Covenant Connections in Paul (1)

From the time of Paul’s dramatic conversion in Acts 9 he was called to represent Yahweh to the Gentiles.  Yet he never forgot his people.  He would often begin a stint in a city by going into the synagogues and expounding Christ to the Jews (e.g., Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1-3).  Although he did not write systematic expositions, Paul’s occasional letters He is the qualify him as the greatest theologian of the Christian Church.  His thought is profound and multilayered, and I cannot do it justice here.  My interaction with Paul is more modest.  I am interested in the investigation of how the covenants of God affected his thought.  And I am also interested in how he understood the doctrine of the Church against the background of the OT covenants, and the role the Person of Jesus Christ plays in that understanding.

Paul As an Apostle of the Covenant(s)

            Like the other NT writers Paul does not speak explicitly about the biblical covenants in very many places.  Having said that, the presence of covenant language is easy to find, and the influence of the covenants is not hard to detect.  One has only to consider the following examples to see this clearly:

And we have such trust through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 (My emphasis).

And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. – Galatians 3:17.

For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar— for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. – Galatians 4:24-26.

            I shall of course be examining these and other scriptures in due course but permit me to point to one or two matters as we begin.  In 2 Corinthians 3 (A.D. 56) Paul tells us that he comprehends his ministry in terms of the New covenant, and in true New covenant fashion he highlights the work of the Spirit in this ministry.  In Galatians 3 he refers to “the [Abrahamic] covenant that was confirmed before [the Law] by God in Christ.”  While in Galatians 4 he speaks of the symbolism of two covenants; the one signified by Ishmael and the bondage to the flesh; the other signified by Isaac and the freedom through the grace promise; the promise of the covenant with Abraham (which Ishmael was not party to) transcended the requirements of the Law.     

            In treating the Epistles of Paul, I have decided to follow a thematic scheme rather than a chronological scheme.  My reason for this is that I want to treat Paul as an author like I have treated Luke or Isaiah.  I am not of the opinion that the inspired Apostle once thought one way and ten or so years after thought differently.  To say it in another way, I do not believe that the inspired letter to the churches in Galatia (c. A.D. 48-50) evinces a less mature theological mind than we find in Romans (A.D. 56) or in 2 Timothy (c. A.D. 65).  We are talking about a mere fifteen years after all, and the occasional nature of Paul’s correspondence does not allow enough data to theorize about the state of his doctrine by comparisons of his letters one with another.  The same holds true for Paul in the book of Acts; there is but one theology of Paul, not a naïve theology and a mature theology. 

            I should also say that I am not impressed with the insistence of many modern critical scholars like N. T. Wright and J. Christian Beker who urge upon us an “apocalyptic Paul.”  By this term they have in mind Paul’s doctrine of God’s radical intervention into world affairs through His resurrection and the new birth and then with His second coming.  For reasons I have gone into elsewhere I reject using the notion of apocalyptic in this way, for it always ends up getting in the way of what the text is saying.  So for example, we end up with an “apocalyptic gospel,”[1] not a straight Gospel with natural teleological and eschatological elements.  What I want to try to show is that Paul thought covenantally.  Again, I need to say that because Jesus Christ had come He takes the limelight, but the covenants are never forgotten.  God’s covenants, especially those with Abraham and David always undergirded the message.  It’s time to turn to the covenants in Paul.

[1] E.g., Anthony C. Thiselton, The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009, 17.

Jesus is the New Covenant

Happy New Year to all! Here is a little challenge to start 2022. Try to refute the logic:

