Covenant, Cross and Resurrection: A Hermeneutical Proposition

"Every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old." - Matthew 13:52

As with most everything I’ve brought up here recently, be sure to take the content of this post with a grain of salt. I'm by no means settled on all of this. My intent is not to teach as much as it is to sharpen and provoke thought, and hopefully be sharpened and provoked myself. But I’d like to develop a point I hinted at a while back, a point which could be taken (wrongly) to mean that I regard OT prophecy as no longer relevant.

Since the kingdom is no longer ethnocentric, but is instead Jesus-centric with the “middle wall of separation” broken down - making us Gentiles partakers of the “commonwealth of Israel,” fellow heirs of the “covenants of promise,” and thus nullifying the civil ordinances which were once meant to keep Israel separate from the Gentiles - then the OT promises made to Israel must now be understood, in light of what Jesus has done, to include saved Gentiles in every respect. This doesn’t mean that we now hold the OT with a different hermeneutic than the NT, rather it simply means that we must read the whole Bible for what it truly is: a story, a great moving narrative spanning across the ages, and as such we must read each chapter within the context of the whole, recognizing where we are at each point along the way.

Many today read the Bible in far too much of a Neo-Platonic “fortune cookie” manner, treating the 66 books as just a collection of timeless revelatory truths as if all communicated from one author at one time. It’s directly out of this thinking (as it was basically rehashed through the Enlightenment) that Dispensationalism emerged in the 19th century, treating eschatology as a big puzzle in which we simply grab all of the passages that have apocalyptic language and try to fit them into our timeline of the end-time events, without regard for their context and place within the grand covenantal narrative of history. If you do this, you will quickly find that there are things in the OT regarding the way God related to Israel that don’t quite line up with what He did through Jesus in the NT, and in pulling the testaments together you’ll inevitably have to compromise a plain sense reading of one or the other. In and of itself this reveals that something is amiss, that a good step back and a rethinking of some basic presuppositions is probably in order.

While my recent thoughts on Israel are built upon a pretty big hermeneutical shift in regards to my understanding of the OT, I want to be clear that I do not think the original meaning of OT prophecy is annulled or abdicated, and neither do I think the NT writers looked for a deeper or more “spiritual” meaning underneath the surface of the text that they regarded as its “true” meaning. Far from abdicating OT prophecy of its original meaning, I believe that the core of that meaning – that is, the actual redemptive goal of which all OT prophecy speaks – is confirmed and actually expanded through Christ. What is abdicated, or rather what is overhauled and reworked, is not the prophetic program itself but rather the means through which that program finds fulfillment. It's not as if the NT writers had a special authority to change the meaning of Scripture arbitrarily simply because they were apostles and we then don't have that authority, as many suggest when their only concern is to defend grammatical-historical interpretation. That's really just an easy cop-out to a hard question. And yet neither do the NT writers suggest that their strange interpretations of many OT passages are in fact what those texts were “really” saying, as many fundamentalists feel forced to say in the wake of post-enlightenment liberal criticism. To suggest that is to take a dangerous step toward Gnosticism and to fortify oneself in an always-changing tradition that has no historical legs to stand on.

The answer, I suggest, over against both of these approaches, is to derive our hermeneutic and establish our theology first and foremost from reading the whole Bible as a narrative, allowing for all of the unexpected twists and turns that any real drama would present, specifically those twists that occur when God's chosen vessels don't do their part and so God takes it upon himself to do what they could not. It is in recognizing (a) the historical and covenantal progression that the each book of the Bible comes in, climaxing in the first century with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and (b) the relational nature of God that often subjects the advancement of His redemptive program to human participation, that I believe frees us to make sense of the New Testament's interpretation (or rather, reinterpretation) of the Old while still remaining faithful to the grammatical-historical process, understanding that those texts really weren’t, in their original setting, saying the same thing that they were subsequently used to say post-advent. The key, in other words, lies in understanding that what the text meant and what the text now means are sometimes two entirely different things.

This obviously needs clarification.

