Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Inbox: Thoughts in Progress (2)

God has dealt differently with mankind during different eras of human history. That is not disputable. It is evident to anyone who reads the Bible with anything more than cursory attention.

How we think about this truth is not one of those issues too heady and esoteric for anything but the rarefied atmosphere of a roomful of full-time theologians. It determines how the average believer reads the Old Testament, how he uses it, and the place he gives to it in the Christian life. It may affect how he thinks about the nation of Israel. It molds his expectations about the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ. It certainly impacts how we read the Sermon on the Mount.

And it does all these things and others to us even if we have not consciously developed our theology with respect to the various periods of human history.

Conscious and Unconscious

Thus, we can choose to work through the question with intent and purpose, or we can let our default assumptions govern how we read scripture. If we have absorbed good Bible teaching in our early years as believers, our natural instincts when reading the Old Testament may be pretty close to sufficient even if we know nothing of technical terms like “covenant theology” and “dispensations”. If we have not had good Bible teaching … well, who knows where we may end up.

I have been batting the subject around with a friend via email. You may want to read this post first if you haven’t already, since we’re joining his correspondence midstream. I had ended last time by noting the differences between God’s original covenant with Adam and his covenant with Noah, observing that it is not possible to mash all the covenants referred to in the Old Testament together under one heading. Some are unilateral, some bilateral. Some take the form of promises, some of commands, and others of agreements. All are indeed referred to as “covenants” … just not the same covenant.

Also of note is the fact that what we refer to as the Old Testament is not synonymous with the “old covenant” spoken of in the book of Hebrews. That “old covenant” is only one of the many covenants referred to in the OT.

Differentiating the Covenants

Back, then, to our email correspondence. My friend continues:
“Apart from the Bible’s covenants being distinct from each other to anyone who can read the terms, there are several times when the Bible explicitly differentiates the covenants, thus removing the option to claim they’re the same covenant. A couple examples are Deuteronomy 29:1, where the Palestinian covenant is explicitly said to be different from the Mosaic, and Jeremiah 31:32, where the new covenant is explicitly said to be different from the Mosaic.”
That reference to Deuteronomy reads like this:
“These are the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.”
That does indeed appear to distinguish the two, and the Jeremiah reference is even more explicit. It’s a “new covenant not like the covenant that I made with their fathers …” Pretty hard to miss that.

Entering Into the Good of the New Covenant

So, what about that very literal reference to Israel and Judah in Jeremiah that is quoted for us in Hebrews 8?
“I do think that believers today enter into some of the good of the new covenant, as you said, not because we’re Jews or because God has supposedly done away with Israel. I wouldn’t describe it as saying the church enters into the good of it — rather, individual believers do. That’s because Christ’s work on the cross is the basis for the new covenant. So the spiritual elements of it (the law written on hearts, etc.) are already in effect even if Israel hasn’t repented and so can’t yet enter into the physical blessings of it.

But this aligns with the great parenthesis. The Church Age exists outside of prophetic time in this gap in the timeline of Israel’s history. So of course believers today experience some of the blessings of the new covenant — it went into effect at Calvary.”
This delay in full implementation of all the blessings associated with a covenant is not unprecedented in scripture:
“Some of the other covenants took some time to have their full provisions enacted. The Mosaic covenant provided for a functioning priesthood and sacrificial system. Those weren’t instantly in place once the covenant was made. Similarly, there’s a time period from when the new covenant was inaugurated and when its full provisions (Israel in the land, Christ reigning on earth, etc.) will be enacted. From Israel’s point of view, that’s about seven years. We just happen to live in the prophetic gap so it’s been longer.”
There’s food for thought.

Israel and the Covenants

Back to the differences between the covenants of scripture (which are not synonymous with the “covenants” of covenant theology) and the usual schema accepted by a majority of dispensationalists:
“When studying the covenants, I noticed that a lot of covenants line up with dispensations (Edenic and innocence, Adamic and conscience, Noahic and human government, etc.). But there’s no covenant uniquely associated with the dispensation of grace (since the new covenant is for the Millennium as well, and primarily for Israel in any event). But then I remembered Romans 9:4 — ‘the Israelites, to whom belongs … the covenants.’ ”
This reinforces for me the distinction between being a direct party to a covenant and being the beneficiary of a covenant made with someone else. As God promised Abram, “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”

It is thus entirely possible for God to make a new covenant with the very literal “house of Israel and the house of Judah” — genetic descendants of Jacob, and Abram’s physical seed — and have its benefits and blessings overflow to the entire world, much to the surprise of Israel. We can then observe, without contradiction or elaborate rationalization, that Christians benefit from a covenant spoken of by Jeremiah, and we can do it without being forced to spiritualize or allegorize the words “house of Israel and the house of Judah” to squeeze ourselves as parties into a covenant from which we observably benefit.

The military concept of collateral damage helps with this if we think about its opposite: we might say we have been “collaterally blessed”.

Putting a Theory to the Test

Perhaps the most amusing bit of the email follows. This last bit is typical of my friend. He’ll work with a hypothesis about scripture for years and test its validity under all sorts of conditions:
“Lastly (this is getting increasingly far from the main point), I’ve performed an experiment with four different groups of young people now in different cities. The results are always the same. I ask them, ‘At what points in the Bible did the way God deals with man radically change? For instance, it radically changed when Adam sinned. We’re not talking about how people got saved. But at what points did the manner in which God deals with man radically change?’ Without leading or hints, they all list: the fall, the flood, choosing Abraham, the Law, the cross, and the second coming. I typically then ask which of them have a Scofield Reference Bible or have heard of John Nelson Darby. Usually nobody has a Scofield and virtually nobody has heard of Darby. And yet they all come up with the dispensations automatically. Because the plain reading of scripture leads to nothing else.”
Perhaps that is how I have managed to avoid dealing with this subject at the granular level for years: the plain reading of scripture leads to nothing else.


  1. ... Hmm, not quite getting the point why all this should get such elaborate treatment and attention.


    1. an agreement.

    2. agree by lease, deed, or other legal contract.
    "the landlord covenants to repair the property"

    ... God built the residence, so it should be understood that there are covenants and he has work to do. Pretty straight forward.

    the plain reading of scripture leads to nothing else.

    ... Namely that God has dealt differently with mankind during different eras of human history?

    ... All that would seem pretty self-explanatory (even to a novice bible reader) based on the assumption of an active God interested in his creation. But please recognize the fact that the plain reading of scripture is done by a vast assemblage of more or less plain intellects with more or less differentiated opinions with the outcome that there are now 20000 plus different (Protestant) perceptions of scripture. Something that gives at least me pause. In my opinion, as should be clear by now, personal convenience strikes again, even in how scripture is interpreted. Food for thought.

    1. Agreed, but the fact that we human beings are frequently subjective and imperfect interpreters of various truths does not mean there isn't truth out there to be vigorously pursued and apprehended.