by Tim Chaffey on February 22, 2011
God is capable of accurately relaying His Word to us in a way that we can understand. It is crucial that we interpret properly to determine the intended meaning rather than forcing ideas into the text.
A popular seminary professor recently wrote the following about the creation of Adam and Eve:
Any evils humans experience outside the Garden before God breathes into them the breath of life would be experienced as natural evils in the same way that other animals experience them. The pain would be real, but it would not be experienced as divine justice in response to willful rebellion. Moreover, once God breathes the breath of life into them, we may assume that the first humans experienced an amnesia of their former animal life: Operating on a higher plane of consciousness once infused with the breath of life, they would transcend the lower plane of animal consciousness on which they had previously operated—though, after the Fall, they might be tempted to resort to that lower consciousness.1
So according to this professor, Adam and Eve were animals before God breathed the breath of life into them. At that point, they experienced “amnesia of their former animal life” so that they would no longer remember their animal past.
How does this line up with the Word of God, which states that God made Adam from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7) and Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:22)? Has the professor made a plausible interpretation of God’s Word? Is his interpretive work what Paul had in mind when he advised Timothy to be diligent in his efforts to accurately interpret the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15)?
The example above highlights the importance of being able to properly interpret the Bible. In this postmodern age, bizarre interpretations are accepted because people believe they have the right to decide for themselves what a passage means. In other words, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, so you can decide truth for yourself.
This ideology flies in the face of Christ’s example. He routinely rebuked those who twisted the words of Scripture or misapplied them. The Bible is God’s message to man. We can have perfect confidence that God is capable of accurately relaying His Word to us in a way that we can understand. As such, it is crucial that we learn how to interpret properly so that we can determine the Author’s Intended Meaning (AIM) rather than forcing our own ideas into the text. A given document means what the author intended it to mean. The alternative would make communication futile. There would be no point in writing anything if the readers are simply going to take what they want from the passage, rather than what the writer intends. All communication is predicated on the presupposition that language conveys the author’s or speaker’s intention (unless, of course, the person is trying to deceive us, which is something God does not do since He wants us to understand His Word).
Hermeneutics (from the Greek word hermeneuo, which means to explain or interpret) is the branch of theology that focuses on identifying and applying sound principles of biblical interpretation. While the Bible is generally plain in its meaning, proper interpretation requires careful study and is not always an easy task. Consider that the Bible was written over a period of roughly 2,000 years by 40 or more authors using three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). The authors wrote in different genres and had different vocabularies, personalities, cultural backgrounds, and social standings. The Holy Spirit moved each of these men to produce His inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21), but He allowed their various writing styles and personalities to be expressed in its pages. It was written in a culture very different from our modern world and has been translated from its original languages. These are just some of the factors that must be taken into account as we interpret.
In fact, Bible colleges and seminaries often require their students to complete a course in hermeneutics. Numerous books have been written to explain these principles, and while Bible-believing Christians may disagree over particulars, there is general agreement about the major rules required to rightly divide the Word of Truth.
This is not to claim that only the scholarly elite can correctly interpret the Bible. Various groups have wrongly held this position. William Tyndale lived in the early sixteenth century when only certain people were allowed to interpret the Bible, which was only available in Latin, not the language of the common man. He sought to bring God’s Word to the average person by translating it into English. Tyndale is credited with telling a priest that he could make a boy who drove a plough to know more of the Scripture than the priest himself.2 The Bible was penned so that in its pages all people, even children, can learn about God and what He has done so that we can have a personal relationship with Him.
We must also battle against our pride, which tempts us to think that our own views are always right or that the beliefs of a particular teacher are necessarily right. We must strive to be like the Bereans who were commended by Luke for searching the Old Testament Scriptures daily to make sure that what Paul taught was true (Acts 17:11).
God desires for His people to know and understand His Word—that’s why He gave it to us and instructed fathers to teach it to their children in the home (Deuteronomy 6:4–9). However, we must keep in mind several important points.
WE NEED THE HOLY SPIRIT TO HELP US TO THINK CORRECTLY, LEST WE DISTORT THE SCRIPTURES.
First, Christians must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit while studying the Bible. It’s not that the Bible requires any “extra-logical” or mystical insight to understand it. But we are limited in our understanding and often hindered by pride. We need the Holy Spirit to help us to think correctly, lest we distort the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16).Second, a person can spend his or her entire life and still never come close to mining the depths of Scripture. The Bible is written in such a marvelous way that a child can understand the basic message, and yet the most educated theologians continue to learn new things from the Bible as they study it. There is always so much more to learn, so we must humbly approach the Word of God.
Third, God has given the church learned men and gifted teachers who have devoted their lives to studying God’s Word. While these people are certainly not infallible, we shouldn’t automatically reject the work of those who have gone before us.
Finally, since the Bible consists of written data, then in order to understand it, we must follow standard rules of grammar and interpretation. We will examine these rules or principles throughout this chapter and the next, especially as they relate to Genesis.
Because people often confuse the two concepts, it must be pointed out that interpretation is different than application, although they are related. Interpretation answers the questions, “What does the text say?” and “What does the text mean?” Application follows interpretation and answers the question, “How can I apply this truth in my life today?” After all, the goal of studying the Bible is not to simply fill one’s head with information but to learn what God wants for us to know so that we can live how He wants us to live.
Which Method Do We Use?
Bible-believing Christians generally follow a method of interpretation known as the historical-grammatical approach. That is, we try to find the plain (literal) meaning of the words based on an understanding of the historical and cultural settings in which the book was written. We then follow standard rules of grammar, according to the book’s particular genre, to arrive at an interpretation. We seek to perform careful interpretation or exegesis—that is, to “read out of” the text what the author intended it to mean. This is in contrast to eisegesis, which occurs when someone “reads into” the text his own ideas—what the reader wants the text to mean. In other words, exegesis is finding the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning) of the passage because its true meaning is determined by the sender of the message, not the recipient.
This hermeneutical approach has several strengths. It can be demonstrated that the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in this manner. Also, it is the only approach that offers an internal system of “checks and balances” to make sure one is on the right track. As will be shown, other views allow for personal opinion to sneak into one’s interpretation, which does not truly reflect what the text means.
Finally, this approach is consistent with how we utilize language on a daily basis while interacting with others. For example, if your best friend says, “I am going to drive to work tomorrow morning,” you can instantly understand what he means. You know that he has a vehicle that he can drive to his place of employment, and that’s exactly what he plans on doing early the next day.
If the postmodern approach is accurate and meaning is determined by the recipient of the message, then perhaps your friend is really just telling you that he likes pancakes. Communication becomes impossible in such a world, and it gets even worse if your friend was talking to you and several other buddies. One friend might think he was talking about his favorite color, another interpreted his words to mean that he doesn’t believe in air, and another thought he meant that he was going to walk to work ten years later.
Words have a particular meaning in a particular context. When they are placed together in sentences and paragraphs, then a person must follow common-sense rules in order to derive the appropriate meaning. The sender of the message had a reason for choosing the words he did and putting those words together in a particular order and context. The same is true with the Bible. God had a reason for moving the writers of the Bible to use the words they did in the order they did. Our goal must be to ascertain the AIM.
Principles of Interpretation
Since the goal of interpreting the Bible is to determine the Author’s Intended Meaning, we must follow principles derived from God’s Word. The following principles do not comprise an exhaustive list but are some of the major concepts found in the majority of books on interpretation. In the next chapter, the quote from the introduction of this chapter will be examined to see if it properly applies these standard principles.
Carefully Observe the Text
It may seem rather obvious, but this principle is often overlooked. We must carefully observe what the text actually states. Many mistakes have been made by people who jump into interpretation based on what they think the text states rather than what it really does state.
As you read a particular verse or passage, pay close attention to different types of words that make up a sentence. Is the subject singular or plural? Is the verb tense past, present, or future? Is the sentence a command, statement of fact, or question? Is the statement part of a dialogue? If so, who is the speaker, and why did he make that comment? Can you note any repetition of words, which perhaps shows emphasis? What ideas are compared or contrasted? Can you identify any cause and effect statements or questions and answers? What is the tone of the passage; are emotional words used?
Failure to carefully observe the text has resulted in numerous misconceptions about the Bible. For example, many Christians have taught that Adam and Eve used to walk with God in the cool of the day. While it is possible that they did take walks with God in the garden, the Bible never claims this. Instead, God’s Word reveals that after they had sinned, Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” and they hid themselves from Him (Genesis 3:8).
Carefully observing the text can also protect you from making another common mistake. Just because the Bible contains a statement does not mean that it affirms the statement as godly. For example, much of the book of Job consists of an ongoing dialogue between Job and four of his friends (Bildad, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Elihu). Some people have been careless by quoting certain verses from this book to support their own ideas, but we have to keep in mind that God told Eliphaz that what he, Bildad, and Zophar had spoken about Him was not right (Job 42:7). This ties in perfectly with our next principle.
Context Is Key
Perhaps no principle of interpretation is more universally agreed upon than the idea that understanding the context of the word, phrase, or passage is absolutely essential. Context is defined as “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.”3
CRITICS OF SCRIPTURE OFTEN TAKE VERSES OUT OF CONTEXT WHEN THEY ATTACK THE BIBLE.
You may have heard someone say that a particular verse has been pulled out of context. Critics of Scripture often take verses out of context when they attack the Bible. The reason is that they can make the Bible “say” just about anything if they do not provide the context. For example, the critic might ask, “Did you know that the Bible says, ‘There is no God’?” Then he may go on to claim that this contradicts other passages, which certainly teach that God does exist.How do we handle such a charge? We look at the context of the quoted words, which in this case comes from Psalm 14:1 (and is repeated in Psalm 53:1). It states, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” So, it’s true that the Bible states, “There is no God,” but it attributes these words to a foolish person. So the Bible is not teaching both the existence and non-existence of God, as the skeptic asserts.
If I asked you what the word “set” means, would you be able to provide me with the correct answer? No, it would be impossible because the word has more than 70 definitions in the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and can be used as a verb, noun, and an adjective. Now, if I asked you what the word “set” meant in the following sentence, you could easily figure it out: “His mind was set on solving the problem.” In this sentence, the word means “intent” or “determined.” But without the context, you would not know this.
The same thing is true with the Bible or any other written communication. The context clarifies the meaning of the word, phrase, sentence, etc. With the Bible, it is important to know the context of the particular passage you are studying. It is also important to understand the context of the entire book in which the passage is found and how that book fits into the context of Scripture.
We also need to recognize where the passage fits into the flow of history. It makes a huge difference in determining the writer’s intent if we note whether the passage was pre-Fall, pre-Flood, pre-Mosaic Law, after the Babylonian Exile, during Christ’s earthly ministry, after His Resurrection, or after Pentecost. This is especially important when we reach the point of application. For example, just because God commanded Israel to sacrifice lambs at Passover doesn’t mean we should do the same today. Jesus died on the Cross as our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) and was the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice. Since the Bible was revealed progressively, there are instances where later revelation supersedes earlier revelation.
Ron Rhodes summarized these truths by stating, “No verse of Scripture can be divorced from the verses around it. Interpreting a verse apart from its context is like trying to analyze a Rembrandt painting by looking at only a single square inch of the painting, or like trying to analyze Handel’s ‘Messiah’ by listening to a few short notes.”4
Clarity of Scripture
Since the Bible is God’s Word to man, He must expect us to understand it. As such, it makes sense that He would communicate His message to us in such a way so that we can indeed comprehend it if we are serious about wanting to know the truth. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians:
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2 emphasis added).
Proverbs 8:9 states that God’s words “are all plain to him who understands, and right to those who find knowledge.”
This principle was one of the key differences between the Reformers and Roman Catholics. The Reformers believed in the perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture, especially in relation to its central message of the gospel, and they believed each believer had the right to interpret God’s Word. Roman Catholic doctrine held (and still holds) that Scripture can only be interpreted by the Magisterium (teaching office of the church).
Consider the words of Psalm 119, which is by far the longest chapter in the entire Bible, and every one of its 176 verses extols the superiority of God’s Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). “The entrance of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130). God’s Word should be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, giving understanding to the simple. How could it be or do any of these things if it is not clear?
The principle of the clarity of Scripture does not mean that every passage is easily understood or that one does not need to diligently study the Word of God, but it does teach that the overall message of the Word of God can be understood by all believers who carefully and prayerfully study it. The principle also means that we should not assume or look for hidden meanings but rather assess the most straightforward meaning. Two of Christ’s favorite sayings were “It is written” and “Have you not read?” Then He would quote a verse from the Old Testament. By these sayings, He indicated that the Scriptures are generally clear.
Compare Scripture with Scripture
Another key principle of hermeneutics is that we should use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Known by theologians as the “analogy of faith” or “analogy of Scripture,” this principle is solidly based on the Bible’s own teachings. Since the Bible is the Word of God and God cannot lie or contradict Himself (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18), then one passage will never contradict another passage. This principle is useful for several reasons.
First, not all Bible passages are equally clear. So, a clear passage can be used to shed light on a difficult, not-so-clear passage. There are a number of obscure verses in Scripture, where you might wish the writer would have provided more details. 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a classic example. Right in the middle of the chapter on the Resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of believers, Paul asked, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” Several ideas have been suggested to explain what Paul meant about baptism for the dead, but because this is the only verse in all of Scripture that mentions this concept, we may not be able to reach a firm conclusion about its meaning.
However, by comparing this verse with other Scripture, we can reach definite conclusions about what it does not teach. We know that Paul did not instruct the Corinthians to baptize people for the dead,5 because Paul and other biblical writers unequivocally taught that salvation is only by God’s grace and can only be received through faith alone in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8–9). We can also be sure that those who practice such a thing are not accomplishing what they hope to accomplish—the salvation of an unbeliever who has already died. Hebrews 9:27 states, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.”
Second, by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we have a system of checks and balances to help us stay on the right track. There will likely be times when, for whatever reason, we incorrectly interpret a given passage. By studying other passages that shed light on the same issue, we can recognize our error. Many people are unwilling to change their original interpretation and hold on to contradictory beliefs. Some will even claim that the Bible contradicts itself when, in reality, they have misinterpreted one or both of the passages. It is crucial for us to humbly approach Scripture and realize that if we believe we have found a contradiction, then it is our interpretation that is flawed, not God’s Word.
Since this principle provides a system of checks and balances, it can provide us with great certainty concerning a given interpretation. If we interpret a passage and then discover that every other passage on the topic seems to teach the same truth, we can be confident in the accuracy of our interpretation.
Classification of Text
While interpreting the Bible, we must never forget to understand the genre (literary style) of the passage we are studying. The Bible contains numerous types of literature, and each one needs to be interpreted according to principles befitting its particular style. Below is a chart identifying the basic literary style of each book of the Bible. Note that some books contain more than one style. For example, Exodus is written as history, but chapter 15 includes a song written in poetic language. Also, the books are sometimes divided into more categories, but for our purposes “History” includes the books of the Law, the historical books, and the four gospels; “Poetry” includes the Psalms and wisdom literature; “Prophecy” includes the prophetic books; and “Epistles” are letters written by an apostle.
Song of Solomon
These distinctions are important to keep in mind while interpreting the Bible. Each classification uses language in a particular way. Historical books are primarily narratives of past events and should be interpreted in a straightforward manner. This does not mean that they never utilize figurative language. For example, after Cain killed his brother Abel, God said to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Genesis 4:10–11). There are two obvious instances of figurative language in this passage: the ground “opened its mouth” and Abel’s “blood cries out” from it. Nevertheless, these figures of speech are perfectly legitimate in historical writing, and it is easy to understand what they mean.
Poetry, prophecy, and the New Testament epistles all have their own particular nuances and guidelines for proper interpretation. Space does not permit a full treatment here, so just remember to recognize the book’s (or passage’s) genre and interpret accordingly.
Church’s Historical View
Finally, it is important to know how those who have gone before us have interpreted a passage in question. Although our doctrine must be based squarely on the Word of God and not on tradition or what some great leader believed, we should allow ourselves to be informed by the work of others who have spent long hours studying God’s Word. Most doctrines have been discussed, debated, and formulated throughout church history, so we should take advantage of that resource.
Imagine studying a passage and reaching a conclusion only to discover that no one else in history has ever interpreted those verses in the same way. You would not necessarily be wrong, but you would certainly want to re-examine the passage to see if you had overlooked something. After all, you need to be very careful and confident in your interpretation before proposing an idea that none of the millions of interpreters have ever noticed before.
