Covenants: Clarity, Ambiguity, and Faith (1)

Why Make a Covenant?

In Genesis 21 is an episode where a Philistine leader, Abimelech, comes to Abraham and wants him to “swear… that you will not deal falsely with me, with my offspring, or with my posterity…” (21:23).  Abraham consented, but there was strife over a well which had been seized by Abimelech’s servants (21:25-26).  To make sure there was understanding on both sides Abraham and Abimelech entered into a covenant (21:27, 32).  In particular the point at issue was the well.  Abimelech was to take seven ewes from Abraham as a witness that Abraham had dug the well (21:30).  The place where the two made the oath was named “Beersheba”, which means something like “the well of the oath of seven.”  The covenant clarified whose well it was and emphasized in the oath and exchange of the lambs that both parties understood exactly what the oath meant.  The oath obligated the parties (particularly Abimelech, the recipient of the “witness”) to stand by the terms of the covenant.

Covenants were made to underscore a grave and solemn clarity about a specific matter or matters between people.  They spelled out for one or both sides, the obligations which each were committing to carry out.  In the Genesis 21 incident Abraham pledges not to mistreat Abimelech; that was the specific oath which the Philistine chief wanted settled.  Then Abraham complains about mistreatment from Abimelech’s servants over the well and receives a guarantee pertaining to that.  The covenant reinforces both understandings.  This covenant was not for the establishing of close relations between the parties, but rather a clear understanding.

It is inconceivable to imagine Abraham causing deliberate harm to Abimelech’s family or of Abimelech commanding his forces to take the well after the covenant was “cut”.  Had either one done that we would rightly conclude that they reneged on the terms of the covenant with which they bound themselves by solemn oath, or that they took the oath in bad faith, knowing they would not adhere to its words.

God Makes Covenants

Think again of a more expansive example.  In Ezekiel 16 God is rehearsing the defection of Jerusalem, with the Lord rescuing and then marrying her (16:8) through covenant.  But Jerusalem played the harlot excessively (16:20-34), and would be punished (16:35-43).  But at the end of it all God would restore her to himself by cleansing her sins and making a [New] everlasting covenant with her (16:60-63).  Elsewhere marriage is called a “covenant” (Mal. 2:14).  A marriage covenant does, of course, establish a close relationship, but it stipulates the terms of the relationship within its solemn pledges.

When two people covenant together in marriage before God they are obligated to fulfill their part of the covenant.  The only possible exceptions are if the covenant is broken through adultery (Matt.19:9), or if one party is an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:15), but even then it is preferable for there to be reconciliation.  But again, the main thing is that covenants provide solemn clarity about specific matters between the covenanting parties.  If either party was tempted to drift they could be called back to the words of the covenant which they had entered into and reminded of their obligations.

Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 makes plain,

When you make a vow before to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools.  Pay what you have vowed – better not to vow than to vow and not pay.

The vow being referenced in the passage has to do a pledge to God to do something (Deut. 23:21-23; Psa. 76:11).  God takes vows seriously, and even more so when a covenant is struck (see the crucial text, Jer. 34:18. Cf. Ezek.17:15b).

Clarity is Paramount

This having been said, it ought to require no proof that in choosing the words of the covenant clarity is paramount.  It is essential that both those making the covenant and those to whom it is addressed have a clear understanding of what is involved.  This is what the Apostle alludes to in Galatians when he says,

Brethren, I speak after the manner of men: Though only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it. – Gal. 3:15.

Thus, when the Lord  swears He will bring woe upon Jerusalem in Ezekiel 24, He declares,

I, the LORD, have spoken it; it shall come to pass, and I will do it. – Ezek. 24:14a.

And when He promises to redeem Israel and make it like the garden of Eden (Ezek. 36:26-35), He says,

…I, the LORD, have spoken it; and I will do it. – Ezek. 36:36.

And He does it for His holy Name’s sake (Ezek. 36:21-23), because He is obligated to carry out the terms of the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (cf. Exod. 32:13).

When studying a covenant in the Bible it is important to pay attention to the specifics of the oath that seals it.  Hence, in the first covenant recorded in the Bible it is plain to see that God pledges not to bring a great flood upon the earth the way He did in Noah’s day.  When God rebukes king Zedekiah and the nobles for not performing the oath which they took in regard to the release of Hebrew slaves (which they took back after giving them a brief freedom), He points to the explicit wording of both the Mosaic covenant as well as the covenant which Zedekiah and the princes had made (Jer. 34:8-22).  In verse 14 the LORD explicitly refers to the provisions regarding Hebrew slaves in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15.  God expects the clear covenant terms to be taken at face value.

But what happens if, like so many interpreters, we do not pay close attention to “the words of the covenant”?  Or what happens if we simply introduce a system of interpretation, like interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the Gospel, which makes it expedient to in some way alter the terms of a covenant oath?

More to come…

 

 

On the Biblical Covenants

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2010.  I shall follow it up with a new post on the subject of ambiguity  faith.

