by Karl Edwards
When I was a child, if I spoke out of turn, my mother would sternly rebuke me by saying, ‘I wasn’t speaking to you’. At this, I would close my mouth and back away quickly for fear of what might come next. I think there is a lesson there for us all if we try to take all of the promises from God’s Word to ourselves, whether they belong to us or not. It might be a wise question to ask, ‘Is God actually speaking to me here?’ Or more specifically, ‘Am I the “you” in this section of Scripture?’
I was at a church meeting once where the speaker read these well known verses from Jeremiah 29:11–14a: ‘For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back from your captivity…’
She told us that God had a future and a hope for each of us, that He would listen to us whenever we prayed, that He would be found by us when we searched and, most of all, He would bring us out of our captivity. She then mentioned all kinds of captivity that we would be delivered from. To emphasise her point, she told the listeners to substitute the ‘you’ in these verses with their own names. She then read excitedly, ‘I know the thoughts that I think toward Michelle, says the LORD… to give Mark a future and a hope’. She continued to read, adding names of people who were present. The congregation also became excited by the prospects of these promises, agreeing that this was a wonderful way to realise the promises of God for themselves, and it seemed from the reception that no one thought to ask, ‘Are these verses really talking about me?’ Even though these verses contain some universal truths concerning the nature of God, is it right to appropriate any section of Scripture to anyone who reads it? Can we always assume that ‘you’ means me?
This question could be answered in part by reading a little more around the verses quoted. For instance, the speaker had not read verse 10 or the whole of verse 14, which say: ‘For thus says the LORD: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place.’ (verse 10) ‘…I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive.’ (verse 14b)
These verses immediately tell us the Lord is talking to a group of people who are at Babylon because He allowed them to be taken captive by the Babylonians. They are the ‘you’ of these verses. We also know from Kings and Chronicles that the Kingdom of Judah was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar because of their idolatry, and from the context of Jeremiah, they are the people to whom the Lord was speaking, not anyone living today. In fact, it was when Daniel read these very Scriptures later at Babylon that he realised that the seventy years of captivity were nearly ended. Daniel 9:2
The question of who the ‘you’ is in Jeremiah 29 is further established by simply going back to verse 4: ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all… whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon…’ Not only does this verse tell us exactly who is the focus of verses 11 to 14, but any part of the book of Jeremiah, beyond a few selected verses, will clearly illustrate that the Lord is talking to, and dealing with, Israel. It is probably correct to say that no other group of people in the world’s history have the right to claim these specific promises, and a Christian claiming promises to Israel in the book of Jeremiah today may well get the same answer from the Lord as I sometimes received from my mother: ‘I’m not talking to you’.
There are consequences
While the idea of understanding to whom a particular passage is written would seem to be a relatively simple matter, the reality is that many who read the Bible see themselves in every part of the book and as the focus of every promise. Some may ask, ‘Well, what’s the problem? Is it not all God’s Word? Isn’t all God’s Word profitable? Why can’t I read and believe what I want?’ However, people who respond like this do not live their ordinary lives by that rule. For instance, when booking a flight, they know that not all flights will take them where they want to go, so they book selectively. When filing a tax return, they are careful to fill in only the sections which apply to them, otherwise they may have to pay taxes for which they are not liable. There are numerous examples in everyday life where we understand that only certain things apply to us, and ignoring that truth might bring unwanted consequences. The same logic should be used when reading the Scriptures, for misappropriating promises can often result in, at best, confusion or inconvenience and, at worst, tragedy.
For instance, those who are interested in Christ’s second coming often interpret world events using Scriptures, which, in their proper context, concern only Israel. This is one reason why some Christians are confused. By similar misapplication, some inconvenience themselves and others by trying to keep the Sabbath and other parts of the Mosaic Law, which again was given only to Israel.
As mentioned, misapplied promises cause much confusion, but nothing is more tragic than a case in the UK in 2009, when a husband and wife let their eleven-year-old diabetic daughter die because they believed that God would heal her through prayer. In the subsequent trial, the father stated his belief that God would heal his daughter and that he never expected her to die. He said, ‘If I go to the doctor, I am putting the doctor before God; I am not believing what He said He would do.’ The girl died on the floor of their home surrounded by people who also believed that God would heal her. This, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. Claiming promises from the Gospels such as those in Mark 16:15–18, believing that they are instructions for Christians today, is one of the main reasons why such tragedies take place.
Who is the ‘you’ in Mark 16:15–18?
