Left Behind Theology – A Critical Look

A young lady recently asked one of the authors here about the “Left Behind” phenomenon, and specifically the theology undergirding the perspective. She wanted some help understanding the viewpoint. Since we haven’t posted anything on the topic, it seemed good to go ahead and say a few things.

Now to be perfectly transparent, I haven’t read the Left Behind series, nor have I watched the movie. If the reviews over at IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes are any indication, no one in their right mind would consider doling out money to watch the show. One reviewer bemoaned it this way, “I am now relatively certain there is a Hell and it is a darkened theater with no doors showing Left Behind on a loop for eternity.”

Ouch!

But never mind the movie. What about the theology behind it?

While there are many variations and nuanced differences within this particular school of thought, the theological perspective motivating the ideas found in Left Behind originate with a viewpoint known as dispensationalism.

Much could be said about this. In fact, to really get a firm grasp on the position, as well as some of the more recent developments (known as Progressive Dispensationalism), it would require reading book length works. Here are a few (the first being a good introduction to the four major eschatological views):

• The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, general editor, Robert Clouse.
• Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? by Keith Mathison
• Understanding Dispensationalists, by Vern Poythress
• A Case for Amillennialism, by Kim Riddlebarger

While the term dispensational might not be familiar to everyone, it is likely that the names David Jeremiah, Chuck Swindoll, or John McArthur ring a bell. These would all hold to some form of dispensationalism. In reality, dispensationalism is probably the dominant view of popular Evangelicalism.

Now in terms of some of its core convictions, two big ones would include the question of hermeneutics (the science and art of interpreting literature) and the separation of Israel and the church.

That might seem odd, especially when we’re talking about one’s view of the end. But it must be borne in mind that dispensationalism, like any other theological framework, is a system of thought. Once you affirm certain key truths, the trajectory for other doctrines is set.

So let’s think about Israel and the church. Dispensationalists believe that Israel is not the church; they are fundamentally different. God has a distinct plan for Israel and a distinct plan for the church. And this belief is partly borne out of a conviction that we must take prophecies in the Old Testament about Israel as literally as possible. They do not see (for the most part) these as being fulfilled in Christ or the church. That would be a big no-no for them. Of course, it’s hard for me not to interject all kinds of retorts at this juncture, as it is quite plain in Scripture that those prophecies are largely fulfilled in Christ and the church, and that they are fulfilled in a manner consonant with a literal understanding, but I must restrain myself. Consult the above books for all the evidence you could ever want.

The upshot of all of this is that God has a plan for Israel that is fundamentally separate from the church. So for hundreds and hundreds of years, God worked with Israel. Then there was a mysterious interruption introduced called the church. During this time, God works through the church until it is raptured from the earth near the end of history. Daniel’s seventieth week (which is a seven year period of time) then ensues. Here is where you will see all kinds of charts with various strange happenings occurring on the planet. Most of these strange happenings are taken from the book of Revelation (on their very literal reading of it, mind you).

Now during this time, Israel becomes a unique focus of attention. More amazing events unfold on the planet until the seven years comes to a close. Near the end there is a great battle and the Lord’s return. After this there is a 1,000 year millennial reign. Towards the end of that, there is another rebellion. Then comes the end-end.

This is a very brief and largely truncated overview of the position, but it should provide a basic flavor.

In terms of my own opinion about it… well, I grew up believing this. It was what I was taught. My wife and I experienced the perspective first-hand. And I must say, in all candor, that it is not only biblically deficient, but it is down-right bad theology. When I speak with people who adhere to this perspective (or are unwittingly influenced by the position), I urge them, as tactfully as possible, to seriously consider another, more biblical approach.

Bad theology always has bad implications. Dispensationalism is no different. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere, so if you’re curious how this affected me personally, give it a look.  I’ll post the article below.

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The Church, Israel, and the Promises of God

By A. C. Brown

Back in 2007, Pastor John MacArthur kicked off a pastor’s conference, an annual event aptly named the Shepherd’s Conference, with a bang, choosing to address a very controversial subject, namely, Israel and eschatology, in the opening session.  If that weren’t explosive enough, he entitled his lecture, “Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is a Premillennialist.”  John MacArthur is many things- and coward is not one of them.  He waded right out into the deep waters of eschatology and ecclesiology and took a stand, planting the banner of dispensationalism firmly in the ground, calling Christians to remain consistent to a literal hermeneutic, as well as arguing that God’s faithfulness is at stake regarding national Israel.  The OT promises must be fulfilled in Israel and not spiritualized and applied to the Church.  That marked his clarion call.

One might certainly question whether or not he should have said “Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is a Dispensationalist,” given historic premillennialism, but never mind that.  For MacArthur it’s clear.  The central tenets of dispensationalism are fundamental to upholding God’s faithfulness, when it comes to Israel.  And for him that is what is crucial.  It comes down to how one understands Israel.  Israel is key.

He put it this way:

“Now all that leads us to this: if you get Israel right you will get eschatology right. If you don’t get Israel right you will never get eschatology right. Never. And you’ll migrate from one view to another just depending on the last book you read or the last lecture you heard . . . . If you get eschatology right it’s because you get Israel right. You get Israel right when you get the Old Testament covenants and promises right. You get the Old Testament covenants and promises right when you get the interpretation of Scripture right. You get interpretation of Scripture right when you’re faithful to a legitimate hermeneutic and God’s integrity is upheld. Get your hermeneutics right, you’ll get the Old Testament promises right. Get promises right, you’ll get Israel right. Get Israel right, you’ll get eschatology right. The Bible calls God the God of Israel over 200 times. The God of Israel. There are over 2,000 references to Israel in Scripture, not one of them means anything but Israel…”

The bottom line is this:  Israel is not the Church.  And in fact, to equate those causes one to make grievous mistakes, both theologically and practically.  He called this error replacement theology:

“Replacement theology this is called, by the way, and scholastically often referred to as supersessionism. It demands that the Old Testament promises be viewed through the lens of the New Testament.”

As someone who adheres to the basic presuppositions underlying what is commonly referred to as covenant theology, I’d like to explain what I mean when I say that Israel is the Church.  But I’d like to do more than that.  I’d like to take a look at one section of Scripture that provides the basic rationale for my position; a passage that seriously challenged my theological outlook as a dispensationalist.  Of course, I’m not so naïve as to think one passage can overturn an entire paradigm- there’s a lot that needs to be considered- but I cannot help but think that Ephesians 2:11-22 shouldn’t get the ball rolling.  It pushed me over the edge[1].  So why not others?

To quote MacArthur again, he said, “If you get Israel right you will get eschatology right.”  I agree (in a sense).  If we understand Paul’s view of the Church, we will rightly understand Israel.  So let’s consider the passage:

(11) “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands– (12) remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (13) But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (14) For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility (15) by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, (16) and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.  (17)  And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. (18) For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (19) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, (20) built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, (21) in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (22) In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

In verses 11, Paul calls upon his Gentile audience to remember something.  He wants them to remember what they were formerly, that is, before they believed in Christ.  In so doing, Paul draws their attention to what they did not possess while living apart from God.  It’s a dark and dire inventory.

  • They were separate from Christ
  • Alienated from the commonwealth of Israel
  • Strangers to the covenants of promise
  • Devoid of hope
  • And without God in the world

Instead of functioning as a discouragement, the list actually serves to highlight the magnitude of the blessings they now enjoy in Jesus Christ.  This is borne out in verse 13 when Paul says, “But now in Christ you…”  What they did not have before is currently a present possession in Christ.

Now what is particularly striking for our present purposes are two of the five blessings mentioned by Paul, namely, (1) Believing Gentiles are part of the commonwealth of Israel and (2) they are no longer strangers to the covenants of promise.

It’s interesting that Paul says Gentiles are no longer alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.  This means that they’re citizens of Israel, not foreigners, but genuine members of the household of God (2:19).  As fellow citizens it means that they share in the kingdom rights.  They, like Jews, are entitled to the privileges of belonging to the people of God.

Not only that, Paul says they are members of the household of God.  The term household certainly carries with it familial connotations.  For Jews, blood descendants of Abraham, this was readily understood.  Yet now in Christ, Gentiles are part of this family, which is an astonishing mystery (Eph 3:1-7).  They have been adopted into God’s family.  They are true sons and daughters of the Most High.  And as sons and daughters, they are heirs, recipients of God’s promises.

Now if they are heirs, it should come as no surprise that Paul says Gentiles are no longer strangers to the covenants (plural) of promise (vs. 12).  There’s a natural correlation between the two concepts.  If one is part of Israel, then they are heirs of the covenants, called to believe what God has promised.  And since Gentiles are fellow citizens alongside believing Jews, then they too can lay claim to the covenants.  All this follows quite naturally.

Now this raises a number of interesting questions, but for the moment, all I simply want to infer is that Gentiles are part of Israel, the true people of God[2].

The next step in the logic of affirming that the Church is the New Israel is to note what Paul says in verses 14-15.

He states,

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…”

For Paul, there existed a notable gulf between Jews and Gentiles in the OT economy.  But now in Christ Jesus, the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down and both Jews and Gentiles are made one.  That was the aim of Christ abolishing in his flesh the enmity.  He wanted to create, in Himself, one new man in place of the two.

Note the phrase, “one new man in place of the two.”  Jews and Gentiles are now assembled together into something that is both new and created.  In this respect, the words “new” and “create” are related conceptually in the verse.  They relate to Christ’s merging Jews and Gentiles together in Himself, which is both a creative activity and one that results in making something new.

What is this result? A new man is made.

But a new man made from what?  Paul says, “in place of the two,” the two being Jews and Gentiles.

Now this is important.  For Paul the cross work of Christ in tearing down the dividing wall of hostility ushered Gentiles into the commonwealth of Israel.  It incorporated them into the household of God.  But the “destructive” process required for their being united together was of such a nature that it resulted in the creation of something essentially new.  And that something is the Church, the body of Christ.

In this respect, one might reasonably say that Israel has grown.  It has expanded.  The nations of the world are pouring in, bursting its seams.  But it’s also undergone significant change.  By virtue of what Christ has accomplished (along with the attendant blessings that flow from that redemptive work), it’s certainly right to say that this is new work.  But to stress again, this newness isn’t disconnected from the past, rather it builds upon it.

So what we see, which is part and parcel of biblical theology, is continuity with the past, as well as discontinuity, in light of the transformation that occurred with Christ’s first advent[3].

The Church, therefore, is nothing less than Israel.  But it’s not simply Israel of old.  It’s a new Israel.  A transformed Israel.  The beginnings of the consummate Israel, which is the bride, the Lamb’s wife (Rev 21:2, 9), the great city, the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:10).  In this respect, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see apostles applying words spoken originally of Israel to the Church.  Consider an example from Peter:

1Pe 2:9-10: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  (10)  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Exo 19:5-6:  Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; (6) and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”Deu 7:6:  For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.

Is it right then to speak of this as replacement theology or supersessionism?  Most covenant theologians don’t care for these terms.  They prefer expansion theology.  It seems right to me to stress the engrafting of the Gentiles into the vine of Israel, while also remembering the “rootness” of Israel (Romans 11:18).

But what about the Promises?

Earlier, while commenting on the fact that Gentiles are no longer strangers to the covenants of promise, I mentioned that it raised a number of interesting questions.  It raises a number of intriguing questions because we are suddenly confronted with the idea that Gentiles are now in a position of adopting the promises as their own, the promises given originally to Israelites.

Initially, one might first ask what covenants are in view since Paul asserts a bare plurality (“Covenants of promise”).  But given the fact that Paul doesn’t feel the need to explain himself, showing that he isn’t afraid of overstating the issue, it seems reasonable to assert that he has all the covenants in mind.  And indeed, if Gentiles are truly part of the commonwealth of Israel, then surely it follows that whatever covenant was given to the Jews would apply to Gentiles.  The two would be co-extensive.

So if we proceed on that assumption, we are going to have to ask ourselves a question like this:  Should a Gentile look at, let’s say, the Abrahamic Covenant and claim the land promise for himself?”

It’s a legitimate question, right?  And if it is, and I believe it is, then does it mean that I should fly over to Israel, blow a trumpet and start retaking the land?  Surely our Christian sensibilities tell us no.  Can one imagine all the vast multitudes of Gentile Christians trying to squeeze into Jerusalem, claiming the city as their own by divine right?  And when challenged are they going to use force to retake the land?  Surely not.

For the dispensationalist, however, they believe ethnic Jews ultimately have that right.  But again, given what Paul has stated in Ephesians, how can we draw such a distinction?  Gentiles are fellow heirs, so if Jews are entitled, then why not Gentiles?

I believe we begin to find an answer in 2 Corinthians 1:19-20.  It reads:

“2Co 1:19-20  For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes.  (20)  For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.”

