The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (9)

Part Eight

Matthew 25

The Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25

            The two parables that begin chapter 25 both have lead-ins which state, “The kingdom of heaven is like” (Matt. 25:1, 14).  The second of these, the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30)[1], is about stewardship in honoring the King.  Glasscock hits the nail on the head:

[T]he Lord’s point was that the kingdom…was calling servants to honor and glorify its King.  Those who failed to do so demonstrated they were not true servants but wicked, lazy, and useless usurpers of the prerogatives of the kingdom…primarily this parable relates to Israel, who claimed a desire to serve their King but in reality squandered His blessings.  Any tempt to relate this to the church or associate the “talents” with skills or abilities, especially spiritual gifting, is eisegesis.[2]

The first parable is about the wise and foolish virgins and concerns “the day [and] the hour” of Christ’s coming (Matt. 25:13 cf. 24:36).  The story is simple.  Ten virgins (sort of maids in waiting who have not yet been married) are looking out for the bridegroom.  Only five virgins prepare their lamps for the dark, and when it comes five are away buying oil while the bridegroom arrives and leaves.  Five virgins were unprepared for the bridegroom’s coming (cf. Matt. 24:44).  In this parable we find more support for those “taken” in chapter 24 being the saints, while the unprepared remain.

The Sheep and the Goats

            The Olivet discourse closes with Jesus depicting a scene which happens after His second advent.  Again, it should not escape notice that since Jesus began to answer the disciples’ question in Matthew 24:4 the focus has been upon the end time and the second advent.  Let us look at how the section begins:

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.  All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.  And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. – Matthew 25:31-33. 

This judgment appears to complement to the Parable of the Talents as in that passage too the King returns and deals with people and their service (or lack of it) toward Him.  Note that whereas the parable has the King interacting with individuals (e.g., Matt. 25:24-27) the “Sheep and Goats Judgment” pictures Him addressing and being addressed by groups (“those on His right hand,” the righteous,” “those on His left hand.” – Matt. 25:34, 37, 41).  We are not told how the wicked among “the nations” remain after the second coming, but nothing contradicts what we have already been told in Matthew 13:41-43 and 49-50 as long as one allows this passage in Matthew 25 to throw light on those parables.  What we are told here must mean that for example, the dividing off of “those things that offend” in the Parable of the Dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50) occurs after the Lord’s return.  Clearly King Jesus has some house-cleaning to do before He can begin His reign of shalom in earnest.[3] 

            The passage indicates that it is “the nations” (ethnos – Matt. 25:32) that are being judged.  This word ethnos usually signifies Gentiles in contrast to Jews.  Hence, the entry in Balz and Schneider is unambiguous:

Matthew describes the Son of Man’s judgment of “all ἔθνη.”  According to Matthew’s usage and the context and content of the pericope, “all ἔθνη must refer to those peoples (outside Israel!) to whom the message of Christ has not reached or rejected it.[4] 

Granted that “the nations” equal the Gentile nations, are we justified in maintaining that those Jesus refers to as “My brethren” are Jews?  It appears that may be so, although it should be admitted that taking “My brethren” (Matt. 25:40) as meaning “My fellow Jews” is more than a short stride.  It may well refer to all believers in that day.[5] 

The treatment of the “goats” is as severe as it could be.  Those at Christ’s left hand depart to “everlasting (aionios) punishment”; a fate which corresponds to the “everlasting (aionios) life” of those on His right (Matt. 25:46).  There can be no doubt that if the “sheep” enter eternal bliss then the “goats” enter eternal punishment.  There is no room at all in this verse for the notion of a temporary hell, still less annihilationism.

[1] Although some writers hold that the Parable of the Talents is repeated in Mark 13: and Luke 21: I am one of those who disagree.  There are too many dissimilarities between Matthew’s account and the other Gospels.  See Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 484.

[2] Ibid, 488.

[3] This calls to mind the mysterious time delay one reads about in Daniel 12:11-12 where the difference between the length of days in those verses many indicate the time needed for this “shake up” immediately after Christ’s arrival.  

[4] N. Walter, “ἔθνος” in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Volume 1, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, 383.

[5] There is an element of works in the verdict: E.g., “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” (Matt. 25:45).  Perhaps this is because the circumstances will require true faith to reveal itself through good works.    

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (8)

Part Seven

False Christ’s and the True Christ

Jesus continues His answer to the disciples’ second question by repeating that although there will be many false Christ’s and false prophets, and many attention-grabbing supernatural happenings, one should not be fooled (Matt. 24:23-24).  We should take note that contra the scientistic naturalism so prevalent among “intellectuals” in our day, the Tribulation will be charged with spectacular supernatural manifestations and calls to worship.  It will be an extremely “spiritual” time, with no room for cool rationalism.

Verse 27 says that the real coming of Christ will be so singular and incontrovertible that nobody could mistake it.  It will be like a blast of sheet lightening across the sky.  Therefore, during this short period prior to the return one can expect news outlets working overtime in their propaganda and  false flags, “signs and wonders” distracting the masses, groupthink fomenting “the madness of crowds,” and the label “conspiracy theorist” and the like aimed at any who will not accept the “fact” that God has already come to earth in the person of the “prince” (Dan. 9:26b-27a) or Antichrist.  

The Return!

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. – Matthew 24:29-31.

            The second coming of Christ is the beginning point of the real New World Order, not the utopian nightmare of the elite classes.  Jesus’s coming again into the world that He made but which crucified Him is not, as I understand it, the second part of a two part drama, but better the second phase of a single work, sandwiching the time of the Church. 

            In His continuing narrative on the Mount of Olives Jesus predicts that right on the heels of the Tribulation great cosmic signs will be beheld, involving the sun, the moon and the stars.  That is, the “firmament” of Genesis 1 will start to work erratically.  Providence, which through Christ upholds the normal functions of the sky (cf. Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3b) will falter, thus declaring to blind mankind the reality of his dependent creaturehood and the imminent shift in the control of the world-system.  “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven” (Matt. 24:30).  Whatever it is, this “sign” will be in contrast to the malfunctioning of the heavens that presages it. 

            The earth will have witnessed not just intense suffering – whether localized around Israel or spread out throughout all lands – but it will have become familiar with great manifestations of spiritual power.  Nothing however, will compare to what happens next!  Jesus, the Danielic Son of Man, will appear “on the clouds of heaven.”  His countenance will be terrible; His grandeur intoxicating; His evident power crushing. 

            At the sight of the returning Christ a loud trumpet sound is heard, and angels descend for the purpose of gathering up the elect.  We are not told where the saints are taken, but as earth becomes the scene of the Kingdom it seems likely that they are carried to a place of safety ahead of the wrathful vengeance of Christ (Isa. 61:1-2; 63:1-6; 2 Thess. 1:6-9; Rev. 19:11-16). 

As in the Days of Noah

            I cannot expound every verse in Matthew, so I jump to Mathew 24:36 where Jesus picks up the thread of verses 15—31.  He refers to a “day and hour” that remains unknown to all but God the Father.[1]  This reminds us that “the Creation Project” which God began “in the beginning” is still running and will run until the new heavens and new earth are made.  This “day and hour” is too specific to mean the entire second half of the Tribulation.  It relates to the advent itself.  Thus, immediately before Christ comes people will be going about their business, which is what is meant by “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Matt. 24:38). Then the day and hour will be upon them.  Just as the rain began falling once God shut Noah in the Ark, so the intervention in the affairs of life by the returning Christ will happen all of a sudden. 

            This brings up a question: doesn’t this way of putting things ignore the terrible sufferings that will be experienced during this time?  How can life go on as normal in the midst of so much upheaval? 

