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Monday, April 29, 2013

Messianic Fulfillment and Law in Matthew 5

The passage of Matthew 5:17-20 and the following "antitheses" is one of the most controversial and exegetically involved passages in Matthew, and perhaps any of the four gospel accounts. It is also one of the most important for establishing one's view of covenantal continuity and discontinuity, especially as it applies to Christian ethics--what OT laws, if any, are to be followed by Christians today, and why. These very kinds of topics are among the first I began to study seriously in Scripture (perhaps even before I was wrestling deeply with leaving Roman Catholicism), and continue to be some of my favorite things to study and talk about. I even find myself right now in the middle of a written debate (in other Facebook notes) on the nature and timing of the beginning of the "body of Christ" in Scripture.

There is no way I'm going to come on here and claim I can give a full, convincing exegesis of vv.17-48 and settle all the issues once for all as if I were some quasi-omniscient theologian or even had the Greek chops to potentially do it (or...even...had a full grasp of all the most basic fundamentals of Greek at all). My goal is to simply bring together a couple of ideas about this passage from different interpretive schools that tend not to get along well, and briefly discuss one or two others at a couple points. I'm not a "let's-sing-Kumbayah" relativist or pluralist type who thinks each one is fully right, or that they should just all be combined for the sake of some arbitrary kind of "balance" or "middle-ground." Rather, I will be slightly re-interpreting their own conclusions, seeking to bring out the truthful aspect of each, discarding the rest, and then will be able to bring them together and show their compatibility.

Now that I've completely oversold myself with my characteristically lofty prolegomena, let's get to the text and some discussion of it so I can disappoint you, yet hopefully, offer some initial thoughts that could lead some of you (seminarians especially) to following some potentially interesting trajectories of insight into the NT teaching on Christ, fulfillment, covenants, and law.

The Passage and Major Interpretive Issues

Matthew 5:17-20 reads,

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."

This introduction is followed by the six "antitheses" each begun by Jesus' formulaic refrain "You have heard that it was said..." or slight variations of that language. The passage raises dozens of important theological questions. Among these: 1) What does Jesus mean by not having come to "abolish the Law or the Prophets?" 2) What does "fulfill" mean here? 3) What do "until heaven and earth pass away" and "until all is accomplished" mean? 4) What does the "kingdom of heaven" refer to here? 5) What does it mean to surpass the scribes and Pharisees in righteousness? 6) What does "these commandments" refer to in v. 19? and one of the biggest over-arching questions...7) Do Jesus' antitheses constitute a change of moral standards from the Law under Moses to a new ethical code for the people of the New Covenant/kingdom of heaven (a distinct "law of Christ"), or do they constitute a correction of Pharisaical distortions toward a true fulfillment of the moral intent of the Law for the Christian life?

Moving forward, it will be useful to abbreviate some relevant theological positions and items. Henceforth,

CCT = Classical Covenant Theology (as seen in most traditional Reformed circles; results in advocating strong continuity of moral law)
TCT = Theonomic Covenant Theology (CCT plus advocacy of strong continuity of Mosaic civil law)
NCT = New Covenant Theology (results in emphasizing discontinuity of ethical norms from Moses to New Covenant but sees unity of purpose and people of God)
DT = Dispensational Theology (emphasizes discontinuities and maintains strong distinction even between the Church and Israel and their respective redemptive programs)
HP = Hyperpreterism (unorthodox belief that all biblical prophecy whatsoever was fulfilled at or by AD 70)
OP = Orthodox Preterism (belief that many but not all New Testament prophecies were fulfilled by AD 70
MC = Mosaic Covenant (also frequently referred to in the NT simply as "the Law")
NC = New Covenant


NCT is a relatively recent development, although various parts of its system reflect ideas that remind the reader of DT or CCT, depending on which particular aspect is in view. Its advocates see it as a potential middle-road or "third way" between traditional DT and CCT. The approach of NCT to the antitheses in Matthew 5 is generally to say that Jesus is, in fact, changing the moral standards of the Law. The imminent completion of Christ's work and the outpouring of the Spirit inaugurating the NC would mean that the people of God could be appropriately held to an even higher standard of love and righteousness that would surpass that expected under the MC. NCT advocates criticize CCTers for trying to divide up the MC Law into artificial categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial, and trying to say that only the ceremonial and perhaps civil aspects passed away with the coming of the NC. Rather, NCTers say, the MC as a whole--and its laws with it--passed away and the old law was replaced with the "law of Christ." After all, they reason, Hebrews explicitly says that where there is a change in priesthood, there is necessarily a change of law (Heb. 7:12). Also cited as evidence is the fact that Jesus quotes Scripture itself right before giving each authoritative antithesis.

In conjunction with their general view of the discontinuity of ethical standards described in this passage, then, NCTers read the introduction to the antitheses of vv.17-20 as saying that Christ came not to abolish the Law or Prophets, but to eschatologically fulfill them. They make much out of saying that plēroō (the word for "fulfill" here) means, almost every single other time in Matthew, something like "eschatologically fulfill" (when Matthew quotes the OT as a prophetic explanation of some event of Jesus' life, for example). Not only did Christ fulfill the Law by obeying it and dying under the curse of it for His people, but His moral teaching also fulfills the moral teaching of the MC. NCT is not monolithic, so various proponents would nuance things differently from each other, but at least some NCTers would say that the moral teaching of the OT actually itself pointed forward to a greater and higher moral teaching--the moral teaching of Christ in the NC which would eschatologically fulfill the old Law by replacing it. Of course there are strands of continuity still--one still may not steal in the NC--but the emphasis is unmistakably discontinuity, at least when interpreting this passage. Additionally, some NCTers will say that Christ, in fact, did come to abolish the Law in the way discussed in this passage, and that His statement in v.17 is only intended as a relative negation, so that He should be read as saying "I did not so much come to abolish as to fulfill, although I did also come to abolish." While there is an element of truth to the NCT perspective on Matthew 5, this latter idea is highly problematic, as we will see below.


