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Alex's Blog for April 23, 2014 - A Number That No Man Can Count (Jeremiah 33:14-22)
By Alex Dodson
Dr. Samuel Miller of Princeton Theological Seminary wrote in 1833 after experiencing the wonderful years of the Second Great Awakening in America - "The frequency, the power, and the precious results of revivals, in almost every part of the American churches, within a few years past, cannot but fill the hearts of intelligent Christians with joy, while they furnish a most animating presage of the rapid manner in which the conversion of the world may be expected to proceed, when 'the set time to favor Zion shall come'; and a no less gratifying pledge of the ease with which the Head of the church can solve that problem so perplexing to human wisdom - How the number of candidates for the ministry may be so rapidly multiplied, as in any good measure to meet the urgent and increasing demand for spiritual laborers, both in the domestic and foreign field? Let such revivals as we have been permitted to see, but with augmented power and extent, visit the churches year after year, and fill all lands, and the work will be done. The knowledge and glory of the Lord, without the interposition of what we call miracle, will soon fill the earth." (Princeton and the Christian Ministry, Vol. 1, p. 701-702)
Dr. Miller goes on to say, "I cannot help recording my conviction that these revivals are the hope of the church and of the world. In other words, the Millennium is at a far greater distance than the most pious and enlightened interpreters of prophecy have supposed; or else the conversion of the heathen, and of all that are afar off, must proceed in a much more rapid manner than it has hitherto done. I am disposed to adopt the latter alternative, and, of course, to believe that the church is warranted in looking and praying for revivals of religion far more extensive, more powerful, and more glorious, than the present generation, or indeed any other has ever witnessed." (ibid, p. 702) When Dr. Miller speaks of the Millennium, he is not speaking in terms of the modern dispensational view of the Millennium but rather in a time of latter day glory in this age when the world as a whole will have been won to Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Of course, such a view of the future is rare today among evangelicals since the dispensational view of the future now is dominant and paints a much more gloomy picture of the church in this age.
Dr. Miller, however, was much more optimistic in his views of the future of the church when he writes, "This being my impression, I cannot doubt that it is the duty of all professing Christians, at the present day, to expect great things; to ask for great things; and to employ with increasing diligence all the means which the Spirit of God has warranted, and has promised to follow with his blessing, for the attainment of great things in the way of revivals. They are solemnly bound, in that spirit of hallowed enterprise, which becomes a new exigency, and new dawnings in human affairs, to endeavor, by augmented parental care and diligence; by increasing pastoral fidelity; by the more edifying example, and unwearied activity of private Christians in their appropriate sphere; by prayer more humble, importunate, and persevering than heretofore; and by redoubled efforts to sustain and extend all those associations which have for their object the reformation and conversion of the world; - they are bound, I say, by all these means to endeavor to hasten the arrival of that period when 'nations shall be born in a day', and when multitudes shall flock to the ark of safety 'as a cloud, and as doves to their windows', and when 'converts to righteousness shall be numerous as the drops of the morning dew'. In my opinion every professing Christian ought to consider the degree in which he longs, and prays, and exerts himself for the revival of religion, and for the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom…" (ibid, p 702-703)
Was Dr. Miller too optimistic? Was his view of the church too high? Today's popular view that the church will go down in defeat and have to be rescued by the rapture seems to be at odds with the vision of Dr. Miller. Yet, was he all wrong in thinking it was possible for the world to be converted through revivals in this age? Should we even expect such a thing to happen? Isn't the church, that is the true church, to remain only a remnant in this dark and evil world? The best it can do is bear witness in this dark hour and then be rescued out of the way before utter darkness descends. Which view is most Biblical - the victorious view of Dr. Miller or the gloom and doom view of modern prophecy teachers?
