The Enigmatic Book of Hebrews (Pt. 1)

This piece and its follow ups are taken from my upcoming book (DV) ‘The Words of the Covenant, Volume 2: New Testament Continuation.’

Although it contains many precious and ascertainable truths, the epistle to the Hebrews is the most elusive book in the NT.  For such a weighty NT book to be anonymous is surprising.  However, that aside, what I want to do in my treatment of this letter (or perhaps it is better to call it a sermon) is to first try to set out its basic emphases and its Christian teaching.  After that I want to look at how the author incorporates the covenants.  Finally, and somewhat controversially, I will ask about the distinctively Jewish flavor of Hebrews before facing the famous warning passages head-on and asking whether they can be reconciled with Pauline theology.[1]

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am certainly not saying that the NT contradicts itself.  What I am saying is that when one permits each NT author to say what he says sometimes it becomes necessary to ensure that one is not trying to fit square pegs into round holes.  This is apparent when the Gospels are compared to Paul’s epistles; say when Matthew 10 is compared with Galatians 3, or when John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ cross-less and resurrection-less “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23. Cf. Matt. 3:2) is examined alongside of Paul’s gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.  The reader must understand the contextual differences if he is not to run into difficulty with one or both of these texts.  If he does not look well to what he is doing, he will find that he will be forced to add Pauline doctrine into the early chapters of the Gospels in order to fill out John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ messages.  But once that is done, he will have to stay quiet about the ignorance of the disciples in Mark 9:31-32; 16:14 and Luke 18:31-34 (cf. John 2:19-22),[2] or the fact that the Holy Spirit was not given to believers in Jesus until after His ascension (Jn. 7:37-39).  We even run into this phenomenon in the transitional book of Acts where in Acts 2 baptism seems necessary in order for the Spirit to be received (Acts 2:38).[3]  This doesn’t sit well with Paul’s distancing of baptism from the essence of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:17. 

In a similar way we must face anomalies between Paul and the author of Hebrews.  The author of Hebrews writes in a fashion much more consistent with classical standards of the time.  His arguments are very carefully structured and precise, not like the occasional nature of Paul’s correspondence with their frequent digressions.  Hebrews is, in the words of Harold Attridge,

the most elegant and sophisticated, and perhaps the most enigmatic, text of first-century Christianity…Its argumentation is subtle; its language refined; its imagery rich and evocative.[4]  

Whoever wrote this work knew what they wanted to say and how to say it.  Another difference from Paul is to be seen, for example, when the apostle’s doctrine of eternal security is set alongside Hebrews’ warning passages.  I will have to do some explaining of the various approaches to these passages in the literature, but at the risk of sounding a little high-minded none of them in my opinion adequately deal with all the details found in the paraenesis (i.e., warning, exhortation) passages, especially the major ones in Hebrews 2:1-4; 3:7-19; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39, and 12:14-29.  As we will see, these warnings go way beyond divine saber-rattling.

Hebrews is notable for its “constant alternation of instructional and hortatory passages”[5] and its negation of the cultic aspects of the Mosaic covenant.[6]  The warning passages play a major role in the exhortatory power of the message.  There is a “rest” to enter (Heb. 4); a future that is as yet open-ended in the sense that many of the promises are still ahead. 

Why “to the Hebrews”?

          Without entering into the text-critical questions surrounding the book, we should note its title (which is found in the Greek manuscripts).  What is one to make of this post-ascension (circa 64 A.D.) work being directed to “the Hebrews” and not to Christians generally?  I grant that the vast majority of scholars hold that “Hebrews” is not its title.  I do not believe that.  To think that an ancient document like this began life without a title is too much for me to swallow.  The book has always been known as “Hebrews” and not as anything else.  Besides, the contents of the work is plainly Jew-focused.  We are all aware of the contrasts in the epistle between the “old [Mosaic] covenant” and the “New covenant” (e.g., Heb. 9:15), and between the Levite High Priesthood and the Melchizedekian High Priesthood (Heb. 7).  But there is also a contrast between “Mount Sinai” and “Mount Zion” (Heb. 12:18-24), and there is mention of entering into rest and its comparison with the Canaanite conquest (Heb. 3:18, 4:1-11), and of the Sabbath (Heb. 4:4); the contrast between the two “houses”; those of Moses and Jesus (Heb. 3:1-6).  Then there are the two sanctuaries (Heb. 8:2, 5), and the two High Priestly sacrifices (Heb. 9:6-28).  When one sits back and really reflects on these things the Israelite flavor of the book comes into prominence and needs to be taken seriously.         

Stranger still, what about those continuous warning passages scattered throughout the book?  Although many attempts have been made to dampen the wording, none of them are successful.  Why such stark language about “an evil heart of unbelief” causing a fissure between them and God?  Is it possible for a true Christian to depart “from the living God” (Heb. 3:12)?  How is it that a person can find themselves in a position where there is “no place for repentance” (Heb 12:17)?  The nature of Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-31 needs to be attended to with eyes that will see what the writer is really saying and not through the eyes of Paul.  The author of Hebrews has been shown to leave nothing to chance, but to be a very deliberate and skillful communicator.  Let the chips fall where they may, both authors are equally inspired, and neither ought to be read through the other.

          Mention of the author of Hebrews, whoever he may be, brings up another puzzle:  this writer has left us a complex and carefully crafted piece of work in good Greek and with a worked out structural dynamic.  He knows what he wants to say, and he says it.  The Catholic scholar Albert Vanhoye, who is one of the go-to scholars on the book, stated, “the author of the Epistle has structured his work with great care and has made use of fixed literary devices to indicate what he has done.”[7]  This intentionality of the author has to be kept in the mind of the reader of his book as it is read.  If we won’t face that fact, then we cannot say that we have done him justice; nor indeed the Holy Spirit who inspired the words.