In contrast, CCT and most closely-related systems, even among confessionally Reformed Baptists, have asserted that Matthew 5:17-48 emphasizes continuity rather than discontinuity, especially regarding moral law. CCTers generally assert that the antitheses constitute not a Messianic change in moral standards from covenant to covenant, but rather constitute a Messianic correction of the abuses and distortions of the Pharisees and scribes--their extrabiblical traditions and twisted applications of the Law. While it is true that Jesus quotes Scripture before giving each of the antitheses, it is also true that Jesus begins each of His antithetical comments not by the common Matthean formula "it is written" (referring authoritatively to Scripture and affirming its teaching on its own terms) but rather "you have heard that it was said," or "you have heard that the ancients were told," pointing to a Messianic conflict with oral rabbinic traditions and applications rather than with Scripture itself. Furthermore, the content of the antitheses itself points in the direction of correction of Pharisaical distortion rather than discontinuity with the true moral law. Without going into detail, two lines of argument here would be 1) the standards Jesus commands to be followed here, such as abstinence from even heart-lust (not just acted-out adultery) can be found already taught in the Old Testament as the true and full meaning of the Law (although proving this may take some slightly more complicated exegetical work in a couple of the cases such as the antithesis about oaths), and 2) there are strong echoes of detailed rabbinic debates and traditions about Jewish law lurking in the background of the antitheses, to which we see Jesus responding with great frustration at many other places in the gospels.

Another, even more foundational line of evidence for the CCT view of moral continuity is Jesus' emphasis on continuity in the introductory material of 17-20. Contra some of the more extreme NCT and DT interpreters, v.17 cannot be read as a merely relative negation. The surrounding context prohibits it. Specifically, Vv. 13-16 earlier in the chapter elevate the importance of good works of Jesus' disciples, and of them being seen by the world to the end that the Father is glorified (v. 16); and then after Jesus' negation in v. 17, He goes on in vv. 18-19 to teach moral continuity in the strongest possible terms!: "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." And as if Jesus hadn't been emphatic enough already, He concludes the introduction to the antitheses with the charge of keeping the Law better than the scribes and Pharisees, on pain of failing to enter the kingdom of heaven at all (v. 20) (and while it could be argued that this wouldn't be all that difficult since the scribes and Pharisees did not truly keep the heart of the Law but rather manifested merely external obedience and adherence to often contra-biblical rabbinic traditions, the point remains that Jesus' charge is to be Torah-observant better than these, not to be non-Torah-observant). Continuity is the emphasis.


We need to say more about the introductory verses, though, because in recent years, interpreters from a HP perspective, and possibly others, have attempted to interpret v. 18 in very strange ways. For example, HPers like to assert that Jesus is simply teaching that all of Torah, including the ceremonial law, is to be observed "until all is accomplished" and "until heaven and earth pass away," reading these as referring to either Jesus' death (cf. with "It is finished" in Jn. 19:30), or the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, or both. Once the MC passes away theologically at the cross, and the "heaven and earth" of OT Israel passes away historically in AD 70 as a national covenant entity in covenant with God (with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple), there is no longer Torah observance in any sense at all for HPers. Ironically, some DTers and NCTers--no friends of HP--have followed similar lines of thought with regard to the Torah part of this argument, even if they disagree with the "heaven and earth" passing away in AD 70 idea.

In response, I would say that while there is an element of truth to the idea of the MC passing away theologically at the cross (such that the ceremonial laws in their original form, as well as the MC as a covenant, passed away, as in Eph. 2:15-16), and from an OP perspective, there is some truth in the idea of OT Israel being capitally punished as the unfaithful bride of God in AD 70, the overall HP view of this passage is defective. We must insist again that Jesus' negation in v. 17 is not relative, as the surrounding context demonstrates. We must also notice that it is not only the "Law" which is not abolished, but neither are the Prophets. And for most HPers, while all OT and NT prophecies are viewed as definitively fulfilled by AD 70, there is still infinite, ongoing fulfillment of some kind as more people are born and more and more of them are joined to Christ in a very ethereal, spiritual understanding of His NC. Therefore even for them, it can never really be said that the Prophets are abolished, even if they find a way to say that the MC is totally abolished in every sense. But if you have the Prophets fulfilled rather than abolished, you must also have the Law fulfilled and not abolished according to this passage. This is because the comments in v. 18 about the smallest strokes not "passing from the Law" (being abolished?!) cannot be abstracted from Jesus' negation about the abolishment of the "Law or the Prophets" in the preceding verse.

