Biblical Covenantalism

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Trying to Get the Rapture Right (Pt.6)

Part Five

This series explores the various avenues which have to be gone down in order to get the doctrine of the Rapture of the Church right.  I am deliberately avoiding the more conventional comparative approach. This may annoy some and intrigue others.  I hope the former group is smaller than the latter!    

The Day of the Lord, Cosmic Upheavals, and the Return of Christ

The concept of the Day of the Lord describes different yet related things.  If I pick it up where I left off last time, with 2 Peter 3:10, the Day of the Lord is matched specifically with the dissolution of the present created order.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

My understanding of this verse is that it takes a telescopic view of the whole intervention of the Divine presence to throw off the reign of sinful men and replace it with the rule of the Son of Man.  This overthrow and reign (specifically with a rod of iron – Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15), terminates when earth and heaven flee away (Rev. 20:11), and then the reign is continued under perfectly harmonious conditions where “there is no more curse” (Rev. 22:3).  If the kingdom-age – the “regeneration” which Jesus speaks of in Matt. 19:28. Cf. Lk. 22:29-30 – intervenes between the end of “this age” and the New Heavens and Earth, then Peter’s designation of the Day of the Lord does not refer only to the Second Coming, and certainly not to an outpouring of wrath just prior to the Second Coming.  In 2 Peter it more definitely refers to the Advent, rule, and final destruction of the planet at the very end of the millennial kingdom-age.  What this means (if I may recap what I have pointed out before) is that while “the Day of the Lord” may speak of whole or part of the Tribulation in some contexts, it does not settle the dispute about where we put the rapture (I will address whether one should equate the “Day of the Lord” with the Tribulation below).  This lack of finality is because the phrase “Day of the Lord” is somewhat flexible, and its association with the taking out of the church is placed within and partakes of that flexibility.

Saying this does not mean that the doctrine of the rapture becomes nebulous.  It is a real future event for Christ’s Church.  But it does mean that the timing of the rapture is arrived at only through deductions from inductively concluded premises.  Let me illustrate.

Pretribulationists are prone to identify “the Blessed Hope” spoken of by Paul in Titus 2:13 as the taking out of the Church, and I think they are right to do so.  But I don’t think they are right automatically.  That is, they are not entitled on exegetical grounds to simply deduce that “the Blessed Hope” equals the rapture because the rapture is pretribulational.  I do not think the exegetical case for any rapture position is decisive, and am trying to show why.  Thus, exegesis of the several rapture texts will substantiate that there is a rapture, and that the Body of Christ is its subject, but only valid inferences will determine the timing of the rapture.

Here’s a longer illustration.  Going back to the Olivet Discourse we read:

For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.  But immediately after the tribulation of those days the Sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.  And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. – Matthew 24:27-31

The cosmic phenomena which Jesus mentions occur “immediately after the tribulation of those days”, and are connected to the Second Coming in verses 27 and 30.  The “gathering”, which some (not this writer) believe to be the rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4, happens around that time.  No doubt the saints are moved to safety right before Armageddon; whether by rapture to glory (which is somewhat speculative), or in another way it is not necessary to decide right now.

Furthermore, this “gathering” looks similar to the one in Matthew 13:47-50, or that in Revelation 14:14-20; both of which seem to happen at (or in close proximity to) the Second Advent, not at any distance prior to it.  With this set of passages the locus is at the very end of the Seventieth Week.  One might wish to insert a longer period of time between the upheavals and the Advent (say, six months up to three and a half years), but these verses are not encouraging in that regard.

Another group of “Day of the Lord” scriptures support this interpretation of equating the very end of the Tribulation with the Second Advent as Day of the Lord:

Joel 2:31 speaks of the signs mentioned in Matthew 24:29f., and puts them “before the great and terrible day of the LORD”.  If the Day of the Lord is the Return of Jesus in this text then perhaps there is an interval of some extent between the two events?  But Joel 3:14-16 indicates that this “before” is “in the Valley of Decision” where “the day of the LORD is near”.  That passage reads,

Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! 
For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision.  The sun and moon grow dark 
And the stars lose their brightness.  The LORD roars from Zion 
And utters His voice from Jerusalem, 
And the heavens and the earth tremble. 
But the LORD is a refuge for His people 
And a stronghold to the sons of Israel. – Joel 3:14-16

This text places the cosmic disturbances at the time of the great battle (Armageddon).  The “day of the LORD” is said to be “near”, which indicates that in this passage it backs up to the Second Coming proper. The celestial troubles happen at Armageddon and not before.

What I’m saying is, if the “day of the LORD” in Joel 3:14f, is the same as the “great and terrible day of the LORD” in Joel 2:31, then the adverbs “before” and “near” refer to things immediately prior to the Lord’s Second Coming and not to a longer protracted period of wrath extending over months or years.  The “wrath” here (though not everywhere) would be the Second Coming!  This is how it is in Revelation 19:15, (which matches Revelation 14:14-20, see above), and Isaiah 63:1-6, which is a Second Advent passage.  This would mean that the “immediately after the tribulation” reference in Matthew 24:29 comes promptly before or even at Armageddon.

As well, if one takes the opening of the sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17 as referring to the Second Coming (and its match in Isa. 2:10-21 points to that conclusion), the report may easily be taken as speaking of the events directly in front of and including the Advent, just as the passages above have indicated.  The example shows that these texts argue for “the Day of the Lord” and the cosmic signs occurring together in and around the great battle in “the Valley of Decision” and its ending at the Second Coming.

This rather elongated example shows that while there may be some fodder for post-tribulationism, there is little in this for the other positions to bite into as far as the rapture is concerned.  Pretribbers are not threatened with the connections I’ve made, even if many of them like to interpret the gathering up of Matthew 24:31 in a different way than I have, and some will object to putting the sixth seal at the end of the Seventieth Week.  Though Prewrathers have wrought valiantly on these passages to prize a wider time-period for the rapture before the “wrath” of God, which is poured out at least several months before the Lord’s return, I do not think they are successful at proving their point.  As I have tried to demonstrate, the heavenly chaos happens at Armageddon, and that battle is soon settled by the Second Coming of the King of kings.  Pretribulationism and Posttribulationism can handle this, but Posttribulationists, and to a lesser extent Prewrathers, confuse Israel and the Church, the latter having both groups going through the Tribulation concurrently.  We’ve already seen this in Part Four but there is more to say. (more…)

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Trying to Get the Rapture Right (Pt.5)

Part Four

In this piece I want to go behind the subject of the rapture so as to approach it from another angle. Please bear with me.

The Book of Revelation has been the subject of varied interpretations.  Since the Greek word apocalypsis means “a disclosure” or “unveiling” the different interpretative approaches to the Book is quite ironic if not a little embarrassing.  The opening verses of Revelation inform us that it concerns “things which must shortly take place” (1:1; 1:19).  Because John write of “things which must take place after this” (4:1) it is hardly surprising to read him describing his book as a “prophecy” (1:3).

