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Like Sand and Stars

Exactly how many grains of sand are there on the seashore?  Or how many stars are really out there in the heavens beyond even what we can see?  Could anyone really ever count either of these? Way back in Genesis 15, a man named Abram poured out his heart toward God, expressing his despair over having no children of his own - no heir for his household.  And in response, God told him to go outside and try to count the stars.  "This is how many offspring I will give you," God told him (v. 5).  Later in the story, in chapter 22, when Abraham showed that he was willing to sacrifice the one beloved son that God had given him in his old age - the heir through which all of those promises were supposed to come to pass - God told him again, "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore" (22:17).

Certainly, since the time of Abraham, there have been many born into that physical family of people that we call 'Jews' or 'Israelites'.  The number continues to grow even to this day.  But when do you think that the promise could be considered to be fulfilled?  Is there a certain number that we are looking for?

Actually, we are told in 1 Kings 4:20 that during the time of King Solomon, "Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea."  The text clearly means to indicate at this point that God's promise had found fulfillment.  That shouldn't be surprising; many of God's promises were finding fulfillment during this time.  He had brought them into the land that He had promised to give them.  He had given them peace on every side.  He had chosen a place for His Name to dwell.  And He even brought about the fulfillment of the promise that He had made to David, saying, "Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my Name" (2 Samuel 7:13 - cited as being fulfilled in 1 Kings 5:5).

This period was a time of great physical fulfillment for all of these promises, but this was not to be the end, and would by no means be the greatest manifestation of the fulfillment of these blessings.  David had just taken a census of the men of Israel as one of his last acts as king, and though the number was large for a nation of that day - 1.3 million men who could draw the sword - it doesn't even compare to the populations of a lot of world cities today, and it certainly doesn't compare to the number of stars in the sky or grains of sand on the shore.  And even though Solomon was a great king, and the house that he built for the Name of Yahweh was pretty magnificent, both he: Solomon, and it: the temple, were nothing compared to what would be revealed at the greater fulfillment of those promises.

This is because God never intended the physical fulfillment to be the main point of any of those awesome covenant blessings.  When God spoke of Abram's 'seed' (or 'offspring') through whom all of the world would be blessed, He did not just mean a certain ethnic group descended from Abram's loins.  He meant - in the most glorious sense of His promise - a certain Man - a singular 'seed' - would come through Abram's family, and that it would be through this Man, Jesus Christ, that all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  And God meant that Abraham's spiritual offspring: those who shared the same faith in his Heavenly Father, would truly number more than the stars or the sand.  Likewise, when God promised David that his son would sit on his throne forever, and that He would build Him a house, He was not just talking about Solomon and the temple.  Rather, His larger picture included the coming of Jesus Christ and the building of a temple out of living stones (souls!) where His Name could dwell (1 Peter 2:5).

The ultimate fulfillment of all of this is of course through Jesus Christ.  He is the 'Seed' of Abraham and the 'Son' of David.  And His people are synonymous with His 'house': the congregation of saints (1 Corinthians 14:33), the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12), the bride prepared for the Bridegroom (Revelation 21:9).  And the number of that people will far surpass 1.3 million.  In fact, in Revelation chapter 7, we are told that the number will be 144,000, but that is not a literal number.  That is a number that figuratively represents the fulness of God's people.  Thus, that is the number that John "heard" described (v. 4), but when he turned to look (verse 9), what he actually saw was "a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"

Those old promises were about Jesus and they were about us - that is, those of us who have clung to Christ for salvation from the just wrath of God!  Isn't that exciting?  When you have read Genesis 15 and 22 and 2 Samuel 7, did you see yourself there in Christ?  By virtue of His righteousness and the Holy Spirit's regenerating work, we are made a part of that great family and a part of that great temple!  Praise be to God the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit for including us in all His promises!

Heavenly Worship

The following quote is from the book, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, by Alexander Schmemann, cited in the book, Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, by David Chilton:

The early Christians realized that in order to become the temple of the Holy Spirit they must ascend to heaven where Christ has ascended.  They realized also that this ascension was the very condition of their mission in the world, of their ministry to the world.  For there - in heaven - they were immersed in the new life of the Kingdom; and when, after this 'liturgy of ascension,' they returned into the world, their faces reflected the light, the 'joy and peace' of that Kingdom and they were truly its witnesses.  They brought not programs and no theories; but wherever they went, the seeds of the Kingdom sprouted, faith was kindled, life was transfigured, things impossible were made possible.  They were witnesses, and when they were asked, 'Whence shines this light, where is the source of its power?' they knew what to answer and where to lead men.  In church today, we so often find we meet only the same old world, not Christ and His Kingdom.  We do not realize that we never get anywhere because we never leave any place behind us.

