Most of the time, God’s promises are conditional on how we respond.
From Jonah we learn that all prophecies of doom are conditional, even if that condition is not spelled out. God sent Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that they were going to be destroyed for their sin, but they repented and therefore did not perish. God loves us, therefore God does not tell us about unavoidable doom, so that we can enjoy our final days. He gives prophecies of doom only to heal us, and that is only possible if we can do something to avert the disaster. Therefore all prophecies of doom are conditional on repentance.
From Noah we also learn that God’s promises of blessing are conditional. If Noah had said, “I believe God, but I don’t have to actually build a boat, because that would be salvation by works,” they would have all drowned. Faith is trust, and if you trust someone, you take his advice. If you say you trust someone, but you do not take his advice, you are just humoring him. So if you love Jesus, you will obey His commandments. Noah trusted God, therefore he took God’s advice and built the boat and that is how he and his family were saved from the flood. God’s blessing is conditional on our trust in Him, and in the obedience that comes out of that trust.
We human beings also make promises that are conditional; for example, you might tell your child, “If you get good grades in school, I will give you a bicycle for your birthday.” However, if your employer lays you off, and you get into unforeseen financial difficulties, you have the difficult task of explaining to a child why you have to break a promise. For God, there are no unforeseen circumstances; therefore God never needs to break a promise—the occasion never arises. So we can say, as Paul puts it, that that God’s gifts and promises are irrevocable.
So God makes promises, they have conditions, but they are all irrevocable—which means that He never breaks them and he never takes them back. That is what the Bible means by righteousness—always keeping promises. You might break your promises to God, but He never breaks His promise to you. You might have to go back and repent again and again, but there is nothing that can make something snap in God’s mind so that He writes you off no matter what you do. He never takes back or breaks His promises, so no matter how many times you spurn Him, you can always go back and reconcile yourself with Him, and it will be just as good as if you had never disobeyed.
How God’s promises to Israel came to include the gentiles
This brings us to Paul’s reasoning about how the promises of Israel extend to all people.
I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew… God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
—Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, NIV
Paul reasons that God made a promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations; Abraham believed God and set out for the Promised Land, but his descendants turned not to be any more worthy than anyone else. In that situation, if God kept His promise to Israel without including everyone else, it would be unfair, since all are equally unworthy. Since God is righteous, He keeps His promise to Israel anyway. Since God is fair, He includes all other unworthy people in the promise. Since He is including unworthy people in the promise, this re-includes Israel, because they are part of “all people.” In other words, God includes the entire human race in the promise to Israel!
Notice also that if Israel had not disobeyed, Abraham would have been the father of only one nation. As it stands, he is the father of many nations.
In that circuitous way, the disobedience of the Jews not only benefits us, it paradoxically benefits them, because God is merciful to everyone regardless of anything. This is what we call God’s grace, and it is by this grace, through our trust in Him, that we are saved, to do all the good things that He prepared in advance for us to do, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10.
God always keeps His promises
God made a promise to Abraham that he would become the father of many nations, but Abraham’s grandson Jacob (also called Israel) ran into a teeny little problem—a massive famine that threatened to wipe out the whole clan. If they all died out, Abraham wouldn’t have been the father of anyone, let alone many nations. Through complicated and unexpected ways, God provided for them. God gave Joseph, Israel’s favorite son, so many grandiose visions and dreams that he annoyed his brothers to death, and they sold him into slavery to get rid of the bragging. Joseph went through many trials and toils and snares and false accusations, but he ended up as a high government official in Egypt. So at the very time that the clan went to Egypt to ask for help, God had positioned Joseph with the power and authority to give them even more than they needed. Joseph realized, looking back, that the course of his life was actually God’s providence, so he forgave his brothers for what they did.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me—you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.’
—Genesis 45:4-11, NIV
God always keeps His promises. His gifts and promises are irrevocable. However, that does not mean that they are unconditional, it does not mean they are irresistible, and it does not guarantee that we will take God up on them. If we fail to benefit from God’s promises, it is our own fault, not God’s. He gave us free will, and He respects our personal integrity absolutely. His offer always stands; but it is up to us to accept or reject it. God’s gifts and promises are irrevocable, but our acceptance of them is not inevitable.
The Disciples Go on a Field Trip
Now that we understand how God makes and keeps promises, let’s go back to find out how the children of Israel misunderstood them.
Someone said that the Pharisees were essentially a dinner club since most kosher laws have to do with food.
The most common form of social interaction is sharing meals. The kosher laws place a barrier between the Jews and the gentiles, which makes it hard for Jews to be assimilated by a surrounding culture, and that preserves Jewish identity. We no longer hear about problems with the Ammonites or the Hittites or the Sumerians; they no longer exist. The only people who existed then and still exist now with the same religion and culture as back then are the Jews, and the kosher laws that God gave them have a lot to do with it.
