Author: Paul Henebury

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 6)

Part Five

Gentiles and Their Connection to the New Covenant

What has proven to be a thorny issue for Dispensationalists is the relation of the Church/Gentiles to the New Covenant.  Since the only explicit NC text in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (repeated in Hebrews 8) identifies only Israel and Judah as parties to the NC with God, the contention is that the Church is associated with the NC in a less direct way, or perhaps not connected at all!  This brings us back to Mike Vlach’s list.

  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled in the future with national Israel; the church has no relationship to the New Covenant (some classical dispensationalists)
  2. There are two New Covenants—one with Israel and another for the church (some traditional dispensationalists including John Walvoord)
  1. The New Covenant is completely fulfilled with the church; there is no future fulfillment with national Israel (Covenant Theology and some non-dispensational systems)
  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the spiritual blessings of the covenant are applied to the church today (some traditional and revised dispensationalists)
  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the church is an added referent to the New Covenant promises so there is a sense in which the New Covenant is being fulfilled with the churchThe New Covenant has two referents—Israel and the church (some revised dispensationalists; Paul Feinberg)
  1. Since the New Covenant was given to Israel for the purpose of also blessing Gentiles there is literal fulfillment of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant to all believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, while the physical/national promises await fulfillment with Jesus’ second coming when national Israel is incorporated into the New Covenant (some revised and most progressive dispensationalists)

I am not going to comment on Option 2 (Two New Covenants) other than to say it is not held by anyone today and always was a stretch.  Neither am I going to say much about Option 3 (the New Covenant is fulfilled in the Church) because it is irrelevant to my objective in these posts.

Looking now at Option 4 (the Church gets the “spiritual blessings” of the NC) I have to ask, “what on earth are these spiritual blessings?”  Is it salvation?!  And does mean the NC is mainly about physical blessings upon Israel?  But those matters are taken up in the other covenants with Israel.  Let us remind ourselves of what Jeremiah 31 promises:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. – Jer. 31:33-34

This is not a promise of land or throne or great productivity.  It is the promise of redemption.  The New Covenant is about redemption!  When redemption is mixed with the other covenants what you get is the coming Kingdom of God on earth – literally fulfilled in line with those covenants.  I will come back to Option 4.  Let us focus on Option 1 (The Church has no part in the NC).

Roy Beacham wrote a paper entitled “The Church Has No Legal Relationship
to or Participation in the New Covenant” which he presented under a different title at the Council for Dispensational Hermeneutics conference in 2009.  I think there are several problems with his thesis as well as its central concern.

Biblical Covenants Were Not “Legal Contracts”

It is simply incongruous to parallel ANE covenants with those in the Bible, particularly those which God made.  It is wrong to claim that biblical covenants were contracts, and that therefore they were primarily legal in nature – they were not.  As for the first, several scholars have warned about equating the covenants of Scripture with those of the ANE (e.g.  Charles H.H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology, 475).  To be fair, Beacham does note that John Walton is (surprisingly) against his view that covenants in the Bible are to be understood against the background of the legal practices of the ANE (see FN 6).  But he does spend much time “setting the scene” for his position by citing studies of non-biblical covenants.

The trouble is that even the Land or Royal Grant and Suzerain-Vassal Treaties of certain parts of the ANE (e.g. Egypt didn’t go in for them) were not like our contracts.  They were not legally binding in the sense that there was some high court that could be appealed to.  Rather, they were sworn oaths, sometimes to a deity and sometimes to each other.  Furthermore, they were often (not always) imposed by the more powerful party.  In more garden variety situations, they were solemn oaths made between friends, or even enemies, with no judicial aspect at all. (more…)

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 5)

Part Four

Putting Some More Passages Together

Deuteronomy 30 describes a time when God Himself will convert His people:

“If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you.

Then the LORD your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it. He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers.

And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” – Deut. 30:4-5

In this text we get the earliest example of a promise of inner transformation of a sinful people resulting in divine acceptance and blessing.  This involves a change of heart and an obedient walk; indeed a “circumcision of the heart.”  This reminds one of Paul’s words in Colossians 2:11-14, especially verse 11 (“In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.”)

Perhaps this is what Paul is referring to in Philippians 3:3 when he declares, “we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit”?

Isn’t this precisely what we see in Jeremiah 31:33, Isaiah 59:21 and Ezekiel 36:26-27?  This is a New Covenant passage, and is accepted as such by all authorities.

There are many scriptures which portray the Gentiles as seeking the Lord and being saved.  Isaiah 11:10 declares, “the Gentiles shall seek Him.”  Isaiah 60:3 says, “The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (cf. Jer. 16:19).  Malachi 1:11 speaks of the same thing:

For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down,
My name shall be great among the Gentiles;
In every place incense shall be offered to My name,
And a pure offering;
For My name shall be great among the nations,”
Says the LORD of host

When we recall the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 22:18 we should not be surprised at this.  But wouldn’t it be odd for these blessings to be part of one covenant (the Abrahamic) but not be brought about by means of another covenant – the covenant that is Jesus?  If “the iniquity of us all” was laid on Him (Isa. 53:6), what kind of theological alchemy is it that claims that some of the blood was New covenant blood applied to Israel, while the rest of it was just blood that wrought salvation for the rest of us?

I realize that the reasoning is open to questioning, but it is sound; if God is Yahweh, the covenant God, and He is a God who makes covenants and steers history according to their course, and if He has designated His Son “a covenant to the people…a light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6), why is it surprising to discover that His blood is covenant blood; New covenant blood?

With What Does Christ Sprinkle Many Nations?

