In debating with Covenant Theologians, I kept running into a system of interpretation which would spiritualize key passages in the New Testament. The problem is that some of these passages are spiritual in nature. What Covenant Theologians were doing was not bad exegesis of a passage. They were looking at a passage and correctly coming to a spiritual application. So in this post I intend to seriously look at certain passages in the New Testament to see how premillennialists should respond.
One very key approach to scripture is to take a spiritual application, and then apply it to every instance throughout the entire Bible. I don’t believe this is always warranted. The example I am thinking of is that of the temple. The temple in the Old Testament was a physical building. But now, in the New Testament, there are spiritual applications for what was a physical building. For instance, in John 2:18-22, when asked for a sign for why He drove money changers out of the temple, Jesus tells the Jews that if the temple is destroyed, He is able to raise it up in three days. Then John adds the note that Jesus was speaking of His body, and not the physical temple. Now based on this, we could try to say that every passage throughout the entire scriptures is some type of code for Jesus’ physical body that will be raised from the dead on the third day. But this is impossible. Solomon’s temple was built, then destroyed. Then Zerubbabel’s temple was built, desecrated, rededicated, then expanded upon. To try to take this physical temple structure and always make it refer to the body that Jesus would receive simply defies logic. Certainly the body of Jesus is represented by a temple, but it is also represented by other things, such as the veil of the temple, see Hebrews 10:20, and the Passover Lamb, see I Corinthians 5:7. In this instance, Jesus used the phrase “this temple” to give them a sign for which these unbelievers would not be able to understand, but from which His disciples would gain understanding after He had risen from the dead.
Another spiritual application for the temple is that all believers collectively are a temple. Jesus set the stage for this presence of the LORD in the midst of plurality in Matthew 18:20. I Corinthians 3:16-17 uses the plural form of “you” to show that the believers at Corinth were termed by Paul to be God’s temple. Ephesians 2:19-22 expands on this including even the apostles and prophets as the foundation for the temple with the believers at Ephesus, both Gentile and Jew, to be a holy temple as a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. God’s people together function as a temple. Does this mean that everything in the OT temple pointed to the church? Or does it mean more simply that the church can be compared to the temple?
The final spiritual symbol for the temple is the physical body of an individual believer. I Corinthians 6:12-19 outlines the role of the physical body in the life of the believer. The physical body is considered a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit. Each believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit making a room full of believers a room full of temples of God. Can we now go back to the OT temple and see the physical body in the description of the temple and all of its accoutrements?
Do you see the problem? How can each of these three metaphors be true at the same time in every instance? They would contradict each other if we tried to force the issue whenever the subject of the temple comes up. Instead, let’s understand that the temple was still standing when the majority of the New Testament was written. Many Christians worshiped at the temple and offered sacrifices there, Acts 2:46, 3:1, 5:12, 42, 21:20-26, 24:16-18. Because the temple was functioning, this allowed these metaphors to be placed in the scriptures to aid in our understanding of these three truths. The body of Jesus was a temple to be destroyed and raised up in three days. The collective body of believers functioned as a temple, and continues to function today in just that fashion. The body of a believer also serves as a temple. To carry any of these too far will result in some type of heresy. The use of this symbolic language does not negate the function of the temple worship, but actually relied on the temple worship in the basic understanding of these metaphors. The point of contention actually lies in the belief that many Pre-Millennialists such as myself believe Ezekiel 40-48 to be referring to a future time period whereby a temple here on earth will function once again.
The Israel of God
When Covenant Theologians speak and write of the church as the New Israel, they cite Galatians 6:16 as proof that Paul referred to the church as “the Israel of God”. At first glance, it would seem that there is one reference in the entire new testament that contains the word Israel in reference to believers, or perhaps the church. A possible a case could be made.
In looking at the passage, I believe that there is no proof here that the church is the New Israel, but instead that God still holds a future for the physical nation of Israel while currently working through the Israelite remnant with believing Gentiles grafted in. Galatians 6:14-15 sums up the teachings of the entire book. Obedience to the law, circumcision, and living like an Israelite do not bring the covenant blessings of Abraham. Faith in Christ allows us to die through crucifixion with Christ on the cross, and then be raised to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. So let us not boast in anything except the cross. Circumcision doesn’t count for anything. Uncircumcision doesn’t count for anything. Only the new creation resulting in the work of the cross counts for anything. Notice Paul has not mentioned anything about the future for the nation of Israel. He has only written about how we are justified, and it is not through obedience to the Israelite law (circumcision), or even forsaking the Israelite law (uncircumcision).
