not something that was deliberately obscured by God. In this respect the spiritual condition of the Israelites was the same as the spiritual condition of the people today. The solution is well within reach of all. The problem is, in both cases – then and now – the people do not want the solution, or they believe they have no need of the solution.
The History of Israel Prophesied
Because God knows the end from the beginning, He laid down a lengthy prophecy about the history of the Israelites from the time at Sinai, to well after the second captivity, and the restoration. We find this prophecy in Deuteronomy chapters 28-31. After speaking about the future Babylonian captivity and the promise of restoration God gave the Israelites an additional promise:
And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. Deut. 30:6.
Please note what else this verse has to say. Please note why God is doing this? Why is God putting so much effort in? First he takes them out of captivity, and establishes them in the land, and then everything is destroyed, with huge loss of life, and back into captivity they go. Then they return and they have to rebuild. What is it all for? Answer: “That thou mayest live.” Is God limiting his hopes for his people to the fact that they might live in the land he promised them? No! He means that they might live eternally. But, living eternally is dependent, on them having their hearts circumcised.
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who were contemporaries of that generation that went into the Babylonian captivity, both repeated the promise given back in the days of Moses. First Jeremiah:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jer. 31:31-33.
This is the same covenant that was given to the Israelites at Sinai, with one crucial difference. At Sinai, the people said ‘we will do it.’ Here through Jeremiah the Lord says, “I will do it.” The covenants, and the terms and the conditions of the covenant, are the same. The only difference is how the goals of the covenant are going to be achieved/fulfilled. The same promise was given to the people through Ezekiel:
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God. Eze. 36:26-28.
Once again, the emphasis is on ‘I’ not ‘we.’ At some point God is going to take the reins into his own hands and He is going to accomplish the divine plan that, He has been trying to work out with Israel.
Unfortunately, none of this was achieved in Old Testament times. The last Old Testament prophet, sent to Israel, was Malachi. Malachi finds the people in a deplorable spiritual state. Malachi points out their wrongdoing and they reply ‘we don’t understand what you’re talking about – were not doing anything wrong – and we are not going to change.’ They think everything is right between themselves and God – when everything is wrong. There is no greater deception.
But God’s plans can never be thwarted. God’s plans can be delayed but they will eventually come to pass. And the apostle Paul tells us when the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel were fulfilled. Paul quotes directly from Jeremiah in the Book of Hebrews. The Book of Hebrews is about the great changes that took place with the coming of the Messiah. The Book is about the better and greater things that took place when the new covenant took the place of the old covenant:
But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. Heb. 8:6.
Jesus introduces a better ministry, and a better covenant established upon better promises. Who made the promises in the old covenant? The people did! Who made the promises in the new covenant? God did! This is why the ministry and covenant established by Jesus in the New Testament is better and greater. Having established the superiority of the new covenant, Paul’s next point is to reveal why the old covenant was inferior:
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them… Heb. 8:6.
Please note that the problem identified in this verse is the people not the covenant. There was nothing wrong with the covenant. The fault was with the people’s promise to keep the covenant. This is why the new covenant is a better covenant. It is better because it is established upon a better promise – the promise of God – He will do it – He will accomplish the goals of the covenant.
Having established that the problem was with the people, Paul now presents the solution, by quoting the prophecy of Jeremiah in its entirety:
For finding fault with them he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people. Heb. 8:6-10.
The Hew Covenant Established
So the question we naturally need to ask at this point is this: When did this new covenant go into effect? Answer: it went into effect at the cross. What did Jesus say at the Last Supper, just before his crucifixion?
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. Matt. 26:26-28.
The ‘New Testament’ is the same as the ‘New Covenant’ (some Bible translations say New Covenant instead of New Testament). Jesus gave his life for the forgiveness of sins, but also for the establishing of the New Covenant. When the Old Testament was ratified, it was ratified by blood – Moses sprinkled blood on the people (see Ex. 24:7, 8). In like manner the New Testament (New Covenant) was ratified by blood. Jesus said, “this is my blood of the new testament.”
