Friday, July 23, 2021

The New Covenant and Acts 2

One of my friends mentioned to me the New Covenant in connection with Acts 2, which I thought was a little odd, as I can't find a mention of the New Covenant in Acts 2. He tried to connect them via Joel 2:19–32, which I thought was more odd, because I can't find a mention of the New Covenant in Joel 2. But after some thought, I admit there is something there that's worth considering.

It's a fact that the Lord frequently fulfills a prophecy partially before fulfilling it ultimately. We don't have to look hard to find that sort of thing in Matthew's gospel, for example. A great deal of the statements Matthew makes about prophecy seem to be based on quotes wrested from their context. One reason for that (there are other considerations too) is that God sees ultimate fulfillment in Christ. For example, when Isaiah says, "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and shall bring forth a son, and call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:10–25), our minds go immediately to Christ. And rightly so (Matthew 1:23). But in the context where Isaiah actually spoke that prophecy, he was promising deliverance from Syria to Ahaz. If we read on to the next verses (Isaiah 7:14–16), the promise is that a virgin would conceive, have a son, and before her son would be old enough to develop a discerning palate, God would destroy the kings of Syria. So God promises deliverance in the time it takes a young woman to marry, give birth to her first child, wean him, and he develops a taste for food. That's a really weird way to specify a time-frame, but God does it with a purpose: He is looking forward to ultimate deliverance from the ultimate enemy, and that will come from the Son of God, who would be born of a virgin.

So in Acts 2, the coming of the Holy Spirit is identified by Peter (Acts 2:14–21) as the pouring out in Joel 2:28–32. A lot of Christians read Peter's words here and declare that God has fulfilled the prophecy in Joel 2, it's now in the past. I disagree, because Joel clearly promises things that didn't happen in Acts 2. We have no record that the younger people prophesied while the older people dreamed dreams. As Watchman Nee points out, between the Holy Spirit's coming and Peter's sermon, we know for a fact no one had dreamed dreams, because none of them had been sleeping!  Peter goes on to mention the signs and wonders Joel promised (Joel 2:30–31; Acts 2:19–20), which is odd considering none of these things are recorded in Acts 2, nor anywhere else in Acts.

Peter wasn't claiming that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 was the fulfillment of the prophecies in Joel 2. Peter was claiming that what they saw in Acts 2 was a pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and they should have known a pouring out of the Holy Spirit was coming, because it's foretold in Joel 2. This is subtly different: the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is coming, I have no doubt. Acts 2 wasn't the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy, but it was a partial fulfillment. Just like the child born in Ahaz's time was a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, but a bigger fulfillment was coming; so the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy, but a more complete fulfillment is coming.

Notice this same theme is picked up in Romans 11:25–27. What God has done since Christ was rejected (see especially Acts 3:19–26) is build something new on the earth that gives a glimpse into what things would have been, had Israel repented. And Romans tells us, it's with the intention that Israel would see what God has done in the church, and be moved to jealousy. 

And notice, Romans 11:27 mentions the Covenant God will make with Israel "after I take away their sins."

So here's another place the church and the New Covenant meet. Again, I don't believe that the church benefits under the New Covenant, but I absolutely believe that God is using us to demonstrate publicly His grace, so that Israel would be moved to repentance. God is showing how He would treat them, in how He treats us. And part of that promised renewed relationship with Israel is the New Covenant.

I should probably also mention... I don't believe the church is temporary, but I am certain the church is playing roles right now on earth that are temporary. What I mean by that is, our relationship to Christ as Bride isn't going to end, but our place on this earth as the house of God will absolutely come to an end. We will eventually be replaced by Israel in that sense. And that's a good thing! We should look forward to that, because it'll be part of the public vindication of the Lord Jesus Christ. I mentioned before, I don't believe our role as the Body of Christ will last beyond our time here (Christ already has a body in Heaven, our place is to be His Body on earth). I don't believe our role as the habitation of God through the Spirit will last beyond our time here. But we absolutely will be "forever with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

Friday, July 16, 2021

The New Covenant and the Church

I think at this point I've made it clear that I don't believe the Church receives and blessings under the New Covenant. Properly speaking, the Church isn't a party to the New Covenant. The New Covenant has not yet been inaugurated, but when it is inaugurated, it will be made between God and the houses of Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Hebrews 8:8–12). 