  1. God works through His covenants.
  2. Neither the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, or Davidic covenants contain any word or provision for the salvation of sinners.
  3. According to the Servant Songs in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8 the Servant (Messiah) will be made “as a covenant” to redeem both Israel and the nations.
  4. Jeremiah 31:31-34 promises a “New covenant” which will replace the Mosaic covenant and provide forgiveness and salvation for the people of Israel.
  5. In Malachi 3:1f. “the Messenger of the covenant” will one day come suddenly to His temple and “purify the sons of Levi.”
  6. At the institution of the Lord’s Supper Jesus said of the cup “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.” (Lk. 22:20). It is not possible to get a closer relation to the New covenant than that!
  7. Paul identified both Jesus and “the apostles and [NT] prophets” as the foundations of “the household of God” – the Church (Eph. 2:19-20). The Apostles were present at the institution of the New covenant in Luke 22.
  8. In the words of the instigation of the Lord’s Supper that are recited regularly every time it is celebrated it plainly states “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). These words are applied directly to a Gentile Church.
  9. In 2 Corinthians 3, after telling the Gentile believers that he had ministered Christ to them (2 Cor. 3:3) he proceeded to describe his calling as being a ministry “of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:6). Paul ministered as “the Apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13).
  10. The author of Hebrews calls Jesus our High Priest (Heb. 3:1; 4:14-15); “the Mediator of the new covenant” (Heb. 9:15; 12:24). Hebrews 12:24 makes direct mention to the blood (cf. 1 Cor. 11:25). Unless one is going to say that Hebrews contains no doctrine for the Church one must conclude that the only covenant that can qualify Him as our High Priest is the New covenant.
  11. The NASB translation of Hebrews 9:16-17 the word diatheke is translated “covenant” in line with every other usage of the term in the Book. This both fits the context better and makes Jesus the sacrificial offering (the “Lamb of God” – Jn. 1:29) whose blood is New covenant blood.
  12. Since there is no provision for salvation in the other Divine covenants and the Servant/Messiah is to be made as a covenant the question must be asked “What covenant will He be?” The only covenant that brings salvation from sin is the New covenant. Jesus’ own blood is the blood of that New covenant and He both mediates it and is the “Messenger” of it (if not, which covenant is He the Messenger of?). But He is also the covenant “animal” (Lamb) which ratifies the New covenant.
  13. Since the Church was not revealed in the OT one would not expect Jeremiah to speak of it, but true progressive revelation does teach it.
  14. One great day God the Father will “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.” (Eph. 1:10). Peter declares that God wants to be glorified “in all things” through Christ (1 Pet. 4:11).
  15. Ergo, there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ, the New covenant incarnate! All sinners will be saved on the basis of the New covenant in Christ. That obviously means that the Church is a full party to the New covenant along with Israel. Now that’s proper Christological interpretation!

Further Instances of Kingdom and Covenant in Acts

Explaining Acts 2 with Acts 3

Further Instances of Kingdom and Covenant

The preaching of the deacon Philip in Acts 8 is described as relating to “the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” (Acts 8:12), which resulted in many baptisms.  There is no reason to deny that Philip preached about the coming eschatological kingdom.  Christ has come and the kingdom of Christ will come.  The mix of telos and eschatos furnishes a strong worldview message to the sterility of religion and the hopeless vagaries of paganism.

            In Acts 8:26-40 there is the story of the conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, who was probably a proselyte.[1]  This man was reading from Isaiah 53, a New covenant chapter.[2]  He was told that he could receive baptism (which was either by immersion or effusion) if he believed the Gospel of Jesus that Philip had expounded to him from the prophet.  It must be a no-holes-barred belief (Acts 8:37) because baptism was seen as the token of the New covenant in Jesus of which the Gospel of His death for sin and His resurrection was the content of faith.  Whether Philip explained baptism in covenant terms is impossible to say, although it cannot be dismissed since the eunuch would have been a strict adherent to the Mosaic covenant and would surely have needed to have had Christ’s shed blood explained to him in the language of the New covenant. 

            Another important consideration is the fact that the coming of the Holy Spirit is a phenomenon associated with the New covenant (e.g., Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:27; Zech. 12:10), and when one considers Peter’s question in Acts 10:47 in such light there is more than a suggestion that he thought of baptism in that way.  I am not saying that baptism as a sign of the New covenant is necessary (see 1 Cor. 1:17).  We know it is a sign, and that it signifies belief in Christ’s death and resurrection.  I am venturing to say that baptism and the New covenant are linked by virtue of this fact.  This would mean also that baptism has to be for believers only.  The theological construct that is the covenant of grace is a poor replacement for God’s revealed New covenant.[3]

            Coming to Acts 10 we have the episode of Peter’s vision of the great sheet filled with unclean animals and the subsequent ministry to Cornelius.  This was a watershed event for Peter which he reported upon in Acts 11:1-18 (cf. Acts 15:6-11).  The vision admonished Peter to accept what he had previously deemed to be unlawful (Acts 10:11-16; 11:7-9). This could not have occurred had Peter been under the old Mosaic covenant which forbid eating such things.  Notice then that Peter was released from the requirements of the Torah and must therefore have been under a new requirement.  Are we to believe that having been brought out from under one covenant Peter was now clear of a replacement covenant?