Now although scholars like to cite etymology to try to prove that prophecy is more “forth-telling” than “foretelling”, the Bible itself does not assist them much.  For instance, when Jehoshaphat wanted to hear from a prophet of the LORD it wasn’t because he wished to hear a declamation on the present reign of his ally Ahab.  Rather he wanted to know about the future (see 1 Kings 22).  John’s Revelation is about the future.  But it is about a particular time in future history.  That time may be determined by the contents of the Book.

The Coming of Antichrist

Without going into detail about it, Revelation 4 and 5 set the scene for the major events depicted in the rest of the Book.  At the close of the fourth chapter the doxology fixes attention on creation: what I like to call “the Creation Project”, summed up in the idea that God’s purpose (teleology) drives an eschatology.  The fifth chapter of Revelation refers to the seven-sealed scroll which only the Lamb could open.  These seals reveal, among other things, the Four Horsemen, the first of which might be interpreted positively, except for what follows in his wake; which is the removal of peace, famine, and death.  Further, the souls under the altar of the fifth seal are of righteous people killed “for the word of God and the testimony which they held” (6:9).  Clearly chapter six records evil occurrences in the world, but when?  I venture to say that the easiest answer is during the coming Tribulation, which I have associated with Daniel’s seven year 70th week.  Now if “the prince who is to come” of Daniel 9:26 is, as is likely, the one who confirms a covenant at the beginning of the 70th Week and breaks it half way through (Dan. 9:27), then it is no extravagant surmise to identify the “prince” as the Antichrist.  (I am aware that many amillennialists want to say this is Christ, for what appear to be the most absurd reasons).  Anyway, this “prince/antichrist” is, I believe, the white-horse rider of Revelation 6:2.  This rider (who many amils also absurdly identify with Christ), looks like the white horse Rider of Revelation 19:11ff, who is Christ, but, for the reasons given above, is surely Antichrist.  Thus, Antichrist steps on to the scene at the beginning of the seventieth week and makes a covenant with Israel, Daniel’s people.  Israel then is once again at the forefront of God’s actions (cf. also Rev. 7:1-8; 11:1-2, 8: 12:1-5, etc.).

If we introduce 2 Thessalonians 2 into the scene we see that Paul tells the Church that our gathering to Christ will not occur “until the rebellion (apostasia) comes, and the man of lawlessness is revealed” (2 Thess. 2:1, 3).  Paul is clearing up a misconception about the arrival of “the Day of the Lord.”  That “day” is connected to the start of the apostasy and the revealing of the man of sin or Antichrist.  Thus it would seem that the Day of the Lord as the Apostle here uses the term is coterminous with the appearance of Antichrist, the white horse rider of Revelation 6, which is, it seems, and as noted above, at the beginning of Daniel’s 70th Week.

If this is in fact the case, then certain entailments follow.  The first is that it would seem to do away with attempts to restrict the term “Day of the Lord” (he hemera tou kuriou) to either a mid, pre-wrath or post-tribulational scenario.  The second is that our gathering (episounagogay) with Christ (2:1) is linked with the onset of the rebellion or apostasy, (although I see nothing in the argument which makes the apostasy the rapture itself – a la E. Schuyler English), in which case the rapture will happen in or around the beginning of the Tribulation.  It’s not a knock-down argument, but it certainly gives the nod to a pre-trib understanding of “Day of the Lord” in this particular passage.

The Problem of “Day of the Lord”

Obviously this is a massive subject, and I am permitting myself the luxury of dealing with it in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, but just a brief look at some assorted passages will help us get a basic understanding of the term.  It will mean I have to meander a little through certain scriptures.  I’ll begin with Paul.

The Apostle Paul only uses the words three times.  We have noted 2 Thessalonians 2 above.  In 1 Corinthians 5:5, when speaking about the handing over of a man to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh” he gives as his reason “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”  In passing we should mention that the addition of the name “Jesus” after the phrase is well attested, but I don’t think it changes anything.  The time reference is not indexed so one cannot say for sure precisely when this will be.  So like so many rapture supporting verses it can be used by all schools.

The next passage is in 1 Thessalonians 5:2.  I’ll provide the context:

Now concerning the times and the seasons brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you.  For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  While people are saying, “there is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they shall not escape.  But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief… For God has not destined us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4, 9

This passage follows on from the rapture section at the end of chapter 4.  In that section the Apostle writes as if the snatching out was a new teaching for the Thessalonians (4:13).  Here though the church is said to be well aware of the teaching concerning the Day of the Lord.  Okay, but that still does not place the rapture at any specified point in the eschaton.  Perhaps then it would be well to examine the two figures which Paul uses, one of which is drawn from the Old Testament.

The reference to “birth pangs” or “labor pains” is an analogy for discomfort and distress.  For example, in Psalm 48 it is used to illustrate the reaction of the kings of the earth upon seeing God’s City, verses 1 to 8 possibly predicting the future kingdom.  Then in Isaiah 13:6-13, which is a Day of the Lord passage (13:6, 9), the events surrounding God’s judgment on the world (v.11) resemble closely the climactic events circling around the Second Coming (i.e. cosmic disturbances 13:10, 13).  References in Micah and Jeremiah follow along similar lines.  Sometimes it is hard to extract these end times predictions from more immediate contexts as the prophets often view contemporary troubles from the vantage of the present aeon and its eventual overturn at Christ’s appearing in judgment.  But there is no warrant for making it all figurative; still less for calling upon the shapeless crock which is “apocalyptic” (which within some sectors of evangelicalism is coming to encompass well nigh everything).

Paul’s usage of the metaphor of labor pains to describe the present groaning of the earth in Romans 8:22 shows that it can speak of the creation’s ages-long waiting on its redemption and not about the eschaton itself.  This means that there is nothing in the phrase itself which connotes the Tribulation or Second Advent.  But when linked to other end times cues, like in 1 Thessalonians 5, it does bespeak the great distress that will ensue.

So getting back to our text, the “labor pains” motif does argue for an intensified period of trial at the end of the age, but again, is it the cusp of the Tribulation, or half-way, or what pre-wrathers point to as the tail-end when the bowls of wrath of Revelation 16 are poured out?  It’s hard to say exactly.  And this sort of lack of precision is typical.