Then there is the particular “flavor” of the book.  It is more “Jewish” than it is ecclesial, more homiletical than epistolary, more parenetic or hortatory than didactic.  Decker agrees with Vanhoye, Guthrie, and Lane that the main thrust of the book is hortatory (that is, it is an extended exhortation).  He writes:

“This means that the exhortations (warning passages) are the primary thrust of the book.  The expository sections serve as the doctrinal foundations for those warnings.”[8]

Thus, the difficulties with which the Christian interpreter is presented by the warning passages must be faced head-on, not folded awkwardly to fit onto a Pauline shelf. 

But also, Hebrews is prophetic.  As I hope to show, it would not be out of place (aside from the obvious teaching about Jesus) settling in with one of the Minor Prophets with its repeated rallying calls for perseverance and its eschatological bent.

For these reasons I have called the book an enigma.  There is a way into it that will not be found through Pauline assumptions, even if there are many affinities in the doctrine of the two authors.  Like in most things, the issue is not the similarities but in the differences.  As always, the devil is in the details.  Therefore, as uncomfortable as it may be to stare at the chapters without calling Paul in to help, I shall be looking at Hebrews on its own as I expound the main covenantal teaching of the letter.

[1] Let me state that I am aware of the work of Ben Witherington III  and his essay “The Influence of Galatians on Hebrews,” New Testament Studies, Vol. 37, 1 (Jan. 1991), 146-152.  Interesting as this paper is, it does not materially impact my discussion here. 

[2] In Matthew 16:20 Jesus “commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.”  That would have made preaching Paul’s Gospel pretty hard to say the least. 

[3] I appreciate the efforts of those who wish to say that the Spirit is given upon repentance and baptism is included with repentance, but the verse does imply that “remission of sins” was not offered without baptism.    

[4] Harold W. Attridge, Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philadelphia, Hermeneia, Fortress, 1989, 1.

[5] Peter Stuhlmacher, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, 528.

[6] It does not negate the moral aspects. 

[7] Rodney J. Decker, “The Intentional Structure of Hebrews,” in Journal of Ministry and Theology, 04:2 (Fall, 2000), 98.  As a good introduction to these matters, I recommend Decker’s article.  As with all Decker’s work it maintains high standards of scholarship with faithful adherence to Scripture.  

[8] Ibid, 104.

Covenant Connections in Paul (11)

Part Ten

The Olive Tree Metaphor in Romans 11

          Some passages of Scripture have suffered under the myosis of its interpreters more than most.  At the forefront of these abused passages is surely Romans 11:16-29.  For sure, there is a bit of deciphering of Paul’s language to do, but all in all I think the apostle’s thrust is easy to grasp.  The problem with so many interpretations of the verses, especially by those who like to employ the NT to interpret the OT, is that they tend to read their theology into the passage while ignoring the details.  Here is one example:

Paul’s metaphor of the two olive trees (Rom. 11:16-24) also reflects this same perception: olive shoots from a wild olive tree, that is, Gentiles, are being grafted into the cultivated olive tree, that is, Israel, from which latter tree many natural branches, that is, Jews, had been broken off. This tree, Paul says, has a “holy root” (the patriarchs; see Rom. 11:28). Clearly, Paul envisions saved Gentile Christians as “grafted shoots” in the true “Israel of faith.[1]

Perhaps a good approach to the Olive Tree passage is to break them down into manageable portions.

For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.  And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. – Romans 11:16-18.

          Paul mixes his metaphors in verse 16.  The first figure links the quality of the “lump” (or whole dough) to the quality of its firstfruits (or sample).  Then he turns to the root (rhiza i.e., of a tree – Matt. 3:10) and its branches.  The health of the branches will depend on the health of the root or stock of the tree.  Romans 11:17 refers to branches “broken off” from the tree (which by inference is a tended tree in a garden cf. Rom. 11:24). This refers to Israelites.[2]  Then it refers to “you, being a wild olive tree” being grafted in among them.  The “you” refers to Gentile Christians.  The kind of tree is now identified; the “Jewish” tree and the “wild” tree are olive trees, although it is only the wild branches of the wild olive tree that serve Paul’s purpose.  Notice also that the “root” is now “the root and fatness of the olive tree,” ergo, the roots and trunk.  The Gentiles are not to boast since they as branches are supported by the trunk (v.18). 

Then the apostle imagines a question (v.19):

          You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” 

To which he responds:

Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear.  For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.  Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness.  Otherwise you also will be cut off.  And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 

For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? – Romans 11:19-24.  

          Paul’s retort is that faith is the key to inclusion in the olive tree (“Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith.” – Rom. 11:20).  Therefore, as a group, the Gentiles must continue in belief because if they (as a group) don’t, they too will be broken off (Rom. 11:21-22).  Furthermore, God is able to graft the Jews back in again (Rom. 11:24).  Now this re-grafting of “Israel” is the predicted restoration of the nation under the auspices of the New covenant as will become clear.

Romans 11:24 signals the end of the Olive Tree metaphor, but it leaves unanswered the identity of the “root and fatness of the olive tree.”  What is it? It cannot be Israel because it is represented by the natural branches that remain (i.e., Christian Jews).[3]  It cannot be the Gentile Christians because they are represented by the wild branches.  It cannot be “the people of God” since they comprise the two kinds of branches, and such an interpretation stops the apostle’s argument prematurely.[4]  By reading slowly and carefully we can discount therefore any interpretation that equates the olive tree with either Israel or the church.

What else is left?  Let us keep reading:     

For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until [achri] the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.  And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:

“The Deliverer will come out of Zion,
And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;

For this is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”– Romans 11:25-27.

          Paul comes to the crux of his argument in these verses.  In Romans 11:25 he refers to a “mystery”, which is described as the partial blindness of (please take note) Israel until something called “the fullness of the Gentiles” has been consummated.  The preposition “until” (achri) is important here. It points to a change in direction or a terminous. This terminous must occur before Israel’s blindness departs. The term “mystery” (musterion) refers here to something that could not be discovered[5] from the OT since the Israel/Church relation is not found there. 