            In Acts 15:13-21 we get James’s proposal for how Gentile Christian’s relate to the Law.  He is responding to testimonies of Paul, Barnabas and also of Peter and their experiences.[4]  James goes to the book of Amos to prove his point.  This is what he says:

“Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name.  And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:

‘After this I will return
And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down;
I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will set it up;

So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD,
Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name,
Says the
 LORD who does all these things.’ – Acts 15:14-17.

            The passage James is citing is from Amos 9:11-12 (LXX).  If we look at the theme James has in mind it is that God is going to “call out a people for His name” from the Gentile nations.  There is nothing controversial about this.  But why go to Amos 9?  I think the answer lies somewhere with the passage’s acceptance of Gentile inclusion I salvation, and in its relative antiquity (9th century B. C.).  But there is another part to it.  The mention of the rebuilding of David’s tabernacle, which alludes the eschatological temple, is an acknowledgement of God’s marvelous work in the coming of Christ and His initiation of the New covenant and its offer to Israel.  And although Israel has remained obdurate, change has been brought about and a new eschatological process has been set in motion.  So no, the promised neo-Davidic kingdom of the Christ has not appeared (and James nowhere declares Amos 9:11-12 fulfilled), but Israel’s King has come, been rejected, and now awaits His second coming to fulfill the ancient prophecies of restoration. 

            Because of the situation that has come about where Christ has now come to Israel but has been rejected by them there is an unavoidable “incongruity” that has surfaced between what has been brought to pass by Jesus’ ministry and passion and what yet awaits to be fulfilled.  Amos 9 suffers from this “incongruity” insofar as the pieces were put in place for its realization yet ignorance and hard-heartedness have delayed important elements of the promise.                 

[1] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 685.

[2] This is said in so many words by e.g., Paul Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 159, and by Thomas Schreiner, Covenant, 102.     

[3] Although I will look more into it later, I want to say that I am perplexed by those who hold that Christians have no part in the New covenant.  Surely every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper and read from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 we tacitly admit our participation in the New covenant?

[4] Peter is emphasized as the one to whom the acceptance of the Gentiles without the entailments of the Law is revealed (in Acts 10).  See Acts 11:7-10.   

Explaining Acts 2 with Acts 3

The Kingdom in the Opening of Acts

Peter’s First Sermon and an Interpretive Challenge

            The commotion caused by this miracle of languages made some present utter disdainful remarks about the disciples being drunk (Acts 2:13).  This gave Peter the pretext he needed to speak to the crowd.  After dismissing the accusation Peter announced that what was happening was “what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” (Acts 2:16).  He then quoted Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:17-21). 

            But what was this?  Joel did not mention the gift of tongues.  Moreover, none of the phenomena spoken about by the prophet were manifested in Acts 2!  Was this Peter getting ahead of himself again (cf. Matt. 17:4)? 

            This speech by Peter presents every interpreter with a challenge; even those who push their way past the details and glibly state that in fact Joel 2 was fulfilled in Acts 2.  In its context Joel 2:28-32 is an eschatological prediction of the end of the age.  It speaks of the coming of the Spirit upon “common people” in all parts of society.  It is preceded by a prophetic call to national consecration (Joel 2:15-17), followed by the response of Yahweh in terms of divine pity, decisive action against Israel’s enemies, and (New covenant) blessings upon their land (Joel 2:18-27).  Joel 2:26-27 is key here:

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, Who has dealt wondrously with you; and My people shall never be put to shame. Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: I am the LORD your God and there is no other. My people shall never be put to shame.- Joel 2:26-27 (my emphasis).

            Notice carefully the language of final reconciliation between God and His people.  Yahweh is dwelling in the land as Israel’s God and His people are safe in perpetuity.  This is where we must fit Acts 2:28-32.  This is what was uppermost in Peter’s mind at Pentecost! 

In Acts 2 no one is seeing visions, no one is dreaming, no one is prophesying, and no great “apocalyptic” signs formed in the sky, and the Spirit was poured out on a few men in a room.  Further, in Joel 2 no one is speaking in tongues.  What was Peter thinking?  The single thing in common between the two passages is the coming of the Holy Spirit.  

            It is the coming of the Spirit that is the clue.  And covenantally speaking, from Peter’s vantage-point, the descent of the Spirit is an eschatological portent.  But is this a confusion of the first and second advents?  We cannot entertain the idea!  What then?  We are either thrown back to the total fulfillment hypothesis, however bizarre that looks when the two texts are compared, or we are constrained to look for more clues.  And clues can be found in the next chapter and Peter’s next recorded sermon.

