Within the American evangelical church there are really just two primary perspectives for interpreting the “End Times.” And when I say “End Times” I mean that period of time from Pentecost in Acts 2, which inaugurated the “end of the age”, to the descent of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 that will consummate the “end of the age.”
One of the most important questions regarding the coming of “the end of the age” is the question of how to interpret the transition between the temporary Old Covenant and the eternal New Covenant. There are two main views that seek to interpret this transition.
The traditional view is known as “Covenant Theology.” This view is held by many of the mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, traditional Lutherans, and various other Reformed churches. This view is also upheld, for the most part, by the Catholic Church and Orthodox churches, as well as by Anabaptist and Mennonite churches.
Covenant Theology teaches that the New Covenant established by Jesus, which is the foundation of the New Testament church, was confirmed by Jesus with the righteous remnant of Israel. This view teaches that at its heart there is no distinction between the chosen remnant of Israel and “The Church.” The Church established by Jesus and the twelve Apostles is redeemed and renewed Israel. The early church was first entirely Jewish and so early on this fact was perfectly understood, yet very quickly the church became primarily Gentile. However, this did not in any way change the definition of “The Church” as being the true “Israel of God.” (So far so good, I say.)
From this foundation, however, the teaching of Covenant Theology also goes on to say that because the Church exists as the New Israel this means that ethnic Israel no longer has a future role to play. Covenant Theology argues that Ethnic Israel has been replaced by “The Church” (hence the term “Replacement Theology”) and the only hope for ethnic Jews is to convert as individuals, one-by-one, to faith in Jesus, thereby fulfilling Romans 11:24 by being grafted back into the olive tree.
In line with this view Covenant Theology (hereafter “CT”) rejects the idea that the current nation of Israel that was established in 1948 has any role to play in fulfilling end-times prophecy. They reject the idea that ethnic Jews are fulfilling prophecy by returning to Israel, and they reject the view that an end-times Temple must be built in Jerusalem to allow for prophecies of the Antichrist to be fulfilled prior to the return of Jesus. From this perspective CT looks with disdain on many of the subjects that have captivated the hearts of so many Christians (primarily Americans) who hold to the other perspective for interpreting the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant.
This other view is known as Dispensational Theology, or Dispensationalism. This perspective on the covenants is held by a significant portion of Protestant Christianity especially in the USA, including Southern Baptists, Calvary Chapel churches, C&MA churches, numerous Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, as well as most Hebrew Roots churches and other politically-focused, non-denominational pro-Israel churches. This is the view from which I began to understand my bible, and I believe that the majority of my readers, consciously or not, hold to a form of Dispensational Theology (herafter “DT”). This view offers a very creative, and in my opinion wrong-headed, view of the transition between the Old and New Covenants.
DT argues that Jesus offered the “Kingdom of God” to Israel, but since this offer was rejected He then established a covenant with “The Church.” Israel’s rejection therefore allowed for the salvation of Gentiles, but after the “Church Age” is over God will then turn His attention back to “Israel” and deal with them, which will finally result in Israel’s repentance and acceptance of His offer to rule over them as the Davidic King in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. From this perspective the entire redemptive plan revolves around “Ethnic Israel”, which means that “The Church” (made up primarily of Gentiles) is merely a parenthesis in the plan of God… a footnote in the glorious story of God’s faithfulness to the bloodline descendants of Abraham.
In support of this (terribly flawed) perspective on the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God DT looks to current events to “prove” that their foundation is correct. Isn’t it obvious, they argue, that God has a future plan for Israel? Look at 1948 when Israel was born in a day! Look at the miraculous victory of the Six Day War! Look at the aliyah of Jews returning to their God-given land in fulfillment of what the OT prophets clearly said! And look at the nations raging against Jerusalem and the plans for the rebuilding of the Temple! All of this fits into a framework for understanding “The Church” as being entirely separate from “Israel,” with different plans and different futures for these two distinctive groups.
So this is where we stand. In my opinion Covenant Theology begins with a good foundation, yet they fall into error by completely dismissing an end-times future for ethnic Israel. On the other hand Dispensationalism makes a tragic mistake by defining “The Church” as an entity separate and apart from “Israel.” This is a HUGE mistake folks and I will continue to hammer this home! Jeremiah very clearly predicted that the New Covenant would originate with “Israel” in Jer 31:31-34. All of the Apostles, including Paul, recognized that their movement was a continuation and fulfillment of what the OT prophets had predicted for “Israel.” The use of the New Testament term “church” simply means “assembly,” and in their minds “the church” was simply the “assembly” of the redeemed and reconstituted “Israel of God.” I’ve been touching on this ever since I began to look at this theme of the New Exodus, and this fact is absolutely CRUCIAL to understand if we are to move forward in our (currently flawed and frozen) popular evangelical end-times perspective.