As some of you know, I am Founder of TELOS INSTITUTE & TELOS MINISTRIES, an online seminary dedicated to educating God’s people in solid dispensational and presuppositional theology at a low cost.  This ministry also provides me with an outlet for my ongoing development of what I call “Biblical Covenantalism” (see here, and here): a more far-reaching and theologically balanced type of Dispensationalism.

One of the things we do at TELOS is to place a lot of emphasis on understanding the meaning of God’s covenants.  These covenants are easily located in the Bible.  They are the Noahic (Gen. 9:8-17); Abrahamic (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:7-21); Mosaic (Exod. 24:3-8); Priestly (Num. 25:10-13); Land (Deut. 30:3-10); Davidic (2 Sam. 7:4-17); and New (Jer.31:31-36).  The Noahic Covenant provides the time and space framework for history and providence needed for the accomplishment of God’s purposes on this earth.  The Abrahamic contains the seed, land and kingly promises for Israel (thus supporting the Priestly, Land, and Davidic Covenants).  The Mosaic Covenant serves to set apart Israel from the nations while also demonstrating the necessity of a better, New Covenant, by which all God’s plans and promises will be fulfilled through Jesus Christ.  It is because of the tremendous cosmic implications of the outworking of these biblical covenants that we think they should be given more prominence than many others have given them in the past.  Quite simply, we do not think these implications have been examined and set out in a systematic way.  With this in mind it is surely not inappropriate to remind ourselves of some of the considerations involved in “thinking through the covenants.”

1.      When God made a “covenant” – be it unilateral or one-sided (e.g. Noahic) or bilateral, that is, two-sided (Mosaic), there was of necessity a human response to the revelation.  Although it almost seems remedial to say it, we ought to take notice of this necessity of a human response.  For the covenants were made to elicit that response from people!  The one who said “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’” didn’t need to make covenants for Himself!  He always thinks and speaks perfect truth and never has to recant it.

2.      Granted this is self-evident, the real issue is whether the human response is of any import. If the covenant is unilateral the answer is “not really,” unless in acknowledgement of God’s gracious revelation.  For example, God will never bring another global flood upon the world regardless of anyone’s response to His word.  But in the case of a bilateral covenant however, the response of those to whom the covenant is addressed obligates that party to the terms of the covenant.  They must carry out their part.

3.      In both cases the terms are drawn up by the Superior Party (the ‘Suzerain’ or Ruler). In the unilateral treaties in the OT it is the Suzerain (e.g. God) who obligates Himself, while no obligation to bring about the fulfillment of the terms of the covenant come upon the second party (e.g. Abraham in Gen. 15 or Israel in Jer.31). And even though the unconditional covenants may have subsidiary conditions appended to them (like circumcision for example), these conditions in no way absolve God from His obligation to bring the wording of His covenant to pass.

4.      The various contexts in which the OT covenants were “cut” do not allow for much ambiguity. Always the divine initiative is to the fore, and always a trajectory, in line with God’s overall purpose, is announced and usually set in motion. As most of God’s covenants are one-sided in character (Noahic, Abrahamic, Land, Priestly, Davidic, New), Divine obligation becomes a sort of “test” of God’s own Self-revealed nature (e.g. His veracity, omnipotence, immutability, righteousness). These things must be kept in mind when interpreting the New Testament.  It is because these matters are lost sight of that many Christians ignore God’s responsibility to do exactly what He has obligated Himself to do.

5.      As an example of this we should note that the word employed by NT writers to denote a covenant (“diatheke”), abandons its standardized Greco-Roman meaning of “disposition” (in the sense of legal settlement), or “last will and testament” (a meaning the writer of Hebrews may momentarily exploit in Hebrews 9:16-17), and instead we must allow the Bible to define its own use of terms so as not to misread it.  In the Book of Hebrews the central quotation from Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews 8:8f. (taken together with Christ’s allusion to it at the Last Supper) is decisive.

As D. Hillers rightly says,

The point worth noting is that the death of Jesus has suggested the meaning he [the writer of Hebrews] attaches to diatheke, “covenant,” and not the reverse. – Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, (1994), 182

Moreover, once it is understood that the LXX or Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures often used by the Apostles, uniformly uses the one-sided term “diatheke” instead of the more usual two-sided term “syntheke,” to translate the Hebrew word for covenant (“berith”), then clearly the choice of diatheke deliberately lays stress upon God’s liability to accomplish His promises. (more…)

The Forgotten Covenant (Pt.4)

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

In this last part of our study of the “Priestly Covenant” I will try to answer some of the main objections which might be thrown at  what I have already stated.

1. If Christ is the Final Sacrifice for sins, how can there be a temple and sacrifices in the future?

This objection is based on a misunderstanding of the Book of Hebrews.  Mixed in with this is a subtle prejudice (usually of the non-pejorative sort) against the very idea of a temple and sacrifices.  I shall address the former issue more than the latter.