Isaiah 52:15 declares “So shall He sprinkle many nations.”  The verb translated “sprinkle” here is nazah, which bears an expiatory meaning.  Christ will “sprinkle”the nations with what?  With His blood (Col. 1:14, 20).  His blood is “the blood of the New covenant” according to Jesus Himself (Mk. 14:24).  There is no other blood that saves! It’s the blood of the New covenant or it’s damnation.  This is why Paul transfers the whole phrase over to his address to the Gentiles in Corinth without blinking an eye (1 Cor. 11:25). 

We must not think that the Apostle is being clumsy in 1 Corinthians 11, and simply citing Jesus without removing the New covenant reference, since (we are told) it cannot refer to the Gentile believers.  He shows in several other contexts that he is careful to quote only the part of a covenant that applies to his audience (e.g. in Rom. 4:1-5; Gal. 3:5-9).

Biblical Covenantalism, which is what I have dubbed my approach to biblical theology, takes pains to point out the central role of Jesus Christ in everything God does in his interaction with humans, especially the elect.  As I have put it in another place:

This world is His and we are His; and all these things exist, in the first place, for Him.  He is the judge of all of His creation and He shall rule over all of the creation.  This world is of Him, for Him, by Him, to Him.  If we’re going to have a scriptural doctrine of the Creation it will bear some correlation to Jesus Christ.  I don’t say we must “find Him in it,” only that we must relate it to Him.

Colossians 1:15-17 is a bold statement about the greatness of Jesus.  He really is at the center of God’s purposes for the world.

Then a few verses further he writes this:

[B]y Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross – Col. 1:20

It is through the blood of Jesus that everything is reconciled to God; and it is New covenant blood!  That is why I have taught that the New covenant provides the means for the other Divine covenants to be fulfilled to the letter; and those covenants dictate the program of God for this world.

Psalm 2:8 tells us that the nations will be given to Christ as an “inheritance.”  We can hardly think that they will remain in defiance and unbelief.  In fact, Psalm 22:27 distinctly says that,

All the ends of the world
Shall remember and turn to the LORD,
And all the families of the nations
Shall worship before You.

Jeremiah foretells a time when 

And you shall swear, ‘The LORD lives,’
In truth, in judgment, and in righteousness;
The nations shall bless themselves in Him,
And in Him they shall glory. – Jer. 4:2

The nations will turn to “Yahweh is Salvation” – to Jesus.  They will glory in King Jesus.  They will be bought by His blood.

Citing Isaiah 19, Michael Vlach demonstrates how,

[T]he people of God concept expands to include Gentiles alongside Israel who also exists as the people of God. – He Will Reign Forever, 164.

Vlach takes care to distinguish the national identities of Israel and the other nations, but he has no hesitation in calling Christians “New Covenant Christians” later in his book (Ibid, 461).  And no wonder, since we are also numbered as God’s people (Acts 15:14).

So the arguments, some quite explicit, some circumstantial, are stacking up to show that Christians are indeed made parties to the New covenant.  This could never have been revealed in the OT if what most Dispensationalists (rightly in my view) affirm to be the case that the Church is not mentioned there.  But there is provision for the salvific element to enter into the Abrahamic promise to the nations.  That provision allows for a progressive revelation of the New covenant to be made through the Gospel by the Apostolic proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).

Review: ’40 Questions About Heaven and Hell’ by Alan W. Gomes

A review of 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell, by Alan W. Gomes (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018), 378 pages, softcover. 

This book sits within a series of “40 Questions” books published by Kregel and edited by Benjamin Merkle.  I confess that the other volumes in the series have quite passed me by, although a couple have got my attention.

This one would have assuredly been treated to a dose of my ignorance had it not been for the name of the author.  You see, although Alan Gomes is not well known to many Evangelicals, I for one had heard of him and have always been grateful that I had.  Gomes is the editor of that brilliant but aforetime unwieldy tome of Dogmatic Theology written by William G. T. Shedd.  Shedd’s is, to my mind, the finest piece of systematic theology of the 19th Century, even ahead of Charles Hodge.  Alan Gomes work in presenting Dogmatic Theology in new dress, while incorporating the third supplementary volume in the main body of the work makes Shedd’s penetrating and balanced views available to a new audience.  If you are in to systematics and have not yet gotten hold of that book, well, put Grudem away and purchase Shedd!

One more word before looking at the book itself.  It is always good to see a modern author who knows and uses the old classic writers.  Not only does Gomes cite Shedd, one will also come across the names of Laidlaw, Quenstedt, Buswell, Moses Stuart, Pache, etc.  This is not to say that he doesn’t know his modern writers.  They are used.  But even there it is good to see someone referencing works such as the fine Systematic Theology of Robert D. Culver, which again is one of the best out there.

Anyway, Alan Gomes is the author of this excellent volume on Heaven and Hell.  The “40 Questions” approach gives him enough range to cover a great deal of territory, which he does with aplomb.  Each chapter is full enough to offer a well-reasoned answer to the question which opens it.  The author’s style is easy and pleasant to read as he leads the reader through a consideration of various viewpoints and the biblical material.  While he is not shy to convey his decided views on a subject, he is generous wherever possible, knowing that there is room for disagreement in some areas.

The book is divided into four parts: Part One is “An Overview of the Afterlife,” and includes such questions as “Can We Really Know Anything About the Afterlife,” “What Does the Bible Mean When it Speaks About Out ‘Soul” and ‘Spirit’?”  Gomes also tackles the issue of so-called “trips to Heaven” (he is not impressed), and the biblical meaning of the  terms “Heaven” and “Hell.”  On the latter he shows that the Bible employs the terms sheol and hades in a negative sense for a place of punishment.

