Covenant Connections in Paul (6)

Part Five

Paul Before the Areopagus

I want to shift gears a bit and take a look at the “twins” which comprise the Creation Project and that drive it through the instrumentality of the covenants.  Those twins being Eschatology and Teleology which I spoke about in the first volume.  A good place to start is Paul’s defense at Mars Hill in Acts 17.  He is addressing pagan Greeks who have no familiarity with the Scriptures.  There would have been fruitless to attempt to introduce these scholars to the concept of a Jewish Messiah, or to impress them with a recital of OT prophetic expectation.  What these Greeks needed was a direct challenge to their worldview.  Paul begins his address by checking their metaphysics.  That is to say, he notices that there is an openness to religious/superstitious phenomena.  He is not speaking to a group of atheist materialists.[1]  Whether Epicureans or Stoics or something else, if Paul was going to refer to gods and such he would not be despised on that account.  These people worshiped (Acts 17:23).  Since they acknowledged there may be an unknown god to whom worship is due, they are covering themselves with an altar to “the Unknown God” (Acts 17:23).  This positions him to introduce the one true God to the Athenians (Acts 17:24f.). 

When I say “introduce” what I mean is closer to “remind” because as Paul says in Romans 1:18-23 God Himself is an inescapable fact, but sin and pride obscure the truth.  F. F. Bruce has said that “parallels to Paul’s argument can be adduced from Greek literature and philosophy.”[2]  Anyhow, Yahweh God is brought into the conversation front and center as the creator of both heaven and earth and everything in it (Acts 17:24).  That kicks the whole pantheon to the curb in a single verse!  The real God does not depend on His creatures for anything (Acts 17:25), which distinguishes Him from the general run of gods the Greeks would have been familiar with.  Moreover, God is the Lord of all living things and of all men throughout history (Acts 17:25-26).  Paul also slipped into his description the fact, insulting to Greco-Roman ears, that all men are of one race (Acts 17:26). 

Paul’s next pronouncement is interesting for a number of reasons.  He avers that God’s placement of humans; His “determination” (horizo) and “preappointment” (protasso) of them, had to do with the hope of their searching for Him.  As he puts it, “so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:27).  This is a hard verse to comprehend.  If God wanted people to find Him, why did He make them “grope after” (pselaphao) Him?  I believe the answer must be joined to Paul’s proclamation of salvation in Jesus and should not be extended throughout time.  The Athenians were “groping” after the Divine and now they can find Him. 

What comes next is a surprise.  Paul the apostle quotes well known Greek writers to further his argument.  Not because he agreed with their philosophy, but because the truth about the world creeps in even when the reality of the Creator is suppressed.  Cornelius Van Til explored this area perhaps more than anyone else[3], and to my mind it is foundational to the articulation of Theology.  Sin has caused blindness in the unsaved to the program of God.  Scripture lights the way ahead (Psa. 119:105).  The Spirit of God opens the spiritual eyes.  Through what is often called ”common grace” but is better referred to general revelation those estranged from God can yet perceive snatches of reality.  Hence, the Apostle to the Gentiles finds vestiges of God’s truth in pagan writers and uses them to build a bridge to the pagan audience.  He has started by claiming that there is one God and that He is supremely in control of everything, and that everything is His creation (we might, for sake of ease, think of Plato’s forms, although the apostle’s doctrine brings them into this world).  He has then quoted two of their scholars (the philosopher Epimenides of Crete[4] and Aratus, a poet) to show that his teaching is partially known via general revelation.[5] 

Paul concludes the first part of his argument by showing that his God cannot be represented by human innovation and artifice (Acts 17:29).  Then in two verses he comes to the point:

Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” – Acts 17:30-31.

            Paul had been requested to defend his teaching about “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18-21) before the Areopagus.  He bears down now on the great event that has brought him to Athens.  In light of this event a change of outlook (metanoia) is demanded.  A day of reckoning has been appointed, and one Man (Jesus) has been chosen to judge the world.  That Jesus is the Appointed One has been proven by His being raised from the dead. 