Then Paul pronounces a blessing upon those who walk according to this rule (the new creation). After Paul pronounces a blessing upon those Israelites and Gentiles who are new creations, he pronounces another blessing upon the Israel of God. Since Paul has ruled that circumcision is inconsequential, this would leave someone wondering about the nation of Israel. Paul would later write in Romans that God has a future for the nation of Israel, Romans 9-11. But for now, Paul includes the phrase “the Israel of God” at the end of this blessing to show that it was not in his mind to say that the current arrangement had negated anything concerning the nation of Israel. Israel is still the Israel of God, with all the Abrahamic blessings yet to be poured out. Since the Abrahamic blessings were being poured out upon the Gentiles as prophesied in Genesis, the blessings which concerned a mighty nation coming from Abraham could be expected in full as well. So Paul is not saying that blessings are upon Christians, and then using a metaphor for the church by employing the phrase the Israel of God. Paul is saying that blessings are upon Christians, and also upon the Israel of God, the future Israel that God has predestined for salvation after the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. This idea that I am setting forth is not explicitly contained in this passage, but neither is there an equivalency between the church and Israel. This passage does not serve as a proof text, but as an accompaniment to the other passages which explain the relationship.
Types and Shadows
One passage that has always confused me is the proposed application of Colossians 2:17. Here Paul writes that Christ is the body, but other things like festivals and Sabbaths are shadows. The point that is insisted upon by Covenant Theologians is that since Christ has come, we now have the reality and there is no more need for going back to the OT shadows. While I agree wholeheartedly that Christ is the ultimate reality and that many things in the OT foreshadowed His substance, Paul is not teaching here that everything in the OT is to be disregarded. Let’s examine the entire passage of Colossians 2:16-23 and not take one verse out of context. What Paul states is that these believers had let some false teachers into the church that were leading them astray about certain things. Paul points out that these false teachers should not be allowed to judge them in relation to the observance of Sabbaths and other feasts because they have Christ and Christ is the ultimate reality. There is no need to submit to false teachers claiming to have the right teachings about the Sabbath. These false teachers also led them in worshiping angels, which led them away from holding the Head of the body up in His rightful place. These false teachers also had them following false doctrines which didn’t allow them to touch, handle, or taste certain things. Paul insists that since Christ died, then these believers also died to the world and all of these silly regulations that these false teachers wanted to impose upon them.
Paul’s admonition concerning these false teachers should not be carried too far. Paul’s point here is one of perspective. He is not commanding anyone to observe the Sabbath or to ignore the Sabbath. (The same is true in Romans 14.) In response to these false teachers, Paul gives an illustration. Creation and mankind had been in anticipation of the Messiah for centuries. God allowed humanity to see the shadows of the coming Messiah before He arrived so they would be able to validate from God’s spoken word that this was indeed the Messiah. These shadows were primarily given to the nation of Israel. Now that the Messiah has come, what do we do with these observances from the OT that served as shadows to point us to the Messiah? Paul is clear that the church is not to be held hostage by someone who charges that certain rituals must be held, such as an observance of the Sabbath or a certain feast. To say that the Sabbath must never be observed, or that the nation of Israel will never observe the Sabbath in the future is to stretch this passage beyond what the Apostle was elucidating.
We observe two New Covenant shadows now. Baptism and the observance of the Lord’s supper are shadows of Christ, yet we practice these. The point of contention comes when Pre-Millennialists believe and teach that there will be an earthly kingdom during which time the Sabbath may be observed, animal sacrifices will be offered, and yearly feasts will be kept. A-Millennialists take Colossians 2:17 and point out that once you have Christ, these shadows are done away with. So [according to A-Mills] the continuation of these OT practices during the millennial kingdom contradicts Colossian 2:17. But remember what we as Pre-Millennialists actually believe.
We have the reality of Christ now, we practice the observance of shadows now, yet this is not the point of contention since A-Millennialists observe baptism and the Lord’s supper now. So our solution of the millennial kingdom, when we have Christ here bodily yet practice earthly rituals, lies in the fact that this also is a progressive step in Christ’s over all redemptive plan for humanity, society, and creation itself. There is nothing here in Colossians 2:17 that would prevent us from believing that Christ cannot continue to use shadows during a temporal, earthly kingdom in order to point to a future day beyond that when the earth will be completely redeemed from the wickedness of man, the full effects of death, and that old serpent called the devil. For now, let us rejoice in the shadow that we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes”, I Corinthians 11:26.