But what of “the fullness of the Gentiles”?  I and many others link this period to “the Times of the Gentiles” mentioned by Jesus in Luke’s eschatological discourse (Lk. 21:24 which see).  It is the final part of those “Times.” I will only say here that “the fullness of the Gentiles” as a phrase, fits logically into Paul’s argument about the coming restoration of Israel (see Rom. 11:1-2, 11-12, 15, 23-24, 28-29).  The “fullness of the Gentiles” is the termination of God’s mission to the Gentiles through the Church, after which He will again turn to His covenant nation.  Hence, in Romans 11:26a he declares, “And so all Israel will be saved.”

Now that the apostle has brought us around to the salvation of Israel, we should know that we are on New covenant ground.  As Williamson observes,

When covenant is next explicitly mentioned (Rom. 11:27) in this important discussion of Israel’s place in God’s plan of salvation, it is not the covenants generally, but the new covenant that is brought into focus.[6]

This is so because in Jeremiah 31:31-34 it is made clear that future Israel is to be saved via the New covenant.  But Paul does not go to Jeremiah 31 to establish his teaching.  Instead, he repairs to Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9 for support.[7]  The Isaiah 59 reference notably highlights the role of the Spirit coming upon the people (Isa. 59:21).  The link to Isaiah 27:9 is not as obvious, but that text too sits within a restoration context.  What is clear is that the “covenant” spoken of in Isaiah 59:21 and connected with the Spirit is the New covenant.  Williamson observes,    

When covenant is next explicitly mentioned (Rom. 11:27) in this important discussion of Israel’s place in God’s plan of salvation, it is not the covenants generally, but the new covenant that is brought into focus.[8]

          He is quite right.  Isaiah 59:20-21 (and 27:9) are New covenant passages, and in the Olive Tree illustration and its application in Romans 11 he rests the weight of his argument upon the New covenant. The New covenant is then the root and fatness of the tree, since it is the main subject of these verses and the only thing that is left to identify with the stock of the Olive Tree. Also, it is the only way of access to salvation (“When I take away their sins” – v. 27b).  And since Jesus Christ’s blood is the blood of the New covenant (1 Cor. 11:25), and He Himself mediates it (Heb. 9:15), this implies a messianic understanding of the Olive Tree.[9] 

          The passage continues,

Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers.  For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.  – Romans 11:28-29.

          I have included these verses because they contribute to the overall understanding of the apostle’s theme.  The “gospel” here is of course the one that Paul has been expounding in the epistle (e.g., Rom. 1:15-17; 2:16; 15:16-20).  Paul calls Israel “elect” on account of “the fathers.”  By this term Paul has in mind the Jewish saints of the Hebrew Bible: e.g., Acts 13:17; 1 Cor. 10:1 (the Exodus generation); Acts 24:14 (Moses and the Prophets); Acts 26:6-7; Rom. 9:5; 15:8 (the Patriarchs); Acts 28:25 (hearers of the Prophets).  In other words, the people of Israel are elect, although not all (Rom. 9:6). 

Paul is referring to the remnant who will compose “all Israel” (of Rom. 11:26a).[10]  Israel’s election is incomprehensible outside of the covenants that Yahweh made with them.  God remembers what He has sworn to do, and He will perform it because He has sworn it.  If that sentence verges on a tautology, I gladly keep it there to ward off any independent temptation to assert that God does not mean what He says.  Paul makes his feelings clear about the matter by emphatically affirming “the gifts and calling of God are (ametamelaytos)” or “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29); that is, “not to be repented of.”  God has not and will not change His mind about His covenants etc. (cf. Rom. 11:4-5; Gal. 3:17).  His saints ought to learn that lesson and interpret their Bibles accordingly.[11] 

          Paul speaks of Israel’s “calling” in Romans 11:29.  What is Israel’s calling?  Surely it is expressed in Exodus 19:5-6?  They are called to be “a special treasure to Me above all people.” (Exod. 19:5; Isa. 43:3-4; Zech. 2:8).  They are to be (re)married to Yahweh (see Hos. 2. Cf. Isa. 54:5-6).  This calling cannot be reconfigured and applied to the church as the “New Israel.”  At least not without bringing God’s words under suspicion, which is not an option. 

          The attentive reader of Romans 11 will see that the solution to this “reversal” problem is supplied by the apostle himself in Romans 11:12 and 15:

Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!… if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

          By “life from the dead” we are not to understand the resurrection, since that is secured by Christ not Israel.  Rather, because “the regeneration” as Jesus calls it in Matthew 19:28, starts in the environs of Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 2:2-4; Jer. 33:15-16; Zech. 14:8. Acts 1:11 with 3:21), Israel is the first place affected by this regeneration.  Hence, the “fullness” of Israel is nothing less than their becoming “the head and not the tail” (Deut. 28:14; Isa. 46:13; Zeph. 3:20).        

          The whole section (Romans 9 – 11) closes with Paul’s doxology extolling the wisdom of the divine plan for the ages.  When Romans 11:33 asks rhetorically, “ How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out?” it is not saying that God’s way of communicating with men is an unsolvable riddle, or that some secret interpretive key (maybe a specific kind of typology?) only recently uncovered now lies in the hands of a handful of knowing scholars.  It is an exclamation of the great and unfathomable wisdom of God from before the earth was formed, which is still operating and guiding history to its predetermined and preinterpreted telos.  It is praising the Creation Project.

[1] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Second Edition, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002, 526-527.

[2] In Paul’s time there were still a lot of Jews who made up the Church.  It serves his purpose therefore to say “some” of the natural branches were broken off.  In our day Gentiles overwhelmingly make up the majority of the Church.  That being the case we can rightly say that the “natural branches” (see v.24) represent the remnant of Israel (cf. v.26).  

[3] A recent work which promotes this view says, “Ethnic Israel have pulled away from theological Israel and the Gentiles have been called into Israel…” – Chris Bruno, Jared Compton, and Kevin McFadden, Biblical Theology According to the Apostles, 140. 

[4] As e.g., Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant, 110-111.

[5] Musterion does not always bear this meaning.  In Ephesians 5:32 it simply means something hard to comprehend.  CF. also Eph. 1:9.  

[6] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 189.

[7] See here Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, NIGNTC, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016, 898-900.  Also, W. S. Campbell, “Covenant and New Covenant,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993, 181. 

[8] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 189.  Walter Kaiser says that Romans 11:27 clearly references Jeremiah 31:31-34.  See Walter C. Kaiser, “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual and National,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, edited by John S. Feinberg, 302. 

[9] Some have argued that the root and trunk of the olive tree is the covenants (plural), but that is not where Paul lands.  Others insist that the Abrahamic covenant is indicated since there are provisions in it for Israel and the Church. But the Abrahamic covenant is not a salvation covenant.  Rather, it is a promissory covenant which relies on the saving work of God. No, the texts Paul cites refer to the New covenant.

[10] See the discussion in Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 252-256.

[11] A useful cautionary article here is Robert Dean, “A Critique of O. Palmer Robertson’s Interpretation of Romans 11,” available at

Covenant Connections in Paul (10)

Part Nine

Is the Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2:3?

             On a related note, some Dispensational writers have believed that the catching up of the saints is what is in view in 2 Thessalonians 2:3:

Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sinis revealed, the son of perdition.

          I shall revisit this text further on in my remarks about the future antichrist but will focus briefly on the term “falling away” (apostasia).  The word can occasionally refer to a physical separation.  However, this is definitely not its main meaning.  Hogg and Vine note that in the LXX the term has a negative connotation for rebellion or defection.[1]  But is it possible that Paul employs the word here in a positive sense to refer to the removal of the saints to “the air” as per 1 Thessalonians 4:17?  Personally, I think this is extremely doubtful.  In the first place, why would the apostle make use of the word apostasia when just a few months before he utilized the more precise term harpagesometha?  Reusing harpazo would be a clear reminder of what he had said in 1 Thessalonians 4 and would have been good pedagogy.  If one adds to this the fact that Paul had indicated that this “seizing” of the saints was a new teaching the switch from precision to ambiguity is even less comprehensible.  To me this ranks as a significant counterargument.

          More arguments against taking apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as the ‘rapture’ are simply replies to the several indecisive reasons given in its favor.  For instance, although apostasies have been commonplace in Church History it could well be that a marked falling away from sound doctrine worldwide will precede the revealing of the Man of Sin (Antichrist).  That fits just as well into the context than a rapture hypothesis (if not better – cf. Lk. 14:34).  Again, if it is said that 2 Thessalonians 3:1 refers to “the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him,” it begs the question to claim that the “coming” is pretribulational in that context.[2]  It is a non sequitur

          The fact of the matter is that a fool-proof exegetical presentation of a pretribulational (or any other) ‘rapture’ is not possible.  Yes, exegetical reasons for the different viewpoints can be put forth[3], but in reality, the passages are not plain enough to arrive at dogmatic conclusions about.  The best that can be argued for is an inference to the best explanation.[4]   

The Man of Sin and the Tribulation

           Paul is primarily a church theologian.  He mentions the hopes of Israel out of understandable concern for his people and for God’s solemn word vouchsafed to them.  He believes in the Remnant and that when their blindness is removed (Rom.11:25) God will save Israel.  But the OT predicts a time of upheaval called variously “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7) or “time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation.” (Dan. 12:1), after which Israel will be delivered (Jer. 30:7c; Dan. 12:1b).  If we add into this the prospect of the “little horn” of Daniel 7:21-22 and the self-exalting king of Daniel 11:36f., we can see that the OT has given us a time of tribulation that resembles Daniel’s descriptions (cf. Matt. 24:21-30), and which comes before the second advent of Jesus.  Putting the pieces of this jigsaw together it looks as though after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25) there will be a time of peril for Israel in which an evil protagonist who will “speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High” (Dan. 7:25), will have his time.  After this, the people whom he persecuted shall inherit the kingdom (Dan. 7:27). 

          The question before us is, does the apostle Paul refer to any of this in his letters?  The answer is yes, and it is surprisingly detailed.  For Paul’s take on this we must turn again to the Thessalonian correspondence.  Let us turn first to what he has to say about the mysterious “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2:

Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God…And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time.  For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. – 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, 6-8.

          Now the “Day” is “the day of Christ” in verse 2.  Before the day of Christ can happen, certain intervening events have to occur.  Something called “the falling away” (apostasia) must happen.  As we have seen, some pretribulationists believe that this apostasia is the rapture.  I personally do not.  I retain the view that this “falling away” is the defection of the visible church from Christ and His Truth.  They may maintain confessional items like the deity of Christ and justification by faith, but the “hard content” (e.g., sin, sanctification, dying to self, etc.) is not pressed and a self-centered entertainment-based form of teaching replaces it, thereby preaching a false Jesus and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:4).

          The next intervening event is the appearance of “the man of sin,” who is given another name, “son of perdition.”  This individual matches the character of the “little horn” in Daniel 7 and brings to mind John’s depiction of “the beast” in Revelation 13.  The fact that Paul simply refers to this person as “the man of sin” suggests that he expects his audience to know who he is referring to.  This is the coming great foe of Israel who goes by many names in Scripture[5].  Daniel calls him the “little horn” (Dan. 7:24-27), the willful king (Dan. 11:36), while Zechariah speaks of him as “the worthless shepherd” in Zechariah 11:15-17.[6]  Paul’s designation, “the man of sin” is most appropriate therefore.[7]  But Paul adds another name, “the son of perdition (apoleia)”, which is the exact same name that Jesus called Judas Iscariot in His prayer to the Father in John 17:12! 