This article may bring some light on these questions as we consider Jeremiah 33:14-22. This passage is very interesting and gives a promise of the coming Messiah and who he will be and what will be the outcome of his work. The passage begins with the wonderful promise of the coming Branch - "'The days are coming' declares the Lord, 'when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. 'In those days and that time, I will make a righteous Branch to sprout from David's line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it (he) will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.'" This is a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah whom we know now to be Jesus. This promise of a descendant of David who would come was given to David himself in 2 Samuel 7:11-16 which says, "….The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; you throne will be established forever." This was not fulfilled in Solomon, David's son, but would be fulfilled in his descendant who would come many years later who is Jesus Christ. We know this from what the angel Gabriel told Mary concerning the son that would be born of her. Luke 1:30-33 gives the account, "But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." It is this Jesus Christ whose kingdom would last forever and who would be the one to build the temple, the house that would last forever which can only be the church. The new temple that He would build then would be the church as it says in Matthew 16:18 - "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades (Hell) will not overcome it."
The next part of the passage tells us what this Messiah will do that is what offices he will perform. Jeremiah 33:17-18 says, "For this is what the Lord says: 'David will never fail to have a man sit on the throne of the house of Israel, nor will the priests, who are Levites, ever fail go have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.'" This descendant of David would not only sit on a throne as King but would also exercise the office of a priest. He would be a continual king and priest and exercise both offices. Jesus Christ was both a king and a priest. He offered Himself up on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins and He continually intercedes on our behalf in heaven as our High Priest. Hebrews 7:23-25 says, "Now there were many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them." He now rules from the throne of God as our King-Priest. Hebrews 10:12-14 - "But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy." Jesus Christ now rules from Heaven as our King-Priest. He is now the Lord of Lords and King of Kings and awaits the victory over all His enemies.
The next section we will consider then is verses 19-21 which says, "The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 'This is what the Lord says: 'If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant - and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me - can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne." The Lord reinforces His promise concerning David and the Levites having a descendant that would come and continue the ministry of the Levites and would continue the reign from David's throne. He goes back to the creation and His establishing day and night. He promises that if day and night cease to occur as He has ordained then there will be no descendant of David or the Levites who would come. In other words, His promise of this descendant who would be a king and priest is sure and certain just as it is sure and certain that day and night will continue. God's promise has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ who now reigns from God's throne in heaven and who also intercedes for us there as our priest.
However, we must see in this prophecy not only a single descendant who would come and be a king-priest, but through Him numerous descendants that fulfill this prophecy. For it says in the next verse, "I will make the descendants of David my servant and the Levites who minister before me as countless as the stars of the sky and as measureless as the sand on the seashore." (Jeremiah 33:22) Through this one descendant Jesus Christ would come many descendants who would be priests and kings as it says in Revelation 1:5-6 (KJV) - "And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen." We read also in 1 Peter 2:5, 9 - "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." The church, made up of believers in Jesus Christ, are a royal priesthood and a holy nation. All believers in Jesus Christ are the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah.
The same kind of prophecy was given to Abraham in Genesis 15:5 - "He took him outside and said, 'Look at the heavens and count the stars - if indeed you can count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your offspring be.'" God tells Abraham that his descendants will be so many that he would not be able to count them. Now, God was not just talking about Abraham's descendants according to the flesh but ultimately his spiritual descendants. Galatians 3:29 makes this clear when it says, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Abraham's spiritual descendants, those who trust in Christ, will be so many that no one will be able to count them. That is essentially what the prophecy to Abraham meant. This same promise to Abraham was repeated to both Isaac and Jacob in Genesis 26:4 and 32:12.
If the prophecy of Jeremiah 33:22 is ultimately fulfilled in the church, then Revelation 7:9 describing the redeemed in heaven must be a fulfillment of that verse. There we read, "After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the lamb."