In Hebrews 7:12 the priesthood is said to be changed.  That being so, how can Levites officiate in any future temple?  The answer, of course, is that it is the High Priesthood which is under consideration in Hebrews (Cf. Heb. 4:14-5:5; 7:1-3, 11-13,23-27; 9:6-10, etc).  Interestingly, there is no High Priest mentioned in Ezekiel 4o-48; nor is there any Day of Atonement (of which the writer of Hebrews makes so much).  This is because Jesus combines both roles in himself (see Zech. 6:12-13).  As Jesus now officiates in the heavenly tabernacle (according to Heb. 8:2 & 9:24), when He returns it ought not surprise anyone that, having left a (surely) stupendous temple in glory He should enter a magnificent one on earth!

Hebrews 9:9 and 10:2 make it clear that all the gifts and offerings of the temple could not (and so cannot in any future scenario) cleanse the conscience.  It is Christ’s own sacrifice which does cleanse the conscience (Heb. 9:12-14), and clears the way for the blessings of the New Covenant (9:15).  It is also plain from 10:2 that in order for the sacrifices of the OT to continue, there had to be a “consciousness of sins”.  It is this consciousness which “the blood of bulls and goats” could not deal with.  Neither could they finally expiate sins (10:4).  Hence, Christ once-for-all offering is the only satisfaction for that task – it is the only propitiation (10:10-14).

Please notice that according to the writer of Hebrews the sacrifices and offerings of the Old Testament did not avail to “take away sins” (10:11).  So then, what was the point of them?  Well, they were “sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5:1, 3; 7:27).  But they were not potent enough to cleanse the conscience and to provide “redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant” (9:15).

My question in regards to future sacrifices becomes, “how can future sacrifices and temple ministrations be disallowed if they won’t do the work which Christ alone could and did do?”  My answer is they cannot; not on that particular basis.

Added to this is the fact that, as I have said, Hebrews really concerns the High Priest, and there is no High Priest (of the Levitical sort) in Ezekiel’s [Millennial] Temple.

The question of the actual role of Millennial sacrifices is not my concern here; only whether temple sacrifices are obviated by anything said in the Book of Hebrews.  But certain passages which I take as referring to the future kingdom age speak of children and sinners and foreigners journeying to Jerusalem (see e.g. Isa. 65:18-23; Zech. 8:3-8; 14:16-20).  Will these people need to sacrifice as a mark of their inner acceptance of Christ’s work on the Cross?  I think it not improbable.  But again, my task here is not to explain future sacrifices, only to show that they are nowhere negated.  (For more see here).

2. If there is a temple and sacrifices in the Millennium, how can there be any such things in the New Heavens and Earth?

To put the question another way, if the Priestly Covenant is eternal, as it appears to be, how can there be a temple with sacrifices in the New Creation?

If we allow that a case for millennial sacrifices is not defeated by anything in the New Testament, particularly the Book of Hebrews, what about in the New Heavens and New Earth?  Here two issues present themselves:

First and foremost is Revelation 21:22, which in the midst of describing New Jerusalem reads:

But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.

One of the main uses of a temple was to create a “sacred-space” within which God and man could meet.  In this context there is “no more curse” (Rev. 22:3), so everywhere is a sacred space.  The Divine Presence pervades it, so there is no need of a temple as such.  However, it needs to be noted that the glorious city itself is shaped like one enormous Holy of Holies (Rev. 21:15-16).  It is a Great Cube.

Still, there is no mention of sacrifices in it.  True, and it would be wrong to force an implication upon the text to help me along.  Still, the New Jerusalem is not the entirety of the New Heavens and Earth.  Revelation 21:24-26 state,

And the nations of those that are saved shall walk in its [New Jerusalem's] light, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory and honor into it.  Its gates shall not be shut at all (there shall be no night there).  And they shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it.

There will be nations dwelling on earth who, though they will have access to the New Jerusalem, are not occupants of its streets of gold.  Twice we are told that they make “pilgrimages” there to bring their glory and honor into the city.  But nothing is really said about what is happening on earth.  This leaves upon the possibility (which in view of the Priestly Covenant is more than a possibility), that a temple and sacrifices will be still on earth in eternity.  I see nothing to contradict this, although I confess that it may not sit easily with many people.

This, of course, is the substance of the second issue.  And all I can do is to point out that God made an everlasting covenant with Phinehas.  I am not attempting to explain all difficulties in this post.  I am simply trying to show that nothing prevents the Priestly Covenant being sustained eternally.

3. Isn’t the covenant with the Levites connected to the Mosaic covenant which is temporary?

My final question can be answered easily enough.  First by pointing out that if the covenant with Phinehas is bounded by the temporary Mosaic Covenant then it is a rather pointless covenant;  for it would come about anyhow, without any requirement for God to enter into a covenant oath.  God could simply prophesy it like He did in other specific cases.

