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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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One of the great problems of the Apostolic Age was to account for the unbelief of the Jews. Unhappily, it was only too clear that the Jews not only had brought Jesus Christ to the Cross through their representative leaders, but also after Pentecost had refused to listen to the gospel preached by the apostles, and had become the main opponents of the Christian faith. To those whose eyes had been opened to see the glory of God in Christ Jesus, it seemed the strangest of all experiences that those whom God had taken to be His peculiar people, and to whom He had granted so many privileges, should have turned away in unbelieving scorn from the Lord who had come to be their Redeemer. Hence the poignancy of the confession: ‘He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not’ (John 1:11). In the apostolic history that experience was sadly repeated (Acts 13:45).

Three chief questions were raised by this unbelief of the Jews. (1) Did this unbelief not cancel the early promises made by God? (2) Did this unbelief not defeat God’s plan? (3) Could God’s salvation be complete apart from the Jewish people? These questions are dealt with by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans in the sympathetic method that might be expected from one whose pride in his ancient lineage was never concealed, and whose faith was clear and enlightened as well as intense. To the three-fold problem St. Paul made reply. (1) The promises of God did not depend upon man, for God would keep His word whatever man might do. God would be true and faithful however His people might be convicted of falsehood and unbelief (Romans 3:4). (2) God’s purpose was both narrower and wider than was commonly supposed. In all the Jewish history the purpose of God was to redeem some within the Hebrew race to be the means of blessing, and even in the Christian era, as of old, there was a ‘remnant’ that believed and shared in the purposes of God. So too God’s purpose was wider than was supposed. From the earliest times His plan looked forward to embracing the Gentiles within its scope, and through the very unbelief and defection of the Jews there had come a marvellous fulfilment of this wider purpose. ‘By their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles’ (Romans 11:11). (3) St. Paul believed with all his heart that the Kingdom of God would not be complete apart from the Jews. This was so far true even in the Apostolic Age. ‘Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace’ (Romans 11:5). But in the future there would be a glorious return of the chosen people. St. Paul represented the Jews as being subjects of unbelief and disobedience, so that in the gracious purpose of God they might be objects of the Divine mercy. The Most High would unfold all the width of His salvation when after their period of darkness the Jewish people would come forth into the light. Then would come the final consummation, and the receiving of them would be truly ‘life from the dead’ (Romans 11:15).

The same problem of the unbelief of the Jews was treated in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The discussion in this Epistle centred round the rest of God into which God Himself entered after the work of creation, and to which He called His people. This rest was offered to Israel in the time of Moses and was not realized by them through unbelief. The mere entrance into Canaan under Joshua was no true fulfilment of the promise, for ‘if Israel had believed they would have entered in, the Rest would have been appropriated, and God’s gracious design satisfied, and a Rest would have been no more “left” for others’ (A. B. Davidson, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Edinburgh, n.d., p. 98). When their unbelief left this rest still open, it was offered again by God in the new revelation that He made. His voice was heard through His Son in the end of those days in which He had spoken to the early believers on to the time when He should come again. Thus the promise that was unrealized in the Old Covenant was renewed in the New Covenant. These conclusions are largely the same as those reached by St. Paul-that unbelief marked the Jews in all their history, and that their unbelief opened the way to the receiving of the Gentiles. But there is not in this Epistle the forecast of the glorious future yet in store when Israel would turn again, only an insistence upon the need of giving diligence to enter into that rest, ‘that no man fall after the same example of disobedience’ (Hebrews 4:11).