Lest we think Gentiles are not full heirs of the covenantal promises, Paul asserts that all the promises are “Yes” in Christ.  None are excluded.  That should be clear.  But it’s important to note where these promises find their “yes.”  They are always yes “in Him,” that is Christ.

This is not only a staggering reality, but it’s absolutely crucial to understanding biblical theology.  Christ is the hermeneutic through which we understand the Scriptures.  He is the fulfillment of the promises, and as such, the promises are interpreted in light of His coming.  Or to say it another way, the promises blossom in Christ[4].  The OT foreshadowed future realities through types and shadows.  And now that Christ has come, the promises find their realization in Him.

So, for example, we learn in the NT that Christ is the true Temple.  We learn that Christ is the Passover.  Christ is the greater Moses, the greater Exodus, the eternal Sabbath, the true Shepherd, the true bread of life, David’s greater Son, the ultimate Prophet, Priest and King.  He is the one true sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world.  He is the second Adam.  And He is the true Seed of Abraham.

When we understand the promises in light of Christ, as finding their fulfillment in Him, it’s easy to see how both Jews and Gentiles share in the promises equally.  For if someone is in Christ, the promises apply (Gal 3:26-29; Col 3:11).

But what about the question we posed earlier regarding the Promised Land?  Here we must note the flow of biblical history.  God’s original intentions for Adam and Eve were to multiply, fill and subdue the earth.  God always had His eye on the world.  But when sin entered humanity, God began to work through the seed of the woman, a righteous remnant opposing the seed of the serpent (Gen 3:14-15).  He worked through Abraham and His descendents giving them a special Land that functioned as a picture of God’s larger designs[5].  Israel was to trust God and overtake the larger, more numerous enemies, which were ultimately nothing more than instruments of Satan, the ruler of the kingdom of darkness, seeds of the serpent.  Once planted in the Land through Joshua, Israel enjoyed many blessings, eventually enthroning a king, building a temple and enjoying many other great and precious gifts.  Yet sin kept tearing it apart.  So the prophets continually spoke of a greater David to come, one who would restore their land and heal the nation.  This righteous branch to come was Jesus Christ.  And when He restored Israel in Himself, fulfilling the promises of God, the land given in the Abrahamic covenant naturally universalized in its scope, as it was always God’s intention for Adam to subdue the world unto the LORD.  While the first Adam failed, the second Adam, namely, Christ, proved faithful, and all dominion and power has been given to Him (Link Psalm 2 with Matt 28:18).  So Christ is subduing the world until all His enemies are made His footstool (Heb 10:13; 1 Cor 15:22-27).  Thus the Kingdom of God is growing like a mustard seed.  The stone made without hands is knocking down opposing empires.  The garden-Temple of Eden is spreading across the face of the earth[6].  Therefore, the Promised Land is no longer a small plot of soil located in the Middle-East, but it’s the entire earth.

In this respect, note how the NT authors express this idea.

(1)   In his epistle to the Romans, Paul says this:

Romans 4:13: “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”

Robert Strimple asks a basic question, “Where in the OT do you find the promise that Paul refers to here?  Nowhere if you insist on a strict literalism.  But you find it in Genesis 17:8… if you see that this is inspired apostolic instruction of the OT promise that Paul is giving us here.[7]”    If that is true, then Paul universalizes the land promise.

(2)   In the epistle to the Ephesians, Paul says this:

Eph 6:1-3, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (2) “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), (3) “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land (or “on the earth”).”

It’s astonishing that Paul takes what is written in the Ten Commandments and applies it to the children of Gentile Christians.  But what is even more astonishing is what Paul does with the text.  He appears to change it.  Many translations of Ephesians say “earth,” not “land.”  But why would Paul, a devout Jewish Christian, ever dream of altering the text?  Because now, in Christ, the land promise has exploded, engulfing the globe.

(3)   In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author says this:

Heb 11:8-10, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. (9) By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. (10) For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”  (See also verses 13-16).

Here the author points out that Abraham, to whom the land promise was first given, was not looking just to Canaan, but to that city that has foundations.  He was looking beyond it to the greater reality.

(4)   In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says this:

Mat 5:5, “”Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Here Jesus is referencing Psalm 37:11.  But in its original context it does not say “earth,” but rather “land.”  Once again the concept of the land has been expanded to fit the new realities found in Christ[8].

More generally, it’s striking to note the utter absence of anything said in NT about the Promised Land, considered narrowly, and its relation to ethic Israel.  There’s nothing written about it.  Surely that is a signal.  Surely Peter or Paul would have said something to their Jewish brethren, if they believed the Palestinian land promise was still operative.  I can’t imagine saying nothing.  I mean really, if Paul was dispensational in his theology, could he have remained silent throughout all his letters?  It’s hard to imagine a modern day dispensationalist doing so.

To sum up, the Church is the new Israel.  The Gentiles have been added to the family of God through Christ Jesus.  And as such, they share the very same blessings and promises Jews in Christ possess.  Therefore there is no fundamental distinction separating them.  Indeed, there cannot be if they are both in Christ, for both Jews and Gentiles are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

Now some dispensationalists will try to maintain some kind of distinction between spiritual blessings and physical blessings, thus preserving a space for the application of certain promises (The land, etc.) to ethnic Jews.  The Church’s domain is more spiritual, they say, Israel more physical.  This simply doesn’t work though.  It’s a foreign concept, scripturally speaking, and it ultimately stems from a desire to preserve theological pre-commitments[9].  When one sees how all the promises relate to Christ, and how the OT promises are actually spiritual in nature, the idea of parceling out certain aspects of a promise to ethnic Jews simply isn’t sustainable.

But doesn’t Israel always mean Israel?

MacArthur raises the point that the Scriptures, when it refers to Israel, never means anything but Israel.  He had this to say at the conference:

“There are over 2,000 references to Israel in Scripture, not one of them means anything but Israel. Not one of them, including Romans 9:6 and Galatians 6:16 which is the only two passages that amillennialists go to trying to convince us that that cancels out the other 2,000. There is no difficulty in interpreting those as simply meaning Jews who were believers; the Israel of God. Israel always means Israel, never means anything but Israel. Seventy three New Testament uses of Israel always mean Israel.”

We must first begin by asking ourselves what MacArthur intends when he says, “Israel is always Israel.”  For the dispensationalist, they want to maintain that when the Bible speaks of Israel, they do not mean the Church, but rather, ethnic Jews.  Jacob was Israel, and his grandfather, Abraham, was given the promise- a promise that involved his descendants- but they have in mind more than simply lineage.  They are thinking of Israel as a national, ethnic entity.  They are thinking of how God organized the people into a nation/kingdom (Genesis 12:2).  That is what Macarthur has in mind.

The upshot is that God has promised certain things to the Jews as national Israel that must still be fulfilled; promises considered apart from the Church.  This explains why Macarthur and other dispensationalists connect God’s faithfulness with national Israel today (which has its place, as we shall see).  And it explains why they view covenant theologians as spiritualizing the text when we see the promises terminating in Christ and the Church.  This, I believe, is what propels MacArthur to labor the point regarding the word “Israel.”

So what does this mean for the Covenant Theologian? Doesn’t Israel mean Israel?  Well, yes, but we don’t believe it’s quite that simple.  I mean really, if it’s true that Gentiles are fellow citizens alongside Jews, then might we simply fall back on the fact that Israel is still Israel, but allow for some redemptive historical nuance?  Allow room for transformation?  Say that Gentiles are now part of Israel?

At this point the dispensationalist might want to say, “But look, brother.  The Bible clearly makes a distinction between Israel and the Church.  That’s my point.  That’s Macarthur’s point.  Israel is still viewed as something distinct.  Why else would Paul use the word Israel in contexts where it clearly suggests some kind of difference, if there isn’t in fact a genuine difference?  Just take Romans.  Paul frequently uses the expression, ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”  He also uses the term Israel like eleven times in chapters 9-11, and it sure looks like Paul is making a distinction between Jews and Gentiles.  Or take 1 Cor 10:32, ‘Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the Church of God.’  If those aren’t distinct categories, I don’t know what is!”

Fair enough.  So does the Bible distinguish between Israel and the Church?  Yes.  It certainly does.  But what kind of distinction does it make?  Does it distinguish between the two in such a manner so as to negate the conclusions drawn from Ephesians 2?  That’s the real question.  And it doesn’t.

Before exploring this further, I think it’s important for us to first consider an issue that directly impacts the subject at hand, an issue that, if true, will prove significant in deepening our perspective.  It’s the idea of Christ as true Israel.  This is significant.  For when we hear MacArthur stress that there are over 2,000 references to Israel in the Bible and none of them mean anything but Israel, it strikes us as a little strange.  It would be akin to someone pointing out how many times the word temple occurs in the OT and how it overwhelmingly refers to a stone structure.  Sure the word has that meaning, but it’s also a multi-layered concept in the typological sense.  For when we come to the NT, we see that Christ is actually the true Temple (John 2:19).  And beyond that, we learn that the Church is a holy Temple, and believers in Christ are said to be living stones.  So it is with Israel.  It’s multi-layered in the typological sense.  So if it’s true that Christ is the true Israel, and if it’s true that Israel has been transformed as a result of what Christ has accomplished, then I think we can agree that the word Israel does mean Israel, but it has a fuller meaning now.

Let’s consider a few points regarding Christ as True Israel and then ask what bearing this has upon Israel and the Church.

Matthew 2:15 reads, “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt (15) and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Rather remarkably, Matthew looks at Joseph and Mary’s fleeing Bethlehem to Egypt until the death of Herod as fulfilling what was said in Hosea 11:1.  This is striking because in the original context Israel is in view.  So one must ask why Matthew would ever apply that passage to Christ.  Might it simply be a case of convenient terminology grouped together (Hey, look! Egypt and son are found in the same verse.)?  Surely not.  No, Matthew sees something more profound at work here.  He sees the history of Israel recapitulated in the life of Jesus.  The NIV study bible captures the idea well when it says, “Just as Israel as an infant nation went down into Egypt, so the child Jesus went there.  And as Israel was led by God out of Egypt, so also was Jesus.”  In this respect, Matthew regards Israel as a type, or a picture of Christ.  This should encourage the student of Scripture to contemplate other parallels, noting not only their occurrences but their overall typological purpose.

Along these lines we also note a passage like Exodus 4:44b when it says, “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son…”  That’s certainly true, but there is also a greater Son who came out of Egypt, namely, Jesus Christ.  He is the Son in the truest and deepest sense; a Trinitarian sense (Matthew 3:17; John 1:14, 17:5).

We note how Isaiah’s servant songs have an apparent double reference, a point that has long baffled Jewish commentators.  For in certain instances they appear to refer to Israel, God’s chosen one and servant (41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 49:3), and yet, in other contexts they appear to refer to an individual (42:1-4).  When we come to the NT we see how these prophesies are interpreted as referring to Christ (Matthew 8:17; Acts 8:30-35), thus linking Christ and Israel[10].

We might also note how Paul identifies Christ, not physical Israel, as Abraham’s seed (Galatians 3:16).

It’s also striking to note how these concepts further weave together in Matthew’s Gospel.  As we have already seen, Matthew applies Hosea 11:1 to Christ in chapter two of his Gospel.  And as with Pharaoh, a cruel king seeking to destroy Jewish male babies, we see Herod seeking to kill Jewish babies in the hope of eliminating the Messiah.  In chapter three, Matthew records Jesus’ baptism and the Father’s pronouncement that, “This is my Son, whom I love; with whom I am well pleased.”  Immediately after that, Matthew recounts how Jesus is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness.  Just as Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, Jesus fasts out in the wilderness for forty days.  And just as Israel was tested, so too is Christ (Matthew 4:1).  Unlike Adam, however, who failed the test, and unlike Israel who failed, Christ as the true Israel and the second Adam, overcomes Satan.  In this respect, note how Jesus quotes, not coincidentally, passages related to the Exodus wilderness wanderings while combating Satan.  Remaining steadfast, Jesus proved to be the truly faithful Servant and Son[11].  And as such, He showed Himself to be the greater Joshua, defeating the enemy of God by trusting in the Father.  And when Satan offered the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, Jesus refused him, knowing that all the kingdoms of the world would be given to Him by His Father (Psalm 2; Matthew 28:18-19).  In this way, Jesus proved to be the true light of the world, something Israel should have been, but failed to be time and time again.

Next Matthew records how Jesus went about “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (4:23). Jesus would be the one to defeat Satan, to crush the serpents head under his foot (Gen 3:15).  His miracles of healing and casting out demons adumbrated that fact and signaled the presence of the Kingdom.  And then, in chapter five, he ascended a mountain, not unlike Moses, and provided the people with God’s Word, showing Himself to be a greater Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6).  And incredibly, He would fulfill the law! (Matthew 5:17).