Okay, so what does Paul mean by the Day of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 5?  Well, it is something preceded by the rapture (1 Thess. 4:17), though no interval is given.  It appears to be identical with the “wrath to come” in 1:10 (cf. 5:9), so we will need to examine that term below.  It also comes suddenly, which the figure of the “thief in the night” illustrates distinctly.  However, this “thief” metaphor is not referring to the rapture, but something occurring after it has taken place.  For instance, Revelation 16:15 has the term used to speak of the Second Coming (cf. Rev. 19:11ff.).  The word indicates a nasty surprise, which the Lord’s return in anger will surely be (2 Thess. 1:5-10, about which more has to be said).  Post-tribulationists warm to such passages, but the other positions are not overturned by it, because “thief” is not technical.  This can be seen from Peter. (more…)

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Trying to Get the Rapture Right (4)

Part Three

So far I have tried to establish a base in biblical texts for my further inquiry into the rapture.  Remember, I write as a non-too-dogmatic pre-tribber whose interest in these posts is to think through the various approaches.

Few Major Rapture Passages

All proponents of the rapture must acknowledge that there are very few direct references to the catching up of the saints.  Without 1 Cor. 15 and Jn. 14, perhaps Matt. 24, but especially 1 Thess. 4, we would not be talking about it.  Of these, only the 1 Thessalonians 4 passage can be deemed a direct statement about the ‘catching up’ or ‘seizing out’ of the saints in the end time.  By a direct statement I mean a text which plainly and unequivocally puts across a doctrine.  Examples of this in other areas include, Gen. 1:1 stating that God created all things, or Rom. 5:1 which says Christians are justified by faith.  These are C1 statements in the Rules of Affinity.  Well nigh all the major doctrines of Scripture can be ascertained and proposed via C1 passages.

What this means is that in addition to these texts supporters of the viewpoints must marshal arguments from other statements of Scripture (hopefully direct statements) about related teachings.  It is the proper inclusion and assimilation of these teachings which creates the differing schools of thought on our subject.

Because this is so, we must show some humility in our assertions.  I have concluded that the rapture and its timing is (and can only be) a C3 doctrine.  That is to say, it has no direct C1 scriptures (other than 1 Thess. 4), or “inevitable” collusion of direct statements (C2) to substantiate it, yet it does enjoy many supportive statements from which one may derive solid inferences (C3).

Some of theses related teachings include the interpretation of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks; the event(s) concerning the “Day of the LORD”; and the correct placement of certain biblical events mentioned in the Olivet Discourse, the Thessalonian correspondence, the Book of Revelation, etc.

But also there are theological considerations which have to be weighed and balanced.  Such things as the differentiation of Israel from the Church, the meaning of the ‘Tribulation’ and ‘Great Tribulation’, and the role of Antichrist, and also the matter of imminence need to be thought through.  All in all I am of the opinion that there are better conceptions of the rapture and worse ones.  The best on will be able to deal adequately with the most biblical data while suffering from the fewest (and least damaging) problem areas.  In other words, the best rapture scenario will be an inference to the best explanation.

Daniel’s Heptads (70 “Weeks”)

The ninth chapter of the Book of Daniel includes the famous prophecy of the seventy sevens.  Here is the passage:

Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place.
So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.  Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.  And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate. – Daniel 9:24-27

The run up to these verses is integral to its understanding.  In 9:2 the “seventy” crops up in relation to the Babylonian Captivity.  It is worth noting that Daniel understood this number of years from a straight-forward reading of Jeremiah (e.g. Jer. 25:11).  The next “seventy” relates to the “sevens” or heptads decreed upon Daniel’s people Israel (see his prayer: 9:7, 11, 16-17, 20) and the temple (9:17, cf. 20).  Also worth a mention is the reference to God’s covenant faithfulness in 9:4 (a hendiadys probably speaking of God’s faithful love (hesed) within the unconditional covenants to Israel), on the basis of which Daniel has confidence in prayer.  It is crucial to allow Gabriel’s words to dictate the objective of the heptads.  This is about Israel (the “Your people” of vv.15, 16 & 19) and Daniel’s “holy city” Jerusalem (cf. v.19).  Ergo the proposition “the seventy weeks refer to literal Israel” would bear a direct affinity to these verses and be a C1.   Only by interposing a) a competing and alien symbolical hermeneutic, b) a theologically determined reticence to accept Gabriel at his word because, c) one believes the Church is the “new Israel”.  Such a foreign proposition (as per K. Riddlebarger) would look like this:

“the seventy weeks concerns ethnic Israel for the first sixty-nine (and a half), but the last week (or three and a half days) concerns the Church as “New Israel.”  

That would be an inference based on another inference, neither of which can be grounded in the text, and would constitute a C5 rating.

I think it is fair to say that most post-tribulationalists conflate Israel and the Church.  This is almost inevitable since they have the Church passing through the whole time period.  Those who equate the Tribulation with Daniel’s seventieth week hard hard put not to do this.  Many of them would say that the Church is right now in the Tribulation, which is also in the seventieth week.

Setting the rapture at the end of the Tribulation for such reasons seems intolerant of Gabriel’s message and Daniel’s prayer, and when assumed in support of that position, actually demeans it.  To me, any posttribulational rapture view (or any view for that matter) which cannot keep national Israel as the people upon whom the entire seventy weeks must be fulfilled has disqualified itself.  Whatismore, it would seem that mid-trib and pre-wrath positions both come against a similar problem, even if they maintain the Israel/Church distinction; the problem of which people group (Israel or the Church) is that period of time for?

Let me say it another way.  Assuming we equate the seventieth seven and the Tribulation (which would make the Tribulation seven years long), it would appear that the mid-tribulation and pre-wrath rapture views must explain whether God’s attention is mainly on Israel, who is the central player in Daniel 9, or on the Church, which was not even in existence in Daniel’s time (cf. Jn. 7:39; Rom. 6:1-4; 1 Pet. 1:3).  If it is Israel then the Church would be playing a secondary role in the Tribulation while God deals with Israel, which seems like a problem.  Surely God is not focused on Israel so much in our day because He is dealing with the (mainly Gentile) Church (Rom. 11:25)?  But if the Church must pass through some of Daniel’s seventieth week in a subordinate or an auxiliary role surely we have a theological confusion?  To state “The seventieth week or Tribulation mainly has Israel in view” is a C1 proposition based on the Book of Daniel.  The same chapter knows nothing of the Church.  And if the Church is also to pass through half or three quarters of the seventieth week, based on other passages, then it is almost disorienting to think about both Israel and the Church being the main objects of this awful period. Finally, while supporting texts from Daniel 12:1 and Jeremiah 30:5-7 provide a rationale for Israel’s passage through these turbulent times, I fail to see any comparative rationale for the Church’s involvement.

More next time…

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Trying to Get the Rapture Right (3)

Part Two

The Main Verses: Matthew 24:36-44 continued

There is no doubt in my mind that this passage is a second coming passage.  There is also no doubt in my mind that the language of “one taken…another left” in Matthew 24:40-41 is apposite to the present discussion.  In the surrounding context Jesus refers to a gathering up together (episounazousin) of the elect (24:31).  So Jesus does speak of a removal of saints.  But is this “taking out” to be understood as the being “taken” a few verses later?  I think there is a real possibility that it should.