In Part Two, “The Intermediate State Between Death and the Resurrection of the Body” he deals with such subjects as post-mortem salvation (he answers in the negative), communication with the dead (he answers no again, although demonic deception is possible), and what happens to infants that die.  Gomes’ response to this question does not paper over the thorny problem of original sin, but he sides with those who affirm the salvation of those who could not understand the question, never mind the doctrine of original sin.  I found his handling of this matter, as with other difficult questions with which the book deals, to be very thoughtful and balanced.

In Part Three, is on “The Final Judgment.”  The six questions handled in this section include “What is the Final Judgment?” the rewarding of the saints and the degrees of punishment of unbelievers, and two chapters addressing the resurrection body.  I found this section to be very encouraging.  As a premillennialist Gomes holds to a two-stage judgment, but he points out that eschatology, while affecting one’s view on the timing of judgment, does not interfere with the substance of God’s judgment.  Gomes’ teaching on the resurrection body is outstanding.  He sees an essential continuity between our present bodies and those to come.  He also holds that unbelievers will be raised, but not with glorified bodies.

Part Four is about “The Eternal State” and is divided further into sections on believers and unbelievers.  I like this part the best of all.  It is both encouraging and sobering.  Gomes’ believes in conscious eternal punishment (and has chapters on universalism and annihilationism).  He does not, however, think that the flames of Hell are literal.  In this he is certainly not alone (he lists men like Calvin, Hodge, Shedd, and Culver).  Once more, he is careful to give arguments for both sides.

The section on the sufferings of the wicked is of real practical importance.  For instance, there is a chapter on the supposed conflict between eternal punishment and the love of God, and another which asks “Does Eternal Punishment Really Fit the Crime?”

This practical concern is carried over into the section on believers in the Eternal State.  So there is a question about whether it will be possible to sin in glory.  The author gives attention to nuance his negative answer.  And such can be said for all these chapters.

All in all, this is the best Biblical Studies book I have read in quite some time.  I highly recommend it.  Kregel have even put a Scripture index at the back – which is a big improvement for them!  It might not seem that a book on Heaven and Hell is your cup of tea, but Alan Gomes may well change your mind.

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 4)

Part Three

Last time we looked at Isaiah 42 and saw that Jesus is being referred to prophetically as a “covenant.”  I insert here that when Isaiah 42:6 says “I will give You as a covenant to the people” it is not saying that Christ will be like a covenant; it is not a simile.  It is better to read it as as an identification.  It is like saying, “This knife can be used as a can-opener” or “I will give my van as a moving truck.”  The knife is the can-opener and the van is the moving vehicle.

The NET Bible renders the place in question “I protect you and make you a covenant mediator for the people.”  The word for “mediator” does not appear in the text.  The reason the NET Bible gives for this is that “A person cannot literally be a covenant.” (N. 15).  We know of course that Jesus is “the Mediator of the New Covenant” (Heb. 9:15).  So shouldn’t that suffice?  I don’t think we can leave it there.  There are a few problems with it.

The first problem with claiming that Isaiah 42:6 refers to Christ as the Mediator of a covenant for the people is that the text simply does not say that.  Neither does it say it in Isaiah 49:

‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob,
And to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles,
That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” – Isa. 49:6

It may be correct to supply the noun in these passages, but we should not be too hasty here.  We might ask, “Why can’t a person be a covenant?”  The answer one is likely to receive is that a covenant is an agreement external to the parties making it.  That is certainly true is the cases of the covenants with Noah, Abraham, and David.  But is it true of the New Covenant?

Sticking with Israel for the present we may ask just what future Israel will believe so that they become a New Covenant people?  The writer of Hebrews puts Jesus at the center of the picture.  In Hebrews 2:9 this is so, with verse 13 declaring “I will put my trust in Him.”  Then in Hebrews 9 the argument is carefully constructed to point attention to this very thing.  The first 10 verses of the chapter set up the reasoning with their depiction of the limitations of the Levitical High Priest in entering yearly (yet recurringly)  into the most holy place at the Day of Atonement.  The next 5 verses (Heb. 9:11-15) describe how Jesus as the Melchizedekian High Priest entered the true tabernacle in Heaven with His own blood once for all.  He is rightly called “the Mediator of the New Covenant” in verse 15 because He is the High Priest.

The next 2 verses (viz. Heb. 9:16-17) will have to be dealt with later, but the passage continues down to verse 22 with teaching about the importance of the blood in the “first [Mosaic] covenant.”

As the argument continues we read of the necessity of blood to be sprinkled in Heaven (Heb. 9:23-24).  And then the point is made that Christ did not have to offer Himself often as with the animal sacrifices in the OT.  In fact we are assured that the reverse was true:  “not that He should offer Himself often” (Heb. 9:25a).  Rather,

but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. – Heb. 9:26b

Please take note here: In the Mosaic Covenant (as with the other covenants) the covenant sacrifice was external to the parties, as was the content of the solemn oath which was to be believed.  But that is not the case with the New Covenant!  With the New Covenant the sacrifice is not external to the One making the covenant (God).  It is God Himself (cf. Heb. 1:1-3, 6, 8, 10; Acts 20:28).  Whatismore, neither are the terms to be believed.  Hebrews 9:28 states,

so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.   

Those who eagerly wait for Him are those who believe that “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.”  They are those who exercise faith in Him:

For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. – Heb. 4:2  

I am saying that the content of what is to believed in order to be included in the New Covenant is Jesus Christ Himself!  His Person and work form the faith-content of the oath.  Can a person be a covenant?  Why not, so long as faith in that person is essential to it?  We are to believe in Jesus, not in a set of propositions separate from Him.

This is why Paul can refer to his ministry as being one of “ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” in 2 Corinthians 3:6.

If we examine 2 Corinthians 3 we come across language remarkably close to the New Covenant language of Deuteronomy 30:4-5; Jeremiah 31:33, Isaiah 59:21 and Ezekiel 36:26-27.  Paul writes to the believers at Corinth without missing a beat:

clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. – 2 Cor. 3:3

Then the Apostle anticipates the argument of the author of Hebrews when he contrasts the difference in access to God between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant ministry of the Spirit which he is commissioned to preach! (2 Cor. 3:7-18).

There is more to say, but in my opinion I don’t think these connections have been fully considered and appreciated by many Dispensationalists.

 

 

 

 

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 3)

Part Two

We all know that sin stops us from inheriting the kind of world God the Creator envisaged for us; a world of peace, joy, righteousness, justice, and glory, not to mention communion with the Lord Himself.

God set the world in  motion, permitting the Fall and the devastation that it has brought in its wake.  He made covenants with man; signposts and promises to the better world that He still intends to bring about:

  1. The Noahic covenant establishes this post-flood world in perpetuity until the New Heavens and New Earth are made. 
  2. The Abrahamic covenant ensures that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will always be a people before God, and that they will inherit a land (I tend to include the “Land covenant” here).  It also makes provision for God’s blessing to be spread among the other nations of the world through Israel. 
  3. The Priestly covenant promises the descendants of Phinehas (who would be Zadokites) that they would be granted an everlasting priesthood. 
  4. The Davidic covenant promises that an heir of David will always sit upon his throne.
  5. The bi-lateral Mosaic covenant binds Israel to God in a theocratic relationship based on obedience.

We may grant that each of these covenants has elements which can be explored further, but for my purpose the descriptions above will do.  I want to call attention to a startling fact.  As they sit not one of these divine covenants can be fully fulfilled!  Their full realization is impossible.  Granted, blessing has come to the nations in the Person of Christ, an Israelite, but it has not come to them as nations.  Furthermore, Israel is not in right relationship to God.  The dynasty of David in Israel is absent a king, and nobody can claim that the pledge to Phinehas (however difficult it may be to comprehend) is being fulfilled.  Yes, there will be no more global floods upon the earth.  But even here there can be no transition to the New Creation from this sin-cursed old one.

Within all these great covenants and their gracious promises there is nothing to bring them to pass.  They have no means of salvation built into them.  They stand as impotent in themselves as any prognostication from any false prophet in history.

Why so?  What is the problem?  The problem is and always has been “sin!”  Sin gets in the way.  Sin prevents the realization of God’s program for Creation.  So how does God deal with sin?

That is a question that should not be asked by one Christian of another.  We all know the answer.  The answer is through faith in Jesus Christ.  Good!  Redemption is only through Him.  Jesus Christ is the means of salvation for sinners.

The New Covenant Deals with Sin

But there is a slight snag here.  I have already shown, and will show again, that the New covenant is particularly concerned with the question of sin and salvation.  God can’t write his instruction on any mind and heart that has not first been changed (cf. Jer. 31:33).  He will have to save men if He is to sanctify them (cf. Jer. 31:34).  But further, we must ask what connection Christ’s sacrifice has to the covenants above?  Since He has come and made the way of salvation plain, what is the hold-up?  Why aren’t the unilateral covenants of God playing out just as God promised?

Consider these verses which are usually identified with the New covenant:

“The Redeemer will come to Zion,

And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,”
Says the LORD.

“As for Me,” says the LORD, “this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,” says the LORD, “from this time and forevermore.” – Isa. 59:20-21

They are aimed at Israel, just as Jeremiah 31 is.  And the covenant mentioned in verse 21 has close affinities with Jeremiah 31:31-34.  The wording is different but the sentiment is the same.  But in Isaiah the Spirit is promised, exactly as He is in those accepted New covenant passages in Isaiah 32:15, Ezekiel 36:26-28, Joel 2:28f., and Zechariah 12:10.

Notice that the covenant has to do with God’s Spirit.  It also coincides with the arrival of the Redeemer to turn away transgression in Jacob.  According to Paul, this passage awaits fulfillment (Rom. 11:26), so it cannot be connected with the first advent.

An Initial Compilation

If we gather together the various elements of this passage and the work of Christ I have been discussing this is what we get:

  1. Israel as a nation needs to be saved
  2. Without salvation the other divine covenants cannot go into full effect
  3. Salvation is wrought by Jesus Christ alone
  4. In order to receive Christ’s salvation one must believe in Him
  5. Believers receive the Holy Spirit
  6. When Israel’s sins are redeemed they receive the Spirit and are changed
  7. Christ’s salvation is connected with a covenant (e.g. Isa. 59:20-21)
  8. The salvation of Israel is connected to the New covenant (Jer. 31:31-34).

Alright, whatever the connection between Jesus Christ and the New covenant is, there is a great deal of overlap.  I might even be so bold as to assert that Christ’s work is covenantal.  But it’s all good.  These passages are for Israel!

Isaiah 42 and Matthew 12

But we are not finished.  We need to remind ourselves of what Isaiah has said in chapters 42 and 49, both of which concern Christ as “the Servant” of Yahweh.  Matthew refers Isaiah 42:1-3 to Jesus.

that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: 

“Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,
My Beloved
 in whom My soul is well pleased!
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He will declare justice to the Gentiles,

A bruised reed He will not break,
And smoking flax He will not quench,
Till He sends forth justice to victory;

And in His name Gentiles will trust.” – Matt. 12:17-18, 20-21

Matthew then adds, “And in His name Gentiles will trust,” which is not in the passage, at least directly.  But it is what Isaiah is teaching.  If we continue with Isaiah for a few more verses this will be seen:

He will not fail nor be discouraged,
Till He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands shall wait for His law.”