            My answer is somewhat tentative, since I do not believe the Scriptures furnish us with enough information to construct the end times picture with the degree of detail we would like.  But the fact is that there have always been many whose lives were only tangentially affected by evil times, especially the rich and powerful.  In what may well be an allusion to the same time of Tribulation the Apostle John records the black horse rider ordered not to touch the oil and the wine; products consumed by the wealthy (Rev. 6:5-6).  In a similar manner Paul, when speaking of the Day of the Lord, says that unbelievers will be celebrating “peace and safety” just before “sudden destruction comes upon them” (1 Thess. 5:3).  Another thing to consider is the extent and intensity of this “time of Jacob’s trouble.”  I think it is very possible that the “Great Tribulation” will impact some areas a lot more than others, particularly in the Levant.  I am not saying that it will not be felt on other continents, but perhaps not to the same extent.  One must also recall that in Nazi Germany life went on for the majority of compliant people even though millions of Jews, gypsies, handicapped, and POWs went through Hell on earth at the same time. This at least indicate that life’s patterns can continue in evil times for those on the “right side.”           

Jesus next mentions two men and two women in Matthew 24:40-42:

Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.  Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. 

            I have made comments about this saying already in my chapter on Luke.  Are these verses perhaps speaking of the rapture or perhaps a removal of the saints before wrath?  If we examine verse 42 first, we see that Jesus is issuing a warning.  But is the warning about being taken or being left?  It is not easy to be definite, although as with Luke, the example of Noah (Luke also includes Lot) tilts the interpretation toward those taken being carried (paralambano) to safety.[2]  Glasscock writes,

It might be best to understand the taking of these as the collecting of the elect of v. 31 (not the rapture of the church, but the gathering of the sealed Jews and faithful Gentiles of the Tribulation) and leaving the others behind for the judgment about to come on the earth.[3]

            Matthew 13:41-43 and 13:47-50 appear to have the angels gathering the unbelievers to judgment with the saints being left to enter the Kingdom.  This may mean that my position given above needs reversing.  But I still feel justified in my interpretation, for I do not believe Matthew 13 precludes the saints being carried to safety before the ungodly are dealt with.  Moreover, the separation in Matthew 13 appears to take place after Jesus has returned (see below the separation of “the sheep and the goats” in Matthew 25:31ff.), and thus describes a different situation than Matthew 24:40-42. 

[1] Mark 13:32 says that not even Jesus knows this information.  We must parse such sayings carefully.  The Lord is saying that as the Servant of God He is unaware of the exact timing of His return.  This is because He has willingly set aside His divine prerogatives such as omniscience and omnipresence in order to become who He had to become for us. (cf. Phil. 2:5-8; Heb. 10:9-10).   

[2] I do think that an argument can be made for a “rapture” in Matthew 24:40-41 when it is combined with Revelation 14:14-16, but it is not decisive.  Moreover, I cannot see the Church in either context. 

[3] Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 477.

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (7)

Part Six

The Image and the Great Tribulation

            It is usual for Dispensationalists to divide the seventieth week of Daniel 9; a week that lasts for seven years, into two halves of three and a half years each.  There are good reasons for this which we shall discuss, but this clean division is not as apparent when one concentrates solely on the Olivet Discourse.  The passage continues like this:

Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes.   But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!   And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.  For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be  And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. – Matthew 24:15-22.

Jesus refers to Daniel as a prophet who predicted something called “the abomination of desolation” (Dan. 11:31; 12:11).[1]  Whatever it is it stands “in the holy place.”  The name “the holy place” is an OT term designating the temple.  That is to say, this abomination will stand in the temple!  To Jesus’ hearers the temple means only one thing, the Jerusalem temple.  Yet for Jesus Daniel’s prophecy is still future.  The reaction of “those in Judea” is to flee.  They flee because some thing is “standing” in the temple in Jerusalem.[2]  That “abomination of desolation” is the signal for intense persecution at the end. 

            But what could the abomination be?  The natural conclusion is that it is some sort of statue or image.[3]  There is another place in the NT where this imagery is cited.  In Revelation 13 a person called “the beast” is worshipped by the “earth-dwellers” (Rev. 13:3-9).  He has an accomplice called “the false prophet” who seems to act as his agent and mouthpiece, but who possesses supernatural powers that enable him to deceive with great signs and wonders and to make an image of the beast come alive (Rev. 13:11-15).  Those who will not worship the image are persecuted and killed (Rev. 13:15). 

            One further text which may have a bearing on the image of Matthew 24:15 is mentioned by the Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 where someone called “the man of sin/son of perdition” goes into “the temple of God” and “sits” in it “as God.”  Since the beast receives worship, it is not a far stretch to suppose that he would enter a temple of worship.  Nor is it supposing too much to envisage him placing an image of himself in the temple.[4]  Which temple?  Well, if it is the same temple that Jesus speaks about as “the holy place” in Matthew 24:15 it would be situated in Jerusalem in Judea.

            This setting up of “the abomination of desolation” is linked to “the great tribulation.”  Hence, most dispensational premillennialists have identified the great tribulation as beginning at the mid-point of the seventieth week mentioned in Daniel 9 and I believe that they are right.  I have made comments on this in Volume One[5], but something should be said about it here. 

The Seventieth Week of Daniel and the Great Tribulation

            Although I intend to say more about this and related themes later in this volume, the occurrence of it in the Olivet Discourse affords an opportunity to try to connect the period of intense trouble spoken about in the Prophets with Jesus’ words. 

            Taken as weeks of years the seventy heptads or weeks of Daniel 9:24 we get a total of 490 years all told.  But Daniel 9:25 refers to the completion of just sixty-nine weeks or 483 years.  The seventieth week is mentioned in verse 27 in a fascinating passage:

Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week;
But in the middle of the week
He shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering.
And on the wing of abominations shall be one who makes desolate,
Even until the consummation, which is determined,
Is poured out on the desolate. – Daniel 9:27.

            The “he” of the verse logically refers back to “the prince” or “ruler” (nagid) whose people are mentioned in the previous verse.[6]  This prince is said to make a covenant, or possibly force a covenant of seven years duration.[7]  The seven years period is the final week of the seventy weeks determined upon Daniel’s people and Jerusalem (Dan. 9:24).  Note where the focus is; upon Israel, just as in Matthew 24:16-20. 

            The covenant that this prince will make is not described.  It is enough to know that this prince does something “in the middle of the week” (i.e. after three and a half years) which is related to the covenant; he stops the sacrifices and offerings.  The very fact that sacrifices and offerings are being made indicates strongly that a temple is present and a sacrificial system is in full swing.  Along with other premillennial interpreters I believe that we are obliged to see a close connection between the seven-year covenant and the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem in the closing years of our era before the return of Christ.

            Matthew then is focused upon Israel, just as was Daniel (Dan. 9:24).  Christ’s description of catastrophic events in Matthew 24/Mark 13 also calls to mind what Jeremiah calls “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7), about which the prophet says, “Alas, for that day is great, so that none is like it,” and after which Israel will serve Yahweh their God, and David their king.” (Dan. 12:9).  Jeremiah 30:7 is very close in meaning to Jesus’ “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” (Matt. 24:21), and Daniel’s “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation.” (Dan. 12:1), which concerns “the time of the end” according to Daniel 12:8.  There is to be a time in history when the rage and violence against the Jews and Jerusalem will be worse than any other time in their history.  This prophecy is not referring to the Holocaust, as terrible as that was since it does not match the prophetic picture.  No, this “great tribulation” is yet to come.  It is concentrated in the last half of the seventieth week and is associated with the coming evil potentate who enters into a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem and claims to be divine.[8] 

               But why does this “man of sin,” this “son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3) turn on the Jews and their capital city?  An obvious answer is that they will not accept his claims to be God.  That may well be, but one has to remember that the OT does present Messiah as having divine attributes (viz. Isa. 7:14; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 14).  One can imagine how passages like Isaiah 2:3-4 and Malachi 3:1 could be recontextualized and applied to him.  I therefore think something more than this will be in play.   

Jesus’ Olivet Discourse picks up the note of latter-day tribulation for Israel, adding revelation to the OT picture.  With respect, the person who wants to cram the seventieth week into the first century is not attending to what these passages are saying. What is clear is that the persecution will be so ferocious that “unless those days were shortened, no flesh [i.e. in Israel] would be saved.” (Matt. 24:22). 

[1] In Daniel 9:26-27 there is a reference to “the wing of abominations” and making “desolate.”  This is not the main reference that Jesus is speaking about in Matthew 24. 