While Bible scholars and pastors often have access to resources that permit them to search out the teachings of our spiritual forefathers, this information can also be obtained by the average Christian. Consider borrowing a commentary from a pastor or taking advantage of some of the Bible software on the market, which allows you to quickly search for this information.
Conclusion to Part 1
This first chapter has explained why it is important to accurately interpret God’s Word and how to do it. Our goal is to find the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning). The six principles above will guide you as you study and interpret God’s Word.6
Remember, the goal of interpreting God’s Word is not to simply accumulate knowledge so that you can be the best at Bible trivia. The reason it is important to study and accurately interpret the Bible is so that we can know God better, know what He expects from us, and know how we can live in a way that pleases Him.
The next chapter will examine the statement from Dr. Dembski, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, to see if he followed these major principles of interpretation. It will also show why Genesis 1–11 should be understood as historical narrative.
THE EIGHT COVENANTS OF THE BIBLE
Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum
PART 2: THE MOSAIC COVENANT
For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life.
– Leviticus 17:11 –
V. THE MOSAIC COVENANT
The Mosaic Covenant contains very extensive detailed information, and the Scriptural account of the covenant extends from Exodus 20:1.
B. The Participants in the Covenant
The parties involved in this pact were God and Israel. The covenant was made with Israel and not merely with Moses acting as a representative of Israel. This is clearly brought out in Exodus 19:3-8: And Moses went up unto God, and Jehovah called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be mine own possession from among all peoples: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak unto the children of Israel. And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which Jehovah commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that Jehovah has spoken we will do. And Moses reported the words of the people unto Jehovah.
The covenant was not made with the Gentiles or the Church, but with Israel only, a point also made in Deuteronomy 4:7-8; Psalm 147:19-20; and Malachi 4:4.
C. The Provisions of the Covenant
The key provision of the Mosaic Covenant was the Law of Moses, which contained a total of 613 commandments. Involved in these provisions of the Law were blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. It was signed and sealed by the Shechinah Glory in Exodus 24:1-11, but signed in such a way that rendered the covenant conditional. So in essence, there are 613 provision of the covenant, too many to be individually listed here. Instead, seven observations will be made concerning the provisions of the Mosaic Covenant.
1. The Totality of the Law
First: as stated earlier, there were a total of 613 specific commandments, not just ten, a rather common misconception. Of these, 365 were negative commandments, things which were forbidden; 248 were positive commandments, things that should be done.
2. The Blessings and Judgments of the Law
Second: this was a conditional covenant, which meant that there would be blessings for obedience, but judgment for disobedience (Ex. 15:26; 19:3-8).
3. The Blood Sacrifice Added
Third: the key element of the entire Mosaic Law was the blood sacrifice, brought out in Leviticus 17:11: For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life.
There were five different offerings detailed in Leviticus 1-7. The Hebrew word for atonement does not mean the removal of sin but merely the covering of sin. While the blood of animals covered the sins of the Old Testament saints, it never took those sins away; only the blood of the Messiah can remove sin (Heb. 10:1-4). However, the blood sacrifice did provide for the forgiveness of sin and the restoration of fellowship.
4. The Diet Restrictions Imposed
Fourth: for the Jews, it restricted some of the provisions of the Noahic Covenant. Beasts had to be both cloven hoofed and those that chewed the cud; fish had to have both fins and scales; concerning fowls, no birds of prey were allowed; and concerning insects, only one type of locust was permitted.
5. The Death Penalty Expanded
Fifth: for the Jews, it added the death penalty for other sins such as idolatry, adultery, cursing God, cursing parents, breaking the Sabbath, practicing witchcraft, among others.
6. The Sign of the Covenant
Sixth: it reaffirmed the practice of circumcision (Lev. 12:3), but not for the same reasons. Under the Abrahamic Covenant, circumcision was the sign of the covenant and it was mandatory for Jews only. Under the Mosaic Covenant, circumcision was the means of submission to the Law of Moses and it was mandatory for all Jews, but also for Gentiles who wished to become part of the Commonwealth of Israel. That is why Paul warned the Gentile Galatian believers that, if they submitted to circumcision, they would be obliged to keep the whole law, not just this one commandment (Gal. 5:3).
7. The Token of the Covenant
Seventh: the token or sign of the Mosaic Covenant was the Sabbath. Concerning the Sabbath, five specific observations can be made. First: being the token of the Mosaic Covenant, it was a sign between God and Israel; it was a sign that Israel had been set apart by God (Ex. 31:12-17); it was a sign of the Exodus (Deut. 5:12-15; Ezek. 20:10-12); and it was a sign that Jehovah was Israel’s God (Ezek. 20:20). Every reason given for the observance of the Sabbath has relevance only to Israel, not to the Gentiles or the Church.
Second: the Sabbath was not a creation ordinance; it began only with Moses. Genesis 2:1-3 states only what God did on that day, but there is no command to observe that day. The word Sabbath is not even used in the Genesis account and that day of the week is just called the seventh day. From Adam to Moses, there is no record of anyone’s keeping the Sabbath. While God listed a number of obligations upon humanity in the previous covenants, keeping the Sabbath was not one of them. The Book of Job deals with a pre-Mosaic saint and it, too, mentions many obligations man had toward God, but keeping the Sabbath was not one of them. Sabbath observance begins with Moses in Exodus 16:23-30 and was made part of the Law of Moses in Exodus 20:8-11.
Third: the Sabbath was a day of rest, not a day of corporate worship, which is another common misconception. As the Sabbath commandment was further developed in other parts of the Law of Moses, what was meant by “resting” on the Sabbath was largely a matter of prohibitions: no gathering of manna (Ex. 16:23-30); no traveling (Ex. 16:29); no kindling of fire (Ex. 35:3); and no gathering of wood (Num. 15:32). Outside the Law, other prohibitions for the Sabbath included: no burden bearing (Jer. 17:21); no trading (Amos 8:5); and no marketing (Neh. 10:31; 13:15, 19). Nothing was said about corporate worship. In the Law of Moses, the Sabbath was a day of rest and cessation of labor, not a day of corporate worship. The Sabbath synagogue services found in the New Testament originated with the Babylonian Captivity, not with the Law of Moses. While it was not a day of total inactivity, it was to be a day of rest and refreshment from the regular work of the other six days. While the rest itself may have been an act of worship, corporate worship on the Sabbath was not a factor in the Old Testament.
In connection with the Sabbath, the phrase a holy convocation is often found. This phrase is sometimes used as the basis for teaching that the Sabbath was a day of corporate worship for all. However, it is used only in conjunction with the priesthood and sacrifices. The corporate connotation is for the priests only and the place of this corporate worship is in the Tabernacle or Temple for the purpose of sacrifices. Since only the priesthood could do the work of sacrificing, the holy convocation applied only to them. This phrase is found a total of nineteen times, all in three of the books of Moses: Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Eleven of the nineteen are found in one chapter: Leviticus 23. Six others are found in the two chapters of Numbers 28-29. In all cases, the phrase holy convocation refers to a convocation of priests for the purpose of performing special sacrifices and the Sabbath was one of those occasions. It was not a time of corporate worship for all Israel. So the one passage that is used to try to substantiate corporate worship on the Sabbath, Leviticus 23:3, refers to the Sabbath as a holy convocation and has to do with priestly corporate sacrifices. While it has relevance to family gatherings, these were not acts of corporate worship. As Dr. Louis Goldberg of Moody Bible Institute states: “On the Sabbath there was to be complete rest (physical) and holy convocation (spiritual refreshing) before the Lord.”
Even Leviticus 23:3 states concerning the Sabbath it is a sabbath unto Jehovah in all your dwellings. Again, the emphasis has to do with staying at home (Ex. 16:29) and resting as a family, rather than getting together in corporate worship. As Dr. Goldberg also points out, the rest “was also to include spiritual renewal.” The expression holy convocation emphasized that on such occasions the priests were to offer special sacrifices. In reality, the Mosaic Law mandated corporate worship only on three occasions: the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. On these occasions when they were to migrate to wherever the Tabernacle or later the Temple stood, either at Shiloh or Jerusalem. Corporate worship by non-Levites was mandated only three times a year, but not on a weekly Sabbath. This would have been physically impossible in light of the time it took to travel during biblical times. The penalty for profaning the Sabbath was death; to profane the Sabbath was to consider it like any other day. Therefore, on the Sabbath, they were to do no labor and they were to stay home and rest.
Fourth: the Sabbath as the token or sign of the Mosaic Covenant is that it was intended only for Israel and not the Church.
Fifth: as a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, it is in force as long as the Mosaic Covenant is in force. If the Mosaic Covenant comes to an end, so would mandatory Sabbath keeping.
D. The Purposes of the Law
It should be stated categorically that the Law of Moses was not a means of salvation. This concept is rejected because that would make salvation by means of works. Salvation was and always is by grace through faith. While the content of faith has changed from age to age depending on progressive revelation, the means of salvation never changes. The Law was not given to serve as a means of salvation (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:11, 21). It was given to a people already redeemed from Egypt, not in order to redeem them. However, there were several purposes for the giving of the Law. As found in both testaments, there were at least nine purposes for the Law of Moses.
The first purpose was to reveal the holiness of God and to reveal the standard of righteousness that God demanded for a proper relationship with Him (Lev. 11:44; 19:1-2, 37; I Pet. 1:15-16). The Law itself was holy, and righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12).
The second purpose of the Law was to provide the rule of conduct for the Old Testament saints. For example, Romans 3:28 makes it clear that no man was justified by the works of the Law. The Law always had purposes other than being a means of salvation. In this case, it provided the rule of life for the Old Testament believer (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7-8, 26). For the Old Testament believer, the Law was the center of his spiritual life and his delight, as stated in Psalm 119, especially verses 77, 97, 103, 104, and 159.
The third purpose was to provide occasions for individual and corporate worship for Israel. The seven holy seasons of Israel (Lev. 23) is one example of this.
The fourth purpose was to keep the Jews a distinct people (Lev. 11:44-45; Deut. 7:6; 14:1-2). This was the specific reason for many of the laws, such as the dietary laws and the clothing laws. The Jews were to be distinct from all other people in a variety of ways, such as their worship habits (Lev. 1, 7, 16, 23), their eating habits (Lev. 11:1-47), their sexual habits (Lev. 12), their clothing habits (Lev. 19:19), and even the way they cut their beards (Lev. 19:27). Other passages for this point include Exodus 19:5-8 and 31:13.
The fifth purpose is that the Law of Moses served as the middle wall of partition as stated in Ephesians 2:11-16. The four unconditional covenants are Jewish covenants and God’s blessings, both physical and spiritual, are mediated through the four covenants, the covenants of the promise mentioned in verse 12. Because of the Jewish nature of these unconditional covenants, a conditional covenant was also added, the Mosaic Covenant, containing the Law of Moses, the law of commandments contained in ordinances of verse 15. The purpose of the Law, then, was to become the middle wall of partition to keep Gentiles, as Gentiles, from enjoying the Jewish spiritual blessings of the unconditional covenants. Because of this purpose, Gentiles were both alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise. The only way Gentiles could enjoy the spiritual blessings of the Jewish covenants during the period of the Law was to take upon themselves the obligation of the Law, undergo the rite of circumcision, and then live like every Jew had to live. Gentiles, as Gentiles, could not enjoy the Jewish spiritual blessings, only Gentiles as proselytes to Mosaic Judaism.
The sixth purpose for the Mosaic Law was to reveal sin. Three passages in the Book of Romans point this out. The first passage is Romans 3:19-20, where Paul emphasized that there is no justification through the Law; by means of the Law no Jewish person will be justified. What is the Law then, if not a way of justification, a way of salvation? The Law was given to provide the knowledge of sin, to reveal exactly what sin is. The second passage is Romans 5:20, where the Law was given so that trespasses might be made very clear. How does one know he has sinned? He knows because the Law spelled out in detail what was permitted and what was not permitted. The Law with 613 commandments revealed sin. The third passage is Romans 7:7. Paul again emphasized the fact that the Law was given so that sin might be made known. Paul became aware of his sinful state by looking into the Law and knowing that, on the basis of the Law, he fell short.
The seventh purpose was to make one sin more. Romans 4:15 states: for the law works wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression. Paul adds in Romans 5:20: And the law came in besides, that the trespass might abound; but where sin abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly.
The picture Paul gives is that the Law came in to cause more sin, to actually make one sin more.
How this works is explained by Paul in Romans 7:7-13 and I Corinthians 15:56. I Corinthians 15:56 reads: The sting of death is sin; and the power of sin is the law.
Basically, what Paul taught is that the sin nature needs a base of operation. Furthermore, the sin nature uses the Law as a base of operation. When Paul said: where there is no law, neither is there transgression he did not mean, of course, that there was no sin before the Law was given. The termtransgression is a specific type of sin: it is the violation of a specific commandment. Men were sinners before the Law was given, but they were not transgressors of the Law until the Law was given. Once the Law was given, the sin nature had a base of operation, causing the individual to violate these commandments and sin all the more.
The eighth purpose was to show the sinner that there was nothing he could do on his own to please God; he had no ability to keep the Law perfectly or to attain the righteousness of the Law (Rom. 7:14-25).
This led to the ninth purpose, which was to drive one to faith according to Romans 8:1-4 and Galatians 3:24-25. The final purpose of the Law was to bring one to saving faith in the Messiah.
The purposes of the Law of Moses can be categorized in four aspects. First, in relation to God, to reveal His holiness and to reveal His righteous standards. Second: in relation to Israel, to keep Israel a distinct people, to provide a rule of life for the Old Testament saint, and to provide for individual and corporate worship. Third: in relation to Gentiles, to serve as a middle wall of partition and thus keep them strangers to the unconditional Jewish covenants so as not to partake of Jewish spiritual blessings as Gentiles, but only as proselytes to Mosaic Judaism. Fourth: in relation to sin, to reveal and show what sin is, to make one sin more, to show that a man cannot attain the righteousness of the Law on his own, and to drive one to faith.
E. The Status of the Covenant
The Mosaic Covenant was the basis for the Dispensation of Law. It was the one Jewish covenant that was conditional and ultimately came to an end with the death of the Messiah (Rom. 10:4; II Cor. 3:3-11; Gal. 3:19-29; Eph. 2:11-18; Heb. 7:11-12, 18). Hence, the Mosaic Law is no longer in effect. Prophetically, it was already considered broken even before the Messiah died to free the Jew from the penalty of the Law (Jer. 31:32). The status of the Mosaic Covenant will be discussed on seven points.
1. The Unity of the Law of Moses
Two factors have developed in the minds and teachings of many believers which have contributed to the confusion over the Law of Moses. One is the practice of dividing the Law into “ceremonial,” “legal,” and “moral” commandments. On the basis of this division, many have come to think that the believer is free from the ceremonial and legal commandments, but is still under the moral commandments. The second factor is the belief that the Ten Commandments are still valid today while the other 603 commandments are not. When confronted by a Seventh Day Adventist, the individual taking this approach runs into problems concerning the fourth commandment on keeping the Sabbath. At that point, fudging begins that results in inconsistency. It must be understood that the Mosaic Law is viewed by the Scriptures as a unit.
The word Torah, meaning “law,” is always singular when applied to the Law of Moses, even though it contains 613 commandments. The same is true of the Greek word nomos in the New Testament. The division of the Law of Moses into ceremonial, legal, and moral parts is convenient for the study of the different types of commandments contained within it, but it is never divided in this way by the Scriptures themselves. Neither is there any scriptural basis for separating the Ten Commandments from the whole 613 and making only the Ten Commandments perpetual. All 613 commandments are a single unit comprising the Law of Moses.
It is the principle of the unity of the Law of Moses that lies behind the statement found in James 2:10: For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all.
The point is clear. A person needs only to break one of the 613 commandments to be guilty of breaking all of the Law of Moses. This can only be true if the Mosaic Law is a unit. If it is not, the guilt lies only in the particular commandment violated, not in the whole Law. In other words, if one breaks a legal commandment, he is guilty of breaking the ceremonial and moral laws as well. The same is true of breaking a moral or ceremonial commandment. To bring the point closer to home, if a person eats ham, according to the Law of Moses, he is guilty of breaking the Ten Commandments, although none of them says anything about ham. The Law is a unit, and to break one of the 613 commandments is to break them all.
In order to have a clear understanding of the Law of Moses and its relationship to the believer, Jewish or Gentile, it is necessary to view it as the Scriptures view it: a unit that cannot be divided into parts that have been done away with and parts that have not. Nor can certain commandments be separated in such a way as to give them a different status from other commandments.