When Shadows Became Light

There's no wonder that so much of the Old Testament is written in poetic form.  The whole Old Covenant economy is like unto one giant poem.  Seemingly every character, every event, every command, every object is a symbol or a type of something that was to come.  The book of Hebrews, in the New Testament, tells us that all of these things were shadows whose fulfillment was in Christ. And so the bloody Old Covenant animal sacrifices were shadows of the one perfect sacrifice that would be offered in Christ.  The Old Covenant tabernacle and temple complexes, where God was present with His people, were shadows of Christ who is Emmanuel, "God with us".  The prophets were shadows of Christ who would perfectly reveal God.  The kings were shadows of Christ who would completely rule God's Kingdom.

Many of these shadows also find their fulfillment in the church, which is itself the body of Christ on earth.  The tabernacle, for instance, speaks of Christ coming to be present with His people ("He tabernacled among us", John 1:14), but it also speaks of the continued presence of Christ with His people in the form of His church: "you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5).  Old Covenant shadows point to Christ who manifests Himself in His people.

One of those old shadows that eventually finds its light in the New Covenant church is the city of Jerusalem.  It is that congregation of people who dwell in the very presence of God.  It is very easy to see how that picture can find its fulfillment in the New Testament church.  "Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am among them" (Matthew 18:20).  Churches come together like little cities with the Lord present at the center - like little heavenly Jerusalems.

The reality behind this shadow is alluded to several times in the Old Testament prophets.  This morning, I came across one of those allusions in Isaiah 52:1, "Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean."

That statement comes right at the beginning of the most clear Old Testament passage we have on the suffering and sacrificial death of the Messiah (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).  That means that the message of hope that is given to Jerusalem in verse 1 of chapter 52 has to do with that first advent of Jesus Christ and His suffering for sin.  But in this passage, the light is beginning to overpower the shadow, because verse 1 said that "there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean."

We know that Jerusalem, the physical city, has been literally filled with the uncircumcised and the unclean pretty much since that day.  So when we look at a verse like Isaiah 52:1, how do we interpret it?  What Jerusalem is it talking about?  There is a school of thought that says that everything like that which we know has not ever occurred must be referring to some point in the future when it will actually occur.  This would lead some to affirm that Isaiah 52:1 concerns some time in the future when God will save all the Jews, reinstate Old Covenant ceremonial law, and purify the physical city of Jerusalem.  But is that really what this text is talking about?

No, this passage, as I stated earlier, has to do with the first coming of Christ and His sacrificial death.  That sacrifice would purify Jerusalem, not in a physical way in the physical city, but in a spiritual way in the spiritual city: the church.  Isaiah 52:1 has to do with the purity of the city of God: the New Jerusalem - the church - the bride prepared for her Bridegroom (Revelation 21:2).  That's why in verse 11 of the same chapter, God can tell His people to "go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the LORD."  The pure spiritual Jerusalem shall go out from the corrupted physical Jerusalem.

We have to be on the lookout for these kinds of shadows, because we are told that they all have their true form now in Christ and His church (Hebrews 10).  It would be foolish to think that the shadow must come again in order for the prophecy to be fulfilled.  The light is more wondrous than the shadow and it disperses it.  In Christ and in His church, all of the Old Covenant promises are ours.


Do you know what would happen if a single star fell to the earth?  The very notion is absurd.  Most stars (like our sun) are millions of times larger - and thus more massive - than the earth.  So a star wouldn't "fall" to earth in the first place.  The earth would have to "fall" into a star, and the effect would be something like a huge whale swallowing up a microscopic plankton.  I doubt that our planet would even make much of a ripple across the surface of an enormous star.  And, of course, it would then be instantly destroyed by heat. If that is the case, though, then why do popular passages in the Bible like Revelation 6:13 talk about all of the stars falling to earth as if they are only as big as they appear to us in the night sky?  Clearly, if a verse like Revelation 6:13 is not meant to be the absolute end of human history (and there's quite a bit more in Revelation after chapter 6), then what we have in verse 13 is a figurative statement.

In fact, we find this same picture of judgment on heavenly lights repeated over and over again throughout the Scriptures.  Just take a look at passages like Isaiah 13:10, 24:21-23, Ezekiel 32:7, Joel 2:10, Amos 8:9, and Micah 3:6.  In other words, God has promised this kind of judgment before on nations like Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Tyre.  When we get to Matthew 24:29 and Revelation 6:12-13, the judgment is being directed at apostate Israel, but just as in previous times and previous judgments, what is being described concerning the sun, moon, and stars is not a permanent destruction of celestial bodies, but rather a removal of authority, influence, power, and leadership.

Heavenly lights often represent ruling authority like that of nations or individual rulers, and therefore the failing of those lights represents the collapse of that leadership (see for example Isaiah 14:12-15).  So in a passage like Revelation 6 (or Matthew 24), the lights are failing in the judgment of Jerusalem, which points to the removal of its power and authority.