One last note on this issue is that sometimes observances point both forward and backward. The Passover is the greatest example. It pointed the Israelites backward to their redemption out of Egypt, slavery, and idolatry. Yet it also pointed forward to the reality of Christ. The Feast of Booths also pointed backward to the temporary shelters when they were brought out from Egypt, but it pointed forward to the day when they would find ultimate rest in the promised land. The Lord’s Supper also points us backward to the cross, yet forward to the coming of Christ. Since Israel has yet to find that ultimate promised rest according to the promises of Abraham, Luke 1:68-75, the shadows are not yet fulfilled. Animal sacrifices during the millennial kingdom (Ezekiel 43) may point backward to the cross, yet forward to the ultimate redemption of the earth from all iniquity at the end of the millennium. The observance of the Feast of Booths during the millennial kingdom (Zechariah 14:16-19) may point backward to God’s initiation of bringing Israel out of Egypt for His own people, and forward to when all nations will willingly reverence the King of kings, even without His rod of iron. All in all, I believe Colossian 2:17 is taken too far from its original intent, which is, “you have the reality of Christ so don’t let these false teachers lead you astray.”
Spiritual Fulfillment of the OT
Whenever I debate with folks about the nature of how the OT is fulfilled in the new covenant and the new covenant writings, I am always plagued with this idea that the New Covenant writers spiritualized the OT writings when documenting the fulfillment of certain scriptures. On the one hand, I have dispensationalists telling me that I am not allowed to go to certain portions of the OT and see Christ there. They tell me that only the New Covenant writers were allowed to do that and for me to do so would be putting on the apostolic hat, so to speak. On the other hand, I have A-Millennialists or Covenant Theologians telling me that since the New Covenant authors spiritualized the OT, that means we are supposed to spiritualize everything and nothing in the OT can be taken literally any more. For them, there is no longer a physical nation of Israel in God’s eyes, only the spiritual nation of Israel, meaning the church. So what am I as a Historic PreMillennialist to do?
First off, my intention is to contest each and every point whereby it is postulated that the OT texts are spiritualized in the New Covenant writings. So far, there has only been one that is consistently brought up to show that the original meaning was fulfilled spiritually in the NT that has impressed me to any degree. Each and every prophecy which was fulfilled in the New Covenant writings was literally fulfilled, from the circumstances of Messiah’s birth, the ministry of healing, the method of His death, the redemptive work in His death, even into the ministry of the Holy Spirit unfolding in receiving the Gentiles into fellowship. All of these were fulfilled in the original terms of the prophecy, but only fulfilling a portion as a down payment looking to the future as Ephesians 1:11-14 lays out for us. So when an A-Millennialist asks, “what about Isaiah 49?” the response is clear. A portion of this prophecy has been fulfilled in order to show that payment in full will arrive in the future. The redemption of the purchased possession includes salvation for the nation of Israel and proof of that now is that Gentiles are being saved (as Gentiles) by His grace. This chapter is being fulfilled literally now and will be completely fulfilled in a literal fashion sometime in the future.
Every prophecy can clearly be shown to have a literal fulfillment except one. The one to which I refer is the mention of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15. No one could have possibly foreseen that the prophet Hosea was meaning that the Son of God would come out from Egypt because of the reference to the nation of Israel. Or could they? Remember that Israel was referred to as the firstborn son of God back before the nation’s birth, Exodus 4:22-23. All throughout Hosea’s prophecy, Israel is referred to as the unfaithful wife of the LORD. Here at Hosea 11:1, the terminology of Hosea clearly shifts from a spiritual metaphor of Israel being the wife, to Israel being the Son, and every Israelite would remember this reference to Exodus whereby the nation was called the firstborn son of God. So we actually have here a brief snippet of a prophecy which is to be taken literally amidst a prophecy which has been has been one long metaphor. Israel here is the firstborn Son of God to be called out of the literal nation of Egypt, not referring to Egypt as a symbol for something else. Only a literal fulfillment of God’s actual Son coming out of literal Egypt could have been expected.
Each reference that the New Covenant writers quoted will have to be examined to determine if there is spiritualization or if there is a literal fulfillment. It is my contention that each passage will show that a literal fulfillment was intended, but many times a portion of this remains unfulfilled due to the current time that we are in, that of the fullness of the Gentiles in order that the nation of Israel may be provoked to jealousy. Each time I have debated A-Millennialists on this point, it has reinforced the fact that they are claiming that the OT prophecies are now to be spiritualized, but they don’t have any clear proof. And when I debate dispensationalists, it is reinforced that their system of “you can’t do that because you are not an apostle” has no foundation. There is nothing that prevents you or I from going to the OT scriptures and seeing Christ, the church, and the coming Messianic Kingdom in those prophecies. One time I had someone tell me that Isaiah 9:6-7 did not refer to Jesus because it is nowhere quoted in the New Testament. Nonsense!
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman