Has the Time of the Gentiles Passed?
Our culture’s acceleration into moral degeneracy is dizzying. Every day’s news introduces yet greater and more dramatic shamelessness, debauchery, perversion, and foolishness. Rebellion against God, truth, goodness, and beauty is becoming outspoken and rampant. Given this, one question refuses to go away: Are we seeing what the Bible predicts as the passing of the “times of the Gentiles”?
As the apostle Paul sees it, the Jews are a unique people on the face of the earth. No other people in all of human history has or ever will have a comparable status or role in God’s dealings with mankind. This is not to say that the individual Jew will receive any eternal reward unavailable to an individual Gentile. That is decidedly not the case. In eternity, there are no nations or people, only individuals. But in history, God deals with people as well as individuals. And as a people, the Jews stand alone. God has and will accomplish in and through them what He will accomplish in and through no other nation or family on the earth—not the Irish, not the English, not the Russians, not the Americans.
No other discernible group on the face of the earth has been chosen by God to be His people. And there are four concrete ramifications of this Jewish chosenness:
First, God has revealed to the Jews and to no other people His purposes in and through history. The prophets, the Scriptures, and divinely revealed religion came into the world by way of the Jews.
Secondly, God came into the world through the Jewish people. God incarnated Himself in the form of His Son, an eternal King from among the Jews, who will rule over an eternal Kingdom that God will establish at the end of this age.
Thirdly, God has established covenants only with the Jews, promising them a unique relationship and experience of Himself within the bounds of temporal history here on earth.
And fourthly, the Jews will be unique in the history of mankind in their experience of wholesale repentance and universal sanctification.
These four things constitute the concrete significance of the Jews’ status as uniquely the people of God. Paul’s comment in Romans 9 reflects the first three of these:
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren and kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. [Romans 9:1-5]
In Romans 11, Paul mentions the fourth ramification when he describes—in broad outline—the history of spirituality as the prophets present it. To understand this outline we must keep this clearly in mind: although God gave birth (in the story of the Exodus) to the nation of Israel and declared Himself their God and them His people, the Jews have never, as a people, made God their God. They have “played the harlot” throughout their history to the present day. Individuals—what Paul calls a “remnant” [Romans 11:5]—have loved God and served Him as their God, but never has the entire nation of living Jews worshipped and served Yahweh—the living and true God—as their God. And yet, the prophets say this will happen. God will turn the nation back to Himself. Jeremiah 31:31-34 says: God will “put His Law within them,” writing it “on their heart”; He will (finally) “be their God and they shall be [His] people”; God will ensure that His people “shall all know [Him], from the least of them to the greatest of them.”
The most remarkable aspect of this “new covenant” God makes with Israel is the comprehensive nature of the repentance it describes. “They shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.” At present, no nation on the face of the earth has ever experienced wholesale repentance—where an entire generation came to an authentic love of the true God. Certainly, remarkable movements of the Spirit of God have resulted in dramatic and extensive spiritual life. And perhaps there have been nearly universal “conversions” to inauthentic faith. But never has history seen an entire generation receive genuine sanctification at the hands of the living God, resulting in universal belief, universal love of God, and universal repentance from evil and worldliness. But it has been promised. The day will come (or so Paul understands the prophets) when God will keep His promise to the people He declared His own when He delivered them from Egypt. The Jewish people who for millennia have stiff-armed God, stubbornly refusing to love Him and acknowledge Him, are one day going to experience a dramatic spiritual melt-down. All of their rebellion will cease; their resistance to God will vanish; and—to the very last person—they will discover within themselves a profound and authentic love for the God who chose them. In that day, the entire nation will eagerly and earnestly seek to serve God and follow His commandments. Paul suggests this when, writing to his Gentile brothers, he cites the prophetic message:
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” [Romans 11:25-27]
At the end of time, no other people on the face of the earth will be able to boast a comparable experience. Never has every living Frenchman repented and been saved, nor every living Italian, nor every living Chinese. Nor will it ever happen in the future. The Jews, once again, will be unique in this. Among them alone will the Spirit of God have come and touched the hearts of virtually every individual such that it can be said, “All Israel was saved.”
The timing of this spiritual rebirth is of most interest for the purposes of this article. Universal repentance will come upon Israel after the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” In other words, Paul interprets the prophetic outline like this: God has turned from the Jews as a people and is not working primarily among the Jews to sanctify them. Indeed, He is working primarily among the Gentiles. But the day will come when the full complement of those Gentiles whom God is going to save will have come to faith. Only then will God turn to Israel and pour out His Spirit upon them as the prophets have promised.
What does this mean for the Gentiles who live in that time? It appears that they are forsaken. The Spirit will stop giving Gentiles “eyes to see”; no more will Gentiles be “born” of the Spirit. The Gentiles in that day will almost universally hate God and oppose all that He stands for. Paul seems to read it this way, for he speaks of a time when “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” If the full complement of Gentiles whom God intends to save has been reached, does that not imply that no more Gentiles will be saved?
Of course, most of such language is hyperbolic. Present day Israel constitutes the “natural branches of the olive tree” which have been “cut off from their root” [Romans 11:17-24]. But, Paul tells us, even among these cut-off Jews there remains a “remnant” of individuals whom God is saving. If God maintains the symmetry, then when He “cuts off” the Gentiles from the root, there could nonetheless be a “remnant” of individuals among the Gentiles whom He will save. So we can hope, in any case.
But this prophetic scenario can mean only one thing for the Gentile world. The day shall come when Gentile ears are stopped up, when Gentile hearts remain hopelessly hardened against God, when Gentile rebellion against God manifests itself unceasingly and without shame, and when the gospel proclaimed by the apostles is no longer of any interest to any appreciable portion of people among the Gentiles.
What will that day look like? Will Gentiles stop being Christians? Will there be a wholesale explicit denunciation of Christianity? I cannot say for sure, but it would appear not. Paul writes to Timothy:
…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. [I Timothy 4:2-4]
In turning from truth to myths, will they be turning from Christianity to pagan and neo-pagan myths and religions? Possibly. But is it not equally possible that in turning from the truth to myths they will be turning from biblical-apostolic Christianity to a Christianity of their own devices? I fully expect this will be the case. The more I see how effectively falsehood and deceit can assume the guise of Christianity, the more it makes sense to me that, at the end of time, “Christianity” will flourish in the Gentile world at the same time that truth (biblical-apostolic Christianity) has been utterly abandoned.
If all this is true, the question before us today is: As we observe the spiritual darkness overtaking our culture, what are we observing? Are we witnessing God’s abandonment of the Gentiles? Are we seeing the end of the times of the Gentiles? Has the fullness of the Gentiles come in, and is God about to turn to the Jews and produce among them an unprecedented spiritual repentance?
I have no answers to these questions, certainly. But in asking them, an important warning emerges. What about me? Where am I? Will the worldliness and spiritual numbness that awaits the whole Gentile world of the future sweep me along as well? Or will I remain clear and focused in my vision, setting my mind and heart on the things above, not on the things upon the earth [Colossians 3:2]? Will I be a part of the remnant of Gentiles saved at the end of time? Or will I be a part of the crowd of damned Gentiles who hate God and are busy arranging the deck chairs on their personal Titanics?
In these dark days, we would all do well to heed the apostles’ persistent warnings to “be on the alert”: “…let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober” [I Thessalonians 5:6]; “…be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” [II Peter 3:17-18]. We cannot save our nation, our culture, or our civilization. Prophecy itself tells us that it is doomed. But we can save our own souls, and well we should.
Copyright October 1997 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.