Much OT prophecy expresses God's desire and call to ethnic Israel that they would be the vehicle of redemption to the rest of the world, that they would indeed be “Israel” and not “Jacob”. The point that the NT emphasizes again and again, both in Paul and in the Gospels as well as in several other places throughout, is that Israel could not fulfill that calling, for the simple reason that they were plagued by the same problem as the rest of humanity, the problem of sin; and as good and holy as the law was, by itself it was impotent to free Israel from its fallen state and help toward the renewal of creation. God needed to act on Israel's behalf; He needed to take Israel's vocation upon Himself in order to save Israel and the world. This is Paul's point in Romans 3:3-4, that although Israel has been faithless, although she has abdicated her place and turned from her God, still God will be faithful, still He will act to save the world while remaining just in his judgment of sin.

But in this way – through placing Israel in the same boat with the Gentiles, together in need of redemption – Paul sets the stage to show how God's covenant faithfulness has been revealed, how He intends to rescue humanity and restore what was lost at the fall. And surprisingly, he doesn’t say that it’s revealed through Israel's walking out the written code given at Sinai as they would have expected; it's not through the chosen nation separating itself from the world around and observing all its various national ordinances. No, Paul doesn't say says that the "righteousness of God" has been revealed through Israel,  but that it has been revealed through Jesus of Nazareth, Israel's representative, who happens to be God-in-person and who offered himself as a “mercy seat” so that all, both Jews and Gentiles, might be justified freely by God's grace through him.

Now this doesn't at all imply that ethnic Israel is no longer called to the place the OT prophets envisaged. The NT is clear upon that as well. But what it does mean is that the way by which ethnic Israel is called to that place is no longer the way the OT prophets envisaged, for the old way could never bring forth life. It was far too weak. The temple system has been rendered obsolete, because the purpose it served has been met fully by the Messiah (Heb 8:13); and it is no longer important for Israel to remain separate from the nations, because, as Paul says, summing up a massive theme in Galatians, all are one in the Messiah, and through him all become Abraham’s children (Gal 3:26-29).

When this is truly taken into account and its consequences considered at a hermeneutical level, we find that there are two common fixtures in OT prophecy that now must be reworked in light of what was, to the eschatological sensibilities of any Jew in the first century, a truly surprising turn of events. These relate to the ceremonial and civil aspects of the law respectively. The first, more obvious fixture is actually a subset of the second, less obvious one. When we see the first we can be sure of the second, and thereby we will have a consistent guide in wading through the whole and re-reading it, like the early church did, in light of the new age launched by Christ.

First, whenever a rebuilt temple is envisaged as playing a central role in the life of God’s people as they fulfill their calling. Before the church’s christology had even developed into the Trinitarian creed we find articulated later in places like John’s epistles, it was absolutely clear concerning one thing about Jesus of Nazareth; they knew that he was the fulfillment of that which the temple was only a mere type and foreshadowing. What before could only be had through presenting oneself regularly before a priest in the temple, the apostles preached confidently was now on offer to all through the “once for all” sacrifice of the one whom God has raised up: Jesus of Nazareth has power on earth to forgive sins. And what’s more, they soon came to realize that God’s Spirit, the Shekinah glory itself, had also become available through him, not only to the Jews, who as we see in Acts were becoming increasingly obstinate, but also to the Gentiles, who were now beginning to come to the faith in droves. This realization in particular, that God’s program for worldwide redemption had moved past Israel’s widespread rejection of the Gospel and was in fact advancing through Jesus’ followers out to the nations, caused them to re-read passages about the temple in a totally new light (e.g. Acts 15:15-17). In their view – and we see this especially from Steven’s sermon in Acts 7 – the temple in Jerusalem was always designed to act as a pointer to, and an advance symbol for, the presence of God himself, as it was always his intention for the entire earth to be filled with his glory as the waters cover the sea.