[2] The passage hones in on Israel: Judea, holy place, rooftop, Sabbath.  It is not concerned so much with worldwide trouble but rather Israel’s trouble; “Jacob’s Trouble” (Jer. 30:7). 

[3] For example, the altar raised up by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B. C. had an abomination “set up” or “built” upon it according to 1 Maccabees 1:54.   

[4] I shall of course say more about this “Beast” in the course of this book.

[5] See The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 315-317.

[6] Those who try to force it to mean the Messiah are not following the author himself.  See J. Paul Tanner, Daniel, EEC, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020, 590-591.  Tanner includes a footnote (297) in which he notices several amillennial scholars who agree that this “prince” is the future antichrist.   

[7] Ibid, 592-593. 

[8] One perceived problem with this is that these “signs of the times” disqualify any notion of an anytime coming of Jesus Christ.  But this is not necessarily true.  The doctrine of imminence, if it is true, regards the perspective of the Church.  Therefore, a pretribulationist can easily assert an immanent rapture while allowing for these signs of distress in the seventieth week.    

Review: ‘The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism’

A Review of Ken Wilson, The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism, Regula Fidei Press, 2019, 121 pages, paperback.

I was sent this book by a former student a while back and I promised that I would review it. The book has and will cause controversy with Calvinists because of its thesis. That thesis is that Augustine’s theological turnabout from the generally accepted views of God and the human will was mainly influenced by the determinist worldviews he had imbibed before he was a Christian. This will ruffle the feathers of some of my readers. With that said, let us continue.

The author is an M.D. and evangelical Christian who has earned a D. Phil from Oxford University with a dissertation on Augustine’s Conversion from Traditional Free Choice to ‘Non-free Free Will’: A Comprehensive Methodology. This book, the author stresses, is only a partial presentation of the data in his bigger study (IV-V).

This book is a “popular” version of the Oxford dissertation and is still somewhat of a challenge for the average reader. I appreciate the work as a good piece of historical theology. I do not find the idea surprising that no previous theologian of the early church taught divine determinism and compatibilist freedom. I have taught Church History at Seminary level, and in pouring over the standard works and biographies, as well as reading from the sources (e.g. Epistle of Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocians) one does not encounter these doctrines (I would be very interested if someone could show me where that assertion is incorrect btw). In fact, Wilson avers, you encounter just the opposite, a uniform insistence upon “traditional free choice” or what we would call libertarian freewill (19-20).

Let me be clear, Wilson’s most controversial point is not only that no orthodox writer before 412 taught Augustine’s doctrine of Divine predetermination, it is that there were those who did teach it; the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists, and the Gnostic-Manicheans. Wilson claims that these groups employed the very same texts and interpretations to teach their deterministic views as Augustine would later use.

Please understand what is being claimed here. Wilson is not saying that Augustine agreed with Stoic/Manichean exegesis per se, only that his prior familiarity with it influenced his conclusions when pressed for answers in his debates with Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum.

Despite the reading I have done I do not consider myself to be well read enough in Patristics to know whether Wilson is right or wrong in his main points. All I can say is that I think it is uncontroversial to state that the later Augustine introduced theological determinism into soteriology at the turn of the 5th century A.D. This can be found in many books and articles even by Reformed authors. What is “new” is the opinion of where Augustine derived his later teaching, and when.

Now before continuing I should say two things. The first is to point out the obvious, namely that even if Wilson is right in his assertions it does not mean that Augustine was wrong. That is to say, Augustine’s doctrines of predestination and compatibilism (i.e. that human will is compatible with God’s foreordination of all things) may yet be biblical. The second point that I would make is that anyone familiar with the early Church Fathers ought to be aware that they sometimes held what we would consider erroneous views of baptism (that it was necessary for salvation or inclusion in the Church), and of eternal security (that is, they did not hold to it), and occasionally of the Persons of the Trinity (especially concerning the Divine economy). Wilson’s book then should not be seen as a refutation of Augustinianism/Calvinism, and therefore should not be countered theologically but historically. It is a documentation of Augustine’s possible (read probable) influences. Those influences are Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, and Manicheanism; all of which were explored in depth by the pre-Christian Augustine and all of which were strongly deterministic in orientation. Further, Wilson claims that the way these three groups interpreted the Scriptures is directly reflected in later Augustine’s theology. Wilson has developed an acronym, DUPIED, meaning “Divine Predetermination of Individuals’ Eternal Destinies.” (5).

It might be objected that the author’s purpose in writing the dissertation was to prove his beliefs, and I believe it was. The author is an adherent of free grace theology (although he has written against the Zane Hodges/Bob Wilken brand as heresy). But even if that is the case the real question is whether he succeeded in doing so. What makes Wilson’s scholarship noteworthy is that he appears to be one of the very few Patristics scholars who have carefully read Augustine’s theological works in chronological order. The outcome of carrying out this daunting task is that Wilson shows how the great Western Father revised much of his corpus after 412 A.D. (and his Pelagian controversy) to reflect his new understanding. These revisions are particularly relevant in the case of his 396 work Ad Simplicianum 2.5-22 (3, 49-53, 91-94) because it has been thought on the basis of that work that Augustine held to his mature doctrines prior to the Pelagian affair.

This book is well organized and documented although it does have a rushed feel about it; no doubt because the writer had not intended to produce a trimmed version of his dissertation. For all that it presents a cogent and compelling argument. Wilson moves from philosophical precursors (Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism) in chapter 1 to Christian authors prior to Augustine in chapter 2, then on to early Augustine (386-411) in chapter 3, and then to the later Augustine in chapters 4 through 7. A Conclusion with Appendix and Timeline closes the book.

Each chapter is quite short. The first one surveys the relevant teachings of the pagan systems which (once?) influenced Augustine. Chapter 2 runs through a succession of Church Fathers and scholars to show that “Not even one early church father writing from 95-430 CE – despite abundant acknowledgement of inherited human depravity – considered Adam’s fall to have erased human free choice to independently respond to God’s gracious invitation.” (34). Chapter 3 is on Augustine’s earlier doctrine. Things start hotting up in chapter 4 with Wilson’s assertion that, among other things, Augustine emphasized God’s power above His justice (65-66), especially in the election of certain ones to salvation. Chapter 5 is entitled “Augustine Resorted to Manichaean Interpretations of Scripture.” A longish sample of Wilson’s conclusion is pertinent:

“Augustine had earlier taunted the Manichaeans for inventing a god who damned persons eternally when those persons had no ability to do good or choose good (Contra Faustus 22.22). Augustine converted back to a Manichaean proof-text interpretation of Eph. 2:8 wherein God regenerated the dead will and infused faith ( 17). Augustine reverts to his prior Manichaean training with their interpretation of multiple scriptures…He now accepts and teaches the very interpretations he had previously refuted…This scenario is precisely why early church policy forbade any prior Manichaean from becoming a Christian bishop and why charges of Manichaeism had been brought against the early Augustine before ordination.” (78-79 cf. 110-111).

The sixth and seventh chapters compare pagan (especially Stoic) determinism with Augustine and go on to ask when and why he converted to determinism. The author quotes Harvard philosopher Harry Wolfson as saying Augustine’s “doctrine of grace is only a Christianization of the Stoic doctrine of fate.” (86). Whether Wolfson was right is beyond my ability to judge, but Wilson supplies plenty of information.

In conclusion I think that The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism, although it is a popular version of a scholarly tome, demands to be taken seriously as a piece of historical research. Again, let not the Reformed reader commit the logical faux-pas of dismissing the book because of Wilson’s own theology and positions (of which I am not in complete sympathy myself). Let the counter arguments be along historical lines, citing the sources.

It has to be admitted that because of the author’s clear animus against Augustinian-Calvinism his book is not likely to find a willing audience among those with Reformed sympathies. I wish a more dispassionate tone would have been adopted in places. However, facts are facts, and Wilson has marshalled a lot of them (at least it looks like it). When he states that he is “unaware of even one Patristics scholar who would agree” that the early Church taught anything like the points of TULIP (112 n. 11), he has by that time mounted a considerable array of witnesses to back it up.

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (6)

Part Five

The Olivet Discourse (Pt. 1)

            Coming at last to the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25, although the main descriptive section comes in Matthew 24 with an addendum at the end of Matthew 25, before which are two parables. 

            Matthew 24:1-2 belong on their own.  They provide the setting for the discourse that follows in that they refer to the glories of Herod’s temple.[1] Jesus does not even acknowledge the great work, which by His time was famous throughout the Empire.  Instead, He predicts its devastation, which came upon it in A.D. 70.                          

            In the verses that come next some are tempted to keep within the first century setting of the opening two verses, but I think this is plainly mistaken.  Verse 3 is critical to what will follow:

Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” – Matthew 24:3.

            They have arrived at the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem.  The disciples, moved to further inquiry by Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple, come to Him with more questions.  Two questions are put to Jesus; the first refers to the overthrow of the temple that Jesus had just spoken of.  The second question concerned Christ’s coming (which He had spoken about: Mk. 8:38; Lk. 12:40; 17:24[2]; 18:8; cf. Matt. 16:28; 19:28).  This coming was understood to take place at the time of “the end of the age.”  If one pays close attention to the words recorded by the Evangelist, it quickly becomes clear that the first question does not receive an answer (at least none is reported).  Matthew’s focus is upon the answer to the second question; the one about Christ’s return and the end of the age.  This can be decided by noticing the phenomena of men claiming to be Christ (Matt. 24:5, 24), false prophets abounding (Matt. 24:11, 24), the setting up of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” (Matt. 24:15), greatly intensified tribulation reminiscent of Daniel 12 (Matt. 24:21-22), and the signs of the second coming itself (Matt. 24:29-31), with its depiction of Christ’s judging the nations to determine who goes into life and who faces punishment (Matt. 25:31-46).  These particulars are not to be swept away with the magic word “apocalyptic.”  They direct our attention away from the first century and onto events just prior to and including the second advent.  This conclusion is reinforced by the repetition of the term “the end” in the first half of the chapter (Matt. 24:3, 6, 13, 14).  This corresponds to the employment of “the end” in Matthew 10:22; 13:39-40, 49, cf. 28:20. 

The Sign of Christ’s Coming and of the End of the Age 

            Since, as we have seen, Jesus’ remarks concern the second question of the disciples, which is to say their question about Christ’s coming and the end of the age, it is vital we get the setting of these remarks right.  First, “the beginning of sorrows” (Matt. 24:8) include what appears to be world upheaval, both societal and natural (Matt. 24:6-7).  Of course, there have always been “wars and rumors of wars.”  Hence, the only way to make sense of this is in terms of an undeniable explosion of war and mayhem.  This concentration of wars is combined with false prophesying and “many” people falsely claiming to be Christ. (Matt. 24:4-5).[3]  We must look for wars, widespread civil unrest, natural calamities, disease, and false Messiahs and false prophets occurring together.  People will be alarmed and fall prey to deceptions.  This will precede the end, but “the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6); meaning, I believe, that before Christ’s second coming, the world (or at the very least the Middle East[4]) will be thrown into confusion and chaos.

            In this time period the saints will be persecuted (I take the “you” here as anticipatory, referring to Christ’s followers at that time).  The general alarm will be exploited by false prophets (Matt. 24:9-12) who will encourage the persecution.  It is within this context that we must fit “he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Matt. 24:13).

            What does the saying mean?  I think the very first question to be asked is ‘Does the phrase “the end” in verse 13 mean the same as it does in verses 3, 6, and 14?  Or does it mean something like “the end of one’s life”? or “the end of one’s trial”?  I see no reason to believe that this second answer is correct.  The end should mean “the end of the age” as it does in the rest of its usages in the discourse.  If this is correct, we may paraphrase verse 13 as “he who makes it through to the return of Christ.”  To bring in Matthew 25:41-46, it would mean that those saints who survive the persecution will be ushered into the Kingdom.

            But doesn’t this create a tautology?   Am I simply stating that the ones who make it through the final torrid days of this age are the ones who escape death?  Of course, the question of what the verb “saved” means in this verse is critical.  If it means the salvation of the soul then the problem of tautology vanishes, but the possible problem of works raises its head.  Does one have to endure (viz. put in effort) to be saved?  If so, how is this connected to the matter of justification?  If however “saved” equates to survival the tautology reappears.  Or does it?  What if we paraphrase things a bit?  What if it means “the believer who gets through the Tribulation will be rescued, and will enter the peaceable Kingdom”?  Glasscock writes,

Contextually, the salvation being discussed here was not eternal redemption but deliverance from the persecutions and wretchedness of the world.[5] 

The Gospel of the Kingdom and the End of the Age

            I have said that it is essential to interpret the Olivet Discourse in light of the way Jesus answered the second question that He was asked in Matthew 24:3.[6]  So far we have tried to show that the whole direction of the discourse points to the end times and not to the first century A. D.  This impression only deepens as the chapter proceeds.  In the next verse Jesus remarks,

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. – Matthew 24:14.

            This statement is immediately followed by the warning about seeing “the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet” (Matt. 24:15).  That verse, as well as what has gone before, places the preaching of “the gospel of the kingdom” at the time of the end.  As hard to take as it may be for many, the plain fact is that the Gospel of Matthew does not know anything about the good news involving Christ’s substitutionary atonement and His resurrection for our justification (cf. Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:1-4).  The “gospel” of Matthew’s narrative is “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7), and when Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 speak of “the gospel of the kingdom” it appears that this is the message (i.e., the message of the soon arrival of the kingdom) that is being spoken of.  As a matter of fact, although Jesus does mention His forthcoming death and resurrection in Matthew 16:21; 17:23; and 26:31-32 it was not done openly, and the disciples are not described as fully comprehending His meaning.  One may fairly ask then, aside from the discomfort which these facts may produce, is it not true that the gospel of the kingdom as presented in Matthew is different than the gospel in Paul’s letters?[7]  The blunt answer is Yes!  

            What then are we to do with this prediction by Christ about the gospel of the kingdom being preached for a “witness” before the end comes?  One thing we must say is that this text has nothing to do with present world missions, laudable as they are.  A point that follows hard on the heels of this is that the gospel of the kingdom, viz., “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” which made sense at the first coming before Christ’s rejection, begins to make sense again, only in light of Christ’s imminent second coming.  This is just what we see in Matthew.

[1] Herod’s temple was essentially a rebuilding of the temple built under Zerubbabel.  Hence, both edifices are usually referred to as the second temple.   

[2] Jesus appears to have used the analogy of a lightning flash to speak of His second coming before Matthew 24.

[3] Not many men in history have made this claim.  The most famous was Simon Bar-Kohkba, who was overthrown by Rome in A.D. 135.  Rabbi Akiba believed he was the Christ. 

[4] It is unclear whether these end time predictions of Jesus have the entire world in view or just the area covered in His time by the Roman Empire, West and East.    

[5] Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 466-467.

[6] Most scholars believe that the destruction of the temple in A. D. 70 is addressed by Jesus in Luke 21:12-24.  As can be seen from my comments on that passage, I respectfully disagree.   

[7] One must face the fact that the word euangelion (“gospel” or “good news”) does not possess a technical meaning in the four Gospels like it does in the later NT.    

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (5)

Part Four

The Parables of the Kingdom (Pt. 2)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

            The other five (or six) parables are shorter.  The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matt. 13:31-32) speaks of the “kingdom of heaven” beginning almost imperceptibly like a tiny seed but growing until it becomes a tree that can hold bird’s nests.  Does this depict positive or negative growth?  The wheat or the tares?  It is hard to say, but I side with the majority who see it as positive growth.

The Parable of the Woman Hiding Leaven

            The Parable of the Leaven (Matt. 13:33) has of course been interpreted as illustrating the private growth of the “kingdom” or Gospel in the world throughout history.  But this way of thinking about it would be foreign to the initial hearers of the message.  “Leaven” is not equated with good things in the Bible.  Jesus Himself consistently uses leaven as a negative figure elsewhere (Matt. 16:6, 11-12. Cf. Mk. 8:15).  Paul does the same (1 Cor. 5:6-8; Gal. 5:9).  When we come to the OT things do not change (e.g., Exod. 12:15, 19; 34:25; Lev. 2:11; 10:12; Deut. 16:4; Amos 4:5).  Are we now to believe that this word would be understood positively in this single case?  No, the growth of the leaven, which is “hid” remember (linking it with the devil’s surreptitious sowing in Matthew 13:25, 39), refers to the “tares.”  In my opinion it is best to understand the hidden growth of evil in history, not simply as the general impact of the unrighteous, but of a certain line of usually powerful men whose ambition and greed make them foils in Satan’s hands.  It is something like this that John is alluding to when he writes about the whole world being “under the sway of the wicked one” (1 Jn. 5:19).    