But the fact is that the Church isn't entirely separate from the New Covenant for several reasons:

  1. we are united to Christ (Ephesians 5:28–33), the Mediator of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:6)
  2. we have the "blood of the New Covenant" (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)

Whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, we announce the Lord's death (1 Corinthians 11:26). We have a tendency to think that we eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of what the Lord has done for us, but Scripture tells us otherwise. We eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Him (I Corinthians 11:24–25). He is more than "just" the One who died for us. His death was for us, that's true. But it wasn't only for us: there is value in His death for God. There is something in His death for Israel. There is something in His death for us. And while our Calvinist friends might not approve of my saying so: there is something in His death for fallen, unredeemed, unrepentant man too.

But even more than that, we aren't really called to remember His death. We're called to remember Him, and in doing so, we announce His death. We remember the Lord as the eternal God who became Man. We remember that He spoke the universe into existence (Hebrews 1:1–4, Colossians 1:16). We remember that He dwells in light unapproachable, that no man has seen, nor can see (1 Timothy 6:13–16). We remember that He is the only-begotten Son in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18).

And yes, we remember that He came down here, becoming a Man with the express purpose of giving Himself for us (Hebrews 10:4–10).

But the point is, we don't dissect Christ. We remember Him, and that includes the New Covenant. 

Even more to the point, He gave us the cup, and told us explicitly it's "the new covenant in [His] blood" (1 Corinthians 11:25).

This last point is a problem for people (like me) who take the view that the New Covenant is with Israel and Judah. If the New Covenant isn't ours, why do we have the cup? Why doesn't the Lord say we have "the cup, which is My blood?" Why does He bring up the New Covenant?

To me, this is all about Asenath. The Lord came to His own, and they didn't receive Him (John 1:11). He presented Himself to His own people, and they made it very clear they'd rather have Caesar than their own King (John 19:11–15). So He was crucified by the hands of wicked men (Acts 2:22–23), and when they killed Him, they were clear that He was the King of Israel (Matthew 27:37). And then, after His resurrection, the apostles called them to repent, promising them that He would come back then and there, to set up His kingdom (Acts 3:19–21). But of course they didn't repent.

The timing of the Last Supper is significant: it's before the assembly was formed, before the Holy Spirit came. It's the night He was betrayed (1 Corinthians 11:23). And on that night, He gives the disciples the cup, and tells them it's the New Covenant in His blood (Luke 22:19–20). They might not have realized it at the time, but the New Covenant will be made in blood (Hebrews 9:15–22), just as the Old Covenant was (Exodus 24:4–8). And the disciples were to remember that blood until He comes back.

No, I don't believe in transubstantiation. I don't believe the cup really is His blood, or that the bread really is His body. But I do believe that the Lord left a memorial of His blood, and of the New Covenant that will be made in it. And He made it a definite thing: we remember Him in bread and wine until He comes back (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).

So here we are: we announce His death while we wait for Him to come back. And when He comes back, He'll establish the "times of refreshing," inaugurating the New Covenant with Israel and Judah in His own blood. And that blood has been a testimony to His death for this whole time (Hebrews 12:24).

So in a sense, we're keeping the cup in trust for Israel and Judah. When our Lord comes back, He'll be their Lord too. And then we won't have that cup anymore.

But right now we're Asenath: we're the Lord's here while He has been rejected. We remember Him here so that His name won't be forgotten, but will be remembered throughout all generations (Psalm 45:17). And once His own people receive Him, we won't need to be holding that cup for them anymore.

There will be something amazing between the Lord and His people when He comes back for them. Some of that isn't our business, just like our union with Him is none of theirs. But when He does come as their King, He'll write His own copy of the law, just like Moses commanded (Deuteronomy 17:18). He'll write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).

So no, I don't believe the Church is party to the New Covenant. And I don't believe the Church receives any blessings from it, although I'm sure there are some blessings that we'll both have, not because we share them, but because we need them. But I do believe the assembly is connected to the New Covenant, because it is Christ's New Covenant, and we are connected with Him. And I believe we are connected with the New Covenant, because we hold (even if only symbolically) the blood of that New Covenant, until He comes.

 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Dispensationalism

It's popular to hate on Dispensationalism these days (although I've seen faint glimmers of its coming back into fashion). Some of the criticisms I have seen are valid, most are a bit of a reach, some are entirely outside the realm of reasonable.