Because of how the various threads of Scripture come together on this issue, we believe Jesus is true, faithful Israel[12].

So how does this impact the subject at hand?  First, it’s important to note that while Israel means Israel, if you will, we should not understand Israel in a purely static fashion.  It’s a dynamic concept that changes over the course of redemptive history.  Secondly, if Christ is true Israel, then this helps explain another phenomenon in the Scriptures, namely, Paul’s calling Gentiles Jews.

Consider the following passages:

  • Gal 3:27-29, For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  (28)  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (29) And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
  • Php 3:3, For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–
  • Rom 2:28-29, For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. (29) But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God[13].

We see from these verses that Gentiles in Christ are not only viewed as Abraham’s offspring, but they’re actually called Jews, those possessing a true circumcision.  But how can this be?  Recall what was said about the Temple.  Since Christ is the True Temple, and since believers are in Christ, they share an intimate relationship with that reality, hence the Church, which is the body of Christ, is a holy Temple, and each individual is a living stone, functioning as bricks in the growing building.  Therefore, because Christ is true Israel, it follows that those in Him are viewed as Jews.  They are part of the body of Christ, which is comprised of God’s people, the elect.  This understanding goes a long way in explaining Paul’s rationale for calling Gentiles Jews[14].

This is made even more evident when we observe a corollary: Jews outside of Christ, while still ethnically Jewish, forfeit their special status of being part of God’s people.

Consider the following passages:

  • John 8:31-44, So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, (32) and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (33) They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (34) Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (35) The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.  (36)  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (37) I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. (38) I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” (39) They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, (40) but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. (41) You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father–even God.” (42) Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. (43) Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. (44) You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Here Jesus acknowledges that the Jews speaking to Him are the offspring of Abraham, but because they aren’t sincere believers, they are in point of fact not children of God, but children of the devil.  Their true identity is devilish.

  • Rev 2:8-9, “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. (9) “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
  • Rev 3:9, “Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie–behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.”

Jesus not only refutes those claiming to be true Jews/Israel by virtue of their physical lineage, but He actually calls them a synagogue of Satan (note the choice of the term “synagogue”).  Conversely, this strongly suggests that the Church constitutes true Israel; they are the true circumcision and those who worship in the true Temple and are therefore true Jews[15].

Other examples could be explored[16], but I trust the point is evident: Christ is true Israel, and Gentiles, by virtue of union with Christ, are engrafted into the one Vine.

Let’s return now to the question of the use of Israel in the NT.  Here we could spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the various occurrences of Israel in the NT, but it isn’t necessary.  Let’s simply concede that the vast majority of the uses either refer to the land of Israel, or ethnic Jews, or the Jewish nation.  But if this is the case, as I am admitting, then how can I continue to claim that the Church is Israel?  Isn’t it rather nonsensical to insist that Israel means Israel- a category distinct from the Church- while yet maintaining that the Church is Israel?  Certainly not.  Here I am merely following Paul’s lead, both recognizing and employing his own distinctions.  And this, I believe, is most clearly witnessed in Romans chapters 9-11.  So to this we turn.

Israel, Israel, Israel’s Future and God’s Faithfulness.

Before delving into the text, it is worth noting MacArthur’s overriding concern again, which is the deep concern of dispensationalists in general.  During the 2007 Shepherd Conference, MacArthur belabored the point that Israel is elect, and if we Calvinists are going to be consistent, if we are going to truly cherish sovereign grace, then we will uphold Israel’s election, trusting that God will most certainly, effectually and infallibly, fulfill the OT promises given to Israel, which means God will save them, bringing to pass all that He said He would accomplish (According to a “normal” or “literal” or “face value” hermeneutic, of course).  Here it should be stressed that MacArthur was more than a little passionate, urging his listeners, with no whispering, that God is faithful!  “God is faithful!” he liked to shout.  After a long discourse on the election of Israel, tracing God’s promises through redemptive history, he arrived at Romans 11.  He stated,

“And then, perhaps most notably (and we’re hurrying a little bit) Romans 11. And I don’t need to go into this—you know it very, very well. Romans 11:26, “…all Israel will be saved.” How can you interpret that? One way! You tell me that’s not Israel?! Where in the text does it say it’s not Israel? I would understand if it said, “And God has cancelled His promises to Israel.” But it says all Israel will be saved just as it is written “The Deliverer will come from Zion, will remove ungodliness from Jacob. This is My covenant with them when I take away their sins.” Yes, they are enemies at the present time, but that is for the sake of the Gentiles. Verse 29, “…the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

MacArthur is partially right.  He’s right to stress that Israel should be interpreted as Israel in Romans 11.  But he’s wrong to think that the Church as New Israel somehow undermines this fact.  The two concepts are perfectly compatible.

Let’s begin with Romans 9:6.  After discussing our glorious security in God’s electing love (Romans 8), Paul anticipates a question.  Paul could imagine someone asking, “Well, all that security is fine and dandy, Mr. Christian, but what about Israel?  They were elected by God and look at them.  Hasn’t their apostasy led to their rejection?”

To this, Paul answers in a most surprising manner.  He first catalogs a long list of Israel’s blessings and divine privileges (9:1-5) and then says (6-8), “It is not as though God’s Word had failed.  For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.  Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.  On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’  In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.”

Paul’s answer to the charge that God’s Word had failed, with respect to Israel, is to point out that not all of Israel is Israel[17].  In other words, not all of Israel corporately considered (all Jews according to the flesh), are true spiritual Israel (the elect).  This is Paul’s distinction, and it preserves God’s faithfulness, for God has indeed remained faithful to His Word, sustaining a remnant of Jews.  Paul puts it this way,

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. (2a) God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” (Romans 11:1-2a)

So for Paul, there is an Israel referring to unbelieving ethnic Jews, and there is an Israel referring to Christian ethnic Jews[18].

As Romans 9 progresses, Paul argues that it is fully within God’s divine prerogative to elect whom He chooses.  And then, in striking fashion, Paul widens his audience, suddenly including Gentiles in the discussion (verse 24, “even us.”).  He declares that Gentiles are part of this elective calling, effectively placing them within the scope of spiritual Israel, which, he argues, accords with Scripture (Note the OT proof texts).  This Israel, we later learn, is the Vine of Romans 11, and it is clearly comprised of both believing Jews and Gentiles.

Sam Storm explains, with an eye on two OT passages quoted by Paul,

“In Romans 9:25-26, Paul cites two passages in Hosea (2:23 and 1:10) that were addressed to the 10 apostate northern tribes of Israel before the Assyrian exile in 722-21 b.c. They describe both the rebellious condition of Israel (“not my people” / “not beloved”) and her prophesied future restoration (“my people” / “beloved” / “sons of the living God”).

But here Paul applies them to the calling or salvation of Gentiles. I agree with George Ladd that ‘Paul deliberately takes these two prophecies about the future salvation of Israel and applies them to the church. The church, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, has become the people of God. The prophecies of Hosea are fulfilled in the Christian church. If this is a spiritualizing hermeneutic, so be it. But let no one say that it is liberalism. It is clearly what the New Testament does to the Old Testament prophecies.’

According to this view, the OT prophetic promise of Israel’s regathering in covenant faith to Yahweh is being progressively fulfilled in the salvation of believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, that is to say, in the Church. The calling out of Gentiles from among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation is the prophesied restoration of Israel, for the Church is the continuation and maturation of Israel’s believing remnant.[19]

Both Jews and Gentiles are united covenantally together in the one Vine, the Israel of God.  And lest we object at the choice of terminology here, it should be noted that this has to be the Israel of God because of its rootiness (11:17-18)!  The idea of the “root” clearly denotes a connection with the extended past.  Moreover, natural branches (ethnic unbelieving Jews) have been broken off.  They are, therefore, Israel in the first sense of Romans 9:6, and their future engrafting will place them back into the olive tree.  And since these branches can and will be grafted back into the Vine (11:11, 24), Paul conceives of restored Israel as operating within the sphere of the Church, the body of Christ.  This means, and this is a big one, God’s faithfulness to Israel, as announced in times of old, finds its fulfillment in the Church, for the Church is the sphere of God’s dealings with His one people.  Moreover, He will not forget the natural branches, for they are loved on account of the patriarchs (11:28).  This should be noted.  God has, through many amazing providential acts, preserved the Jewish race and has even organized them into a nation[20].  MacArthur says that this is an amazing apologetic, and it is.  We don’t see Hittites running around.  And we don’t see Hivites or Jebusites.  But we do see Jews.  And this is remarkable.  And it is because of God.  He has preserved them in order to save them.

So yes, Paul can refer to the people of his own race as the people of Israel (9:3-4), but he also envisions the Church as Israel, the very Vine in which he desires to see his brethren, according to the flesh, become a part (10:1) [21].

Again, does this perspective uphold God’s faithfulness (for that is what Macarthur is most concerned about, and that’s what causes him to seizure now and then)?  So does it?  Does this uphold God’s faithfulness, really and truly?

Let’s listen to MacArthur again.  While speaking about the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31, stressing that it’s addressed to Israel, he states,

“What warrant is there to say that does not mean Israel? Why? It does mean Israel. “I will.” I will.” I will.” I will.” I will make the covenant with the house of Israel. “ I will put My law within them and on their heart. I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” End of verse 34, “…I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Did you ever see so many “I will’s”? All over the place. Unconditional, unilateral, sovereign, gracious, irrevocable. You say, “Well maybe God changed His mind.” Go to verse 35, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Who gives the sun for light by day And a fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The Lord of hosts is His name: If this fixed order departs from before Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease.’” I haven’t noticed that that’s happened, have you? Anybody noticed that? There isn’t any other way to understand that. If it doesn’t mean what it just said, it is incomprehensible.”

Does Paul, a Christian Jew, believe that God has changed His mind?  Certainly not!  Again we read, “It is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” (Romans 9:8).  The offspring of Israel has not ceased.  Amillennialists believe this.  God is faithful.  And He will continue to be faithful.

The part that is staggering is how Gentiles- Gentiles of all people!- are regarded as Abraham’s offspring[22].  This is expansion theology, and its part of what brings Paul to say, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33).

While listening to MacArthur, it’s hard not to feel exasperated when he chastises covenant theologians for diminishing God’s faithfulness.  For him, if we believe that the Church is the new Israel, it inevitably follows that God has abandoned Israel.  But this simply isn’t the case, as we have seen.  Granted, our conception of God’s faithfulness to Israel isn’t understood in exactly the same way, but according to our categories, we believe God has been faithful and will continue to be faithful to Israel.  God’s eyes are firmly set on ethnic Jews.  We just don’t believe, to the consternation of dispensationalists, that God’s plan for natural Israel includes a retrogressive move back to OT types and shadows (the priesthood, the land narrowly conceived, temple sacrifice, the old priesthood, and all the rest).  We believe those things are obsolete and done away with (Heb 8:13).  And we believe the OT promises center on Christ and the Church.

But oh, how this still bothers dispies!  For if we aren’t abandoning Israel, we are engaging in wild allegorization, utilizing a spiritual hermeneutic that is both unhinged and anchor-less.  The natural meaning of the text is butchered, it is argued, leaving interpretation up to mere whim.

Well, is that true?  Am I a son of Origen?  A word of explanation is necessary.

The Literal Mistake of Literal Hermeneutics

To say that hermeneutics is an important issue for the dispensationalist is to greatly understate the matter.  Like Sampson of old, they lift the jawbone of literal hermeneutics and passionately thrash covenant theologians, sending them flying in all directions.  They tear the gate of spiritualization clean off our city wall and confidently stride out to the hill of Face Value, where they love a woman named Normal[23].

The right use of hermeneutics stands at the center of the dispensationalist’s concerns.  Let’s listen to Macarthur, for he really does represent the dispensationalist’s plea.  But hold on tight, the road’s gonna to get bumpy.

He states,

“So, my words to you today are really a call. This is a call to reconnect these two great realities. Return the sovereignty of God in election to its rightful place and, therefore, return the nation Israel to its rightful place in God’s purpose, and all eschatology will unfold with magnificent beauty and with the normal hermeneutic, and you can take every passage and when it’s saying something that’s very clear like “the desert will blossom like a rose,” that’s exactly what it means.  And if you tell me it doesn’t mean that, then I’m done talking to you because you don’t have any further revelation.”

And again,

“So when Jonathan Edwards wrote this: “Promises that were made by the prophets to the people of Israel concerning their future prosperity and glory are fulfilled in the Christian Church according to their proper intent.” I say, where did he get that? Where did that come from? Didn’t come from any passage that I can find.”