More than this, we have already noted that there are some important differences between the Solomonic Temple and ministrations and Ezekiel’s Temple and ministrations.  They are not exactly the same, and this caused the Jews to try to harmonize the conflicting details.  But if Ezekiel’s Temple is a New Covenant Temple with Christ as its Melchizedekian High Priest, Who reconciles the throne and the priesthood in Himself (Zech. 6:12-13), then the differences present no problem and the Priestly Covenant transcends the Mosaic Covenant, exactly as the Davidic Covenant, which was made under the Mosaic constitution, is not circumscribed by it.

This then is the Forgotten Covenant.  I hope these posts have helped shed some light upon it.

Some Mud That Sticks: An Insider’s Criticism of Dispensationalism

This is a repost of an article first posted in 2009.

 

It is well to note that the following charges against dispensationalism are not theological and exegetical in nature, but are more psychological and sociological.  Here is my opinion:

a. Pragmatism

 

It is our opinion that dispensationalism can be (and ought to be) wedded to a full-orbed systematic world and life view, but only if it begins to take itself more seriously and starts the painful process of self-examination.[1] In order to do this it must divest itself of the pragmatic outlook that it often clings to, and which spoils its thinking and stunts its theological development.  For present purposes we have in mind the following helpful definition of Pragmatism: “Pragmatism as a theory of knowledge says that a person is warranted in believing any proposition or theory that produces good results.”[2]

The lure of pragmatism is its emphasis upon short-term goal setting and tangible “success.”  This vision is what drives American society[3], and Christian institutions and publishing houses have, by and large, fallen for it “hook, line and sinker.”  It is our conviction that most if not all of the observations that follow stem from the influence of a pragmatic mindset.  Comments like “will it sell?” betray this wrong-headed attitude.  The real question is “is this important?,” “is it right?”  It ought to be borne in mind that many of the books cited in important theological works are not big sellers.  But it is superficial thinking to equate large sales numbers with influence. (more…)

The Forgotten Covenant (PT.3)

Part Two

After the vision of the enormous temple which ends Ezekiel one is left with some questions.  How could such an immense structure fit in Jerusalem as we know it?  Why would any cultic priesthood be necessary once Jesus had come and died for our sins?  And, doesn’t the Book of Hebrews negate the whole idea of priests and sacrifices?

I am going to leave aside the last two questions until I examine some objections in Part Four.  But this post will answer the first problem.  But before I do that I want to fill in the picture a little more by looking at some more prophetic references.

In Daniel’s prayer of confession in Daniel 9 we see him specifically make supplications for “Your city Jerusalem” (9:16) and “Your sanctuary” (9:17).  Gabriel’s answer addresses Jerusalem (9:24, 25) and the temple, which is doomed to destruction (9:26).  I am not concerned with the identity of the sanctuary in verse 26 (other than to say that, in my opinion, it is not Herod’s temple).  My interest is in whether Gabriel has any positive answer regarding God’s temple.  I believe he does.

In the list of six eschatological details which must be fulfilled after the seventy weeks (490 years) prophecy in verse 24, the sixth concerns the anointing of “the Most Holy” (this particular Hebrew term always designates a devoted thing or place in its other OT uses, never a person, as even some amillennial scholars are forced to admit).  Unless one spiritualizes the other five items and makes the sixth mean something different than its previous uses in the OT, this passage refers to a future temple which will stand when transgression is finished; when everlasting righteousness has been brought in, and all vision and prophecy has been sealed up.  Since none of these things happened at the first coming of Christ anyway (even prophets were functioning many years after Calvary), and since the anointing of the “Most Holy [Place]” is the last on the list, it makes more sense to put the fulfillment of this verse after the second coming.  This fits hand in glove with the provisions of the Priestly Covenant, with Jeremiah 33, and with the predictions in the last part of Ezekiel.

In Joel 3:17-21 we find ingredients which remind us of the kinds of eschatological blessings God promised to Israel.  Jerusalem will be “holy” (3:17), there will be blessings in production and general fecundity (3:18).  And, lo and behold, “A fountain shall flow from the house of the LORD (which means  a temple, just as we saw happening in Ezek. 47:6ff.).

This picture is further enhanced by the prophet Zechariah after the Exile.  For instance, in chapter 1:16-17 the message of the comforting of Zion and of the Lord’s own return to his house were hardly fulfilled from 500 B.C. through A.D. 70.  The Lord did not return to the Zerubabbel/Herod temple at all!  Yet in 2:10 we read,

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion!  For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst…

In the sixth chapter we have a prophecy of the Branch who, as is stated with great emphasis, will build the temple. (6:12-13a).  This man will also “bear the glory” and, as a priest-king (combining both offices in Himself), “will sit on His throne.” (6:13b).

This Messianic prophecy has Christ sitting as King.  He is a temple-builder!  Is this heaven and a spiritual throne and temple?  Only if you are an amillennialist bent on ignoring the Priestly Covenant and its promises.  Chapter 8:3 again has God returning to Jerusalem, which shall be called “the City of Truth”.  This is hardly an accurate description of Jerusalem in the first century A.D.

In Zechariah 13:2-3, after a New Covenant prediction of cleansing for Israel, there is an intriguing passage about a young man who attempts to act the prophet and who gets thrust through by his own parents for doing so.  I take this to apply to the time after Christ has come back in power, when certainly there will be no need of prophets.  I relate it to Gabriel’s fifth prediction in Daniel 9:4 about the sealing up of “the vision and prophecy.”  Then in chapter 14 we find the LORD coming with His saints (14:5c), ruling as “King over all the earth” (14:9), and then a passage which has the nations coming up to Jerusalem to “worship the King” who is explicitly called “the LORD of hosts” (14:16-17).  The “LORD’s house” and “sacrifices” are mentioned clearly in 14:20-21.  The eschatological context includes radical topographical changes which will completely alter Jerusalem – thereby very possibly making room for Ezekiel’s massive temple to be built (14:4-5).

Finally the last prophet in the OT, Malachi, has God directly speaking of “My covenant with Levi” which He wants to “continue” (Mal. 2:4).  In the next chapter, in a context reminding one of the second coming (cf. Rev. 21:11f.), we read about God purifying “the sons of Levi” (3:3) that they “may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness,” (and you need to have a temple to offer such sacrifices).  So the very last Old Testament prophet still appears to think that there is a future function for priests in a temple.  Did this occur in Jesus’ day?  When have Levites been purified?  The only question then is whether one is going to remember the covenant terms in Num. 25, Jer. 33, etc, and stick with them, or whether one is going to turn it magically into “Jesus and the Church” using typological and symbolic alchemy.

As for me, more than enough evidence has been presented to put forward a solid case for an incontrovertible and everlasting Priestly Covenant.  Next time I will consider some objections to what I have written.

 

Taking God At His Word?

When some one says that they want you to take them at their word, what exactly do you think they mean?  I think your answer would be that they want you to trust what they are saying.  But what is it about what they are saying that you are supposed to trust?

The Collins English Dictionary defines it as:

to assume that someone means, or will do, what he or she says   ⇒ when he told her to go, she took him at his word and left

The Cambridge Dictionary has,

to believe that what someone says is true: He said he’d give me a job and I just took him at his word. If he says there’s $500 in the envelope, then I’ll take his word for it.

The Oxford Dictionaries have,

take someone at their word
Interpret a person’s words literally or exactly, especially by believing them or doing as they suggest.

