Deciphering Covenant Theology (13)

Part Twelve

This and the next installment uses material from my article “The Eschatology of Covenant Theology,” originally published in the Journal of Dispensational Theology, 10:30 (Sep 2006).

The Eschatology of Covenant Theology (1)

As well as encompassing the explicit scriptural covenants like the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants, due to its extensive character, the “Covenant of Grace” basically flattens out these more easily identifiable covenants and merges them into one. This can be seen in the following except, which is one of the more blatant examples of using the Covenant of Grace as an interpretive “cookie-cutter” upon the explicit covenants:

This one plan was hinted at even as Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15), and when God covered them with the skins of animals, requiring the shedding of blood to be an adequate coverage (Gen. 3:21), thereby giving a type of Calvary where the blood of Christ was poured out in order to institute the new covenant and make adequate coverage for our sins. However, from man’s perspective, that plan has been unfolded in sections as he was able to grasp it, and these integral parts of God’s eternal whole have been referred to (by accommodation) as the covenant with Abraham, the Mosaic Covenant, the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31), and so forth. Thus, the idea of the Covenant of Grace becomes the modus operandi of progressive revelation. 

“The Consciousness of the Covenant”

In order better to comprehend the importance of the Covenant of Grace in this matter, I shall give the observations of some dispensationalist theologians who have concluded that the idea of the covenant, with its soteriological implications, dominates the hermeneutical methodology of covenant theologians.

Referring to the hermeneutics of Willem VanGemeren, dispensationalist Paul S. Karleen paraphrases him thus:

“There is a soteriological unity in the covenant of grace; it joins all God’s people across the testaments; to ask if we are to take the prophets literally is to ask the wrong question; the issue of the interpretation of the prophets is not one of literal versus spiritual/metaphoric/figurative but of the relation of the OT and NT, which is determined by the Covenant of Grace.” – Paul S. Karleen, “Understanding Covenant Theologians,” Grace Theological Journal 10:2 (Fall 1989), 132. Emphasis added.

Karleen goes on to add, “There can be no question that the covenant of grace is the deciding factor in the covenant theologian’s eschatology.” – Ibid, 133. Emphasis added.

This imposition of the all-embracing Covenant of Grace is also noticed by John Feinberg in his excellent treatment of “Systems of Discontinuity” between the Old Testament and the New.

“Ask a covenant theologian to sketch the essence of his system and invariably he will begin with a discussion of the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption. But, of course, all these relate to soteriology; and when they are made the basic categories for understanding Scripture, it becomes obvious why covenantal systems usually emphasize soteriology to the exclusion of other issues.” – John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg, 344, n.108.

To summarize then, there is no removing the spectacles of the Covenant of Grace from off the noses of Covenant theologians. They believe it is the grand unifying theme of the Old and New Testaments, as well as the great interpretive grid of Scripture. It is a magnificent schema which facilitates the purpose of God in revealing Himself to His people. As Gerhaardus Vos, in one of his best pieces of writing, could say:

“…the leading principle of the covenant…is nothing but the open eye and the clear vision of the Reformed believer for the glorious plan of the grace of God, which arouses in him a consciousness of the covenant and keeps it alive, and which causes him to be so familiar with this scriptural idea and makes this train of thought so natural to him. How else could he receive and reflect the glory of his God, if he were not able to stand in the circle of light, where the beams penetrate to him from all sides? To stand in that circle means to be a party in the covenant, to live out of a consciousness of the covenant and to drink out of the fullness of the covenant.” – Gerhaardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology”, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 256.

To Vos’s mind, the “consciousness of the covenant” dictates the approach to Scripture that he takes. This paradigm inevitably affects his hermeneutical pre-understanding.

Another amillennialist, Anthony Hoekema, writes in a similar vein:

“Amillennialists do not believe that sacred history is to be divided into a series of distinct and disparate dispensations but see a single covenant of grace running through all of that history. This covenant of grace is still in effect today and will culminate in the eternal dwelling together of God and his redeemed people on the new earth.” – Anthony A. Hoekema, “Amillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse, 186.

See how this “single covenant running throughout all history”, and which is “still in effect today” must a priori exclude a comprehensive literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants to Israel.

I am, of course, aware that men like Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, and Herman A. Hoyt have held to a unifying covenant of grace. And indeed it is possible to be a dispensationalist and hold to a form of covenant theology (See e.g. Michael A. Harbin, “The Hermeneutics of Covenant Theology,” in Vital Prophetic Issues, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Resources, 1995) ed. Roy B. Zuck, pp.34–35). Yours truly’s “Biblical Covenantalism” is a case in point. See also Herman Hoyt’s remarks in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views ed. Robert G. Clouse, 197. While not dismissing it, Chafer said of covenant theology that “If [the Covenants of Works and of Grace] are to be sustained it must be wholly apart from Biblical authority” – Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 4:156. For an attempt to show that the main difference between dispensationalism and covenant theology is one of emphasis, see Stephen R. Spencer’s article, “Reformed Theology, Covenant Theology, and Dispensationalism,” in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), Charles H. Dyer and Roy B. Zuck, eds. In my opinion Spencer is at best only half successful.

Paul in Acts

Previous Post

            The Apostle Paul is the first theologian of the Church.  He was not a disciple of Jesus, and he never had the advantage of living and working with the Lord in his earthly sojourn.  But Paul did have first-hand training from the risen Christ according to Galatians 1:11-12, 15-18, and 2:2.  With an excellent background in the Law and traditions (Acts 22:3), personal instruction from Jesus and a special commissioning from the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:5; Gal. 2:8) Paul was fully prepared for his writing as well as his missionary activities. 

            Our first real encounter with Paul’s apostolic teaching is found in Acts 13 and his first missionary journey with Barnabas.  His lesson in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-41) begins with the exodus (Acts 13:17) and quickly comes to David and then to Jesus (Acts 13:22-23).  The way he takes is curious.  He does not refer directly to the Davidic covenant or its terms, but instead announces Jesus this way:

“From this man’s seed, according to the promise, God raised up for Israel a Savior—Jesus— after John had first preached, before His coming, the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” – Acts 13:23-24.

            As we saw in Volume One of this study the Davidic covenant does not contain any note of a promise of salvation from sin in its terms.  But Paul here is drawing a natural and no doubt common inference that the covenant implied that such a salvation would come, and the Scriptures indicated that it would come through a Savior (Gen. 22:18; Psa. 22:31; Isa. 9:6-7; 49:5; 53:6).  The ministry of John the Baptist (which presumably was known about even in Pisidia) is mentioned because he preached repentance to Israel in view of the Coming One.  The Abrahamic note is struck in verse 26, and then he proceeds to assert that the Jewish scholars at Jerusalem were ignorant of (agnoeo) Jesus because they were ignorant of their own prophetic literature: quite a charge! (Acts 13:27).  Thus, the promised One was killed, but God raised Him up again (Acts 13:30-33).  Now the theme of kingship is brought up via Psalms 2:7 (Acts 13:33) and 16:10 (Acts 13:35), while applying Isaiah’s “I will give You the sure mercies of David” (Isa. 55:3) to God’s justification of Jesus in raising Him up (Acts 13:34).  It is through Jesus that forgiveness of sins is now available to Israel (Acts 13:38-39).  A final quotation from Habakkuk 1:5 serves as a warning against unbelief (Acts 13:40-41).[1] 

            This sermon presupposes the covenants with Abraham, David, and, since salvation comes through it, the New covenant in Jesus (Paul does not refer to Him as the Christ here, although some of his arguments in his Epistles depend upon that title – e.g., the many uses of “Christ Jesus” throughout the Pauline literature).  Sadly, the majority of the Jews rejected Paul’s message and reacted to it with hostility (Acts 13:45).  It seems they did not much care for Paul sharing the good news with the Gentiles.  In his rebuke Paul cites Isaiah 49:6 – a covenant passage (see Isaiah 49:8!).  Yet despite this unpromising response he always held on to a hope for the twelve tribes, even after the establishment of the Jew/Gentile Church (cf. Acts 26:7).    