2. The Law of Moses Has Been Rendered Inoperative
The clear cut teaching of the New Testament is that the Law of Moses has been rendered inoperative with the death of the Messiah; in other words, the Law in its totality no longer has authority over any individual. This is evident from a number of passages.
The first passage is Romans 7:5-6: For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were through the law, wrought in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we have been discharged from the law, having died to that wherein we were held; so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter.
Paul declares that the believer has been discharged from the law. The Greek word used is katargeo, which means “to render inoperative.” The Law has been rendered inoperative insofar as being the rule of life over the believer.
The second passage is Romans 10:4: For Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to every one that believes.
The Greek word for end is telos and can mean either “termination” or “goal.” However, the evidence clearly favors the meaning of end as “termination.” For example, Thayer gives the primary meaning of telos as: “end, i.e. a. termination, the limit at which a thing ceases to be, . . . in the Scriptures also of a temporal end; . . . Christ has brought the law to and end . . .” Not only does Thayer give “termination” as the primary meaning of telos, he also includes Romans 10:4 as belonging to that category of usage. Nor is “goal” listed as secondary meaning or even a third meaning in priority of usage; it is fourth on the list. Arndt and Gingrich give the primary meaning of the verbal form as bring to an end, finish, complete. The nominal telos is given the primary meaning of: “end . . . in the sense of termination, cessation.” They, too, list Romans 10:4 as being in this category and list the meaning of “goal” as being third on the list. Furthermore, the meaning of cessation is more consistent with the wide context of Romans and in keeping with what he said in Romans 7:5-6. In the final analysis, it does not matter since other Scriptures teach both truths: the Messiah is the goal of the Law, but He is also the termination of the Law. Since the Messiah is the end of the Law, this means that there is no justification through it (Gal. 2:16). This, of course, was always true but, furthermore, there is no sanctification or perfection through the Law (Heb. 7:19). Thus it should be very evident that the Law has come to an end in the Messiah and cannot function in justification or sanctification. For the believer especially, it has be rendered inoperative.
Third: the Law was never meant to be a permanent administration but a temporary one. This is stated in Galatians 3:19: What then is the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise has been made.
In this context, Paul stated that the Law of Moses was an addition to the Abrahamic Covenant (vv. 15-18). It was added for the purpose of making sin very clear so that all will know that they have fallen short of God’s standard of righteousness. It was a temporary addition until the seed, the Messiah would come; now that He has come, the Law is finished. The addition has ceased to function with the cross.
Fourth: with the Messiah, there is a new priesthood according to the Order of Melchizedek, not according to the Order of Aaron. The Law of Moses provided the basis for the Levitical Priesthood and there was an inseparable connection between the Law of Moses and the Levitical Priesthood. Thus, a new priesthood required a new Law under which it could operate according to Hebrews 7:11-18. The point made in Hebrews 7:11-12 is that, under the Law, only one type of priesthood was permitted, the Levitical Priesthood. The Levitical Priesthood could not bring perfection. This is explained in Hebrews 9:11-10:18 that states rather clearly that animal blood could not bring perfection; only the Messiah’s blood could do that. The Mosaic Law was the basis for the Levitical Priesthood. For the Levitical Priesthood to be done away with and to be replaced by a new priesthood, the Priesthood of Melchizedek, required a change of the Law. As long as the Law of Moses was in effect, no other priesthood was valid except the Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood (Heb. 7:13-17). Was there a change of the Law? Hebrews 7:18 states that the Mosaic Law was “disannulled.” Because it is no longer in effect, there is now a new priesthood after the Order of Melchizedek. If the Mosaic Law were still in effect, Jesus could not function as a priest. Because the Mosaic Law is no longer in effect, Jesus can be a priest after the Order of Melchizedek. Consequently, the Law of Moses has been “disannulled” in favor of a new Law, which is the basis for the priest according to the Order of Melchizedek.
Fifth: the writer of Hebrews goes on to say that the above truth was already anticipated by the prophets in 8:8-13. In verses 8-12, he quotes the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and then concludes in verse 13: In that he says, A new covenant he has made the first old. But that which is becoming old and waxed aged is nigh unto vanishing away.
Thus the Law of Moses became old with Jeremiah and vanished away with the Messiah’s death.
Sixth: the Law was the middle wall of partition that was now broken down according to Ephesians 2:14-15: For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace.
As noted earlier, God made four unconditional eternal covenants with Israel. All of God’s blessings, both material and spiritual, are mediated by means of these four Jewish covenants. God also had a fifth covenant which was temporary and conditional, the Mosaic Covenant that contained the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law served as the middle wall of partition to keep Gentiles, as Gentiles, away from enjoying Jewish spiritual blessings. If the Mosaic Law were still in effect, it would still be a wall of partition to keep the Gentiles away; but this wall of partition was broken down with the death of the Messiah. Since the wall of partition was the Mosaic Law, this meant the Law of Moses was done away with. Gentiles, as Gentiles, on the basis of faith can and do enjoy Jewish spiritual blessings by becoming fellow partakers of the promise in the Messiah.
The seventh line of evidence for the annulment of the Mosaic Law is based on Galatians 3:23-4:7. In this passage, the Law is looked upon as a pedagogue or a tutor over a minor to bring him to mature faith in the Messiah (v. 24). Having become a believer, he is no longer under this tutor, which is the Law of Moses (v. 25). As clearly as it could be stated, this passage teaches that with the Messiah’s coming, the Law is no longer in effect.
The eighth line of evidence for the annulment of the Mosaic Law is II Corinthians 3:2-11 that zeros right in on the part of the Law that most people want to retain, the Ten Commandments. First of all, one needs to see what Paul is saying concerning the Law of Moses. In verses 3 and 7, the spotlight is on the Ten Commandments, since it is these that were engraven on stones. In verse 7, it is called the ministration of death. In verse 9, it is called the ministration of condemnation. These are negative, but valid, descriptions. The main point, then, is that the Law of Moses, especially represented by the Ten Commandments, is a ministration of death and a ministration of condemnation. If the Ten Commandments were still in force today, this would still be true. However, they are no longer in force, for it states in verses 7 and 11 that the Law has “passed away.” The Greek word used is katargeo, which means, “to render inoperative.” Since the emphasis in this passage is on the Ten Commandments, this means that the Ten Commandments have passed away. The thrust is very clear. The Law of Moses, and especially the Ten Commandments, is no longer in effect. In fact, the superiority of the Law of the Messiah is seen by the fact that it will never be rendered inoperative. Unlike Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism does not insist that the Ten Commandments are still in force and do exegetical gymnastics to avoid observing the Sabbath, the very way the Ten Commandments actually require.
To summarize this section, the Law is a unit comprised of 613 commandments, and all of it has been rendered inoperative. There is no commandment that has continued beyond the cross of the Messiah. The Law is there and can be used as a teaching tool to show God’s standard of righteousness, as well as man’s sinfulness and need of a substitutionary atonement. It can be used to teach many spiritual truths about God as a man. It can be used to point one to the Messiah (Gal. 3:23-25). However, it has completely ceased to function as an authority over the individual. It is no longer the rule of life for believers.
3. The Moral Law
The third point in the status of the Mosaic Covenant deals with the question, “What about the moral law?” It is this part of the Law of Moses that many generally try to retain and, therefore, conclude that the Law of Moses is still in effect. However, the moral law preceded the Law of Moses. The moral law is not identical to the Law of Moses. Adam and Eve broke the moral law long before Moses. Satan broke the moral law even before Adam. The Law of Moses embodied the moral law, but it did not originate the moral law. Now the moral law is embodied in the Law of the Messiah.
4. Matthew 5:17-18
The fourth point in the status of the Mosaic Covenant concerns a favorite objection to the teaching of the termination of the Law of Moses, which is the Messiah’s statement in Matthew 5:17-18: Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished.
Those who cite this passage are seldom consistent with it. It is obvious that Yeshua was speaking of the Law of Moses. Yet those who use this passage never accept their own thesis since they must believe in the doing away in some form of many of the commandments of the Law of Moses, if not most. The commandments concerning priesthood and sacrifice are only one example; other examples including the food laws and clothing laws can be cited. Regardless of what semantics such as “supersede,” “brought to greater fulfillment,” “bringing out its true meaning,” among others, may be used to describe this change, it is clear that a great many of the 613 commandments no longer apply as they were written. If, by the Law of Moses, they mean only the moral commandments, then their citation of Matthew 5:17-18 does not prove their point.
Verse 19 adds these least commandments, which includes more than merely the moral commandments and the emphasis is on the entire Law, all 613 commandments. Verse 19 reads: Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Verse 19 must not be ignored. True, Jesus did come to fulfill the Law, but the Law of Moses did not end with the coming of the Messiah or by His life, but by His death. As long as He was alive, He was under the Mosaic Law and had to fulfill and obey every commandment applicable to Him, not in the way that the rabbis had reinterpreted it. The statement of Matthew 5:17-19 was made while He was living. Even while He was living, He already implied the doing away with the Law. One example is Mark 7:19: This he said, making all meats clean. Can it be any clearer than this that at least the dietary commandments have been done away with? Again, all must admit that great parts of the Law no longer apply in the manner prescribed by Moses. Have they been done away with or not? To constantly claim that the Law of Moses is still in effect or that it is the same as the Law of the Messiah, while ignoring the details of that same Law, is inconsistent and a theological fallacy.
As for the meaning of the word fulfil, the Greek term is consistently used by Matthew in reference to fulfilling prophecy and so bringing it to an end. Matthew 1:22-23 states that the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled, that this brought the prophecy to an end and so nothing in the future will fulfill it. To “fulfill” meant to accomplish what prophecy demanded while to “abolish” meant to fail to accomplish it.
5. The Law of Christ
The fifth point in the status of the Mosaic Covenant is that the Law of Moses has been disannulled and believers are now under a new Law. This new Law is called the law of Christ in Galatians 6:2 and the law of the Spirit of life in Romans 8:2. This is a brand new Law, totally separate from the Law of Moses. The Law of the Messiah contains all the individual commandments from the Messiah and the apostles that are applicable to a New Testament believer. The details on this period will be discussed under the New Covenant.
6. The Principle of Freedom
The sixth point in the status of the Mosaic covenant is that the believer in the Messiah is free from the Law of Moses. This means that he is free from the necessity of keeping any commandment of that system. On the other hand, he is also free to keep parts of the Law of Moses if he so desires. The biblical basis for this freedom to keep the Law can be seen in the actions of Paul, who was the greatest exponent of freedom from the Law. His vow in Acts 18:18 is based on Numbers 6:2, 5, 9, and 18. His desire to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost in Acts 20:16 is based on Deuteronomy 16:16. The strongest passage is Acts 21:17-26, where we see Paul himself, the apostle of freedom from the Law, keeping the Law. The believer is free from the Law, but he is also free to keep parts of it. Thus, if a Jewish believer feels the need to refrain from eating pork, he is free to do so. The same is true for all the other commandments.
However, there are two dangers that must be avoided by any believer who volunteers to keep commandments of the Law of Moses. One danger is the idea that by doing so he is contributing to his own justification and sanctification. This is false. The second danger is in one’s expecting others to keep the same commandments he has decided to keep. This is equally wrong and borders on legalism. The one who exercises his freedom to keep the Law must recognize and respect another’s freedom not to keep it.
7. The Sabbath
And the seventh point in the status of the Mosaic Covenant is that the Sabbath was the sign, seal, and token of the Mosaic Covenant. As long as that covenant was in effect, the Sabbath law was mandatory. Since the Law of Moses has been rendered inoperative, then the Sabbath command no longer applies. Those with their inconsistent insistence that the Law of Moses is still in effect, also insist that the Sabbath law applies. However, they totally ignore what Moses wrote about how to keep the Sabbath and they even change the day of the week, something that the Law of Moses does not allow. Many Jewish believers also insist on mandatory Sabbath keeping. Though they inconsistently base it on the Law of Moses, at least they retain it with the seventh day of the week. The apologetics used for mandatory Sabbath keeping are almost exclusively based upon the Old Testament for obvious reasons: there is no New Testament commandment for believers in general or Jewish believers in particular to keep the Sabbath. The claim that Sabbath observance is part of the New Covenant is nowhere supported by the New Covenant Scriptures themselves. In fact, if anything, they would teach the opposite.
THE EIGHT COVENANTS OF THE BIBLE
PART 3: THE LAND, DAVIDIC, AND NEW COVENANTS
Now Jehovah said unto Abram, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you: and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and be you a blessing: and I will bless them that bless you, and him that curses you will I curse: and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
– Genesis 12:1-3 –
VI. THE LAND COVENANT
For the lack of a better name, this covenant is commonly known as the Palestinian Covenant, for it largely concerns the land known for centuries as Palestine. This is now an unfortunate term for two reasons. First: it was a name given to the land by the Roman Emperor Hadrian after the Second Jewish Revolt under Bar Cochba (A.D. 132-135). His purpose was to erase any Jewish remembrance of the Land as part of his policy to “de judaize” the Land. Second: due to the historical events in the Middle East in the history of modern Israel, the name is associated more with Arabs than with Jews. Perhaps a better title for this covenant would have been the “Land Covenant” since “Palestine” is not a biblical designation anyway. Thus, this study will refer to it as the Land Covenant, but it should be noted that this is the same as that which is called the “Palestinian Covenant” in many books.
A. Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20
Although this covenant is within the fifth book of Moses, Deuteronomy 29:1 clearly shows that the Land Covenant is distinct from the Mosaic Covenant:These are the words of the covenant which Jehovah commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which he made with them in Horeb.
Deuteronomy 30:1-10 describes some of the provisions of the Land Covenant: And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall call them to mind among all the nations, whither Jehovah your God has driven you, and shall return unto Jehovah your God, to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul; that then Jehovah your God will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples, whither Jehovah your God has scattered you. If any of your outcasts be in the uttermost parts of heaven, from thence will Jehovah your God gather you: and Jehovah your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and he will do you good, and multiply you above your fathers. And Jehovah your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love Jehovah your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live. And Jehovah your God will put all these curses upon your enemies, and on them that hate you, that persecuted you. And you shall return and obey the voice of Jehovah, and do all his commandments which I command you this day. And Jehovah your God will make you plenteous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your ground, for good: for Jehovah will again rejoice over you for good, as he rejoiced over your fathers; if you shall obey the voice of Jehovah your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law; if you turn unto Jehovah your God with all your heart, and with all your soul.
B. The Participants in the Covenant
This covenant was made between God and Israel, the same two parties as in the Mosaic Covenant.
C. The Provisions of the Covenant
Eight provisions can be gleaned from this passage.
First: Moses spoke prophetically of Israel’s coming disobedience to the Mosaic Law and her subsequent scattering over all the world (29:2-30:1). All remaining provisions speak of various facets of Israel’s final restoration.
Second: Israel will repent (30:2).
Third: the Messiah will return (v. 3a).
Fourth: Israel will be regathered (vv. 3b-4).
Fifth: Israel will possess the Promised Land (v. 5).
Sixth: Israel will be regenerated (v. 6).
Seventh: the enemies of Israel will be judged (v. 7).
Eighth: Israel will receive full blessing; specifically, the blessings of the Messianic Age (vv. 8-20).
D. The Importance of the Covenant
The special importance of the Land Covenant is that it reaffirms the title deed to the Land as belonging to Israel. Although she would prove unfaithful and disobedient, the right to the Land would never be taken from her. Furthermore, it shows that the conditional Mosaic Covenant did not lay aside the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant. It might be taken by some that the Mosaic Covenant displaced the Abrahamic Covenant, but the Land Covenant shows that this is not true. The Land Covenant is an enlargement of the original Abrahamic Covenant. It amplifies the Land aspect and emphasizes the promise of the Land to God’s earthly Jewish people in spite of their unbelief. The Abrahamic Covenant teaches that ownership for the Land is unconditional while the Land Covenant teaches that the enjoyment of the Land is conditioned on obedience.
E. The Confirmation of the Covenant
The Land Covenant received its confirmation centuries later in Ezekiel 16:1-63. In this very important passage concerning God’s relationship to Israel, God recounts His love of Israel in her infancy (vv. 1-7). Later, Israel was chosen by God and became related to Jehovah by marriage and hence became the Wife of Jehovah (vv. 8-14). However, Israel played the harlot and was guilty of spiritual adultery by means of idolatry (vv. 15-34); therefore, it was necessary to punish her by means of dispersion (vv. 35-52). However, this dispersion is not final, for there would be a future restoration on the basis of the Land Covenant (vv. 53-63). They were guilty of violating the Mosaic Covenant (vv. 53-59), but God will remember the covenant made with Israel in her youth (v. 60a) and will establish an everlasting covenant, the New Covenant (v. 60b) and this will result in Israel’s salvation (vv. 61-63).