The Return of Jesus and the Restoration of All Things (Acts 3)

But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.

Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began. For Moses truly said to the fathers, `The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you.’ – Acts 3:18-22.

            This is a complicated passage, but I shall try to prise apart its main teachings.  Peter first calls the Jewish crowd to repentance because their Messiah has come and has been killed.  Peter speaks about the prophecies concerning Christ’s suffering as though they should have been readily apparent[1], and we may assume there was enough knowledge of the requisite texts for Peter to strike a connection to (whatever our fragmentary knowledge of the time tells us).[2] 

            However, things take a remarkable turn in verses 19 to 21 where Peter promises that if they will repent and believe his message three world-changing events would occur: 1. Their sins would be “blotted out”; basically removed from them.  2. What he calls “the times of refreshing” and “the times of the restoration of all things” would happen.  3. God would send Jesus their Christ back to earth. 

            The mention of those three events in chapter 3 of Acts ought to stop us in our tracks.  Peter is preaching the coming of the New covenant kingdom at around the A. D. 30!  Why then did Christ not come back?  Why didn’t the predicted kingdom of peace come about?  Many would say that the promised kingdom, though expected by the Jews, arrived in a different way than was expected. They are welcome to think what they want, but that opens up a can of worms relative any meaningful definition of the kingdom. 

            There is a way forward.  There is an answer, and a fairly straightforward one at that.  It is this: The promised kingdom of peace and glory and the return of Christ as King would have occurred, if the conditions of restoration had been met

            One can hear the howls of protest fizzing through the air: “Are you saying that since Christ was rejected before and after the crucifixion and resurrection that God had to move to Plan B?”  “Are you claiming that the Church was potentially unnecessary?”  The answer to both questions is a dogmatic “No!”  Any Calvinist systematic theologian could point us in the right direction. God can offer the Gospel sincerely to all even though He has decreed that all will not accept it.

            What this shows is that God can know what will happen because He has decreed it will happen (however one understands the decree) even though a contradictory state of affairs (a version of a counterfactual) is set forth.  What Peter is proclaiming in Acts 3:19-21 is exactly what he appears to be proclaiming.  Jesus would come and the “times of refreshing” would arrive if Israel repented and trusted Jesus as the Christ.  They didn’t, and God knew that that wouldn’t.  The rejection was foreknown and decreed by God.  Unbeknownst to Peter, there was no way Christ would be accepted; therefore, the advent of the Church was determined just as much as the time of Jesus’ birth (Gal. 4:4) or the crucifixion (Psa. 22; Lk. 24:44 cf. Jn. 15:25) were determined.

Returning to Acts 2

            If we take this understanding of Peter’s bone fide offer of Christ and the kingdom in Acts 3 and we reread his use of Joel 2 in Acts 2 the proclamation starts to take meaningful shape before our eyes.  The phenomena described in Joel 2:28-32 which had to do with the coming of “the great and awesome day of the Lord” does concern the end of days.  That is to say that Peter fully expected that the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost would trigger all these events leading up to the return of Christ and the setting up of His great kingdom; the anticipated “Kingdom of God” (cf. Acts 1:3, 6)! 

            It is crucial to realize that Peter was still thinking within the basic framework of OT eschatology and Jewish expectation that we find in the Gospels and in Acts 1:6. His immediate concern in this setting was to point to the Cross and (especially) the Resurrection as the eschatological breaking- in of God into Israel’s history.  The “this” of Acts 2:15 is answered by the references to the resurrection throughout Peter’s speech (Acts 2:24, 30, 31, 32). This is what proved that Jesus was “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

The reference to the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2:17-18, 33) is intended to show the Jews that the New covenant has been inaugurated, and that there is still opportunity for them to repent and believe (in this sense the baptism of verse 38 may be seen as a partial fulfillment of John’s baptism).

Of course, the nation did not believe this message. They rejected it again in Acts 3:12-26, where the expectation of the arrival of the Davidic Kingdom was still patently in the air (esp. Acts 3:19-21). In other words, these were good faith offers of the kingdom which were rejected by all but a relative few.