            Now Paul may have wanted to say more but this seems to be as far as he got.  It may be noted here that by referring to Jesus as “ordained” (horizo) Paul has included the concept of Him being God’s anointed.  Paul has moved from creation to judgment in a few verses.  Since God is controlling history, this means that the world is on a teleological (purposeful) and eschatological trajectory. 

[1] This is not to say that what the apostle declares is without real value for speaking to atheists. 

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, 357.

[3] See especially Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980.  This work really needs to be republished. 

[4] Paul also quotes from Epimenides in Titus 1:12.  In fact he cites the same quatrain!

[5] See also Acts 14:15-17.

Covenant Connections in Paul (5)

Part Four

Paul, the Law, and the New Covenant

            It all comes down to this: the saint who is under the New covenant in Christ is not under the old covenant.  The reason is twofold.  Firstly, Paul, in agreement with Jesus’ earlier statement in Matthew 5:17-20, declares that faith in Christ does not void the law but rather establishes it in the act of keeping it for us (Rom. 3:31).[1]  My second reason comes as a logical consequence of my insistence that Christ embodies the New covenant, and that is that right relationship to Christ by faith necessarily includes entrance into New covenant status for the saint.  And one cannot be a party to two conflicting covenants, one dealing with ‘works’, the other dealing with pure grace.

            For those who hold that the New covenant is restricted to future Israel, or even for those who believe that the Church somehow has some sort of tangential relationship to the New covenant, they cannot point to covenant transference as a major reason for the saint not being under the Law, but they can point to the fact that Christ has rendered moot the requirements of the Law in terms of righteousness.  The NT is clear on this issue.  Christ came “to redeem those who were under the Law” (Gal. 4:5).  Henceforth, a person who is redeemed from being under the Law must now perforce no longer be under the Law.  The Law as an external standard has absolutely no authority over the Christian (e.g., Gal. 2:16, 19; 3:1-3, 11-12).      

            But then we must ask about the relationship of the saint to the Law, for it is plain to see that one exists for Paul still appeals to it on occasion (e.g., with women keeping silent in the assembly – 1 Cor. 14:34).  If the Law is not operative in some sense now how can Paul say that “every mouth will be stopped, and all the world will be guilty before God” – the standard being God’s Law (Rom. 3:19)?  And what is Paul doing in Romans 13:9?

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet, “and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  

             Romans 13:8-10 can you see how Paul enjoins Christian love by referring to the Law!  This is because the Ten Commandments (well, nine of them[2]) are divine disclosures of ethical norms based on the attributes of God.  If it is alright foe an apostle to base moral teaching on the Law, then it must be okay to include the Law as a standard for Christian conduct.[3]  But I must immediately qualify the statement.  First, these commandments reflect God’s own character (e.g., He is truthful, just, faithful, etc.), and as such they possess normative moral authority over a Christian.  Thus, if one is to be “conformed to the image of Christ” he will be conformed more and more to the Decalogue.  This is important to notice since the Law cannot regulate behavior as a “rule of faith.” 

            If we examine Romans 6, we come across a most important question: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”  If we return Paul’s strong negative answer, then the question for the Christian ethicist is, “Well then, what ought we to do?”  How do we explicate a passage like Romans 6:11-19 for the people of God?  This involves us in the setting forth of a positive ethics.  We know Who the standard is (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:14), and we know that the Commandments, correctly understood, point to His moral perfection.  Therefore, we may use the law lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8), as Paul does, to “adjust” our conduct accordingly.  This is just to say that the normativity of the Ten Commandments (minus the 4th) derives from their universal application.[4] 

            Think of another example: The Bible tells us not to bear false witness (Exod. 20:16; Rom. 11:9).  This is a NT use of the Eighth Commandment which some say they are not obliged to obey in any sense – since the law is not a norm for Christians.  But if one does not hold themselves to be accountable to this commandment – even though it is in a NT epistle written to Jews and Gentiles – they need not trouble themselves on this point.  However, this leaves them on the horns of a dilemma.  If a person believes they are not commanded to tell the truth; that is, if they believe “you shall not lie or bear false witness” is not an authoritative command to them because, 1. they are a Gentile, and 2. they are sanctified by faith alone; then clearly, they can lie with impunity.  If the rejoinder comes back that Christians are under the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), I reply that that law is Love (e.g., Rom. 13:8, 10). 