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure

            The next parable is the Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matt. 13:44) where a man sells everything once he discovers treasure in a field.  The treasure isn’t his until he owns the field!  The joy of the man and the value of the treasure show that this relates to the positive aspect of the “kingdom.” 

The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price

Likewise with the parable which follows: a man finds “a pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:45-46).  Since a pearl is a thing of beauty it seems natural to infer that this depicts a positive aspect of the “kingdom”; perhaps the truth of the message preached?

The Parable of the Dragnet

            Finally, we read the Parable of the Dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50).  In this parable we see good and bad (clean and unclean) fish pictured, which reminds us of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. 

The Parable of the Householder

            After He has recited the seven parables of the kingdom Jesus closes with a parable likening the good listener; the one who comprehends Him, to a householder who can produce old and new treasures from what he has learned (Matt. 13:52).  This suits the disciples cum Apostles who bring truth out of both the OT and the teachings of Jesus.[1] 

A Summary 

            What one is left with after studying these parables is the crucial importance of hearing correctly (paying attention), the joint growth of lookalike good and bad (true and false) disciples, the secret insidious growth of what Satan has sown within the sphere of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 15:13), the surpassing value of having found the truth, and the job of separating the true followers from the false that is given to the angels at the second coming.  In this chapter “the kingdom of heaven” does not refer to the eschatological reign of peace but to the progress of “the word of the kingdom” in conflicting circumstances.  I think we are left with the following:

  1. The “word of the kingdom” is the same as the announcement “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  That certainly was “the word” that had been proclaimed up until then.
  2. The phrase “the mysteries of the kingdom” relates to the several aspects or perspectives about the progress of the kingdom before its consummation in the messianic age to come.
  3. This means that the majority of Jesus’s usages of “the kingdom of heaven” in these parables, as well as the other parables where we read “the kingdom of heaven is like” (i.e., Matt. 18:23; 20:1 ff.; 22:2; 25:14) do not refer to the eschatological Kingdom but rather to the growth activity toward that Kingdom.     
  4. All the parables that include the introductory formula “the kingdom of heaven is like” (which is peculiar to Matthew) describe either positive or negative characteristics of this growth or both.
  5. However, in Matthew 13:41, 43 and 44 the kingdom of heaven is the eschatological kingdom either just before its proper inception or in its consummation.

It is exceptionally difficult to decide exactly what form the progress of the kingdom of heaven takes since the message “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is not the message of the Church.  I confess to not feeling able to take a decided position on the matter.  In my view the best option is to understand these Matthean parables as describing the route that elect, whether in the Church or not (i.e. Tribulation saints[2]), travel towards the coming age of fulfillment.[3]      

[1] Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Jesus of the Gospels, 93.

[2] By saying this I am showing my hand.  It lies ahead of me to try to prove that the NT distinguishes Church saints from pre and post Church saints (e.g., Israel and the Nations).  Unless we insist upon spiritualizing Revelation 21:23-26 we can readily see a distinction of peoples in the New Creation. It will also be my duty to argue for the removal of the Church before the Tribulation period.    

[3] Another less discussed yet glaring issue is the stubborn fact that the kingdom message of Jesus in the Gospels is not the same as the “Pauline” message of the Church.  Like it or not, the crowds were not hearing about the pending substitutionary death and resurrection of the Lord from either Him or His (clueless) disciples.  I shall seek to establish this fact later in this book. 

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (4)

This is from the first draft of my book ‘The Words of the Covenant, Volume 2: New Testament Continuity’.

Part Three

The Parables of the Kingdom (Pt. 1)

            In any study of the Kingdom “the parables of the kingdom,” seven (or eight depending on one’s reckoning) of which are located in Matthew 13 are critical.  Although this is not a Bible commentary, it is important to take a look at these parables because they provide important information about the progress of God’s Kingdom program.[1]  We should remind ourselves that although the majority of OT texts refer to the eschatological Kingdom, there are verses such as Psalm 103:19 which declare, “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all.”  There is then a sense in which God has a kingdom up in heaven (naturally enough), but this is not the same as the one on earth described in such vibrant terms by the Prophets; the eschatological Kingdom.  As we have seen that Kingdom is very much part of the theology of Luke.

            Prior to chapter 13 Matthew has employed the term “kingdom of heaven” in a futuristic sense.  It is something ahead (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 5: 3, 10, 19-20; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11-12).  In several instances the passages plainly speak of the coming new aeon (Matt. 5:19-20; 8:11), but I submit that all the references ought to be taken in that way.  However, things change in Matthew 13.  

The Parable of the Sower

The first parable, the famous Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9; 18-23) is the key parable.[2]  This parable does not contain the formula “the kingdom of heaven is like,” which is seen in the other parables in chapter 13. 

The first parable acts as a sort of interpretive guide to the rest of the parables in the chapter.  At its close we see that the parable is all about how one hears.  “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 13:9).  The ear has been made to hear rightly.  Matthew 13:14-16 (which cites Isaiah 6:9-10) relates the misuse of eyes and ears; the problem emanating from the heart!  We see this in Jesus’ interpretation of the first parable where He notes that the seed (i.e., the word) does not find receptive ground.  In Matthew 13:19 the person does not understand the word, and the cause is in the heart.  In Matthew 13:20-21 the word is gladly received, but there is no depth for it to take root.  That is, the heart is not prepared for the word.  The way Jesus puts it is interesting; “he has no root in himself” (Matt. 13:21).  This indicates that although the word was accepted it was accepted rather like a lover of fiction accepts a pile of books only to discover that nothing in the pile strikes their fancy.  Or rather, the books received require more than a mere foray of the imagination.  In Matthew 13:22 the third kind of hearer is too enamored with the world for the word to change their heart.[3]  At last we come to the hearer who “understands” (Matt. 13:23).  Hearers of this sort produce “fruit,” probably in accordance with their abilities and circumstances. 

A true hearer will understand the word.  That is what the Parable of the Sower is about.  Hopefully now we will be attentive to the other parables.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares tells us something crucial about “the kingdom.”  It shows us that the kingdom is something that is “planted,” is growing, and is vulnerable to assault from the Enemy.  This should put us on our mettle; we are not to think of the final eschatological Kingdom here.

In His explanation of the parable (Matt. 13:36-43), Jesus identifies Himself as the Sower of the good seed (Matt. 13:37), the devil as the Enemy who sows bad seed (Matt. 13:39), the field as the world (Matt. 13:38), the wheat as “the sons of the kingdom,” (Matt. 13:38), the tares the “sons of the wicked one,” and the reapers as the angels at the end of the age (Matt. 13:39). 

What Jesus is presenting in these parables is a kingdom in the making, not consummated.  What does this mean?  Some believe that it means that the kingdom of heaven is seen as beginning at the start of Jesus’ public ministry and extending through the visible church till the “end of the age” (Matt. 13:39, 49).  That is a common understanding, especially among Reformed commentators.  But it has problems.  Firstly, we are expressly told that “the field is the world,” not the Church (Matt. 13:38).  This must be carefully pondered, for it means that “the sons of the kingdom” cannot be synonymous with Christians!  And if that is the case then “the sons of the wicked one” cannot be false Christians.  Who then are they?  Perhaps the safest answer (although admittedly frustratingly indeterminate) is that these godly and ungodly “sons” represent two strands of sinners in all ages; the first saved by grace and the second enslaved by the devil?[4]  Also, if the kingdom equates to the Church, then in such a scenario the kingdom lasts only until the close of this dispensation (or until the separation – Matt. 13:39-43).  But surely the age to come (inferred here, though see Matt. 12:32. Cf. Matt. 19:28) is the true age of the Kingdom (cf. Matt. 13:43), as it has been prior to this chapter?  Cutting the kingdom of heaven away from the age to come doesn’t work in any millennial perspective.  The eyes have to be fully open.  For example, one thing that ought to grab the attention, but may slip by is that “His kingdom” in Matthew 13:41 has to be different than “the kingdom of their father” in verse 43.  It is the nuances in the parables that make them challenging.          

I think we have to be clear on what is meant by the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like.”  And to do that we have to connect it to “the mysteries of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:11).  If we understand the phrase to refer to what was being preached, that is, “the word of the kingdom,” then it is the proclamation of the Kingdom that is primarily in view.  In contrast to the Parable of the Sower, in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares “the word of the kingdom” is not the seed but instead produces the seed, which are “the sons of the kingdom.”[5]  The Sower is Christ who proclaims the word which produces the “seed.”  Continuing this line of thinking we can go one of two ways.  We can assume that the proclamation of the word by Jesus’ followers throughout what we know as Church history is meant, in which case the Church proclaims the Kingdom.  But that view, as we have just seen, is problematical.[6] 

Alternatively, we can say that the “word of the kingdom” was a particular message; one of the immanence of the next age (“the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) which ceased with the ministry of Jesus but perhaps will be resumed when that message is again relevant.  In light of Matthew 24:14 this second position looks to have something going for it, but it cannot account for the growth of the good and bad seed in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, so it is inadequate.       

To be clear on what I am saying so far, I am proposing that the announcement of the approaching Kingdom (“the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) by John the Baptist and by Christ is the same as “the word of the kingdom” referred to in Matthew 13:19.[7]  But may we go further and claim that this “word of the kingdom” is what is in view in Jesus’ refrain “the kingdom of heaven is like?”  That is to say, is Jesus saying something like “the kingdom represented in Me and My message of its soon approach is like this.”?  To interpret this way is to wrap the Person and Kingdom message of Christ together, which is attractive.  It is here that we must recall that Jesus is teaching about “the mysteries of the kingdom,” and that these mysteries concern its progress toward final consummation, not the consummation per se.  For instance, it cannot be that the devil sows false disciples in the messianic Kingdom itself since in any end times scenario the devil is incapacitated (however Revelation 20 is interpreted).  Let us keep reading.

Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age.  The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! – Matthew 13:40-43.

            The close of the parable deals with eschatological issues.  The Son sends out His angels “to gather out of His kingdom all things that offend.” (Matt. 13:41 my emphasis).  This has to mean that there is an expression of the Kingdom that predates “the age to come.[8]”  Therefore, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” must refer to an aspect or aspects of it that run from the first to the second advent.  The final piece of the parable finds Jesus speaking of the new aeon; “the kingdom of their Father” (which we know will be mediated by the Son).[9]  When Christ says that His angels will one day “gather out of His Kingdom all things that offend” (Matt. 13:41), He is probably referring to an event that happens right after Christ has returned to the earth.  In which case the “kingdom” in that place is the eschatological Kingdom in its infancy, though perhaps ahead of its formal inauguration.        

            We see then that the term “kingdom of heaven” is somewhat elastic in Matthew 13.  In Matthew 13:41-42 it refers to the eschatological Kingdom, but the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” refers to aspects of the kingdom already occurring.    

[1] Often the nuances within these parables are not dealt with adequately.

[2] “In many ways…this is the quintessential parable that opens up our understanding of all Jesus’s parables.” – Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Jesus of the Gospels: An Introduction, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020, 92.  This perhaps goes a little too far. 

[3] Of course, we are to understand that the “heart” does not refer just to the emotional side of man, but to his driving impulses. 

[4] I do not mean that the “sons of the wicked one” necessarily include all lost men, but rather those who grow alongside the saints.  Remember, the evil one plants these people.  

[5] In Matthew 8:12 where the term “sons of the kingdom” is applied to Jews who are excluded from the eschatological Kingdom.  This reminds us that every parable must be studied for how words are used within its own story. 

[6] See D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” 316-317, 324-326.   It is also worth noting that the Church has not proclaimed the kingdom, at least not in a major way, unless one wishes to equate the kingdom to the Roman Catholic Church that is!  

[7] This is not controversial.  See e.g., John Nolland, Matthew, 539.

[8] That is to say, the eschatological Kingdom. 

[9] To these considerations we might add the Parable of the Workers in Matthew 20:1-16 and the Parables in Matthew 21:28-32; 22:1-12.  Of course, many writers insist upon relating that parable to the church. 

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 4)

Part Three

In this final installment of my review of Covenant we turn to look at Daniel Block’s discussion of covenants in the NT. This is the section of the book that I was most looking forward to as many scholars (e.g. I. Howard Marshall) have written about the relative unimportance of covenant in the Gospels, Paul and General Epistles. In one sense (a rather superficial sense) they are right; the NT writers do not seem as concerned with covenants as their OT counterparts. But this is only on the surface of things. Upon closer examination, and provided one has not forgotten about them, it becomes apparent that the Apostolic authors thought much in covenant terms. With this in mind I eagerly read Block’s Part Four, “Covenant in the New Testament.”

Block gives 229 pages to the study (394-623), and even though he insists upon using his (to my way of thinking) confusing naming of the covenants (i.e., Cosmic and Adamic (=Noahic) covenants; the four part Israelite covenant composed of Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic & New, plus the Davidic covenant), I could still mostly follow his argument. But I think casting the covenants into this mold makes them not only confusing but tame; they simply don’t look influential in Block’s presentation. And this creates a problem for his presentation of covenance in the Gospels and Paul; it’s all rather pedestrian (which is epitomized in his Conclusion on pages 615-623).

In his treatment of the first three parts of his “Israelite covenant,” (which we have to remind ourselves are the Abrahamic/Mosaic “covenant” with its renewal in Deuteronomy), the author returns to his insistence that the Torah was/is not “Law” in itself and so is a way of life. Let me turn there first:

The Torah as Grace

Central to Block’s understanding of torah is his position that the rabbinic accrual of interpretive stipulations is what is in Jesus’ and Paul’s minds when they talk about the folly of law-keeping. For example, consider these three quotes:

“The postexilic community was indeed Torah based, but with the elevation of the Torah to virtual idol status, Second Temple Judaism had become a meritocracy in which the Oral Torah regulated every detail of life and for which the Pharisees considered themselves not only definers but also models of Torah piety.” (465).

“Paul’s reference to the Torah as pedagogue was a full frontal attack on the Judaizers. They and their Pharisaic predecessors in Judaism had robbed this precious gift of its heart- and life-giving power and transformed the Torah into an enslaving and stifling institution. The Torah was intended as a gracious gift, defining the will of the divine Suzerain and symbolizing the nearness of God and His invitation to them to flourish under his favor, thus stirring up the envy of the nations (Deut. 4:5-9). Instead, with all the man-made accretions of the Oral Torah, the Torah as nomos (law) had become a noose around their necks, dealing death instead of life.” (491-492).

“As early as the Decalogue we learn that obedience was to be the response to grace, not the precondition of it…” (493).

From this understanding of nomos (Law) in the NT Block believes that when Paul inveighed against the “Law” he was referring to its Pharisaic caricature, not the Torah itself (494 cf. 496). I am thoroughly unconvinced. I cannot reconcile Paul’s strident words in Romans 4 and Galatians 2 with Block’s thesis. Just consider Paul’s argument about the circumcision of Abraham in Romans 4:9-12. It is well nigh impossible to squeeze into his argument the Pharisaic meritocracy that Block is so concerned about. The Apostle simply argues that Abraham was declared righteous before being circumcised, thereby being justified by faith; and this was centuries before the deadly accumulation of rabbinic codes had even been devised. (By the way, the author’s treatment of Romans 4 is disappointing – 448-452, including his handling of Rom. 4:10! – 451). I will be very surprised if Block’s views on the Law go unchallenged by subsequent reviewers, although one never can tell nowadays.