Back then there was a misconception that obeying kosher laws made you better than everyone else, just as today there is a misconception that kosher laws are hygienic. Neither is true. The kosher laws exist to preserve Jewish identity so that the Jews can be a perpetual witness to the world of the One True God. And in fact they are. They are a small and powerless people who have survived from ancient times to the present day with their religion, customs, and identity intact. That is powerful evidence that they worship a provident and loving God.
Jesus had to deal with the misconception that keeping kosher makes you good or moral in some way. That’s a misconception because what makes you a good or bad person is not what goes into you, but what comes out of you. Having the right diet doesn’t make you special. Not doing bad things doesn’t make you a good person. What makes you a good person is doing good things.
Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”
Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’”
—Matthew 15:10-20, NIV
Jesus’ earthly mission is not to go into all the world and preach the gospel, but to equip the disciples to do it, and to give them a core group to practice on and start with. As part of this training, Jesus dealt with their misconceptions about the kosher laws and about what it means to be God’s chosen people.
Jesus equips them to spread the gospel by revealing His identity and authority by working miracles, most importantly the resurrection. That was enough to propel them into all the world. He tells the public parables, but only explains the meaning to the disciples. That makes the Jewish public ripe for the disciples’ evangelism, giving the disciples easy converts to practice on and making it possible for them to establish a base of operations before they ventured into the rest of the world.
However, going into all the world isn’t enough; they need to learn what to do when they get there. So Jesus takes His disciples on a field trip to a border area between Galilee and the gentile lands to the north. Jesus’ fame is sufficient to guarantee that some sort of interaction with gentiles will come up.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
—Matthew 15:21-27, NIV
At this point, the disciples only know that Jesus’ earthly mission is for the Jews only; they don’t why. The gentile woman, who comes seeking Jesus’ help, lives near Jewish settlements. She knows that the Jews consider themselves the chosen people, even if they sometimes get mixed up about what that means.
It is a perfect set up, which Jesus exploits of the benefit of the woman and the disciples.
Jesus deliberately ignores her shouted requests, leaving it to the disciples to deal with her. Their performance is very poor, as one would expect because that is why Jesus brought them here. The disciples’ attitude is not right for people who are going to be sent into all the world: they actually try to shoo her away! But she persists.
Finally, the disciples escalate the issue to Jesus. Jesus affirms that His earthly mission is only to the Jews. That is what the disciples expected Him to say, and since the woman most likely expected Him to use Jewish exclusivity as a justification for not helping her, she must have been thinking about how to overcome this objection.
Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And indeed it is not. If people found out that you fed the dog your children’s dinner, leaving the children hungry, some authority or the other would investigate your fitness to be a parent. The woman agrees. Giving her daughter’s dinner to the dog wouldn’t be right. In an era before commercial dog food, pets were fed with table scraps, so the woman says, “But the dogs eat table scraps!”
The situation had been building up to this point. It was like a balloon being inflated, so that at this point, Jesus effectively sticks that balloon with a pin. Now comes the bang that the disciples won’t forget. Jesus rewards the woman’s faith and confounds the disciples’ prejudices.
If you are blowing up a balloon, it doesn’t matter how big it gets, a pinpoint will pop it; but the larger it is, the louder the bang and the bigger the impression it makes. That is why Jesus let the situation get nearly out of hand. That is why Jesus ignored the woman and allowed the disciples to inflate their egos and their sense of spiritual entitlement as they handled it incorrectly. He waited until the balloon was large before He popped it. There’s no way they could forget that bang; there is no way they could forget that lesson.
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
—Matthew 15:28, NIV
Jesus made His point loud and clear; don’t miss it. God’s grace and promises are for everyone regardless of anything.
God made a promise to Abraham. God kept it even when it seemed that Abraham’s descendants would all die out in a famine. However, they didn’t keep their end of the bargain. They kept kosher with their groceries but not with their conduct—they did not see that their mission was to benefit others, which was the point all along. To keep the promise and to be fair, God includes all people in the promise.
God’s promises to you and to the people you don’t like
Sometimes we say about people, “Now that’s the last straw.” We take back our promises, we pull in the welcome mat, and we don’t answer the phone when they show up on caller ID. But the gifts and promises of God are irrevocable. With God there is no last straw. The promises stand, no matter what we do. The welcome mat is always out, and God always listens to our prayers. With God, we can always go back, repent, and have things be the way they were before, as if we had never sinned.
And that is true for the people you don’t like, too. It’s even true for the people you suspect are plotting the downfall of civilization! Don’t get uppity like the disciples and think that others are beyond His grace—don’t make God pop a big balloon to get your attention and to teach you.
There is no elite and there are no untouchables; all are beloved of God, all are unworthy of salvation. God never retracts or breaks the promises He makes, and anyone who repents and embraces His transforming love can receive them.