Archive for June, 2008

Joshua 21:43-45 and the Promise of Land

In a recent comment here at Expository Thoughts, a reader named Joe took issue with the dispensational teaching that the land promises to Israel have yet to be fulfilled. Joe made several arguments in his refutation, one of which was the often repeated claim that the land promises of the Old Testament were completely fulfilled in the book of Joshua according to Joshua 21:43-45, and therefore we have no reason to expect that there will be a future fulfillment of this promise. As I once wrote on another blog:

To comment briefly on Joshua 21:43-45, I see this passage as indicating an initial and partial fulfillment of the covenant promises to Abraham. Part of the difficulty of the issue is that Joshua 21 clearly says that Israel possessed all the land promised to her by Yahweh, and yet other passages in Joshua indicate there was remaining land yet to be conquered and possessed (Josh 13:1-17; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13, 17-18; 23:4-6, 12-13). It is not an easy issue to resolve. Calvin referred to it as an apparent contradiction.

Regardless of how we solve this dilemma, however, keep in mind the historical context of these passages in Joshua. Prior to their entrance into the promised land, God said that if Israel obeyed the Mosaic Law, she would experience Abrahamic blessing (Lev 26:1-13; Deut 28:1-14), but if Israel disobeyed the Law, she would experience curses (Lev 26:14-46; Deut 28:15-68). With regard to the promised land, if Israel was not faithful to keep the Mosaic Covenant, she would be dispersed from the land (Lev 26:32-33; Deut 28:63-64), but if she was faithful to the Mosaic Covenant, her days in the land would be blessed and prolonged (Lev 26:5-6; Deut 28:8).

In this way, God’s promise that the nation would possess the land was certain and eternal (the Abrahamic Covenant), but the occupation of the land and enjoyment of the blessings by any given generation of Jews was conditioned upon obedience to the Law (the Mosaic Covenant). Put another way, adherence to the Mosaic Covenant would enable a given generation of Israel to experience the blessings promised in the Abrahamic Covenant, but unfaithfulness to the Mosaic Covenant would delay the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises until a later time and a later generation.

This leads me to Deuteronomy 30:1-10. Moses and the people of Israel are on the plains of Moab, on the verge of taking the land the Lord promised her. He has just warned Israel that if she is not faithful to keep the Mosaic Law, she will be torn from the land she is about to enter and she will be scattered among the nations (Deut 28:63-64). Then, in Deuteronomy 30 –prior to her entrance of the land — the Lord makes it clear that this will indeed happen: Israel will be unfaithful to the Mosaic Covenant and will, as a result, be dispersed from the land and scattered among the nations (Deut 30:1; see Deut 31:14-22 and Josh 23:16).

This judgment, however, is not the final word, for in the verses that follow the Lord declares that some time after Israel is dispersed, He will grant to her repentance and a circumcised heart, and she will be restored to the land and experience the blessing originally promised to her in the Abrahamic Covenant (Deut 30:2-10). This happens, of course, just as God has promised, when the Northern Kingdom falls to Assyria in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 17:6) and the Southern Kingdom falls to Babylon in 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25:1-21; Jer 39:1-10). This is exactly what the Lord predicted back in Deuteronomy 30:1 (and Deut 31:14-22) — Israel has broken the Mosaic Covenant, and as a result she is dispersed from the promised land.

But this is not the end of the story. After all, God has promised Israel that He will restore her once again to the land “which your fathers possessed” (Deut 30:5). In fact, that’s why you see the promise of restoration continuing throughout the prophets who prophesied after Joshua 21 (e.g., Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:1-16; 14:1-2; 27:1-13; 35:1, 10; 43:5-6; 49:8-13; 59:15b-21; 62:4-7; 66:10-20; Jer 3:11-20; 12:14-17; 16:10-18; 23:1-8; 24:5-7; 28:1-4; 29:1-14; 30:1-3, 10-11; 31:2-14; 32:36-44; 42:1-22; 50:17-20; Ezek 11:14-20; 20:33-44; 28:25-26; 34:11-16, 23-31; 36:16-36; 37:1-28; 39:21-29; Hosea 1:10-11; 2:14-23; 14:4-7; Joel 3:18-21; Amos 9:11-15; Obadiah 17, 21; Micah 4:6-7; 7:14-20; Zeph 3:14-20; Zech 8:7-8; 10:6-12; and 14:11).

When God says, “I will restore them to their own land which I gave to their fathers” (Jer 16:15), He is alluding to the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give the land as an everlasting possession (Gen 17:8). The land promised by the prophets doesn’t just happen to be the same land promised to Abraham, as if it were some kind of amazing coincidence, but rather these promises are a reiteration and continuation of the promise made to Abraham.

Frankly, when people use Joshua 21:43-45 as a proof-text to say that God will not restore the nation of Israel to the promised land, it makes me wonder how they interpret Deuteronomy 30:1-10. In this passage, God says that one day after Israel is dispersed, He will bring her back into the very same land from which she was dispersed. Which land is that, and if the restoration to this land is not future, when did it happen?