In my experience, the term "dispensationalism" generally means the Scofield version, with seven ages that each begin with a covenant and end with a judgment. I'm not a huge fan of that system, although I understand its appeal. Clarence Larkin taught a version with eight ages, rather than seven. I'm sure there are many other versions of Dispensationalism, but the Scofield version seems to be the one people think of first, and the one people are attacking when they claim Dispensationalism is wrong.

Reading Darby cured me of Scofield's brand of Dispensationalism. Scofield does a good job of seeing and calling out discontinuities between the Old and New Testaments (for example), but not such a great job of recognizing continuities. The immediate effect reading Darby had on me was to make me step away from a lot of the Dispensationalist ideas I had grown up believing.

But I digress. 

Dispensationalism seems to me to be particularly strong in its hermeneutic. It's not perfect, but it's based on a remarkably consistent hermeneutic. Dispensationalists tend to view things in context (perhaps to a fault), and are very consistent across passages. I'm frequently surprised by the inconsistent hermeneutic in conversations with Christians from other backgrounds.

One of the more common criticisms of Dispensationalism is that it teaches that man was justified by works under Law in the Old Testament, and is now justified by grace through faith.  That's a common enough criticism that it deserves a detailed answer.

Let's be clear that God has only ever justified fallen men and women by grace through faith. That's the plain teaching of the Epistles. But I admit that I have met some (not all, not most, not even many) dispensationalists who weren't very clear on that. I can't recall ever speaking to a dispensationalist who didn't quickly realize the truth when pressed on the point, but I should be fair and say that I have actually met dispensationalists (not many, but some) who weren't very clear on that. I don't think I've ever heard anyone teach error on that point, and I've certainly never read it anywhere that I can recall.

But there is another "line of truth" to consider: the Epistles teach that the Law was given to reveal man's sinfulness (Romans 3:20, 5:12–21, Galatians 3:19). God was testing the human race. It wasn't to educate God, but to reveal what fallen men and women are.

What God knows (and has always known) is that Adam's descendants aren't merely guilty, but are lost. When Romans 8:7 says the mind of the flesh is not subject to the law of God and cannot be, it's giving God's verdict of our race. We're not merely guilty, we are also lost.

The testing of our race reaches its climax in the life and death of Jesus Christ. God Himself comes to live as a Man, is hated, persecuted, and murdered. In the rejection of Christ, we have the very worst thing the human race has ever done. There is no sin worse than Deicide.

Is God surprised by the death of His Son? Of course not! It was by the "determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God" that He was killed (Acts 2:22–23). But that doesn't mean it wasn't the lowest point in human history. That doesn't mean God isn't going to judge the human race for this greatest of all crimes.

So Dispensationalism recognizes not only the individual need for redemption (only by the blood of Christ) and justification (only by grace through faith). It also recognizes God's testing of the human race. This is brought out especially by Darby and other "brethren" writers:

Man was lawless; then, when the law came, there was the transgression of the law; and when the blessed Lord in wondrous love and grace came into the world and went about doing good, they could not stand God's presence ("Our Portion in Christ," Collected Writings, Volume 21, pp. 317–326).

By nature, man was simply lawless (anomos), with a conscience, or the sense of good and evil. But he, being lawless in nature, was expressly put under law. If he had fulfilled it, he was righteous; but the flesh is not subject to it, nor can it be. ("The Pauline Doctrine of the Righteousness of Faith," Collected Writings, Volume 7, pp. 349–386).

Men had been sinners, lawless sinners and law-breaking sinners, before Christ came. His coming brought an additional element of sin. God came into this world in goodness. What did it do to Him?  ("The Law, and the Gospel of the Glory of Christ", Collected Writings, Volume 34, pp. 416–429)

One of the tragedies of Dispensationalism is that it has become characterized by charts and tables, rather than by a deep appreciation of God's ways with our lost race, but I digress. I love charts and tables, by the way. But the real meat isn't in the charts and tables.

It's fair to say dispensationalists believe that God put Israel – as representatives of the entire human race – under Law at Sinai as a test. It was a test He knew they (we) would fail, but it was a real test. And so we believe if they had passed the test (they did not and could not), then they would have been righteous based on their own merit. But that's not at all the same thing as saying they were justified by their works. They were not, as Romans 4:1–8 shows.

So yes, in a way, all dispensationalists believe that if men and women had kept the Law, they would have been righteous before God. But that would mean they were not lost. The Law doesn't prove man's guilt, but his lostness. And the impossibility of lost men and women being subject to the law of God is precisely what the law proved.

We don't believe that God has justified lost men and women any other way than by grace through faith. That is universally true: it was true of Abraham before the Law, and of David under it (Romans 4:1–8). 

Only one Man is just in God's sight on His own merits.


 

 


 

 

 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

New Covenant – individual walk and corporate responsibility

I've been traveling for work, so I've been a little distanced from the blog. We got back safe and sound, so I'm trying to get back to "real life."

Scripture tells us that God's purpose is to head up all things "in Christ" (Ephesians 1:10). While that includes individuals who are saved and brought into eternal blessing, it also includes groups of individuals. When we examine individual salvation in the Old Testament (Romans 4:1–8), we find that David and Abraham were both justified by faith without works. Abraham was a man before the Law (Galatians 3:15–18), David was a man under the Law. But both were justified the same way, and both are held up as models for us. God only justifies on the principle of faith without works. God has only ever justified sinners one way: by grace through faith. There is no difference between a man without Law and a man with Law. There is no difference between Gentiles and Jewish people, between men and women, between wicked sinners and respectable members of society. All need God's righteousness, and He only gives it to those who do not work, but believe (Romans 4:5).

But God is at work not only with individuals, but with the world as a whole. So while David and Abraham were justified the same way, they were under different earthly responsibilities. David was a sinner who needed God's righteous. Abraham was a sinner who needed God's righteousness. On the individual level, there is no difference. But from a dispensational perspective (if I can use that expression), there is tremendous difference. David was a member of the nation of Israel, given the Mosaic (Old) Covenant. There is responsibility there that the patriarchs just did not have.

And don't let's forget that David had a much more complete revelation from God than Abraham had.

There is now a different responsibility than even David had: there is now the assembly on earth. In Abraham's time, there was no house of God on earth. The house of God is mentioned first by Jacob (Genesis 28:17), then by Moses (Exodus 15:17). This isn't something Abraham had, but it's something David had (1 Chronicles 6:31), and it's something we now have (Ephesians 2:19–22).

As an aside, it's worth reading Darby's commentary on Exodus 15 with respect to the dwelling of God on earth.

Now the assembly is the "habitation of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22). And this carries earthly (dispensational) responsibility. We are individually justified by God freely through faith, but as a group, there is responsibility for the assembly of God on earth. This is precisely the point of Revelation 2 and 3. We have two chapters of the Lord's assessment of that responsibility, and it's clear, complete, and scathing. To put it bluntly, the assembly of God has failed just as completely as Israel did before us.

Let me pause here for a moment... I am sure that when the Lord judges the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, He's not limiting His judgment to those who are born again. There are false professors, as well as genuine children of God in those churches. But He treats them all as "the church" in the context of dispensational responsibility. We see the same thing in Jude 1:4, there are certain men who have crept in "unnoticed" – they blend in with the real believers, but they're not real believers. 2 Peter 2:1–3 says the same thing: they're among us. And the Lord doesn't give the true believers a pass when He judges the seven churches in Asia, He judges the church because they have false teachers there (Revelation 2:14–15, 2:20). 

So judgment begins in the house of God (1 Peter 4:17), and we as the assembly aren't an exception. The house of God is a very real responsibility on the earth. This isn't an eternal thing, and it's not an individual thing: it's the corporate responsibility of the church of God on earth.

Again, let's try and be clear that we're not talking about individual salvation: that's not what the house of God is about. This is about God's having a place on this earth that is His. His name is there, His reputation is tied to it. In the Old Testament, that was in Israel. It was first in Shiloh, then in Jerusalem (Psalm 78:60–72). And I have no doubt that Psalm 132:14–18 looks forward to a time when the house of God will be established in Jerusalem again, then the Lord Himself is there. But that hasn't happened yet.

Now here's where we get back to the New Covenant: the New Covenant promises "their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:6–12). On an individual level, that has always been true – God does not at all reckon sin to the one who is justified by faith without works (Psalm 32:1–2, Romans 4:6–8). But on a corporate level, that is not true even in the church! Revelation 2 and 3 make it very clear that the Lord sees our [corporate] failures, and He even holds them against us (Revelation 2:4, etc.) 1 Peter 4:17 isn't a meaningless side note: judgment begins in the house of God. Paul says the same thing with regard to the assembly, "let each see how he builds upon it" (1 Corinthians 3:10).

So there is at least one sense in which the New Covenant is better than the present state of the church.