Second, whenever the nation of Israel is envisaged as fulfilling its calling and ushering in God’s new age under the Mosaic covenant. In the same way that passages about the temple had to be reworked, so too passages about Israel itself as it was previously constituted had to be reworked in light of its renewal and reconstitution in the Messiah. This pertains, notably, to Amos 9:11 as well as to passages like Ezekiel 40-48 and much of Isaiah 40-55, but goes beyond them as a paradigm that permeates the OT. Early on in its development the church began to delineate between those aspects of the law which pertained previously to Israel under Moses, which they believed were no longer relevant, and the directly moral aspects of the law which go beyond the Old Covenant into the ethnically diverse body of the Messiah (Acts 15; Gal 1). The civil law was a custodian, a “tutor” which kept Israel until Christ, but now that Christ has come the tutor is no longer necessary. It has served its purpose; it has guarded and constrained Israel under sin up to the appointed time. Now, through his faithfulness, Jesus has redeemed Israel from her sin, thus freeing her also from the constraint of her tutor. This is the inescapable point of Galatians 3. The civil law has been rendered entirely redundant. Keep it if you like, purely for traditions sake, but it no longer serves the purpose it once did. It is no longer necessary for Israel to be constrained as a slave, because God sent His Son into the world so that Israel might receive the adoption as sons themselves.

Now let me be clear now about what I am not saying. I am not saying that God didn’t know it would happen this way. I’m not saying that Israel’s failure caught Him by surprise and that Christ’s coming was actually His second option. The incarnation was no more God’s “plan b” after Israel’s failure than it was after Adam’s failure. He always knew it would happen like this. He knew His image-bearers would eat of that tree, and He knew exactly how He would go about this large-scale rescue operation. But the real question isn’t whether or not God knew exactly how it would all play out; the real question is whether or not the OT prophets carried the same exhaustive and infallible foreknowledge as God Himself. The obvious answer, however uncomfortable it might feel, is that they didn’t. When Paul said that we prophesy in part, looking as though into a dim mirror, he wasn’t leaving the canonized prophets exempt from that statement. God became a man, died a sinner’s death, and after three days rose again – and this was the most unexpected and surprising thing that could have happened; hence the reason Jesus had such a hard time getting it through his disciples thick heads.

This is the mystery kept secret since the world began, but now revealed for all to see and wonder: that God would resurrect and exalt one man in the middle of history, out of step with the general resurrection at the end of history, and thus that He would vindicate that man’s message and claims, that He really was God’s son, and that through this vindication He would open a door for all to come to Him, cleansed and forgiven, free from sin and empowered by grace – all of this was completely shocking to Jesus’ disciples, even as he stood right in front of them, changed and yet the same, with wounds in his hands and feet from three days before. By way of analogy, it was as if they were each presented with a painting unlike any they had ever seen, yet the only problem was that there was no existing place in any of their houses that could showcase such a wonderful piece; it simply wouldn’t fit. And so the only option was to reconstruct their houses to fit around the unexpected gift instead. I imagine the forty days after Easter looked something like this, with Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom continually blowing the disciples minds, changing their paradigms, and reaching down to the most fundamental issues of wordview, rebuilding them from the ground up through the subversive and transforming themes of cross and resurrection. As he said to a couple disillusioned followers three days after his death: "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?"

My suggestion is that the cross and resurrection provide us with a hermeneutical key to pick up when history has done its work, a principle which gives us a way to move beyond the old (and slightly Gnostic) spiritualizing method of Origen and Augustine and yet still remain faithful to the apostolic use of the OT. All of Israel’s hopes were nailed to the cross in the death of her Messiah, but in his resurrection God raised those same hopes out of the tomb, injecting them with life and transforming them by His powerful grace. They now look to what they were before as an oak tree looks to its original seed. Just as the seed must be sown for the tree to be born, so it was necessary for God’s chosen people to be committed to disobedience that He might have mercy on all, and so it was necessary that their Messiah should die and be raised the third day. So, yes, we read the Canon as a whole; yes, we read the OT in its original historical context; but we recognize that Jesus Christ is the climax of the Canon. All the promises of God find their “yes” and “amen” in him.

Out of the ashes of Israel's failure God has brought forth something far more beautiful than Israel could have ever imagined. That's the mysterious and resurrecting power of grace, that when mankind fell with Adam God set a plan of redemption in motion which in the end far surpasses the original glory of Adam's garden. And just as it was with Adam’s failure, so it is with Israel’s failure. It was for Israel’s sake that Christ became the mediator of a better covenant established on better promises (Heb 8:6). Does that mean that the old promises are revoked because of Israel’s failure? No, it means that they have been reworked, transformed, because of Christ’s faithfulness. “For where sin abounded,” says Paul, with one eye toward the widespread disobedience of humanity and one eye toward the remarkable obedience of Christ, “there grace abounded much more.”

In Him,

Matt