F. The Status of the Covenant
The Land Covenant, being an unconditional covenant, is still very much in effect.
VII. THE DAVIDIC COVENANT
In the first passage, the emphasis is on Solomon in II Samuel 7:11b-16: Moreover Jehovah tells you that Jehovah will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled, and you shall sleep with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, that shall proceed out of your bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son: if he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men; but my lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before you: your throne shall be established for ever.
The second account, where the emphasis is on the Messiah, is found in I Chronicles 17:10b-14: Moreover I tell you that Jehovah will build you a house. And it shall come to pass, when your days are fulfilled that you must go to be with your fathers, that I will set up your seed after you, who shall be of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build me a house, and I will establish his throne for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son: and I will not take my lovingkindness away from him, as I took it from him that was before you; but I will settle him in my house and in my kingdom for ever; and his throne shall be established for ever.
B. The Participants in the Covenant
This covenant was made between God and David, who stands as the head of the Davidic House and Dynasty, the only rightful claimant to the Davidic Throne in Jerusalem.
C. The Provisions of the Covenant
Careful study of both biblical accounts brings out the seven provisions of the Davidic Covenant.
First: David is promised an eternal dynasty (II Sam. 7:11b, 16; I Chr. 17:10b). Nothing could ever destroy the House of David; it will always be in existence. Although it is unknown who they are, to this day somewhere in the Jewish world members of the House of David still exist.
Second: One of David’s own sons, specifically Solomon, was to be established on the throne after David (II Sam. 7:12). Absalom and Adonijah, two of David’s other sons, tried to usurp the throne; but Solomon, and Solomon alone, was to be established on David’s throne.
Third: Solomon would build the Temple (II Sam. 7:13a). Although David had greatly desired to build God’s Temple, his hands had shed much blood and he was guilty of murder at one point. Thus, he was forbidden to build the Temple, and the job would rest with his son, Solomon.
Fourth: The throne of David’s kingdom was to be established for ever (II Sam. 7:13b, 16). It was not Solomon himself who was promised to be established for ever, but rather, the throne upon which he would sit.
Fifth: Solomon would be disciplined for disobedience, but God would not remove His lovingkindness (II Sam. 7:14-15). Earlier God did remove Hislovingkindness from King Saul because of disobedience. But the promise is made that although Solomon may disobey and require God’s discipline, God’slovingkindness will never depart from him. The word lovingkindness emphasized covenant loyalty. Solomon did fall into idolatry, the worst sin possible in Scripture. The sin of Saul was not as great as the sin of Solomon. Yet the kingdom was taken away from the House of Saul, but not the House of David. This shows the nature of an unconditional covenant. Solomon was under such a covenant, but Saul was not.
Sixth: the Messiah will come from the Seed of David (I Chr. 17:11). The emphasis in the II Samuel passage is on Solomon, but in the I Chronicles passage, it is on the Messiah. In the I Chronicles passage, God is not speaking of one of David’s own sons to be established upon the throne for ever, but the Seed of one of his sons coming many years later.
Seventh: the Messiah and His throne, house, and kingdom will be established for ever (I Chr. 17:12-15). In this passage, it is the Person Himself that is established upon David’s throne for ever, not merely the throne. Clearly, the emphasis in the I Chronicles passage is not on Solomon, but on the Messiah. That is why this passage does not mention the possibility of sin as the II Samuel passage does, for in the case of the Messiah no sin would be possible. The Messiah, as well as His throne, His house, and His kingdom are to be established for ever.
To summarize the Davidic Covenant, God promised David four eternal things: an eternal House or dynasty, an eternal Throne, an eternal Kingdom, and an eternal Descendant. The eternality of the House, Throne, and Kingdom is guaranteed because the Seed of David culminates in One who is Himself eternal: the Messianic God Man.
D. The Importance of the Covenant
The unique importance of the Davidic Covenant is that it amplifies the Seed aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant. According to the Abrahamic Covenant, the Messiah was to be of the Seed of Abraham. This merely stated that He was to be a Jew and could be of any of the Twelve Tribes. Later, in the time of Jacob, the Seed aspect was limited to a member of the Tribe of Judah only (Gen. 49:10). Now the Messianic Seed aspect is further narrowed to one family within the Tribe of Judah, the family of David.;
Thus there has been a gradual narrowing of the Seed. According to the Edenic Covenant, the Messiah must be of the Seed of the woman, but this meant He could come from any part of humanity. According to the Abrahamic Covenant, He had to come out of Jewish humanity, which meant He could come out of any tribe of Israel. With the confirmation of this covenant, through Jacob’s twelve sons, He now had to come out of the Tribe of Judah, but this permits Him to come from any family of Judah. With the Davidic Covenant, the Messiah had to come from the seed of David. It will be narrowed one step further in Jeremiah 22:24-30, which shows the Messiah had to come from the House of David, but apart from Jeconiah.
E. The Confirmation of the Covenant
In a number of other passages, the Davidic Covenant received further confirmation: II Samuel 23:1-5; Psalm 89:1-52; Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 30:8-9; 33:14-17, 19-26; Ezekiel 37:24-25; Hosea 3:4- 5; Amos 9:11; Luke 1:30-35, 68-70; and Acts 15:14-18.
F. The Status of the Covenant
The Davidic Covenant is also an unconditional covenant and is still very much in effect as an eternal covenant.
VIII. THE NEW COVENANT
A number of passages speak of or relate to the New Covenant and many of these will be referenced below. But the foundational passage is Jeremiah 31:31-34: Behold, the days come, says Jehovah, that 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 bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was a husband unto them, says Jehovah. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, says Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.
B. The Participants in the Covenant
This covenant is made between God and Israel, and it receives further confirmation in other passages including: Isaiah 55:3; 59:21; 61:8-9; Jeremiah 32:40; Ezekiel 16:60; 34:25-31; 37:26-28; and Romans 11:26-27.
C. The Provisions of the Covenant
From the original covenant, its various confirmations, and its inauguration in the New Testament, a total of nine provisions can be listed.
First: it is an unconditional covenant involving God and both Houses of Israel (Jer. 31:31). It is not made merely between Judah and God or between Israel and God, but included both Houses of Israel; hence, it includes the entire Jewish nation: the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It should be noted that it is not made with the Church.
Second: it is clearly distinct from the Mosaic Covenant (Jer. 31:32). It is not merely a further elaboration of the Mosaic Covenant, but it is distinct from it. It is ultimately to replace the Mosaic Covenant that was now considered broken.
Third: it promises the regeneration of Israel (Jer. 31:33; Is. 59:21). The key aspect of this entire covenant is the blessing of salvation, which included Israel’s national regeneration.
Fourth: the regeneration of Israel is to be universal among all Jews (Jer. 31:34a; Is. 61:9). The national salvation is to extend to every individual Jewish person, and it is to be true through succeeding generations from the time that the initial regeneration of Israel occurs. Thus, during the Kingdom, the unregenerate people will all be Gentiles; in the entire period of the Kingdom, there will be no unsaved Jews. That is the reason there will be no need for one Jew to say to another know the Lord, for they shall all know Him.
Fifth: there is provision for the forgiveness of sin (Jer. 31:34b). The New Covenant will do the very thing that the Mosaic Covenant was unable to do. The Mosaic Covenant was able only to cover the sins of Israel, but the New Covenant will take them away. This is a corollary blessing to the blessing of salvation.
Sixth: there is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:27). The reason Israel failed to keep the Law under the Mosaic Covenant was that the people lacked the power to comply with the righteous standards of God. The Mosaic Law did not provide the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; that was not its purpose. But the New Covenant will do just that, and every Jew will be enabled to do the righteous work of God. This is a blessing resulting from the blessing of salvation.
Seventh: Israel will be showered with material blessings (Is. 61:8; Jer. 32:41; Ezek. 34:25-27). The Mosaic Law did provide material blessings for obedience, but for the most part, Israel was in disobedience because of her failure to keep the Law. However, such failure will not exist under the New Covenant. Along with Israel’s regeneration and empowerment to keep the Law, material blessings will be given by the Lord.
Eighth: The Sanctuary will be rebuilt (Ezek. 37:26-28). The Mosaic Covenant provided for the building of the Tabernacle. The Davidic Covenant provided for the building of the First Temple by Solomon. The New Covenant will provide for the building of the Messianic or Millennial Temple. This Temple will be a continual reminder to Israel of all that God has done.
Ninth: Just as the Mosaic Covenant contained the Law of Moses, the New Covenant contains the Law of the Messiah (Rom. 8:2; Gal. 6:2). Like the Law of Moses, the Law of the Messiah contains many individual commandments that are applicable to the New Testament believer. These commandments were given either by Yeshua directly or by the apostles. A simple comparison of the details will show that it is not and cannot be the same as the Law of Moses. Four observations are worth noting. First, many commandments are the same as those of the Law of Moses. For example, nine of the Ten Commandments are also in the Law of the Messiah. But, second, many are different from the Law of Moses. For example, there is no Sabbath law now (Rom. 14:5; Col. 2:16) and no dietary code (Mk. 7:19; Rom. 14:20). Third, some commandments in the Law of Moses are intensified by the Law of the Messiah. For example, the Law of Moses said: love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18); this made man the standard. The Law of the Messiah said: love one another, even as I have loved you (Jn. 15:12); this makes the Messiah the standard and He loved man enough to die for him. Fourth, the Law of the Messiah provides a new motivation. For example, the Law of Moses was based on the conditional Mosaic Covenant and so the motivation was: Do, in order to be blessed. The Law of the Messiah is based on the unconditional New Covenant and so the motivation is: You have been and are blessed, therefore, do. The reason there is so much confusion over the relationship of the Law of Moses and the Law of the Messiah is that many commandments are similar to those found in the Mosaic Law, and many have concluded that certain sections of the Law have therefore been retained. It has already been shown that this cannot be the case, and the explanation for the sameness of the commandments is to be found elsewhere.
This explanation can best be understood if it is realized that there are a number of codes in the Bible, such as the Edenic Code, Adamic Code, Noahic Code, Mosaic Code, New Code, and Kingdom Code. A new code may contain some of the same commandments of the previous code, but this does not mean that the previous code is still in effect. While certain of the commandments of the Adamic Code were also found in the Edenic Code, it did not mean that the Edenic Code was still partially in force; it ceased to function with the Fall of Man. The same is true when we compare the Law of the Messiah with the Law of Moses. There are many similar commandments. For example, nine of the Ten Commandments are to be found in the Law of the Messiah, but this does not mean that the Law of Moses is still in force. The Law of Moses has been rendered inoperative and we are now under the Law of the Messiah. There are many different commandments. For example, under the Law of Moses, we would not be permitted to eat pork, but under the Law of the Messiah, we may. There are many similar commandments, but they are nonetheless in two separate systems. If we do not kill or steal today, it is not because of the Law of Moses but because of the Law of the Messiah. On the other hand, if someone steals, he is not guilty of breaking the Law of Moses, but of breaking the Law of the Messiah. The present obligation to obey the Law of the Messiah is due to the present outworking of the New Covenant.
D. The Importance of the Covenant
The importance of the New Covenant is that it amplifies the Blessing aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant, especially in relationship to salvation. It finally shows how the spiritual blessings of the Jewish covenants extend to the Gentiles.
E. The Relationship of the Church to the New Covenant
It is at this point that some confusion has arisen as to the relationship of the Church to the New Covenant. According to Jeremiah, the covenant is made, not with the Church, but with Israel. Nevertheless, a number of Scriptures connect the New Covenant with the Church (Mat. 26:28; Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:14-20; I Cor. 11:25; II Cor. 3:6; Heb. 7:22; 8:6-13; 9:15; 10:16, 29; 12:24; 13:20).
The most popular solution in church history has been the theology of replacement or transference, which teaches that the Church has replaced Israel in its covenantal standing. Thus, the covenant promises are now being fulfilled in, by, and through the Church. It is obvious, however, that they are not being fulfilled literally and so they teach that the intent was for them to be fulfilled spiritually. But this solution requires an allegorical interpretation of the covenants and requires the ignoring of all the details such as the Land promises.
This view has rightly been rejected by those who accept a literal approach to the covenants and these have offered two other solutions. First: some writers teach that there are two new covenants, one made with the Church and one made with Israel. This view is not supported by the teachings of Scripture. Second: others have said that there is only one covenant but that it has two aspects, one related to Israel and one related to the Church. Yet nothing in the covenant seems to teach that there are two completely different aspects. Furthermore, even those who hold this view are unable to say which aspect relates to the Church and which relates to Israel.
Actually, the solution is not so difficult, for it is clearly explained in two passages. The first is Ephesians 2:11-16: Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:
The second passages is Ephesians 3:5 6: which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it has now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to wit, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
This could be called the “partaker view.” The point of these passages is that God made four unconditional covenants with Israel: the Abrahamic Covenant, the Land Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant. All of God’s blessings, both physical and spiritual, are mediated by means of these four covenants. However, there is also a fifth covenant, the conditional Mosaic Covenant. This was the middle wall of partition. Essentially, it kept the Gentiles from enjoying the spiritual blessings of the four unconditional covenants. For a Gentile to begin receiving the blessings of the unconditional covenants, he had to totally submit to the Mosaic Law, undergo circumcision, take upon himself the obligations of the Law, and, for all practical purposes, live as a son of Abraham. Gentiles, as Gentiles, were not able to enjoy the spiritual blessings of the Jewish covenants; hence, they were strangers from the commonwealth of Israel. They did not receive any of the spiritual benefits contained in the covenants. However, when the Messiah died, the Mosaic Law, the middle wall of partition, was broken down. Now by faith Gentiles, as Gentiles, can enjoy the spiritual blessings of the four unconditional covenants. That is why Gentiles today are partakers of Jewish spiritual blessings, not “takers over.”
The concept of partaking is also found in Romans 11:17: But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them, and did become partaker with them of the root of the fatness of the olive tree; The Olive Tree represents the place of spiritual blessings of the Jewish Covenants. The types of branches partaking of the blessings: natural branches, which are the Jewish believers; wild olive branches, which are the Gentile believers.
However, the Olive Tree itself still belongs to Israel according to verse 24: For if you were cut out of that which is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree; how much more shall these, which are the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
The relationship of the Church to the New Covenant is the same as the Church’s relationship to the Abrahamic Covenant, the Land Covenant, and the Davidic Covenant. The physical promises of the Abrahamic Covenant, as amplified by the Land and Davidic Covenants, were promised exclusively to Israel. However, the Blessing aspect, as amplified by the New Covenant, was to include the Gentiles. The Church is enjoying the spiritual blessings of these covenants, not the material and physical benefits. The physical promises still belong to Israel and will be fulfilled exclusively with Israel, especially those involving the Land. However, all spiritual benefits are now being shared by the Church. This is the Church’s relationship to these four unconditional covenants between God and Israel.
The blood of the Messiah is the basis of salvation in the New Covenant and this was shed at the cross. The blood of the Messiah ratified, signed, and sealed the New Covenant (Heb. 8:1-10:18). The provisions of the New Covenant cannot be fulfilled in, by, or through the Church, but have to be filled in, by, and through Israel. It is true that the Covenant is not now being fulfilled with Israel, but this does not mean it is therefore being fulfilled with the Church. Again, not all provisions go immediately into effect. The Church is related to the New covenant only insofar as receiving the spiritual benefits of the Covenant, such as the salvation benefit, but the Church is not fulfilling it. The Church has become a partaker of Jewish spiritual blessings, but the Church is not a taker over of the Jewish covenants. The Church partakes of the spiritual blessings and promises, but not the material or physical blessings.
F. The Gentile Obligation
The fact that Gentile believers have become partakers of Jewish spiritual blessings places an obligation on them according to Romans 15:25-27: but now, I say. I go unto Jerusalem, ministering unto the saints. For it has been the good pleasure of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints that are at Jerusalem. Yea, it has been their good pleasure and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, they owe it to them to minister unto them in carnal things. As Paul came close to ending his letter to the Romans, he spelled out his immediate plans. In verse 25, he explained why he could not come to them immediately. While he had expressed a long term desire to go to Rome in chapter 1, his desire was subject to his duty, which was to collect an offering and take it to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. This special offering is spoken of elsewhere in I Corinthians 16:1-4 and II Corinthians 8-9. In verse 26, Paul named the contributors and the recipients of the offering. The Gentile believers of Macedonia and Achaia had given the money, which was specifically for the poor Jewish believers of the City of Jerusalem in the Land of Israel. In verse 27, Paul taught Gentile indebtedness to the Jews. He clearly stated that Gentiles are debtors to the Jews and then gave the reason for this: Gentiles have become fellow partakers of Jewish spiritual blessings. Earlier, in Romans 11, Paul taught that the Gentiles have become partakers of spiritual blessings, but these are Jewish spiritual blessings that are mediated through the Jewish covenants. The very fact that Gentiles have been made partakers of Jewish spiritual blessings has put them into debt to the Jews. According to this verse, the way they pay their indebtedness to Jewish believers is to minister to them in material things.
G. The Status of the Covenant
In relationship to the Church, then, the New Covenant is the basis of the Dispensation of Grace. In relationship to Israel, the New Covenant is the basis for the Dispensation of the Kingdom.
The New Covenant itself is an unconditional covenant and therefore eternally in effect.
All spiritual blessings are for believers in the Messiah, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. And through His death on the cross for their sins, believers reap spiritual benefits that would never be theirs otherwise. The eight covenants of the Bible are very explicit in their provisions and are valuable for a proper understanding of Scripture.
THE EIGHT COVENANTS OF THE BIBLE
Now Jehovah said unto Abram, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you: and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and be you a blessing: and I will bless them that bless you, and him that curses you will I curse: and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
– Genesis 12:1-3 –
Since much of God’s relationship to man is based upon covenantal relationships, a study of the eight covenants is a very important aspect of correctly understanding Scripture. The most common way to divide the Bible is by Dispensations. The dispensations, however, are based upon specific covenants, and knowledge of these covenants will help Bible readers to “rightly divide the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15). Although the dispensations may come to an end, the covenants themselves often continue.
A. The Types of Covenants
There are two types of covenants in the Bible: conditional and unconditional. It is important to distinguish between these two types of covenants in order to have a clear picture of what the Bible teaches.
1. Conditional Covenants
A conditional covenant is a bilateral covenant in which a proposal of God to man is characterized by the formula: if you will, then I will, whereby God promises to grant special blessings to man providing man fulfills certain conditions contained in the covenant. Man’s failure to do so often results in punishment. Thus one’s response to the covenant agreement brings either blessings or cursings. The blessings are secured by obedience and man must meet his conditions before God will meet His.
Two of the eight covenants of the Bible are conditional: the Edenic Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant.
2. Unconditional Covenants
An unconditional covenant is a unilateral covenant and is a sovereign act of God whereby He unconditionally obligates Himself to bring to pass definite blessings and conditions for the covenanted people. This covenant is characterized by the formula: I will, which declares God’s determination to do as He promises. Blessings are secured by the grace of God. There may be conditions in the covenant by which God requests the covenanted one to fulfill out of gratitude, but they are not themselves the basis of God’s fulfilling His promises.
Six of the eight covenants are unconditional: the Adamic Covenant, the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Palestinian or Land Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant.
B. The Covenants with Israel
Five of these eight covenants were made exclusively with Israel while the others were made with mankind in general. Only one of the five covenants made with Israel is conditional: the Mosaic Covenant. The other four covenants with Israel are all unconditional: the Abrahamic Covenant, the Land Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant.
Four things should be noted concerning the nature of the unconditional covenants made with Israel.
First: they are literal covenants and their contents must be interpreted literally as well.
Second: the covenants that God has made with Israel are eternal and are not in any way restricted or altered by time.
Third: it is necessary to re-emphasize that these are unconditional covenants that were not abrogated because of Israel’s disobedience; because the covenants are unconditional and totally dependent upon God for fulfillment, their ultimate fulfillment can be expected.
Fourth: these covenants were made with a specific people: Israel. This point is brought out by Paul in Romans 9:4: who are Israelites; whose is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises.
This passage clearly points out that these covenants were made with the covenanted people and are Israel’s possession.
This is brought out again in Ephesians 2:11-12: Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Five of the eight Bible covenants belong to the people of Israel and, as this passage notes, Gentiles were considered strangers from the covenants.
C. The Principle of the Timing of the Provisions
A covenant can be signed, sealed, and made a specific point of history, but this does not mean that all the provisions go immediately into effect. In fact, three different things happen once a covenant is sealed: first, some go into effect right away; second, some provisions go into effect in the near future, which may be twenty five years away or five hundred years away; and third, some provisions go into effect only in the distant prophetic future, not having been fulfilled to this day.
PART 1:THE EDENIC, ADAMIC, NOAHIC
AND ABRAHAMIC COVENANTS
I. THE EDENIC COVENANT
And God blessed them: and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food: and to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the heavens, and to everything that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for food: and it was so.
And Jehovah God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.
But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.
B. The Participants in the Covenant
The Edenic Covenant was made between God and Adam in which Adam stood as the representative head of the human race. Thus the actions of Adam are attributed to the whole of humanity.
C. The Provisions of the Covenant
All together, there were a total of seven provisions in the Edenic Covenant.
First: man was told: Be fruitful, and multiply and replenish the earth (Gen. 1:28a). The earth was created for the purpose of being the habitation of man, and then man was created on the sixth day. Man was told to populate the earth; so the increase in population is part of his commission. The earth was to be filled with humanity.
Second: man was told to subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28b). Previously, authority over the earth had been given to Satan (Ezek. 28:11-19). But when Satan fell, he lost his authority over this earth. That is the reason Genesis 1:2 describes the earth as being covered by water and darkness being over the face of the deep. Hence, God began to form and fashion the earth anew to make it habitable for man, and this time He would give man the authority over the earth. Man was to subdue it; he was to use the natural resources and energies of the earth that God had provided for him. However, this did not mean he was allowed to pollute it!
Third: man was given dominion over all living things (Gen.1:28c). The earlier provision gave man authority over the earth as far as non-living things were concerned. This provision extended man’s authority over all living creatures. The entire animal kingdom on the earth, in the air, and in the sea was put under the authority of man. The first exercise of this authority was man’s naming of the animals (Gen. 2:19-20).
The fourth provision concerned man’s diet (Gen. 1:29-30; 2:16). At this point man was to be a vegetarian. There is nothing in this covenant that allowed him to eat of the animal kingdom although he was to exercise authority over it. No blood of any kind was to be shed.
A fifth provision directed man to dress and to keep the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). Even in his unfallen state, man was not to lead a life of pure leisure; work was part of the human ethic even before the Fall. However, labor was easy and the land would produce easily; it was not
The sixth provision was that man was forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17a). This was the only negative commandment in the entire Edenic Covenant and was the one point that would test man’s obedience. He was free to eat of all the other trees of the garden but was to refrain from eating of that one. This was the one test to see how man would respond to the will of God; it was a test of the recognition of and the submission to the will of God. Man was not to assume that, because he was given authority over the earth and the animal kingdom, he himself was independent of God and exempt from God’s law. The question that raises is, “Will man, like Satan before him, reject God’s right to rule and declare himself independent of God?”
The seventh provision contained a penalty for disobedience: spiritual death (Gen. 2:17b). This cannot refer to physical death because man did not die on the very day that he disobeyed the commandment. So the death spoken of here must be spiritual death. In the day that he eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he will be separated from God and will die spiritually.
D. The Status of the Covenant
The Edenic Covenant was the basis for the Dispensation of Innocence. The record of the Edenic Covenant’s being broken is found in Genesis 3:1-8.
Satan appeared in the Garden of Eden as a fallen creature. This shows that man was not created in a perfect universe, for sin was already in existence. Although it was not yet existent in man, it was already present in Satan. The devil did his work of tempting man in the same three areas as set forth in I John 2:16.
The first phrase of Genesis 3:6: And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, corresponds to the first phrase of I John 2:16: the lust of the flesh. The second phrase of Genesis 3:6: and that it was a delight to the eyes, corresponds to the second phrase of I John 2:16: the lust of the eyes. And the third phrase of Genesis 3:6: and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, corresponds to the second phrase of I John 2:16: and the vainglory[pride] of life.
Eve gave in to the temptation and disobeyed the one negative commandment. Adam recognized what had happened, but he still chose to join his wife in disobedience. Their first reaction was an attempt to hide from the presence of God, which only illustrated the truth of Genesis 2:17. Man at that very moment died spiritually and could no longer share the same communion with God he had experienced before his disobedience. With that act, the Edenic Covenant, being conditional, came to an end.
II. THE ADAMIC COVENANT
And Jehovah God said unto the serpent, Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life: and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply your pain and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you. And unto Adam he said, Because you have hearkened unto the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying, You shall not eat of it: cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, till you return unto the ground; for out of it were you taken: for dust you are, and unto dust shall you return.
B. The Participants in the Covenant
God and Adam are involved in this covenant in which Adam again represented the whole human race. Thus the judgment on Adam is the judgment on all humanity.
C. The Provisions of the Covenant
God individually addressed the serpent, Satan, Eve, and Adam.
1. The Serpent: Genesis 3:14
There are three provisions concerning the serpent.
First: he is cursed above all other creatures of the animal kingdom. All creatures now fall under a curse, but there is a special curse upon this one member of the animal kingdom. Normally, an animal is not held morally responsible for its actions. However, if it causes any harm to man, then it is held responsible (Gen. 9:5). Animals were created for the benefit of man, and when this principle is violated, it then incurs the judgment of God.
Second: the serpent is to crawl on its belly. This shows that originally the serpent moved in an erect position. This led to the debate whether or not the serpent originally had legs, but that question is irrelevant to the issue. The only point is that in place of moving erectly, the serpent now crawls on its belly.
Third: dust shall be the serpent’s food. Bible critics have had a field day with this pointing it out as an error of the Bible since reptiles do not eat dust. However, this was simply a Hebrew idiom meaning to be especially cursed (Mic. 7:17). The curse will continue to be there even in the Messianic Kingdom (Is. 65:25).
2. Satan: Genesis 3:15
Four provisions are given in relationship to Satan.
First: there would be perpetual hatred between Satan and the woman.
Second: this hatred was to culminate between Satan’s seed, the Antichrist, and the woman’s Seed, the Messiah.
Third: the serpent would bruise the heel of the woman’s Seed; this happened at the Crucifixion.
Fourth: this first prophecy of the Lord’s victory over Satan goes on to say that the woman’s Seed will crush Satan’s head; this occurred initially with the Resurrection (Heb. 2:14-15). But the final crushing of Satan was still future when Paul wrote Romans 16:20; it will come when Satan is cast into the Lake of fire (Rev. 20:10).
The main point of this prophecy is that the Messiah would be of the Seed of woman. This goes against the biblical norm that teaches that genealogy is traced through the male line, not through the female line. The reason for this exception will not be known for centuries until Isaiah 7:14 revealed that the Messiah will be conceived and born of a virgin. The prophecy of Genesis 3:15 led to the events of Genesis 6:1-4 when Satan tried to corrupt the seed of the woman and will lead to the future supernatural conception of the Antichrist.
3. The Woman: Genesis 3:16
Eve and all women were made subject to three provisions.
First: there would be multiplication of menstrual pain and conception. Apparently, the nature of conception before the Fall was quite different than what it was after the Fall. Since the Fall, a woman generally is able to conceive at least once a month. Furthermore, a woman’s menstrual periods are accompanied with discomfort and pain.
Second: the woman was to give birth in pain. Before the Fall, she would have been able to conceive and give birth without pain, but this was no longer true. However, once birth takes place, there is joy (Jn. 16:21). In this way, the woman is saved (I Tim. 2:15). She is not spiritually saved through childbirth, but she is saved from being in a demeaning position through her ability to produce children, for in this way she guarantees the continuity of the human race not subject to physical death.
Third: the wife was to be in subjection to the husband. This was already true before the Fall, but the new element was that she would now have a desire to rebel against that subjection and choose to try to rule him.
4. The Man: Genesis 3:17-19
Adam and all men and the entire human race were subjected to five provisions in Genesis 3:17-19.
First: since Adam stands as the representative head of the human race, the judgment on Adam is the judgment on the whole human race. It is Adam, not Eve, who is held responsible for the human condition.
Second: the earth was cursed. Working was not something new with the Adamic Covenant, it had already been provided for in the Edenic Covenant. The difference was in the earth’s response. Under the Edenic Covenant, the earth was to respond readily to man’s working and tilling. But now the earth would not respond so easily; there would be thorns, thistles, and weeds.
Third: human diet continues to be vegetarian as it was under the Edenic Covenant; it is not clear if the same was true for the animal kingdom. Animals were used for dairy products, wool for clothing, and sacrifices, but not for eating.
Fourth: man’s work was to be characterized by hard labor. Working conditions under the Edenic Covenant were easy, simple, and enjoyable. Now, sweatwas to characterize the work of man and labor was to be hard and toilsome.
Fifth: physical death was introduced. Whereas under the Edenic Covenant man died spiritually, under the Adamic Covenant man would ultimately die physically (Rom. 5:12-21). Thus far there have only been two exceptions to this rule: Enoch and Elijah. There will be others in the future at the time of the Rapture.
D. The Status of the Covenant
The Adamic Covenant became the basis for the Dispensation of Conscience. As an unconditional covenant, it is very much in effect today.
III. THE NOAHIC COVENANT
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the heavens; with all wherewith the ground teems, and all the fishes of the sea, into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood, the blood of your lives, will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it: and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein. And God spoke unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud, and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.
B. The Participants in the Covenant
This covenant was made between God and Noah. Like Adam, Noah stood as the representative for the entire human race. As a result of the flood, not only is all humanity descended from Adam, but also from Noah.
C. The Provisions of the Covenant
First: man was to repopulate the earth (vv. 1, 7). With the exception of eight people, the entire human race was destroyed by the Flood. Man had vastly increased in numbers, but the wickedness of man was great in the earth (Gen. 6:5). Thus God brought universal judgment upon the earth. After the Flood, the earth was essentially empty again. Only eight people remained to repopulate the entire earth. Just as with the Edenic Covenant, man was again commissioned to repopulate the earth, but the command to subdue the earth is not repeated. With man’s fall, he lost his authority and Satan usurped it. Thus Satan is the prince of this world (Jn. 12:31) and the god of this world (II Cor. 4:4). Satan has authority over all the kingdoms of this world and can offer them to whomsoever he will (Lk. 4:6). He made that offer to the Seed of the woman, Yeshua (Jesus), who turned it down. He will offer it some day to the seed of Satan, the Antichrist, who will accept it (Rev. 13:1-3).
Second: the fear of man was put into animals and man was to dominate them (v. 2). While man had lost authority over the earth, he was still to dominate and have authority over the animal kingdom. For this reason, the fear of man was placed in animals. This fear was a means of self preservation due to the next provision.
Third: man’s diet was to consist of both every moving thing and the green herb (v. 3). Previously, his diet had been vegetarian, but now all animals were included. No limitations whatsoever are given in the passage, thus all animals were fit for food.
Fourth: man was forbidden to eat blood (v. 4). All creature life, both man and animal, is blood sustained. Blood is the symbol of life, and the shedding of blood is the symbol of death. Because blood is the symbol of life, God commanded that it not be eaten or drunk.
Fifth: capital punishment became a part of the human economy for the first time in (vv. 5-6). When Cain killed Abel, Cain was not executed because capital punishment had not yet been instituted. The provision for capital punishment came with the Noahic Covenant and all murderers were to be executed.
Sixth: the promise of the covenant is that humanity would never again be destroyed by a world wide flood (vv. 8-11). While there would be local floods that would destroy portions of humanity, never again would there be a world wide flood. In the future, there will be a passing away and destruction of earth’s present system, but it will not be by means of a universal flood. This shows that the Noahic Flood was universal, not local.
Seventh: the token of the covenant was the rainbow (vv. 12-17). Not every covenant came with a sign or token, but this one did. This was the first time in human history that the rainbow ever appeared. Rain did not exist before the world wide flood and the earth was watered by a mist that came daily upon the vegetation. Rainbows come in conjunction with rain. So for the first time in human experience the rainbow appeared, and God’s promise that humanity will not be destroyed by a flood again should come to remembrance every time a rainbow is seen.
D. The Status of the Covenant
The Noahic Covenant became the basis for the Dispensation of Human Government. Although this dispensation has been superseded, the unconditional Noahic Covenant is still very much in effect. The judgments of the Tribulation against the Gentiles will come because of violations of the Noahic Covenant. According to Isaiah 24:5-6, the judgment comes because humanity has violated the everlasting covenant, a name given to the Noahic Covenant in Genesis 9:16. For that reason, the prophet used the Noahic Flood motif, the windows on high and foundations of the earth in Isaiah 24:18. But next time, God will destroy the masses of humanity by fire.
IV. THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT
First: Genesis 12:1-3: Now Jehovah said unto Abram, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you: and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and be you a blessing: and I will bless them that bless you, and him that curses you will I curse: and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
Second: Genesis 12:7: And Jehovah appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto your seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto Jehovah, who appeared unto him.
Third: Genesis 13:14-17: And Jehovah said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward: for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed for ever. And I will make your seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then may your seed also be numbered. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto you will I give it.
The fourth and fifth passages dealing with the Abrahamic Covenant are Genesis 15:1-21 and Genesis 17:1-21. While not quoted in this study, these more lengthy segments of Scripture contain many provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant. The emphasis of Genesis 15 is threefold: first, Abraham would father one nation in particular; second, he would father many nations in general; third, God signs and seals the Abrahamic Covenant and spells out the exact borders of the Abrahamic Covenant as extending from the river of Egypt in the south to the great river, Euphrates in the north. The signing was done in such a way that it rendered the covenant unconditional. The emphasis of Genesis 17 is on the token of the covenant: physical circumcision on the eighth day of a boy’s life. Just as the rainbow was the token of the Noahic Covenant, so circumcision is the token of the Abrahamic Covenant.
A sixth passage is Genesis 22:15-18: And the angel of Jehovah called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said, By myself have I sworn, says Jehovah, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, that in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have obeyed my voice.
B. The Participants in the Covenant
God and Abraham are involved in this covenant, in which Abraham stood as the representative head of the whole Jewish nation, not for all humanity.
C. The Provisions of the Covenant
A list gleaned from these passages shows a total of fourteen provisions in this covenant.
First: a great nation was to come out of Abraham, namely, the nation of Israel (Gen. 12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:1-2, 7; 22:17b).
Second: he was promised a Land; specifically, the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1, 7; 13:14-15, 17; 15:17-21; 17:8).
Third: Abraham himself was to be greatly blessed (Gen. 12:2b).
Fourth: Abraham’s name would be great (Gen. 12:2c).
Fifth: Abraham will be a blessing to others (Gen. 12:2d).
Sixth: those who bless Israel will be blessed (Gen. 12:3a).
Seventh: those who curse Israel will be cursed (Gen.12:3b).
Eighth: in Abraham all will ultimately be blessed (Gen. 12:3c; 22:18).
Ninth: Abraham would receive a son through his wife Sarah (Gen. 15:1-4; 17:16-21).
Tenth: his descendants would undergo the Egyptian bondage (Gen. 15:13-14).
Eleventh: other nations as well as Israel would come forth from Abraham (Gen. 17:3-4, 6); the Arab states are some of these nations.
Twelfth: his name was to be changed from Abram, meaning “exalted father,” to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude” (Gen. 17:5).
Thirteenth: Sarai’s name, meaning “my princess,” was to be changed to Sarah, meaning “the princess” (Gen. 17:15).
Fourteenth: circumcision was to be a token of the covenant (Gen. 17:9-14); thus, according to the Abrahamic Covenant, circumcision was to be a sign of one’s Jewishness. The practice of circumcision did not begin with Abraham since others in the ancient Near East practiced the ritual either at birth or puberty. The uniqueness of Jewish circumcision is not the act, but the timing of the act: on the eighth day. Circumcision would show this to be a blood covenant and hence emphasized its solemnity. It would also show that this sign of Jewishness is passed on through natural generation.
These provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant can be categorized in three areas: to Abraham; to the Seed, Israel; and to the Gentiles.
1. To Abraham
Abraham was to be the father of a great nation, Israel. He was to possess all of the Promised Land. Other nations, including the Arab states, were ultimately to descend from Abraham. Many of his descendants would become kings, both Jewish and non-Jewish kings. Abraham was to receive personal blessings. Abraham was to be a blessing to others. His name was to become great, and so it is among Jews, Moslems, and in all Christendom.
2. To the Seed: Israel
The nation of Israel was to become great. It was ultimately to become innumerable. It was to possess all of the Promised Land. It was to receive victory over its enemies. The fact that the promises were made to both Abraham and his seed shows that these blessings have not yet received complete fulfillment but await the Messianic Kingdom.
3. To the Gentiles
The Gentiles would be blessed for blessing Israel and cursed for cursing Israel. Also, they were to receive spiritual blessings, but ultimately these were to come through one specific Seed of Abraham, the Messiah. The Abrahamic Covenant contains both physical and spiritual promises. While the physical blessings were limited to the Jews only, the spiritual blessings were to extend to the Gentiles, but only through the Messiah.
D. The Basis for Development of Other Covenants
Reducing the Abrahamic Covenant to its very basics, it can be seen that it contained three aspects: the Land aspect, the Seed aspect, and the Blessing aspect. The Land aspect is developed in the Land Covenant. The Seed aspect is covered in the Davidic Covenant. The
Blessing aspect is presented in the New Covenant.
E. The Confirmation of the Covenant
1. Confirmation Through Isaac
Abraham had eight sons by three different women, and the question arose: through which son would the Abrahamic Covenant be confirmed? God revealed that it was to be only through Sarah’s son, Isaac. God’s appearance to Isaac is recorded in Genesis 26:2-5: And Jehovah appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell you of: sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for unto you, and unto your seed, I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore unto Abraham your father: and I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and will give unto your seed all these lands; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.
The covenant was later reconfirmed to Isaac in Genesis 26:24: And Jehovah appeared unto him the same night, and said, I am the God of Abraham your father: fear not, for I am with you, and will bless you, and multiply your seed for my servant Abraham’s sake.
2. Confirmation Through Jacob
Isaac had two sons, and God chose to confirm the covenant with Jacob, as seen in Genesis 28:13-15: And, behold, Jehovah stood above it, and said, I am Jehovah, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; and your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you whithersoever you go, and will bring you again into this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of.
3. Confirmation Through the Sons of Jacob
Next, it was confirmed through all of Jacob’s twelve sons (Gen. 49), who fathered the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
F. The Status of the Covenant
The Abrahamic Covenant became the basis for the Dispensation of Promise. Because the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional, it is still very much in effect even though it has remained largely unfulfilled. The ultimate fulfillment will come during the Kingdom Age. Some examples of this include: Exodus 2:23-25; 4:24-26; 6:2-8; 32:11-14; Leviticus 26:46; Deuteronomy 34:4; II Kings 13:22-23; I Chronicles 16:15-19; II Chronicles 20:7-8; Nehemiah 9:7-8; Psalm 105:7-12; Luke 1:54-55, 68-73; Galatians 3:15-18; and Hebrews 6:13-20. These verses note that the Abrahamic Covenant was the basis for the Exodus, for giving them the Land, for Jewish survival in spite of disobedience, for the coming of the Messiah, for the resurrection of the dead, and for Israel’s final redemption and restoration.
The Abrahamic Covenant is a good example of what was stated earlier: that a covenant could be signed and sealed at a specific point of time, but not every provision goes immediately into effect, but rather, three different things happen. Some went into effect right away such as the change of names and circumcision. Some went into effect in the near future, for there was a twenty-five year wait for the birth of Isaac and a four hundred year wait before the conquest of the Land. Some provisions go into effect in the prophetic distant future such as the settlement of all of the Promised Land, which has not been fulfilled to this day.
The doctrine of Dispensationalism has many supporters and many objectors. While some objections are raised on reasonable theological grounds, some are raised on a misunderstanding of what Dispensationalism actually teaches. Some of these objections are really objections to ultra-dispensationalism, and some are objections based upon a misunderstanding of the facts.
Recently, some have raised objections concerning Dispensationalism’s treatment of the Gospel. Some would imply or state that Dispensationalism is a corruption of the Gospel, and that a person cannot possibly be a Dispensationalist and be a Christian at the same time. Of course, this is absolute nonsense, and it weakens the arguments against Dispensationalism to make such ridiculous assertions! In this article, we will address the notion that Dispensationalism teaches different methods of salvation in different dispensations. We will look at some of the real causes of the objections that have been raised. We will see how Dispensationalism is in fact helpful in the presentation of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. And finally, we will have a personal note.
Dispensationalism and Salvation
First, we must deal with the suggestion that Dispensationalism teaches different methods of salvation in different dispensations. We cannot speak for every person who has ever claimed to be a Dispensationalist. Perhaps some have stated of implied such a thing. But this does not represent the mainstream of Dispensational thought, and has not for many years. The words of H.A. Ironside, a well known and much loved Bible teacher, should be sufficient to state the mainline Dispensational viewpoint. Here is what Ironside said prior to 1938 (i.e. over 60 years ago!):
Let one point be absolutely clear: No one was ever saved in any dispensation on any other ground than the finished work of Christ. In all the ages before the cross, God justified men by faith; in all the years since, men have been justified in exactly the same way. Adam believed God and was clothed with coats of skin, a picture of one becoming the righteousness of God in Christ. Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. Nevertheless, afterwards he was circumcised; but that circumcision, the apostle tells us, was simply a seal of the righteousness he had by faith. And throughout all the Old Testament dispensation, however legalistic Jews may have observed the ordinance of circumcision and thought of it as having in itself some saving virtue, it still remained in God’s sight, as in the beginning, only a seal, where there was genuine faith, of that righteousness which He imputed. (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, p57,58)
Needless to say, the person who claims that Dispensationalism teaches different methods of salvation in different dispensations completely misunderstands the point of Dispensational doctrine! Dispensationalism is not about the method of God’s salvation, but the methods of God’s testing of man. In each Dispensation, God gives a different set of instructions. The instructions are for pleasing and obeying God, not for obtaining salvation. In each dispensation, man proves that whatever the circumstances, he is unable to please or obey God.
Furthermore, those who claim that Dispensationalists teach different methods of salvation in different dispensations confuse holy living (i.e. simple obedience) with imputed righteousness. Perhaps this is easy to do since in this dispensation, what is required by God of man in the dispensational test is also that which is required by God to provide salvation (i.e. to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour). In most of the dispensations, what is required of man will simply be some form of holy living, but it doesn’t impute righteousness! The only thing that dispensational obedience will do is prevent extra unrighteousness from occuring. In every dispensation, man still carries Original Sin. Dispensationalists understand that obedience in a dispensation does not wipe away Original Sin. We understand that obedience in a dispensation does not impart forgiveness. And we understand that in every dispensation, perfect obedience was impossible. Yes, Dispensationalists believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, in this dispensation and in all dispensations.
Dispensationalism and Calvinism
So we have seen that mainstream Dispensationalism does not teach that salvation is obtained on any other basis than the finished work of Christ, in this dispensation and in every dispensation. So why do some people get so upset about the Dispensationalism and the Gospel? Evidently, some who hold to Calvinistic doctrine have decided that Dispensationalism is somehow linked to Arminian doctrine, thus making our grasp on the Gospel somehow suspect. This is another ridiculous assertion, raised because many churches that hold to a Covenant theological view also hold to Calvinism. In their minds, because they tend to hold both of these doctrines, anyone who opposes one also opposes the other. In other words, this objection is based upon guilt by association! The simple fact is that people who hold to Dispensational doctrine are free to adopt a Calvinistic, Arminian or middle-of-the-road position as they choose. Believing Dispensational doctrine does not force a person into any of these theological camps. I have personally encountered believers who have been very Calvinistic, very Arminian and very middle-of-the-road all in the same church and all holding firmly to Dispensational doctrine.
Dispensationalism and the True Gospel Message
To this point, we have defended Dispensationalism by showing that it teaches a single method of salvation, and is not linked to either the Calvinistic or Arminian theological camps. But what positive effects does it have in the preaching of the Gospel? If we consider the three foundational principles upon which Dispensationalism is built, we will see that far from corrupting the Gospel, Dispensationalism defends the Gospel! These foundational principles are literal interpretation of the Bible, a distinction between the Church and Israel, and an emphasis on the Glory of God.
The first foundation of Dispensationalism is literal interpretation of the Bible. Literal interpretation is absolutely essential for the clear and correct understanding of the Gospel. Consider for moment a few verses of Scripture, and the potential effect if a person does not take them literally:
- Romans 3:23 –
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;”
- Isaiah 64:6 –
“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;”
- Romans 6:23 –
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
- Ephesians 2:8,9 –
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
- John 3:18 –
“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Obviously the Gospel cannot be preached clearly and correctly, and cannot be understood and received effectually unless literal interpretation of the Bible is used. We should be on our guard against any systems of theology that reject literal interpretation!
The second foundation for Dispensationalism is a distinction between the Church and Israel. First Corinthians 10:32 says, “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:”. There is a great distinction in Scripture between the Church and Israel. This has a powerful effect in the content of our Gospel. There are some who are presenting the “prosperity gospel” which in effect says, if you obey God, material blessings will result. Obviously this comes from confusing Israel with the Church. While Israel had spiritual blessings, their blessings were primarily physical. On the other hand, while the Church has physical blessings, our blessings are primarily spiritual. This “prosperity gospel” is taken to ridiculous heights, reducing the Almighty God to no much more than Santa Claus.
Making a clear distinction between the Church and Israel also helps when some would muddy the waters through judaizing (i.e. trying to make Old Testament Law apply to Christians in the current dispensation). Making a distinction between the Church and Israel will help preserve our Gospel message from those who would make Sabbath keeping, animal sacrifice or dietary laws part of the message of salvation.
The third foundation for Dispensationalism is an emphasis on God’s Glory rather than man’s salvation as being God’s ultimate purpose. You may ask, how does this contribute to the Gospel message? First, it helps remind sinful man that he will someday glorify God, either in His Divine Mercy as Saviour, or in His Divine Justice as Judge. This is a fearful and powerful message! This emphasis on God’s Glory also helps lift the burden in evangelism off of us. Oh yes, we are still required to preach the word, to witness, to show forth the way of salvation! But God Himself in the One who obtains the results. A Dispensationalist knows that God is Glorified every time the Gospel is preached, and we do not allow ourselves to become discouraged if we are being faithful in preaching the Good News but go through a “dry spell” when we see few souls saved.
By Andy Woods
The word genre is a French term, which simply means kind or species. When applied to biblical studies, genre refers to the fact that the Bible contains different types of literature, such as prophecy, epistle, poetry, etc. Such a categorization is made to alert Bible interpreters to the fact that particular genres are to be understood in light of the common traits that define a given genre. For example, poetry is not to be interpreted in the same way epistolary literature is to be interpreted. Poetry contains its own unique characteristics such as parallelism. This parallelism must be taken into account in order to grasp what a poetic text is saying. However, this characteristic of parallelism need not be taken into account when interpreting an epistle. Such genre sensitivity in no way conflicts with literal interpretation. Charles Ryrie specifically notes that literalism “does not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation.” The literal interpreter simply recognizes that words take on their ordinary meaning within a particular genre.
Despite the fact that genre can be a helpful device in interpreting Scripture, today’s evangelicals have pushed the concept too far. Today, genre is often used as an excuse for suspending the ordinary rules of hermeneutics. An example from the legal arena may be helpful as a way of explaining how genre classification can be used as a justification for suspending the ordinary rules of hermeneutics. Conservatives often complain that liberals have read into the Constitution ideas that are not found in a literal reading of the document, such as the right to procure an abortion and a strict wall of separation between church and state. Liberals respond by arguing that the founders purposely created an ambiguous document that was not intended be read literally. Rather it was intentionally created to be a “living document.” In other words, its ambiguous language was intentionally chosen so that a judge could alter it one direction or another depending upon where society was heading. Such a design was necessary because the founders could not foresee the technological advances that society would experience. Thus, by classifying the Constitution according to the genre “living document,” the judge is no longer required to follow the literal, grammatical, historical method in interpreting its contents.
The phrase that Robert Thomas uses to expose this abuse in biblical studies is “genre override.” Nowhere is this abuse clearer than in the area of so-called “apocalyptic literature.” This categorization is often used as an excuse for the utilization of a dual hermeneutic that treats prophecy non-literally and the rest of Scripture literally. Walvoord spoke frankly about this problem. In 1994, he was asked, “What do you predict will be the most significant theological issues over the next ten years?” He responded, “The hermeneutical problem of not interpreting the Bible literally, especially the prophetic areas. The church today is engulfed in the idea that one cannot interpret prophecy literally.” The purpose of this paper is to expose how apocalypticism is often used as an excuse for dispensing with the literal, grammatical, historical method in the realm of biblical eschatology. The methodological flaws in this approach will be exposed as well.