Typology and “Christ in all of Scripture”

We’ve been discussing typology in the comments to a previous post and I found a very interesting quote from the pen of Bernard Ramm (1956). He writes, “In an effort to find devotional and edifying truth in all Scripture, and to find Christ veritably in all Scripture, some dispensationalists have pressed typological interpretation beyond its proper measure.”

What’s interesting about this (fifty years later) is that dispensationalists today are by and large accused of “literalism” which is intended as a theological four-letter word and the opposite of Ramm’s charge. The shoe is on a very different foot in recent years and Ramm’s quote is still accurate but his modern violators wear a different set of clothing usually bearing the label “redemptive-historical, biblical-theological” or  “Christ-centered.”

Interview with Walter Kaiser

Andy Cheung has a nice interview with Walter Kaiser. He notes:

More recently, there has been a view, from a good reformed position, that the New Testament has the right to reinterpret or attach meanings that were not in the text of the Old Testament. My way of thinking, as I have argued very hard in the book, is that this is eisegesis and I don’t see how that has any apologetic strength.

Read the entire interview here.

Theology of the New Covenant

A crux interpretum with significant theological implications is the meaning of the promised New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-36). How does one distinguish between Israel and the church if at all (a debate between dispensational and covenant theologians)? Does the church presently participate in the NC and is there more than one NC (a debate chiefly among dispensationalist)? Is the NC a fulfilled reality or are there aspects which remain unfulfilled (realized?)? Are there “unbelieving” members presently in the NC?

Below are ten key theological aspects of the New Covenant that I believe are essential for articulating a consistent and complete theology of the NC. Each one is a weighty issue in and of itself so I simply offer the key points:

  1. The NC is in fact “new” (Heb. 8:13)
  2. The NC was promised by the prophets (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-36)
  3. The NC was instituted by Christ (Luke 22:20)
  4. The NC was inaugurated at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41)
  5. The NC is participated in by the church in the present age (1 Cor. 11:23-34; 2 Cor. 3:1-18; Eph. 2:11-13)
  6. The NC will be fulfilled in Israel in the Millennial Kingdom (Rom. 11:25-27)
  7. The NC will be consummated in the eternal state (Rev. 21:1-4)
  8. The NC is applied only to those who consciously know the Lord by faith (Jer. 31:34; cf. Heb. 8:11-12)
  9. The NC ensures that every recipient of its promises possesses forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31:34)
  10. The NC’s members cannot abandoned the faith in any respect (John 6:38-40, 10:27-30; 1 John 2:19)

I am indebted to my fellow contributer Matt Waymeyer who has written a helpful appendix on this issue in his A Biblical Critique of Infant Baptism (pp.111-31).

The Essentials of Dispensationalism

Theological labels can be very helpful, and yet also very frustrating. Helpful in how they so quickly communicate where you stand on a given theological issue, and yet frustrating in how often they don’t do so very accurately. Misrepresentations abound, and when you say that you are a such-and-such, that label may communicate all kinds of baggage you don’t intend. For this reason, when someone would ask me if I were a Calvinist, I used to respond, “Yes, but I reserve the right to explain what I mean by that!” (By the way, to find out whether you are a true Calvinist, read this.)


This brings me to the label “dispensationalist.” As you can tell from the opening paragraphs of an essay I wrote several years ago, I’m never sure exactly how to categorize myself. Yes, broadly speaking, I do fall into the dispensational camp, and yet based on the way that many covenantalists characterize dispensationalism, I often find myself wondering how helpful that label really is, at least for me.


The other night I was rereading parts of Kim Riddlebarger’s book, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, which is widely regarded as the definitive treatment of the millennial debate from an amillennial perspective. On page 24, Riddlebarger begins his explanation of dispensationalism, writing this in his second paragraph:  


Dispensationalists argue for literal interpretation of all prophetic portions of Scripture. This means that all of the covenantal promises made to David and Abraham in the Old Testament are to be fulfilled literally in a future millennial age. Israel will regain the land promised by God, a prophecy which dispensationalists believe was fulfilled when the modern nation of Israel was born in 1948. 


Let’s go down Riddlebarger’s checklist of dispensational distinctives: Literal interpretation of prophecy? Yep. Covenant promises fulfilled in a future millennial kingdom? Absolutely. Land promise to Abraham fulfilled in 1948? Whaaaaaaaat???


Now in one sense, I can certainly understand why Dr. Riddlebarger would write this, because some dispensationalists do indeed believe it, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. But why tuck it in there among some of the major distinctives of dispensationalism as if it were also part of the system itself? I find this very unhelpful in furthering the discussion. Incidentally, Riddlebarger could have avoided this misrepresentation by simply adding the word “some,” as in: “Israel will regain the land promised by God, a prophecy which some dispensationalists believe was fulfilled when the modern nation of Israel was born in 1948.” This would allow poor souls like me to say that yes, I am dispensationalist, but no, I do not believe that Ezekiel 36 was fulfilled 60 years ago.