          Some interpreters have thought that the two names denote the two halves of the seven-year career of the Antichrist (of which more later).  But that is mere speculation.  The structure of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 does not encourage such a division.  The “man of sin (hamartia – Majority Text) or “lawlessness” (anomia – Nestle-Aland/Tyndale House Text) appears to be the same one who “exalts himself” and sits in God’s temple proclaiming himself a deity (2 Thess. 2:4).  The fact that he is given another name (hardly unusual in the Bible) should not carry any meaning beyond what is clearly stated.

          The phrase that links this man most clearly to the sinful ruler of Daniel is of course his over-inflated ego.  Daniel says that the coming persecutor will “speak pompous words against the Most High” (Dan. 9:25a), and (as the willful king) “shall exalt and magnify himself above every god, shall speak blasphemies against the God of gods” (Dan. 11:36).  According to Daniel 7:26-27 this person’s reign will be halted after “a time, times, and half a time” (i.e., three and a half years),[8] and the kingdom of peace is ushered in.  For Paul, the “man of sin/son of perdition” will oppose God and “sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” (2 Thess. 2:4). 

          What this surely means, if it means anything, is that at some time right before the Kingdom of God comes to earth a malevolent ruler will arise who will secure great power over at least the “Biblical World” and quite possible over the whole world.  He will be an intensely religious figure, but a very vocal blasphemer of Yahweh.  His hubris will be such that he will enter “the temple (naos) of God”, which for all the imaginative readings of our amillennialist friends cannot mean the church.[9]  The ecclesia as these writers very well know, is not a building one can sit in.  But the “man of sin” “sits” (intransitive verb) in the naos of God.  This denotes a temple structure, its holy place.  Is this a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem?  Very possibly.  From Jesus’ own warning in Matthew 24:15-16 we have seen that a temple is required for the “abomination of desolation” to be “set up” in.

          As startling as this is, we are confronted with a biblical truth that we should not shy away from.  A man of great wickedness will someday sit in a temple (probably in Jerusalem) and will proclaim himself to be God.  That naturally means that he will demand worship, for God can demand worship. 

          The passage goes on to refer to a “restrainer” who will be “taken out of the way” to allow this “man of sin” to be revealed “in his own (very particular) time.”  I believe this restrainer to be the Holy Spirit of God in His role within the church.  I cannot prove that, but I think it is the most natural understanding (who or what else could it be?).[10]  The restraining influence is what keeps in check “the mystery of lawlessness” which has been operating for nearly two millennia (2 Thess. 2:7).  Again, this fits the Spirit well.  The result of the restrainer’s “removal” is that this eschatological bogeyman can finally be revealed, and so, it seems, can the release of spectacular demonic powers (2 Thess. 2:9).  This is where the apostle has arrived in his warning: 

The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. – 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12.

          The reason for the great display of evil supernatural power is, naturally enough, deception.  This deception is worldwide and therefore very believable; unless a person has the light of Scripture to interpret it by.  And the Scripture only gives its light to those who love its truth, which the masses never have.  There is an indication that the truth is being put out there: “because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” (2 Thess. 2:10).  But the truth is rejected because of the lying signs and because they “had pleasure in unrighteousness.” (2 Thess.2:10).  As with so many cases where discernment is wanting, the problem is not that the truth is not attainable, but that it contradicts what everybody else believes.  What Paul calls “the lie” in verse 11 is not easy to divine right now, but it seems to me that a man proclaiming himself to be God and pointing to great demonstrations of power as proof would fit the bill nicely.   

[1] C. F. Hogg and W. E. Vine, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians, second edition, London: Pickering & Inglis, n.d., 246.  Likewise, Robert L. Thomas, “2 Thessalonians,” EBC, Vol. 11, 321. 

[2] A post-tribulationist could claim this verse as an important text for his view against the other views.  See Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973, 113-114.

[3] See, e.g., Paul Feinberg’s arguments for tereso ek in Revelation 3:10 indicating a pretrib rapture in The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational, by Richard Reiter, General editor, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984, 47-86. 

[4] See the articles on “Trying to Get the Rapture Right.”

[5] I shall give attention to this individual (the “Antichrist”) when we study Revelation 13. 

[6] Some writers believe that the “one who comes in his own name” in John 5:43 is a veiled reference to Antichrist.  For example, G. H. Pember, The Antichrist, Babylon, and the Coming of the Kingdom, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1888, 6.

[7] Reformed scholar Kim Riddlebarger believes that the label fits many individuals down through church history, but that it culminates in an end time villain.  He fits this into an amillennial framework.  See his The Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth About the Antichrist, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006, 13-14.

[8] See The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 311-312.  I shall come back to this expression later. 

[9] See, e.g., G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 200-203.

[10] Again, the wording seems to take for granted we know what he means.  Since the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost involved convicting the world “of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (Jn. 16:8), His removal from that particular role will have a negative effect upon the world.  It goes without saying that the Spirit of God can no more be absent the creation than the providence of God which He empowers.  

Covenant Connections in Paul (9)

Part Eight

The Transformation of Our Bodies

The mention of the transformation of our bodies calls to mind the mystery of 1 Corinthians 15:50-52:

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.  Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

The language of transformation is linked to the kingdom of God in this text.  Paul says that “flesh and blood” cannot inherit this kingdom – a kingdom that is in the future.  What does he mean by this?  This is to say that our present earthly frame is not prepared for the glories in heaven.  As Schreiner puts it, “The bodily flesh of this age is subject to weakness and death…our corruptible earthly body cannot enter the future kingdom.”[1] 

            The apostle tells us that we shall all be changed, that is, we shall become incorruptible and glorious.  And this transformation will happen in an instant.  It will occur “at the last trumpet” (1 Cor. 15:52).  I wish he had elaborated a little more on the trumpet!  Which “trump” is he referring to?  The book of Revelation refers to seven trumpets which are blown by angels, with the seventh recorded cryptically in Revelation 10:5-7 and finally blown in Revelation 11:15.  There is a sense of finality that comes with this blowing, but is this what Paul had in mind when he wrote about “the last trump” some forty years earlier?  I think this is doubtful.  Trumpets were used to get people’s attention and to summon them (e.g., Exod. 19:13, 16, 19; Lev. 25:9; Neh. 4:20).  Sometimes the trumpet raised the alarm (Joel 2:1; Amos 3:6; Zeph. 3:16).  Jesus Himself taught that a trumpet would be blown when the angels were sent to gather up the saints at his second coming (Matt. 24:30-31), which may be synonymous with the seventh trumpet of Revelation, although to me that appears doubtful.[2] 