Matthew Henry writes concerning Jeremiah 33:22 that it is fulfilled "in all true believers, who are a holy priesthood, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2, 5. 9), who are made to our God kings and priests (Rev. 1:6); they offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God, and themselves, in the first place, living sacrifices. Of these Levites this promise must be understood, that they shall be as numerous as the sand of the sea, that same that is promised concerning Israel in general (Genesis 22:17); for all God's spiritual Israel are spiritual priests (Revelation 5:9,10; 7;9, 15)." (Matthew Henry's Commentary on Jeremiah, p. 622-623) John Gill on this same verse comments, "'As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured' - As the stars of heaven are innumerable, and the sand of the sea immeasureable: 'so will I multiply the seed of David my servant, the Messiah, the son and antitype of David; and who is often called by his name; and as the son of David is the servant of the Lord, his spiritual seed are meant, which shall endure forever and in Gospel times, especially in the latter part of them, shall be very numerous; 'and the Levites that minister unto me: meaning the same as before; not ministers of the Gospel, for they never were, or will be, so numerous as here expressed: but true believers in Christ; who are all priests unto God, and minister in holy things, offering up the spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praise through Christ; these Levites are the same with the seed of David, or Christ, in whom the kingdom and the priesthood are united." (www.biblestudytools.com)
This passage in Jeremiah 33:22 seems to indicate that the church will be quite large during this gospel age with so many people in it that no one will be able to count them. However, how do we reconcile this prophecy with the statements of Jesus which seems to indicate that the number of believers will be few? Matthew 7:13, 14 says, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." This passage seems to teach us that only a few people will be saved or that the number of true believers in the world will always be only a few. Often times, it would seem that this is the case. The number of true believers in the world today are still a minority compared to the entire population of the world. Yet, will this always be? Hasn't the church grown a lot since it first began two thousand years ago? Is it not still growing? Is it not possible that it will grow even more in the future? Yet, we have to deal with the verse just above. What did Jesus mean? Had he not read Jeremiah 33:22? How could he say that only a few would believe? We must realize that these verses were spoken in the immediate context when only a few were believing and it is true that being a Christian is difficult and that we need to count the cost before we become a Christian. The Greek word for find in "only a few find it" is in the present tense and is not necessarily referring to the whole future of the church. It could be translated "and few there are who are finding it" and the Phillips New Testament does translate it as "and only a few are finding it." Jesus, then, could be referring more to the present circumstances when He was here on earth when it is true only a few believed. Yet, he told His disciples that they would do greater things than He had done. John 14:12 - "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." To say that there will always only be a few people who will believe based on what Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14 may not be the full picture. Greater things may yet be seen.
Another similar passage is Luke 13:22 - 30 which says, "Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, 'Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?' He said to them, 'Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, 'Sir, open the door for us.' But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.' Then you will say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' But he will reply, 'I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!' There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their place at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last." This whole passage seems to be in a Jewish context and applicable to the Jews who witnessed Jesus' ministry but few actually received Him as Lord and Savior. Though he was among them and they ate and drank with him, few actually believed on him and there would come a time when it would be too late to do so. These verses definitely do not apply to the future of the church and mean that only a few would believe. On the contrary it points out that people from all over the world would come and find Jesus and be a part of the kingdom of God. The similar passage in Matthew 8: 10-12 says, "When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, 'I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'" Here, Jesus actually says that many will come to Him from all over the world. This was said in the context of the Gentile Centurion who had great faith. Jesus looked into the future and saw that many like Him would come in faith and be a part of the kingdom of God.