And again,

“Now, if you get election right—divine, sovereign, gracious, unconditional, unilateral, irrevocable election–and then you get God right, and you get Israel right, and you get eschatology right, and guess what, men, then you can just open your Bible and preach your heart out of that text and say what it says. How freeing is that? You don’t have to scramble around and find some bizarre interpretation. Get it right and God is glorified. Get it right and Christ is exalted. Get it right and the Holy Spirit is honored. Get it right and Scripture is clear. Get it right and the greatest historical illustration of God’s work in the world is visible. Get it right and the meaning of mystery in the New Testament is maintained. Get it right and normal language is intact and Scripture wasn’t written for mystics. Get it right and the chronology of prophetic literature is intact. Get it right and you shut out imagination from exegesis. Get it right and a historical worldview is complete. Get it right and the practical benefit of eschatology is released on your people. Get it right.”

Again,

“Why are we so tolerant of people tampering with the end? And why, when we don’t want to arbitrarily allow somebody to introduce their own hermeneutics to Genesis 1 to 3, are we content to allow people to introduce their own hermeneutics into prophetic passages throughout the Bible and particularly in the Book of Revelation? Where is the divine mandate on the pages of the Bible to do this? What passage is it in? What verse? Where is it? And who decides then the new rules for engagement?”

And lastly,

“I would be absolutely lost in the Old Testament if I couldn’t take the Scripture at its face value. If you tell me it doesn’t mean what it says, I’m lost. I am unwaveringly committed to the sovereign election of a future generation of Jews to salvation and the full inheritance of all the promises and covenants of God given to them in the Old Testament. God’s Word is at stake.[24]

I trust the force of his words come through loud and clear.  But is he right?  Is he right to say that covenant theologians, and more specifically, Amillennialists, are utilizing a faulty hermeneutic, one that abandons the clear intent/meaning of the Scriptures, especially passages found in prophetic or apocalyptic books?

Can I speak candidly for a moment?  In all my years of studying the Scriptures and theology, and in all the years since my having rejected dispensationalism as a theological system, I can’t believe dispensationalists say what they say, regarding the rules of interpretation.  I mean seriously, it’s so outrageously one-dimensional, so painfully simplistic, that I can’t help but think they don’t really believe what they are saying.  Surely they realize that in their zeal for Israel, their wanting to say that the OT promises must be fulfilled in a photographic manner, they recognize that they are overstating the issue.  For some, maybe not.  Maybe they really are Kool-aid drinkers?  But for those who take seriously the Word of God in all its rich variety, they surely acknowledge that “literal,” as the primary way of describing the art and science of our interpretive endeavors, doesn’t sufficiently account for the manifold complexities one finds in Holy Writ.  And surely when Macarthur says “normal,” he knows the term is ambiguous to the point of being unhelpful.  And when he says “legitimate,” surely he recognizes how annoying that sounds.  But then again, maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe he really does think his choice of words are helpful, that they’re not simply tools of rhetorical flourish, a pejorative and uncharitable classification demarcating covenant theologians from dispensationalists?  Well, now, I suppose I’m starting to sound a little like Macarthur, so I’ll back off.  But I trust the point has been made.  Macarthur’s words are both inflammatory and unreasonable[25].

But let’s not dwell on his tone or focus too narrowly on his choice of words.  What we are most concerned about here is the substance of his criticism.  And in response, there are four things I would like to say regarding my rejection of their “literalism[26].”

Covenant theologians reject their “literal” hermeneutic because:

(1)    When we examine how the apostles quote and interpret the OT in the NT, we cannot agree with dispensationalists.  The same is true with OT allusions.

(2)   We recognize that dispensationalists are not consistent with their own hermeneutic.

(3)   We don’t see helicopters in the book of Revelation.

(4)   “Spiritualization” is inevitable.

-Point One-

I cannot remember who said it, nor can I remember when I heard it, but someone once announced a challenge.  He challenged his listeners to catalog all the occurrences in the NT where an apostle quotes the OT.  He then asked that they consider those quotations and how they are used and applied.  He then boldly asserted that if a Christian would do that, if he would really chew on those quotations, seeking to understand the methodology behind such quotations, they would, if dispensational in their outlook, reject their peculiar creed/brand of literal hermeneutics.

I tend to agree.  I say “tend” because there certainly are a number of dispensational scholars who have considered many, if not all, of such OT occurrences in the NT and still adhere to their particular dispensational brand of literal hermeneutics[27].

Nevertheless, this is a very important exercise.  If you are a caught between both schools of thought, trying to figure out which system is most faithful to the Scriptures, examine how the OT is used in the NT.  Or if you are a committed dispensationalist, challenge yourself.  Look up the various occurrences, note their original meaning in the OT, and then ask yourself how, or upon what basis, does an apostle apply the passage to the issue at hand.  How do they use the word, “Fulfill?”  I think if you’re honest, you’ll have to admit that there’s a lot more going on than simply “literal” hermeneutics.  Typology, which is a prominent feature of NT theology, simply doesn’t fit in the box of literalism.  It’s too multi-layered an approach.  And the idea of fulfillment often follows biblical-theological lines of thought alongside, and possibly more often than, the notion of bringing to pass specific predictive prophecies[28].

In this respect, I plead with my dispensational brothers to consider a three part lecture presented by D.A. Carson.  The series is entitled, “Hard Texts:  Why does Hebrews quote the OT like that?[29]”  If anyone can come away from those lectures saying, “Ah, that’s just good old face value-read-your-newspaper hermeneutics at work, the kind I’ve been stressing,” then, well, I don’t know what to say.  Actually, now that I think about it, I do.  I’d ask you to read, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission,” by G.K. Beale.  And if that tremendous work of Biblical Theology doesn’t tweak your creed, then feel free to knock the supporting pillars out and crush us all[30].

Seriously, make your list and start chewing.  And maybe have a copy of, “A Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” edited by D.A Carson and G.K. Beale nearby.

-Point Two-

Dispensationalists champion a literal hermeneutic, but the fact is this:  They see symbolism, or figures of speech, or OT allusions when (a) it suits their theological system, and (b) when “it’s obvious,” which means the proposed interpretation doesn’t hurt their system.  That might sound harsh, but it’s true.  Allow me to illustrate.

John Walvoord states,

“History is history, not allegory. Facts are facts. Prophesied future events are just what they are prophesied. Israel means Israel, earth means earth, heaven means heaven… A literal promise spiritualized is exegetical fraud.[31]

Ryrie states,

“The distinction between Israel and the Church is born out of a system of hermeneutics which is usually called literal interpretation. … The word literal is perhaps not as good as either the word normal or plain, but in any case it is interpretation that does not spiritualize or allegorize as nondispensational interpretation does. … Consistently literal or plain interpretation is indicative of a dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture.[32]

Let’s try something.  Let’s apply their hermeneutic to the first prophecy in Scripture, namely, Genesis 3:15, the protoevangelium.  Since we are told not to spiritualize the text, we need to interpret the prophecy in accordance with how the words were originally used.  In that case, when God tells the serpent, “He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel,” we need to ask ourselves what head God is talking about.  Obviously, it’s the serpent’s head (vs. 14).  And since we know what a serpent is from the text (an animal, vs. 14), we must demand that it has a physical, snake-head in mind.  Earth means earth, right?  So animal means animal and serpent means serpent.

What else do we learn from the text?  We learn that this creature that has been cursed, that’s crawling around on the ground, will strike the heel of the woman’s offspring, a “he” in verse 15, which must mean a particular individual is in view.  We also learn that this “he” is going to crush, or strike, the serpent’s head.  What does that mean?  It’s obvious.  Some man is going to literally step on a snake’s head and probably kill it due to an acute fracturing of the skull.  But during this skirmish, the snake is going to bite his heel, which will leave a bruise.

Now where have I gone wrong?  It’s all very consistent isn’t it?  It takes into account the facts of the story in its original context, no?  It understands the words according to their plain meaning, right?  And yet, if we understand this in a purely literal fashion, then we are going to undermine the cross work of Christ, because we are going to say that He hasn’t yet fulfilled this promise.  We are still waiting for that event to occur.  Or we might be tempted to say that Paul is half right when he tells the Romans that“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”  We might say that he’s right when he speaks of the event as still awaiting a future fulfillment (“God will”), but wrong because he doesn’t recognize the “he” as he ought (Note his saying “your feet,” which is collective.”).

Of course, none of this is interpreting the Bible responsibly, and yet, that’s exactly what the dispensationalist’s plea, if taken at face value, demands[33].

Let’s consider Isaiah 40:3-5, another well known passage.

“A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (5) And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

This is easy.  The language is unmistakable.  When the Messiah comes on the scene, one can expect to see major topographical changes, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since the flood.  The Earth will be smoothed out!  One might even speculate how these changes will come about.  For example, will there be earthquakes?  Will giant sink holes open up and swallow the mountains?  Will titanic shifts in the earth lift the valleys?

Obviously this isn’t correct[34].

Other examples abound[35], but the point should be clear.  Dispensationalists aren’t consistent and should quit championing an overly simplistic message as to what constitutes a “legitimate” hermeneutic.  It isn’t responsible and it misleads people[36].

But before we leave this point, let’s go ahead and think about how we rightly interpret a passage like Genesis 3:15.  What should be our approach?  The key factor is later revelation.  What is the Bible’s own commentary on that passage?  To do that, one will follow the theme of “seed” throughout the Scriptures.  One will also note who really stands behind the physical serpent, which is Satan.  We watch closely how the Bible develops the idea of Messiah.  When we do that, when we thread together the various bits of data, we will rightly conclude that the crushing of the serpent’s head refers to Christ’s triumphing over Satan at the cross.  And what we come away with is a fresh appreciation of the original imagery.  It communicates profound truths through evocative pictures, pictures that even a child can understand.  We also come to see how God loves to wrap truth in symbolic shells.  And we, as His people, have to crack open those nuts to fully enjoy the contents.

Isn’t that right?  Doesn’t God communicate deep spiritual truths through many different physical pictures[37]?  It is this conviction that drives us to believe what Edwards said, “Promises that were made by the prophets to the people of Israel concerning their future prosperity and glory are fulfilled in the Christian Church according to their proper intent.”

We see the promises in the OT.  But we also note how the NT handles many of those very texts, or the ideas behind those texts.  And on that basis, not fanciful whim, we formulate accordingly.  We don’t say that the crushing of the serpent’s head means that an elephant will kick a soccer ball, or that a pancake will be flipped.  We root the spiritual intent in the objective contents of Scripture.  That is our anchor, not imagination.

-Point Three-

Hal Lindsey had this to say about the locusts in the book of Revelation,

“Some writers have chosen to interpret each symbol quite literally.  For example, a locust with the face of a man, the teeth of a lion, a breastplate of iron, a tail that can sting, and wings that made the sound of many chariots would have to be specially created by God to look just like that description.

I personally tend to think that God might utilize in his judgments some modern devices which the Apostle John was at a loss for words to describe nineteen centuries ago! In the case just mentioned, the locust might symbolize an advanced kind of helicopter.[38]

He actually goes on to suggest that the locust creatures might be Cobra helicopters that spray nerve gas from their tails.  Yup, that sounds like a literal interpretation to me.  Need I say more?

Actually, I do need to say more.  It’s startling how dispensationalists often handle the book of Revelation.  This epistle, like no other book in the NT, is packed tight with symbolism drawn from the OT.  Nearly every verse harbors an OT allusion[39].  And yet, dispensationalists maintain that it must be interpreted literally, by and large.  But in their interpreting it literally (which they cannot consistently maintain, although some try), they must allow for all kinds of strange and curious conclusions, the likes of which are so fantastic that even the most faithful struggle to picture the events happening in human history.  Can one imagine understanding, for example, the beast of Revelation 13 as a literal creature?

Now granted, someone like MacArthur doesn’t fall into the error of literalism in the case of Revelation 13.  He recognizes that symbolism is present.  But here’s the point.  MacArthur interprets that section of Scripture with an eye, not only the text itself, but on Revelation as a whole, and beyond that, the whole of Scripture, which is to say that a vast array of other factors lead him to understand the imagery in a non-literal fashion.  And rightly so.  But if he’s permitted to approach Revelation in that manner at that juncture, then why can’t the Amillennialist follow a similar approach, but one that sees symbolism elsewhere?  Why not?  Is that any less “literal?”  Of course it isn’t.  The real question is whether or not there really is an OT allusion and whether or not the symbolism has been rightly understood, which requires a careful exegesis of the OT passage and a careful determination of how John is utilizing the concept.  That requires rigorous debate and study.

More foundationally, it requires understanding the various levels of communication in apocalyptic/prophetic literature.  There is the linguistic, the symbolic, the referential and the visionary.  Vern Poythress is especially helpful in this respect.  I recommend the article, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6.[40]”  It will help clear up the error of collapsing the symbolic and visionary into the merely referential and linguistic, which is a common feature of dispensationalism.  I would also highly recommend G.K. Beale’s magisterial commentary, “The Book of Revelation.” (NIGCT).  His introductory remarks are very helpful.  In addition, his mining of OT allusions out of the text is second to none.  The book really is worth its weight in gold.  And it’s a heavy book.

