Christ at the Center: The Fulcrum of Biblical Covenantalism –
The Hermeneutics of Jesus (Part One)
We have seen that everything in the biblical outlook is centered on Jesus Christ. Naturally, I’m not the only one who says such a thing, but virtually all non-dispensationalists fix on the first coming of Christ as the time of fulfillment of OT covenant promises, whereas I believe this to be a significant interpretative error which leads to them drawing unwarranted hermeneutical conclusions. It is about time we examined the words of Christ in relation to how He expected those to whom He was speaking to interpret what He said to them, and what had been written in the only Bible they had: the Old Testament. Any hermeneutical connections they would make would be confined to that revelation, not any NT revelation to come. I shall start with what the angels said about Him:
a. The Birth Narratives
In the Lukan account we read the about angel announcing to Zacharias, a priest, that a son would be born to him who would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Lk. 1:16). He would go forth “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:17 – He would state emphatically that he was not Elijah in Jn. 1:21). This, of course, was John the Baptist.
Six months later the angel Gabriel is sent to the house of Joseph, who is said to be “of the house of David” (and addressed as such in Matt. 1:20), to speak to Mary. The angel’s message had as its main theme the birth of One who would sit upon the throne of David (1:32) over “the house of Jacob” in a kingdom that would have no end (1:33). In Mary’s ‘Magnificat,’ with its echoes of Hannah’s praise-hymn, she mentions Israel (1:54) and “our [Israel’s] fathers,” and alludes to the Abrahamic covenant (1:55). A few verses later it is Zacharias’s turn to prophesy. In the ‘Benedictus’ he mentions Israel who are “[God’s] people” (1:68) who are to be redeemed through One born to “the house of David” (1:69). To a Jewish priest, just as to a Jewish maiden, this reference would be construed as a reference to the Davidic covenant. But there is a pairing of the Davidic promise with the promise of redemption not found in the terms of that covenant. This pairing is found in Jer. 31:31f. in reference to the New covenant! Zacharias also speaks of the Abrahamic covenant (1:72 – at the apex of a chiasm), and the long hoped-for time of peace and safety so often run across in the Prophets.
In the next chapter it is important that Jesus is born at Bethlehem (2:3-7. cf. Mic. 5:2). Then the angels announce His birth to shepherds nearby and speak of a hope for “all people” (2:10). When the child is presented at the temple we run into Simeon, who has been waiting “for the Consolation of Israel” (2:25). Simeon’s words gather up the joint hopes of the nations (2:31) and the nation of Israel (2:32), but he is careful to distinguish the two.
Please note that what had been promised by God happened exactly as was predicted. The promises had a literal interpretation in line with the wording of the OT covenant expectations. Thus, the “problem” of interpreting the OT in any other way than what it says is not restricted to the OT!
b. Jesus and Satan
Remaining with Luke, we see Jesus’ temptation by Satan in 4:1-13. The first temptation Luke records is repelled by the statement that God’s Word is at least as important to life as bread (4:4). The third temptation (in Luke’s order) involves the misapplication of Psa. 91:11-12 and Jesus’ reply that Satan’s interpretation is false because it flatly contradicts a plain command not to tempt God (4:9-11). We don’t read of Satan trying to convince Christ of multiple interpretations or anything of the sort. He knew better.
But it is the second temptation in Luke 4 which is crucial from a hermeneutical standpoint. Satan shows Christ “all the [physical] kingdoms of the world” (4:5), and then says,
all this authority I will give you, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. (4:6).
The Devil then requires worship in exchange for these earthly kingdoms.
Now the question must be asked, “what sort of temptation was this to Jesus?” It is useless to answer that Satan was lying, because that would be known to the Lord and there would have been no temptation at all. So what, we repeat, was the power within the temptation?
The only sensible answer to this question is that Satan did indeed have the authority to hand over the earth to Jesus (notice that the Lord doesn’t question or dismiss the Tempter’s assertion), and that Jesus could have had a literal throne on this earth if He had wanted it there and then. But this brings up another question. If Jesus plan for this earth did not include Him reigning over it (as amillennialists have argued), then why was He tempted?
Any response which implies that He was tempted to do something He had no mind to do seems ridiculous. Why would Christ be tempted to do something He didn’t want to do? He didn’t have a sin nature remember! Therefore, we maintain that the strength of this particular temptation, and Jesus’ response to it (in 2:12 – which shows, I think, that He was tempted), present proof that it is indeed within His plan to reign over this earth one day; and this is in-line with Lk. 1:32-33 and OT expectations in Mic. 5:2; Isa. 11:1-10; Jer. 33:15f., Zech. 14:9 etc.
Additionally, these texts are covenantally linked texts. Thus, we are once more dealing with a covenant-regulated hermeneutics which will not budge and cannot be warped by typological subterfuges.
c. Jesus’ Ethics
I understand, of course, that each of these subjects can be written about at far more length than I have afforded myself here. But I believe I have enough room for my present purpose. At the close of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord gives His hearers a choice: either build your life on the foundation of My words and prosper, or build upon the words of some other and perish (Matt.7:24-27). Even though He is using metaphorical language and other figures of speech in the Sermon (e.g. Matt. 5:29-30; 6:22-23; 7:3-10), these figures can be easily deciphered. There is no deeper meaning or fuller sense underneath His words, which means it is possible for anyone to understand and do what He is saying. This connection between hearing and doing (or “keeping”) is seen in other places like Lk. 8:15; 11:28 and Rev. 1:3. Surely the ability to “keep” or “do” Christ’s words is contingent on whether one can understand them? But if the words mean something other than what they appear to mean, or if there is some sort of sensus plenior in play, how can one be sure he has arrived at the correct meaning? Once the plain-sense is thrown out, the road to safety is fraught with ambiguity.
In the Model Prayer the petition involving the coming kingdom (which we know was interpreted as a literal Davidic/Israelite kingdom – Acts 1:6), comes before the petitions for our daily needs and our confession of sins (Lk. 11:1-4). Thus, our hope that God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven” is tied to the arrival of the kingdom, which is tied to what we want and need from God. This is only to say that we should want what God wants, and if God doesn’t want an earthly kingdom (which we have shown above that He does. Cf. Dan. 2), then why on earth didn’t Christ manage to disabuse His disciples of that expectation?
More on this next time