Moreover, can it truly be said that Jesus' advocacy of "righteousness" in a rather general and comprehensive-sounding way (vv. 16, 20) should be understood as unrelated or irrelevant to post-AD 70 Christian living? Obviously not, yet in this passage, "righteousness" in general is bound up explicitly with Torah observance. Of course the way in which many things in the Law are observed in the NC is different than when the Law covenant as such was in effect. But the point of the continuity of moral norms seems to stand. Unless we want to say that our righteousness should not still surpass the scribes and Pharisees in the eschaton--whatever the "eschaton" precisely means in one's theology--we cannot understand "until heaven and earth pass away" as any kind of specific eschatological reference at all. Jesus seems to simply be using the phrase as a rhetorical device for strong emphasis here (although He may not always do so; but compare Lk. 16:17 as a clear example of a rhetorical use with Matt. 24:35-36 as an arguable example of a more literal use [and yes, I take and think I can defend the topical transition view of Matt. 24]).

So far, we have discussed views of Matt. 5:17-48 which assert: 1) NCT: "fulfill" means "eschatologically fulfill such that there is significant discontinuity of moral norms between the MC and the NC;" 2) HP: not necessarily mutually exclusive with aspects of '1', the Law actually is abolished and all things accomplished by the cross/AD 70 such that there is no sense of Torah observance for Christians today whatsoever; 3) CCT: Jesus' "fulfillment" of the Law and Prophets, whatever it involves, does not result in a change of moral law from MC to NC; rather, the antitheses simply constitute a Messianic correction of Pharisaical distortion of the Law, traditional rabbinic legalism, and the like.


'3' in the preceding paragraph seems lacking so far, though. This is because we have mostly only talked about it in negative terms up to this point--there is not a change of moral law. But what does the "fulfillment" mean, positively? We can turn to one of the most vocal advocates of TCT from the 20th century for one possible answer. And actually, we have already stated it. Greg Bahnsen, a Reconstructionist, theonomist, and vocal Reformed apologist of the 20th century, interpreted plēroō in Matt. 5:17 not as "eschatologically fulfill" but rather as "confirm." In his writings advocating theonomy (belief that even the principles of the civil codes under the MC should apply to the state today), he argues extensively that the context of the passage--which he, as a TCT subset of CCTers, sees as correction of Pharisaical distortions--demonstrates that the primary if not exclusive meaning of "fulfill" at least in this passage has to do with "confirming" the moral norms of the MC as continuing, valid, and authoritative for NC Christians.

In response to critics who point out that no lexicon or NT Greek dictionary points out "confirm" as a primary or even slightly common meaning of plēroō, Bahnsen defends himself by explaining that his definition is a precising definition, not meant to deny the legitimate, more general definition of "to fill up," "to render full," "to carry into effect," "to bring to realization," etc., but rather to specify a more narrow sense in which Jesus is recorded as using the term.

What shall we say about Bahnsen's view? The traditional CCT view contains nothing which would conflict with an understanding of plēroō as "confirm;" indeed, "confirm" does fit well with the traditional view of the antitheses which sees them as correction of Pharisaical distortions. However, while Bahnsen's "precising" definition and exegesis was perhaps effective as a programmatic, polemical response to neo-antinomians against whom he was arguing in his historical context, is "confirmation of moral norms" really all Jesus meant by fulfilling the Prophets? It seems extremely reductionistic, if one valid aspect of NC fulfillment.


If the entire OT spoke of Jesus and His coming Messianic mission (Lk. 24:44, et al), what it means that Jesus "fulfills" the Law and Prophets is necessarily extremely multi-faceted, even if a single passage of the NT doesn't spell out every detail. It would take time and space, but not great effort, to show, for example, that Jesus fulfills the Law and Prophets by: 1) Obeying the Law as the Last Adam on behalf of His covenant people, as the finally faithful and true human "son of God" and "Israelite;" 2) Suffering the curse and penal sanctions of the Law as a vicarious sacrifice for His covenant people, fulfilling all that the MC sacrificial system pointed forward to, and hence in a sense abolishing the ceremonial parts of the Law (this is an aspect of truth found also in DT and HP systems); 3) Acting as the ultimate High Priest of His people not only in His self-sacrifice but also in His constant intercession at the Father's right hand; 4) Acting as the ultimate Davidic King over the whole world, subject only to the Father; 5) Acting as the eschatological Prophet and indeed embodying the ultimate prophetic "Word" of God (Heb. 1:1-2)--which role would be the best to see as related to Bahnsen's idea of fulfillment as "confirming/correcting distortions of the Law;" 6) Becoming a light to the Gentiles such that the nations, as a whole, would come to join the covenant people of God through faith in the Messiah, worship and be taught of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and adopt the OT Scriptures as their own; and most relevant for the conclusion of this article, 7) Bringing about the NC reality of faithful, heartfelt Law-observance in the covenant people!

This last aspect of Messianic fulfillment is most evident in the only OT passage that explicitly uses the terminology of "new covenant," namely, Jeremiah 31. In vv. 31-33, we read, "'Behold, days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,' declares the LORD. 'But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,' declares the LORD, 'I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.'" The NC was purchased by Jesus' blood (Lk. 22:20), was already a present reality in the first century according to the author of Hebrews (Heb. 8; although there is greater fulfillment of it still to come in the eschatological conversion of the majority of ethnic Jews to Christ [Rom. 11]), and it benefits Gentiles as well as Jews (see Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, writing in the first person in 2 Cor. 3:6). And one of the central blessings of the NC, according to Jer. 31 and related passages like Jer. 32:38-40 and Ez. 36:26-27, is the reversal of the general situation of unfaithfulness under the MC: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit such that the covenant people as a whole (rather than a mere, small remnant of the visible covenant community) are finally faithful to God's Law. What divine law-norms are in view here, exactly? Obviously, it is the only Law the readers of Jer. 31 would have been familiar with--the moral norms of the MC. They are not abolished under the NC but rather realized and finally faithfully obeyed by the covenant people! Indeed, there is a sense in which even the ceremonial and sacrificial laws are observed by Christians today in a spiritual sense (cf. the language of Rom. 12:1). Moreover, even non-theonomists must articulate some kind of contemporary application of the Mosaic civil code, even if only for the institution of the church (cf. 1 Cor. 9:9 and 1 Tim. 5:18)!