-Point Four-

It is sometimes admitted by dispensationalists, especially those of a modified persuasion, that there is a sense in which OT promises given to Israel apply to the Church.  The point they stress is that there must also be a literal fulfillment in the future as it pertains to national Israel.  One might call this partial fulfillment or double-fulfillment.

Consider the example of Acts 2 and the David Covenant.

Peter says this in his sermon,

Act 2:30-36, “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, (31) he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. (32) This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. (33) Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. (34) For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, (35) until I make your enemies your footstool.’ (36) Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.””

Note how Peter connects the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His ascension to the Davidic promise.  This means that for Peter there is an intimate connection between Christ’s resurrection and the throne of David.  In point of fact, Peter sees Christ’s resurrection as fulfilling the Davidic Covenant (Connect 2 Samuel 7 with Psalm 2 with Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5 and Heb 5:5.)[41].

Classic dispensationalists often deny this.  But for others, it’s too clear.  So what do they do?  They claim a partial or initial fulfillment.  But they also insist that there must be a future literal fulfillment, one, presumably, that really fulfills it.  Christ must actually sit on an earthly throne in Jerusalem on the earth.

One might certainly question why they think Christ’s present Kingly reign in heaven isn’t fulfillment enough (For isn’t it a real throne?  And didn’t David’s throne picture this greater reality?).  But never mind that.  Aren’t they admitting that there is some kind of spiritual fulfillment going on when they say “partial” fulfillment?

Some do.  But if that is true, then why all the shouting about “literal” this and “normal” that?  For if Christ isn’t sitting on the actual throne of David in Jerusalem on the earth, then how can one speak of fulfillment at all?

It’s truly odd.  On the one hand they decry our hermeneutic, but then turn right around and admit that it goes on with respect to the Church by the hand of Paul, which means that the OT is being spiritualized, which is a big no no.  The apparent double-standard is bizarre, and I honestly can’t make sense of it[42].

Concluding Thoughts for this Section

I could wish that MacArthur would discontinue framing the issue in such a misleading and inflammatory fashion, and that he would simply leave the ideas of dispensationalism in the past, but such are the mysteries of belief and persuasion.  It’s hard to explain why he, and so many others, cannot see what is so obvious to us.  Conundrum or not, I believe the Scriptures are sufficiently clear on many of these points.  This isn’t to say that the issue is easy to resolve or that the Scriptures aren’t profoundly intricate and complex.  The move from the old covenant to the new covenant is an intensely large subject.  Indeed, when one seeks to answer the question of eschatology and Israel, they are engaging the entirety of the Bible.  And that is no small task.  It really will reveal how one puts together their Bible.  And in the case of dispensationalism and covenant theology, those two diverge at many crucial points.  I hope this short paper has highlighted some of the issues involved and serves to shed more light than heat.  And I hope that it will go some way in persuading those of an opposing opinion to rethink their paradigm, or to, at the very least, soften the rhetoric.

For those who are undecided, I urge you to keep reading and studying the Scriptures.  There is much to digest and ponder, so take your time.  Ask hard questions.  Pray.  Read helpful books.  Don’t neglect the hard sections of Scripture.  It is all profitable.

Recommended literature (Covenant Theology):

Here are some first tier books.  They are more for beginners.

  • The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options, by Stanley Grenz. [If you need a book to explain, in a fair and balanced manner, all four of the major eschatological outlooks, this really is the place to start.]
  • A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, by Kim Riddlebarger. [This critiques dispensationalism throughout.]
  • The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation, by Vern Poythress.
  • The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the OT, by Edmund Clowney [Helpful volume on typology.  Piper recommends this book.]

Here are some second tier books.  They are more intermediate.

  • The Bible and the Future, by Anthony Hoekema. [This tilts towards the advanced side of intermediate]
  • Christ of the Covenants, by O Palmer Robertson.
  • The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, by Vern Poythress.
  • A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, by Robert L. Reymond

Here are some third tier books.  They are advanced.

  • The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, by G.K. Beale
  • The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. [Both books by Beale are profound works of theology.  I can’t speak highly enough of them.]

Some Reflections on the Negative and Practical Consequences of Dispensationalism.

It’s important to remember that the ideas debated here have real life implications.  It’s not simply a paper argument, an exchange of theories in the realm of the purely abstract.  As one who has grown up around dispensationalism, and as one who has spent enough time away from it to gain a fresh perspective, I’d like to share some of my own concerns and criticisms.  It is, of course, true that all groups have their issues, which is to say that Reformed guys aren’t exempt.  They certainly have their skeletons and sinful tendencies[43].  And while I would be happy to talk about some of those issues, this isn’t the place to do so.  My focus is on dispensationalism.

As I see it, dispensationalism really does influence many different facets of life.  This is to say that its effects are far reaching.  Of course, it doesn’t always play out the same way in each individual life.  There are those who aren’t nearly as zealous as others.  Nevertheless, the system considered as a system, naturally propels its adherents along a number of different paths, many of which, as I will point out, prove negative.  This is my conviction.  And it stems from what I have read, heard from others and personally experienced.

I should add something else here.  My purpose here isn’t merely to satisfy some inner desire to bash a theological viewpoint, although I must confess that it’s hard not to feel angry or defensive when I listen to something like MacArthur’s lecture, but to offer fair criticisms in the hope that they will have some good effect, whether in helping to curb excesses, or in helping people recognize legitimate shortcomings, so that they will make proper adjustments.  I’m even willing to accept happy inconsistencies, if it turns out that I can’t win you over.  It is way easier to get along with an Arminian who prays like a Calvinist than one who doesn’t.

That being said, here are some of the practical concerns I have with dispensationalism.

The Strong Tendency Towards Sensationalism and its Negative Effects

For young men, those both single and those with families, the dispensational viewpoint proves distracting.  When their attention should be given to controlling their youthful lusts and being sober minded, or leading their family and loving their wife, they’re distracted by the sensational.  Anytime they can hold a copy of the Bible in one hand and hold a copy of Guns and Ammo in the other, they’re all the happier[44].  This immaturity must not be fed.  What a young man needs to hear is how to live a holy life, and how that holy life will prove most useful in times of persecution.  Paul tells us that exercise has some benefit, but godliness is beneficial for all things.  In the same way, thinking realistically about wars or famine or natural disasters has its place, and the prudent will be prepared.  But there is something different at play within the walls of dispensationalism.  There is an unhealthy fascination with things apocalyptic.  Preparation has a much broader scope in that outlook.  It’s theologically charged.  And for the young man, his mind is encouraged, whether intentionally or not, to drift towards earthly things, earthly responses, which undermines how he should respond in times of spiritual trouble[45].  I think my wife expressed it best when she said, “When we believe the world is going to end in an apocalyptic movie kind of way, you prepare in a worldly kind of way.[46]

Some men are tempted to prepare for hiding.  They ponder communal living, actually heading off to some remote place and living off the land so as to escape the impending troubles.  A survivalist air creeps in and they begin to relish the idea of stockpiling ammo and rations and all other manner of camping paraphernalia.

Even in cases where the pastor doesn’t encourage young men to think or act this way, which isn’t always the case, they still feel compelled to act in this manner, because Dispensationalism is nothing if not sensational.  They are receiving advice not to respond incorrectly, on the one hand, but they are hearing a message that encourages such a response, on the other.

All of this can dribble down into the basic affairs of life.  It can affect how one plans financially for the future (Why invest in light of an impending world collapse, or worse, an inability to spend money once Christian persecution arises?). It can affect how one thinks regarding having children (What if provisions grow scarce and we can’t adequately take care of our children?  Wouldn’t it be profoundly more difficult with nursing babes?  Or why have something that precious only to have it taken away?).  It can stir fears (especially for women), ignite passions and foster unhealthy affections.

For a variety of interconnected reasons, dispensationalism provides fertile ground for such excesses.  And it must be seriously guarded against, if one isn’t willing to change their eschatological outlook.

In a similar vein, there is a strong tendency to read newspaper headlines into the Bible.  The dispensationalist often interprets the current world crisis, or what he believes to be a world crisis, or what he thinks will turn out to be a world crisis, as essentially fool proof evidence the end is at hand.  And in turn, the problem is supercharged with emails and blogs and articles that have dramatic headlines meant to arrest the reader’s attention.

Joel Rosenberg’s blog, even as I write this, has the following written in bold at the top of his website.

“Epicenter:  Why the current rumblings in the middle east will change your future.”

And in a recent town hall meeting discussing Islam, he advertised as follows:

“We are at the most dangerous moment of the Islamic Revolution.”

Granted, the current rumblings in the Middle-East could very well change our future.  And yes, Islam should be taken very seriously, especially with Iran trying to build nukes.  But it’s always cast in such a dramatic fashion.  It’s the same old thing, but a new day.  It’s trying to sweep you up, grab you, and excite emotions.  And almost everything that appears on the radar is propelled to thrilling heights.  And it’s been going on for years.

Here’s what Grant Jeffrey’s website highlights right now:

He pushes his book, “The New Temple and the Second Coming,” with these words:  “An array of new archaeological finds and revealing discoveries in the ancient city hidden beneath Jerusalem lead to a stunning conclusion: The generation alive today will witness the return of Christ.”

But wait, there’s more, right on his homepage.  He has a new release entitled, “Shadow Government.”  The blurb says, “Security cameras, surveillance of your financial transactions, radio frequency spy chips hidden in consumer products, tracking of your internet searches, and eavesdropping on your e-mail and phone calls. Without your knowledge or consent, every aspect of your life is observed and recorded. But who is watching the watchers?… Your eyes will be opened to the real power that is working behind the scenes to destroy America and merge it into the coming global government. Armed with this knowledge, you will be equipped to face spiritual darkness with the light of prophetic truth.”

Along these lines, consider the topic of God and Magog.  Christians reading pop evangelical end times books may think that the author is really onto something, that he has his finger on the pulse of prophetic history.  But here’s the thing.  It’s been done before.

In the 4th century some thought it was the Goths.

5th century, Goths and Moors.

7th century, Huns.

8th century, Islamic Empire.

10th century, Hungarians.

11th century, Turkish speaking tribes.

14th century, the Tartars and Mongols.

14th century, the persecutors of the Lollards.

16th century, the ten dispersed tribes of Israel.

16th century, the Turks and Seracins.

16th century, Mohammedism.

16th century, Mohammedans and the Papacy.

17th century the Pope and Spain.

17th century, Native Americans.

20th century, the political leader and land of Russia.[47]

I also remember how dispensational leaders latched onto Y2K.  They stressed that they didn’t want to be alarmists, that they wanted to carefully handle the situation, but Y2K, in their estimation, could very well prove to be the catalyst ushering in the end.  That’s how it often goes.  They maneuver the problem into their overarching schema of eschatological expectations and frame the issue accordingly.  Problem X looming on the horizon equals end Y.

Now in all fairness, I understand why they’re meticulous in following national Israel, and why they’re continually on the lookout for the big players of prophetic history.  It flows right out of their prophetic worldview.  And if one sincerely believes that the dispensational outlook is true, then they’re going to be vigilant in watching such things.  But how many “Oops, we weren’t right about that” does it take before dispensationalists begin to wonder if their approach is sound or appropriate?  How many times will they accommodate the newspaper headlines to Ezekiel or Revelation before they question their presuppositions?  Or how many times will they stir emotions and expectations up to a near fever pitch, only to rekindle those feelings again and again with new prospects, writing fresh books and penning new articles and sending out startling new developments through email, before they begin to believe that it might be better write with more reserve, to admit it promotes sensationalism, that it unsettles the hearts of many a saint, and that it causes some to doubt, given the numerous failed predictions (or strong suspicions that feel like predictions)?

I would urge my dispensational brethren to tone down the headlines and curb speculation, if they aren’t willing to change their eschatological outlook.  I really think it would be better for the church.

Politics of the Land

Another area of concern is the almost blind allegiance to Israel and the demand that the land unequivocally belongs to them.  To say it another way, many dispensationalists assert that the land belongs to Israel by divine right, without clearly voicing or stressing a number of important qualifications.  But from a biblical standpoint, one must keep in mind Israel’s current apostasy[48].  John Piper helps clarify the matter,

“The promises made to Abraham, including the promise of the Land, will be inherited as an everlasting gift only by true, spiritual Israel, not disobedient, unbelieving Israel. In other words, the promises cannot be demanded by anyone just because he is Jewish. Jewish ethnicity has a place in God’s plan, but it is not enough to secure anything. It does not in itself qualify a person to be an heir of the promise to Abraham and his offspring. Romans 9:8 says it clearly: ‘It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.’ Being born Jewish does not make one an heir of the promise – neither the promise of the Land nor any other promise.