A cursory reading of those last verses of Mark may seem to say that healing should be available to believers today. After all, Christ healed continuously and enabled his disciples to do the same, so these words seem to be a promise of power and healing to all who believe. If one believes, signs should follow! However, 2000 years of Christianity show that this is not the case, a fact which confuses many believers. Some say it is because the sick ones don’t have enough faith. Others say that God has only given the power to certain people, while yet others believe that these signs are happening regularly in places like Africa and China. Regardless of what people believe, however, it is evident that now there are virtually no evidential signs or miracles following those who believe.
The problem of Mark 16:14–18, like other problems in Scripture, disappears when the correct recipient is identified. In other words, if these promises were never directed toward Christians today in the first place, there is no need for confusion or such tragedies as the one mentioned above. So the question arises as to whom exactly the Lord gave this directive. Are those words spoken to you?
God’s unconditional covenants
To answer these questions, it will help to consider the unconditional covenants God made in the Old Testament, with whom He made them, and what relevance, if any, they have for us today. There are three specific, unconditional covenants mentioned, one with Noah concerning the earth, one with Abraham concerning the land and one with David concerning the throne. Being unconditional, these covenants are unbreakable because God is the only contracting party. Wherever a man is involved in any covenant, it is always broken. Hence, God made a promise with Himself, so to speak, which means that God’s unconditional covenants will hold true.
The covenant made with Noah was not for Noah’s benefit only, but for all of his descendants and every living creature that was with him on the earth. Genesis 9:8–10: ‘Then God spoke to Noah… saying, “And as for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that is with you.”.’ In Genesis 8:21, God declares that He will not curse the ground again nor destroy every living thing, and that as long as the earth lasted, it would continue to function as previously, with day and night and the seasons providing consistency for agriculture and the continuance of life. He then tells Noah to be fruitful and multiply, after which He makes a formal covenant. Because all of mankind are Noah’s descendants, this covenant does include you and me.
Abraham’s covenant, however, was for his descendants only. God told him, in Genesis 15:7, that He would give him the land later known as Israel. Abraham asked how he could know that he would inherit it, and there follows a very unusual procedure. Genesis 15:9,10: ‘So He [God] said to him, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon”. Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.’
Strange as it may seem to us, this was the normal method of making a covenant at that time. The cutting of the animals was a sacrifice representing the agreement made between the two parties; in fact the Hebrew words for ‘make a covenant’, karath berith, literally mean ‘to cut a covenant’. The animals were laid out and the contracting parties then walked between the carcase pieces, signifying that if either party broke the agreement, they would end up like the animals. However, when it came time for Abraham to walk between the animals, he was put into a deep sleep, and God, symbolised by the smoking oven and burning torch, made the covenant alone, Genesis 15:12;17,18. The unconditional nature of this covenant could not be more vivid. The land was specifically covenanted to Abraham and his descendants, not to all mankind.
The promise is reiterated to Isaac in Genesis 26:3–6, eliminating Ishmael, and then to Jacob and his twelve sons in Genesis 28:14,15, eliminating Esau. So, unless you are of the lineage of Jacob, this covenant does not include you.
The third unconditional covenant was made with David, a direct descendant and therefore, also, a recipient of the covenant made with Abraham. 1 Chronicles 17:11–14: ‘And it shall be, when your days are fulfilled… that I will set up your seed after you, who will be of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build Me a house, and I will establish his throne forever… and I will not take My mercy away from him, as I took it from him who was before you… and his throne shall be established forever.’ While this prophecy involves Solomon, it ultimately refers to the Lord Jesus Christ. David was of the tribe of Judah, and Christ came from that same lineage, being of the seed of David.
It is interesting to note that there are a number of places in the Scriptures where these covenants are connected. Jeremiah 33:20,21: ‘Thus says the LORD: “If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night, so that there will not be day and night in their season, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne…”.’ Psalm 89:35–37: ‘Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David: His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before Me; it shall be established forever like the moon, even like the faithful witness in the sky.’ God declares that His covenant with David concerning the throne is as sure as His covenant with day and night and the sun and the moon. The kingdom and the royal line of David will be established finally in the millennial kingdom with the Lord Jesus Christ as King. It is the unconditional nature of these covenants, and an understanding of the people they concern, that provide the key to understanding the ‘you’ of Mark chapter 16.
The role of the Holy Spirit
Ezekiel, writing of the future time when God will restore Israel to the promised land in preparation for the kingdom, highlights the pouring out of the spirit that will take place. Ezekiel 36:24–28: ‘For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you… I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then… you shall be My people, and I will be your God.’
