Saturday, October 23, 2021

Mining the Minors: Amos (38)

Spiritual fulfillment is not literal fulfillment.

That doesn’t make it less important, of course. We might reasonably make the case that spiritual fulfillment of the prophetic word can be more life changing and longer lasting than its literal counterpart. Examples will follow. The point to keep before us is that the prophecies of scripture often have multiple fulfillments — or perhaps we might say that there are multiple aspects to their fulfillment.

Every prophetic fulfillment of either kind has some connection, however distant, to the work of Christ. The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. But one cannot fully comprehend the scope of his wonderful work without acknowledging both the literal and allegorical ways it illuminates and resolves the sometimes-obscure utterances of the ancient Hebrew seers.

Part 17 of our series on Amos included a side-by-side comparison of the Masoretic (Hebrew) and Septuagint (Greek) texts of today’s passage from Amos 9 with the version quoted by James the brother of the Lord at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. In it, I attempted to explain how the differences between the three versions are best accounted for when each is viewed in connection with either the original passage’s literal or spiritual fulfillment. I take the position that these passages were spiritually fulfilled in the first century and remain to be literally fulfilled in a coming day.

The Promise of Resurrection

Consider for a moment the difference between literal and spiritual fulfillments. The promise of resurrection, illustrated in the Christian rite of water baptism, is a theological concept with both literal and spiritual aspects. Romans 6 tells us that Christians have been united with Christ in death, and prophesies that we will also be united with him in resurrection.

This resurrection, described in detail in Corinthians and Thessalonians, is literal, physical and future, but it also has a present-day spiritual aspect to it. Paul writes, “You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” That’s true of every Christian, and it’s happening right here, right now. The resurrection life of Christ is too dynamic and transformative to be packed off to the far-flung future; its effects bleed over into the present day. It is Christ’s life-energy that enables believers to conquer sin and live for the glory of God while we wait for the full realization of the prophetic word. That is the teaching of Romans.

To reject either the literal or figurative aspect of this truth is to live an incomplete Christian experience, leading on one side to the error of the Sadducees (no resurrection) and on the other to the error of the Antinomians (no sanctification).

The Healing Work of Christ

For another example, let’s consider the Old Testament prophecies about Messiah. Isaiah writes, “Surely he [Messiah] has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Matthew plainly tells us this scripture was literally realized in Christ’s first century healings and exorcisms. “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah”, he declares. Can’t argue with that, can we.

But is that how the Christian reads Isaiah 53? Not primarily. We benefit from it in a spiritual sense. “He was pierced for our transgressions,” we say. “He was crushed for our iniquities. With his wounds we are healed.” We are not wrong in appropriating Isaiah’s words and applying them to our personal experience of salvation. We are merely acknowledging the truth that many or most prophecies have multiple aspects to their fulfillment. The healing to which we refer is the process by which faith in Jesus has brought us into a right relationship with the Father and thereby transformed our lives. It is healing in its spiritual and far more important sense.

Maintaining Both the Spiritual and Literal Interpretations

Christians who rely on these verses to teach physical healing in the present day are bound to be disappointed, but they shouldn’t be: the Jews and Gentiles Jesus healed in the first century are all dead and buried now. The physical benefits they enjoyed were only temporary; the spiritual benefits of the cross are eternal.

Spiritual trumps literal, but that doesn’t mean we discard the idea of literal fulfillment. Those first century physical healings were signs provided by God to authenticate his servant and to testify to his authority. They are not to be dismissed just because they didn’t last into eternity.

So then, spiritual and literal fulfillments of prophetic scripture are to be distinguished, but neither aspect of a prophecy ought to be rejected. Both are significant in the plans and purposes of God. On to Amos we go ...

Amos 9:11-12 —Raising Up the Ruins

“ ‘In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,’ declares the Lord who does this.”

Boldly into the Far-Flung Future

In Amos, the literal fulfillment of the prophetic word is to take place later in the same era in which God shakes the house of Israel among all the nations (v9), weeding out the sinners and preserving the “good seed”. But the shaking of the house of Israel has at least two fulfillments, the first to be realized within a generation of Amos’s prophecy of the destruction of Samaria. In this first fulfillment, accomplished through the agency of the Assyrian Empire, God would distribute Israel throughout the known world.

But this cannot be the day to which Amos refers in either v11 or v13, which speak of Israel’s ultimate national restoration. The prophecy is 2,700 years in the past, and though the land of Israel has been repopulated by Jews, it still awaits the days when the “plowman shall overtake the reaper”. Ergo, there is another day of reckoning to come in Israel’s future, and another, future shaking of the sieve which will separate the righteous from the wicked in Israel prior to the period of earthly restoration in which God’s earthly people will possess the remnant of Edom and be first among the nations called by the name of the Lord.

The Church in Amos?

So far, nothing we have read in Amos has anything obvious to do with the Church. But now James spiritualizes the passage in Acts and applies it to the circumstances of his own day in a completely different but absolutely correct way. F.F. Bruce writes:

“James’s application of the prophecy finds the fulfillment of its first part (the rebuilding of the tabernacle of David) in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, the Son of David ... and the fulfillment of its second part in the presence of believing Gentiles as well as believing Jews in the Church.”

In Acts, the phrase “In that day” becomes “After this I will return”, which points to its spiritual realization in the work of Christ. This spiritual fulfillment, unanticipated by the mass of Jews and Gentiles alike, has not canceled out the literal. It is “With this the words of the prophets agree”, not “In this the words of the prophets are exhausted.”

There are two positions the reader can take on James’s use of Amos in Acts:

  1. This is what God’s revelation to Amos really meant. The literal reading, in which future blessing is promised to national Israel, is to be considered overridden and scrapped. The reference to Edom in Amos is essentially meaningless.
  2. Verses 11 and 12 have more than one fulfillment. They speak literally (about Israel) or figuratively (about the Church) depending on the time period in view. Both fulfillments pivot on the work of Christ, in the one case redeeming a people from every nation for his own possession at the cross (the Church), and in the other, returning in glory to purge and exalt the nation to which he was sent (Israel).

Obviously I prefer the latter view, firstly because it does not throw the Masoretic text on the bonfire, but secondly because it maintains the clear Pauline distinction between the Church and Israel. I would not say we find the Church in Amos. Rather, we find a prophecy that is literally about Israel, but which is fulfilled in its spiritual aspect at Pentecost and beyond.

It is possible and desirable to maintain both literal and figurative interpretations. Why lose a layer of meaning if you don’t have to?

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