1) "To eschatologically fulfill" is an excellent and strongly Matthean, if broad, interpretation of plēroō in Matt. 5:17. It needs unpacking, and the NCT way of doing so needs biblical correction, but the definition itself is an accurate and necessarily broad summary. 2) "To confirm" is a legitimate and included idea, but by itself is reductionistic and too narrow, even for the particular concerns of the passage. 3) It is true that the MC is abolished by Christ's death insofar as the old covenant as such and the sacrificial law and ceremonial holiness code do not apply to NC believers in the same way they did to OT believers. 4) In the sense intended by Jesus in the passage, however, neither the Law nor the Prophets are ever abolished, but rather eschatologically fulfilled in Jesus' person and work as the Messiah. 5) One meaning and result of this "eschatological fulfillment," particularly of the Prophets, is not a covenantal change of moral norms, but rather the NC people's observance of them.

"Walking according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4) rather than living by the "letters" of the Law "engraved on stones" (2 Cor. 3:6-8) refers to NC Spirit-empowered obedience to the moral norms of the Law without the ceremonial and animal-sacrifice trappings of the MC; it does not refer to NC lawlessness or some alleged radical change of moral norms for NC believers. In fact, Romans 8:4 mentions the "requirement of the Law...fulfilled (plēroō!) in us, who...walk...according to the Spirit." Paul generally uses plēroō differently from Matthew, admittedly, but the strongly redemptive-historical semantics of Romans 7 and 8 may legitimize a linguistic connection here nevertheless.

Of course there is some discontinuity even in the Reformed CCT position, and even in CCTers' contemporary application of moral norms, as evidenced by the first-day observance of the Sabbath rather than seventh-day observance (because of the resurrection of Christ as the beginning of New Creation, etc.). But the strong emphasis of Matt. 5:17-48 and its Messianic-prophetic background with regard to Law-observance, is definitely continuity, and there's nothing non-eschatological about that. It is, in fact, fundamentally eschatological, fulfilling the Prophets' expectation of a faithful and obedient covenant people in the "last days" of the Messiah/inauguration of the NC.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ecclesiology Debate: Opening Statement 2 (Beau)

Opening Statement -- Positive (Beau's opening statement)

My pastor likes to begin debates by establishing common ground. In the short time Ive had the priviledge of knowing Tyler, I know we both have a strong commitment to the Lord and a passion for His word. Despite disagreeing on doctrinal issues I'm confident the two of us seek to edify each other and those reading.

"Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures; He was buried, and He rose again the third day, according to the scriptures." (1Cor. 15: 3-4)

Paul's message, above, to the Corinthians, was the new salvation message, for those in the Body of Christ. "Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved..." (1 Cor.15: 1,2) Peter's message in early Acts, was "repent and be baptized (water) for the remission of sins. That was a message for Israel. The body of Christ is so divided on just that issue. Baptism. Dunk or sprinkle? Infant or adult? Is water baptism necessary for salvation or simply a testimony of your faith? Paul was baptized, and he baptized some. But, it was never a part of his "salvation message..."For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel..." And, not the gospel of the circumcision.

I am a "Mid-Acts" dispensationalist. My disagreement with "Acts 2 believers" is not to question their salvation. However, doctrinal differences cause confusion, and the ears of the "mission field" hear a mixture of messages. Are believers "sealed onto the day of redemption?" Or is their salvation in jeopardy, daily? What about works? Which epistle are we to follow? The one written by James: " works a man is justified, and not by faith, only". Or, the one written by Paul: "..a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faithfullness of Jesus Christ." By the faithfulness of Jesus Christ - WOW!

How many Christians believe they must "do something" to earn salvation? Must believers confess their sins? Or, are our sins buried out of God's sight? Have you ever lost a friend, for not keeping the Sabbath? Remember when Peter said, "sell all your possessions, to use for the common good"? Or, was that Karl Marx? Confusion, on Biblical truths, leads to many dire consequences. William Jennings Bryant, Christian lawyer during the Scopes Monkey trial was twisted into knots by Clarance Darrow over the age of the universe. Because he (Bryant) didn't believe in the literal 6-day creation. As teachers, we need to be good Bereans.

When Paul says "rightly divide" does that mean something? Throughout the Old Testament, before this present dispensation of grace began, to enter into relationship with God, Gentiles had to become part of Israel's covenant of circumcision (proselytize). Gen.26:4; Gen.28:14; Is.2:1-4; Is.27:13; Micah 4:1-3; Zech.8:20-23; Zech.14:16 and others make it clear that Gentiles would never be acceptable to God without first blessing the nation of Israel. Prophecy in Old Testament scriptures never predicted that Christ would die for the sins of Uncircumcised Gentiles, and certainly never indicated they would be saved through Israel's fall. But that is exactly what the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write. "I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles."(Romans 11:11) Now in the Body of Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile.