Perhaps most Dispensationalists say that those “taken” are taken to judgment.  In verse 39 those who didn’t make it into the Ark (because they couldn’t be bothered to go) were taken away by the flood waters.  But from my reading of the Second Coming passages in Isaiah 63:1-6; Malachi 3:2; 4:1-2, and Revelation 19:11-21, it does not appear to be such a good idea to be “left” hanging about.  This agrees with the flood story, where it was infinitely preferable to be removed to safety in the Ark than to be left to face the elements.  Further, in Revelation 14:14-16 the earth is reaped of the saints, “the harvest [which is a good image] of the earth”, before the wicked are gathered to “the winepress of the wrath of God” in terms too reminiscent of Isaiah 63 to ignore.  Thus, Revelation 14 should not be overlooked in the discussion of this passage.

John Hart of Moody Bible Institute argues that Matthew 24:29-31 is about the Second Coming proper while verses 32-44 are about a pretribulational rapture.  His essay is quite ingenious, but, like so much minute exegesis, rests upon petitio principii.  The very reason for the investigation is to prove that the exegete’s position is possible.  This often relies on converting certain words into technical terminology. In short, Hart proposes that the shift in verse 36 indicated by the peri de, (which seems to hark back to at least verse 21 and following), changes the outlook from the end of the Tribulation and (back to?) a pretribulational perspective.  Hart also thinks the “normalcy” depicted in verses 38-41 is hard to reconcile with posttribulational circumstances, but easier to envisage prior to the Tribulation.  My take is that life goes on pretty much as usual, even allowing for the awful conditions, for a lot of folks in the Tribulation (cf. Matt. 24:48-51; Rev. 18:9-19), at least in terms of the items Jesus mentions.

Of course, if Hart’s version is true then Paul’s rapture teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is no new doctrine (as Hart agrees); Paul just hasn’t informed them about it yet.  They know about the Tribulation well enough, but the Apostle has not brought them up to speed on the rapture. I find these reasons completely unconvincing.  By the Rules of Affinity I would class the peri de argument for pretribulationism a C4.  It is too subtle to be persuasive and it presupposes what it needs to prove.  The circumstantial argument seems plausible on the face of things, but just because people will be living their lives as best they can at the end of the Seventieth Week does not mean all is well.  This commits the Either/Or fallacy.  It gains some purchase with 1 Thessalonians 5:3, but there is still work to do to link it strongly to just prior to the Tribulation. It is a possible inference and hence a C3.

But then, I would argue, a posttribulational “taking out” is a stronger C3, especially when coupled with Revelation 14:14-16.  For one thing, it does not read a hitherto unknown doctrine involving the as yet non-existent NT Church (cf. Jn. 7:39) into the context.  And remember, these disciples asked Jesus if He was going to restore the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6.  I can scarcely see them doing that if they knew about the rapture of the Church prior to that!  So Jesus’ teaching (on Hart’s view) is too subtle for the disciples.

I must move on, but I think a pre-trib interpretation of any verses in the Olivet Discourse is difficult to countenance.  We will have to return to this passage further on.

2 Thessalonians 2:3

If this is a rapture verse then apostasia (“falling away” or “rebellion”) must mean “taken away,” which must mean “caught away”.  I know that there are some out there who convince themselves that this points to the pretrib rapture, but they have not convinced me (nor a good many of their fellows).  The verse makes better sense when the usual meaning of the word is retained.  One may dispute who rebels, (I think it is a general slump into disbelief), but to make them non-rebellious candidates for a rapture again begs the question.  If the “falling away” is identified with taking the mark or following the Beast this verse could be commandeered to serve a midtrib position.

2 Thessalonians 2:13 The rapture version of this seemingly soteriological verse comes about as a result of making soteria mean something like “deliverance” in this context.  But it is simply too obtuse to be considered as a serious rapture passage.  The excruciating lengths which have to be gone into to produce the possibility that Paul is referring to the rapture, plus its reliance upon a doctrine already supposedly proven, push the limits of credulity.  Besides, this view sidesteps the pretrib problem text in chapter 1:5-10 which employs OT imagery and appears to naturally invoke the posttribulational return of Christ in vengeance.

Revelation 3:10 I know there are other passages, and I’m sure we’ll run into them, but this verse is often used to bolster pretribulationism (notably by Paul D. Feinberg).  It reads:

Because you [the Philadelphian saints] have kept the word of My patience, I also will keep you from (tereso ek) the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole earth, to test those who dwell upon the earth.

If we allow, as is plausible, a proleptic application to Christians in the future, then the “keeping out” of the coming trial  (peirasmou) would fit a rapture, and indeed a pretribulational rapture.  This is helped by the fact that this “keeping out” is connected to the “hour”, and therefore the time of the event.  This scenario is a C3 scenario.

More to come…

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Trying to Get the Rapture Right (2)

Part One

The Main Verses

In this installment all I want to do is to set down the main verses which are used in discussions about the rapture.  Let me make it clear that this is not to say that many other passages must be considered so as to understand the doctrine.  As I will be at pains to show, the rapture is not a teaching that can be established by simply comparing proof-texts.  The doctrine excites many passions and this can lead to wishful thinking in exegesis.  Some of the verses listed below are brought very hardly and reluctantly to bear on the doctrine we are considering.

We have already taken a quick look at 1 Thessalonians 4:17, but there are other salient passages.  1 Corinthians 15:50-58 is often brought in to help.  Then Jesus’s words in John 14:1-3 must be considered. Also joining the fray are 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and 13, Matthew 24:36-44, 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9, and Revelation 3:10.  Let’s try to situate each one of these.

1 Thessalonians 4:14-18

The main purpose of this passage is to give comfort to anxious saints who were concerned about loved ones dying off before the return of Christ.  To do that Paul tells the Thessalonians about something they seem not to have known (4:13).  This appears to be in contrast with what they knew very well, that is, the doctrine of the Day of the Lord (5:1-2).

There is no doubt that the snatching away of the saints described in this passage is for the purpose of finalizing the work of salvation begun at regeneration.  The Lord is described as coming from heaven amid the calls of a trumpet and of the archangel.  The meeting of all Christians with their Lord, including those who had been deceased for a long time, takes place “in the air”.  Nothing is said about which way Christ and His saints go from there, whether returning to heaven or continuing on to earth.  However, from the viewpoint of a taking out of people this passage is a direct statement (a C1 for the proposition that Christians will at some future time be ‘caught up’ to meet Christ in the air).

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

This passage is included in Paul’s resurrection chapter and comes only after Paul has spoken about the logic of resurrection; “as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” (15:49).  This “must” language is then given a terminal point in the next section where the Apostle writes,

Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. – 15:51-52.

This passage is revealing something new (a mystery), which speaks about a transformation of all Christians in an instant.  This “change” refers to the receiving of our resurrection bodies – those which will “bear the image of the heavenly.”