Paul’s Preaching on the Kingdom of God

            On several occasions we read of Paul preaching about the Kingdom of God.  In Acts 14:22 it is clear that the kingdom is yet future.  It is the messianic or New covenant kingdom.  Then in Acts 17:7 the Jews from Thessalonica accused Paul of saying that a king other than Caesar should be served.  It may be that all that was being preached was that Jesus is Lord and this was spun by the Jews to make Paul into a revolutionary, but it is possible that he was heard preaching the coming Kingdom of God.  In Acts 19 we read of the Apostle, “reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” for three months in Ephesus (Acts 19:8).  Without Luke telling us more we cannot be certain whether this preaching concerned the future kingdom or its appearance in the form of Jesus at His first coming (or indeed in some other form).  We have seen that in the majority of cases Luke has in mind the eschatological kingdom[2] as he was teaching in a synagogue it seems safe to assume that he was not equating the kingdom with the Church!

            If I leave aside the passage in Acts 20 for the moment the last time the Kingdom of God is found in Acts is at the end of the last chapter.  There we read that,

So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. – Acts 28:23.

In the last verse of Acts Luke leaves him

“preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him. – Acts 28:31.  

            In these places we see that Paul’s teaching of the kingdom is consonant with his teaching about Jesus.  Has the kingdom arrived?  Yes and no.  No if what is meant is the great kingdom in which Messiah reigns from Jerusalem and Israel is blessed above all nations.  But yes if what is meant is that Messiah has indeed come. 

            Acts 20 has the scene of the gathering of the Ephesian elders at Miletus and Paul’s farewell.  He refers to “the ministry [he] received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24).  This is of course a reference to the Gospel (cf. v.21).  But then he mentions the kingdom:  

And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. – Acts 20:25.

This statement is followed up by Paul’s reminder that he has declared to these pastors “the whole counsel [boule] of God” (Acts 20:27).  The word translated “counsel” in verse 27 is boule which is rendered “purpose,” “plan,” or “will” – of God in Acts 4:27-28; 5:38-39, and 13:36.  In this setting “counsel” fits well since God’s “purpose” has been revealed, but we should retain the notion of intent.  The boule is not the Gospel only, but the entire project within which Jesus makes sense.[3]  I take it then that the preaching of the Kingdom of God” here is the Creation Project that incorporates Eden and the Fall, the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, the messianic prophecies that accompany them and give mutual support to them, and of course the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and its eschatological meaning.[4]            


[1] The use of Habakkuk 1:5 with its language of wonderworking was apposite even though the original was concerned with the impending Babylonian conquest.  See F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, 279. 

[2] E.g., Luke 1:33; 4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 9:62; 11:2; 12:31-32; 13:18, 29; 14:15; 18:17; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18, 29-30; Acts 1:6; 14:22.

[3] It is well for pastor-teachers to make sure that the Gospel is set in a framework or story in which it makes the best sense, and this includes not only the biblical worldview but also the tenor and atmosphere most conducive to its telling. 

[4] Hence, the “whole counsel of God” includes both teleology and eschatology.

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (10)

Part Nine

“If He is the King of Israel”

            We have seen that Matthew employs the idea of the kingdom in two basic ways.  At the beginning of his Gospel the kingdom is the eschatological Kingdom of OT expectation.  In the parables however, the introductory phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like” points to images of the progress of the kingdom program as it wends its way to final fulfillment; only now and then is the age to come in view.  Now that He is in the hands of His foes it looks to most onlookers that this cannot be the Messiah.  He is powerless against those who wish Him dead, being fully submitted to the non-exercise of divine prerogatives or authority as “Commander of the army of Yahweh” (Josh. 5:14). 

            Matthew 27:26-50 is one of the most intensely stirring recitals ever penned.  From one angle it gives the lie to all the grand expectations of the OT of the great Coming One.  Surely we are mistaken about Jesus?  He is defeated.  He goes to meet Death having barely made a splash in the world, never mind reigning over it in justice and peace!  That was the perspective of many at the time, and they thought they had good scriptural reasons for their opinions.  They are represented by those who cried “If He is the King of Israel…” then something must happen to realign reality with covenant expectation.  Jesus could not be the long-expected King.

            This passage in question runs through the mockery of the Roman soldiers to the mockery of the thieves crucified with Him, to the mockery of the chief priests and scribes and the crowd before the cross.  The soldiers cried “Hail, king of the Jews!” (Matt. 27:29) after they had placed a crown of hard thorns on His head, which they proceeded to mercilessly beat down into His skull.  Jesus, beaten and bloody, is their temporary sport.  A “king” without the authority of a steward; a criminal brought under the heel of one small part of the massive machinery of Rome.  Then Jesus is jeered by those who were crucified along with Him (Matt. 27:44).  This lasted for some time before one thief saw the truth about who He was, and it was no small triumph and vindication in the midst of His rejection that this soul called Him “Lord.” (Lk. 23:42).  But the disdain continues with the baying crowds:

            If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.- Matthew 27:40.

If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him.  He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God. – Matthew 27:42-43.

            There is no doubt about what is happening here; the King is utterly rejected; so much so that the Jews around the cross call down an imprecation upon themselves (Matt. 27:25).  These rejectors of the proffered Messiah understood Who Christ would be; the Son of God.  But as far as their eyes could see, this Jesus was not He.  He was not their King because He was not the Messiah, the son of God.  Their reason worked part way, but it could not alight upon the right object – Jesus of Nazareth!  Reason was not guided by faith, and so it was offended (Matt. 21:42). 

            Jesus is still thought of as a deceiver, a false messiah by the majority of Jews.  Yet the same OT that furnished Judaism with fervent expectations of the coming of the Great King is clear also about the truth that He must meet with Death due to being rejected by His people.  Throughout his passion narrative Matthew contents himself with only one small citation from the First Testament[1]:

They divide My garments among them,
And for My clothing they cast lots. – Psalm 22:18.

            If the people did not see the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, there was plenty that they did see which ought to have called Psalm 22 to mind.  And not Psalm 22 only, but several other OT messianic texts should have had them looking for a suffering Servant.  I want to remind the reader of these texts, but must first take note of what I might properly call an Abrahamic covenant text, picking up on the third promise of that covenant (Gen. 12:3), though it’s close proximity to the suffering One in the psalm implies a New covenant context at the end of the psalm:

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

For the kingdom is the LORD’s,
And He rules over the nations. – Psalm 22:27-28. 

            The sufferer in this psalm exclaims that one day every nation will worship Yahweh, because He will exercise rule over them (cf. Psa. 2).  Hence, the psalm mixes the twin roles of the Servant of Yahweh as we meet Him in Isaiah.

            The prophet Isaiah wrote thus about the Suffering Servant:

             Who has believed our report? – Isaiah 53:1a.

            After reading the passion narratives of the Gospels one can see how apropos that question is.  The reference to this Servant (Isa. 52:13) growing up “as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground” (Isa. 53:2) warns the Jews of this man’s lowly beginnings, but this same will be “exalted and extolled and be very high” (Isa. 52:13), but only once He has “sprinkled many nations” (Isa. 52:15 cf. 53:11). 

