11 Therefore remember that previously you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the people of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who previously were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ {Eph2:11-13)

Paul is here reminding his Gentile readers in Ephesus of their spiritual condition before their conversion. This, then, must be true of everyone by nature, for all can be said to be “strangers to the covenants of promise”. By Paul’s reckoning, all outside that covenant are “separate from Christ”, “excluded from the Israel of God”, “without hope and without God in the world”. It sounds bleak and harsh, almost Augustinian – but pause for a moment. Who was the first man to be excluded from the covenant of promise? It was a certain “Ishmael”. He was Abraham’s first-born son no less – for whom the father of faith pleaded to God in prayer, “Oh that Ishmael might prosper before You!” (Gen17:18). Abraham’s prayer was answered, well sort of: “And God said to Abraham: Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac, and I will establish my covenant with him for a perpetual covenant, and with his seed after him. As for Ishmael I have also heard you. Behold, I will bless him, and increase, and multiply him exceedingly: he shall beget twelve chiefs, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bring forth this time next year”.

God’s redemptive plan for the world was undoubtedly to be focused around Christ. However, chronologically speaking, the first stage was to establish a people with whom the Creator would especially relate, and that was initiated by the call of Abraham. Such people would still be in sinful flesh, so they were to be provided with laws “to deter offences” and so that they might live, behave and worship in accordance with God’s will. But what of the rest of humanity? Moses later provided a clue: “Look, as JHWE my God commanded me, I have taught you laws and customs for you to observe in the country in which you are to take possession. Keep them and put them into practice and other peoples will admire your wisdom and prudence. Once they know what all these laws are, they will exclaim “No other people are as wise and prudent as this great nation Israel” (Deut4:5,6). So the children of promise were intended to be a light and bridgehead of salvation to the rest of the world. In God’s own words Isaac’s seed were “My own special treasure among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine – you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex19:5-6). That is the context of the “children of promise” in both the Old and New Testaments (cf. 1Pet2:9). But those of the Old Testament would be the seed of Abraham’s second son Isaac rather than Ishmael.  Similarly for the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, “You, (Galatian Christians), like Isaac, are the children of promise (Gal4:28).

This again affirms the privileged and exclusive nature of the covenants of promise, both in the Old and New Testaments. Those such as Ishmael did not exclude themselves by their actions (unlike Cain with respect to the eluded Universal Covenant of life). Ishmael and the other families of the earth had been excluded by divine decree. Likewise, those included such as baby Isaac, followed by children born and baptized by their Christian parents, or adults given the gift of faith to trust in Christ as Saviour (Eph2:8; Jn6:44) will have done nothing to deserve the privilege of becoming “the children of promise”. Yet that is what they are, and as I have been emphasizing in recent posts their election is by grace alone. What a monstrous travesty of justice and providential oversight it would be if the one group were to be assured of eternal bliss in heaven whilst the souls of those God had wilfully overlooked faced eternal misery. Yet that is what I (in the past) and so many Christians still believe to be the Good News of God, the fruit of Christ’s suffering, the scope of His saving work, the constraints of compassion from the God who is Love. It’s an outrageous maligning of divine providence, and largely the consequence of Augustine’s dire misreading of aspects of St Paul’s teaching, carried forward by the Protestant Reformers in their theology of sovereign grace. Yet as with the broader mystery of evil, it is a misconception which God intended should not be brought to light until the end of the age. [The relevant prophecies in Revelation and the Book of Enoch were highlighted in the previous post].

Notwithstanding such misconceptions of divine benevolence, those outside the covenant of promise were, according to Paul, “devoid of hope and without God in the world” (v12). But Paul was not saying there was no hope for them, rather that they did not personally possess “ἐλπίδα”, i.e.  hope, expectation, or assurance regarding the future – for example, that they would ever see those they had loved and lost again, let alone have a joyous relationship with God through eternity. As for being “without God in the world”, that is referring to the breakdown in the relationship that Adam and Eve had enjoyed with God before their disobedience. It is the “death” that Paul spoke of in Romans7 brought about by “the body of this death” concerning which I have already written much in these posts. For note, they were without God in the world. That is a temporary situation pertaining their soul’s inhabitation of “the body of this death” within a world order (κόσμος) still under the influence of Satan. Both encumbrances shall cease at physical death or when Christ returns, whichever is the sooner. The prince of this world’s final demise and “the redemption of the body” (Rom8:23) will transform the situation, ultimately for all true humanity (Rom8:21).

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