            Let us compare two Pauline passages to further elucidate my point:

Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. – 1 Corinthians 7:19.

            For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:4. 

            In the 1 Corinthians verse “the commandments of God” surely refer to the Law in some way, and that way is set in opposition to the cultic requirements of the Law as seen in circumcision.  This means that Paul is offsetting one aspect of the Law with another.  The first aspect involves the universal ethics entailed in the Ten Commandments (minus the 4th), while the second aspect is the cultic-ethnic aspect tied to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.  This does not mean that it is okay to divide the Law up into moral, cultic, and ceremonial pieces.  For example, the Fourth Commandment is ethnocentric and concerns Israel just like circumcision.  But it is nevertheless true to say that while the rule of male circumcision is for Jews, and is therefore not universal, the rule concerning idolatry is for all God’s worshipers.  Hence, in 1 Corinthians 7:19 “the commandments of God” have to do with the universal and unchangeable realities which reflect God’s majesty and character and ergo are fully in force for Christians, even if they are not in themselves a means of justification.  The commandments reflect the character of God and are normative for the saint on that basis!  In Romans 10:4 where justification of the sinner is at issue (Rom. 10:3, 5) Christ is the telos; the goal of the Law is achieved in Him.

             These admonitions from Paul (and others such as in Eph. 1-5:21 and 1 Thess. 4:1-7) can all be subsumed within the Ten Commandments as expounded by writers like Jochen Douma and John Frame (again, minus the Sabbath command).[5]  A person who will not be ethically accountable to the Ten Commandments cannot, without serious contradiction, consider themselves obligated to obey Paul’s injunctions either.  They are of one fabric.

            In summary, the law is not a rule of life for the Christian.  The Christian is not “under the law” in that sense.  Moreover, because of the Christian’s involvement in the New covenant in Christ he cannot be “under the law” as a rule of life; Christ having lived that life.  But the Christian should realize that it is always wrong to have other gods, or to dishonor God’s name, or to commit adultery or steal.  These are universal ethical norms because they reflect the character of God Himself, and so stamp a moral imperative upon human beings at all times and in all places.  This is how the Apostle can refer believers to them while teaching us that “we are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14). 

[1] See e.g., Ronald E. Diprose, “A Theology of the New Covenant: The Foundations of New Testament Theology,” EMJ 017:1 (Summer 2008), 60.    

[2] The Fourth Commandment is never repeated in the NT.  In fact, it is directly contradicted in Romans 14:5-6. 

[3] Look, for instance, at Ephesians 6:1-3.  See how the Apostle uses the Sixth Commandment to the normative force of his injunction for children to obey their parents. 

[4] In normal circumstances.  I shall not enter into the debate about whether for instance lying to protect an innocent life is affected. In such circumstances I believe one is faced with a situation where it is impossible to treat the subjects as ends in themselves (i.e., as the Golden Rule commands) and one must choose the most righteous “means to an end.” For more on this see Robert Kane, Through the Moral Maze. Armonk, NY: North Castle Books, 1996. 

[5] Jochen Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, Philipsburg, PA: P&R, 1996.  This is the best treatment of the Decalogue in my opinion.  See also John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, Philipsburg, PA: P&R, 2008.     