It is worthy of note that in all these apostolic discussions unbelief and disobedience are almost interchangeable terms. Both words, ἀπιστία and ἀπείθεια, are derived from the same root and express the intimate connexion that is found between faith and life. What is thus suggested by the use of these words is corroborated by the general apostolic teaching, where unbelief is ascribed to the hardening of the heart (Acts 19:9), to blindness caused by the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:3-4), to the evil working of the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:1-2), to the corrupt heart that believes a lie (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Hence we read of the evil heart of unbelief, and of the deceitfulness of this sin (Hebrews 3:12-13). As unbelief sprang from moral causes it could be removed best by the declaration of the gospel wherein Jesus Christ was made known as meeting the moral and spiritual needs of life. It is for this reason especially that St. Paul magnified ‘prophesying’ in contrast to ‘speaking with tongues.’ He suggested that an assembly where all were speaking with this strange utterance would seem to an outsider like a gathering of madmen, and would confirm any unbeliever in his unbelief, whereas the general practice of prophesying would reach the reason and the heart of any unbelievers who happened to be present, and would lead such to confess that God was truly present in this Christian assembly (1 Corinthians 14:22-24). From such a passage as this it may be inferred that the apostles distinguished between those who were unbelievers because Christ had not been presented to them fully and those who had resisted the truth when it was made known to them and who had openly denied the Lord. The latter class, who ‘denied that Jesus was the Christ,’ seemed so base in the eyes of the apostles that St. John characterized it as Antichrist (1 John 2:22), and it seemed so hopeless of change that the same Apostle placed the unbelieving among the vilest, whose ‘part shall be in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone’ (Revelation 21:8). One phase of unbelief caused no little perplexity to the apostles, viz. unbelief among those who had professed their faith in Jesus as Christ and Lord. To the apostles this faith had so wondrously purified their hearts and enlightened their minds that they could hardly conceive of a faith that omitted some of the great essential truths. An example of this phase may be found in the Corinthian church, where many failed to believe in the resurrection of the dead and were not slow to express openly their unbelief. They accepted the common faith in the personal resurrection of Jesus Christ, but they seemed to have assumed that this was a unique occurrence, and to have rejected the general truth of the recovery and resurrection of the body as sharing in the Christian salvation. St. Paul in his reply asserted that such unbelief was destructive of the faith of the Church, and affirmed in some of the most brilliant passages of all his writings that the resurrection of Christians was part of the Christian redemption, gave inspiration to the Christian life, and crowned with glory the Christian experience (1 Corinthians 15).

Two practical questions affecting the relation of Christians to unbelievers in the Apostolic Age are worthy of notice. The higher and nobler conceptions of marriage that arose through Christian teaching suggested to many the question whether relations contracted under pre-Christian conditions should be continued, especially where one spouse refused to accept the Christian faith and became an unbeliever. St. Paul dealt with this question in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, where he affirmed that the unbelieving spouse was sanctified by the believing member, that the Christian spouse was not to seek divorce from the non-Christian; but, if the latter insisted on separation, then it was to be acquiesced in. But such separation was undesirable, for peace was better for a Christian than disunion, and there was always the possibility that the unbelieving spouse might be won to the faith by the believer (1 Corinthians 7:10-16; 1 Peter 3:1). On the other hand, marriage of a believer after conversion with an unbeliever was deemed an un-Christian act (2 Corinthians 6:14). The other practical question was with regard to the practice of Christians carrying their quarrels before unbelievers. The Corinthians were litigious as well as licentious, and even after they adhered to the Christian faith they were beset by their old weaknesses. They were guilty of quarrelling, and insisted so much on their presumed rights that they did not hesitate to go to law with a Christian brother before pagan judges. St. Paul denounced this practice as showing the lack of Christian love, as bringing disgrace upon the whole Christian community, and as implying that there were none within the Christian fellowship able to settle the petty differences that had arisen. Even the Jews exercised jurisdiction over internal affairs, and reckoned as guilty of impiety any of their number who brought a matter of law before idolatrous judges; much more should Christians shun heathen courts, and seek rather the judgment of their fellow-Christians, especially when they remembered that to believers was given by God the judgment of the world, and even of the angels in heaven (1 Corinthians 6:1-6).

D. Macrae Tod.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Unbelief'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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