Part of the frustration in reading this description of dispensationalism is that the second and third sentences in the excerpt from Riddlebarger contradict each other. Riddlebarger says that dispensationalists believe that all of the promises made to Abraham will be fulfilled in a future millennial age, and yet in the very next sentence he says that dispensationalists believe that one of the main promises that God made to Abraham was fulfilled in 1948. See the problem here? And don’t even get me started on the exegetical difficulties with the fulfillment-in-1948 view!


Anyway, perhaps Riddlebarger would respond by saying that he is just reporting the facts of what dispensationalists believe, and if those facts are inconsistent, then your problem is with the dispies and not with him. And while that is certainly true for any dispensationalists who do affirm these two contradictory views (and again, I am told they are out there), why not work a little harder to set forth accurately the core elements of your opponents’ position? Why take an inconsistent and unnecessary application of dispensationalism—an application which is rejected by many (most?) dispensationalists—and make it sound like one of the essentials of dispensationalism itself?


In fairness to Riddlebarger, I do think he did a fairly good job overall of avoiding the kind of straw man arguments that are so characteristic of many covenantalists who critique dispensationalism. In other words, the misrepresentation on page 24 is the exception and not the rule in Riddlebarger’s book (although I have found other, more significant ones), and I am sure that he was not intentionally misrepresenting dispensationalism. In fact, if he ever revises the book, perhaps he will add the word “some” to that sentence in the interest of being fair.


All of this brings me to my main point, which isn’t about Riddlebarger’s book at all. My main point is this: Regardless of where you land on the spectrum of continuity and discontinuity—and regardless of whether you consider yourself a dispensationalist, a covenantalist, or something in between—I have a recommendation. If you want to understand the core essentials of dispensationalism, read John Feinberg’s “Systems of Discontinuity,” which is chapter 3 in the book Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments. (For a brief discussion of Feinberg’s chapter, see “Core Characteristics of Dispensationalism” by Dr. Michael J. Vlach, but don’t let it be a substitute for reading Feinberg himself.)


I have found Feinberg to be unsurpassed in terms of being a clear and concise treatment of a difficult issue, and one that frames up the discussion in a way that is fair to both sides. If you are studying dispensationalism for the first time—or revisiting it after studying it many years ago—this chapter will help you understand what it really means to be a dispensationalist. Which is a helpful and much-needed step in the process of clarifying the core essentials of dispensationalism and rediscovering the theology behind the label.

Reflections on dual authorship

I want to thank Matt for pointing out the aspect of dual authorship in Matthew. This is a great illustration that clearly notes the unique specificity that the Lord used in communicating His word. A question that is not unrelated to this is over the agency by which the writers of Scripture delivered the divine message. A key passage on this is 2 Peter 1:19-21. Here are a few thoughts:

2 Peter 1:19-21 19 So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

The first issue to be settled is the use of the phrase “word of prophecy” (2 Peter 1:19). There are typically two views which can be seen in the following translations. I lean toward the comparative view and would be interested if someone takes the confirmative position.

2 Peter 1:19 καὶ ἔχομεν βεβαιότερον τὸν προφητικὸν λόγον, ᾧ καλῶς ποιεῖτε προσέχοντες ὡς λύχνῳ φαίνοντι ἐν αὐχμηρῷ τόπῳ, ἕως οὗ ἡμέρα διαυγάσῃ καὶ φωσφόρος ἀνατείλῃ ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν,

1) Comparative: “more sure” is attributive, meaning that the prophetic word is “more sure” than the eye witnesses. (Warfield, Alford, KJV, ESV)

ESV 2 Peter 1:19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,

KJV 2 Peter 1:19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

2) Confirmative: “more sure” is predicate, meaning that prophecy is made “more sure” by the eyewitnesses. (Meyer, Lenski, NASB)

NAS 2 Peter 1:19 So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.

Secondly, this passage speaks to the origin of Scripture in verse 20. Prophecy is revelation from God communicated by prophets to man, i.e. man did not “unloose” prophecy (ἐπιλύσεως = “unloosing/origin,” often translated as “interpretation” or “explanation”).

2 Peter 1:20 τοῦτο πρῶτον γινώσκοντες ὅτι πᾶσα προφητεία γραφῆς ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως οὐ γίνεται·

Finally, we should note the meaning of “moved” by the Holy Spirit in verse 21. The human authors were “moved” by the Holy Spirit which is seen in φερόμενοι which is a present passive participle (ongoing continuous action on someone by someone else; i.e. the Holy Spirit upon the prophet).

2 Peter 1:21 οὐ γὰρ θελήματι ἀνθρώπου ἠνέχθη προφητεία ποτέ, ἀλλὰ ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἁγίου φερόμενοι (ppp-nmp) ἐλάλησαν ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἄνθρωποι.

In some respects it is impossible to explain exactly how this took place. We see both elements of providence and elements of the miraculous. Although dictation is involved at times, it is not dictation in the strictest sense. The result is that the human authors’ writings are truly the words of man and the words of God. We can understand the truth of the statements we have made and we can also affirm them, but that does not mean that we can fully comprehend them!

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