Reading Scripture As The Apostles Did Or Some Other Way?

sacred-hermeneuticsDarrel, writes, “After reading your paper, The Israel of God, it struck me that you did not mention any of the as yet to be fulfilled prophesies concerning the Nation of Israel. Why? Also, it seems that you cast things in a spiritual fashion as it suits your argument and then in a literal fashion to support your teaching. How does Isa. 2:4 and the fact that lion will lay down with the lamb (doesn’t the lion learn to eat straw during the millennium?) fit into your scheme of things. If what you say is so, then how do the Scriptures fit in?”

Darrel,

As I understand the NT way of reading the OT, as Paul says in 2Corinthians 1:20, all the promises are “yes and amen in Christ.” So too, in Luke 24:13–35 and in many other places the OT prophets spoke about future realities using the language of the Mosaic covenant. Consider it this way. When cars were first invented they were called “horseless carriages.” We still speak of “horsepower.” There are no horses in our cars, at least not ordinarily. This is because we used existing categories to describe new things. The OT prophets used existing categories (or their opposite in the case of Jeremiah 31—the new covenant will not be like the covenant I made with your forefathers, when I led them out of Egypt) to describe future realities. So, I read Isaiah 2 the way the NT teaches me to read it. I can’t decide ahead of time that mountain of must refer to a re-establishment of national Israel. There is a clue in 2:2, when the prophet speaks of “the latter days.”  Acts 2:17 says that the days when the Spirit was poured out are the last days. Hebrews 1:2 says “in these last days” God has spoken to us in Christ. 2 Peter 3:3 says these are the last days. So, if we read Isaiah 2 the way the NT teaches us to read it, the promises of Isaiah 2 have been inaugurated in the advent of Christ.

So, it’s not a matter of spiritualizing the OT prophets, since the charge of spiritualizing assumes things that aren’t true—that those who follow the NT pattern aren’t reading Scripture the way it’s intended to be read. This approach is in contrast to, e.g., the classic/modified dispensational approach which (e.g., J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come) says that we cannot and should not try to imitate the apostolic method of interpreting Scripture.

That said, there has been, for centuries, a division of opinion among Reformed interpreters about a future conversion of Jews to the Christian faith. Some have looked forward to a future conversion of Jews and others have argued that Paul, in Romans 11, was simply saying that all the elect, both Jews and Gentiles, will be saved and God shall have fulfilled his promises.

The point of the essay, however, is that, with the advent of Christ, national Israel’s job is finished. Properly understood, in the way the NT understand them, the prophets do not anticipate a future national Israel or a re-institution of national Israel. There is no promise of a literal millennium. The only place the millennium is mentioned in in Revelation 20:1–6, where it occurs in the midst of a highly symbolic narrative, toward the end of a long symbolic discourse, in a book the large majority of which is intentionally symbolic. Does the Apostle John, and behind him the Holy Spirit who inspired him, intend us to understand that the key held by the angel in v. 1 is a literal key? Is Satan literally a serpent or is that a metaphor for Satan (who is literally evil and but not literally a serpent)? Is Satan in a literal pit? The souls that John sees, how are they visible? Doesn’t everyone, even the “literal where possible” school take Gog and Magog (v. 8) to be symbolic? Consider what occurs before chapter 20. Is God seated on an actual, literal throne? Certainly we’re meant to understand the imagery and the truths intended by this picture but in the Revelation Jesus is both seated and standing. Is he doing jumping jacks? No! As my old friend Warren Embree used to ask, are we really to suppose that blood will literally rise to bridle of a horse (Rev 14:20) These are images, symbolic language, pictures of heaven, of present and future realities.

The point of the essay is to help readers to understand that the NT teaches that Jesus himself is the true Israel and all, both Jew and Gentile, who believe in him are now the Israel of God. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:14, the dividing wall has been torn down. In Christ, now, there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free etc (Gal 3:28)

In short, the purpose of national Israel was to point forward to Christ and the new covenant. Put another way, Moses (national Israel) works for Jesus, not the reverse. Jesus was the real plan all along, going back to Genesis 3:14-16 and behind that to God’s eternal decree (Ephesians 1). God loved his elect in Christ from all eternity and God the Son became incarnate, fulfilled all the types and shadows under Moses, David, and the prophets, and inaugurated the new covenant. What appeared to the OT prophets to be one mountain was, in reality, two. Inauguration and fulfillment. We live in the time in-between the inauguration of the Kingdom and its fulfillment on Christ’s glorious, visible return.

The Scriptures do fit together. They are held together not by a promise of future earthly millennium or a national people or a re-institution of the sacrifices. There is a unifying story in Scripture. They are held together by Christ, who was promised to the patriarchs and prophets, illustrated by the sacrifices and ceremonies, and pointed to by the prophets. It’s not literal v spiritual, it’s the New Testament’s way of reading Scripture vs other, competing ways of reading Scripture.

8 comments

  1. Dr. Clark, thanks for this post. The church needs more on how to read and interpret the Bible. A few passages that come to mind regarding how to interpret Scripture and God’s overarching purpose and story as found in Scripture:

    Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things… (Heb. 1:1-2)

    And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20)

    Dennis Johnson’s book Him We Proclaim-Preaching Christ from all the Scriptures is a very helpful book on this topic.

  2. Thank you for this, Dr. Clark. For a good intro to this, I have profited from reading “Sacred Bond,” by Pastors Zach Keele and Michael Brown.

  3. Acts 2:17 says that the days when the Spirit was poured out are the last days.

    what does “are” mean?

  4. That’s weird. When I asked my initial question it was showing lots of symbols that did not make sense > ) < etc. I did not say are. Disregard my question please and delete if possible.

  5. Mark,

    Acts 1:

    16 but this is that which hath been spoken through the prophet Joel:

    17 And it shall be in the last days, saith God…

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