Now, it's very true that the New Testament speaks of the assembly in more than one sense. There is the sense that the assembly is the house of God – and there is responsibility and judgment associated with that – there is also the sense that the assembly is the body of Christ, which is a different thing. The house of God may include false professors, but the body of Christ cannot. Still, the body of Christ is a temporal, earthly thing. When we look outside of our time on this earth, we see not the body of Christ, but the bride of Christ. That is an eternal thing, and certainly no false professor has a part in that.

So to bring this all back: God's saving individuals by grace through faith without works is universal: from Adam until the last day, God only ever saves individuals one way. The Law added nothing to that, and takes nothing away from it. God only saves sinners one way.

But when it comes to responsibility before God in the earthly responsibility that He has given us, that has changed many times. Abraham and David – both justified by faith without works – had very different responsibilities before God on earth. And our responsibilities are different even from theirs. But I am convinced that the Mosaic (Old) and New Covenants are given in that context: the context of corporate responsibility, not individual walk.

I didn't mean to go on like that. Maybe it's best to end this here and we can go on with the New Covenant next time.

Friday, June 18, 2021

The New Covenant – Covenants

It seems to me that "covenant" is a popular word among Christians right now. It was in the last five years I noticed that the new Christian phrase was "covenant marriage," and while not as ubiquitous as it was five years ago, it's still pretty widely used.

I have no idea what people mean by "covenant marriage." I've heard sermons on it, and I still don't know. My suspicion is that Christians just add the "covenant" qualifier to Christianize things. The Catholic idea of the sacrament of marriage might be closer to Scripture, but I digress.

As far as I can tell, we are under the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9:1–7). This is the main reason I eat meat, but do not eat blood (Genesis 9:4). It seems to me that I, as a Gentile, am definitely a descendant of  Noah, and bound by that covenant.

As an aside, I don't think that means it's a sin if we ever ingest a single corpuscle of blood, but that we make a good faith effort to bleed out an animal before we eat it. I'm certain there are traces of blood in any meat we eat. The times I have personally killed an animal to eat it, I have done my best to bleed it out, treating the blood as though it's not mine, but God's. I think that is what Genesis 9 is calling us to do (cf. Leviticus 17:13–14).

I know some Reformed folks who don't share my convictions about eating blood. As I understand it, their argument centers on Mark 7:19 (ESV), "Thus he declared all foods clean," I don't find that compelling, given the Apostles' prohibition on eating blood in Acts 15:22–29. It seems to me that the Lord's declaration that all foods are clean didn't include things which were never given to us as food. Of course our Reformed friends should eat what they feel free before the Lord to eat, giving thanks to the Father through Christ, just like I should eat what I feel free before the Lord to eat, giving thanks to the Father through Christ.

Back to the covenants...

The Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 15:13–21) is a little more difficult to place in context for believers. As far as I can tell, I am from entirely Gentile stock. I am unaware of any trace of Abrahamic ancestry. So in that regard, the Abrahamic Covenant doesn't apply to me. 

It doesn't seem to me that the promises God made to Abraham in Genesis 22:15–18 are properly part of the Abrahamic Covenant, but I'm sure many Christians disagree (more on that another time). Those promises are certainly given to Christ (Galatians 3:13–16), and through Him to the Gentiles. Notice the parallel here to Genesis 22:18 – it was always God's plan and His promise to bless "all the nations" through Abraham, through Christ.

So my understanding is that the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 15:13–21 is distinct from the promises He made in Genesis 22:15–18. Galatians quotes only the latter (Galatians 3:13–16), not the former, as being given to the nations through Christ. That seems consistent with the text of Genesis 15, which contains no "and thy seed" clause. And notice, Genesis 22 doesn't say anything about the land of Canaan.

We've discussed the Mosaic ("Old") and New Covenants in detail, so we needn't discuss them here. The Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:8–17) lies historically between them. Here again, there is no direct application to the Church: it's a covenant God made with David, effectively promising him a dynasty – a kingdom for his descendants to inherit.

So I believe we are directly under the Noahic Covenant. As a Gentile, that's where it ends for me... well, that's the end of the direct connections. When we look at those covenants through the lens of our role as Asenath, we find things look a bit different.

Ultimately, all those covenants center on Christ. Galatians 3:13–16 makes that explicit about the promises made to Abraham, Hebrews 1:5 quotes the Davidic Covenant as applying to Christ. And certainly we don't have to look hard to see the connections between Him and the Mosaic Covenant, nor for the New Covenant. 