Thus says God the LORD,
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it,
Who gives breath to the people on it,
And spirit to those who walk on it:

“I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness,
And will hold Your hand;
I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the Gentiles – Isa. 42:4-6

The “coastlands” (‘iy) of verse 4 are almost certainly not the coast of Israel.  The term refers to habitable land; to the islands and land masses.  The “earth” (‘eretz) can and does refer to Israel, but not here.  Its repetition in verse 5, where it is set in opposition to the heavens, together with the mention of the “peoples” (‘am) mean that the context demands that we whole earth is being spoken of; and this provides the way for the explicit promise to the Gentiles in verse 6.  Matthew sees this and summarizes it with “And in His name Gentiles will trust.”

The verses are about Jesus Christ.  And they are about salvation being brought to the Gentiles.  And they are about Christ being trusted by the Gentiles.  And they are about Christ being called “a covenant.”

Which covenant could Christ be?

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 2)

Part One

When we examine the clear New Covenant passage in Jeremiah 31:31ff, we see that verses 31 and 32 name Israel and Judah as parties.  We see also that it concerns the future (“the days are coming”), and that the NC will supersede in some way the Sinai Covenant.  It is crucial to ask what the main promise of this covenant is.  It is not difficult to ascertain.  The New Covenant in the chapter concerns an internal or spiritual change in the elect of Israel.

 I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. – Jer. 31:33b

For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. – Jer. 31:34c

Because of this inward transformation; this “new birth,” Israel will be right with God, and they shall therefore be qualified to receive the long-standing blessings of the Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic Covenants.

So “salvation” is the key ingredient.  God will save His people.  In Jeremiah 31 His people is Israel.  The Gentiles are not mentioned, and neither (naturally) is the Church.

Is Jeremiah 31 the only New Covenant Passage?

If Jeremiah 31 is the only New Covenant passage in the OT then clearly the New Covenant is for Israel alone and it’s a wrap.  But who believes this?  No one.  There are other texts in the OT which have been identified with the New Covenant by all parties.  For instance, David Fredrickson (“Which Are the New Covenant Passages in the Old Testament?” – Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics 2019, 34) cites the following:  Deut. 30:1-6; Isa. 32:9-20; 59:15b-21; Jer. 32:36:44; Ezek. 16:53-63; 36:22-38; 37:21-28; Joel 2:28–3:8; Zech. 12:6-14.  On page 32 he also includes what he says are overlaps between NC texts and Messianic texts.  These are Isa. 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 59:15-21; Ezek. 37:21-28.

I am not saying that I agree entirely with these identifications.  I think there are more passages that Fredricksen should have included (e.g. are we ready to say that Isa. 53 does not pertain to the NC?).  But what his selection highlights is the aspect of spiritual renewal and cleansing, with the Spirit’s role prominent in several places.  And if Isaiah 42 and 49 are NC passages, then we find there clear statements that Christ’s redemptive work includes the Gentiles (Isa. 42:1, 6; 49: 6 – these scriptures will be revisited later in this article because I believe they have been largely ignored in the discussion).

Other writers put their fingers on NC words.  J. Dwight Pentecost basically agrees with the above passages (minus Deut. 30 which he links to the “Palestinian” Covenant) and adds Isaiah 55:3; 61:8; Hos. 2:18-20; Mic. 7:18-20, and Zech. 9:10 (Thy Kingdom Come, 164-172).

Again, I believe there are more passages which should be added.  But let’s just take a quick look at some of these texts:

The end of Ezekiel 16, particularly verses 60-63, are identified by Fredrickson and Pentecost as New Covenant verses (Fredrickson often gives the verses before a passage).  The prophet says,

And I will establish My covenant with you. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your shame, when I provide you an atonement for all you have done, says the Lord GOD. – Ezek. 16:62-63

The central promise in this prophecy of a future regathering of Israel is the promise of atonement.  None of the other covenants of God promise atonement.  But this does match the New Covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:34.  If we look at Isaiah 32 what do we find?  It begins with a Messianic prediction:

Behold, a king will reign in righteousness,
And princes will rule with justice. – Isa. 32:1

And its final verses speak of the coming of the Holy Spirit effecting men and nature, with emphasis placed upon the ubiquity of righteousness (Isa. 32:15f.).  There is no mention of “covenant” in Isaiah 32 (and I’ll throw Zech. 12 in here), so what marks it out as a New Covenant chapter?  The answer is the work of righteousness brought about by the Holy Spirit.  These elements (viz. the Spirit and salvific righteousness) are even more clearly displayed in Isaiah 59:16-21, whose final verse reads:

“As for Me,” says the LORD, “this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,” says the LORD, “from this time and forevermore.” – Isa. 59:21

The New Covenant is all about Salvation

The New Covenant is all about salvation unto righteous standing with God through the renewing work of the Spirit.  This matches the author of Hebrews’ argument about Christ’s New Covenant work:

Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. – Heb. 9:12 (cf. Heb. 10:15-18)

Redemption, salvation, the provision of righteousness by the imparting of a new nature by the Spirit; that is what the New Covenant is about.  Therefore, it seems to me that one cannot simply restrict ones vision to the salvation of Israel when considering the NC.  This seems especially true for several important reasons which we shall need to explore:

  1. If Isaiah 42 and 49 include NC passages then the Gentiles are spoken of in a New Covenant context.
  2. If there are passages which refer to God’s salvation reaching out to the Gentiles, and the NC is all about salvation, how is it that the Gentiles will be saved by another means than the one God used for Israel? 
  3. If Israel is God’s chosen vessel to witness to the Nations (e.g. Zech. 8:13, 22-23; Mic. 4:2; cf. Gen. 12:3) it seems logical that in testifying about Messiah they will speak of His New Covenant work.
  4. If there are passages designated by all parties within Dispensationalism as NC passages which refer to the Gentiles how can the Gentiles not be included in the NC?