            Daniel predicted that Messiah would be “cut off and [would] have nothing.” (Dan. 9:26 NASB), and Zechariah foretold how “they,” Israel, would one day “look on Me whom they pierced.” (Zech. 12:10 cf. Psa. 22:16).  There was plenty of witness to the rejection of Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Still, they could not see their King on the cross.  

            I locate the source of the unbelief in what I have called man’s default setting, the lurch to independence that motivates our sin nature.  It is this default in man that sets them to shrug off authority of God’s word, even when it is acknowledged as an authority.          

            But then there are a multitude who have come after who see things another way.  They too ask themselves “If He is the King of Israel…” but they answer in a different way.  They know Jesus is the King of Israel, but contrary to Matthew they redefine “Israel.”  For these believers the cross and the resurrection are the focal point of everything; and God’s Word must be interpreted on the basis of it and the subsequent events.  Jesus is the King, but He rules from heaven. 

            Although one of these positions fully recognizes the divinity of Jesus and accepts Him as the Messiah, I want to be a little bit controversial here in claiming that this second group, good men as they are, have not entirely allowed Jesus to be the Messiah He undoubtedly is!  Jesus “Christ” has been redefined along with “Israel.”  They have done so because they have chosen the wrong direction to look at His messianic role, and they have constructed an ingenious story where the terms “Christ/Messiah” and “Israel” have been adapted to fit well.  


[1] He had earlier cited a prophecy from Jeremiah that is not found in his Book, but which closely resembles Zechariah 11:12-13.  We must not be so naïve as to believe that Matthew was so unintelligent as to get his source wrong.  It is far more reasonable to assume that Jeremiah did indeed speak this prophecy, but that it was given to the later prophet to write it down.  

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (9)

Part Eight

Matthew 25

The Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25

            The two parables that begin chapter 25 both have lead-ins which state, “The kingdom of heaven is like” (Matt. 25:1, 14).  The second of these, the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30)[1], is about stewardship in honoring the King.  Glasscock hits the nail on the head:

[T]he Lord’s point was that the kingdom…was calling servants to honor and glorify its King.  Those who failed to do so demonstrated they were not true servants but wicked, lazy, and useless usurpers of the prerogatives of the kingdom…primarily this parable relates to Israel, who claimed a desire to serve their King but in reality squandered His blessings.  Any tempt to relate this to the church or associate the “talents” with skills or abilities, especially spiritual gifting, is eisegesis.[2]

The first parable is about the wise and foolish virgins and concerns “the day [and] the hour” of Christ’s coming (Matt. 25:13 cf. 24:36).  The story is simple.  Ten virgins (sort of maids in waiting who have not yet been married) are looking out for the bridegroom.  Only five virgins prepare their lamps for the dark, and when it comes five are away buying oil while the bridegroom arrives and leaves.  Five virgins were unprepared for the bridegroom’s coming (cf. Matt. 24:44).  In this parable we find more support for those “taken” in chapter 24 being the saints, while the unprepared remain.

The Sheep and the Goats

            The Olivet discourse closes with Jesus depicting a scene which happens after His second advent.  Again, it should not escape notice that since Jesus began to answer the disciples’ question in Matthew 24:4 the focus has been upon the end time and the second advent.  Let us look at how the section begins:

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.  All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.  And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. – Matthew 25:31-33. 

This judgment appears to complement to the Parable of the Talents as in that passage too the King returns and deals with people and their service (or lack of it) toward Him.  Note that whereas the parable has the King interacting with individuals (e.g., Matt. 25:24-27) the “Sheep and Goats Judgment” pictures Him addressing and being addressed by groups (“those on His right hand,” the righteous,” “those on His left hand.” – Matt. 25:34, 37, 41).  We are not told how the wicked among “the nations” remain after the second coming, but nothing contradicts what we have already been told in Matthew 13:41-43 and 49-50 as long as one allows this passage in Matthew 25 to throw light on those parables.  What we are told here must mean that for example, the dividing off of “those things that offend” in the Parable of the Dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50) occurs after the Lord’s return.  Clearly King Jesus has some house-cleaning to do before He can begin His reign of shalom in earnest.[3] 

            The passage indicates that it is “the nations” (ethnos – Matt. 25:32) that are being judged.  This word ethnos usually signifies Gentiles in contrast to Jews.  Hence, the entry in Balz and Schneider is unambiguous:

Matthew describes the Son of Man’s judgment of “all ἔθνη.”  According to Matthew’s usage and the context and content of the pericope, “all ἔθνη must refer to those peoples (outside Israel!) to whom the message of Christ has not reached or rejected it.[4] 

Granted that “the nations” equal the Gentile nations, are we justified in maintaining that those Jesus refers to as “My brethren” are Jews?  It appears that may be so, although it should be admitted that taking “My brethren” (Matt. 25:40) as meaning “My fellow Jews” is more than a short stride.  It may well refer to all believers in that day.[5] 

The treatment of the “goats” is as severe as it could be.  Those at Christ’s left hand depart to “everlasting (aionios) punishment”; a fate which corresponds to the “everlasting (aionios) life” of those on His right (Matt. 25:46).  There can be no doubt that if the “sheep” enter eternal bliss then the “goats” enter eternal punishment.  There is no room at all in this verse for the notion of a temporary hell, still less annihilationism.


[1] Although some writers hold that the Parable of the Talents is repeated in Mark 13: and Luke 21: I am one of those who disagree.  There are too many dissimilarities between Matthew’s account and the other Gospels.  See Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 484.

[2] Ibid, 488.

[3] This calls to mind the mysterious time delay one reads about in Daniel 12:11-12 where the difference between the length of days in those verses many indicate the time needed for this “shake up” immediately after Christ’s arrival.  

[4] N. Walter, “ἔθνος” in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Volume 1, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, 383.

[5] There is an element of works in the verdict: E.g., “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” (Matt. 25:45).  Perhaps this is because the circumstances will require true faith to reveal itself through good works.    

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (7)

Part Six

The Image and the Great Tribulation

            It is usual for Dispensationalists to divide the seventieth week of Daniel 9; a week that lasts for seven years, into two halves of three and a half years each.  There are good reasons for this which we shall discuss, but this clean division is not as apparent when one concentrates solely on the Olivet Discourse.  The passage continues like this:

Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes.   But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!   And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.  For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be  And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. – Matthew 24:15-22.

Jesus refers to Daniel as a prophet who predicted something called “the abomination of desolation” (Dan. 11:31; 12:11).[1]  Whatever it is it stands “in the holy place.”  The name “the holy place” is an OT term designating the temple.  That is to say, this abomination will stand in the temple!  To Jesus’ hearers the temple means only one thing, the Jerusalem temple.  Yet for Jesus Daniel’s prophecy is still future.  The reaction of “those in Judea” is to flee.  They flee because some thing is “standing” in the temple in Jerusalem.[2]  That “abomination of desolation” is the signal for intense persecution at the end. 

            But what could the abomination be?  The natural conclusion is that it is some sort of statue or image.[3]  There is another place in the NT where this imagery is cited.  In Revelation 13 a person called “the beast” is worshipped by the “earth-dwellers” (Rev. 13:3-9).  He has an accomplice called “the false prophet” who seems to act as his agent and mouthpiece, but who possesses supernatural powers that enable him to deceive with great signs and wonders and to make an image of the beast come alive (Rev. 13:11-15).  Those who will not worship the image are persecuted and killed (Rev. 13:15). 

            One further text which may have a bearing on the image of Matthew 24:15 is mentioned by the Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 where someone called “the man of sin/son of perdition” goes into “the temple of God” and “sits” in it “as God.”  Since the beast receives worship, it is not a far stretch to suppose that he would enter a temple of worship.  Nor is it supposing too much to envisage him placing an image of himself in the temple.[4]  Which temple?  Well, if it is the same temple that Jesus speaks about as “the holy place” in Matthew 24:15 it would be situated in Jerusalem in Judea.