Covenant Connections in Paul (4)

Part Three

Assessing the Argument for Restricting the New Covenant to Israel  

            J. Dwight Pentecost is a respected Dispensational scholar who wrote a fine book entitled Thy Kingdom Come.[1]  In this work he covers the New covenant in on pages 164 to 177.  The main passages Pentecost cites as referring to the New covenant are Isa. 61:8; Jer. 31:31-34; 32:37-42; Ezek. 16:60-62; 36:24-32; and 37:26.  He believes that the New covenant was made with Israel alone.[2]  He gives several reasons for his position.  The first is that the New covenant was said to be made with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31; Heb. 8:8).[3]  The second reason for restricting the New covenant to Israel is that “it must of necessity be made with the same people with whom the original Mosaic Covenant had been made.”[4]  Thirdly, Israel will not receive the benefits of the New covenant until the second coming.[5]  I have the utmost respect for Dr. Pentecost and have personally much to thank him for, but I do not think any of these reasons are decisive.

            It is true that Jeremiah (and the author of Hebrews) limits his New covenant prophecy to Israel and Judah, and that is because in that OT setting Yahweh was referring to them.  But that fact does not mean that other passages do not include the Gentiles.  Pentecost’s selective choice of New covenant passages look cherry-picked, for many interpreters, Dispensationalists among them, identify as New covenant texts those that include Gentiles within them.[6]  There are many other passages which, although they do not name the covenant as the New covenant, are rightly considered to be important OT New covenant passages.  These include e.g., Deut. 30:1-6; Isa. 32:9-20; 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 52:10-53:12; 55:3; 59:15b-21; 61:8; Jer. 32:36:44; Ezek. 16:53-63; 36:22-38; 37:21-28; Hos. 2:18-20; Joel 2:28–3:8; Mic. 7:18-20; Zech. 9:10; and 12:6-14.  These passages contain many of the same elements which within Pentecost’s group of texts mentioned above, but some of them bring the Gentiles into the picture. 

            The next reason for restricting the New covenant to Israel is that it must be coextensive with the “old” Mosaic covenant.  But this does not follow, for if Yahweh were to reach out to the nations in the OT, He would have had to do it through the Law.  There would be no other conceivable way to do it.  But that would fail.  Ergo, if the Gentiles are to be saved it must be through a New covenant.  Since the New covenant is in Christ’s blood, and it is that blood that gives all sinners access to the grace of God (Acts 20:28; Rom. 3:24-25; Eph. 1:7; 2:13), there appears to be a major disconnect with those who wish to deny the Gentiles entry into the New covenant.  And this only gets intensified once 1 Corinthians 11:25 and 2 Corinthians 3:6 are recalled. 

            As for the third reason, that Israel will not benefit from the New covenant until the second coming, it is readily granted.  But what difference does that make?  If salvation going out to the Gentiles is one way “to provoke [Israel] to jealousy” (Rom. 11:11), then the Gentiles entering into the benefits of the New covenant before the nation of Israel would be a good way to do just that.         

A major problem here to my mind is that Pentecost has not perceived that the New covenant is the salvation covenant – there is no other!  Further, he has not sufficiently understood the affinity of the New covenant with the person of Jesus Christ.  Finally, although he cites them, he does not engage with either 2 Corinthians 3:6 or 1 Corinthians 11:25.  His arguments look artificial in light of these considerations.    

            To repeat; the question that arises is whether those passages alone refer to the New covenant or whether there are other very similar texts that have been omitted solely because they make reference to the Gentiles.  I have already been at pains to assert that the New covenant is the salvation covenant.  None of the other covenants deal with soteriological matters.  In Volume One of this work I wrote,

            I believe that if we allow redemption passages like Isaiah 49:6; 54:5; 66:19; Micah 4:2; Zechariah 8:7-8, 20-23; Malachi 3:12 to be New covenant passages, just as those we have listed above (e.g. Deut. 30:1-8) then we simply cannot restrict the New covenant to Israel. Surely the smiting and expanding stone of Daniel 2:35 and 44, and the “Son of Man” character of Daniel 7:13-14 presuppose salvation among the nations? As I have tried to demonstrate in my comments on Isaiah 42 and 49,19 the Servant who is made a covenant is Christ, and He is made a covenant of salvation. In Isaiah 49:6-8 the One who saves Israel and the nations and who is made a covenant cannot be a covenant of salvation only to Israel, while the nations are saved in a different way.[7]