The language is clearly culminative, and one naturally connects it with Paul’s rapture teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4.  But there is no actual removal mentioned, only transformation.  This is not problematical since it fits nicely with Paul’s earlier argument.  But it is at best supportive of 1 Thess. 4:17, adding some new information about what occurs at the rapture.  Hence, it is a C3 statement for the rapture: if the the text coincides with 1 Thess. 4, as it seems to do, it declares that a change happens in an instant as the saint is caught away.

John 14:1-3

This passage is proleptic in that the “you” to whom our Lord refers is not primarily the disciples; for He says,

If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also – Jn. 14:3

Jesus cannot just be referring to those to whom He spoke but would intend His words to be taken in the context of His Second Advent (rather like the Preterist ‘proof-text’ in Matthew 10:23).  But what has this passage to do with the rapture?  Well notice that Christ is coming for “you”, which I take to be His people.  He comes to take them back to heaven (where He has been preparing places), although nothing is stated in regards to a transformation.

As for the timing of this gathering, it may appear cut and dried that it speaks to the Second Coming.  But if so, there is a problem created by our being with Christ in heavenly mansions (or rooms if you prefer) and Christ’s earthly reign.  If Christ is ruling on earth and we are in heaven the latter part of Jn. 14:3 cannot be true.

This leads to an inquiry over whether there will be an earthly reign of Christ.  If not, then there’s no problem.  But I’m going to step right over that question and just assume (for present purposes) that there will be one (in line with many OT passages and with Matt. 19:28).  Some may say that’s unfair and stop reading, but I am content to call the likes of H. Bonar, Ryle, Chafer, Bultema, Scroggie, R. Thomas, T. Garland, and even A. Hoekema to witness for me and move on regardless.

The timing of this event is obviously important to settle.

Those are the major rapture passages, but there are several which demand inclusion.

1 Thessalonians 1:10

This verse says we “wait for His Son from heaven” who “delivers us from the wrath to come.”  The mention of Jesus coming from heaven matches 1 Thessalonians 4 and John 14, but the “wrath” must be identified.  If it refers to the seven year Tribulation (derived, as we shall see, from Daniel 9), then the verse favors a pre-trib rapture.  However, if “wrath” bears a more restricted and technical sense, it could refer either to the last three and a half years of the said Tribulation (in which case it would argue for a mid-trib rapture), or the last part of the Tribulation when the bowls of God’s wrath are emptied out upon the planet (Rev. 16).

In any case this verse must be retro-fitted to an already established teaching to be of any corroborative help.

1 Thessalonians 5:9

God has not appointed us to “wrath”, but the same question of identification as above needs to be addressed to utilize this verse well.  It is not unfair though to mark the fact that these two verses are written to the Church.

Matthew 24:36-44

This passage must be understood in context, especially the “coming” of verses 27, 30, 37, and 39 must inform the meaning of “coming” in verse 44.  There can be no serious doubt that Christ is talking of His Second Coming in terms strongly reminiscent of OT prophecy (e.g. Dan 7; Isa. 63), and the parables of Matthew 13, especially verses 40-43.  This is after the Tribulation.

The question is, what does the Lord mean by “one will be taken and the other left” in 24:40-41?  Because of the close association with “the days of Noah” in 24:37-39 many expositors believe that the ones “taken” are whisked off to judgment.  Is this so?  Is there enough in the passage to come down on one side?  Furthermore, if those “taken” (paralambano) in verses 40-41 are actually raptured, doesn’t that pretty much seal a post-trib rapture?

More next time..

Teloscompass

Trying to Get the Rapture Right (1)

I had been intending to write about the removal of the Church (the rapture) for quite a while now.  What galvanized me to do so now was a couple of entries by Ben Witherington and Roger Olson about the pretribulational rapture.  These men, (like them or not), do not usually write poorly, but their articles attacking the concept of the pretribulational rapture are pretty lame ducks, rehashing the same old populist presentations of Dispensationalism by sniping at Clarence Larkin’s charts, and bringing into the frame the names of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, only to mock them.

Now let me be clear about this, although I am a pretribultionist, I am not about to contend for the parity of the doctrine of the rapture and its timing with the doctrine of the Trinity, or justification by grace through faith.  I will not die on a hill fighting for the timing of the rapture, be it pre, mid, prewrath, or post – tribulational.

But something needs to be said.  Olson says he read Dwight Pentecost’s Things To Come when he was 19 or 20 and was unconvinced.  No problem.  But he also claims Pentecost’s book is about the rapture.  He says,

Seeds of doubt about the rapture were planted in my mind by a book that was supposed to offer biblical and theological support for it—Things to Come by dispensationalist theologian Dwight Pentecost. I read it when I was nineteen or twenty and sensed something was wrong. Why would it take hundreds of pages of convoluted exegesis and argument to establish something so simple?

The answer, as anyone familiar with the book is well aware, is “it wouldn’t and it didn’t”.  Pentecost wrote about Biblical Eschatology, which, as Olson knows, involves a good deal more than the rapture.  The trouble is (and I understand this), there is an almost visceral reaction to the populist presentations of the rapture by many – and Witherington and Olson are examples.

In a sense, I don’t blame them.  Books about prophecy from a pretrib perspective commonly come with covers sporting an eclipse (lunar or solar, either will do); sometimes a dragon or two.  Whole ministries exist to promulgate sometimes simplistic versions of Dispensational premillennialism, occasionally tainted with American exceptionalism.  When John Hagee writes about the “Four Blood Moons” we are not really surprised.  There is always a ready market for ‘signs of the times’ books and newspaper exegesis.  I distance myself from such things.  I distance myself a little even from those good men who can scarcely write an article about anything unless pretribulationism or pre-wrath or what-have-you has some space allotted to it.

Nevertheless, I am irritated a bit when Dispensationalism or pretribulationism is given short shrift by Christians because they think that if they can plaster the names of Lindsey or LaHaye over it they have have dealt with it.  To be fair to Olson he does share some of his experiences with the more vulgar expressions of the doctrine, but he never deals with the biblical arguments. He simply says it’s not biblical.  I wonder how he would react if Arminianism was dispatched in such a manner?

Witherington informs us (in this video) that Matthew 24 is one of the main proof-texts for the rapture.  That is surprising to hear since I know of scarcely any Dispensationalist who teaches that it is (actually I am open to a possible association with Rev. 14, but deny that it has anything to do with the rapture of the Church).  In point of fact, Dispensationalists nearly all teach precisely what Witherington teaches about the text!  How could he not know this?

Regarding 1 Thessalonians 4 Witherington says that it depicts a welcoming entourage who go out (or up) to meet the returning Christ before he reigns on earth.  This is a good interpretation and is one of the challenges to the pretribulational position.  It ought to be heeded though that this interpretation relies upon extra-biblical materials.