            This setting up of “the abomination of desolation” is linked to “the great tribulation.”  Hence, most dispensational premillennialists have identified the great tribulation as beginning at the mid-point of the seventieth week mentioned in Daniel 9 and I believe that they are right.  I have made comments on this in Volume One[5], but something should be said about it here. 

The Seventieth Week of Daniel and the Great Tribulation

            Although I intend to say more about this and related themes later in this volume, the occurrence of it in the Olivet Discourse affords an opportunity to try to connect the period of intense trouble spoken about in the Prophets with Jesus’ words. 

            Taken as weeks of years the seventy heptads or weeks of Daniel 9:24 we get a total of 490 years all told.  But Daniel 9:25 refers to the completion of just sixty-nine weeks or 483 years.  The seventieth week is mentioned in verse 27 in a fascinating passage:

Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week;
But in the middle of the week
He shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering.
And on the wing of abominations shall be one who makes desolate,
Even until the consummation, which is determined,
Is poured out on the desolate. – Daniel 9:27.

            The “he” of the verse logically refers back to “the prince” or “ruler” (nagid) whose people are mentioned in the previous verse.[6]  This prince is said to make a covenant, or possibly force a covenant of seven years duration.[7]  The seven years period is the final week of the seventy weeks determined upon Daniel’s people and Jerusalem (Dan. 9:24).  Note where the focus is; upon Israel, just as in Matthew 24:16-20. 

            The covenant that this prince will make is not described.  It is enough to know that this prince does something “in the middle of the week” (i.e. after three and a half years) which is related to the covenant; he stops the sacrifices and offerings.  The very fact that sacrifices and offerings are being made indicates strongly that a temple is present and a sacrificial system is in full swing.  Along with other premillennial interpreters I believe that we are obliged to see a close connection between the seven-year covenant and the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem in the closing years of our era before the return of Christ.

            Matthew then is focused upon Israel, just as was Daniel (Dan. 9:24).  Christ’s description of catastrophic events in Matthew 24/Mark 13 also calls to mind what Jeremiah calls “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7), about which the prophet says, “Alas, for that day is great, so that none is like it,” and after which Israel will serve Yahweh their God, and David their king.” (Dan. 12:9).  Jeremiah 30:7 is very close in meaning to Jesus’ “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” (Matt. 24:21), and Daniel’s “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation.” (Dan. 12:1), which concerns “the time of the end” according to Daniel 12:8.  There is to be a time in history when the rage and violence against the Jews and Jerusalem will be worse than any other time in their history.  This prophecy is not referring to the Holocaust, as terrible as that was since it does not match the prophetic picture.  No, this “great tribulation” is yet to come.  It is concentrated in the last half of the seventieth week and is associated with the coming evil potentate who enters into a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem and claims to be divine.[8] 

               But why does this “man of sin,” this “son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3) turn on the Jews and their capital city?  An obvious answer is that they will not accept his claims to be God.  That may well be, but one has to remember that the OT does present Messiah as having divine attributes (viz. Isa. 7:14; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 14).  One can imagine how passages like Isaiah 2:3-4 and Malachi 3:1 could be recontextualized and applied to him.  I therefore think something more than this will be in play.   

Jesus’ Olivet Discourse picks up the note of latter-day tribulation for Israel, adding revelation to the OT picture.  With respect, the person who wants to cram the seventieth week into the first century is not attending to what these passages are saying. What is clear is that the persecution will be so ferocious that “unless those days were shortened, no flesh [i.e. in Israel] would be saved.” (Matt. 24:22). 


[1] In Daniel 9:26-27 there is a reference to “the wing of abominations” and making “desolate.”  This is not the main reference that Jesus is speaking about in Matthew 24. 

[2] The passage hones in on Israel: Judea, holy place, rooftop, Sabbath.  It is not concerned so much with worldwide trouble but rather Israel’s trouble; “Jacob’s Trouble” (Jer. 30:7). 

[3] For example, the altar raised up by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B. C. had an abomination “set up” or “built” upon it according to 1 Maccabees 1:54.   

[4] I shall of course say more about this “Beast” in the course of this book.

[5] See The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 315-317.

[6] Those who try to force it to mean the Messiah are not following the author himself.  See J. Paul Tanner, Daniel, EEC, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020, 590-591.  Tanner includes a footnote (297) in which he notices several amillennial scholars who agree that this “prince” is the future antichrist.   

[7] Ibid, 592-593. 

[8] One perceived problem with this is that these “signs of the times” disqualify any notion of an anytime coming of Jesus Christ.  But this is not necessarily true.  The doctrine of imminence, if it is true, regards the perspective of the Church.  Therefore, a pretribulationist can easily assert an immanent rapture while allowing for these signs of distress in the seventieth week.    

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (6)

Part Five

The Olivet Discourse (Pt. 1)

            Coming at last to the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25, although the main descriptive section comes in Matthew 24 with an addendum at the end of Matthew 25, before which are two parables. 

            Matthew 24:1-2 belong on their own.  They provide the setting for the discourse that follows in that they refer to the glories of Herod’s temple.[1] Jesus does not even acknowledge the great work, which by His time was famous throughout the Empire.  Instead, He predicts its devastation, which came upon it in A.D. 70.                          

            In the verses that come next some are tempted to keep within the first century setting of the opening two verses, but I think this is plainly mistaken.  Verse 3 is critical to what will follow:

Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” – Matthew 24:3.

            They have arrived at the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem.  The disciples, moved to further inquiry by Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple, come to Him with more questions.  Two questions are put to Jesus; the first refers to the overthrow of the temple that Jesus had just spoken of.  The second question concerned Christ’s coming (which He had spoken about: Mk. 8:38; Lk. 12:40; 17:24[2]; 18:8; cf. Matt. 16:28; 19:28).  This coming was understood to take place at the time of “the end of the age.”  If one pays close attention to the words recorded by the Evangelist, it quickly becomes clear that the first question does not receive an answer (at least none is reported).  Matthew’s focus is upon the answer to the second question; the one about Christ’s return and the end of the age.  This can be decided by noticing the phenomena of men claiming to be Christ (Matt. 24:5, 24), false prophets abounding (Matt. 24:11, 24), the setting up of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” (Matt. 24:15), greatly intensified tribulation reminiscent of Daniel 12 (Matt. 24:21-22), and the signs of the second coming itself (Matt. 24:29-31), with its depiction of Christ’s judging the nations to determine who goes into life and who faces punishment (Matt. 25:31-46).  These particulars are not to be swept away with the magic word “apocalyptic.”  They direct our attention away from the first century and onto events just prior to and including the second advent.  This conclusion is reinforced by the repetition of the term “the end” in the first half of the chapter (Matt. 24:3, 6, 13, 14).  This corresponds to the employment of “the end” in Matthew 10:22; 13:39-40, 49, cf. 28:20. 

The Sign of Christ’s Coming and of the End of the Age 

            Since, as we have seen, Jesus’ remarks concern the second question of the disciples, which is to say their question about Christ’s coming and the end of the age, it is vital we get the setting of these remarks right.  First, “the beginning of sorrows” (Matt. 24:8) include what appears to be world upheaval, both societal and natural (Matt. 24:6-7).  Of course, there have always been “wars and rumors of wars.”  Hence, the only way to make sense of this is in terms of an undeniable explosion of war and mayhem.  This concentration of wars is combined with false prophesying and “many” people falsely claiming to be Christ. (Matt. 24:4-5).[3]  We must look for wars, widespread civil unrest, natural calamities, disease, and false Messiahs and false prophets occurring together.  People will be alarmed and fall prey to deceptions.  This will precede the end, but “the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6); meaning, I believe, that before Christ’s second coming, the world (or at the very least the Middle East[4]) will be thrown into confusion and chaos.

            In this time period the saints will be persecuted (I take the “you” here as anticipatory, referring to Christ’s followers at that time).  The general alarm will be exploited by false prophets (Matt. 24:9-12) who will encourage the persecution.  It is within this context that we must fit “he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Matt. 24:13).

            What does the saying mean?  I think the very first question to be asked is ‘Does the phrase “the end” in verse 13 mean the same as it does in verses 3, 6, and 14?  Or does it mean something like “the end of one’s life”? or “the end of one’s trial”?  I see no reason to believe that this second answer is correct.  The end should mean “the end of the age” as it does in the rest of its usages in the discourse.  If this is correct, we may paraphrase verse 13 as “he who makes it through to the return of Christ.”  To bring in Matthew 25:41-46, it would mean that those saints who survive the persecution will be ushered into the Kingdom.

            But doesn’t this create a tautology?   Am I simply stating that the ones who make it through the final torrid days of this age are the ones who escape death?  Of course, the question of what the verb “saved” means in this verse is critical.  If it means the salvation of the soul then the problem of tautology vanishes, but the possible problem of works raises its head.  Does one have to endure (viz. put in effort) to be saved?  If so, how is this connected to the matter of justification?  If however “saved” equates to survival the tautology reappears.  Or does it?  What if we paraphrase things a bit?  What if it means “the believer who gets through the Tribulation will be rescued, and will enter the peaceable Kingdom”?  Glasscock writes,

Contextually, the salvation being discussed here was not eternal redemption but deliverance from the persecutions and wretchedness of the world.[5] 

The Gospel of the Kingdom and the End of the Age

            I have said that it is essential to interpret the Olivet Discourse in light of the way Jesus answered the second question that He was asked in Matthew 24:3.[6]  So far we have tried to show that the whole direction of the discourse points to the end times and not to the first century A. D.  This impression only deepens as the chapter proceeds.  In the next verse Jesus remarks,

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. – Matthew 24:14.

            This statement is immediately followed by the warning about seeing “the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet” (Matt. 24:15).  That verse, as well as what has gone before, places the preaching of “the gospel of the kingdom” at the time of the end.  As hard to take as it may be for many, the plain fact is that the Gospel of Matthew does not know anything about the good news involving Christ’s substitutionary atonement and His resurrection for our justification (cf. Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:1-4).  The “gospel” of Matthew’s narrative is “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7), and when Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 speak of “the gospel of the kingdom” it appears that this is the message (i.e., the message of the soon arrival of the kingdom) that is being spoken of.  As a matter of fact, although Jesus does mention His forthcoming death and resurrection in Matthew 16:21; 17:23; and 26:31-32 it was not done openly, and the disciples are not described as fully comprehending His meaning.  One may fairly ask then, aside from the discomfort which these facts may produce, is it not true that the gospel of the kingdom as presented in Matthew is different than the gospel in Paul’s letters?[7]  The blunt answer is Yes!  

            What then are we to do with this prediction by Christ about the gospel of the kingdom being preached for a “witness” before the end comes?  One thing we must say is that this text has nothing to do with present world missions, laudable as they are.  A point that follows hard on the heels of this is that the gospel of the kingdom, viz., “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” which made sense at the first coming before Christ’s rejection, begins to make sense again, only in light of Christ’s imminent second coming.  This is just what we see in Matthew.


[1] Herod’s temple was essentially a rebuilding of the temple built under Zerubbabel.  Hence, both edifices are usually referred to as the second temple.   

[2] Jesus appears to have used the analogy of a lightning flash to speak of His second coming before Matthew 24.

[3] Not many men in history have made this claim.  The most famous was Simon Bar-Kohkba, who was overthrown by Rome in A.D. 135.  Rabbi Akiba believed he was the Christ. 

[4] It is unclear whether these end time predictions of Jesus have the entire world in view or just the area covered in His time by the Roman Empire, West and East.    

[5] Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 466-467.

[6] Most scholars believe that the destruction of the temple in A. D. 70 is addressed by Jesus in Luke 21:12-24.  As can be seen from my comments on that passage, I respectfully disagree.   

[7] One must face the fact that the word euangelion (“gospel” or “good news”) does not possess a technical meaning in the four Gospels like it does in the later NT.    

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (3)

Part Two

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

Interpreting Matthew 10

            Jesus dispenses power to vanquish demons and sicknesses to His disciples in Matthew 10:1 in preparation for them going throughout Israel heralding the impending Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 10:1-10).  The wonders they are to perform in the sight of their countrymen demonstrate the unsuitability of putting new wine in old wineskins.  The Kingdom they are preaching as “at hand” will introduce a new aeon; one that will outdo this aeon as a combine-harvester outdoes a scythe.  The miracles should not be seen as only signs that attract attention, but as portents of the kind of realm the Kingdom of God will be. 

            But it is a striking fact that Matthew tells us that this powerful witness was to be confined.

These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans.  But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” – Matthew 10:5-8.

            No other Gospel writer includes this saying, but Matthew felt that it was important to put it in, in all probability for contextual reasons.  The “way of the Gentiles” could mean the actual roads to Tyre and Sidon or to the Decapolis but is better interpreted as meaning any route that takes you to where Gentiles are.  Carson offers a balanced explanation of the prohibition; that it would not add to the opposition they were experiencing, but that does not go far enough in my opinion.  There is a focus on Israel that is legitimate, harkening all the way back to Genesis 12 and Exodus 19.  It respects the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the fact that Jesus is first the Jewish Messiah.[1]  His ministry was, in Paul’s later language, “to the Jew first.” (Rom. 1:16; 2:10). 

            There follows a section about persecution (Matt. 10:16-23).  The first part of it is straightforward enough, although even there the sayings crop up in Luke and Mark in eschatological settings (Mk. 13:9–13; Lk. 21:12–17).  The real difficulty enters in with Matthew 10:21-23.  Verse 21 is found in Mark and Luke in proximity to “tribulation” passages (which more of later).  Verse 22 includes the well-known “But he who endures to the end will be saved.”  Mark 13:13 is placed right next to and looks to be consonant with the end times discourse of Jesus (which is where Matthew will also place it in unmistakable terms in Matthew 24:13-14).  If one is not dead set on finding immediate first century correspondences to these sayings it begins to look as if Matthew 10:21-23 leap the centuries and land us in the days just prior to the Lord’s return in power. 

            This impression is only cemented by verse 23:

When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. – Matthew 10:23.

            Many attempts have been made to make sense of this difficult verse in a first century setting, but in my opinion they all fail.  Let us pick apart the ingredients:

  1. The Son of Man was the one speaking to the disciples.  They were not waiting for Him to come He was already there. 
  2. Although Israel was and is a small territory, there is no evidence that Christ’s disciples covered the whole land in their evangelistic efforts.
  3. Soon after the death of Jesus the scattered disciples were given a wider field of evangelism and most of them, either to avoid persecution or for ministry’s sake, began to work further afield.
  4. If the disciples had completed their task of going through every town in Israel, they would have falsified Jesus’ words.  Jesus predicted that they would not complete the task before He came.

The first and the fourth points are the most difficult to get around.  To my mind the only plausible view is that the words are proleptical.  The setting has shifted to the time of the end; the period running up to and including the second coming (i.e., “before the Son of Man comes”).[2]  This portion of the chapter might be thought about as telescoping out from post-ascension persecution (Matt. 10:16-17) to wider persecution throughout Christian history (Matt. 10:18-20), reaching into the times and events surrounding the second advent (Matt. 10:21-23).  This position means the “you” in Matthew 10:23 refers to those who will be ministering for Christ prior to His return.  There is nothing particularly strange about this; one finds the same thing in John 14:1-3.  Whether or not one agrees with this interpretation, what cannot be escaped is that the coverage of Israel and the coming of Christ belong together.[3]  

If Matthew 10:23b causes headaches for scholars, Matthew 11:12 comes a close second:

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.

            Since we are studying Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God/Heaven we must tackle this verse.  Once more, various attempts have been made to make sense of the passage.  The attention is grabbed by the word “the violent” (biastes) who take the Kingdom by force.  What kind of force can take the Kingdom of Heaven?  The answer aside from the text itself is that nothing can take it, for no human violence disturbs the entrance of those whom God permits to enter, nor perturbs the Kingdom upon entering it.  Bunyan famously had one of his characters in Pilgrim’s Progress cut through the swathe of guards before the king’s gate, but the exegetical basis for the image is dubious.[4]  One approach which I think has a lot of merit is that which looks at the verse and in particular the verbs biazetai and biastai negatively as teaching that  religionists want to press into the Kingdom, and they react violently against those who are righteous.  Hence, they attack the Kingdom instead of surrendering to its preconditions.[5]  This understanding of the verse fits well the oppositional content in Jesus’ discourse, especially Matthew 11:15-26.   

            As Matthew 12 begins we find Jesus answering the Pharisees regarding the matter of His disciples plucking the heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8).  Luke and Mark also record this encounter, but I take notice of Matthew’s report because in it he includes a statement by Jesus about Him being “greater than the temple” (Matt. 12:6).  This is in addition to His claim that “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:8). 

These two statements constitute direct challenges to the Pharisees’ religion.  There were scarcely any more important institutions of Pharisaic Judaism than the temple and the Sabbath (even though, much to their chagrin the temple was overseen by the Sadducees).  Who was this Galilean to exalt himself above these pillars of Judaism? 

Certainly, what Christ is doing here is bold, but it is not arrogant.  How else is the true Son of Man of Daniel 7, the Messiah, nay, the co-Creator, going to get across to these “doctors of the Scriptures” that He transcends all those things which, in one way or another, epitomize Him?  What is the Law without the covenant?  What is the Sabbath without the Creator’s cessation of the first creation week?  If the Christ will inaugurate the New covenant and Jesus has been announced (by John the Baptist) as He, and Jesus’ mighty miracles and impeccable character more than corroborate John’s announcement, should not the eyes and ears of all those near to God be open to His message?  The question is of course rhetorical, for in God’s purposes these men and their religious neighbors (the scribes and Sadducees) would lead the opposition against Jesus.  But the signs were there, and word and deed pointed the Pharisees in the right direction.

As if these already present clues were not there, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to them:

But if you had known what this means, `I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. – Matthew 12:7.

            On the basis of the aforementioned clues, the Pharisees should have cottoned on to who Jesus was (i.e. “God with us” – Matt. 1:23).  This in turn ought to have informed their understanding of what the disciples were doing.  Mercy is better than sacrificial duty, according to Yahweh, who, in His Son, is greater than the temple or the Sabbath.[6]  This is underlined in the very next section, where the Pharisees’ gross neglect of mercy meant they cannot stand to see a man’s withered hand restored on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:9-14). 


[1] See Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 222-223.

[2] It is also plausible to view Matthew 10:40-42 as eschatological.

[3] Some interpreters try to get round this problem by theorizing that Matthew 10:23 is based upon a non-extant source that has found its way into the text. See e.g., John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 428.  Carson calls the verse “the most difficult in the NT canon.” – D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” 250.  He runs through seven interpretations and chooses the last, where the coming of the Son of Man refers to the coming judgment against the Jews. (Ibid, 252).  But this leaves points 1 and 4 above untouched and therefore is unsatisfactory.  For more analysis see Ryan E. Meyer, “The Interpretation of Matthew 10:23b.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, 24.0 (NA 2019).  Also, Richard L. Mayhue, “Jesus: A Preterist Or A Futurist?” Masters Seminary Journal, 14:1 (Spring 2003), 75-77.       

[4] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress. See also Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken By Storm.

[5] This negative take on verse 12 is favored by Craig Blomberg, Matthew, 187-188.  A commentator who thinks Jesus intended a kind of double entendre is Daniel M. Doriani, Matthew, Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2008, Vol. 1. 470-471.   

[6] This way of putting the matter owes much to the excellent comments of Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendricksen, 2010, 49-50.  Hosea 6:6 is followed by recrimination “Like men, they have transgressed the covenant…” (Hos. 6:7).  Though admittedly a difficult verse, the transgression of the covenant (in all probability the Mosaic covenant) was because mercy, which reflects “the knowledge of God,” was forgotten, just as in the case of the Pharisees.    

The ‘Rules of Affinity’ Simplified (RePost)

Expanded Rules of Affinity

Premise: If all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for doctrine, it is imperative that our doctrines line up with Scripture.  Theology may be defined as correct alignment with the pronouncements of the Bible.

The ‘Rules’ demonstrate that some doctrines line up much more closely to Scripture than others.  Those with a very strong, direct “affinity” are ranked in the first category (C1).  Those with the weakest claim to any affinity with the text of the Bible are ranked category five (C5).

C1 = a direct statement

 Examples include:

  • ·         Creation out of nothing – “The Triune God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing.” – Gen. 1:1f; Isa. 40:28; 45:12; Jer. 10:12; Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:15-16; Heb. 1:2; Heb. 11:3; Rom. 11:36
  • ·         Christ died for all sinners (whosoever believes) – “Christ died for all men (sinners).” – Isa. 53:6; Jn. 1:29; 3:16-17; Rom. 5:6; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; 4:10; 1 Jn. 2:2; Heb. 2:9, 10:29

Most fundamental doctrines are a C1.  A C1 doctrine is taught via a direct quotation of Scripture.

C2 = a strong inference

Examples include:

  • ·         Inerrancy – “The inspired Scriptures are the Word of God before they are the words of men.”

2 Tim. 3:16; Psa. 12:6; Jn. 17:17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21

  • ·         The Trinity – “God exists as one substance yet in three divine, co-equal, distinct, yet eternally inseparable ‘Persons’.  God is one yet three, though in different modes of being.” – Deut. 6:4; Matt. 28:19; Jn. 1:1-3, 18; 14:15-17; 20:28; Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb. 9:14, 10:28-29

A C2 is established on the witness of several clear C1 passages.

Premise: Every major doctrine is a C1 or C2.

C3 = an inference to the best explanation

Examples include:

  • The Pre-Trib Rapture – “Christ will come for His Church prior to the 7 year Tribulation.” – 1 Thess. 4:13f; 1 Cor. 15:50f,; Rom. 11:24f; Dan. 9:24-27

N.B. the G-H method is required for the formulations of Categories 1 through 3, but is usually abandoned for Category 4 & 5 formulations.

A C3 is established on the witness of C1 and C2 texts, which overlap to point to a plausible inference.

C4 = a weak inference

Examples include:

  • ·         The Covenant of Grace – based on ideas like “the one people of God” and “the church as the new Israel”

A C4 is founded on no clear or plain statement of Scripture.

C5 = an inference based on another inference

Examples include:

  • The Christian Sabbath – Sunday replacing the Jewish Sabbath

A C5 is an even weaker inference based on other theological inferences, without reference to plain statements of Scripture.

Conclusion: We should only formulate our beliefs from C1’s and C2’s with some reference to C3’s.  On the other hand, doctrines supported only by C4’s and C5’s should be suspected of relying too much on human reasoning without Scripture.