The church has actually grown tremendously since its inception 2,000 years ago and it is continuing to advance not so much here in North America but in other parts of the world. Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom, the Coming of Global Christianity writes, "In 1800, perhaps one percent of all Protestant Christians lived outside Europe and North America. By 1900, that number had risen to 10 percent, and this proved enough of a critical mass to support further expansion. Today, the figure stands around two-thirds of all Protestants." (p. 37) Jenkins comments, "When in 2000, the popular evangelical magazine Christian History listed the 'hundred most important events in Church history,' the only mention of Africa, Asia, or Latin America involved the British abolition of the slave trade. Missing from this top hundred was church growth in modern Africa, where the number of Christians increased, staggeringly, from 10 million in 1900 to 360 million in 2000." (p. 4) He points out that, "Today, perhaps 75 percent of Ugandans are Christian, as are 90 percent of the people of Madagascar." (p. 44)
In 1853, there were 350 Protestant Chinese Christians in China. Today, that number has grown to as many as 75 million or more. No one knows for sure the exact number but tremendous growth has taken place. Jenkins writes, "The number of Christians in the whole of Korea was only 300,000 or so in 1920, but this has now risen to 10 million or 12 million, about a quarter of the national population. Christians represent a solid majority of those declaring any religious affiliation, quite an achievement for a society that for centuries defined its identity in terms of Buddhism and Confucianism." (Ibid p. 71)
Even though we are witnessing a time of spiritual decline in North America and Europe, the church is growing in other areas of the world and will continue to do so. There is yet great potential for the gospel in this world and we must not loose sight of that. Though there is decline in America at the present moment, that does not always have to be. Great Revivals have taken place here in the past and can do so again. The same can be said for Europe. Iain Murray in his book The Puritan Hope points out that Christianity had reached a low point in England in the 1730's. He writes, "Scarcely a greater contrast exists in English history than that between the honor publicly paid to Christianity in the mid-seventeenth century and the attitude of the 1730's when at court Queen Caroline talked politics with her husband, George II, during services in the royal chapel. When the Queen was dying in 1737 the court not surprisingly viewed Archbishop Potter's prayers at her bed-side as the empty farce that it was. 'It has come to be taken for granted', wrote Bishop Butler in 1736, 'that Christianity is no longer a subject of enquiry; but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly it is treated as if, in the present age, this was an agreed point among all persons of discernment, and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject for mirth and ridicule.' (The Puritan Hope, pp. 109-110) Yet, by the end of the 1730's one of the most powerful revivals that has ever occurred began in England and changed the whole nation. Murray writes, "Though a number, like the Simeons and Annas of another day, thus waited for a divine visitation, when the great revival of the eighteenth century at last began in the late 1730's, it was unexpected by the mass of nominal Christians. And even those who had long prayed for a new out-pouring of the Spirit were to be astonished at both the extent and power of the work." (Ibid p. 114) Murray continues, "By 1739 it was beyond question that a great revival had commenced in England. New Year's Day witnessed the small group of leaders in London, including Whitefield and Wesley, met in a prayer meeting reminiscent of the private gatherings of ministers in the previous century. In the next five weeks Whitefield preached some thirty times in and about London, then moving to the Bristol area he took the momentous step on February 17 of preaching to some 200 colliers in the open-air at Kingswood, the use of a church having been denied to him. From this point onwards open-air preaching became an inescapable necessity as congregations gathered in the thousands. In the bleak months of February and March Whitefield estimated that there were as many as ten thousand hearers on one occasion at Kingswood; and in London, on Moorsfields and Kennington Common, during the following months still vaster crowds assembled for the preaching of a message which had so recently been generally dismissed with scorn. At a time when the population of the capital was only some 600,000, and when gin and gambling were the great public interests, it was an amazing phenomenon that a Christian preacher could now command far larger gatherings than any of the theatres or entertainments of the day. In July, 1739, Whitefield wrote from London, 'A great work of God is doing here. The Lord Jesus gets himself the victory every day.' And in August: 'The Spirit of God is moving on the faces of thousands of souls in England. The word runs very swift, and Satan falls like lightning from heaven.'" (Ibid pp. 115-116)
Today, the church in North America seems to be very weak. Rather than anticipating a great revival and praying for such, many in the church await a rapture to take them away as soon as possible. Yet, is this the way of faith? The church needs to stand up and preach the gospel as never before and to remember the words of Isaiah 59:19 - "So shall they fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun. When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him." What we need today are mighty preachers of the gospel who will stand up against the enemy. Satan will not win the battle. The Church will yet be victorious. Her glory will come. Isaiah 60:1-3 assures us, "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn."
Could Dr. Miller, one of the founding professors of Princeton Seminary, be right after all? "Let such revivals as we have been permitted to see, but with augmented power and extent, visit the churches year after year, and fill all lands, and the work will be done. The knowledge and glory of the Lord, without the interposition of what we call miracle, will soon fill the earth." (Princeton and the Christian Ministry, Vol. 1, p. 702)
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (1978) unless indicated otherwise.
Garretson, James M. Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, Volume 1, The Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 2012.