            It seems better to think of “the last trumpet” as the final blast in a succession of trumpet calls which precede the transformation of our bodies, although there is no way of nailing it down more than that.  For Paul then the coming of Christ is the time of our appropriation of the glory of the resurrection that Christ has procured for us.  The next question that arises is whether 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 is connected with the “snatching up” (harpazo) described in 1 Thessalonians 4:12-18.  Here is the part of the passage which describes the “rapture:”

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.  For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. – 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17.

            I am approaching the text as neutrally as I can, which means that I am not as concerned with when it will occur but what will occur and its connection, if any, with the change described by Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. 

            The first thing that I have to point out is the rather obvious fact that this passage nowhere pinpoints the timing of the harpazo.  This is not the reason Paul wrote the words.  Some writers have referred to inscriptions on the tombs of famous men of the past where harpazo is used as a euphemism for death; thus, they were “snatched up” by death.[3]  That cannot be the meaning here because the living are contrasted with those who have “fallen asleep” and both will be caught up together (1 Thess. 4:15-17).  The link between this passage and 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 is the trumpet that is blown (1 Thess. 4:16).  At the blast of this trumpet things happen to the saints; they are transformed and glorified.  And this change is one reason why I believe the snatching up of the saints cannot be post-tribulational, for then who would go into the millennial kingdom, have children and grow old as per Isaiah 11, 65, and Zechariah 8?  Glorified people will not procreate nor age.  It therefore looks like the “rapture” of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and the corresponding transformation of 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 must occur before the second advent.  This brings the rapture back to either pre- or mid-tribulational or “prewrath.”  I will investigate the timing of this event later, but I do want to address one “pretrib” text which is occasionally used.                              

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, Downers Grove, IVP, 2001, 142.  “The resurrection will involve somatic existence, although not fleshly existence. ‘Flesh and blood,’ that is, our present fleshly bodies, cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50).” – George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983, 465.

[2] See the exposition of Revelation 11 later in this volume. 

[3] E.g., Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and the Hope of Glory, 112-113.

Covenant Connections in Paul (8)

Part Seven

The Return of Christ in Paul

            The earliest letters of Paul are the Epistle to the Galatians and the two Epistles to the Thessalonians (c. A.D. 48-50).  Every attentive reader knows that the theme of the second coming is found in every chapter but one of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.  The teaching also features strongly in 1 Corinthians 3 and 15; Philippians 3:20; the letter to Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy.  Different verbs are used for the event, but the same idea is in view.  To this we may add Romans 8:19.  These passages do not serve only as anticipations of a great event; they speak of the culmination of something.  (After this there is the Bema Seat – 2 Cor. 5:10). 

            If we take the Thessalonian Epistles as our starting point, we can see the different uses the apostle puts the doctrine of Christ’s second advent to.  First there is the aspect of patient waiting (1 Thess. 1:9-10).  The coming of Christ “delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:10).  What this wrath (orge) is we are not told.  It may be the wrath of the second coming or the “revealing” (apokalypsis) itself as per 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, or it may more generally be “the Day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:1-3, 9).  It may also denote the Tribulation if one allows that Paul might have had that in mind.

            Paul also relates the coming (parousia)[1] of Christ to our sanctification (1 Thess. 3:13; 5:23).  In 1 Thessalonians 2:19 he writes,

For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming (parousia)?

            As I understand the passage Paul is saying that the saint’s fellowship in the presence of the Lord will be ample reward for their endeavors, when they all participate in Christ’s “kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:14). 

            I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a little unusual amid the other references.  For one thing there seems to be a difference between 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and 5:1-2.  In the latter text the saints are well aware of the doctrine Paul is referring to, but in chapter 4 they seem to be being told something new (“I do not want you to be ignorant…”).  It seems best to look at this text separately therefore.

            Paul wrote about the return of Jesus as the great hope of the saint (Tit. 2:13).  But he also saw it as the great hope of the earth.  These two things are brought together in Romans 8 where he envisages a transformation of the saints that triggers environmental changes, thus bringing the believer’s hope into the realm of the larger Creation Project:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. – Romans 8:18-19.

            Here the apostle is contrasting the troubles of life with “the glory which shall be revealed in us.”  He personifies the created order as straining in expectation for something he calls “the revealing of the sons of God.” (Rom. 8:19).  So, Paul says that the humanity which in Adam originally came from the earth (Gen. 2:7), becomes the hope of the earth’s chances of regeneration. Creation’s regeneration hinges on the glorification of saved humanity.[2] 

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.  Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.  – Romans 8:20-23.

            Paul’s reasoning here is “that the creation was subjected to futility” as a consequence of the Fall.  When one looks at Genesis 1 it becomes clear that the first five days of creation and the first half of the sixth day were all preparation for the creation of man in Genesis 1:26-27.  What God does next brings home to us the connection that Paul refers to in Romans 8 between human glorification and the world’s regeneration. God explicitly puts the responsibility for creation into the hands of man as His image in Genesis 1:28-30.  Therefore, the fact that the fortunes of man and those of his natural environment are still intertwined at the second coming is important to notice.  But someone might ask, “where is the second coming in Romans 8:20-23?”  It is found in the doctrine of “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:23).  To see this more clearly consider two texts from 1 Corinthians 15:

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly.  And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. – 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.  