But we find the opposite of this failing light effect in Isaiah 30:26, when the prophet, speaking of the renewal of the people in Zion (New Covenant) says, "Moreover, the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day when the LORD binds up the brokenness of His people, and heals the wounds inflicted by His blow."

Now if that verse is meant to be taken literally, then something that is clearly supposed to be a good thing: the brightening of sun and moon versus the darkening of them as seen in so many judgment oracles, would become a horror.  Even now we stress over the amount of sunlight that touches our skin.  Imagine if it was seven times stronger!  It would burn every living thing on the earth to a crisp!  And a moon shining like the sun?  Is that good?  I suppose a better question is: has this happened?  We understand from reading Isaiah 30 that this is a New Covenant blessing, so we should be living in the time of super-sun and sunny-moon even now.

It ought to be apparent that what is being referred to in Isaiah 30 is the reverse of what was being referred to in all of the failing light oracles.  As the other passages indicated a collapse of authority and rule, this intensifying of the light represents an increase in the authority and rule of the New Covenant people of God.  In other words, what would start as a tiny mustard seed in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost would grow and intensify until it spread around the globe.  As the church of the Lord Jesus Christ grows and conquers by the power of the gospel, its influence in the world will brighten.

This is a fantastic message of hope for Christians.  This world is not something to fear and withdraw from - waiting for the day when Jesus will come back to rescue you.  It is a Promised Land to conquer in the name of Jesus Christ with the sword of the Spirit (which is the Word of God) and in the power of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God.  So get out there and shine like the stars in the heavens (Philippians 2:15)!

A Possible Future

The expansion of the New Covenant to the nations is a glorious reality.  The fact that God chose a certain people (Israel) to be His own and to bless and to act on their behalf is unspeakably gracious and wonderful in and of itself, but thankfully (for my sake) His grace did not stop there.  In the New Covenant, the old enemies of God are called into His family, and the results have been astounding. In the Gospels, Jesus starts many of His parables by saying, "The Kingdom of God is like..." or "The Kingdom of Heaven is like...", and several of these parables speak of the great growth of God's Kingdom.  There is the one about the mustard seed, where Jesus explains that the Kingdom will start very small in relation to other kingdoms and then grow to be very large in relation to other kingdoms.  There is the one about the leaven, where Jesus explains that from a humble beginning the Kingdom will spread throughout the entire world.  These parables parallel the prophet Daniel's description of the growth of the same Kingdom in Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45 where he descibes a stone cut by no human hand that would start small and then grow to be a mountain that would fill the whole earth.

These parables and prophecies all refer to the growth and global saturation of Christ's Kingdom: the Church.  And as we look back through church history, we find a very literal fulfillment of these promises in the spread of the gospel to all the nations.  What began with a little over a hundred believers in Jerusalem in the first century A.D. rapidly multiplied and filled the ancient world, eventually even dominating the secular state.  And now, twenty centuries later, the good news of the salvation that is provided in Jesus Christ has spread to every land on the planet, and the leaven of the Kingdom continues to infect even the darkest corners of the globe.

So what could the future look like if the gospel continues to spread and the church continues to grow?  How far could it go before Jesus returns?

There is an interesting picture in Isaiah 19 of this exact situation.  In verses 16-25, God describes the glorious salvation of two of Israel's former enemies: Egypt and Assyria.  A curious statement is made there in verse 18: "In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts.  One of these will be called the City of Destruction."  Some Bible scholars see here an indication that perhaps as the gospel spreads throughout the world, it may eventually get to the point where five out of six cities would declare themselves for the Lord.  In other words, we could be looking at a possible 83% conversion rate world-wide sometime in the future.

What kind of wonders of peace and joy might await the generation that sees the gospel affect that much of the world's population?  There's no doubt that Jesus has a beautiful future prepared for His church.  Our goal as Christians should be no less than seeing the kingdom of this world becomming the Kingdom of our God.  We're promised that it will happen.  That should give us the courage and the energy to work toward its fulfillment!

Saving the World

The following comes from a sermon preached by Benjamin B. Warfield on the text of John 3:16 entitled, "God's Immeasurable Love":

You must not fancy, then, that God sits helplessly by while the world, which He has created for Himself, hurtles hopelessly to destruction, and He is able only to snatch with difficulty here and there a brand from the universal burning.  The world does not govern Him in a single one of its acts: He governs it and leads it steadily onward to the end which, from the beginning, or ever a beam of it had been laid, He had determined for it....Through all the years one increasing purpose runs, one increasing purpose: the kingdoms of the earth become ever more and more the Kingdom of our God and His Christ.  The process may be slow; the progress may appear to our impatient eyes to lag.  But it is God who is building: and under His hands the structure rises as steadily as it does slowly, and in due time the capstone shall be set into its place, and to our astonished eyes shall be revealed nothing less than a saved world.