Revelation is Apocalyptic?
Dispensational interpreters often categorize various prophetic books of the Bible, such as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, as “apocalyptic literature.” By using this category, these interpreters simply mean that these books unveil or disclose God’s future prophetic program. Defining apocalyptic literature as biblical material that unveils is in harmony with the meaning of the Greek word from which “apocalyptic” is derived. This word is apokalypsis and it simply means to unveil or disclose.
However, recent evangelical interpreters have begun to vest this term with a new meaning. When they use the term “apocalyptic literature” they are equating the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation with a host of non-canonical, extra biblical writings that flourished from the intertestamental period and into the second century A.D. Examples include Enoch, Apocalypse of Baruch, Jubilees, Assumption of Moses, Psalms of Solomon, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, and Sibylline Oracles. These writings possess a common cluster of attributes. Such attributes include the following: extensive use of symbolism, vision as the major means of revelation, angelic guides, activity of angels and demons, focus on the end of the current age and the inauguration of the age to come, urgent expectation of the end of earthly conditions in the immediate future, the end as a cosmic catastrophe, new salvation that is paradisal in character, manifestation of the kingdom of God, a mediator with royal functions, dualism with God and Satan as the leaders, spiritual order determining the flow of history, pessimism about mans’ ability to change the course of events, periodization and determinism of human history, other worldly journeys, the catchword glory, and a final showdown between good and evil.
It is argued that Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation share many of these characteristics. On this basis, these canonical books are also categorized as apocalyptic literature. The Book of Revelation in particular is categorized with the apocalyptic writings. Not only does the Revelation share many features with these extra biblical books, but it also was composed during the same general time period when the apocalyptic writings were composed. There is no doubt that Revelation is similar to the apocalyptic writings in several respects.
Hermeneutical Changes Resulting From
Viewing Revelation’s Character as Apocalyptic
However, categorizing Revelation with the apocalyptic writings significantly challenges the traditional, dispensational interpretation of Revelation. The decision to classify Revelation with the apocalyptic genre alters the hermeneutical principles that one uses in interpreting the book. Consequently, four hermeneutical doors seem to open to the extent that Revelation’s character is viewed as apocalyptic. First, it becomes difficult to approach the text with a straightforward literalism. Kenneth Gentry observes:
Before beginning my survey, I must note what most Christians suspect and what virtually all evangelical scholars (excluding classic dispensationalists) recognize regarding the book: Revelation is a highly figurative book that we cannot approach with a simple straightforward literalism.
Elsewhere Gentry observes that consistent literalism “is an impossible ideal.” Gregg contends that many interpreters fail to take into account Revelation’s apocalyptic character. According to Steve Gregg:
A failure to take into account this feature has led some to the most outlandish teachings on this book by some whose rule of interpretation is ‘literal unless absurd.’ Though this is good rule when dealing with literature written in a literal genre, it is the exact opposite in the case of apocalyptic literature, where symbolism is the rule and literalism is the exception.
What Gregg has done here is argue that the ordinary hermeneutical standard that is used in interpreting other sections of Scripture is no longer applicable to biblical eschatology. In ordinary hermeneutics, the assumption is the author wanted to be understood in literal terms unless something compelling from the text informs the interpreter otherwise. Gregg is arguing that this rule no longer holds true in interpreting Revelation and that the inverse is true. The assumption of literalism unless a textual clue informs the interpreter otherwise becomes substituted for an assumption of symbolism unless the interpreter is alerted otherwise. Gregg has used the apocalyptic genre categorization to stand ordinary hermeneutical principles on their head. Hamstra does the same thing when he begins with the presupposition that because Revelation is apocalyptic, he views all of Revelation’s episodes and visions as symbolic until proven otherwise.
The reason for this presupposition that apocalyptic literature cannot be approached literally is because such writings can be described as crisis literature. In other words, the writing was produced as a result of some impending crisis. In order to highlight the severity of the crisis, the apocalyptist spoke in exaggerated terms. Take by way of analogy the statement, “my world has come to an end because I lost my job.” This statement obviously does not communicate a literal end of the world. Rather, it is using heightened language in order to communicate the significance of a personal event.
Similarly, an apocalyptic understanding of Revelation views John as vesting earthly events with heightened eschatological language in order to communicate the gravity of the immediate crisis. Understanding Revelation in such hyperbolic terms opens the possibility that the global language of Revelation may in actuality be descriptive of a localized phenomenon that John has invested with global language. Caird best summarizes the matter when he says, “What seems to have escaped notice at the time is that Eschatology is a metaphor, the application of end of the world language to that which is not literally the end of the world.” Thus, when John speaks of a great city reigning over the kings of the earth (17:18), he is speaking in heightened language of an immediate oppressive force in his own day, such as Jerusalem or Rome. If John used the same hyperbolic methodology common in apocalyptic writings in Revelation, then statements such as half of the world’s population being destroyed (Rev 6:8; 9:15) and the greatest earthquake in human history (Rev 16:18) cannot be construed literally. Rather, they similarly represent heightened language communicating a past event that the people of God experienced, such as oppression by Jerusalem or Rome. Understanding Revelation in such hyperbolic terms opens the possibility that the global language may in actuality be descriptive of a localized historical phenomenon that John has invested with global language.
This mindset represents a marked departure from literal, grammatical, historical methodology and opens the door to historicism and preterism. For example, whenever the global nature of Revelation’s prophecies do not line up with the local scenario of an A.D. 70 fulfillment, preterist Kenneth Gentry dismisses the global nature of the text as mere hyperbole. He notes, “the preterist view does understand Revelation’s prophecies as strongly reflecting actual historical events in John’s near future, though they are set in apocalyptic drama and clothed in poetic hyperbole.” Preterist Don Preston also relies upon Revelation to belonging to the apocalyptic category in order to find support for his view that Revelation’s global language was fulfilled in the local events of A.D. 70. He observes that apocalyptic literature hyperbolizes the destruction of Jerusalem. According to Sibylline Oracle 5:153, “the whole creation was shaken” when war began on Jerusalem. If Revelation is also apocalyptic literature, then Revelation must be similarly using hyperbolic language.
A similar approach is seen in Old Testament studies. Many view Isaiah 13–14 and Jeremiah 50–51 as describing Babylon’s past fall in 539 B.C. rather than her future fall. The interpretation is held in spite of the fact that the details of these texts go far beyond the historic fall of Babylon. This interpretation is justified on the grounds that Ancient Near Eastern extra biblical writings often describe the destruction of foes in hyperbolic terms. Because Isaiah and Jeremiah incorporated a similar “destruction genre” in their description of Babylon’s fall, the language of Babylon’s destruction in Isaiah 13–14 and Jeremiah 50–51 can be applied to her historic fall rather than her future fall.
Second, apocalyptic multivalence is another hermeneutical door that opens when Revelation is classified as belonging to the apocalyptic category. Collins offers the following explanation of apocalyptic multivalence:
In other Jewish apocalypses the Babylonian crisis of the sixth century often provides the filter through which later crises are viewed. The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of the historical events but on recurring patterns, which assimilate the particular crisis to some event of the past whether historical or mythical.
If John also employs apocalyptic multivalence, it is possible that the events of Revelation cannot be anchored to one event but rather can recur repeatedly throughout history. This perspective allows Pate to employ a multi layered hermeneutic in identifying Babylon of Revelation 17–18. Pate concludes that Babylon in these chapters not only refers to a future Babylon but to ancient Jerusalem as well.Elsewhere, he argues that the beast of Revelation 13 refers simultaneously to both Nero as well as a future antichrist. However, nowhere in the context is it even implied that these texts have more than one meaning. Pate brings an a priori presupposition of multiple meanings to the text solely on the basis of Revelation’s alleged apocalyptic content. Such a layered hermeneutic again represents a significant departure from the literal, grammatical, historical method where texts were presumed to have a single meaning. Milton Terry explains: “A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.”
Third, the notion that John used secret codes to disguise the enemies of God’s people mentioned in the book also becomes viable if Revelation is apocalyptic. At times, the apocalyptists disguised through symbolic language the entity that was oppressing them. The apocalyptic writer sought to give hope to the oppressed people of God by predicting the cataclysmic destruction of the enemy that was persecuting them. However, because of fear of retaliation, the apocalyptist was not free to identify the oppressor. Thus, the message had to be disguised in symbolic dress. For example, apocalyptic writings sometimes used Babylon as a code for Rome (Sibylline Oracles 5: 143, 159-60, 434). If John was following this pattern, he also does not mean Babylon when he says Babylon. Instead, he is using the word Babylon as a symbolic disguise to identify an oppressor. Thus, when John mentioned Babylon, he might have had in mind Jerusalem or Rome. Thomas notes that such code theories are a far cry from literal, grammatical, historical interpretation when he says, “Another clear distinctive of literal interpretation is its avoidance of assumptions not justified in the text. Theories that ‘Babylon’ in Revelation chapters 14 and 16-18 is a code for Rome have been widespread.”
Fourth, categorizing Revelation as apocalyptic also influences how one interprets Revelation’s numbers. According to Gregg, other apocalypses typically use numbers to convey concepts rather than count units. Thus, categorizing Revelation as apocalyptic literature moves the interpreter away from a literal understanding of Revelation’s numbers and more toward a symbolic interpretation. Some seem to rely upon such an apocalyptic framework by remaining open to the possibility that the number 1000 mentioned six times in Revelation 20refers to an extended period of time rather than a literal 1000-year time period. Others show a similar reluctance of taking the number 144,000 (Rev 7) literally. Still others have questioned a literal interpretation of the numerical measurements of the eternal city described in Rev 21–22.
However, to argue that the number 1000 in Revelation 20 represents just an extended period of time rather than a literal number is to suspend ordinary hermeneutical rules. Deere points out that when “year” is used with a number, the reference is always to a literal calendar year. Moreover, Hoehner observes when John writes that Satan will be released from the abyss for “a short time” (Rev 20:3), an indefinite period of time is already indicated. How easy it would have been for John to write that the kingdom would last “a long time” had this been his intention. Interestingly, the phrase “a long time” occurs in Matthew 25:19 to depict the duration of the Lord’s absence prior to His Second Advent. Yet John does not employ such a phrase and instead furnishes a specific number. Zuck notes that if 1000 is not meant to be interpreted literally, then the door suddenly opens for every other number in the Book of Revelation to be construed non-literally as well, such as 2 witnesses (Rev 11:3), 7000 people (Rev 11:13), 4 angels (Rev 7:1), 7 angels (Rev 8:6), and 144,000 Jews (Rev 7:4).Thomas observes that, “no number in Revelation is verifiably a symbolic number.” In sum, if Revelation is no different than intertestamental apocalyptic writings then various hermeneutical doors open that would otherwise remain closed. These include an aversion to literal interpretation, a layered hermeneutic, code theories, and a symbolic use of numbers.
Revelation is Prophecy
However, opening these hermeneutical doors on the basis of categorizing Revelation with the apocalyptic books is unjustified. A closer scrutiny demonstrates that the differences between Revelation and the apocalyptic works outweigh any similarities between the two. For example, although apocalyptic literature was typically pseudonymous, Revelation bears the name of its author (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). Moreover, Revelation fails to share the pessimism of the apocalyptists who despaired of all human history. Rather, Revelation reflects the optimism of God working redemptively through the lamb presently as well as in the future. Furthermore, apocalyptic literature contains no epistolary material. By contrast, seven ecclesiastical epistles are found in Revelation 2–3.
In addition, non-canonical apocalyptic literature did not emphasize moral imperatives. Although there are occasional exceptions to this rule (1 Enoch 91:19), the apocalyptists are not generally motivated by a strong sense of moral urgency. The reason for this is the apocalyptists’ conviction that they were part of the righteous remnant. They saw their role as one of encouraging the remnant to endure, remain faithful, and have hope rather than persuade people to turn from known sin. By contrast, Revelation utilizes moral imperatives. Humanity’s need for repentance is not only found in Christ’s exhortations to the seven churches (Rev 2:5, 16, 21, 22; 3:3, 19), but the exhortation to repent is found throughout the book as a whole (Rev 9:20-21; 16:9, 11). Moreover, the coming of messiah in apocalyptic literature is something that takes place exclusively in the future. By contrast Revelation portrays Christ as having already come and laid the groundwork for His future coming through His redemptive death (Rev 5:6). Finally, Revelation makes numerous self-claims to be prophecy (Rev 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). In fact, Revelation employs the term prophētēs or its cognates eighteen times. These differences between Revelation and apocalyptic literature are summarized in the following chart.
|Pessimistic about the present||Not pessimistic about the present|
|No epistolary framework||Epistolary frame work|
|Limited admonitions for moral compliance||Repeated admonitions for moral compliance|
|Messiah’s coming exclusively future||Basis for Messiah’s future coming is past|
|Does not call itself a prophecy||Calls itself a prophecy|
Additional dissimilarities can be observed. For example, apocalyptic literature has a different view of suffering than that portrayed in Revelation. In apocalyptic writings, suffering is something that emanates from God opposing forces rather than from God Himself. The apocalyptists did not see suffering as something good that is to be submitted to. By contrast, in Revelation, suffering comes from the hand of God (Rev 5:5). Therefore, at times, suffering is something good and must be submitted to. Moreover, apocalyptic literature is pseudo-prophecy or vaticinia ex eventu, which means “prophecies after the fact.” In other words, apocalyptists typically portray a historical event as future prophecy. However, this is not so in Revelation where John looks from his own day into the future. In addition, Revelation is dominated by an already not yet tension as John looked to the needs of his own day as well as the distant future. Yet, this same tension is not evident in other apocalypses.
Furthermore, other apocalypses typically use numbers to convey concepts rather than count units. By contrast, Revelation appears to use many numbers to indicate specific count units. For example, many futurist scholars believe that various numbers found in Revelation, such as 1260 days (Rev 12:6) or 42 months (Rev 11:2; 13:5), are direct references to the unfulfilled aspects of Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy (Dan 9:24-27). Hoehner’s calculations indicate that the fulfilled aspects of this prophecy had the potential of being accurate to the exact day. Therefore, it stands to reason that the prophecy’s unfulfilled aspects will also be fulfilled to the minutest detail. Thus, the numbers 1260 days and 42 months should not be taken as merely communicating concepts but rather should be interpreted as specific count units. According to Thomas, Revelation contains no verifiably symbolic numbers. Rather, non-symbolic utilization of numbers is the norm.
Moreover, Revelation’s heavy dependence upon on Ezekiel and Daniel also raises questions as to whether the book should be categorized as apocalyptic. Ezekiel and Daniel prophesied 400 years before apocalyptic literature became dominant in the intertestamental period. Also, Revelation 12:1 borrows imagery from Genesis 37:9-10, which took place in the patriarchal era nearly 1800 years before apocalypticism began to flourish. Finally, some apocalyptic writings fail to present a precise eschatological scheme. Yet, many have argued that Revelation 6–19, with its telescoping and fixed seven-year duration, does communicate a fixed eschatological scheme. A chronology of events also seems to be employed in Revelation 20–22.
In sum, although Revelation has many affinities with apocalyptic literature, it is difficult to classify the book as apocalyptic because these similarities seem outweighed by the differences between the two. A better classification for the book is prophecy rather than apocalyptic. This classification best takes into account Revelation’s numerous self claims to be prophecy. It also takes into account Revelation’s similarity to the pattern exhibited by the Old Testament prophets who not only called God’s people to repentance but also comforted them through visions of victory to take place in the distant future (Isa 40–66; Ezek 36–48; Amos 9:11-15). Revelation fits this identical pattern by not only repeatedly calling the seven churches to repentance but also providing these oppressed churches with a prophecy to be fulfilled in the distant future regarding the believer’s ultimate triumph (Rev 4–22). Categorizing Revelation as prophetic is also substantiated upon observing that Revelation alludes to the Book of Daniel more than any other Old Testament book. Moreover, Jesus specifically referred to Daniel as a prophet (Matt 24:15). Because Revelation’s content relies so heavily upon Daniel, it stands to reason that the material found in Revelation should also be categorized as prophetic. The existence of the Greek word apokalypsis that appears in the opening verse of the book does not disqualify Revelation from being categorized as prophecy. This word simply means unveiling and does not have the meaning that modern scholars attach to the term “apocalyptic.”