            The context concerns the resurrection body.  In 1 Corinthians 15:23 we are told that we shall receive a body similar to Christ’s resurrection body “at His [second] coming.”  Hence, “the glory which shall be revealed in us” and  “the revealing of the sons of God” which Romans 8:18-19 speaks about occurs when Jesus returns.  Many read 1 Corinthians 15:47 as a reference to the first coming, but eschatological note is unmistakable.  We “shall…bear the image” of the resurrected Jesus.

Again Philippians 3:20-21 says,

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

            The Christian has been born into “this present evil world” (Gal.1:4), but they no longer belong to it.  They possess the right to enter heaven; a right bought for them by Jesus Christ.  And according to Philippians 3:21 it is Christ who will “transform our lowly body” by glorifying it.  The apostle John will echo this truth later in the first century (1 Jn. 3:2).

            We do well to take stock of the importance that Paul places on Christ’s second coming.  He pins all of our hopes upon it.  Therefore, it is simply untrue to assert that for Paul “the linchpin of Paul’s eschatology is the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah,”[3]  if this identification does not place great emphasis on His return. This is borne out by the preceding passages and the weight of hope they bear. 


[1] From Paul’s usage of the two verbs here I believe the “revealing” and the “coming” of Christ are the same event. 

[2] This earthly regeneration is guaranteed by its connection with the glorification of believers, which is locked-in by the decree of God.  See Romans 8:30.   

[3] L. J. Kreitzer, “Eschatology,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993, 256.

My Interview with the Do Theology Podcast

I did an enjoyable interview with Jeremy Howard of the Do Theology podcast about my understanding of interpretation and the role of God’s covenants. The audio didn’t turn out that well, but you may like the content:

Understanding God’s Communication:

Understanding God’s Covenants:

Covenant Connections in Paul (7)

Part Six

When Christ Delivers Up the Kingdom to the Father  

            There is a strategic passage in 1 Corinthians which bears upon both the eschatology and teleology of the Bible.  That text is found in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 and requires a little time to think through, although I will confess at the outset that the passage may act as an exemplar of the influence of theological predispositions in hermeneutics.[1]  Because the thought is condensed it is easy to jump to conclusions about what each verse means.  It starts with a theological preamble:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-22.

            Paul tells us that the resurrected Christ is only the first to rise among a host of others who have met death, euphemistically termed “fallen asleep.”  The OT idea of “firstfruits” was the first and best of the crop which was given to God the Provider.  It signaled the quality and abundance of what was to come.  Death is linked to Adam while resurrection life is linked to Jesus.  All that are in Adam will die and remain in death.  All who are counted in Christ will be “made alive.”  A saint may be connected physically to Adam and the curse, but because they are counted righteous in Christ death cannot keep them.  It is crucial to the Christian Gospel as well as to the whole Creation Project that the resurrection of the dead, procured as it is by the sufferings on Calvary’s cross, be accomplished by a man.  Jesus was and is the Christ, but the Christ is a man for men.  Despite His eternal provenance and His spectacular accomplishments, which go far beyond anything done by Abraham or Moses or David or Elijah, this Man died cruelly, detested by the powerful, misunderstood or else feared or even ignored by the majority, yet by Him (and Him only) comes the resurrection of the dead.  I shall look more deeply into the cosmic implications of the resurrection further on, but I want to note here how death through a man (Adam) is reversed and augmented (by glorification) through a Man.

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

            Paul speaks about a resurrection order (tagma).[2]  Jesus Christ is first and His resurrection, although it happened many centuries ago, prefigures ours.  The OT concept of the “firstfruits” of the crop is used by the apostle here.  The firstfruits is, “the first sheaf of the harvest which guarantees that there will be more to come.”[3]  Thus, the health of the firstfruits signals the health of the whole crop to come.  As Paul will go on to elaborate at the end of the chapter, the glory that comes to the saints upon their resurrection reflects directly upon the glory that was Christ’s when He was raised.[4]  This translates into the sort of status befitting sons of God (however unworthy).  Paul declares; “we shall…bear (phoreo) the image of the heavenly Man.” (1 Cor. 15:49).  This “bearing” refers to a new way of existence; the eschatological real us!  The complete saint!   

            Then we get a mention of the “end” which is qualified by the way of instrumentation:

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.  For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. – 1 Corinthians 15:24-25.  

            Christ’s giving up the kingdom to His Father occurs after He has reigned and “put all enemies under His feet.”  I take this to include not only Death, but the great archenemy of God, Satan.

Now the real question is about the kingdom.  Is Paul saying that Jesus is ruling now?  That is the interpretation of most exegetes.  In fact, Fee dogmatically claims the passage proves that Christ is reigning now.[5]  But is such confidence justified?  Verse 25 says “He must reign till.”  There is an imperative here.  It is essential for Christ to reign.  The reason Paul gives here is that He must bring all His enemies (here actual persons or beings) into submission.  The allusion is to Psalm 110:1-2:

The LORD said to my Lord, sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.  The LORD shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion.  Rule in the midst of Your enemies!

Notice how the Psalm locates the place of Christ’s rule: “Zion” or Jerusalem.  This ought to cause us to pause and ask some questions:

  1. Can “Zion” mean the right hand of God in Heaven?
  2. Does the OT indicate that Christ will rule in the midst of His enemies and does Paul negate it?
  3. What kind of reign is Christ involved in now if the world is just as evil and messed up as ever, with none of His enemies being defeated for two millennia?

The majority of commentators teach that Christ is indeed reigning in heaven right now and has done since His ascension.[6]  As so often in amillennial and postmillennial interpretation the little details are brushed aside.  “Zion” on earth cannot be the place of His rule even though numerous prophecies tell us quite the opposite (e.g., Psa. 2:6; 48:1-14; 50:2; 102:13-21; Isa. 2:3; 12:6; Joel 3:16-21; Mic. 4:1-7).  “Zion” does not appear to be a synonym for Heaven.  Furthermore, the “reign” of Christ in Heaven as envisaged by those who believe He is ruling now is of a rather unusual variety.  It is very unlike the reign predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, or indeed asked about by the disciples in Acts 1:6.  In fact, it seems to differ imperceptibly from God’s ongoing providential care of creation.  Certainly, there has been a marked absence of anything that might resemble what normally would count for a kingly reign: the crushing of the weak under the heel of the ungodly mighty; the elevation of pride and vanity, the suffering of God’s people, and the fact that Satan is still styled “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4, who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8)!  Let us be frank, if Jesus is reigning over the world, and has been for nigh on two thousand years, it has been a singularly ineffective “hands-off” approach!