Viewed this way the one work of Christ in its two phases of Cross and Crown are still held together in Acts 2 and 3. If so, the “signs and wonders” of Acts 2:19 are at the doorstep pending national acceptance of Jesus as Messiah; not only the crucified Messiah, but Risen Messiah – bringing the two phases into close proximity.  In God’s Creation Project this was not to be due to human sin  A final climactic intervention would be needed.  This intervention (as Christ’s rejection) is seen in the Prophets (Isa. 61:1-3; Zech. 14:3-4; Mal. 3:1b-2) and restated in the NT (Matt. 24:29-30; 2 Thess. 1:6-10; Rev. 19:11- 16). 

            In Acts 3:22-23 Peter then cites Deuteronomy 18 about the Prophet like Moses (Acts 3:15, 18-19).  There is a line in there which says, “And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that Prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.” (Acts 3:23/Deut. 18:19).  Peter quotes this passage to his Jewish audience in the same setting as his words about the sending (again) of Christ (Acts 3:20-21).  This is because the Deuteronomy passage goes together with the return of Christ. 

Acts 3 closes with these words:

Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretoldthese days.  You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, `And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ – Acts 3:24-25 (my emphasis).

It is quite clear that Peter is thinking covenantally in these sermons in Acts 2 and 3.  Here he alludes to the Abrahamic covenant.  What is fascinating to me is the part of the Abrahamic covenant he calls their attention to; it is the third plank of the covenant which promises , “And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Acts 3:25). 

Why would he say that? I think the answer is that although he was speaking to Jews at a Jewish Festival, Peter knew that what Jesus had said in Acts 1:8:

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

            To those words we need to add the following:

Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  And you are witnesses of these things. – Luke 24:46-48.

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – Matthew 28:19.

            As these texts show, the disciples were well versed in the attitude of the Good News being for all peoples.  Jesus had been rejected by His own (cf. Jn. 1:11), but the message about Him was not limited to Israel; certainly not by the Abrahamic or New covenants.  Hence, we must conclude that even though Peter offers Christ’s return from heaven to Israel in Acts 3:19-25[3] (clearly an offer was made), he is aware of the fact that the Gospel must be spread to the Gentiles too.  Just how that would be done and how much time Peter thought would pass between his words and Jesus’ return is impossible to know, but it does appear reasonable to think that it would all occur in their generation.

            If we take a look at the last verse in Acts 3 we shall see another covenantal overtone:

To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities. – Act 3:26.

            Peter here refers to Jesus as God’s “Servant.”  The word “Servant” (Heb. ebed) is only employed in a messianic sense by the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 42; 49; 50; 52 – 53).  Peter is deliberately calling his audience’s attention to Isaiah’s Servant; more particularly to the salvific portions of the Servant Songs (e.g., Isa.49:6 and 53:1-12).  Isaiah’s Servant is made “as a covenant to the people; to restore the earth” (Isa. 49:8. The context is salvational), so that God’s covenant work is the prime activity of the Servant.

[1] I must include a note of caution here.  Acts 3:17 will speak of the ignorance of both people and, surprisingly, the rulers (which may explain the offer in Acts 3:19-26).  This ignorance may well have been mainly caused by the traditions of the rabbis (Mk. 7:6-12).  . 

[2] What every scholar is willing to admit is that the first part of the first century A. D. was filled with Messianic hope.  The Feast would have only heated up the fervor. 

[3] Hence, the phenomena of Joel 2:28-32a which Peter preached about in Acts 2:16-21 would have come about through the Spirit’s influence had his message been believed.  Another way to put this is that both Acts 2:16-21 and 3:19-25 would have taken place if the Jews en masse had believed that Jesus was their Messiah whom they had crucified but God had raised from the dead.   

The Kingdom in the Opening of Acts

We have already seen how Luke lays a heavy stress upon the Kingdom of God.  Although it does not receive half as much notice as it deserves to, Luke is very interested in the matter of continuity between the OT and the Apostolic writings that would become the NT. 

            This continuity is quickly seen in the opening of the first chapter of Acts.  There we see the Risen Lord teaching His disciples over the course of forty days.  Luke tells us that the main burden of Jesus’ teaching was “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3).  In the absence of any qualifying definition, what the phrase “kingdom of God” means in Acts 1 ought to be determined via reference to the Gospel of Luke; the first volume of Luke’s two volume history.  As my study of Luke’s Gospel has shown, Luke employs the term purposefully to refer in the main to the eschatological kingdom promised in the covenants.  Aside from reading the NT retrogressively there is no reason to think his use of “the kingdom of God” had changed in Acts. 

            With this assumption in hand I venture to say that the “kingdom” that Jesus was teaching the disciples about during the forty days after His resurrection was the covenanted kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by the faithful in Jesus’ day.