So is it possible to build a new framework recognizing that “The Church” is the fulfillment of what was predicted in the Old Testament for Israel, (and not some mystery that was only revealed to Paul as it is claimed within Dispensationalism), while at the same time we recognize that ethnic Israel does have a role to play as we near the very end of the “end times”? I think it is. I think that what we need is a new synthesis of the strong points that are found within both Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology. CT gets the beginning right, but remains relatively clueless about the end, whereas DT gets the beginning wrong, but is right in many of its end-times expectations, even though these expectations must be transformed by first recognizing the fact that the Church is the true “Israel of God.”
So I have two goals set before me that my research and writing will be dedicated to in the near future. Firstly, to demonstrate that the Church is the fulfillment of OT prophecy as the true “Israel of God.” I have been doing this in previous posts to the great irritation of my many committed dispensationalist readers. Secondly, to demonstrate that ethnic Israel does indeed have a future in God’s plan, not only as individual “Jews” but also as a nation. This is the only way for me to make an intelligent reading of Romans 11. God is not finished with ethnic Israel. They were broken off from the “olive tree” in the past (collectively), yet they will one day be re-grafted (collectively and not just individually) back into their natural tree.
As I begin to lay out evidence for both of these points I fully expect to meet opposition from both committed dispensationalists who are locked into their denominational box, and committed covenant theologians who are locked into theirs. Yet I also feel that what I am proposing is something that resonates with a HUGE segment of today’s bible-believing Church, and so I also expect to receive positive feedback and support as I press on. If you are blessed and encouraged as this research into the New Exodus moves forward please don’t hesitate to let me know! You can always comment on the blog or you can reach me by gmail at pdgoodgame.
To wrap up today’s post I want to end with this quote from bible scholar Richard Hayes, commenting upon 1 Corinthians 10, which is one of the best descriptions in the NT of the New Exodus theme, comparing the journey of salvation led by Jesus to the Exodus journey led by Moses that was Israel’s founding event. This will be challenging to my dispensationalist readers, but here is what Paul wrote:
1 Corinthians 10:1-11
(1) For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, (2) and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, (3) and all ate the same spiritual food, (4) and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (5) Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (6) Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. (7) Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” (8) We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. (9) We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, (10) nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. (11) Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
This passage offers a stark challenge to the Dispensational teaching that “The Church” is separate and distinct from “Israel.” Here is how Richard Hayes explains it, as found in his book, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture, 2005, Kindle version, location 227-236:
In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul sets forth an extended typological correspondence between Israel in the wilderness and the situation of the Corinthian church as it confronts the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Even though Paul quotes just one biblical verse (Exod 32:6, in 1 Cor 10:7), his argument alludes to several episodes narrated in Exodus and Numbers and presupposes that his Corinthian readers are familiar with the story… …Paul is arguing from the story, not narrating it as something new to his audience. The thing that is new here is the way he brings the narrative of Israel into metaphorical conjunction with the issues the Corinthians face.
Paul’s first important hermeneutical move is to introduce the Israel of the wilderness generation as “our fathers” (hoi pateres hemon, 10:1). For the predominantly Gentile Corinthian church, this is already an important gesture. Israel’s story is not somebody else’s history; rather, Paul addresses the Gentile Corinthians as though they have become part of Israel. They are invited to understand themselves now as descendants of the characters who appear in the pages of Scripture.
This interpretation is confirmed by Paul’s passing reference to the Cornithians’ past life as idol worshipers in 1 Cor 12:2, “You know,” he writes, “that when you used to be Gentiles (hote ethne ete), you were carried away to dumb idols.” This formulation implies that he considers them ethne [Gentiles] no longer. Within Paul’s symbolic world, they are no longer among the goyim, because they have been taken up into the story of Israel. It should be noted that Paul is not trying to convince his Gentile readers to accept this identity description as a novel claim; rather, he assumes their identification with Israel as a given and tries to reshape their behavior in light of this identification.