What I want to do in the coming weeks, though probably at intervals, is to set out some arguments for pretribulationism and compare them with the other positions on the rapture of the Church.  To help me to do this I will be making use of the Rules of Affinity, whereby I designate the doctrine of the rapture a C3 doctrine: that is, a doctrine which has no direct scriptural proof but which is an inference to the best explanation of the assorted data pertaining to the rapture which is found throughout the Bible.

The Meaning of Harpazo

To start things off we’ll take a quick look at the word from which we get the term “rapture.”  That way we can have a baseline to work from.

The Greek verb harpazo means “to snatch away, to seize, or steal (in the sense of grab)”.  Other than the central rapture text in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, harpazo is used in Acts 8:39 to refer to the relocation of Philip: “the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away”.  It is also used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2 and 4 to describe his (see 12:7) experience of being “caught up” to the third heaven.  We see it again in Revelation 12:5 of the male child (Christ) “who was to rule all nations” Who was “caught up to God and His throne”. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 we read:

Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up (harpagesometha) together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

As the commentaries all recognize, the idea behind the verb implies force and suddenness.  The big question is, when will this snatching up occur?  That will be the question we’ll be considering in this series.

 

Prophets As Fore-Tellers?

This is a note from a book I am trying to write.

We must too be aware that a prophet foretells.  The term “prophet” (nabi) basically means “mouthpiece” or “spokesman” (Cf. Exod. 7:1-2 with 4:16; Deut. 18:17-18).  They were preachers, proclaiming the words of God to their contemporaries.  But in the Bible the most prominent function of a prophet was to proclaim God’s word about future events (see e.g., Jer. 1:7-16; Amos 7:7-9, 14-17; 1 Ki. 1:22).  As we shall see, although it scarcely requires demonstration, much of what is recorded in Scripture about prophetic utterances includes predictive elements.  Hence, a crucial test of a prophet was not merely whether he was thought to be correctly interpreting a political situation or addressing a declension in national morality, but whether what he said was going to happen actually did occur (Deut. 18:21-22).[1]  Prophecy was more often than not about what God was going to do, especially in view of the tension between His covenant love (hesed) and His justice.[2]

Though not all cases involved predictive prophecy, a false prediction could be spotted where the fulfillment was in the short term – say, in the lifetime of the prophet – and then it would be clear enough whether he had spoken something from the Lord, or merely spoken out of egotistically-propelled enthusiasm (E.g. Jer. 8:11-15; 28:1-4, 10-11).[3]

But many prophetic declarations were not short-term.  In cases where fulfillment lay in the more distant future, what was to happen?  Were the tests of a prophet redundant in such cases?  Were there then no tests given in regard to long-term far reaching eschatological predictions?  I argue that these tests are not only necessary for long-term prophecies, but that they themselves assume an interpretation of the prophet which can be checked against the original utterance.  This leaves little space for broadening the semantic range of the original words of a prophetic utterance to make them undergo a forced fulfillment by transforming the prophet’s words out of all recognition.  Prophecies are not made of the stuff which can sustain substantial metamorphoses and transplantation.  An original hearer, were she able to travel far into the future to the time of fulfillment, should easily recognize the prophet’s words coming to pass before her eyes without having to be “debriefed” on why things looked very different than what the original prophecy had led her and her contemporaries to reasonably expect. One reason the biblical prophets have been turned more into forthtellers than foretellers is perhaps that many scholars wish to do just that, and in choosing to do so they are forced to divert attention away from the predictive roles of these Seers.  The subject of the generation of and responsibility for Expectation needs more careful reflection than it has had until now.

[1] Some will refer to Peter’s use of “prophecy” in 2 Pet. 1:19-21 to teach that the primary meaning of the word covers all Scripture; therefore “prophecy” becomes synonymous with revelation.  But this is misleading.  In the context, Peter is pointing to the Transfiguration as adumbrating the Second Advent (see 1:16 & 19).  Hence, he is speaking of prophecy as foretelling a future event and not as another term for revelation.

[2] “The prophetic books reflect God’s struggle with his love for Israel in view of the betrayal of that love.  His decision to execute judgment stands in internal tension with his inextinguishable love.” – Reinhard Feldmeier & Hermann Spieckermann, God of the Living: A Biblical Theology, 138-139.

[3] For example, the phrase “you shall know” when spoken by Yahweh refers to short-term predictions (Exod. 6:7; 7:17; 16:12; Num. 16:28; Josh. 3:10; 1 Ki. 20:13, 28; Ezek. 11:10).  Once it refers to a long-range prediction of [New] covenant fulfillment (Ezek. 16:62-63).

Covenants: Clarity, Ambiguity and Faith (6)

Part Five

C. Phinehas (‘Priestly’)

Since I have treated this covenant elsewhere in some detail I shall just briefly rehearse the salient facts.

Owing to the zeal of Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, a devastating plague was stopped and God’s wrath appeased (Num. 25:  ).  Although Phinehas could have had no idea what God would do next, his honoring of God’s holiness elicited a quite un-looked-for covenant between God and Phinehas’s offspring (Num. 25:13; Psa. 106:28-31).  This covenant stands behind the promise of ministering Levites in New covenant contexts as seen in Jeremiah 31:14; 33:17-18, 21-22; Ezekiel 44:15, and other places.

The oath is as follows:

Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace: and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood… – Num. 25:12-13a (cf. Jer. 33:21)

Despite the difficulties (more often presumed than proven) of Levites ministering in a New covenant kingdom context this pledge must mean what it says.  One may perhaps wish to put a limit on the duration of the promise, such as the end of the Millennial Reign, which is permissible under some circumstances, but one cannot begin to meddle with the unambiguous oath and make it fulfilled in the past in violation of God’s oaths (Num. 25 and Jer. 33).  That is to say, it is illegitimate to make this covenant oath ambiguous because of a perceived clash with the writer of Hebrews.  This point is reinforced when one considers that at the time God made the covenant with Phinehas, he was under the terms of the temporary Mosaic covenant.  Hence, the Priestly covenant transcends the Mosaic covenant.

D. ‘Land’ 

Sometimes wrongly called the ‘Palestinian’ covenant (“Palestine” was the name given by Hadrian to Israel after the Bar Kokhba revolt in A.D. 132-135), the Land covenant is really a reaffirmation of the land promises of the Abrahamic covenant, and is often alluded to under those terms in the OT.  Although there are New covenant overtones to account for in Deuteronomy 30:1-6, the land promises in Deuteronomy 29-30 are tied to the Law (Deut. 29:21, 25; 30:10).  Therefore I prefer to refer to the unconditional land promise within the Abrahamic covenant (see above).