Consider these prophecies:

The LORD has made bare His holy arm
In the eyes of all the nations;
And all the ends of the earth shall see
The salvation of our God.

So shall He sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths at Him;
For what had not been told them they shall see,
And what they had not heard they shall consider.

These come from Isaiah 52:10 and 15.  Verse 15 comes within the great prophecy about the Suffering Servant which we usually locate in Isaiah 53, but which actually starts in Isaiah 52:13!  If a person is going to restrict the New Covenant to Israel on the basis of Jeremiah 31:31-34 he is going to have to do a lot of untangling of these kinds of verses.  In striving to do this he might just find that he has gotten himself stuck even faster.

Another thought: Just because there are passages which speak about the NC for Israel does not necessarily mean that it should be restricted to Israel.  Or does it?  There is more work to do.

 

 

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 1)

I have been thinking for a while that it might be a good idea to write about the New Covenant.  Although there seems to be little confusion about it in the minds of Jeremiah, Paul, or the author of Hebrews, it has become something of a bugbear among Dispensationalists.  In this series I want to interact a little with their issues, but I also want to provide my understanding of the New Covenant, which, as it happens, adds one more alternative to the dizzying list already occupying the thought of many good men and women.   

Introduction

The New Covenant has given Dispensationalists all kinds of headaches.  Taken as a generality, they seem unable to come to a consensus about this extremely important teaching of the Bible.  In a helpful way, Mike Vlach has set forth six different ways the NC has been understood by Dispensationalists broadly:

  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled in the future with national Israel; the church has no relationship to the New Covenant (some classical dispensationalists)
  2. There are two New Covenants—one with Israel and another for the church (some traditional dispensationalists including John Walvoord)
  1. The New Covenant is completely fulfilled with the church; there is no future fulfillment with national Israel (Covenant Theology and some non-dispensational systems)
  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the spiritual blessings of the covenant are applied to the church today (some traditional and revised dispensationalists)
  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the church is an added referent to the New Covenant promises so there is a sense in which the New Covenant is being fulfilled with the churchThe New Covenant has two referents—Israel and the church (some revised dispensationalists; Paul Feinberg)
  1. Since the New Covenant was given to Israel for the purpose of also blessing Gentiles there is literal fulfillment of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant to all believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, while the physical/national promises await fulfillment with Jesus’ second coming when national Israel is incorporated into the New Covenant (some revised and most progressive dispensationalists)

Vlach says he holds to the sixth option, which, along with the fifth, is, I think the most theologically defensible position among the six for a Dispensationalist to hold; especially one who doesn’t wish to be seen as a theological troglodyte by his Reformed peers.  Saying this does not of course mean that the other positions are wrong; only that they encourage more head-scratching among onlookers.  Doesn’t the Apostle tell the Church to observe the institution of the New Covenant?

In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” – 1 Cor. 11:25

Moreover, contrary to those Covenant Theologians who talk about “progressive revelation” but who mean by it that revelation changes dramatically as the centuries go by, don’t Dispensationalists actually mean that revelation can be augmented without morphing into something else?  They do indeed.  And yet they their wires crossed on the New Covenant.  Why is this?

Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8  

A lot of the trouble arises because the prophet Jeremiah, in what could be called the locus classicus of the New Covenant, did not see the need to include the Gentiles within his prophecy.  He says there that

“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.  “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” – Jer. 31:31-34. 

It’s a glorious passage, and it is definitely aimed at future Israel.  Surely then, we should all say together that the New Covenant is for Israel alone?  Adding fuel to this fire is the Book of Hebrews.  The writer of that book has a golden opportunity to set the record straight and tell us if we in the Church are New Covenant people.  He does not; at least in so many words.  He is content rather to cite Jeremiah in what turns out to be the longest OT citation in the NT.  Fait accompli?  It looks that way to some.

But Paul (and Jesus)

But then there are those places in the NT where we are given reason to pause.  I have already quoted Paul in 1 Corinthians 11.  But all he is doing there is quoting Jesus’ own formula in the Upper Room in Luke 22:19-20.  “Yes,” comes the reply, “and He was instituting it with Jewish disciples.”  But…those same disciples were to become the foundation of the Church, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20).

So what is to be done?  I believe a thorough look at the “New Covenant passages” of the OT is the first order of business.  What we need to decide is whether Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the last word on the New Covenant, or whether it fits within a much broader New Covenant revelation.  That is where we will begin…

 

Covenant Influences in Zechariah (Pt. 5)

Part Four

The Times of the Coming King[1]

     The last three chapters of the book of Zechariah document circumstances surrounding the advent of the coming Ruler, the Messiah.  The oracle opens with a battle against Jerusalem (Zech. 12:1-9).  The text indicates that Jerusalem and its rulers will be used as a means of judgment against the surrounding nations (Zech. 12:9).  Not that Jerusalem gets off scott free.  But this scene emphasizes the Lord’s role in defending His people.  The next scene (Zech. 12:10-14) shows God eliciting repentance in the several families of Israel through two corresponding events; the pouring out the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of grace and supplication,” and the people catching sight of One “whom they have pierced.” (Zech. 12:10).[2]

It is worth noting that the advent itself, as stunning as it will be, will not be enough to turn the hearts of the Jewish people to this personage, their long-promised Messiah.  The deep mourning that will result from the realization that Israel has “thrust through” (daqar) when He first came to them, will be wrought by the Holy Spirit.  In the final analysis, such is the corruption of human nature that it takes the special conviction of God the Spirit to open eyes and hearts so that sinners both see and feel the truth.