And what would be achieved when the New Covenant went into effect at the cross? Just before His crucifixion Jesus said:
Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. Jn. 12:31.
Cast out of what or where? Two places: cast out of heaven (see Rev. 12:10, 11). But also out of people’s hearts. How does what happened at the cross cast Satan out of people’s hearts? Jesus knew that it was the end of Satan’s kingdom when he offered Himself. Jesus knew that the cross would break open the human heart and begin the healing, the revival and reformation, and the restoration of humanity. He saw it all, because just before his death He said:
And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. Jn. 12:32.
Hard Hearts Broken at the Cross
If Jesus is lifted up, if he is crucified, he will draw all people to him. The cross is the greatest evidence there is, that God truly loves us. It is the greatest evidence that he is willing to do everything possible to save us, and this is the place where God breaks our hearts. He breaks our hearts with love. Do you remember how the people were afraid of God at Sinai, and they broke the covenant immediately? This is because fear does not work – fear does not work in God’s kingdom, fear does not crack open hard hearts and turn stiff necks. The only way that hard hearts, encrusted with sin can be opened is with love. We are supposed to look at what happened at Calvary and our hearts are supposed to be overwhelmed by the love of God. When we realise that the Creator himself died for his own creation – this ought to rattle every nerve in our being and shake us out of our spiritual death.
In fact, standing at the foot of the cross, is the only place where we can have our hard hearts broken and our stiff necks turned. If we cannot be converted at the cross, it will not happen anywhere and it will not happen ever. This is why the greatest evangelist that ever was, said:
I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 1 Cor. 2:2.
Paul knew from experience that, the greatest way to attract and convert people, was to tell the story of Jesus and Him crucified. It was this wonderful evidence of God’s love that drew people, and opened their hearts to the influence of the Holy Spirit. We are told:
The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Heb. 4:12.
In other words, the word of God cuts deeply into the hard hearts of people. God also says this about his word:
So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. Isa. 55:11.
According to this verse, God’s word is like a sword cutting open hard hearts and always having an effect upon those who hear it. There are two possible outcomes from the effect of the word felt in the heart. Either the recipient of the word will have his heart softened or he will have it hardened. Jesus dealt with this process in the Parable of the Sower. It all depends on what type of soil the seed falls on. If it falls on the stoney ground (stoney hearts) the seed will be rejected and the heart will grow even harder. If the seed falls on the good ground (softened hearts) it will sprout and the heart will soften even more. In other words, when the truth about Jesus and him crucified is preached (or read about), it cuts open people’s hearts.
Hard Hearts Broken when the Gospel is Preached
Look what happened at Pentecost when the first Christian sermon was preached, when the truth about Jesus was preached. What was the effect upon the people?
Now when they heard this, they were pricked in the heart… Acts 2:37.
The preaching of Jesus and him crucified, had a dramatic effect upon the hearts of the people, their hearts began to open, and Holy Spirit was now able to come in. And when the Holy Spirit came in they were instantly ready to change, to have their stiff necks turned. Their response to being pricked in the heart was:
Men and brethren, what shall we do? Acts 1:37.
Their changed attitude automatically led to changed behaviour, they wanted to know what they should do next. They were not only willing to change, they were anxious to change. The fruit that God has been waiting for so long is finally coming forth.
We are also told that when Peter and John were called to account by the Jewish leaders, for preaching about Jesus, they boldly proclaimed:
We ought to obey God rather than men. Acts 5:29.
After courageously standing for Jesus, at the risk of their lives, the disciples then preach the truth about Jesus to those who murdered Him. And when they hear the Word of Truth they too, have the same experience as the other Israelites did at Pentecost, they felt the cutting influence of the Truth:
…when they heard this the leaders were cut in their hearts. Acts 5:33.
Here was a great opportunity for the religious leaders to repent and admit their mistake, the Holy Spirit was knocking on their hearts, pleading with them to open their hearts, and be saved. But once more they resisted, and by resisting they hardened their hearts even more, evidenced by the fact that they began plotting to kill these bold followers of Jesus.