The Spirit within them will enable them to keep the conditional Mosaic covenant. The Lord had said to them through Moses, Exodus 19:5,6: ‘Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be mine own possession from among all peoples: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation…’
There was an ‘if’ then and they failed to keep the statutes, but after the Spirit is poured out on them, they shall have a new heart and new spirit and they will be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, dwelling in the land God gave to their fathers. Isaiah also speaks about this time in Isaiah 44:3–5. If there is any doubt as to whose descendants verse three refers to, verse one clearly tells us that it is the nation of Israel. Joel 2:28,29 also describes signs that will be evident in Israel when the Spirit is poured out on them: ‘And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.’
Joel’s prophecy is clearly written to Israel, the pouring out of the Spirit is for them at the time when the everlasting kingdom will be established, and to put today’s Christians into these verses makes no sense in the context of all of the Old Testament prophecies regarding the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The word ‘your’ in these verses is clearly not about you or me.
Christ, a minister to the circumcision
It surprises many people when they learn that Christ’s earthly ministry was focused solely on Israel. Romans 15:8: ‘Now I say that Jesus Christ has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers.’ The Lord preached repentance in preparation for the kingdom to Israel only, and healed them to prepare them for their role as a kingdom of priests and the channel of blessing to the rest of the nations. Thousands of people were healed; instantaneous, evidential miracles were taking place on a daily basis. Not only did He heal, but He gave His disciples, all Israelites, the power to heal also. They healed only other Israelites, the people of the covenants. In fact, there are only two incidents in the Gospels where the Lord healed non-Jews: the Roman centurion’s servant in Luke 7, and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, where the Lord described the healing as ‘the children’s bread’. He meant that healings were only for those who were members of the kingdom of priests, and a blemished priest could not carry out the priestly duties, Leviticus 21:21.
When He sent out the disciples, we can clearly see that Israel was the Lord’s primary concern. Matthew 10:5–8: ‘Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and as you go, preach, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.’
At this point, it was for Jews only. Although these signs were unprecedented, they were not unexpected. The Old Testament prophesied these things of the Messiah, and those who knew the Scriptures expected the Messiah to do such things. When John the Baptist was in prison, he sent two disciples to ask the Lord if He was the Christ, Luke 7:18–22. John was the forerunner, and perhaps he was a little anxious because he might have expected by now to be in the King’s kingdom, not in a king’s dungeon. The Lord answered John by referring to His signs and miracles such as ‘the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them’. (See Isaiah 35 and 61.) The signs were enough for John to recognise that Jesus was indeed the King and the Messiah, the One who had come to save them.
The signs also fulfilled the promises made to the descendants of Jacob, and the signs, during Acts, authenticated the disciples as they continued the witness to Israel that the Lord had begun. This is what is being spoken of in Hebrews 2:3,4: ‘…which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?’
Acts 2 records the giving of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and despite the traditional view, the Spirit was poured out only on the Children of Israel. There were no Gentiles there, only those of the lineage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, only those to whom the covenants and the oracles of God had been committed. Romans 3:1,2
When Peter spoke to the crowd in Acts two and three, he addressed them specifically as: ‘men of Judea’, 2:14; ‘men of Israel’, 2:22; 3:12; ‘the God of our fathers’, 3:13; ‘brethren’ 3:17; ‘you are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers’, 3:25. Who is the ‘you’ of these verses? Not you or me. Peter also tells them that, if they repent, they will receive the promised restoration of the kingdom, Acts 3:19–21, the same message that was preached in the Gospels by John the Baptist, the Lord, and the disciples. This offer of the kingdom in the Gospels was rejected by Israel as a nation, but here in Acts, it is offered a second time with the same condition of repentance. As in the Gospels, so the offer in Acts was also with evidential signs and miracles, carried out by the ‘those who believed’, as in Mark 16.
The last verse of Mark 16 is a beautiful summary of the book of Acts. Mark 16:20: ‘And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.’
While the Jews expected such signs from God, the Gentiles had no idea what they meant There are two records in the book of Acts where Gentiles saw signs of healing and miracles, and in both cases, they quickly turned to idolatry. See Acts 14:11–13 and 28:3–6.
Gentiles still do not understand those signs. The plethora of so-called signs and miracles in modern Christendom do nothing more than lead people into the same idolatrous practices of worshipping the performers. When we understand that the signs and the miracles of the Gospels and the Acts were for the sole purpose of authenticating Christ as the Messiah to Israel, then we understand the significance of the signs, and when we read ‘you’ in relation to demonstrations of God’s power throughout the Scriptures, we realise that the ‘you’ are those to whom God promised such power.
There are many wonderful promises written directly to Christians today, but as long as we try to claim promises in which God is not speaking to us, we will wander in confusion and disappointment. So, when reading the Scriptures, simply ask yourself: ‘Am I the “you” being addressed’, and check the context, because the name and address of the recipient is usually clearly marked on the envelope.