Satan Tempts the Christ (2)

Part One

The second temptation of Jesus in Matthew concerns the protection of God:

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: `He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, `In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'” – Matthew 4:5-6.

            The “pinnacle”[1] of the temple was one of the highest points in Jerusalem.  Perhaps Satan imagined that this place, even though it was absent the Shekinah glory, would spice up the temptation?  In any event, the baiting refrain “If you are the Son of God” is more prominent this time, being backed by a “proof-text” from Psalm 91:11-12.  In this well known Psalm the promise of help is to those who abide “in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psa. 91:1).  They will be protected from outside evil, not from their own impetuosity.  What Satan was doing was misapplying the scripture.  This reminds us why context is so important to proper interpretation.           

Jesus said to him, “It is written again, `You shall not tempt the LORD your God.'” – Matthew 4:7.

            The Lord did not allow Himself to get pulled into an argument about context.  He showed that the devil was wrong by citing a passage that nullified the temptation.  If it is sinful to try to tempt God, then it is clear that Psalm 91 is being misused.  But note again that the plain sense of the passages is never at issue.

            When we come to the third temptation (as Matthew has it), we need not be long delayed by trying to ask how Christ could be shown all the world’s kingdoms from one location.  On a globe this would be impossible,[2] but if Satan produced a kind of screen where the kingdoms were depicted, that would work.  Again, perhaps Mt. Hermon[3] or Mt. Pisgah was used to add to the overall impression?[4]  But whatever the case, this is the record of the event:

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” – Matthew 4:8-9.

            This was an extremely presumptuous seduction, and it ended in a rebuke.  Rather than misapplying Scripture or trying to lure Jesus into independence from God, this enticement was to bypass the cross and receive the “Kingdom” without having to endure the misery and pain.  If one recalls that the Creation Project culminates upon the reign of the Messiah upon the earth God made “through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16), we can see that this tempts Jesus to gain something that is legitimately entitled to, but by illegitimate means.  The pronouncement of God at the baptism of Jesus alluded to the Davidic covenant: “I will be his Father, and he shall be My son.” (1 Chron. 17:13).  What Satan is trying to do is to offer the Davidic rule without Jesus first having to redeem the world.[5] 

            Mention of the Davidic covenant reminds us that “covenant” was in the minds of both Satan and the Lord.  Not a transformation of the covenant either, for if Jesus knew that the Davidic covenant was to undergo transformation (e.g., via typology) this would have been no temptation at all.  It would have been a pure waste of energy from the devil’s point of view. 

            It is just here that we must introduce Luke’s account, because he includes some added information:

And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.  Therefore, if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.” – Luke 4:6-7.

            What this text reveals is extremely telling.  There is no reason to deny that it was within Satan’s power to gift the kingdoms of this world to whomever he chose.[6]  He is elsewhere called “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), and in Revelation 13:2 we read that “The dragon gave him [the beast] his power, his throne, and great authority,” while “all who dwell on the earth” will worship the beast, who is under the authority of Satan (Rev. 13:4, 8. Cf. Rev. 12:9).  And in order for it to be a temptation Jesus would have had to have known that it was a real possibility (we cannot entertain the notion that He was ignorant of Satan’s power and authority).  Moreover, Jesus does not question the devil’s assertion of authority over the earth, any more than He questioned his interpretation of the Kingdom.  The test did not lay in that direction.  Rather, the rub was in the final clause; “if you will fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9).[7]  And that is what makes this last temptation so significant for Bible interpretation.  If Satan made a bona fide offer (minus the improper idolatry) then one is faced with the reality of the two-part mission of Christ and the reality of the coming earthly Kingdom.  Since modern amillennialism has abandoned the spiritual interpretation of the Kingdom (i.e., making it Heaven) this does not present as much of a problem for it as formerly.  But the fact that amillennialism still teaches that the Kingdom began with the church is brought into question by this event.  So too postmillennialism teaches that the Kingdom will be brought about by the Spirit of God working through the church, but that is called into question here too. 

            What must be done is notice must be taken of the continuity with OT covenant expectation which is implicit in this exchange.  This is an important hermeneutical passage that has often been evaded.  Jesus does not accuse Satan of an empty promise.  In order for this to have been a temptation the “carrot” had to be real.                               


[1] This may refer to the flat porch overlooking the Kidron Valley over 400 feet below.

[2] Incidentally, it would also be impossible on an ancient flat earth model because of perspective. 

[3] Since there was some supra-natural power behind this temptation the mountain might have been located anywhere. 

[4] I see little problem in Satan (under God’s authority as in Job 1) being permitted to whisk Jesus to a suitable location for the temptation before returning Him.  But the fact is, we simply do not know how this carried out.   

[5] D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” EBC, Volume 8, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984, 114.

[6] Contra I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 172.

[7] Most interpreters are clear about this.  E.g., Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1 – 13, 68; D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” 114; Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 88.       

CONTEMPORARY HERMENEUTICAL THEORY AND CONSERVATIVE INTERPRETATION (2)

Part One

Footnotes follow on from last time.

The Hermeneutical Landscape

The philosopher of religion Gregory Clark admits that, “[some] sources regularly describe the variety of hermeneutical approaches practiced today as ‘dizzying’.”[22]

In closing his article Clark writes:

“Hermeneutics as a discipline is as wild and woolly as it has ever been, and its future shape and even its existence are impossible to predict.”[23]

Reading the “movers and shakers” in evangelical hermeneutics today is a little foreboding. It might be well to start off then by reminding ourselves of a standard definition of hermeneutics:

Hermeneutics…is both a science and an art. As a science, it enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results. As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult Scriptures. The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes a valid exegetical procedure.[24]

It would be helpful to add to this Ramm’s observation that it “stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game.”[25]  In addition, Ramm added that what the interpreter is looking for is the single-meaning of any passage: “But here we must remember the old adage: ‘Interpretation is one; application is many.’ This means that there is only one meaning to a passage of Scripture, which is determined by careful study.”[26]

Contrast Ramm’s words with those of the prominent British Old Testament scholar David J. A. Clines who writes:

I have been impressed in this study [of Esther] by the value of as many strategies as possible for reading a text. As a critic of the text, I should hate to be restricted by a methodological purism. What I have noticed is that different strategies confirm, complement or comment on other strategies, and so help develop an integrated but polychromatic reading.[27]

Or again,

My experience with Psalm 23 was enough to convince me that ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ are not categories to be applied to interpretations, that, as far as I could see, a text can mean anything at all, and that I myself was (oxymoronically) an absolute indeterminist.[28]

Clines exults that he can explore the text of the Bible with complete methodological abandon. This freedom has not come to him through the mere exercise of the imagination. It is a result of studying the philosophical hermeneutics of people like Roland Barthes and Richard Rorty, both of whom teach that subjectivity is desirable in reading a text.[29]  Objectivity is a mirage, a dream perpetuated by the sort of naiveté demonstrated only by intransigent ultra conservatives.

It behooves us then to briefly chart some of what has been going on in the world of mainline hermeneutics so that we might better access what conservative interpreters are being influenced by, not to mention what dispensationalists are increasingly likely to come up against.

Schleiermacher

Modern hermeneutics started with F. D. E. Schleiermacher (d. 1834). Operating from a background that mixed German Pietism and Kantian Idealism, Schleiermacher believed that to confine biblical hermeneutics to a set of previously drawn up “rules of interpretation” was to decide the outcome of ones exegesis before the text had been analyzed. He stated that for any interpretation to take place the interpreter must provisionally know something about text itself. This he referred to as “preunderstanding.”[30]  There must, he said, be some preliminary understanding of a subject, say, “love,” before that subject can be comprehended from the page. As R. E. Palmer puts it,

“Is it not vain to speak of love to one who has not known love, or of the joys of learning to those who reject it? One must already have, in some measure, a knowledge of the matter being discussed.”[31]

Schleiermacher, then, proceeded to divide hermeneutics into two components, the linguistic and the psychological.[32]  The linguistic or grammatical approach, with which we are all familiar, whereby, “the reader needs to use objective, grammatical methods to acquire an exhaustive knowledge of original languages and the historical and literary contexts of a text.”[33] This he believed in strongly, and, in fact, he made several important clarifications along this line.[34]  But this was not enough. For Schleiermacher, and for many mainline interpreters since his time, the reader has to become connected with the original author’s psyche at the time and place he wrote. This psychological aspect he called “divination.” As he himself said, “The divinatory is that in which one transforms oneself into the other person in order to grasp his individuality directly.”[35]

There must be an attentive acculturation of the reader to the personality of the writer. The reader must “reexperience the thoughts of the author”[36]  He must not only enter his world but, with imagination and empathy, read the author’s intellectual and emotional experience, even his sub-conscience.[37]  If there is any sympathy between subject and object there is an “inspiration” already in the reader which allows him to do this.[38]

Schleiermacher didn’t believe the interpretation ended at a certain point in the process. There would be constant interplay between the reader and the text and the world of understanding of both.[39]  Not only that, but the new understanding generated by the process teaches the reader’s understanding (that is, his “preunderstanding”) before he sits down to reread.

“The fuller (or more accurate) understanding “speaks back” to the preunderstanding to correct and to reshape it. This revision contributes to a better understanding. Hence, to reread a “difficult” book, or even to undertake successive readings, may bring about a deeper understanding of it”.[40]

There is no doubt about Schleiermacher’s influence upon hermeneutical theory. He prepared the ground for all the hermeneutics theorists down to the present day.[41]

Gadamer[42]

Hans-Georg Gadamer (d. 2002), was a student of both Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann. His work on hermeneutics, particularly his tome Truth and Method have been enormously influential. Gadamer is responsible, perhaps more than any other, for shifting the emphasis of interpretation away from authorial intention and on to the reader.[43]  He did this through the rhetorical device of the “two horizons” – the horizon of the biblical text and the horizon of the modern interpreter. The horizon of the reader (also called the “Horizon of Meaning”) involves not only the reader, but the methodological parameters set down, usually unconsciously, by the community of which he is a part. Possible meanings, then, are circumscribed by the interpretive community. As the complexion of the community changes, so do the parameters of viable interpretation and thus the range of possible meanings.[44]  By contrast the “Horizon of the Text” is that “set of assumptions that underlie a text and establish its point of view within its own historical circumstances.”[45]

The aim of hermeneutics is to seek “for the place where the horizons of the text and the interpreter intersect or engage.”[46]  This concept may at first seem innocent enough, since one cannot deny that because of the different historical, cultural and psychological life-situations of ancient author and modern reader one can never be certain that one has fully understood the author’s meaning, only that one has very probably understood it.[47]

But this isn’t what Gadamer means, for he goes on to say that each reader’s situation is different: One cannot affirm the existence (and importance) of one horizon and not others. When we – as twenty-first century American evangelicals – understand Scripture, we do so on the basis of our own horizon.[48]

Thus, one must take into consideration the cultural context of the reader, and, since we all have a cultural context, my interpretation of a biblical passage has no more right to validity than, say, a different interpretation by someone from India.[49] As one writer illustrates the matter,

A linguist asks a group made up of Africans and missionaries to tell him the main point of the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. The Europeans speak of Joseph as a man who remained faithful to God no matter what happened to him. The Africans, on the other hand, point to Joseph as a man who, no matter how far he traveled, never forgot his family.[50]

Where does this leave us as interpreters?  For many followers of modern hermeneutical theory it casts more or less doubt upon the idea of objectivity in Bible interpretation.[51]  For this reason Gadamer has been described as standing “on the boundary-line between modern and post-modern thought.”[52]


[22] Greg Clark, “Contemporary Hermeneutics,” in Scot McKnight & Grant Osbourne, editors, The Face of New Testament Studies, (Apollos, 2004), 115.
[23] Ibid, 117.
[24] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 20.
[25] Ramm, 11.
[26] Ibid, 113.
[27] Quoted by Craig G. Bartholomew, “Postmodernity and Biblical Interpretation,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 604.
[28] Ibid.
[29] See W. Randolph Tate, Interpreting the Bible: A Handbook of Terms and Methods, (Peabody, MT: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).
[30] Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons, (Exeter, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1980), 103. This book, more than any other, is responsible for much of the re-thinking about hermeneutics that has been going-on within evangelical scholarship. Thomas contends, “This… work radically altered the way that many evangelicals interpret the Bible.” – Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 18.
[31] Cited in Thiselton, 104.
[32] David K. Clark, To Know And Love God: Method For Theology, (Wheaton, Ill, Crossway Books, 2003), 104-105.
[33] Greg Clark, “General Hermeneutics,” in, eds., Scot McKnight & Grant R. Osborne, The Face of New Testament Studies, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 109.
[34] David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 163. Hirsch called Schleiermacher’s aphorisms, found in the first part of his lectures on Hermeneutik, “among the most profound contributions to hermeneutics.” – E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 263.
[35] Cited in Thiselton, The Two Horizons, 107.
[36] Greg Clark, “General Hermeneutics,” 109.
[37] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 163.
[38] Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 72-73.
[39] Thiselton, 104.
[40] Anthony C. Thiselton, “Hermeneutical Circle,” in Gen. Ed., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 281.
Note. Schleiermacher spoke of a hermeneutical circle, but the idea of a “spiral” was seen as closer to the mark. A good definition of the hermeneutical spiral is found in Thiselton’s conception of it when he states that “the emphasis lies not only on the inter-action between the parts and the whole, but on a process of revision which modifies the interpreter’s exploratory understanding in the light of the text.” – Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, (London: Marshall Pickering, 1992), 222.
[41] Schleiermacher gave hermeneutics a much wider brief than it had enjoyed prior to his time. He basically made it a way of knowing, not just the text before the reader, but the reader’s world. He moved it into the realm of epistemology.
[42] I move straight from Schleiermacher to Gadamer to save time.A fuller study would have to take into account the work of Dilthey, Heidegger, and Bultmann.
[43] Gadamer emphasizes the text as a distinct voice independent of the author.In his hands this ends up handing interpretive authority to the reader.Hence, the radical form of “reader-response” theory.
[44] Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 170.
[45] Ibid, emphasis added.
[46] Harvie M. Conn, “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,” in ed., Harvie M. Conn, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 188.
[47] Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 17-18, 255, 263.
[48] Bruce Ellis Benson, ‘“Now I Would Not Have You Ignorant”: Derrida, Gadamer, Hirsch and Husserl on Authors’ Intentions,” in eds., Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguelez and Dennis L. Okholm, Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, (Downers Grove, Il: IVP, 2004), 189.
This is the text of a Symposium held at Wheaton College in 2001. The essays in the book clearly illustrate the kind of “downgrade” which is in process within at least some evangelical institutions.
[49] Thus, there arises the problem of “contextualization.” Upon which see, David K. Clark, To Know And Love God, 99-131. In my opinion Clark goes too far in his development of an “Evangelical” approach to contextualization by not sufficiently seeing the need to critique differing evangelical “cultures.” An even more surefooted appraisal of contextualization which takes the whole “Seeker-sensitive” phenomenon into consideration is David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
[50] Conn, “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,” 188-189.
[51] One might think of postconservative theologians like F. LeRon Shults.
[52] Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 314.