Most of today's Christians lay claim to Israel's covenants. They're quick to say, "Our circumcision is of the heart." However, the Books of Ezekiel and Isaiah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, are in conflict with that theology. Because Ezekiel wrote this, when describing the future temple:"Thus saith the Lord God; no stranger. uncircumsised in heart, nor uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter into My sanctuary, of any stranger that is among the children of Israel." (44:9) Isaiah wrote, Awake, awake! Put on your strength, O Zion; Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city! For the uncircumcised and the unclean Shall no longer come to you.(52:1)

Anyone who claims Gentiles are spirtual Israel, not only, has to contend with Isaiah and Ezekiel, but, also, deny or distort what the apostle Paul wrote, in Rom. 11:25,26: "...blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, And, all Israel shall be saved. As it is written, there shall come out of Zion, the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. For this is My covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins." Compare what Paul wrote in Romans, with the writer of Hebrews: "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel (and the house of Jacob) after those days...and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." (Heb. 8:10-12)

During his earthly ministry Christ focused specifically on the people of Israel. In Matthew he says, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of Israel." He commanded his apostles,"Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Matt. 10:5-6 Jesus's plan was to prepare Israel as a nation to bring the gospel to the world.

In the three years leading up to Pentecost Christ had preached that the kingdom of God was near. His death and resurrection had fulfilled all that was required to atone for sin. He had risen from the dead. Israel was at the threshold of achieving all that the prophets had foretold. Only one thing was required: the nation had to repent (Acts 2:38). If they would, God the Father would send Jesus Christ to establish his kingdom on Earth (Acts 3.19-21). These events would correlate perfectly with Daniel's 70 week timeline with the events of Revelation being fufilled during this last week.

The apostles being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues at Pentecost was a key element of God’s prophetic program to Israel (Joel 2:16). It was not the birth of the Body of Christ. These events were an essential part of the new covenant announced by Jeremiah (31:31-33) “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people,” which Jesus had initiated at the Last Supper (Matthew 26.27-28). Peter was warning the last days were at hand.

Consider: The Lord's parable recorded in Luke 13: 6-9. “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’”The above parable is referring to Christ's three year ministry, when He sought fruit in Israel, and found none. Still, He decided to postpone, for one more year, their national judgement, that of Israel being cut off.

Peter’s message in Acts was a message of repentance. His message echoed the message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Twelve except that it followed Jesus’ resurrection. Peter did not preach the death and resurrection of Christ as a glorious victory over sin and death but as a cause of condemnation for Israel. Not until Paul was Christ’s death and resurrection preached as good news and the message of reconciliation declared (2 Corinthians 5.18-21). For Peter, the kingdom of God, proclaimed throughout the gospels, was still the plan of God. He called upon the nation to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2.38). Paul’s message is “believe and be saved”. This is the message for the Church today.

After Pentecost, as late as Acts 10, Peter and the apostles had not gone to the Gentiles. In Acts 10, God gave Peter a vision and a specific command to go to the the Gentile Cornelius’ house. Peter obeyed, but not joyfully. "But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean." Peter is still following dietary laws! "And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again(Acts 10:14-16). "Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation? But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (10:28)." When Peter went to relay this news to the other apostles they were thrilled right? "Salvation has now come to the Gentiles," they rejoiced! No, quite the opposite. "Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11:1-3)

They “took issue with him”. In their view, Peter had abandoned the divine program. Only after Peter related the entire episode did they quiet down and accept him.

The Apostles took Christ at his word when he said he was returning soon to establish His Kingdom. Were they foolish for selling off their possesions in anticipation of the Lord's imminent return? The expectation was the Lord would return before some of them would die. ..."There are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God." Luke 9:27 ..."there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power." Mark 9:1 Matthew also records,"...there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." (16:28) Saying some would not die implies that many or most would. If by kingdom Christ meant the church at Pentecost this would not be plausible given the short amount of time between these statements and Pentacost.

The Body of Christ began with the conversion of the Apostle Paul. When God saved him in Acts 9, Paul became the first man to receive God's mercy and grace in this new dispensation. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe on him for everlasting life (1 Tim 1:16). Paul was the first in line "in the beginning of the gospel" he received mercy: "Now you Phillipians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only (Phil 4:15)." But what about the twelve apostles? Were those believers saved before Paul not recipients of God's mercy? Yes, they were. However, Peter and the others were saved under the "Gospel of the kingdom ( Matt 4:23)," in the covenant of circumcision (Acts 7:8), during the dispensation of the law. Paul became a pattern for those who now only have to believe to be saved.

Paul rarely used the term kingdom and not in the technical sense that Jesus did. Yet, he emphasizes being in Christ's body 117 times, mentioning the Body 24 times, and that believers are "in Christ"(77 times) and being "in Him"(16 times). The letters from those of the kingdom gospel never mention the Body of Christ once.

Ecclesiology Debate: Opening Statement 1 (Tyler)

I am debating Beau Ballentine on Facebook, and thought I'd copy the posts to my blog here. Enjoy!

The debate resolution is: The "body of Christ" did not begin until Acts 9.

Opening Statement – Negative (My own opening statement...copied from Facebook so these will probably lose some italics and bolds, both in my own posts and in my opponents')

The debate resolution is “the ‘body of Christ’ did not begin until Acts 9.” I deny this statement, but it would probably be helpful, especially since I am starting the debate, to put in positive terms what my position is with regard to when the “body of Christ” started. So that’s how I’ll begin my opening statement: I’ll state my position with some necessary qualifications, and then begin to develop a scriptural argument for it. While there may be some anticipation of the other side’s objections inherent in this first presentation, I feel it is important to keep focused on laying out my own view positively first.

My own view, stated positively, is that the “body of Christ” began at Pentecost, in Acts 2. Now, I should define and explain a little bit more fully what that means and does not mean in my view. What I mean is that the community of believers united to the crucified and risen Christ, and to each other in Christ, both Jew and Gentile (that’s important for our debate), called the “body of Christ” and the “church” in various places in the NT, began at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. However, there are some truths that need to be added to that statement to nuance it. First, this specific group of people began to be gathered together during Jesus’ earthly ministry, long before Pentecost. One could point out as watershed moments in this regard either Jesus’ call of the first disciple who would become an apostle, or perhaps Peter’s confession of Jesus’ Messianic identity in Matthew 16:16, after which Jesus declares, “ ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it’” (Matt. 16:17-18, my emphasis). The idea here is that the apostolic witness and confession of Jesus as the Messiah (especially after His completed work in the cross and resurrection) is foundational to the church (cf. Eph. 2:20).

Second, from a systematic-theological perspective, there is a sense in which I would place the beginning of the “body of Christ” all the way back in the Old Testament. As any Reformed covenant theologian—one who holds to a relatively high degree of continuity between the major biblical covenants (especially the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New)—I see the people of God across redemptive history as essentially one. This theological perspective, in its weakest forms and presentations, is admittedly the most prone to the danger of flattening out too much the rich contours of the overall biblical narrative, and downplaying any and all discontinuity between the Testaments as redemptive history moves forward. However, in its best forms, which acknowledge important covenantal discontinuities which are really there in the text (and I’ll be mentioning one of those below if there is space), I believe a relatively traditional Reformed “covenant theology” perspective on the oneness of the gospel message and the people of God across the ages is the most biblical. There is a real sense in which Israel, brought out of Egypt and constituted a nation, was typologically (that is, in an anticipatory, pictorial way), the “body of Christ.” Beyond typology, though, the believers among them were even ultimately saved by the same spiritual realities as us, even though the outward expression of their faith looked different during that era, since they had faith in the coming fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ.. As Paul says, they “all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-4). Speaking of the wilderness generation specifically, the author of Hebrews says that “we have had good news preached to us [euēngelismenoi; the KJV translates it as “the gospel preached”], just as they also” (Heb. 4:2, my emphasis). There is also a real sense in which the Patriarchs, personally called out by God into covenant relationship with Him, anticipated, and in a sort of trans-historical way, constituted part of, the “body of Christ.” In Romans 4, Abraham is given as the ultimate OT paradigm of faith, receiving the gracious promises of God which are all centered in the gospel. In another place, Paul can even go so far as to say that the Scripture “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8). One may even consider the proto-gospel, the gospel in seed form, in Gen. 3:15, and everyone who put their trust in that promise, and count them as members of the “body of Christ” in an anticipatory and also trans-historical way.

However, in the most common NT usage, and in a more biblical-theological sense—that is, the sense which has in view not so much ultimate, topically-arranged, trans-historical ideas, but rather the unfolding progression of redemptive history and the accompanying terminology in the inscripturated revelation—the “body of Christ” strictly only refers to those who have, in this life, experienced existential union with the risen Christ since His coming and the completion of His work. Old Testament saints had what at least one pastor and theologian has called “prospective” or “proleptic” union with Christ (they looked forward in faith to the time when Christ would come, accomplish redemption, and they would finally be existentially or “experientially” united with the risen Christ), such that “apart from us they would not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40). They were justified the same way as we are, through faith. Again, see Romans 4 for Abraham and David as examples. The only way God could have justly “passed over sins previously committed” was in view of the propitiatory sacrifice Christ was coming to make, the benefits of which are received by faith, then as now (Rom. 3:25). There is and only ever has been only one way of salvation, namely, faith in Christ, whether the explicit content of the faith was mere shadowy promises before Christ, or the fully revealed gospel after His coming, death, and resurrection. That’s really the main thing the covenant theology perspective on the people of God described above is concerned to protect—grace through faith in the promises purchased by Christ as the only way of salvation across all history; it is not intended to assert that there is absolutely no difference at all between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church. There are real aspects of progression and discontinuity.

Still, my thesis in this debate, expanded to a fuller statement, is that beginning with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there is and will only ever continue to be one group of people with whom God is dealing in a savingly gracious way, and among whom all of His promises are being fulfilled. Another way I would state it as a distinct belief is: there is only one covenant people of God today, and that is the “body of Christ”—the body of believers in Christ who are united to Him in His death and resurrection by faith—which consists of both Jews and Gentiles in one body, and which began at Pentecost with primarily Jewish believers yet which is not fundamentally distinct from the groups of converts to Christ among the Gentiles which came into being under the apostolic ministry of Paul, after his own conversion in Acts 9. Beau maintains that the “body of Christ” came into being in Acts 9 with the conversion of Saul/Paul and the beginning of his ministry to the Gentiles, and is categorically distinct from the group of Jewish believers who received the Spirit at Pentecost. I maintain that this is an artificial and misleading distinction.