E. David

It is well known that 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 do not mention the word for covenant (berith).  That a covenant was initiated is substantiated by Psalm 89:3-4, 33-37 and Jeremiah 33:17, 21.  In 2 Samuel the Lord says to David,

And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you.  Your throne shall be established forever. – 2 Sam. 7:16

The Psalmist notes the two bound concepts in the covenant: the longevity of David’s line and the establishment of his throne:

My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips.  Once have I sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David: His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before Me; it shall be established forever… – Psa. 89:34-37a   

The all-important promise pertaining to the subject of the throne of Israel is repeated in the slogan,

David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel – Jer. 33:17 (cf. 1 Ki. 2:4)

This pledge does not necessary mean the line of Davidic kings will be unbroken.  The Davidic covenant was made under the auspices of the Mosaic economy and awaits its New covenant fulfillment.  What is guaranteed is the perpetuity of the line under New covenant kingdom conditions.  God’s oath cannot and will not be sidetracked.  David will yet have a man reign in the nation Israel (e.g. Jer. 23:5-6; Ezek. 34:11-31; Dan. 7:13-14).

F. New

The New covenant is first introduced as such by the Prophet Jeremiah in chapter 31 of his book:

But this covenant 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…No more shall every man teach his neighbor…saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me…For I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more. – Jer. 31:33-34

 The New covenant is a salvific covenant.  In fact, it is the salvific covenant!  

This is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you – Lk. 22:20 (cf. 2 Cor. 3:5-6; Eph. 2:20)

Without the salvation and restoration contained in this covenant none of the other Divine covenants can achieve their fulfillment.  This covenant is wrapped up in the Person of the Messiah.  As I have written previously,

The promises appended to the biblical covenants are not supplemented with a means of fulfillment within those same covenants.  The fulfillment lies outside of those covenants, within the New Covenant as it supplies the Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic Covenants with the means of their realization.  And the New Covenant must be “enabled” by Christ, the “Man from Heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47).  Hence, the Plan of God outlined in the biblical covenants converges on the crucified Jesus and emerges from the resurrected Jesus!

Because Jesus Christ is the One for whom everything was made in the first place (Col. 1:16-17), it is absolutely fitting that the New covenant in His blood, whether enacted in the present with the Church (1 Cor. 11:23-26), or in the future in fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:31-34 upon Israel, be the basis upon which God’s other covenants are satisfied.  The New covenant, as it were, takes the other unilateral covenants into itself and prepares sinners to receive their joint benefits in accordance with the oaths taken by God – whether the recipients are Israel, the Church, or the Nations.  [For more on these themes please see the series Christ at the Center: The Fulcrum of Biblical Covenantalism]

What God’s New covenant oath means is that sinners made in God’s image will be saved and the marred image fully restored; and as this earth is made for man for living in, the planet and its creatures will be restored too (see e.g., Isa. 11:1-10; 49:6-8; Mic. 4:1-3; Matt. 19:28; Acts 3:21; Rom. 8:18-23).

If this is true then there is no reason to transform or reinterpret or typologize the great covenantal oaths which God voluntarily entered into, knowing beforehand how He would make everything come together just as He said it would.  The covenants mean what they say.  We ought to have full confidence in them as amplifications of God’s plain words to our dull ears and autonomous inclinations.  Any approach which changes the plain sense of these unambiguous oaths for the sake of a theological program cannot be biblical, for the simple but profound reason that nothing which cuts across these Divine oaths can be in line with the Divine intent in these very covenants.   (more…)

Covenants: Clarity, Ambiguity and Faith (5)

Part Four

As I have said, at the most rudimentary level covenants are for the purpose of reinforcing plain speech about specific things.  They do this formally in the terms of the covenant and its obligations upon specified parties.  God holds human beings to the very words of their covenant oaths (Jer. 34:18; Ezek. 17:15c).  The Bible also indicates that God “keeps covenant” (Deut. 7:9; Neh. 9:32; Dan. 9:4).  We would expect no less from Him who cannot lie and who does not change.

Of all verbal communications, written and oral, surely the most steadfast and adamant are covenants.  And surely the least ambiguous and fluid would also be covenants?

The Oaths in the Covenants

The oath is the decisive ingredient in any covenant.  We have already taken a look at the oath which the people took in answer to God’s Book of the Covenant in Exodus.  Now we need to examine, if only briefly, the oaths of the other Divine covenants which can be easily spotted in Scripture.  (There are certain covenants of a speculative nature which it is impossible to pin down in the text of the Bible.  These include the three theological covenants of Reformed covenant theology; the so-called “Adamic” and “Edenic” covenants of some sectors of Dispensational theology; and the “Creation” covenant of New covenant theology).

A. Noah

As nearly all non-evangelical scholarship recognizes, the first covenant one comes across in Scripture is the one God made with Noah.  Its oath is found in Genesis 9, with a possible personal oath in 8:21-22.

Surrounded by a preamble (9:8-10), and a sign of remembrance (9:12-17) the covenant oath is found in 9:11:

Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.

This is the specific thing that God binds Himself to.  The form the covenant takes and the source-critical issues with the passage need not detain us.  Neither am I here bothered with the problem of whether the Noahic covenant is entered at Genesis 9 or whether it signals a perpetuation of a previously established covenant (Cf. W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, 24ff.).  The sole concern here is with showing just what it is that God pledges to do in the covenants, and to demonstrate the clarity of those commitments.  That God takes His own oath literally is proved by Isaiah 54:9:

For this is like the waters of Noah to me; for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, so I have sworn that I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you.

Since this is the first clearly defined and specific covenant, and since it “provides the biblical-theological framework within which all subsequent divine-human covenants operate” (Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 68), the fact that its terms are so clear and are universally acknowledged by all believers should not escape our notice.  Nobody believes the Noahic covenant can be transformed or reinterpreted to mean something other than what the plain words of the oath say it means.  It is a hard-and-fast marker telling us that God will maintain the present order until the New Creation.  If other Divine covenants can be treated differently then we must have two kinds of unilateral Divine covenants in the Bible, and the uncertainty creeps in again.

B. Abraham

The Abrahamic covenant has its basic outline in Genesis 12:1-3, although we don’t get a covenant oath until chapter 15. Even the famous promise which elicited Abram’s faith-righteousness was not part of the covenant proper, but it does show that God is as good as His word, and that to have faith in that word requires that its terms are unambiguous and unequivocal.

On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates.. – Genesis 15:18

This corresponds with Genesis 12:1c – 2a, & 7; 13:14-15 and concerns the land.  Williamson believes that ch. 15 is a separate covenant than that in ch.17.  I demur, but it is worth noting that Williamson calls the land covenant unilateral (Ibid, 87).

But there is more which the LORD swears in this covenant.  When He changed Abram’s name and before giving him the token of the covenant (which has been kept) God said,

Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations.  No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.  Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. – Genesis 17:4-8

And to this must be added Genesis 22:

And the Angel of the LORD called to him a second time out of heaven, and said: By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son – blessing 
I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies (Cf. Heb. 6:13-17).