            Another less delicate way of saying this is that I believe Dispensationalists especially, since they so adamantly advocate for a literal hermeneutic, need to reevaluate the New covenant passages in both Testaments.  Jeremiah 31:31-34 has been allowed to blinker many fine Dispensational interpreters into assigning the New covenant to Israel alone.  My plea is that they would come to realize that the main ingredient in the New covenant is salvation, or more broadly, reconciliation in the form of redemption and restoration.  Everything else that is purported to be found in the New covenant is in actuality the several aspects of the other unilateral covenants of God; the promises which have been revived because of the transforming power of Christ, which will come to fruition in a literal way by passing through the New covenant in Him. 

[1] J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come: Tracing God’s Kingdom Program and Covenant Promises Throughout History, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995.  A more recent book with several contributors who deny any relation of the New covenant to the church is An Introduction to the New Covenant, edited by Christopher Cone, Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2013.  The book is a sterling effort by good men, but it fails to convince.     

[2] Ibid, 173.

[3] Ibid, 171.

[4] Ibid, 172.

[5] Ibid, 172-173.

[6] See Appendix…”The Terms of the New Covenant and Its Parties.”  By “terms” I mean those things that God promised in New covenant texts; specifically, those promises that were not already covered by the oaths of the other unconditional covenants. 

[7] Paul Martin Henebury, The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 273.

Covenant Connections in Paul (3)

This series is from the first draft of my book ‘The Words of the Covenant: New Testament Continuation.

Volume One on Old Testament Expectation is already available.

Part Two

Another Pauline New Covenant Text

We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain.  For He says:

“In an acceptable time I have heard you,
And in the day of salvation I have helped you.”

Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. – 2 Corinthians 6:1-2.

            The OT passage that Paul is quoting is Isaiah 49:8.  Here is the original passage:

Thus says the LORD:

“In an acceptable time I have heard You,
And in the day of salvation I have helped You;
I will preserve You and give You
As a covenant to the people,
To restore the earth,
To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages…”

            This passage is of a similar nature to 2 Corinthians 3:6.  Paul refers to himself and his coworkers with a New covenant reference.  Isaiah 49:8 is a familiar verse to readers of Volume One.  It includes a reference to the Servant (Messiah) as “a covenant to the people.”  The apostle does not quote the phrase, but it is safe to say he was aware of it.  Is this a mere coincidence?  Hardly.  Schnabel has drawn attention to Paul’s habit of reaching for Isaiah’s Servant Songs for his self-understanding of his mission.  In fact, I believe Schnabel is right when he says that the apostle saw himself as fulfilling the work of the Servant of the Lord.[1]  This can be seen in Paul’s speech in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:46-47 where he quotes from Isaiah 49:6 and applies it to his ongoing work among the Gentiles.  As envoys of Jesus Paul and his coworkers are extending the Servant’s mission.  We can readily appreciate the link if we allow that Jesus the Servant is made a covenant of salvation (Isa. 49:8) and we connect this with Paul’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that they were “ministers of the new covenant.” 

Again, in Acts 26:16-18 Schnabel points to the allusion to Isaiah 42:6-7 and 21.[2]  As Isaiah 42:6 also refers to the Servant as “a covenant to the people” the evidence that Paul saw his work in strongly covenantal ways is beginning to stack up.  If Isaiah 42 and 49 portray Messiah as the covenant Servant of Yahweh and Paul is himself seeing his ministry as an extension of the Servant’s work then the “Apostle to the Gentiles” is doing covenant work in the Church! 

It takes just a little fitting of the pieces together to arrive at the conclusion that Paul clearly understood his mission to the Gentiles in New covenant terms.  Hence, in 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 we can infer his meaning as “Today is salvation offered to you Gentiles through Christ the Servant, through whom God has made the [New] covenant with those who believe in Him.”[3]  What ought not be missed here, as in all Paul’s letters, is how covernance lies behind his thought.                  

Paul’s Allegory in Galatians 4

            Paul’s teaching at the end of Galatians 4 is one of the more tricky parts of his correspondence.  It is well to print the text in full:

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.  But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. 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. 

For it is written:

“Rejoice, O barren,
You who do not bear!
Break forth and shout,
You who are not in labor!
For the desolate has many more children
Than she who has a husband.”

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.  But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.  Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.”  So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free. – Galatians 4:21-31.

            The fact that Paul wrote this to a group of churches so early on in his ministry demonstrates the level of theological instruction within these churches.  Here the apostle resorts to allegory (which is unusual) to get across a point about the “two covenants”, namely the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant that we saw in 2 Corinthians 3.  He begins with a question: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?”  The point here then is whether or not it is wise to “desire to be under the law (i.e., the old covenant).  The allegory is about Ishmael and Isaac, sons of Abraham by Hagar and Sarah respectively.  Paul then links the first to the Law at Sinai, which is then connected to “Jerusalem which now is,” and on the other hand is Isaac, who is related to the New covenant in Christ, that is, “the Jerusalem above.”  Paul says we Christians “are children of promise” and are free (from the old covenant).  His whole argument is how the New covenant of which he is a minister, and in which we are parties, has dispensed life and freedom to us in Christ.[4] 

[1] See Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church, Volume Two, 942-944. 

[2] Ibid, 943.

[3] Schnabel does not make the connection with the New covenant that I am making.  Nevertheless, I think it is hard to evade once it is pointed out.  Indeed, I am sure that he would hold the view that Paul was a New covenant emissary to the Gentiles.

[4] I fully realize that some good people will claim that I have run off the rails in saying that Christians are parties to the New covenant, but this does look exactly like what Paul is saying, and I must also say that the counter explanations that I have come across look like excruciating circumlocutions of the plain arguments Paul is presenting, both in these passages and elsewhere.  

Covenant Connections in Paul (2)

Part One

Paul’s Understanding of God’s Covenants

            Let me begin by again stating that the Apostle Paul saw himself as an ambassador of the New covenant. (2 Cor. 3:5).  Even though he rarely refers to it by name, it has become clear to many scholars that Paul’s theology is steeped in the New covenant.[1]   In the passages I cited above we can see this.  And it is true to say that without this comprehension of his mission Paul’s theology is difficult to pull together.  When one thinks of the matter-of-factness with which he deals with the Church, his future hopes for the nation of Israel, and his characterization of the OT Law as existing without the provision of grace, the New covenant work of God in Christ brings it all into reasonable clarity.  The key Pauline phrase “in Christ” means “in the New covenant.”  The Christian is in that blood bond as well as mystically in Jesus through the Spirit.  This qualifying distinction is all-important for Pauline thought about law and grace.    

            If we return to the three passages above, we can see this.  In Galatians 3:17 he says, “the law…cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect.”  What is this “covenant” that is said to be “confirmed” in Christ?  It is of course the covenant with Abraham that he has introduced in Galatians 3:5-9, and 14.  Now the Abrahamic covenant has three branches to it; the promise of literal descendants to through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the promise of a homeland, and finally that through Abraham all the families of the earth would be blessed.  It is crucial that we get the proper part of the covenant right.  Paul is not talking here about either the physical seed or the land promises.  He is focused on the third branch; the blessing upon the nations.[2]  The blessings of this third branch of the covenant are said to be “in Christ.” (Gal. 3:14, 17). 

            What we have here is Gentile Christians being told that they are children of Abraham through the promise that “all the families of the earth would be blessed.”  He is not saying that Gentiles have entitlement to the other two parts of the covenant. 

            If we now move on to 2 Corinthians 3 we bring in the New covenant.  Paul begins this great epistle by speaking about suffering and the consolation of God (2 Cor. 1:3-11), and then refers to what he calls “the day of the Lord Jesus” (2 Cor. 1:14), by which he seems to point to the judgment seat of Christ. 

            The opening two chapters of 2 Corinthians are quite self-referential, with the apostle saying much about his circumstances and his attitude to the ministry.  In chapter 3 he turns this focus on afflictions to appeal to the church at Corinth concerning his credentials as an apostle.  The Spirit of God has made His mark in them (2 Cor. 3:3), and it is the same Spirit who enables Paul and his helpers to be “ministers of the new covenant.” (2 Cor. 3:6).  Paul’s New covenant ministry is called “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 8!    Hence Paul’s contrast of the “old covenant” (palaios diathekes)[3] with the New covenant in the second half of the chapter makes perfect sense.  It also shows how deeply the theme of covernance lay behind his thought.   

Is the New Covenant For The Church?

            Who cannot see the continuity and semblance of thought here?  The Holy Spirit is the cause both of the new life of the Corinthian Christians and of the ministry of the New covenant to them!  If, as some insist upon, the apostle did not believe the New Covenant was for the Gentiles, then why on earth did he tell them he was ministering it?  Why speak of it to them?  And supposing his “New covenant ministry” was another ministry than the one Paul had in Corinth, why did he draw so close a connection between his non-covenantal Corinthian ministry to them and his supposed “other” ministry (i.e., of the New covenant)?.[4]  One would only minister the New Covenant to the party involved.  With all due respect to those who wish to snip off “New covenant” from Paul’s ministry as Apostle to the Gentiles this beggar’s belief!  What has happened to the “plain sense”?  Pray, what is the difference in the context between what Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 3 (cf. 2 Cor. 3:9) and “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 6?  If Paul wished to create befuddlement in the minds of his Corinthian readers, inserting the New covenant into a letter which had nothing to do with it would certainly be going about it the right way![5]

But it could be argued (and has been) that all Paul is doing in 2 Corinthians 3:6 is drawing a kind of parallel.  The argument goes that “ministers of the new covenant” (diakonous kainēs diathēkēs) does not in fact mean that Paul and his companions are actually ministering the New Covenant, only that their ministry resembles the future New Covenant dispensation.  I struggle a bit here.  For the NC work of the Spirit at the second advent is a complete work resulting in complete obedience (e.g., Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:25-27; Zeph. 3:13), which is quite unlike what we experience today.  Still, if that is what Paul is doing one has to ask in interrogative tones, “Why even say such a thing?”  How is the argument helped by dropping a “by the way, our ministry is sort of like what the NC ministry will be like” in at verse 6?  Why make a comparison of covenants here at all?  It surely looks like Paul views “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8) as synonymous with his present work “as [a] minister of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” two verses earlier.  And even if the definite article is missing so that it actually reads “a new covenant” in verse 6, how far does that take us?  The contrast is between the Mosaic covenant and some covenant – a covenant involving the Spirit’s gift of new life.  Which covenant could that be?  The Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants do not include the Spirit’s saving action in their terms.  The answer is staring us in the face: the New Covenant.[6]

[1] See for example, Brant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, John A. Kincaid, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019.  James P. Ware, Paul’s Theology in Context, esp. 104-110.  

[2] The same thing is to be seen in Romans 4. 

[3] I realize that many take this phrase in 2 Cor. 3:14 to mean the Old Testament, but this spoils the contrast.  The correct translation of diatheke in that place is “covenant” not “testament.”  See e.g., NASB, ESV, NET.

[4] Or even of some eschatological ministry of which he would not be a part?

[5]I feel I need to offer the reader my apology for that last paragraph.  

[6] Cf. David K. Lowery, “2 Corinthians,” in BKCNT, edited by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, Victor Books, 1997, 560-561.

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.