So when we see ourselves as united with Christ: when we see that we have died with Him (Romans 6:2, Galatians 2:19–20, Colossians 3:3), have been buried with Him (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:11–12), have risen with Him ( Romans 6:5, Ephesians 2:5–6, Colossians 2:13, 3:1), and are seated in heavenly places with Him (Ephesians 2:6)... when we realize that He is our life (Colossians 3:4)... then we begin to take a deep interest in those covenants. Not because they have anything to do with me, but because they have everything to do with Him (2 Corinthians 1:18–22).

We'll discuss the New Covenant in more detail another time, but for now let's just say this: we don't need to gain any benefits from any of the covenants. We have Christ, "who has been made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and holiness, and redemption; that according as it is written, He that boasts, let him boast in [the] Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).






 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

New Covenant (again)

Over the past few years I've heard several statements about the New Covenant that made me stop and say, "Wait... what?" It seems to me that people use the term "New Covenant" in a vague way that's foreign to Scripture, resulting in a whole lot of confusion and inconsistency.

So let's examine the New Covenant in detail.

The New Covenant is given explicitly in the Old Testament in Jeremiah 31:31–34. We notice promises in Isaiah 61:6–9, Jeremiah 32:36–41, and  Ezekiel 37:21–28 of an "everlasting covenant," which I take to be the same New Covenant given in Jeremiah 31, but they're not explicit about the terms.  

The New Covenant is mentioned in Hebrews 8 & 9 (Hebrews 8:8–12 introduces the New Covenant by quoting Jeremiah 31) and 2 Corinthians 3:1–6.  It is also mentioned in connection with the Lord's Supper in Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, and 1 Corinthians 11:25.

Hebrews 13:20 refers to the "eternal covenant," which I take to be the New Covenant. There are some  I deeply respect who think Hebrews 13:20 is referring to a covenant made in eternity past between the Father and the Son, but I disagree. I think it is a reference to Ezekiel 37:26. The difficulty is that Ezekiel talks about the everlasting covenant, while Hebrews refers to the eternal covenant. I'm no scholar, but Ezekiel 37:26 in the Septuagint reads identically to Hebrews 13:20. In other words, I think the difference between "eternal" and "everlasting" is merely an indication of the LXX rendering of Ezekiel.

 So what are the terms of the New Covenant? Jeremiah 31:31–34 (NASB) reads:

31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33 “For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord: “I will put My law within them and write it on their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 They will not teach again, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their wrongdoing, and their sin I will no longer remember.”

This is the most explicit statement we have in Scripture about the New Covenant. Hebrews 8:7–13 quotes this passage as the definitive statement.

I've stated before that I take Darby's view, that the New Covenant doesn't apply to the Church: it's a covenant with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31). See "The Covenants" (Collected Writings, Volume 3, pp. 44–56). I think William Kelly is even more explicit in his denial that the Church is connected with the New Covenant. From An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 8, his comments on Hebrews 8:8–9:

Equally vain is the dream that the church, or the Christian, is here contemplated. On every sound principle of interpretation the same people, and in its divided houses, is reserved for future blessing, whose iniquities the prophet bewailed and denounced. The truth always suffers by tampering with its integrity or by ignorance. Israel only had the first covenant; Israel by grace will have the second. Israel lost their privileges and land under the old; Israel will be restored and blessed more than ever and for ever in their land under the new covenant.

Jeremiah 31:31 gives the New Covenant as a Covenant between God and "the house of Israel and the house of Judah." If we read the verse out of context, we miss an important detail here: it's given in the context of a reunited Israel – Israel and Judah reunited into a single nation.

If we remember our Old Testament history, we recall that Jeremiah is in the last days of the kingdom of Judah – the southern kingdom – he is there at the start of the Babylonian Captivity.  Let's not forget that Jeremiah is actually a couple generations after the Assyrian Captivity: the kingdom of Israel – the northern kingdom – no longer exists by Jeremiah's time. There is only "the house of Judah," there is no longer a "house of Israel." 

Jeremiah 31:16–20 foretells the restoration of Ephraim. When the prophets speak about Ephraim they almost always mean the northern kingdom. It's synecdoche: Ephraim means the northern kingdom, just like Judah means the southern kingdom. Maybe we should discuss Ephraim in more detail another time.