No Supercessionism But…

Moving on, the author makes it clear in several instances that he believes the land promise is critical to God’s covenants with Israel. He even speaks against supercessionism when he claims interpreters who hold that the relative silence of the NT towards ethnocentric Israel and its territory show these elements are no longer important, are often led “to a doctrine of supercessionism, according to which God’s commitment to the church universal eclipses his interest in the physical descendants of Abraham.” (512). This is a good basic definition of the matter, which sadly many who are guilty of teaching it try to hide it with euphemisms. Block declares that given the language of hesed and fidelity (emuna) in God’s covenants such a thing is inconceivable (512-513).

But it doesn’t take him long to muddy the waters, for like most modern historic premillennialists he believes that, “one of the key motifs in the book of Romans is that gentiles who believe in Jesus have been grafted into the olive tree and are now full members of a redeemed humanity.” (515, cf. 480, 523). Using a hermeneutics of charity I want to say that Block is not teaching that Israel and the church merge into one eschatological people of God with no separate traits, but it’s not easy to be confident about it. He leaves the exegesis of Romans 11 alone which is a shame.

The Davidic Covenant in the NT

Block recognizes the importance of the Davidic covenant in the NT, not just explicitly, but often times how it underpins many statements (e.g. 545), especially the messianic ones. He takes time to expound the Birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. There is good material here, but again one can get a bit bogged down in the detail.

He appears to think the seventy weeks ended with the birth of Jesus (544), but has good material on the title Son of Man, even though I don’t see as strong Davidic overtones as Block does. Again, he has good things to say about Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (559-562), and also about the Transfiguration (562-566), although he spoils it unnecessarily by quipping that although Moses was a major figure, “the historical Elijah was a regular – if not marginal – rather than paradigmatic prophet.” (564).

When it comes to the Passion narratives we once more get a mixture of the good and the bad. Yes, there are good insights littered here and there, and occasional background information that is of help, but did Jesus really redefine the nature of His reign at His Triumphal Entry (568-572)? Block’s interpretation of John 18:36 (“My kingdom is not from this world”, etc.) as John looking back and recognizing it “as the moment of Jesus’ coronation and exaltation” seems bizarre (578-579). And when the author asserts that Pilate would have interpreted Jesus statement, “You would have no power over me if it were not given you to you from above” (Jn. 19:11 his emphasis), in a political sense, I think he does Pilate a disservice. Was the Governor really that dim as to think Jesus was employing mere truisms? Pilate may not have believed in Yahweh but he did believe in gods above him.

When he reaches the NT letters we get more solid, brief, but not world-shaking stuff. I liked his brief but insightful recognition of 2 Timothy 2:8 (604), and I liked the observations on 1 Peter 1 (608-611). I do not however think John in Revelation borrowed motifs from Ezekiel 40 – 48 (612).


There are some fine moments in this section dealing with the NT that I want to call attention to. Firstly, he believes that Romans 8:18-25 clearly alludes to the “Cosmic” (Noahic) covenant (398). He rightly points out that agapao is a covenant-related term (399, 417), which is just one indicator that the notion of “covenance” underlies the thought of the inspired writers. He repeats the assertion that the relationship between God and Adam in Eden “did not involve a covenant” (416), offers a detailed breakdown of Mary’s Magnificat (430-434), and a decent one of Zacharias’s prophecy (434).

Unfortunately, there are quite a lot of “thumbs-down” moments. On pages 394-395 he claims that diatheke in Galatians 3:15 and Hebrews 9:16-17 carries a testamental significance. That is not unusual in itself (though I strongly disagree with it). But he gives no justification for these perturbances from the normal Apostolic meaning of “diatheke/covenant.” Moreover, later he appears to me to contradict himself by saying, “Gal. 3:15 is not about God’s covenant with Abraham, but a generic statement about how human covenants operate.” (435). Well which is it? Is Galatians 3:15 talking about a testament or a covenant? As Block seems to acknowledge, the context of Galatians 3 points quite decisively to the latter.


After spending the last several weeks reading Covenant and taking detailed notes I came away a little exhausted and sadly underwhelmed. As I stated earlier, the treatment of the divine covenants lacks dynamism, and the author does not trace the oaths that Yahweh took and produce a big picture of all of His promises. His repeated insistence that the Torah was “grace” not “law” is singularly unconvincing. If God gave only instructions not to pick up wood on the Sabbath because it was a gift of rest it is hard to see why the individual in Numbers 15:32-36 was stoned to death. Not following instructions may lead to harm but it does not lead to punishment. Breaking the Law does!

Shameless Plug: My Book is Out!

Roll up, roll up, look this way to see a new and amazing sight! Well, not quite. The truth is more in the region of “Oh, Henebury’s book that he’s been promising since Gutenberg is actually out now.”

I got my advance copies in the mail a couple of weeks ago. It was a strange feeling looking down at the thing I had spent over five years writing and nearly twelve years studying. I asked a friend who has himself published many books about this weird feeling and whether he ever felt that way. “Every time!” he replied.

Anyway, The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Volume one is released today. It is a Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (Volume two will deal with the New) centered on the expectations that God raises by His oaths and promises. It is available from many outlets including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It is published through Xulon. I managed to get Dr. Michael Vlach, now at the Shepherd’s Theological Seminary; Dr. Kevin Zuber of The Master’s Seminary; Dan Phillips who used to be a regular part of the Pyromaniacs blog, and Fred Butler of Hip and Thigh to write nice blurbs for the book. Since they have each taken an interest in what I’ve been doing I knew they could write something meaningful.

Answers to Some Questions I have Been Asked:

  1. What led to “Biblical Covenantalism?” – I completed my doctoral dissertation on Method and Function in Dispensational Theology in 2006. Around the same time I found myself in the unenviable situation of being let go from an institution I had sweated blood for during many long and sometimes highly stressful hours. Finding myself with a lot of time on my hands and with several unanswered questions about Dispensational methodology I plunged anew into the study of the Bible. One main question bothered me throughout. It was a simple question that I could not find any scholar even asking. The question was “Why does God make covenants?” Pondering a biblical response to that question led me to see the importance and vitality of the six covenants of God.
  2. What is “Biblical Covenantalism”? – At the most basic level it is the answer to the question “Why does God make covenants?” and finally seeing how God’s covenants provide a dual eschatological/teleological pathway for God’s Creation Project. It became apparent that the Person of the Promised Redeemer, King-Messiah could not be separated from those covenants. Indeed, He was pivotal to everything God is doing in Creation. As I state in the book: “

“I mean by it that the covenant oaths found plainly within the pages of our Bibles, and more particularly the covenants of God (i.e. associated with Noah, Abraham, Moses, Phinehas, and David, and mediated by Christ in the New covenant) compose together the main argument of Scripture. They pick up and carry forward creation’s teleology and eschatology. Every teaching of Scripture is subordinated to the divine covenants. Therefore, interpreting and following the iteration of the covenants is what Biblical Covenantalism is all about.”

3. Am I trying to find another middle path between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology? In his commendation Fred Butler asks this question. The answer is a very definite “No!” I believe Dispensational Theology (DT) is built upon different presuppositions than Covenant Theology (CT), and, for that matter, Progressive Covenantalism (PC). CT and PC are both mainly erected upon prior assumptions that are inimical to DT. Both are highly inferential systems, especially with regard to eschatology and the covenants of God. I believe Dispensationalism has got a lot of things right due to its hermeneutics. This includes the eternal importance of the nation of Israel, the Millennium, and the Rapture of the Church. My issue with DT is its method (which has hardly ever been thought through). As I see it DT is wrong in emphasizing Divine stewardships and defining itself through them and superimposing them on the covenants. I also think it is in error about DT only needing to focus upon eschatology and ecclesiology (and sometimes soteriology). Therefore Biblical Covenantalism (BC) as I see it is a corrective to DT in terms of its method and its vision. But, I hasten to add that I never started with Dispensationalism and then tried to tweak it. I believe I got BC from Scripture and can back it up from Scripture; hence the book!