Be careful not to infer from this that Gentile nations (like Arabs) have the right to molest Israel. God’s judgments on Israel do not sanction human sin against Israel. Israel still has human rights among nations even when she forfeits her present divine right to the Land. Remember that nations which gloated over her divine discipline were punished by God (Isaiah 10:5-13; Joel 3:2).

So the promise to Abraham that his descendants will inherit the Land does not mean that all Jews inherit that promise. It will come finally to the true Israel, the Israel that keeps covenant and obeys her God.

Therefore, the secular state of Israel today may not claim a present divine right to the Land, but they and we should seek a peaceful settlement not based on present divine rights, but on international principles of justice, mercy, and practical feasibility.

[Therefore] . . . we should not give blanket approval to Jewish or to Palestinian actions. We should approve or denounce according to Biblical standards of justice and mercy among peoples. We should encourage our representatives to seek a just settlement that takes the historical and social claims of both peoples into account. Neither should be allowed to sway the judgments of justice by a present divine claim to the land. . . .

Therefore Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile believers will inherit the Land. And the easiest way to see this is to see that we will inherit the world which includes the Land. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians will not quibble over the real estate of the Promised Land because the entire new heavens and the new earth will be ours. 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, ‘All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.’ All followers of Christ, and only followers of Christ, will inherit the earth, including the Land.”

In another sermon from Romans (this time, 9:25-26), Piper declares that,

“A covenant-breaking people does not have a present claim on covenant promises. Therefore it is wrong for America or for Christians to be unquestioningly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian in the political and geographical situation of the Middle East. It may be right to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian on any given issue, but while Israel is breaking the covenant with her God by rejecting his Messiah, the criterion for what is right in the Middle East should be equally applied standards of justice and mercy among nations, not divine rights or covenant privileges. Our relation to Jews and Palestinians should be to love them and treat them with mercy and justice, as we do all others. Anti-Semitism is sin. And unquestioning rejection of possible rights of Palestinians is sin.”

The political implications of failing to properly understand or articulate the above could prove profound.  Dispensationalists must be weary of allowing their zeal for Israel overshadow sound judgment[49].

And beyond that, there are serious missiological implications as well.  What if someone doing mission work in the Middle-East with Arabs is asked what the Bible has to say about Israel?  Flatly arguing that the land belongs to Israel, or expressing a truncated view of Israel in general, could prove detrimental to the missionary, not to mention that it could place a major stumbling block in front of the Arab.

All in all, I think the Covenant theologian is on much better footing here.

The Old Testament, the Psalms and the Church Today

It’s interesting to note that in the history of the church, the Psalms have held a special place of honor in the singing and worship of God’s people.  That Christians sang the Psalms in the apostolic church is evident in the Scriptures.  But what some may not know is that by the fifth century, the psalter had attained such prominence that knowledge of it by heart was required of candidates for ordination[50].  Bushell writes, “Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople (A.D. 458-471), refused to ordain as priest anyone who had not been diligent in reciting the psalter.  Gregory the Great refused to allow John the Presbyter to be consecrated as metropolitan of Ravenna on account of his ignorance of the psalter.”

Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the 4th century, wrote, “The Law instructs, history informs, prophecy predicts, correction censures, and morals exhorts.  In the Book of Psalms you feel all of these, as well as a remedy for the salvation of the soul.  The psalter deserves to be called, the praise of God, the glory of man, the voice of the church, and the most beneficial confession of faith.[51]

John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, the “Golden-mouthed” one, known for his excellent preaching skills, wrote, “All Christians employ themselves in David’s Psalms more frequently than in any other part of the Old or NT.  The grace of the Holy Ghost hath so ordered it that they should be recited and sung every night and day.  In the Church’s vigils, the first, the midst, and the last are David’s Psalms… Many who know not a letter can say David’s Psalms by heart…”  (Homily 6, On Penitence).

Eminent historian, Philip Schaff, summarizes the evidence, “So far as we are able to gather from our sources, nothing, except the Psalms and New Testament hymns (such as the “Gloria in Excelsis,” the “Magnificat,” the “Nunc Dimittis,” etc.), was as a rule sung in public worship before the fourth century (the practice which had sprung up in the church of Antioch seems to have been exceptional…).  Before the end of that century, however, the practice of singing other hymns in the service of the church had become common, both in the East and West.[52]

Bushell notes that throughout the Middle-Ages the psalter continued to play an important role in the development of Catholic liturgy, but the enormous growth of monastic life in the Orient caused the gradual deterioration of popular Psalm singing[53].  But when the Reformation began to gain traction, Psalm singing sprang back to life, and before long, nearly all branches of the Protestant Reformation had taken up the Psalter again.

Emil Doumergue writes, “The Psalms have been indissolubly bound up with the life, public and private alike, of Calvinists, and, as has been remarked, it would be possible to make a calendar, in which all the salient events of the history of French Protestantism should be recalled by a verse of a Psalm.[54]

The great Reformer of Geneva, John Calvin, aptly sums up his convictions when he says, “But what then ought to be done?  Let us have songs that are not only decent, but holy.  These will incite us to pray and praise God, to meditate on his works, in order to love, fear, honour and glorify him.  But what Augustine says is true, that no one can sing things worthy of God, unless he has received them from Himself.  Therefore, after we have sought on every side, searching here and there, we shall find no songs better and more suitable for our purpose than the Psalms of David, dictated to him and made for him by the Holy Spirit.  But singing them ourselves we feel as certain that God put the words into our mouths as if He Himself were singing within us to exalt His glory.  Hence Chrysostom exhorts men, women and little children alike to become accustomed to sing them, in order that their practice might be as a meditation to associate themselves with the company of angels… only let the world be well advised, that instead of the songs partly vain and frivolous, partly dull and foolish, partly filthy and vile, and consequently wicked and hurtful, which it has hitherto used, it should accustom itself hereafter to sing these divine and heavenly songs with good King David.[55]

When the Puritans came to America, centuries later, they came as a people singing Psalms.  And in fact, the first book printed in English America was the first edition of the Bay Psalm Book, or New England version of the Psalms, printed at Cambridge in 1640[56].

Bushell writes, “It was indeed fitting that the first English book printed in this country should have been a psalm book, because from the very beginning the psalter was an integral part of the religious fabric of America.  “The Presbyterian church in the colonies was by its varied inheritance and its own practice, a psalm-singing church.”  We have already quoted Prothero’s observation that “till the end of the eighteenth century, the Psalms were exclusively sung in the churches and chapels of America.”  Even “the Baptists in eighteenth century America probably at first used the Bay Psalm Book, but were less convinced of the necessity of adherence to strict psalmody than were either the ‘old Side’ Presbyterians or the Congregationalists of New England.[57]

In stark contrast to all of this, many Christians today, if not most, have scarcely even heard of a psalter, let alone sung from one.  Given the witness of history, and given Scriptures calling Christians to sing Psalms (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16), it’s more than a little bizarre.  Often it is only those with strong Reformed convictions who continue the practice today (Reformed Churches, Presbyterians and some Reformed Baptists).

The reason(s) for this shift in recent history varies.  But as far as dispensationalism is concerned, they have placed themselves in the strange position of not being able to sing Psalms, at least not comfortably.  Why?  Their hard and fast dichotomy between the Church and Israel presents a number of theological barriers.  It is for this reason that one will, more than likely, refrain from singing Psalms in the public worship service of a Church espousing dispensational theology.

But how does this dichotomy discourage such singing?  The answer is simple.  That’s for Israel, not the Church.  In other words, the Church can’t sing the Psalms and appropriate the contents for themselves.  I’ve overstated the matter slightly.  Allow me to adjust:  The Psalms might be good for learning about God’s character or learning about biblical history or exclaiming inspired words of praise, but there’s a lot of stuff about Israel in there, stuff that shouldn’t be confused with the Church age.

Take Psalm 105.  The Book of Psalms for Singing reads, starting at verse 6:

“O you, the seed of Abraham, God’s servant—you, his sons,

And all who sons of Jacob are, His own, His chosen ones.

He only is the LORD our God; His judgments fill the land,
He keeps in mind His covenant that it may always stand.”

[And then, continued in 105 B with a new tune, it reads]

“A thousand ages to endure commanded He His word,

With Abraham made a covenant, the promise Isaac heard,

A law to Jacob He confirmed, a bond for Israel,

‘I will to you give Canaan’s land, where you as heir may dwell.’”

If a dispensationalist were to sing these words, their minds would naturally gravitate towards Israel and remain there.  They wouldn’t know how to apply the Psalm to their lives, nor would they think they should, in any kind of direct manner.  The application would have to be more remote, which is to say that the Psalm might remind them of God’s faithfulness, generally conceived.  They simply don’t have the necessary categories for properly applying such words/concepts.  And it’s unfortunate.  There are many good things to be gained from such a practice.  Many different benefits could be cited here, but the fact that God commanded His people to sing Psalms should be reason enough.

It’s interesting to note, at this point, one of the factors that influenced the more recent decline in Psalm singing.  Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the “Father of English Hymnody,” published an influential hymnal entitled, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707).  In the introduction, which I will quote from in a moment, he questioned the propriety of Psalm singing, cataloging a number of reasons why he looked down on the practice.  I highlight this work not so much to make a historical point, which is interesting nonetheless, but because I think his comments embody, to some degree, the sentiments of dispensationalists (And certainly other Christians).  Now whether Isaac Watts held to some form of early dispensationalism isn’t a matter of concern to me.  I leave that issue for others to contemplate.  I’m merely interested in what he said in his introduction, so as to have opportunity for interaction.

He stated,

“But of all our Religious Solemnities Psalmodie is the most unhappily managed. That very Action which should elevate us to the most delightful and divine Sensations, does not only flat our Devotion, but too often awakens our Regret, and touches all the Springs of Uneasiness within us.

I have been long convinced, that one great Occasion of this Evil arises from the Matter and Words to which we confine all our Songs. Some of them are almost opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel: Many of them foreign to the State of the New Testament, and widely different from the present Circumstances of Christians. Hence it comes to pass, than when spiritual Affections are excited within us, and our Souls are raised a little above this Earth in the beginning of a Psalm, we are checked on a sudden in our Ascent toward Heaven by some Expressions that are more suited to the Days of Carnal Ordinances, and fit only to be sung in the Worldly Sanctuary. When we are just entering into an Evangelic Frame by some of the Glories of the Gospel presented in the brightest Figures of Judaism, yet the very next Line perhaps which the Clerk parcels out unto us, hath something in it so extremely Jewish and cloudy, that darkens our Sight of God the Saviour: Thus by keeping too close to David in the House of God, the Vail of Moses is thrown over our Hearts. While we are kindling into Divine Love by the Meditations of the loving Kindness of God, and the Multitude of his tender Mercies, within a few Verses some dreadful Curse against Men is proposed to our Lips; That God would add Iniquity unto their Iniquity, not let them come into his Righteousness, but blot them out of the Book of the Living, Psal. 69, 16, 27, 28. which is so contrary to the New Commandment, of loving our Enemies. Some Sentences of the Psalmist that are expressive of the Temper of our own Hearts and the Circumstances of our Lives may compose our Spirits to Seriousness, and allure us to a sweet Retirement within ourselves; but we meet with a following Line which so peculiarly belongs but to one Action or Hour of the Life of David or Asaph, that breaks off our Song in the midst; our Consciences are affrighted lest we should speak a Falsehood unto God: Thus the Powers of our Souls are shocked on a sudden, and our Spirits ruffled before we have time to reflect that this may be sung only as a History of ancient Saints: And perhaps in some Instances that Salvo is hardly sufficient neither.

Many Ministers and many private Christians have long groaned under this Inconvenience, and have wished rather than attempted a Reformation: At their importunate and repeated Requests I have for some Years past devoted many Hours of leisure to this Service. Far be it from my Thoughts to lay aside the Psalms of David in public Worship; few can pretend so great a Value for them as myself: It is the most artful, most devotional and Divine Collection of Poesy; and nothing can be supposed more proper to raise a pious Soul to Heaven than some parts of that Book; never was a piece of Experimental Divinity so nobly written, and so justly reverenced and admired: But it must be acknowledged still, that there are a thousand Lines in it which were not made for a Saint in our Day, to assume as his own; There are also many deficiencies of Light and Glory which our Lord Jesus and his Apostles have supplied in the Writings of the New Testament; and with this Advantage I have composed these spiritual Songs which are now presented to the World. Nor is the Attempt vain-glorious or presuming; for in respect of clear Evangelic Knowledge, The least in the Kingdom of Heav’n is greater than all the Jewish Prophets, Mat. 11:11.”