These online dictionaries agree that to take someone at their word is to believe that the person means what they say.  If you want (or require) proof that this is how the average Joe takes it, just ask them what it means to take someone at their word.
Okay, I have in front of me a new book by Kevin DeYoung entitled Taking God At His Word.  I have interacted with DeYoung’s excellent post on homosexuality here, and about much the same thing As I want to talk about today.
The question I want to ask is this: What does DeYoung mean by this?  Does he mean that God means what He says?  If that is what he says he means then my follow up question would be, “And how much of the time [in the Bible] does God mean what He says?”  Or to borrow from the above dictionary definitions, “How much of the time does DeYoung think we are to interpret God’s words ‘literally or exactly?'”
The answer to these queries given by many evangelical writers will hardly be encouraging.
Now DeYoung asks in one post, “Without a systematic theology how can you begin to know what to do with the eschatology of Ezekiel or the sacramental language of John 6 or the psalmist’s insistence that he is righteous or blameless?”
Skipping the “sacramental language of John 6 (There is none.  See Jn. 6:64-65), and the case of the psalmist (the contexts always make it clear he isn’t claiming to be sinless), I shall say something about understanding Ezekiel’s eschatology.
Does systematic theology help us know what to do with Ezekiel’s eschatology?   Well, if your systematic theology turns Ezekiel’s clear eschatological predictions for Israel into types of Christ and the Church we have a real problem.  That would certainly mean that we cannot take God at His word where the prophecies of Ezekiel are concerned!  One would either be forced to jettison the claim to be taking God at His word or else change a theology which stopped you taking God at His word.
But it doesn’t stop there because, as anyone knows who reads amillennialists like DeYoung, Beale and the rest, they allow their theology and their reason to dictate new meanings to very many OT prophecies in e.g., Genesis, Psalms, and both Major and Minor Prophets.  That’s a whole lot of God’s Book where, apparently, we cannot take God at His word (in the authoritative senses given above).
In another post on the identity of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 (& 14) we see his ingenuity hard at work in an attempt to not take God at His word.  I shall not enter into a close examination of his reasoning except to say it is very poor and question-begging.  In his fourth (of five) reason for thinking the “144,000 of all the tribes of the the children of Israel” (Rev.7:4) are not who God says they are, he writes,
The 144,000 is a symbolic number of redeemed drawn from all peoples, not simply the Jews. Besides, if the number is not symbolic then what do we do with Revelation 14:4 which describes the 144,000 as those “who have not defiled themselves with women”? Are we to think that the 144,000 refers to a chosen group of celibate Jewish men? It makes more sense to realize that 144,000 is a symbolic number that is described as celibate men to highlight the group’s moral purity and set-apartness for spiritual battle.
It seems that if we take God at His word in the Book of Revelation we will be misled.  What we must do is rather reason in the way that “makes more sense to [us]“.  If that means making Revelation symbolic, so be it.  And he adds to this (his fifth reason) that,
 The number itself is stylized. It’s not to be taken literally. It’s 12 x 12 x 1000—12 being the number of completion for God’s people (representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb) and 1000 being a generic number suggesting a great multitude. So 144,000 is a way of saying all of God’s people under the old and new covenant.
So one thing you must not do here (and very many other places according to this form of interpretation) is believe God literally means 144,000 male virgins representing the tribes of Israel as listed in Revelation 7:4-8!  You must not take God at His word.  Remember the definitions above!  Putting it this way tends to bring the jolly-sounding soundtrack to a screeching halt doesn’t it?
As far as I can ascertain DeYoung is (along with many of the Gospel Coalition), an old-earth proponent.  This post and its list of recommended books, leaves me with that impression.  But does Genesis 1, to say nothing of Exodus 20:11, give the impression that the six days of creation are also symbolical? Or that they are millions, perhaps billions of years long?  Would taking God at His word in Genesis 1 and Exodus 20 lead one to such a conclusion?  I’m not asking whether or not “it makes more sense to [you]” to believe the earth is billions of years old; I’m asking whether taking Genesis 1 or Exodus 20:11 at its word would lead a person to that belief.
If we take a quick look at the book Taking God At His Word we will see, especially in chapters 3 and 4 about the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture, that the focus isn’t really about the entire Word of God, but only about what is necessary for salvation and Christian living.
That is always the way Reformed writers have explained these terms because of their penchant for displacing Israel with the Church and turning all the eschatology of the OT into types and shadows of Christ’s first coming and the Church in Him.  Thus, literally hundreds of verses and chapters in both Testaments are made symbolic and typological just as long as they are not about salvation and ethics.  Consider this,
The resurrection, some liberals argue, is not to be taken literally as a bodily resurrection, but as a powerful symbol that God can give us new spiritual life and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.” – Kevin DeYoung, Taking God At His Word, 31.  My emphasis.
Okay, now pay attention to this quotation from Iain Duguid’s Commentary on Ezekiel.  The passage in question is Ezekiel’s Temple vision, particularly chapter 43:10-12.
Verses 10-12 sum up the rationale for the temple vision: Ezekiel is being shown these things so he can relay them to his own generation.  They must consider the design and “be ashamed of their [former] sins.”  The temple vision is not a building plan or a prediction of the future but rather a powerful symbol that addresses the people of Ezekiel’s day…They must consider in particular its “plan” (43:10), its “arrangement,” its “exits and entrances,” along with its “regulations and laws” (43:11).  In other words, the temple vision is a pedagogical tool…” 490. My emphasis.
See the trouble?  Of course, it was worthless as a pedagogical tool for Ezekiel’s contemporaries if it didn’t actually refer to a temple and priests but to Jesus of Nazareth.  Taking God at His word in Ezekiel 40-48, according to Duguid, would be a wrong move.
A little earlier on Duguid gives this interpretation:
[T]he goal of Ezekiel’s temple finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.” (481).
To me, there isn’t much to choose between the liberal view of the resurrection as symbolic and the commonly received evangelical view of Ezekiel and much Bible covenant prophecy as symbolic.  The only difference is that the liberals disbelieve things like the resurrection, while they believe the Bible teaches things like God created in six literal days, that it teaches a global flood, that angelic beings cohabited with human females, that OT Israelites really believed Ezekiel’s temple would be built one day, and that the NT writers altered the meaning of OT prophecies because they thought that they wouldn’t come true literally.
Of course, liberals don’t believe these will happen any more than they believe the resurrection happened, but they do say the biblical writers believed such things!
Many evangelicals will want to fight for literal interpretation of salvation and ethical passages, but will teach that God didn’t create in six literal days, there was no global flood, that angelic beings didn’t cohabit with women, and that even though OT Israelites may well have expected Ezekiel’s temple to be built in a future day, these expectations (plus a whole host of others) were “transformed” and “expanded” and took a very different shape in the NT than the scores of covenants and prophecies led them to believe.
A last illustration: DeYoung says “Some people don’t like written texts and propositions because they imply a stable, fixed meaning, and people don’t want truth to be fixed.” (36).
I want to say, “Yeah, and you don’t want stable, fixed meanings for vast stretches of the Bible.”  I have had cause here many times to show how men like Beale, Goldsworthy, Riddlebarger, Dumbrell, Gentry & Wellum and others state plainly that promises believed by OT saints were not fulfilled as they were led to expect, but underwent transformations and reinterpretations later on.  Whence stable, fixed meaning if such a thing is held?
It all appears to come down to which bits of the Bible you are going to take at its word and which ones you are going to turn into metaphors by rhetorical spin.  Liberals interpret literal facts and descriptions metaphorically when Jesus’ life is the subject; some evangelicals interpret literal facts and descriptions metaphorically when covenanted prophecy is the subject.  How about this as an accurate paraphrase of DeYoung’s criticism of liberals but pointed back at him?
The Bible is not to be taken literally (save for Jesus work & ethics), but rather as a powerful symbol that God can give us new spiritual life and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. 
Kevin DeYoung writes some good stuff and I appreciate him, but that does not mean I’m going to get fobbed off with a book called Taking God At His Word written by someone who does not believe in taking God at His word more than about half of the time.

