Imagine yourself driving your car in the city. You find yourself on a long wide straight stretch of road and so you drive faster. Next moment, a speed cop pulls you over for speeding. You hadn’t seen the speed restriction signs earlier down the road and as a result you were driving over the speed limit. The cop gives you a choice – an instant speeding fine or you can plead your case in court. If you decide to go to court and plead ignorance – if you say in your defence that you did not know that a lower speed limit was in effect on that stretch of road – then your plea will be rejected. There is a saying in England: ‘Ignorance is no excuse under the law’. You see if we could all plead ignorance every time we did something wrong: ‘Oh! I didn’t know that it was wrong to stab someone with a knife!’ – and then on that basis the Judge let us go, then people would literally be getting away with murder. Ignorance is no excuse when it comes to the law of the land. But it is not quite like that when it comes to our behaviour before God. This is because the big difference when it comes to God is that God can look into our hearts, into the core of our being. God knows all of our circumstances and is able to make a fair judgment. We certainly can’t plead ignorance before God when in fact we were not ignorant at all.
Covenants for the ‘children of Israel’ and Gentile ignorance
God’s third Covenant was given to Abraham and his fleshly descendants through Isaac – the ‘children of Israel’. The subsequent Covenants in the Jewish Scriptures – our Old Testament – such as the Covenant with David – were also given to the ‘children of Israel’. Concerning the Covenants, those people who were not descended from Abraham through Isaac were outsiders, they were excluded from these Covenants and their terms, conditions and promises. Starting with Abraham, God began to set the Jews set apart, to cultivate them in the ways of God. God granted them revelations and teaching concerning God’s plan of restoration and promised them an important role in His Kingdom. But everyone else was left to go their own way in relative ignorance. But what does this mean and how does it work out in practice?
The ‘children of Israel’ and ignorance
Even the Israelites sometimes acted in ignorance – they sometimes did not realize the mistakes that they were making. What sort of language does the bible use to describe this ignorance on the part of the Jews? It uses terms like this: ‘You foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear’ (Jeremiah 5 v 21). Ignorance involves mistaken thinking and affections arising from insensitivity, blindness and deafness. An ignorant person has physical eyes to see with and ears to hear with but they do not see or hear what God is saying. They are not sensitive and responsive enough to be aware of God, they have a dullness of mind and so they adopt a pattern of thinking and behaviour that is silly and foolish, and tend to follow their own passions and desires.
The Israelites made a mistake in not recognizing Jesus as their Messiah – as the promised Deliverer anointed and set apart by God. When they conspired in putting Jesus to death, they did not realize that they were putting to death their Messiah and the King that had been promised to them. They thought that they were putting to death a blasphemer, an impostor, a false teacher and troublemaker. So did the Israelites stand completely condemned by God? No. Listen what Peter says: “Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. Turn around, away from ungodly disobedience then, and turn to God, so that your disobedience and stepping over the mark may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you – even Jesus. The spiritual realm of heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from their people’ (Acts 3 v 17 – 23). Their ignorance softens their guilt – it makes them less guilty – and if they repent, if they turn around away from such thinking and behaviour and turn to God, then their disobedience will be wiped out and God will bless them.
Before turning to Jesus, the apostle Paul – then known as Saul – also fell into this category. He was a zealous Jew who believed that the maintenance of the purity of Jewish teaching and practice would help to bring about the appearance of the promised Messiah. He too did not initially recognize Jesus as the Messiah and he saw the Jewish sect of Christianity as a troublemaking heretical group that was a blot and a stain on true Judaism. Accordingly he gained permission from Jewish authorities to eradicate the Hebrew Christian sect through purges and persecution. Of course Paul was converted on the Damascus Road and was called to be an apostle. So how was this period before Paul’s conversion summed up? Paul himself tells us: ‘Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief’ (I Timothy 1 v 13). Once again, Paul’s ignorance – his insensitivity, blindness and deafness concerning God’s purposes – served to ameliorate Paul’s guilt.
Of course, when we look at the Jews in general in the present age, we find that they did not and still do not embrace Jesus as their Messiah. Paul describes their situation in one of his letters: ‘But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old Covenant is read. This veil has not been removed, because only in the Messiah is it taken away’ (II Corinthians 3 v 14). Ignorance is like a veil – a covering over the face that restricts and somewhat obscures one’s ability to see – and for the Jews this veil remains. I think that there is a double meaning in what Paul says here. Both the veil and the old Covenant are only removed in Christ.
The ‘old Covenant’ refers to the Covenant made with Abraham and the ‘children of Israel’ and later elaborated under Moses and David. It includes the promise of many descendants, possession of land, the provision of God’s Laws and promises of a King and a kingdom. All of these aspects of the Covenant – nationhood, land, a King and kingdom – are and will be fulfilled in Christ. There is a sense of ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. His death and resurrection has secured and guaranteed these Covenant promises. The process that will lead to their completion and perfection has been effectively begun – the Kingdom has been inaugurated. Without the Messiah, the old Covenant cannot be removed – and thus Jews remain under the Law, under the terms and conditions of the old Covenant.
And the veil remains too. The Jews remain in relative ignorance concerning Jesus as the Messiah, and in some respects, the old Covenant – and especially the Law – as it is read out each Sabbath, continues to maintain this veil. Focus on the Law and the Covenant veils, restricts and obscures the Jews’ perception of the Messiah. However, at the end of the present age – the Age of Gentiles – when Jesus will come again, the ‘children of Israel’ will indeed recognize Him as their Messiah and the next stage of God’s plan involving the further establishment of His Kingdom on earth will begin. It will be during this next period or age that many of the Covenant promises to the ‘children of Israel’ will come to greater fruition.