My understanding of the Scriptures (together with Luke’s account of Peter’s reading of Joel) is that the significance of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament Prophets’ whole teaching about the “last days” brought in by the Messiah: God would restore His people, include the nations/Gentiles at large in His covenant blessing, and all who would be united to the crucified, risen, and victoriously ascended Messiah through faith would be filled with His very own Spirit and enabled to enjoy full “sanctuary privileges” as priests together with Him. No longer would there be the necessity of merely human priests or animal sacrifices in order for the faithful to approach and worship God (Heb. 8:11/Jer. 31:34), because Christ, the one true high priest and ultimate mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5), will have made purification for sins (Heb. 1:3) and then entered within the heavenly veil as a forerunner before us, in the priestly order of Melchizedek (Heb. 6:19-20).

The whole book of Hebrews is designed to spell many of these things out in detail, but the author starts really getting to the climax of his argument in chapter 8 when he quotes Jeremiah 31. The main purpose of the book of Hebrews is to encourage a group of Jewish Christians during a period of intense persecution by other Jews, and to admonish them not to capitulate to their persecutors by returning to the old-era observance of the ceremonial Law and outward “holiness code” of the Mosaic Covenant. In view of Christ’s completed work and the present reality of the New Covenant (notice the pluperfect tense of “obtained” and “enacted” in Heb. 8:6), for the believers addressed in Hebrews to go back and live as if they were still relating to God on the basis of the Mosaic administration would be tantamount to apostasy (hence the buildup of increasingly severe “warning” passages in the book).

In Hebrews 8’s application of Jeremiah 31 (and in fact, in Hebrews 10:11-17’s application of it even more so), we see a direction connection between the “new covenant,” the outpouring of the Spirit, and the finished work of Christ. It is no surprise, then, that when we look at Pentecost in Acts 2, we see strong thematic and semantic connections with other passages in the New Testament which speak of Christ’s accomplished work, people receiving His Spirit through faith, and thereby being constituted as the New Covenant Church in fulfillment of Jeremiah 31.

While I don’t want to assume too much or put words in Beau’s mouth before he lays out his view, it is argued by some that Jeremiah 31’s prophecy of the New Covenant, because it is said to be made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” has little or nothing to do with the Church in this present inter-advental era, but rather awaits fulfillment in a Millennium, among ethnic/national Israel alone. My view, in contradistinction to this, is that while there was a proximate fulfillment of the New Covenant and restoration promises in the partial return of the Israelites from exile prior to Christ’s coming, and while the ultimate consummation of the New Covenant blessings awaits Christ’s future return at the end of this age, the New Covenant has been inaugurated by the accomplishment of redemption in Christ’s death/resurrection/ascension/Pentecost. This is proven most directly by Hebrews 8 as I mentioned above. Note that the entire apologetic of the book of Hebrews would fall apart if the New Covenant and its attendant blessings were not a present reality; Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, and if such was not a present reality at and after Pentecost, the audience of Hebrews would have had every right to object to the author’s exhortation, and continue to fall back into observance of the Old Covenant’s types and shadows—things which became “obsolete…old…ready to disappear (Heb. 8:13), and which were ordained by God only “until a time of reformation” (Heb. 9:10). “For this reason [Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant…” (Heb. 9:15, emphasis mine). Thus, Paul sees even his own Gentile-focused ministry as being one of “a new covenant,” a covenant “not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:9).

So what of this “house of Israel” and “house of Judah” business in Jeremiah? Was the author of Hebrews, or Paul in 2nd Corinthians, confused about the fulfillment of this majestic prophecy? Of course neither Beau nor I would say so, and we both have ways—presumably—of dealing with these texts together. The question for this debate will largely be: whose interpretation of the whole of Scripture on the nature and identity of God’s people(s) at Pentecost and today is the most consistent, and seems to artificially manipulate various texts of the Bible the least? Whose exegesis is demonstrating a more consistent message from text to text in Scripture, with the least special pleading? Additionally, whose message seems to fit better with the idea of Christ’s person and work as the sum total of God’s plan of redemption, and the locus of the fulfillment of all His promises (Eph. 1:10; 1 Cor. 8:6; 2 Cor. 1:20; Col. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:19; Jn. 1:12, 17; etc.)?

Now then, my way of understanding the application of Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy for the houses of Israel and Judah is that the “body of Christ,” the “Church,” and the “bride of Christ” (all terms which I take as synonymous with each other) was definitively born and began to experience the blessings of the New Covenant at Pentecost and beyond, in one body which includes Jews and Gentiles whether at the “mother church” in Jerusalem or through the missionary ministry of Paul and his companions to the Gentiles. It is in this one body, the Church, composed of Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Christ, that the fulfillment of all the New Covenant prophecies takes place, and nowhere else—not in any national expression of ethnic Israel, neither now nor in the eschaton. How may I justify this view in light of Jeremiah 31’s emphatic promise of the continuation of the “nation” of Israel (Jer. 31:35-36)?

My answer is simply the emphatic and repeated teaching of the New Testament that in Christ, Jew and Gentile are covenantally counted as Jews/Israelites, are incorporated into one body (the New Covenant Church) in Christ, and receive the fullness of OT Israel’s promised inheritance there. There are strands of both continuity and discontinuity with OT language on many issues related to this teaching.