            Added to all this is the way Psalm 110 is employed in other places in the NT.  Michael Vlach notes that,

“In reference to Psalm 110:1, the author of Hebrews says Jesus is “waiting” at the right hand of the Father (see Heb. 10:12-13).  When the heavenly session is over, God installs His Messiah on the earth to reign over it.  From our current historical perspective, Jesus is currently at the right hand of God the Father, but this will be followed by a reign upon the earth.  Thus, Jesus “must” reign from earth because Psalm 110 says this must happen.  In Acts 3:21, Peter also uses “must” in regard to Jesus and His heavenly session before He returns to earth to restore everything.”[7]  

            And he adds,

“Jesus the Son and Messiah must have a sustained reign in the realm where the first Adam failed (see Gen. 1:26, 28; 1 Cor. 15:45).”[8]                           

            The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. – 1 Corinthians 15:26.

            Satan is not the last enemy, Death is.  We know that the future reign of Christ will have death in it, for Isaiah 65:20b says,

For the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed.

If it aloud to stand without being manipulated via typology or spiritualization, then Zechariah 14:16-19 speaks of Yahweh meeting out punishments against nations who refuse to honor Him in Jerusalem.  And Zechariah 8:3-5 should be recalled because it refers to old and young in the streets of Zion at a time when “Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth.” (Zech. 8:3).

These facts, uncomfortable as they are for amillennialists and postmillennialists alike, demand either that we morph these OT texts to fit the way we think they ought to be, or we leave space in our systems for the insertion of a future kingdom where Jesus Christ will reign, but where sin and death are still present, and where He must rule with a rod of iron (Psa. 2:6-9; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). 

So, 1 Corinthians 15:24-25 fit with the view that the new heavens and earth, where Christ delivers up the kingdom to His Father, and wherein there shall be no more curse (Rev. 22:3), will be preceded by a “millennial kingdom” where Christ must reign until He has dealt with every enemy, Death being the last one.

For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. – 1 Corinthians 15:27.

            It must not be forgotten that Jesus in both his first and second advents, not to mention His coming rule, is the Servant of Yahweh.[9]  The whole Creation Project is predicated on His willingness to humble Himself and come into His own creation to suffer and die in it and to bring it under His dominion.  Here the apostle quotes from Psalm 8 and lends it a Christological interpretation; one that it does not appear to support in its original setting.  But the interpretive move is justified on account of the Incarnation.  The man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5) is the key to the Creation Project, and I have tried to show that He accomplishes it covenantally.      

Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. – 1 Corinthians 15:28.

            If I understand this right, Paul teaches here that Jesus cannot assume the role of absolute Sovereign of creation until He has delivered everything up to the Father.  But is Paul saying that the Son, will forever be subject to the Father?  I think we must tread carefully here.  This cannot be an ontological submission of the Son to the Father since that would mean there is an eternal ontic superiority within the Trinity.  The only way an eternal hierarchical order within the Godhead is possible is in the loving relationship between the three Persons; something that cannot be exactly duplicated in human relationships, but which the best Father-Son relationships represent.

            How might I summarize my understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28?  If I have caught the gist of the great apostle’s mind here, the verses express the marvelous truth that the resurrection of Jesus on behalf of His saints is the first installment in the full reconciliation of all things to God (cf. Col. 1:19-20).  This process is drawn out over several thousand years.  Christ rose and ascended two thousand years ago and His return will begin (not continue) His reign on this earth; an earth that has relentlessly gone its own way in defiance of God.  Christ’s initial rule (which I believe will last a thousand years – Rev. 20), is for the purpose of bringing His creatures to heel and to order and beautify the world so that it is fit to be presented back to His Father as fallen yet redeemed.  It will also justify God’s righteous dealing with fallen man because, as we shall see, given the most perfect political situation in a serene environment, and with Satan under lock and key, humanity will still chafe under the beneficent rule of King Jesus, and will finally rejoin the briefly emancipated Satan to seek His overthrow.  If I may supplement this portrait with more NT data, the rationale for the dissolution of the present heaven and earth and the bringing into being the New Heavens and Earth is that only in the new Creation will there be no more sin (Rev. 22:3), and hence no more Death. 

[1] Exegesis is not an exact science.  This statement may easily be tested against any number of passages as they are interpreted by an equal number of scholars.  In this case, I am using Gordon Fee and N.T. Wright as “counter exegetes” to my position.  In doing this I am well aware that where I differ from them (and them from me) I am encouraged in my line of thinking by my adoption of a certain premillennial eschatology.  The best I can do therefore, is to provide exegetical reasons for my interpretation of the passage.  I cannot be too dogmatic.  That will settle nothing.    

[2] For a good premillennial exposition of the passage, I recommend Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 436-444.  I do not believe there is an iron clad argument for a three-stage interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:20-28 that wins the day for premillennialists, but it does mean that the passage fits into the larger premillennial outlook very well.  There exists a strong reciprocal relationship between our interpretation of this text and many other passages in the Old and New Testaments. 

[3] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 333.

[4] It is understood that this glory differs among the saints, doubtless depending on their service, but all glory is glory indeed, and if it is connected with the glory of the risen Jesus it will far excel our expectations.

[5] Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical – Theological Study, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007, 109-112.

[6] On this subject see below

7] Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 441.

[8] Ibid, 442.

[9] As a side note, although it is common nowadays to think of Jesus as a Servant-Leader, it would be more accurate to think of Him as a Servant-Ruler.  He is our undisputed Lord and Master. 

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.