 

 

 

 

 

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism: A New Heresy

I like to read Roger Olson.  He is one of those thinkers who helps provide balance for my normal diet of Reformed Biblical and Systematic Theology.  Sometimes I disagree with him strongly.  But I always appreciate his erudition and personable style of communicating it.

I linked to this on FB the other day, but I post it here now because I really think it’s an important (and disturbingly accurate) evaluation of many of today’s breed of evangelicals:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/05/a-shocking-conclusion-about-american-christianity/

The Forgotten Covenant (Pt.2)

Part One

Biblical Covenantalism tracks the covenants through Scripture for the sake of putting together a composite picture of God’s plan.  The covenants are the backbone of Scripture.  If we pay careful attention to these covenants as they arise, we will not be able to bypass the everlasting “covenant of peace” which God made with Phinehas and his descendents in Numbers 25.  The fact that a covenant of this kind is casually passed over with barely a mention and not traced out in Scripture is telling.  I think what it tells is that we tend to want to read our endings to the story into passages like this.  Coming to the covenants like this tends to muffle their testimony with a pious overlay of ‘the finished work of Christ.’

The Witness of Ezekiel

Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, was a priest (1:3), but evidently not in the line of Phinehas.  In chapters 10 and 11 we find the vision of God’s glory departing the (literal) Temple in Jerusalem.  Then after many chapters filled with denunciations and the occasional promise of blessing, we arrive at chapter 34.  Ezekiel 34 – 39 are tied together by the repetition of the refrain “mountains of Israel.”  The prophet had employed this phrase before, though sporadically (in chapters 6, 19 & 33), but now it becomes a kind of mantra, appearing eleven times in these chapters.

Examination of the uses of this refrain does not come within the scope of the present study, but I might notice the following:

1. Each usage is connected with a prophetic oracle, whereas in the first part of the book it centers on contemporary events.

2. In chapters 36, 37, and even 38 the reference is to deliverance and kingdom blessing.

3. In chapter 39 the refrain is used to locate the scene of future judgment of Israel’s enemies prior to the kingdom age.

In this prophetic climactic context we read about God raising up David (34:23-24; 37:24-25) in an Edenic environment (34:25-27; 36:35).  This recalls the promises in the Davidic Covenant which we saw in Jeremiah 33.  But the Priestly Covenant is also alluded to by Ezekiel in these contexts.

First, it ought to be clear that we are driven into the future by the New Covenant language of 36:26-28.  Add to this the picture of restoration in 36:34-35 and one is presented with a decision: either turn the whole context into some sort of overdone typological mirage, or take it as read and place it in the eschaton.  This end times scene is furthered with the famous prophecies of the dry bones and the two sticks in chapter 37.  Right at the tail end we come across this statement:

Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst foreverMy tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  The nations also will know that I, the LORD, sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forevermore. (37:26-28).

This sets the scene for what is coming in chapters 40 to 48 and the detailed blueprint for a future temple or sanctuary in Israel’s New Covenant age.

The Millennial Temple and the Priestly Covenant

I take the liberty of speaking of the great temple in Ezekiel 40 and following (which is logically equated with the new sanctuary in chapter 37), as “the millennial temple.”

I referred to the “covenant of salt” with the Levites in Numbers 18:19.  That covenant had to do with the right of the priests to eat off the daily offerings.  This covenant was within the Levitical prescriptions of the Mosaic institutions, but was everlasting and so would be expected to transcend the curtailment of the Mosaic Covenant.  Hence, it is also seen under Israel’s New Covenant conditions. (There is another covenant of salt in 2 Chronicles 13:5 which relates to David and his lineage.  As such it is within the terms of the Davidic Covenant, if not synonymous with it).  As salt does not perish the idea as related to covenant is probably of indestructibility (G. Wenham) and remaining inviolate (A. Noordtzij), although it may invoke a curse against the violator (F.C. Fensham).  Unsurprisingly then, in Ezekiel’s future temple administration the priests are given the offerings as food, just as the covenant of salt would demand (Ezek. 44:29-31).

Just consider these ten lines of evidence (extracted from a previous post) for the actuality of a future ‘Millennial’ Temple: (more…)

The Forgotten Covenant (Pt.1)

Question: Which plainly stated Covenant in the Bible is most often neglected?