The same thing happened when Stephen preached his last sermon, the reason why they were so murderously angry was because they were being pricked in their hearts:
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on them with their teeth. Acts 7:54.
The anger they exhibited against him is a typical result of resistance to the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit wields the sword of the word, and drives it into the heart, people can only resist if they become angry.
In 19th Century England there was a preacher of renown called Charles Spurgeon. He was such a famous preacher that he attracted a following of young men all wanting to learn how to preach like him. Spurgeon would send these young men to preach in local churches on Sundays, then on Monday morning he would hold a debrief session with them. For the newcomers, the de-brief would always go something like this:
Question: “Did you have a good time?”
Answer: “Oh yes, it went really well and it was very pleasant.”
Question: “How many people did you convert?”
Nonplussed answer: “Oh, I don’t think we converted anyone, at least no one said anything about that to us.”
Question: “Well if you did not convert anyone, how many people did you make angry.”
Nonplussed answer: “Oh no! We didn’t make anyone angry.”
Spurgeon’s conclusion and point: “Well then you are not doing your job. You either convert them or you make them angry.”
Charles Spurgeon knew the power of God’s word. When the Truth is preached it either cuts open the human heart (because it is accompanied by all of Heaven’s power and influence – the Holy Spirit and the holy angels). Or it will make people angry, because anger is the only way the human heart can resist the power of Heaven. Do you remember what Stephen said to the leaders of Israel? “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did so do ye” (Acts 7:51). It was resisting the Holy Spirit that turned the leaders of Israel into angry murderers – it was resisting the Holy Spirit that turned their fathers into angry murderers too.
Saul becomes Paul
Saul, who later became the apostle Paul, was standing there that day, assisting the enraged leaders of Israel by holding their coats, whilst they stoned Stephen to death. But even as he was watching that awful spectacle, he too, was experiencing the sword piercing his heart. However, like the angry leaders, he too, was resisting the Holy Spirit. We know this because when he had his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus said to him:
…it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. Acts 9:5.
Jesus knew that Saul’s heart was being pricked, he just needed a little push to have his heart broken and Saul became Paul, a totally changed man.
We all feel the working of the Holy Spirit, we all feel the Holy Spirit pricking and cutting into our hearts. It is our choice whether to resist or to yield, if we resist our hearts become harder still, if we yield we will never be the same again – we will change. Things that we formerly saw through a glass darkly suddenly come into focus, things that we formerly misunderstood are clarified, our preconceptions give way to truth and truth engenders righteousness which means doing right. This is how Jesus puts the law within our hearts and it is the cross that enables this to happen.
The Law finally written in the Heart
Paul’s evangelist efforts provide us with a good example, of what Jesus was able to achieve after the cross. When Paul (as Saul) wanted to go to Damascus to persecute the Christians there he first went to the religious leaders in Jerusalem to ask them for letters of authority, to authorise his role as persecutor in chief. Therefore, it is ironic that after he became an evangelist for Jesus that he would be accused of not having letters of authority, to do what he was doing. Paul’s answer to this accusation is revealing. Paul believes the changed hearts of the members of the Corinthian Church is all the authority he needs. The following is a paraphrased version of 2 Cor. 3:1-3.
Why do I need to defend myself about this? I don’t need letters of recommendation from people who believe they have the authority to issue them. You are our letters of recommendation and your changed lives are all the evidence we need. These kinds of letters can be read by anyone, no matter who they are. You are living letters written by the Spirit of God, not letters carved in stone, but written in fleshly human hearts.
Paul is deliberately making a contrast between the law written on stone tablets at Mt. Sinai, and the law written on softened hearts of flesh after the cross. He is intimating that before the cross the law could only be written on stone, reflecting the spiritual state of the people’s stoney hearts. But now in this era of better and greater things, the era that we are living in, the law is now in the people’s hearts.
The great goal initiated at Sinai has now been achieved. The Divine Plan can now go forward. God’s Kingdom is now established on a better and greater foundation. But this Divine accomplishment was not realised through the nation of Israel (as originally intended). It was/is being accomplished through the Christian Church.