The familiar phrase “in that day” in Zechariah 13:1 (and repeated 15 times in this last oracle), looks forward to a time of abundant cleansing for sin which God will provide after the lamentations are over.  This will be a new start for Israel – a new future with their covenant God.  Idolatry and false prophecy will depart, and anyone who therefore pretends to be a prophet will be automatically deemed a blasphemer; so much so that even his parents will execute the presumptuous son (Zech. 13:2-4).  If this occurs after the coming time of repentance and after the re-appearance of Messiah, as seems likely, then the level of sacrilege being committed, and the radical response of the parents to such high-handed presumption are understandable.  With the Branch resident as King of the world and His long-expected kingdom reign in full swing, when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Jer. 31:34), any person who claims the prophetic mantle will do so only to deceive (Zech. 13:4).[3]  The deception continues with the false prophet lying about his vocation (“I am a tiller of the ground”), and about wounds which were probably self-inflicted (Zech. 13:5-6. Cf. 1 Kings 18:28).  Like most premillennialists, I do not take verse 6 as a messianic reference.[4]  It better fits an unrighteous person chafing under righteous government.  The conditions are Edenic (cf. Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 36:35), but the hearts of some men; some born in the kingdom era; will still be hellish.[5]

What this passage shows is that although the kingdom of Messiah is present on earth, and Israel has been reconciled to Him, there will be some with rebellious hearts; children of those who entered the kingdom, who will persist in their rejection of the revelatory atmosphere they have been brought up in.  Hence the kingdom at this stage is not perfect.  This is what we saw previously (e.g. Isa. 11:3-5; 32:1; Psa. 89:14-15), and will see again (e.g. Zech. 14:16-19).

However, the passage moves on to speak of the associate of Yahweh (Zech. 13:7), who is God’s shepherd, but who will be struck.  The “sword” here is metaphorical (Psa. 22:20).  It signifies a violent end, which is a foretelling of Messiah’s rejection.  Then Yahweh moves against Israel (Zech. 13:7c-8a), and two-thirds of the population die.  Once more in biblical prophecy the prediction is divided between the two comings of Messiah and the surrounding events.  The striking of God’s appointed shepherd relates to the first coming, while the destruction of two-thirds of the populace concerns circumstances just prior to the second coming and is probably closely connected to the persecution of Jews by the “little horn” (Dan. 7:20-21), which is ended by the coming of Messiah (Dan. 7:22).  The “refining” (Zech. 13:9) of the final third of the Jews (the Remnant of so many passages)[6] is to turn them to their covenant God.  The words which close out the chapter (“I will say, ‘This is My people’: and each one will say, ‘Yahweh is my God’”) are an affirmation from both parties of God’s covenant loyalty.[7]

The oracle continues in chapter 14 with a prediction specific to Jerusalem.  While only one third of Jews in Israel will be spared, the percentage of the “Remnant” in the capital who will escape will be a half (Zech. 14:1-2).  Only after this catastrophe will the Lord intercede and fight for Jerusalem (Zech. 14:3).  This will be the promised One, the Lord Himself (Zech. 14:4a).  We know this to be messianic in nature, and that Messiah is Yahweh (just as in Zech. 9:9 and 11:12-13), but this was unclear before the ministry of Jesus.

(more…)

Covenant Influences in Zechariah (Pt. 4)

Part Three

The Prophet as Actor and Two Covenants

     In various parts of the Old Testament some of the prophets were ordered to act out a scenario as a pictorial revelation to onlookers.  In 1 Kings 20:35f. a prophet asked a man to strike him so that he could act the part of a careless guard who had lost his prisoner in order to make his tale a parable of the king’s release of the Syrian Ben-Hadad.  Isaiah was commanded to walk around virtually naked for three years as a sign that the Egyptians would be shamed by the Assyrians (Isa. 20).  Jeremiah broke pottery at Hinnom (Jer. 19).  Ezekiel was to enact a miniature siege against the ten tribes for 390 days, lying on his left side, and then do the same for 40 days on his right side laying siege against a portrayal of Judah (Ezek. 4).  And of course Hosea married an unfaithful woman to dramatize Israel’s unfaithfulness to her Husband, Yahweh (Hos. 1 – 3).  Each of these actions, and others besides, had predictive elements which were central to their message.

In chapter 11 of Zechariah’s prophecy he is instructed to portray two roles; one of a good shepherd, and one of an evil shepherd.  In portraying the good shepherd Zechariah refers to two covenants, both of them rather obscurely, and sandwiched in-between are verses 12 and 13, wherein Yahweh Himself claims that He is to be priced at the same value as a gored slave (Exod. 21:32).[1]  As it stands, and even without knowing how this would be applied to Jesus (cf. Matt. 27:9-10), this is a shocking statement.  Israel and Judah will be put at enmity by the Lord whom they despise, as signified by the breaking of the staff called “Bonds” or “Union” (Zech. 11:14), although this may still await eschatological fulfillment.[2]

But what of the first covenant symbolized by the staff called “Beauty” or “Favor” (Zech. 11:10)?  Which covenant does God break with “all the peoples”?  I have read many valiant attempts to answer the question, but I have not been convinced by any.  Some like Baron make it an unofficial covenant of God to protect Israel from the nations, but this strains the words.  I do not wish to add another unconvincing interpretation to the list.  My guess is that it has something to do with the Abrahamic covenant, and there I am content to leave it.