The answer is the covenant which the LORD made with Phinehas in the Book of Numbers.

The circumstances surrounding this covenant centers around the doctrine of Balaam as it was realized at Baal Peor (Cf. Num.31:16; Rev. 2:14).  Amid the idolatry and fornication a Simeonite by the name of Zimri openly brought a Midianite woman into the camp of Israel and took her into his tent to have sexual relations with her.  This happened even while Israelites were “weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting.” (Num. 25:6).

Phinehas, who was Aaron’s grandson, witnessed this brazen act of “sexual liberation” and struck the man and the woman through with a javelin (25:8).  This act of priestly zeal stopped a plague which had broken out within the camp which had claimed the lives of twenty-four thousand people.  God’s response to this act was to initiate a “covenant of peace” with Phinehas and his descendents.  This is said to be “a covenant of an everlasting priesthood.” (25:13).

Some centuries later, the Psalmist, in recounting some of the most memorable moments of Israel’s history, referred to the incident at Baal of Peor (Psa. 106:28-31).  In verses 30 and 31 it says,

Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stopped.  And that was accounted to him for righteousness to all generations forevermore. 

This covenant of peace between God and the descendents of Phinehas comes after the mention of a “covenant of salt” given to the Levites “as an ordinance forever” (Num. 18:19).  The ordinance has to do with eating from the heave offerings.  The exact relationship between these two covenants is not easy to pin down, although they are certainly complementary.  I shall say a little more about this further on.

The descendents of Phinehas the son of Eleazar (Exod. 6:23) include Zadok, who is identified as “of the sons of Eleazar” in 1 Chronicles 24:3.  During the attempted usurpation of the throne by Adonijah (1 Ki. 1:7-8), Abiathar deserted David.  The aged king responded with having Abiathar removed from the priesthood, thus ensuring that Zadok’s line (the descendents of Phinehas), kept the High Priesthood (1 Ki. 2:26-27).  This becomes important when we get to Ezekiel.

The Witness of Jeremiah

Jeremiah wrote during some of the most turbulent times in Israel’s history.  Chapters 30 through to 34 (and even possibly 35) form a sort of thematic scholia on the covenants.  Among the main prophetic teaching in the section is the prediction about “the time of Jacob’s trouble” in 30:7 (cf. Mk. 13:19-20), a forecast about Israel serving “divid their king, whom I will raise up to them” (30:9), God’s overtures of covenant steadfastness towards Israel in 31:1-4, with the LORD even calling the families of Israel “O Virgin of Israel!” in 31:4 and 21.  Then there is New Covenant language in 31:11-12, which goes on to include the line,

I will satiate the soul of the priests with abundance… (31:14a).

This comes before the famous New Covenant promise of 31:31-37.  The next chapter is about Jeremiah purchasing “poor” real estate amid promises of future peace and prosperity (32:14-15, 36-42).  Next comes the great (and much neglected) thirty-third chapter.  First we get a description of the tearing down of the houses to serve as fortifications against the Babylonians (33:4-5), but it quickly turns in outlook to more prosperous times to come, including cleansing from sin (see 33:8).  Then comes the passage in 33:14-26 which cites or alludes to four covenants within a New Covenant setting (This highlights my contention that the New Covenant is needed for the [literal] fulfillment of these other covenants).  Coupled with the promise to fulfill the Davidic Covenant in 33:17-18 and 21-22 are promises that God will also preserve the Levites to minister to Him.  The latter passage reads,

Thus say the Yahweh: If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night [which I take as a reference to the Noahic Covenant in Genesis 8:22], 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 will not have a son to reign on his throne, or with the Levites, the priests, My ministers.  As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, nor the sand of the sea measured [a clear allusion to the Abrahamic Covenant], so will I multiply the descendents of David My servant and the Levites who minister to Me.

The type of ministry which the Levites are promised is described as offering “burnt offerings…to kindle grain offerings, and to sacrifice continually” (33:18).

While nobody disbelieves the Davidic Covenant in Jeremiah 33, the same cannot be said for the covenant with the Levites mentioned in the same breath.

More to come…

 

How Old-Earth Creationists Use Scripture

Fred Butler has begun a series evaluating old-earth creationist (OEC) appeals to Scripture.  Naturally, OEC’s have to adopt the same methodology as amillennialists and other adherents of symbolical and typological interpretation and cast doubt on the perspicuity of the most pertinent texts which point to a young earth.  My Rules of Affinity help to weed out this type of eisegesis.

The process is always the same: (1) start with the teaching you prefer; (2) employ unaided reason to set up your argument; (3) appeal to texts which were not written in support of your views by wrenching them from their contexts and reading your inferences into them; (4) cast doubt on clear texts which contradict your preference.  Oh, and pretend you are not dividing your authorities allegiance between the authority of the Bible and an extra-biblical source or sources!

Here’s the link: http://hipandthigh.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/evaluating-old-earth-responses-to-young-earth-arguments-1/