4. What is the Place of Jesus Christ in Biblical Covenantalism? In line with what I said above, I was not happy with the method of DT. One problem with DT as I see it is the place it gives to Jesus Christ. The genius of Covenant Theology is its focus on Christology. Now what they do with Christ in finding Him in OT texts via types and shadows and by interpreting the OT on the basis of the NT (or rather their understanding of it), cuts right across what God has declared in His covenants and must therefore by in error. But DT’s emphasis is too often upon the Israel-church distinction (which is real) and the End Times (e.g. the Rapture, the Mark, and the Kingdom) and not upon the centrality of Christ in the whole Creation Project. In BC Jesus is the reason Creation exists and is preserved. He is also the One who redeems Creation and restores and will reign over Creation to the glory of God. He combines the promises of the covenants in Himself as the embodiment of the New covenant. It’s really all about Him.

5. (A Question I wish I had been asked) – Do You see Yourself as an Outsider? When I first saw clearly that DT had issues which were not being addressed I asked myself, “Do you want to put yourself beyond the pale by chasing this down?” My response was to forge ahead regardless, trusting the Lord to help me and to correct me as I went. So yes I know I am somewhat at the periphery and may stay there. I do harbor faint hopes that my work will be seen as a help and not a challenge and that more dialogue would be opened up as a result of people thinking through The Words of the Covenant.

Volume Two, “The Words of the Covenant: New Testament Continuation” is being written as we speak.

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 3)

Part Two

The “Law” was not Law even though it was Commanded

As we move on from Block’s discussion of what he calls “the Cosmic covenant” (i.e. Noahic) the “Adamic covenant” (?), and the “Israelite covenant” (i.e. the Abrahamic and the Mosaic together!) we next encounter the “New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). For reasons I shall attempt to explain this is what most call “the New covenant.”

But before we do that I need to refer the reader to Block’s position on the possibility of obeying the Torah. He rightly says that the word means “instruction” more than “law.” Then he goes on to say on page 264 that,

“YHWH’s expectations, expressed by the laws he prescribed for his people, were both clear (Deut. 29:4, 29…) and attainable (Deut 29:29..30:1-14).” Italics original.

On the next page he avers,

“The ethical and ceremonial performances that YHWH demanded of the Israelites were both reasonable and doable. Not a single command was impossible.” (265).

But notice that Block calls this torah by the name “commands” which “YHWH demanded.” Sounds like law to me! My mind runs to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem conference where certain Pharisees wanted to instruct the Gentiles to keep the law [nomos] of Moses (Acts 15:5). Peter’s response to this was incisive:

Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? – Acts 15:10.

Peter calls the law a yoke which doesn’t sound very promising. And James writes,

For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. – James 2:10 (cf. Gal. 5:3).

So this “doable” torah required absolute and unwavering conformity if it was to work. Block says that “they lacked the will and the motivation to keep the law.” (265). But surely that was because they were sinners! I think Block is trying to show that God’s “demands” were reasonable, but the law of the offerings (Lev. 1-7) was there because they were so stringent. Moreover, those offerings did not have the power to clear the conscience (Heb. 9:9). This was not an ideal setup, which is why Paul says that the law was a pedagogue to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24), since the law kept us under guard “synkleio” (Gal. 3:23). The metaphor is very apt. Torah living is not “freedom” (Gal. 5:1).

The New Israelite Covenant (i.e. New covenant).

Block’s name for the New covenant is “the New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). I understand that Jeremiah 31 is the only place in the OT where the term is used (276), and that even there the prophet does not call it “the New covenant”; he simply speaks of “a new covenant.” That said, the OT doesn’t call it “the New Israelite covenant” either. But Block’s term does assist him in tying “the New Israelite covenant” to the “Israelite covenant.” (AKA the Abrahamic cum Mosaic covenant).

Block’s way of unifying the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic covenants with the “New Israelite covenant” (New covenant) does not persuade me. For one thing, the NT does speak of this covenant as the New covenant (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 12:24 with the definite article).

Before he gets into his exposition of the “New Israelite covenant” the author stops to remind his reader that the “Cosmic” (“Noahic”) covenant and the Abrahamic covenant were characterized as berit olam (everlasting covenant). But he says the same thing about the “Israelite” (Mosaic) covenant too, by referencing Lev. 24:8 and Exod. 31:16-17 (276 cf. 288). But Lev. 24:8 is about the bread offering on the Sabbath and Exod. 31:16-17 is about keeping the Sabbath. Neither reference is about the (Mosaic) covenant itself! As a matter of fact the Bible never calls the Mosaic/Sinaitic covenant “everlasting.” But it is necessary for Block’s view that his “New Israelite covenant” be the fourth part of his one “Israelite covenant.”

He rightly asks concerning Jeremiah 31:31-34, “What is new here?” (283). His answer is that,

“There had always been “new-covenant” Israelites who had the Torah of God in their hearts/minds,” who delighted in covenant relationship with God (Exod. 29:45; Lev. 26:12), who knew God (Exod. 33:13; cf. Judg. 2:10), and who rejoiced in the knowledge of sins forgiven.” (285).

A closer look at these texts reveals that Block is reading more into them than they say. For instance, both Exod. 29:45 and Lev. 26:12 concern God dwelling in the Tabernacle, not in people’s hearts. Exodus 33:13 is Moses’ plea for God’s presence to go with Israel, while Judges 2:10 is a statement about Israelites who “did not know the LORD”, whose opposite is not that some did know Him in the Jeremiah 31 sense. To Block the “New Israelite covenant” was “not like” the Mosaic covenant only in the fact that with this “New” covenant all Israelites would know God. Better therefore to think of it as “a renewed covenant” (286 his italics); the “ultimate realization of the same covenant that God had made long ago with Abraham, established with the exodus generation…at Sinai, and renewed with the conquest generation on the plains of Moab.” (Ibid).

I know the author believes this, and argues for it in several places (e.g. 288, 292), but I cannot follow him there. For one thing this would make “the New Israelite covenant” a second renewal covenant after the Deuteronomic covenant in the plains of Moab (which failed). If people had the new birth in the OT and these covenant still failed why what would ensure the success of this one? For another thing, neither the Abrahamic covenant nor any covenant apart from the New covenant is soteriological, whereas the New covenant is (Jer. 31:34; Isa. 49:6; Ezek. 36:26-27). The New covenant is also Christocentric (Isa. 49:8; Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:15), whereas the Mosaic covenant is not (cf. Jn. 1:17).

I’m afraid I am not buying what Block is selling here, even though I respect him and good material abounds. E.g., he is a consistent supporter of the land being given to Israel, and he warns against spiritualizing (287). But I also have to report that the author considers the “Gog and Magog” chapters (Ezek. 39-39) to be “hypothetical” (296). Let us move on.

The Davidic Covenant

The chapter on the Davidic covenant (300ff.) includes a number of good studies and solid assertions. The coverage is extensive, taking in the Historical and Prophetic books and Psalms. He is clear that the Davidic covenant “is never retracted” in “the prophets, psalmists, and NT writers.” (310), although “the benefits could be suspended for a time.” (310, 317). In fact, the very existence of the Psalms “testifies to the significance of the Davidic covenant.” (367). The importance of Zion is stressed (391). There are good things here.

Sadly though, it’s another mixed bag. The collective understanding of Genesis 3:15 is “preferable” to the singular Messianic view (304); the Book of Ruth was composed long after the fact; probably in the seventh century B.C. (306, 334). Micah 5:2 is best viewed as an ancient decree “calling David to kingship” (334); The covenant with Levi [probably related to Num. 25] is downplayed in Jeremiah 33:18 (349); and in an odd translation Zechariah 12:10 no longer has men looking at “me whom they pierced (daqar).” Block has the poor individual needlessly “stabbed,” thus destroying the Messianic implications (364, despite Rev. 1:7). There is also a curious mention of “David’s Melchizedekian Priesthood” (387).

Finally, Block fails to interact in any way with the crucial Messianic covenantal texts in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8. I was looking forward to seeing how he tackled these verses and to discover that they went untreated was a big let down.

So ends the “First Testament” part of Covenant. The detail is there, making the book important for anyone wanting to dive into the biblical concept of covenant, but as Spurgeon might have said, there is a good deal of dross mixed with the gold. The overall impression on this reviewer is that this approach to the covenants of God, though a vast improvement over Covenant Theology, still lacks the dynamism that I find in the Hebrew Bible.