So Jeremiah 31:16–34 gives the New Covenant in the context of a repentant Ephraim and a reunited nation: all twelve tribes gathered back together. Notice this is exactly paralleled in Ezekiel 37:15–28, vv. 15–22 foretell the reunification of Judah and Ephraim into one nation, vv. 23–28 foretell the "everlasting" covenant God will make with them when they are reunited into the land (Ezekiel 37:25).

So both Jeremiah and Ezekiel specify that the New Covenant will be given after all twelve tribes are brought back into the land as a single nation. Hosea 14:1–9 foretells the repentance of Ephraim as the triggering event for the millennial kingdom. Hosea doesn't mention the New Covenant, but we see that it foretells the same event as Ezekiel 37:15–22 and Jeremiah 31:16–20. So the New Covenant is made at the start of the millennial kingdom.

Notice Jeremiah 31:32 contrasts the New Covenant with the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. Hebrews 8:6–13 elaborates on this, referring to the Mosaic Covenant as the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8:13). In other words, Hebrews 8–9 presents the New Covenant in contrast to the Mosaic Covenant (the "Old Covenant"). 

We might ask the question, was Abraham under the New Covenant or the Old Covenant? The answer is, neither. Abraham was under neither the Old Covenant nor the New Covenant, as Galatians 3:15–19 shows. Galatians develops its doctrine from the fact that the Law was given 430 years after Abraham. In other words, Abraham was not under the Old Covenant (which Jeremiah 31:32 tells us was made "in the day of my taking them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt").  He certainly isn't under the New, if he predates the Old.

The patriarchs predate the Old Covenant as well as the New Covenant.

Romans 4:1–13 develops the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone based on the lives of Abraham and David. Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised (Romans 4:10–12), centuries before the Old Covenant was given (Galatians 3:15–19). On the other hand, David was justified by faith as a man who was circumcised, a man under the law. But he, too, was justified by faith without works (Romans 4:6–8). 

Notice the Romans 4:7–8 quotes Psalm 32:1–2, "blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not at all reckon sin." In other words, a person who is justified by faith alone – without works (Romans 4:6) – is a man whose sins God does not count. And notice David makes this statement centuries before Jeremiah promises the New Covenant, including "their sin will I remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). That seems like a contradiction, doesn't it?

The New Covenant isn't individual. It's national, just like the Old Covenant before it. God doesn't justify sinners based on the covenants, but based on His sovereign grace, based on the blood of Christ (Romans 3:21–26). God has only ever justified sinners on the basis of faith, on the basis of the blood of Christ. It doesn't matter whether we're discussing Abraham (before the Old Covenant was given) or David (a man under the Law), God only ever justifies sinners one way. 

Someone once shared with me a quote from (I think) Charles Ryrie. It was something to the effect that Dispensationalism recognizes God has purposes both in individual salvation and in His government on earth. They are both true, but they are not the same thing. The Covenants apply to the latter (God's government on earth), not the former (the eternal salvation of individuals). We tend to miss this if we're not careful: when we think of dispensations, we're really thinking about God's government over the earth, not His work in eternal salvation.

So when Jeremiah 31:34 promises a Covenant under which God no longer remembers sins, it's not talking about individual justification, but about national sins. That's starting to sound a lot like Acts 2:38, isn't it?

I feel like there's more to say, but we can perhaps say it another time. My entire point is not to convince people that the New Covenant has no bearing on the Church (which might not actually be a true statement, despite everything I said here), but to point out that it is so frequently misreferenced and misquoted that people seem entirely unaware what Scripture actually says about it. If we stick to what Scripture actually says about the New Covenant, we find something very, very different from what most Christians seem to think. It's funny how much of what we say and think and believe seems entirely divorced from what Scripture actually says.




Friday, May 21, 2021

Whoso is wise

Psalm 107 is among my favorite chapters. It ends with an interesting command: "Whoso is wise, let him observe these things, and let them understand the loving-kindnesses of Jehovah" (Psalm 107:43). I realize this is Old Testament, and we're not under the Law, etc. But I still can't help but think this one is "for us" in some sense. If we're wise – or perhaps even if we understand we're not wise, but we want to change that – we need to observe "these things" and learn to understand that loving-kindnesses of the Lord.