One example of discontinuity is the shift from the geo-political/national expression of God’s one covenant people to a multi-ethnic, multi-national priesthood and kingdom. 1st Peter 1 bears this out in its application of Exodus 19:6’s language to the Christians “throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1) who are “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…” (2:9). We see here that Christians scattered abroad (no longer constituted as a geo-political entity!) are those who are identified with and receive the same blessings promised to the OT “nation” of Israel. I am aware that there are those who would restrict the audience of Peter’s letter to Jewish believers and thereby argue that their Jewishness alone justifies Peter’s language here, and Gentiles in the “body” which is the Church as distinct from Israel would not rightly be labeled thus. However, even considering Peter’s introduction with language like “scattered [Gk.: diasporas]” (1:1), language which makes one think primarily of the Jewish diaspora, it would seem an exceedingly odd thing to refuse to apply an entire book of the New Testament (which title, by the way, actually means “New Covenant”), which is admittedly probably largely written to Jewish Chrisitans, to all Christians—those who are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood…” (1:2). What Gentile believer does not fit this description?

Moreover, Revelation 1 declares that the “churches that are in Asia” (v.4) are among those whom God has made to be “a kingdom, priests to [Christ’s] God and Father…” (v. 6). Similarly, Revelation 5 speaks of men bought by the blood of the Lamb “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (v. 9) as men made to be a “kingdom and priests to our God…” (v. 10).

Can we be sure, though, that Gentiles in the Church are truly the ones who inherit every promise given to OT Israel? We can be, from the following lines of teaching in Scripture.

1) Galatians 1, written by Paul to the “churches of Galatia,” teaches emphatically that there is one gospel and that any gospel which differs from that which the apostle Paul taught must be rejected, even if it comes from an angel (1:6-8).

2) Perhaps the most powerful chapter for this debate, Galatians 3 speaks of those who are “of the works of the law” (those who maintain or revert to identification with Old Covenant ceremonial practices rather than recognizing the fulfillment of all of them in Christ, and/or depend on their own works in general for their justification) as being “under a curse” (3:10); and then Paul makes an extensive argument for the divine purpose of the Law and its proper place in a theology of redemptive history, and ends that whole discussion by arguing that all who have faith in Christ are true “sons of God” (3:25) and “Abraham’s descendants” (3:29). This is because Christ Himself is the true “seed” of the woman promised in Gen. 3:15 (Gal. 3:16), the one truly faithful—(and literal, physical, ethnic!) Israelite who alone would perfectly fulfill the demands of the moral law and indeed the whole Mosaic covenant. Therefore, all who are united to Christ by faith (see Rom. 6, Col. 3, etc. for different ways of speaking of “union” with Him), are counted—legitimately!—as true Israelites and therefore “heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). There is then, covenantally speaking, “neither Jew nor Greek” (v. 28).

3) Galatians 5 teaches that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything…” (v. 6).

4) Romans 1 teaches that there is one gospel “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (v. 16).

5) Romans 2:25ff relativizes physical circumcision and declares true Jewish identity as being a matter “of the heart, by the Spirit” (v. 29). The OT itself made the spiritual significance plain long ago! (Deut. 10:16 for just one example).

6) As regards justification by Christ’s work which bought the New Covenant (Lk. 22:20), after two and a half chapters indicting Jew and Gentile for sin, Romans 3 says that “there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified…in Christ Jesus” (vv. 23-24).

7) Very significantly, Romans 4 says that Abraham is the father of “all who believe” (v. 11) and “not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham” (v. 12). Therefore, the promise to Abraham and his descendants that he would be “heir of the world” (an expansion, not a denial, of the original land promise!), would be “not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham” (v. 16). Paul quotes Gen. 17:5 in support, showing how OT itself foreshadowed this reality.

8) Romans 9 explains with a number of illustrations (Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Hosea’s names of ‘My People’ and ‘Not My People’ (v.26) ) how it has always been the case that “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (v. 6); that is, only the believing remnant have inherited the blessings of God’s covenant promises. Faith matters, not ethnicity or nationality, and in this New Covenant era, until the eschaton, it is Gentiles who predominantly attain the “righteousness which is by faith” in Christ (v. 31).

9) Romans 10:12…again, “no distinction between Jew and Greek” with regard to salvific blessings of Christ and His New Covenant.

10) Romans 11 needs to be discussed, but I will leave it for now. I take the most common postmillennial view of this chapter, and reject the most common Reformed amillennial view.

11) Ephesians 2 spells out magnificently how the Gentiles in the flesh, once far off and estranged from Israel’s commonwealth and covenant promises, have been “brought near” in Christ, and incorporated with them into “one body” through the cross (vv. 11-16). They are “no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household” (v. 19).

12) Ephesians 3 declares the “mystery” of the gospel to be the inclusion of the Gentiles in the one “body” as “fellow heirs” (v. 6).

13) Ephesians 4 teaches that there is “one body…one Spirit…one faith, one Lord, one baptism” (vv. 4, 5).

Much more can and must be said and spelled out more fully, but I am close to or slightly over my word limit already. But my main argument is clear, hopefully: the NT teaches that faith-union with Christ—a literal, ethnic Jew who fulfilled the Law!—justly constitutes a believer, whether Jew or Gentile physically, as an heir of every last OT promise of God to His people, especially the New Covenant promises which sum up all the others. Thus, believers in Christ, whatever ethnic, national, or socio-economic background, are “fellow heirs” with Christ (Rom. 8:17). I personally own, by God’s grace alone, through faith, all the promises, because “as many as are the promises of God, in [Christ] they are yes [or ‘Amen’]” (2 Cor. 1:20). And by God’s doing (1 Cor. 1:30), I am indeed “in Christ” by faith. Hallelujah!