Let us not ask ourselves whether he contradicted himself, which seems rather apparent, or whether he blasphemed, which is a dangerous prospect, but let’s focus on the heart of his objection.  He believes that there are portions in the Psalms that run contrary to the spirit of the Gospel; that there are themes which prove incompatible with the theology of the NT, at least so far as our singing them is concerned.  He has in mind the imprecatory nature of certain Psalms.  He is thinking also of the cloudiness of the Psalms in darkening our vision of God in the Savior, and the carnal nature of the words, which are only really meant for the worldly sanctuary.  But is Mr. Watts right?  Is he right to raise such concerns and to pit the old against the new?

I’m afraid to say that he doesn’t have a firm grasp on typology, and it causes him to misstep. For absolutely crucial to our understanding of the Psalms is not only a careful apprehension of their original meaning in their original context, but their having found fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  For He is the Warrior-King who truly fulfills David’s words.  For He is the greater David, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the one who rules from God’s throne, and the One who is worthy to open the scroll and unleash the judgments of God on the world (Rev 5).  He is the conquering King.  Indeed, He is David’s Lord (Psalm 110).  Moreover, like David, He is a singing King (Heb 2:12).

A study of how the apostles apply the Psalms to Christ takes us beyond the scope of this paper, but the bottom line is this:  They see Christ everywhere in the Psalms.  They see the events of David’s life pointing to Christ.  They see David as a type in his office and person.  Basically, their perspective is so Christocentric, that they see Christ as fulfilling the Psalms[58].

This means that the ultimate fulfillment of the imprecatory Psalms is found in Christ Jesus.  He is the One who will destroy His enemies.  He is the One who will cast them into the lake of fire forever, not us.  We are to see God behind the words of David, for it was at His command that David conducted a holy war, and it was at His bidding that David annihilated evil nations.  It was God’s kingdom at war with the seed of the serpent.  And we are to view the Psalms in the light of Christ’s righteous rule.  And, oh, how badly the Church needs to understand this message (See 1 Cor 15:25-27).  We need to sing the very Psalms Christ sang.

We must also understand our role in this kingdom as well.  Unlike how warfare was conducted in the past, we do not conquer with physical swords, but with a spiritual one!  We have been called to equip ourselves with the full armor of God and take our stand against evil (Ephesians 6).  Like those mighty men of David whose exploits are recorded in 2 Samuel 23, we too stand firm against the enemy and conquer by faith.  Indeed, we demolish strongholds, as Paul says,

2Co 10:3-5, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. (4) For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. (5) We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

We are the Church militant, and we are at war.

Yes, we have been commanded to turn the cheek, not to seek revenge, but we are also called to sing the Psalms, thus singing back to God those words of judgment, asking Him to rightly dispense justice according to His wisdom and timing.  And thus we are given a godly way in which to express our deep longings when we’re confronted with terrible injustice and evil.  Yes, we pray for the salvation of our enemies, and we ask God to forgive them, but we also long for Him to finally remove all traces of evil, to cleanse creation of sin, finally and totally.  And He will do it.  Isn’t that part of our longing when we look for Jesus to return?  When we cry, “Maranatha!” we are asking for the Lion of the tribe of Judah to return and right all wrongs.  And surely we are right in doing that.

As evangelists and missionaries, we are ambassadors of the King, sent to tell the nations that they must kiss the Son or perish (Psalm 2).  We don’t want them to perish.  We plead with them.  We cry out to God for their salvation.  But we also recognize that sin is not a trifle matter.  It is deadly serious.  We warn them about Christ’s judgment.

So in the Psalms, we see Christ pre-eminently, but we also see ourselves.  We offer up praises.  We cry out for help.  We cry out for justice.  We understand that they very same kingdom that smashed evil nations in the Promised Land, is the very same kingdom that is called to knock down the walls of the nations and make disciples.  We are to be like the greater David, the Christ, the suffering servant, and thus be a people who die in order to gain victory.  We are like sheep led to the slaughter.  We are the two witnesses in Revelation 11, who are also the two olive trees and lamp stands.  We read about the sacrifices in the Psalms and think of Christ.  We think of offering up ourselves as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1).  We think not merely of Jerusalem, but of the New Jerusalem and Mount Zion, the city of God (Heb 12).  We are in the True Temple.  God has made us a kingdom and priests, and we shall reign on the earth (Rev 5:10).

The Psalms are meant to be sung, and they are meant to be understood in their original context, but also in the context of fulfillment.  It is this dual lens through which we view the Psalms, and this is what provides the grounds for seeing not only Israel, but God’s unfolding plan which has blossomed in Christ and the Church.

Now so far as strict psalmody is concerned, I do not believe that the Church is required to sing them exclusively[59].  Nevertheless, the Church should sing them.  It should be a normal part of both private and public worship[60].

On a more personal note, my wife and I have come to really appreciate singing the Psalms and teaching them to our children.  The Word is dwelling in their hearts richly.  And ours.  And I especially enjoy how the Psalms force us to sing things that we would normally never sing.  For example, when is the last time you sang about children in Church (Psalm 127)?  Or have you ever expressed your love for God in terms of enjoying him more than wine (Psalm 4)?  Or have you sung about the folly of idolatry lately (Psalm 96; 115)?

Here I would like to share something remarkable that happened in the Sudan recently.  A missionary in our denomination (RPCNA, which only sings Psalms during public worship) wrote back concerning some amazing things God has been doing.  I should first note that their work has been very slow going.  The soil has been very hard.  But in July we received this report:

“Dear prayer partners,

This past Lord’s Day we experienced a time of tremendous blessing at the
Mangar Akuac Mission Church.  Forty-four people were baptized in the name of
the true and living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was particularly
exciting to see elderly men and ladies come forward to consecrate their
lives to God through faith in Jesus Christ. I remember surveying the
congregation at one point toward the end of the service and catching a sight
of glory – beaming faces, glistening heads.  The sunlight was streaming into
the church through a large gap at the apex of the thatched roof of the
country church. It made the residual beads of water from baptism look like
studded jewels and diamonds on the ebony black skin of my new brothers and
sisters in Christ. Ministry is full of hardships, heartaches and setbacks.
There are frustrations and concerns that perpetually burden our hearts. But
this sight of God’s glory over the lives of His recently redeemed people
infused something into my heart, a strangely polarized emotion, something
between a sigh of relief and a booster cable jolt. As I think about it now,
I believe the Lord was communicating divine truths to my tired heart:
“Relax, rest, I will bring to completion the good work I have begun in My
people. Andrew, I will cause My name to be glorified in all the earth!” Dear
prayer partners, isn’t it comforting to know that God will succeed in His
kingdom causes, to know that the risen Christ, who is King over all, will
bring to pass all of His plans!

Following the worship service we marched over to three different compounds
to uproot and destroy long-standing family idols. I’m reminded of Paul’s
words to the believers at Thessalonica: “They report about us what kind of a
reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the
living and true God.” It’ hard to describe the step of faith it is for new
believers to turn from their idols, to actually yank them out of the ground
and toss them into the fire.  At the first compound I spoke to the people
about the exceedingly great power of our God who cast Satan down and
triumphed over him through the cross of His Son. To make things clear, I
felt led by the Spirit to do something somewhat Elijah-like. I sat my rump
down on the biggest and most obvious of the compound idols (a 5 inch-wide,
30 inch high carved stick with a notched knob at the top). The people were
shocked as I addressed them from my perch. I said, “If the god of this stick
is stronger than the true God of heaven and earth, let him come and strike
me down! Let him come and defend his idol.” Well, I waited… and nothing
happened!  Then in the suspense of the moment it dawned on them: “The God of
the Bible is the real God!” The silence erupted into spontaneous clapping
and singing and dancing.  I must say, I was praising God, too! Then the men
of the church (and not a few zealous ladies!) laid their hands on the idol
and cast it down. The idols and charms were removed from the compound,
including a goat’s head and various amulets, and cast into a raging fire,
symbolic of Satan’s eternal and infernal demise. After more singing and a
word of exhortation, we returned to the compound for prayers of consecration
and protection.  And so it went from compound to compound. By the end of the
day, I was thoroughly exhausted, the people tremendously encouraged and, I
believe, our Lord and Saviour wonderfully glorified in the expansion of His
kingdom.

On behalf of the Team,
Pastor Andrew (Madingdit)”

I do cannot say for certain, but I would imagine that the pastor lead them in singing those Psalms that spoke of the folly of idols/idolatry.  How great that would have been for those new converts to not only smash their idols and throw them into the fire, but sing God’s Word, thus providing sanctified lyrics.

Conclusion

I firmly believe there is widespread ignorance of the OT in the Churches today.  Singing the Psalms, which provides opportunities for instruction, and which commits Scripture to memory, would help remedy this problem.  But it is also largely true that dispensationalism tends to steer people away from the OT[61].  For if someone really thinks of Israel and God’s kingdom as something fundamentally distinct from their own realm of existence, then they will naturally gravitate towards that which most clearly applies to them, namely, the epistles[62].

So in this respect, I would urge my dispensational brothers to adopt a more covenantal view of history, one that sees more continuity between the testaments.  It will deepen faith and further bring to light what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls, “the consent of all the parts[63].”

May God help us all in this endeavor.


[1] To be fair, it was a host of issues that convinced me to the contrary.  But Ephesians 2 played a vital role in that decision.  I’ll explore some of those other reasons after examining Ephesians 2.

[2] In this respect, link together John 15 with Romans 11:19-24.  Also link together circumcision as the sign of the Abrahamic covenant and Christian baptism (Colossians 2:11-12).

[3] The Passover was transformed.  Circumcision was transformed.  Sabbath was transformed.  And Israel was transformed, to name a few.

[4] It’s surprising, therefore, to hear Macarthur assert the following, “When you understand God’s purpose for Israel, you now have the foundation for all eschatology.  All eschatology.  You get your eschatology right when you get Israel right…”  While there is a sense in which that is true, his emphasis betrays the wrongheadedness of his position.  You get eschatology right when you understand Christ and His work.  He stands at the center of the Scriptures.  So, in other words, I don’t think the hearts of those on the road to Emmaus burned within them because Jesus unfolded the meaning of natural Israel to them.

[5] See Vern Poythress’ illuminating chapter on the Promised Land in his book, “The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses,” for a number of insightful purposes of the Land in the OT.

[6] See the tremendously insightful book by G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission.”

[7] Strimple, “Amellennialism,” page 90.

[8] Greg Beale offers a helpful analogy with the expansion of the land.  Picture a father in 1900 promising his son a horse and buggy when he grows up and gets married.  He says, ““During the early years of expectation, the son reflects on the particular size of the buggy, its contours and style, its beautiful leather seat and the size and breed of horse that would draw the buggy. Perhaps the father had knowledge from early experimentation elsewhere that the invention of the automobile was on the horizon, but coined the promise to his son in terms that his son would understand. Years later, when the son marries, the father gives the couple an automobile, which has since been invented and mass-produced. Is the son disappointed in receiving a car instead of a horse and buggy? Is this not a ‘literal’ fulfillment of the promise? In fact, the essence of the father’s word has remained the same: a convenient mode of transportation. What has changed is the precise form of transportation promised. The progress of technology has escalated the fulfillment of the pledge in a way that could not have been conceived of when the son was young. Nevertheless, in the light of the later development of technology [corresponding to the redemptive impact of the coming of Christ], the promise is viewed as ‘literally’ and faithfully carried out in a greater way than earlier apprehended.” The Temple and the Church’s Mission,” (352-53).

[9] Actually it’s an error commonly made in systematics.  I call it the pre-packaged  a’priori error. What does the Pentecostal do when confronted with 1 Corinthians 12:30?  They draw an artificial distinction in order to preserve their commitment to the evidence doctrine.  What does the Roman Catholic do when pressed on the papacy?  They come to the Scriptures with a detailed body of a’priori concepts, point at a particular verse and declare that it clearly supports the papacy.  The problem, of course, is that it supports the position, if and only if, you first buy into their assumptions.  The trouble is first deducing the notion from the biblical text.  But of course the text simply doesn’t want to yield the position, exegetically speaking.  It requires a jump.  The Arminian does it will free will.  The Wesleyan does it with perfectionism.  Presbyterians and Baptists often do it with baptism.  And the dispensationalist does it with Israel and the Church.

[10] I am indebted to Kim Riddlebarger for this paragraph.

[11] Think of the record of Israel’s history and how they continually failed to fulfill their role, bringing upon them God’s judgment.  Over and over again, God was demonstrating for all to see that sinful man is not the answer, not even a tremendously blessed and chosen people-nation.

[12] His choosing twelve disciples is surely an unmistakable picture of the twelve tribes of Israel, thus further alluding to the fact that the Church would constitute new Israel.  See 1 Peter 1:1 and James 1:1 and Rev 21 in this regard.  See also Clowney’s helpful volume, “The Unfolding Mystery.”