Hence we see three specific elements in the Abrahamic covenant:

1. The land given to the physical seed of promise (cf. 35:1-12)

2. Inextricably tied to this is the promise that Abraham’s descendants through Isaac will become a nation (cf.12:2)

3. Abraham becoming the father of many nations (although not necessarily through Sarah – 18:18)

Because of 17:1-2 Williamson thinks this is a bilateral agreement and so separate from the covenant in chapter 15.  I shall deal with that later.  But the passage above does give an expansive view of this covenant.  As well as recalling the land aspect of the covenant, this passage harks back to the promise of Genesis 12:3; 15:5 about all the families of earth being blessed through Abraham.  It is important to notice that this expression is tied to Abraham’s physical descendants (see also 19:19), and does not seem to contemplate his spiritual descendants as Paul does (see Rom. 4:9-18; Gal. 3:8-16, 29).  But this is because there is a missing element.  The crucial part that has to be supplied is Genesis 22:18, which brings in Christ (Gal. 3:16).  Thus, in Paul the corporate is included in the One (Jesus) through the same faith as Abraham.  And since righteousness obtained by faith apart from physical lineage leads to salvation, the Apostle can conclude that we are all Abraham’s seed through faith unto salvation.

But this does not rub out the connotations of being “the father of many nations”, and the promise of Genesis 12:2 & 7; 15:3-4 concerning Abraham’s physical descendants through Isaac (cf. 17:21).  If it did, the spiritual seed (in Christ)  could not be realized because Jesus had to come through the physical line of Abraham to be the Christ, and we had to be in Christ to be considered within the third aspect of the Abrahamic covenant.

As many have pointed out, the threefold elements of the Abrahamic covenant are taken up and amplified in the “Land”, Davidic and even New covenants.  That these connections can even be seen is owing to the fact that the covenants mean what they say, and what they say is clearly identifiable in the covenant oaths.

The series closes off next time…

Covenants: Clarity, Ambiguity and Faith (4)

Part Three

If it were up to us…

If the Lord had relied upon men to fulfill their duties before fulfilling His oaths there would be no reason at all to make covenants in the first place.  He was on the safest ground possible, and could have promised the universe without having to concern Himself about fulfilling anything.  We all fail.  Christians know that unless God is faithful to stand behind His promise in the Gospel, we are all done for.  Salvation under the New Covenant blood of Christ cannot depend upon us.  Inner spiritual perfection is even more impossible for us to achieve than the outward obedience of the Law (1 Jn. 1:8, 10).  If God’s promise of salvation and eternal life depended for an instant on our works, heaven would have one human inhabitant – Jesus!

It is for this reason that God only made one bi-lateral covenant with men: the Mosaic covenant.  Exodus 24 records the solemn oath which the children of Israel took:

And Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half the blood he sprinkled on the altar.  Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people.  and they said, “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.”  And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.” – Exod. 24:6-8

The writer of Hebrews refers to this episode in Hebrews 9:18-20.  The Book was the covenant terms which Moses read aloud.  It contained the Ten Commandments of chapter 20, and the judgments of chapters 21-23 (cf. 24:3).  There is nothing in these chapters which is unclear or vague.  By reading the terms in the ears of the people Moses was calling upon the people to affirm by oath those words (See John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch As Narrative, 296).

The reason for this being bi-lateral was because it was impermanent.  This “old covenant” was to be replaced by another permanent one.  What guaranteed the failure of the Mosaic covenant was the sinfulness of one of the parties: the people of Israel.  By the same token what guarantees the permanence of the New covenant is the fact that it is unilaterally promised by the sinless Christ.  Divine covenants, with the lone exception of the “old covenant”, are inviolable.  Paul states this in connection with the New covenant in Romans 11:29.

Problems with “Unilateral” and “Unconditional”

It has often been true that the terms “unilateral” and “unconditional” have been held by some to be unsatisfactory adjectives when applied to the biblical covenants.  Noah did have to build an ark.  Abraham did have to leave Ur and he did have to circumcise his sons.  Christians do have to believe on Jesus to be saved.  So then, it is argued, because we find these conditions attached to covenantal promises it is inaccurate to describe any covenant with the words “unilateral” and “unconditional.”

As an example of this sort of complaint we read,

the Old Testament covenants consist of unconditional (unilateral) and conditional (bilateral) elements blended together.  In fact, it is precisely due to this blend that there is a deliberate tension within the covenants – a tension which is heightened as the story line of Scripture and the biblical covenants progress toward their fulfilment [sic] in Christ. – Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 609

But a grave mistake is being made here (there are other mistakes too, but I shall ignore them for now).  In deciding whether a covenant is or is not unilateral (or both/and) the attention must be upon the oath taken: that is, upon the words of the covenant.  And there is nothing in the oaths affixed to the Noahic or Abrahamic or Priestly or Davidic or New covenants which place conditions upon the human parties.  What conditions are present in the context are connected either prior to or after the taking of the oath, but if there are no conditions in God’s oath, there are no conditions in the covenant.  The time of eventual fulfillment may be impacted by conditional elements, but these in no way get God ‘off the hook’ as it were.  If God is the only Subject making the oath, and if the words of the covenant do not iterate a condition, then the covenant really is unilateral and unconditional.  As we have noted before, this fact seems to be recognized by D. N. Freedman.

The conditional Mosaic covenant, by contrast, had both conditions as part of the oath and, as we saw, bound the human parties to those conditions.  One older writer puts it well:

The legal covenant that God made with Israel when He brought them up out of Egypt consisted of the law, the judgments and the ordinances… Differing from the unconditional covenant that God made with Abraham, the covenant that He made and repeatedly renewed with Israel under the law was coupled with express conditions, on the breach of which fearful judgments were denounced, and both blessings and curses attached to the covenant, according as they obeyed or disobeyed… – Ford C. Ottman, God’s Oath: A Study of an Unfulfilled Promise of God, 191 

There were no blessings and curses appended to the other covenants God made for the very good reason that they were superfluous!  They were unconditionally guaranteed by God Himself.  Thus, when entering into covenant with Abraham we read,

…because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself – Heb. 6:13

For what purpose did God do this?  The writer of Hebrews tells us:

Thus God, determining to show the more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath – Heb. 6:17

God had previously “determined” what He was going to do through the Abrahamic covenant.  It was to be something which could not change.  Therefore, by swearing by Himself He showed the immutability of the covenant.  Yet on page 608 of Kingdom through Covenant Wellum says,

the physical genealogical link from the Abrahamic covenant is transformed…in the dawning of a regenerate people from every nation who become the “one new man” in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 2:11-21).  

He goes on to call this people “the true Israel” (Ibid).  But in view of what we have just seen, this is not an option.  God cannot “transform” the meaning of words in a covenant.  But He doesn’t need to because the Abrahamic covenant houses promises both to the nations of Israel and to all the peoples of the earth (see Gen. 12:1-3, 7).

Next installment soon...