In my small Bible, I have a note on this verse, marking it as a "God's ways" verse. There is a theme in Scripture about God's ways, and a general invitation that we should try to learn them. God's ways, we are told, are completely different from – and infinitely superior to – our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). We don't naturally think like God, and when we get a glimpse of His thoughts and we get a sense of His ways, we tend to find them offensive, repugnant, and foolish. And that's not just an Old Testament truth, the New Testament makes the same claim (1 Corinthians 3:18–23).

The Pharisees were offended that Christ would receive sinners and eat with them (Luke 15:1–2). Of course they didn't realize that His ultimate goal was not merely to eat with sinners, but to give His flesh to them to eat, and His blood to them to drink (John 6:48–58). The Pharisees didn't understand the half of it! 

And if we go back to Isaiah 55:8–9 and read it in context (Isaiah 55:6–10), we realize that God's declaration about His ways being better and higher and superior to our own was made in the context that He forgives sinners. God does what we naturally think of as foolish: He forgives sinners freely, regardless how badly or how frequently they sin. Only let the sinner return to the Lord, and He entirely forgives and forgets their sins (Micah 7:18–19).

And this, I suppose, is one of the reasons I keep railing about "-isms". Whether Calvinism, or Arminianism, or Dispensationalism... take any "-ism" you like, and you'll find it comes up short. All those "-isms" are attempts to understand God's ways, but they all come up short, because we're not God. Of course the problem is that all those "-isms" capture some of the truth, but they all end up going off the rails eventually, because they eventually try and fill in some of the gaps in Scripture. And try as they might, they have nothing to fill those gaps with except men's thoughts. And even the best men can't think like God. 

And I don't think they're wrong to try. I really don't, but I do think we're wrong when we start to allow our "-isms" to come between us and Scripture. I do think we're wrong when we try to explain away those pesky verses instead of admitting that Scripture is authoritative and our understanding of it is not. And I am entirely sure that "I am of Calvin" or "I am of Luther" is no better than "I am of Paul" or "I am of Apollos" (1 Corinthians 3:1–7).

So we understand that our ways are not God's ways. But let's not stop there: we are invited to contemplate God's ways. We're invited to observe His ways. The old preachers used to point out that God showed Moses His ways, but He only showed the children of Israel His acts (Psalm 103:7). Maybe they read too much into that verse, but I suspect there's something to that. Maybe it's just that Moses was looking past those individual acts of God to try and understand the bigger principles behind them. That would seem to be what Moses was asking for on Sinai (Exodus 33:11–13).

The Lord Jesus made the remarkable claim, "I am the Way" (John 14:6). On the surface this would seem to indicate He is how to get to the Father, but it seems to me that there is something deeper there. The Old Testament is full of invitations to learn God's ways, and here is a Man who is claiming that He is the embodiment of that. If we want to learn God's ways, we can contemplate Christ.

God invites us (Psalm 107:43) to "observe these things." It seems to me that one of our greatest failings is the tendency to try and move too quickly when we look into the Scriptures. I don't mean that we go through at too great a pace, but we don't allow ourselves time for things to sink in. We don't observe, contemplate, or meditate like we ought when we look into Scripture. It's like we try to eat by gulping down, but we should be chewing and savoring. We need to slow down and let ourselves be affected by the words that God has spoken.

I was listening to a sermon recently where someone was working through the second half of Romans 13. I was all excited to hear what he would say about Romans 13:11, but all he said was, "Salvation happens in three tenses in Scripture: we have been saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved." Then he went to the next verse.

That sort of thing gets under my skin. When we have "pat answers" to complex issues in Scripture, they act like little vaccines against truth. It's like we allow a small amount of truth into our systems so that we can build up a resistance to the full-on truth of Scripture. We inoculate ourselves against truth.

There is a value to pausing to let Scripture speak to us. There is a value to wrestling with the text, rather than looking for a "pat answer" so that we don't have to. Instead, we act like the most important thing is to have some sort of internal commentary to explain away every verse: some sort of "pat answer" to give, so we won't be dismayed when our intellect doesn't measure up. It's like we fear the very worst thing that can happen is for people who don't have answers to leave the faith... instead of fearing that they never get answers, but cover their hunger for truth with unsatisfying truisms.

Well, I am not a very wise person: I'm neither very smart nor very good. So I suppose you should take my advice as being worth precisely what it costs you... but it seems to me that it's better to slow down, contemplate what God has said, and treat the text like every word was breathed by Him than coming up with programmed responses we can toss out with very little thought whenever someone might [hypothetically] ask.