The Worthless Shepherd

Another mystery is waiting for the reader before leaving Zechariah 11: who is the “worthless shepherd” of Zechariah 11:15-17?  Some premillennial commentators believe it refers to the coming Antichrist.  Some think it may be Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the bête noir of intertestamental Israel.  We have seen that in Daniel 8 the description of the “little horn” fits Antiochus, but that the “little horn” in Daniel 7, who persecutes the saints just before the coming of the great King, is the end time persecutor of Israel.  His cruel treatment of the people calls forth an imprecation,

A sword shall be against his arm and against his right eye; his arm shall completely wither, and his right eye shall be totally blinded. – Zechariah 11:17

As several interpreters have noted, the force of the curse here is very adamant.  Many make tentative association with the one whom Christians will call the Antichrist (and I believe the language calls for such an identification).  If this is the “little horn” of Daniel 7, then it is possible that the covenant which God breaks in Zechariah 11:10 is the protection afforded by the Abrahamic covenant during the coming “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:6); the period portrayed by Christ as having to be curtailed lest even the elect be destroyed (Matt. 24:21-22. Cf. Dan. 12:1).  Possible, but not certain.  The description of injuries to the right arm and right eye are for identification purposes.  They are not metaphorical, standing for an inability to function anymore as a shepherd, for this person didn’t do that anyway; he is worthless.  If the injuries are a means of telling who this is, the only personage it can be biblically is the “little horn” (Dan. 7:24-26).

————————————————————————————–

[1] It must be remembered that this estimate was ancient in Zechariah’s day.  Since wages are expressly mentioned, it is perhaps better to view it as an insulting valuation.  See Kenneth G. Hogland & John H. Walton, “Zechariah”, in ZIBBC, John H. Walton, Gen. Ed., Vol. 5, 223.

[2] We do know, for example, that the twelve tribes will be identifiable in Revelation 7, although I am suggesting a schism beyond those representatives who are sealed.

Short Review: ‘New Creation Eschatology and the Land’ – Steven L. James

Review of New Creation Eschatology and the Land: A Survey of Contemporary Perspectives, by Steven L. James, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2017, xvii + 164 pages, hdbk.

This book provides an informative introduction and critique of the recent trend among scholars to stress earth-centeredness of the eschatological passages of Scripture rather than heaven-focused scenarios.  The trend is most noticeable among amillennialists, especially since the publication in 1979 of Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future.  That book called upon believers (especially Hoekema’s fellow amillennialists) not to spiritualize the OT passages that speak of a coming era of peace and righteousness on the earth.  This planet, in its restored state, is the venue for the enactment of God’s eschatological promises.

The author, who serves as a Professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, examines the works of several prominent teachers of the “New Creation” eschatology; namely, N. T. Wright, J. Richard Middleton, Russell Moore, Douglas Moo, and Howard Snyder.  Not all of these writers were directly influenced by Hoekema’s work.  He notes that although they correctly stress the earth’s central role in our future, he argues (again correctly) that they ignore the specificity of the land promises to Israel and thus contain a major contradiction.  The contradiction is this: how can the OT promises of restoration and renewal be taken literally and every mention of Israel or Jerusalem be treated as metaphorical?  It is a very good question.

In the first chapter James gives a survey of these men’s approaches.  He notes that the arguments of these men are grounded in OT passages such as Isaiah 2, 11, 52; 60, 65-66; Micah 4; etc.  These passages stress both the reign of justice and peace on the earth.  James says that all his chosen scholars emphasize “the coming of God’s kingdom, bodily resurrection, and the reconciliation of all things.” (26).

The second chapter demonstrates that New Creation authors all believe that there is continuity between this present earth and the next.  They all emphasize God’s “mode of materiality.”  As he says,

The idea of transformation of the present materiality is important to new creationists.  Because matter is not understood as inherently sinful, it does not have to be utterly disposed of… New creationists affirm that, instead of being annihilated, the present creation will be renewed or transformed. (31).

Several pages are dedicated to showing how New creationists tackle such dissolution passages such as 2 Peter 3:8-9 (32-36).  The arguments which James records were not very convincing.

Chapter three discusses “Land Theology” as it has been presented by the likes of W. D. Davies, Walter Brueggemann, Christopher Wright, Gary Burge, and others.  These influential works all contain supercessionist theology, and have been relied upon by many in the New Creation movement.  The basic outlook is that the land of Israel is treated as a metaphor (77-94).

Having documented the views of New creationists, in the fourth chapter the author begins to highlight the inherent contradiction of asserting earth continuity on the basis of OT texts, while at the same time treating territorial promises to Israel as metaphors, when those promises occur in the very same passages!  James states the sane conclusion:

The language in the prophets in no way suggests that the particular territory of Israel or Jerusalem somehow envelops the territory of the rest of the world.  More importantly, the idea that a particular territory of the earth somehow transforms into the entire earth makes no sense in a new creation conception that envisions the restoration of the present earth. (117).

Chapter five is where the author shows that there is no need to create metaphors of the land of Israel, and that, in fact, the notion of territorial particularity and nationhood is a clear biblical teaching of both Testaments.  Here he notes the work of dispensational authors Craig Blaising and Michael Vlach (131-132), who are more consistent in their attention to scriptural details.  He also mentions amillennial writer Vern Poythress, who appears to accept the reality of nationhood in the new heavens and new earth (132-134).

In his conclusion the author points to a few areas of fruitful exploration, such as the study of “place,” and ends with a plea for further work in this area.

In my opinion New Creation Eschatology and the Land is a very worthwhile monograph, filled with good exposition, logical thinking, and solid argumentation.  He is fair-minded and irenic throughout.  I hope many students of theology will take the time to give the book a close reading.