The Disciples’ Question About the Restoration of the Kingdom

            This understanding of the meaning of the kingdom of God in Acts 1:3 is given more encouragement by the interchange we encounter a few verses later:

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.  But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me1 in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Act 1:7-8.

            Jesus had just reminded them of the ministry of John the Baptist (Acts 1:4-5), which must have stirred in them hopes of the coming “kingdom” about which John had preached (Matt. 3:1-2).  Therefore, their question in verse 6 was natural.  After so much instruction about the kingdom of God from the Master Teacher, we cannot be so narrow-minded as Calvin and believe that the disciples didn’t grasp Jesus’ meaning.  No, their inquiry, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), was based on the teaching they had been receiving both before and after Christ’s resurrection (cf. Matt. 19:28).  It was not a pitiable misconstrual of it.  The disciples’ question to Jesus was loaded with anticipation:

“Now that He was alive again, having just demonstrated His power to overcome death itself, surely the time to restore the Jewish kingdom…on earth in all its glory must be close at hand.  Their question was simply one of timing.”[1] 

            Burgraff is right; the question of the disciples, which they seem to have repeated, was about “when” the expected kingdom would be restored, not about its character.  They certainly had that understanding down pat after all the time they had spent with Jesus!

            How did Jesus respond to the inquiry?  Did He immediately take it upon Himself to correct their deeply ingrained yet erroneous understanding of the kingdom?  Did He, – as on other occasions[2] – confounded by their dilatoriness, ask them “How can you still think the kingdom concerns just Israel?”  He did not do that because their expectation was anchored not only in His teachings but also in the Davidic covenant.  Let us remind ourselves of His answer:

He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.  But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me1 in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Acts 1:7-8.

            There is no trace of a rebuke in these words.  He was telling them that the “when” of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel was not for them (or us) to know.[3]  That restoration will come.  Indeed it must, for God has covenanted to do it.  Whatever we do with that information from our historical vantage-point, we had better make peace with the fact that the covenants will not bend to our theological preferences.

The Ascension of Jesus

            The ascension of Jesus Christ back to where He was before (Jn. 6:62) was not simply a return from the wars as it were.  We must remember that the eternal Logos (Jn. 1:1-3) came to our fallen world and grew up and lived in it as a human being; like one of his creatures; like one of those who so imperfectly reflected His image.  His ascension into heaven was as a man, the TheosAner.  He had succumbed to the full cruelty of His creature and He had been taken by Death.  He was changed.  His arrival in Glory was the arrival of the great Savior of the Creation Project; the Man who put it all right.  Victory was not claimed, but it was and is assured.  Jesus entered “the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation.” (Heb. 9:11), and there, in some mystical way that I cannot explain He came into the Most Holy Place with His own blood and expiated our sins (Heb. 9:12).

            In Acts 1:9-11 is the record of the ascension:

He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”

            This took place at the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:12), which is the very mountain that will be wrenched apart when He comes again in great power and majesty according to Zechariah 14:4.  The touch of the Risen Christ’s feet upon this mountain will set off a chain-reaction that will envelop the entire world.  It will eventuate in the world not opposing but projecting the will of the Father, through the reign of the Son.  He will come bodily, in the clouds, to lay claim to what was first given to Him by His Father (cf. Col. 1:16).  And He comes as the Mediator of His New covenant to fulfill all the unconditional covenants that God made in the OT with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, and David.           

[1] David L. Burgraff, “Augustine: From the ‘Not Yet’ to the ‘Already,’” in Forsaking Israel: How It Happened and Why It Matters, second edition, edited by Larry D. Pettegrew, The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2021, 42 (Emphasis his). Cf. also James D. G. Dunn, Beginning From Jerusalem, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009, 144.

[2] E.g., Matthew 16:11; Mark 4:40; 8:21. 

[3] Rightly Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Thematic Approach, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 205, also 133.

Review: ‘The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (5)

Part Four

The Parables of the Kingdom (Pt. 2)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

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

The Parable of the Woman Hiding Leaven

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

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure

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

The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price

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

The Parable of the Dragnet

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

The Parable of the Householder

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

A Summary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (4)

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

Part Three

The Parables of the Kingdom (Pt. 1)

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

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

The Parable of the Sower

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

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

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

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shameless Plug: My Book is Out!

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

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

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

Answers to Some Questions I have Been Asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two

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

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

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

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

On the next page he avers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Davidic Covenant

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

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

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

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