[13] Matthew 18:17 should probably be added to the list, for it states that those excommunicated from the church should be regarded as Gentiles.  Does it mean that Gentiles within the church should be considered Jews?  I think that is a fair conclusion.

[14] This isn’t the only factor, of course.  W.D. Davies offers some interesting thoughts in, “The Gospel and the Land,” although I must admit that he makes me nervous on some larger points in that work.

[15] For greater analysis of this verse, see G.K. Beale’s commentary, “The Book of Revelation,” pages 286-289.  For it is incredible to note how the phrase, “I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you,” is an ironic fulfillment of passages like Isaiah 60:14, 45:14, 49:23, 43:4.  It isn’t the Gentiles who are bowing down, but apostate Jews!

[16] http://www.enjoyinggodministries.com/article/the-church-israel-and-replacement-theology-part-ii/

[17] We might wonder how Macarthur could say that Israel always means Israel here, given that if we flatten Israel out to mean the exact same thing in both instances, Paul would be speaking unintelligibly.

[18] Douglas Moo argues that Romans 9:6 doesn’t have Gentiles specifically in mind.  He states, “The ‘true Israel’ in v. 6b, therefore, denotes a smaller, spiritual body within ethnic Israel rather than a spiritual entity that overlaps with ethnic Israel,” The Epistle to the Romans, page 574.  I believe this is correct.  But as he notes, and as I also believe, Gentiles fall within the purview of the discussion shortly thereafter.

[19] http://www.enjoyinggodministries.com/article/the-church-israel-and-replacement-theology-part-ii/  Note as well that George Ladd is a historic Premillennialist.

[20] Note that Romans 11 says nothing to support dispensational trappings.  It is probably best to see their being organized into a nation as a way in which to better display their conversion; to make it even more apparent.

[21] See also Galatians 6:16.  Here I simply quote Hoekema, “There is at least one NT passage where the term Israel is used as inclusive of Gentiles, and therefore as standing for the entire NT church.  I refer to Galatians 6:15-16… Who are meant by ‘all who follow this rule’?  Obviously, all those who are new creatures in Christ, for whom neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything.  This would have to include all true believers, both Jews and Gentiles.  What follows in the Greek is kai epi ton Israel tou theou.  John F. Walvoord, a dispensational writer, insists that the word kai must be translated and, so that “the Israel of God” refers to believing Jews.  The problem with this interpretation is that believing Jews have already been included in the words “all who follow this rule.”  The word kai, therefore, should be rendered even, as the New International Version has done.  When the passage is so understood, “The Israel of God” is further description of “all who follow this rule”—that is, of all true believers, including both Jews and Gentiles, who constitute the NT church.  Here, in other words, Paul clearly identifies the church as true Israel.” Hoekema, “The Bible and the Future,” page 197.  Douglas Moo agrees, saying “But the syntax of the verse makes it more likely that “Israel of God” is epexegetic of αὐτόὐς, which in turn finds its antecedent in the phrase “as many as adhere to this rule.”  This means that “Israel of God” refers to the Church as a whole.” NICNT “The Epistle to the Romans,” page 574, footnote 21.

[22] Note the catalog of blessings in Romans 9:4-5.  Theirs (Israel) is the (1) adoption as sons, (2) the divine glory, (3) the covenants, (4) the receiving of the law, (5) temple worship, (6) the promises, (7) and theirs are the patriarchs.  Do Gentiles now possess these blessings?  I believe so.  That’s what Paul teaches in Ephesians 2, and it is strongly intimated in Romans 9-11.

[23] If you can understand the meaning of this sentence, then there is hope, and I ask that you keep reading.

[24] All these are taken from his lecture given at the Shepherd’s Conference.  You can obtain that lecture here: http://www.shepherdsfellowship.org/

[25] My wife, after listening to Macarthur’s conclusion, said he sounded like a jerk.  In this lecture, he did.

[26] I put this in quotes because many dispensationalists are much better exegetes in practice (Calvinistic ones) than what their talking points suggest or dictate.  I think this is true of Macarthur.

[27] Though it must also be stressed that many through this process have abandoned it, with no small number rejecting dispensationalism en toto.  In fact, Modified and Progressive Dispensationalism has pretty much replaced the older model of dispensationalism at Dallas Theological Seminary (or so I hear).  And if Saucy is representative of the newer school of thought, then the old insistence on a literal hermeneutic is nearly a relic of the past.  They recognize a historical-grammatical, literary-theological method, which is much closer to Covenant Theology’s methodology.

[28] Listen to Richard Pratt’s helpful lecture, “Is Jesus the OT Messiah?” for some helpful categories. http://www.veritas.org/media/talks/214

[29] http://pjtibayan.wordpress.com/2009/04/30/3-new-da-carson-lectures-on-3-passages-in-hebrews-use-of-ot-in-nt/

Or the Bray lecture version:

http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Audio-and-Multimedia/Speakers-Lectures-and-Sermons/DA-Carson/The-Use-of-OT-in-the-NT/

[30] In case you missed it, I made another allusion to Sampson just now J

[31] John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, pages 129-130; 200

[32] Dispensationalism Today, page 21.

[33] See Colossians 2:15.

[34] See Matthew 3:1-8.

[35] See http://www.grovergunn.net/andrew/disp07.htm for a number other examples- ones that especially apply to their favorite prophecy passages.

[36] Not to mention that it really annoys us, which I actually don’t intend to be too funny, because it creates an atmosphere of tension and frustration which leads to strife and division.  Honestly, it’s hard not to dislike Macarthur when he speaks the way he does.

[37] I do not intend to suggest that all greater realities are purely spiritual.  Take for example the Land promise.  The greater reality is the New Heavens and New Earth.  We shouldn’t picture an ethereal spirit place, but a renovated Earth with dirt, trees and all kinds of other earthly things.

[38] Hal Lindsey, There’s a New World Coming: “A Prophetic Odyssey,” page 6.

[39] Most scholars recognize hundreds of OT allusions, many of which come from Daniel and Ezekiel.  It therefore follows that for those who misunderstand Daniel and Ezekiel will more than likely misunderstand the book of Revelation.  Or to say it another way, if the OT Scriptures aren’t running through your veins, you’ll miss the allusions.

[40] http://www.frame-poythress.org/poythress_articles/1993Genre.htm

[41] Besides the lectures from Carson, see O Palmer Robertson’s chapter on the Davidic Covenant in his book, “Christ of the Covenants.”

[42] Many other examples could be cited.  But take 2 Cor 6:16-18.  Note Paul’s blend of OT references.  One of the references is Ezekiel 37:26-27.  Paul applies to the new community a passage from the OT that appears to refer to the future temple in the land.  Isn’t that “spiritualizing” the text.  See Robert L. Reymond’s 95 Thesis against dispensationalism for other examples: http://www.againstdispensationalism.com/95theses.shtml

[43] See, for one example, John Frame’s lecture, “Machen’s Warrior Children.”   http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2003Machen.htm.  For the mp3, scroll down here: http://www.monergism.com/directory/search.php?action=search_links_simple&search_kind=and&phrase=john+frame+mp3

[44] This of course isn’t true for all, but it certainly is true for many.

[45] Ironically, the book of Revelation stresses spiritual preparedness, not physical preparedness.  It speaks of victory through the Lamb.  It offers hope that during periods of persecution, God will preserve His people and overthrow evil.  Through faithful suffering His people will obtain victory.  Indeed, blessed are you who are persecuted for His name’s sake.

[46] Of course it is true that Christ’s return will be dramatic and awesome.  Her beef is with something like Tim LaHaye’s portrayal of the end.

[47] I have taken this list from Gary Demar.  It came while engaging Joel Rosenberg in a radio debate/discussion.  One could also add to the 20th century and the 21st century, Islam, Hitler Germany, a revived Hitler in a Fourth Reich, etc.  It should also be noted that dispensationalism didn’t cause the Church to arrive at most of these convictions (it wasn’t around).  But the point stands.  The tendency to read current events into the Bible has its allure.  Dispensationalism merely supercharges the temptation.  One need only read Hal Lindsay or Tim LeHaye or Van Kampen to clearly see the point.

[48] I am ignoring what I have said earlier about the land and am simply granting for arguments sake that there still is an exclusive land promise for ethnic Jews.

[49] Genesis 12:3 often plays an important role in the discussion as well.  It is said that we must stand with Israel so as to be blessed.  First of all, this verse must take into account apostasy, but beyond that, it must also take into account the Church and the redemptive movements of history, as has been stressed throughout this paper.

[50] See A.F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms; cited in Michael Bushell’s work, The Songs of Zion, chapter five.

[51] Cited Songs of Zion, page 18.

[52] Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, Vol. 1, page 247, footnote 14.

[53] He cites Werner, The Sacred Bridge, page 135.

[54] Emil Doumergue, Music in the Work of Calvin.

[55] Cited in Bushell, Songs of Zion, pages 181-182.

[56] See Wilberforce Eames, The Bay Psalm Book.

[57] Bushell, op. cit., page 198.  He cites Benson and Prothero respectively. 

[58] See the excellent and very helpful message by Douglas Green, “Israel’s Enemies Under David’s Foot.”  Log in to WTS and go to audio.  http://www.wts.edu/   http://www.sycamorerpc.org/sermons/category/heartsongs-of-the-savior/ (Check out Pastor Barry York’s insightful series, “The Psalms in Christ.”  See also Clowney’s helpful thoughts on the Psalms, http://thegospelcoalition.org/resources/category/courses/a/series/christ_in_the_old_testament/

[59] Ask to see my paper, “A Critique of Exclusive Psalmody.”  See also John Frame’s helpful volume, “Worship in Spirit and Truth.”

[60] Who can really complain about singing God’s Word in Church?  I find that this helps curb worship war issues to some extent.

[61] I have heard many people who have come out of dispensationalism lodge this complaint.  The OT is either neglected in practice, moralized or conscientiously avoided.

[62] I should stress that this isn’t true of all dispensationalists.  There are many fine preachers in that discipline.  But I still believe the point stands.

[63] WCF, chapter one, point five.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Marcia Bonner November 15, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    Dear Mr. Brown:
    Thank you. Thank you so much for this long, excellent, edifying article on dispensationalism. I can’t adequately or succinctly explain how your paper has blessed me and, as I read it, “rang true”. I am a 60-year-old woman who has been following Jesus for 44 years. I have increasingly loved studying God’s Word, have increasingly marveled day by day at the wonder of Jesus Christ on every page, whether hidden or plain. I sat at a teacher’s feet for 28 years who was born a Jew, was estranged from his family at his conversion to following Christ at age 18. Interesting to me, and maybe it will be to you, is that both he and my other bible teacher (he a former Plymouth Brethren convert) never once mentioned the term “dispensationalism” in their teaching. I grew up being totally unfamiliar with the concept. Only in recent years I have encountered it, and wondered what it was and how its tenets would strike me, if I could learn about them – specifically as a Christian I wondered how I would judge it based on my own understanding/reading of Scripture.
    I wholeheartedly appreciate and concur with your reasonable, enlightened, wise and Christ-centered writing. It has truly been a blessing to gain the knowledge and truth you have shared with us. Thanks again, brother.

    • Austin Brown November 15, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

      Dear Marcia,

      I feel so humbled. Thank you for you kind words. May the Lord help us all to better understand Him and His mighty works!

      • Rev. Don Pegler November 16, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

        Thank you Mr. Brown for the research and excellently written article. I, too, was raised ‘dispie’ (and the son of a letter carrier) but saw that it did not square with Scripture so rejected that theology. God then graciously brought Reformed teaching to my wife and me. But in spite of a reformed seminary I did not have answers for all the problems with the D system. You have filled in many gaps. I am ordained in the PCA and love to teach Reformed Theology and the Westminster Standards. I have taught showing the many advantages of Reformed vs D theology. I now have some additional information for the next time I teach the subject. I read your article on theaquilareport.com.
        Thanks again for a job well done!
        Rev. Don Pegler (Retired)

        • Austin Brown November 16, 2014 at 11:34 pm #

          Glad it was of some help!

  2. Dan Jensen November 19, 2014 at 6:48 am #

    Inspired! This is the best compact critique of Left Behind theology I have ever read and I am sharing it repeatedly.
    And, I am inspired by your example of how to be a theologian while not employed in so-called “full time ministry.”
    And, I am the son of a 30+ year letter carrier.
    And I have considered writing a book about funny stories from a tire store, my former profession, so I just bought your book Walking With The Mailman – though you are not likely to earn a living at $.99 a copy for the Kindle version! I’m doing what I can 🙂

    • Austin Brown March 3, 2016 at 11:53 pm #

      Just seeing this comment now. Thank you so much! Such kind words!

  3. Kip' Chelashaw November 19, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    Excellent, Fantastic, Gracious. This was food to my heart and joy to the body. May it encourage and edify many to walk in the truth.

    Grace and peace.

    K

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