Literalism and Revelation
The decision to categorize Revelation as of the prophetic genre rather than the apocalyptic genre significantly changes the hermeneutical landscape. If Revelation is prophecy, then one interprets Revelation just as he would interpret any other section of prophetic material. The same literal, grammatical, historical method that is used to understand other sections of prophetic material is also what is needed in order to understand Revelation. Therefore, a new set of hermeneutical principles is not needed to properly interpret Revelation. The previously described hermeneutical doors associated with apocalypticism close to the extent that the genre of the book is prophetic rather than apocalyptic. Instead, the interpreter is confined to literalism, which can be defined as attaching to every word the same meaning that it would have in normal usage.
A consistent application of a literal approach to Revelation logically leads the interpreter away from viewing the book’s contents as being fulfilled in the past and instead leads to the futurist interpretation. A relationship exists between literalism and futurism because the ordinary import of Revelation’s words and phrases makes it impossible to argue that Revelation’s contents have already been fulfilled. The destruction of half of the world’s population (Rev 6:8; 9:15), and the greatest earthquake in human history (Rev 16:18) obviously has never taken place.
By using the literal approach, the interpreter takes Revelation’s content in its ordinary sense until he encounters some obvious clue in the text alerting him to the fact that figurative or symbolic language is being employed. How does the interpreter recognize when figurative or symbolic language is being used? One clue involves looking for overt textual indicators alerting the interpreter to the use of figurative language. One such situation is found in Rev 11:8, which notes that Jerusalem “is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt.” Here, the use of the adverb “spiritually” is designed to alert the reader to the fact that an allegorical or spiritually application is being made.
Another clue involves the use of the word sign (sēmeion). When John uses this word, it alerts the interpreter to the fact that he is speaking figuratively or symbolically rather than literally. For example, because John uses sēmeion to describe the woman in Revelation12:1, it is obvious that the woman is symbolic or representative of something. Another clue involves the words “like” (homoios) or “as” (hōs). When John employs such language, he is indicating a correspondence between what he saw in the vision and what he was trying to describe. For example, Revelation 8:8 says, “And something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea” The word “like” alerts the interpreter to the fact that John is simply using comparative language to describe what he saw and the mountain is not to be interpreted literally.
Another clue involves an identical correspondence in the Old Testament. Because the leopard, lion, and bear in Revelation 13:2 are also used in Daniel 7 to depict nations, the interpreter is alerted to the fact that John is employing symbolic language. Thus, the leopard, lion, and bear also represent nations in Revelation 13 just as they did in Daniel 7. Yet another clue involves an interpretation in the immediate context. If something is interpreted for the reader, then the thing interpreted is obviously a symbol. The woman in Revelation 17is obviously a symbol because the immediate context interprets her to be a city (17:18). A final clue involves looking for absurdity. For example, if the woman in Revelation 12:1 were literally clothed with the sun the heat would destroy her. Because a literal interpretation yields an absurd result, symbolic language must be in use.
After identifying figurative or symbolic language, how is such language to be understood? Sometimes the immediate context interprets the symbol. For example, the dragon of Revelation 12:3 is interpreted as Satan in 12:9. Walvoord identifies twenty-six instances in which a symbol is interpreted in the immediate context. Another method is to see if the same symbol is employed elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example, the same symbol of the woman used in Revelation 12:1 is also used in Genesis 37:9-11 to depict Israel. Thus, the woman of Revelation 12 is symbolic of Israel. This strategy is useful because 278 of Revelation’s 404 verses allude to the Old Testament. Fruchtenbaum’s work is helpful to the interpreter in this regard because it contains a lengthy appendix listing all of the Old Testament allusions found in Revelation. A final method for understanding Revelation’s symbolic language is to note that John through his use of “like” or “as” is attempting to describe futuristic events that are beyond his linguistic ability. Thus, he communicates through language of correspondence. In other words, in order to communicate the contents of his vision, he uses similes or language of comparison by equating things from his own world to the futuristic events that he sees in his vision.
In conclusion, probably the most significant decision that the interpreter can make regarding what hermeneutic he will use in interpreting the Book of Revelation is determining if Revelation’s character has more in common with the prophetic or apocalyptic genre. Viewing Revelation as apocalyptic opens numerous hermeneutical doors such as viewing Revelation’s global language as local language, multivalence, code theories, and symbolic numbers. Conversely, those who see Revelation as belonging to the prophetic genre are bound by the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation, which takes Revelation’s words or phrases in their ordinary sense unless a convincing textual clue informs the reader to do other wise. While Revelation has some affinities with apocalypticism, these similarities are overshadowed by vast differences between the two. The book has far more in common with prophecy. Thus, the similarities between Revelation and apocalypticism are not sufficient to cause the interpreter to dispense with a consistent application of literalism when deciphering the book.
 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 86.
 Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 271-341.
 One often finds a similar approach regarding how interpreters approach Gen 1-11. Because many see the genre of this section of Scripture as a polemic against pagan cosmology, they use this genre categorization as an excuse for suspending the ordinary rules of hermeneutics. They claim that the literal, grammatical, historical method was never intended to be used in a polemical genre. Thus, they see no problem reading into the text ideas that are not naturally found within the text such as the old earth view, theistic evolution, the day age theory, and the local flood theory.
 “An Interview: Dr. John Walvoord Looks at Dallas Seminary,” Dallas Connection (Winter 1994, Vol. 1, No. 3), p. 4.
 John J. Collins, ed., Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre, Semia; 14 (Missoula: MT: Scholars Press, 1979), 9.; George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 76-101; Frederick J. Murphy, Early Judaism: The Exile to the Time of Jesus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 130-33; Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views, a Parallel Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 10-12.
 Kenneth L. Gentry, “A Preterist View of Revelation,” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 38.
 Kenneth L. Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, 2d and rev. ed. (Tyler: TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1997), 151.
 Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views, a Parallel Commentary, 11.
 Sam Hamstra, “An Idealist View of Revelation,” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 129.
 Mitchell G. Reddish, ed., Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 24.
 John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 38.
 G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Duckworth, 1980), 253.
 Don Preston, Who Is This Babylon? (Don K. Preston, 1999), 56.
 Homer Heater, “Do the Prophets Teach That Babylonia Will Rebuilt in the Eschaton?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41 (March 1998): 31-36.
 Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 51.
 C. Marvin Pate, “A Progressive Dispensationalist View of Revelation,” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 160.
 C. Marvin Pate and Calvin Haines, Doomsday Delusions (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill, 1995), 42-44.
 Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1947), 205.
 James Kallas, “The Apocalypse-an Apocalyptic Book?,” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967): 70.
 Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, 336.
 Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views, a Parallel Commentary, 11-12.
 Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1997), 347.
 Jack Deere, “Premillennialism in Revelation 20:4-6,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (January-March 1978): 70.
 Harold W. Hoehner, “Evidence from Revelation 20,” in The Coming Millennial Kingdom, ed. Donald K. Campbell and Jeffrey L. Townsend (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 249.
 Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Colorado Springs: CO: Chariot Victor, 1991), 244-45.
 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8 to 22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 408.
 Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, 323-38.
 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2d ed. (New York: OUP, 2000), 227.
 Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, 338.
 Kallas, “The Apocalypse-an Apocalyptic Book?”: 69-80.
 Leon Morris, Apocalyptic, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 94.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 115-39.
 Thomas, Revelation 8 to 22: An Exegetical Commentary, 408.
 Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 56.
 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1 to 7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 38.
 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), 89-92.
 Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 139, 42.
 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 29-30.
 Thomas, Revelation 1 to 7: An Exegetical Commentary, 40.
 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Footsteps of the Messiah (Tustin: Ariel Ministries, 1983), 454-59.
Andy Woods is a contributor to the resources at SpiritandTruth.org
Andy is the senior pastor of Sugar Land Bible Church and a full professor at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston and teaches Bible and theology. In addition, Andy has contributed to many theological journals and Christian books and has spoken on a variety of topics at Christian conferences.
|Video presentations of Andy’s teaching can be found at SermonAudio.com.|
“Neglect of context is a common cause of erroneous interpretation.”
–A Berkeley Mickelsen
I. What is Context? Here are some definitions:
A. “That which surrounds and gives meaning to something else.”
B. “The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.” (www.dictionary.com)
C. “Context refers to that which goes before and that which follows after.” (Howard Hendricks, Living By The Book, 225).
D. “When we speak of the context, we are talking about the connection of thought that runs through a passage, those links that weave it into one piece (Walter C. Kaiser,Toward An Exegetical Theology, 71.)
II. Importance of Context
A. It is foundational for proper interpretation Paying proper heed to the issue of context may be the single most important principle for correctly interpreting the Bible or understanding any form of communication, including the Bible.
“The first responsibility of every interpreter is to note carefully what precedes and what follows any verse or passage which he is interpreting.” (Mickelsen, 102).
“Good exegetical procedure dictates that the details be viewed in light of the total context. Unless the exegete knows where the thought of the text begins and how that pattern develops, all the intricate details may be of little or no worth. This ability—the ability to state what each section of a book is about and how the paragraphs in each section contribute to that argument—is one of the most critical steps. If the exegete falters here, much of what follows will be wasted time and effort” (Kaiser, 69).
B. Ignoring it leads to wrongs interpretations Whenever a faulty interpretation of the Bible occurs, it is usually because a passage was taken out of its context. “Every major cult is built on a violation of the principle of context.” (Hendricks, 226).
1. Ex. Ezekiel 37:16-17 Mormonism teaches that the joining of two sticks in this passage refers to the joining of the Bible with the Book of Mormon. But the context of the Book of Ezekiel clearly indicates that what will be joined some day are the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Verse 22 states, “And I will make them one nation in the land.” The true meaning is that Judah and Israel will once again be reunited into one nation when God brings His people into their land.
2. Ex. John 14:14 The Prosperity Gospel movement likes to quote John 14:14: “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” Those who teach this claims that we can ask for anything we desire such as money, cars, houses, etc. as long as we tack “in Jesus’ name” at the end of our prayers. They do not stress, though, that to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray according to what Jesus desires not what we selfishly crave. Plus, other texts reveal that answered prayer is based upon praying according to God’s will (see 1 John 5:14–15), praying with an obedient heart (see 1 John 3:22) and praying with right reasons and motives (see James 4:1–3).
III. Tips for Determining a Book’s Context (note: we will get into more detail concerning studying context in regard to literary and cultural matters in later sections. But here are some basic principles for determining the context of a book.)
A. Read the book of the Bible you are going to study multiple times. The only way to correctly understand the parts of a book is to have an understanding of its purpose and major themes.
B. When reading a book of the Bible try to find out the historical situations facing the author and his readers.
1. Does the book indicate who the author is?
2. Does this book identify who the intended audience is?
3. Does the author of a Bible book state his purpose for writing his book?
a. Ex. John 20:31 “These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
b. Ex. 1 John The apostle John gives four purpose statements in 1 John. He wrote this letter so that his readers may have joy (1:4), may not sin (2:1), may not be deceived (2:26), and may know that they have eternal life (5:13).
c. Ex. Luke 1:1–4 and Acts 1:1 Luke’s purpose in writing was to present an orderly account of the life of Jesus and the beginning of the Christian church.
4. Who are the main characters in the book?
NOTE: A good commentary or Bible Survey book can help with understanding the historical situation of Bible books. Recommended sources for this include Encountering the Old Testament by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer and Encountering the New Testament by Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough.
IV. Tips for Determining the Context of a Word or Phrase
A. Keep in mind that words do not have inherent meanings. The meaning of a word is determined by its context. The same word can take on different meanings in different contexts.
1. Ex. World The term “world” (kosmos) can mean: (1) the world of people (John 3:16); (2) the physical planet (John 17:5); or (3) the organized system of evil in opposition to God.
2. Ex. Saved and Salvation Depending on their contexts, these words can refer to (1) Israel’s deliverance from her enemies (Luke 1:71); (2) deliverance from physical danger (Acts 27:20; Matt. 24:13?); deliverance from physical sickness (James 5:15); and deliverance from sin (John 3:17).
3. Ex. Spirit The word “spirit” (pneuma) is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament. It refers to wind (John 3:8), the life breath (Rev. 11:11), the immortal nature of a man (John 6:63), the perfected spirit of a saint in heaven (Hebrews12:23), demons (Matt. 10:1; Luke 4:36) and the Holy Spirit of God (John 4:24; Matt. 28:19). In John 3:8 the word pneuma is used twice in the same context to refer to natural wind and the Holy Spirit.
B. Examine the paragraph or chapter context “The context of the paragraph or chapter is sometimes helpful in clarifying a word, phrase, or sentence that is not made clear in the sentence in which it is used.” (Zuck, 109).
1. Ex. Temple Jesus, in John 2:19, spoke of destroying “this temple.” What is this temple Jesus was speaking of? Verse 21 explains that the temple was Jesus’ own body.
2. Ex. Fire In Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist states, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Is this a fire of judgment or a fire of zealous commitment to God? Since verses 10 and 12 are speaking of judgment, the reference to “fire” in verse 11 is probably referring to the fires of judgment.
3. Ex. Seeing the Kingdom What did Jesus mean when He said to His disciples, “There are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28). The fulfillment of this promise came in the following chapter with the Transfiguration. Jesus gave Peter, James and John a preview of the kingdom that would be established at Jesus’ second coming.
C. Examine the book context
1. Ex. Sin 1 John 3:6 states, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” Does this passage teach that no Christian will ever commit a sin? No. Verses 8–10 reveal that John is talking about “practicing sin.” Plus, other passages like 1:8, 1:10, and 2:1 clearly state that Christians do sin.
2. Ex. Prophets Ephesians 2:20 mentions that the foundation of the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. But are the “prophets” here Old Testament prophets or New Testament prophets? Since the term “prophets” is used of New Testament prophets in Ephesians 3:5 and 4:11, Paul is probably referring to New Testament prophets in Ephesians 2:20.
D. Examine parallel passages “Parallel passages also serve as helpful contexts for ascertaining the meaning of certain words or sentences. Parallel passages may be verbal parallels, in which the same or similar words, phrases, or sentences occur, or idea parallels, in which the same or similar ideas are expressed but in different words” (Zuck, 110).
1. Ex. Matthew, Mark, and Luke
2. Ex. 1 and 2 Kings—1 and 2 Chronicles
3. Ex. Romans and Galatians
4. Ex. Ephesians and Colossians
5. Daniel and Revelation
6. 2 Peter and Jude
E. Examine the entire Bible’s context Since the Bible is written by a divine author and is unified there can be no passages that contradict other passages. So be careful in adopting an interpretation that is contrary to the meaning of other clear passages. Some, for example, have taken Hebrews 6:4-6 to mean that a true believer can lose his or her salvation. Other passages, though, clearly teach that a Christian cannot lose his or her salvation (see Rom. 8:31-39; Rom. 5:9-10; John 10:28-29; Phil. 1:6; and Heb. 7:25).
ALL NORMAL intelligent individuals are able to speak and to express themselves by means of language. In our association with others and in our constant use of language, we seldom think of the laws, the basic principles, involved in the speech which we are employing constantly.
Most people use language very loosely and lack accuracy of expressions. On account of insufficient mental discipline and inattention to what others say, we frequently misunderstand what is said. All too often we act upon the misinterpretation of what is expressed and make mistakes. Just a moment’s consideration of these vital facts leads one to see the importance of our knowing the basic principles of language.
There are reflected in our language the logical processes of the mind. Psychologists tell us that there are certain definite fixed laws of the mind according to which all normal persons think and act. Thus a document, the expression of the working of an orderly mind, bears the imprint of the laws of thought and can only be understood properly and adequately by one who knows the normal, logical working of the mind. The importance of our knowing these laws may be illustrated by the laws of nature in the material, physical world. There are many laws governing the materials which are built into an automobile. Among them are those governing the different metals used; those controlling gases and the explosion of the same; and those directing electrical energy. No manufacturer could produce an automobile that would run and serve the purchaser, who does not understand all these laws, and who does not conform his workmanship thereto. There are many laws involved in the construction and the operation of the ediphone into which I am now speaking. If something goes wrong with the electronic part of this machine, it will not record what I am speaking. Then the repair man must come out and make the proper adjustment in order that the machine may operate normally. Language has definite, specific laws of thought that are just as real as the laws governing physical matter. These must be understood, therefore, if we are fully to enjoy the blessings of the language which we are using, and which we are endeavoring to understand. I may further illustrate this necessity by calling attention to the Greek. In college and seminary I devoted seven years to the study of that language. Since then I have been studying it. In fact, there are very few days which pass during which I do not consult my Greek New Testament or the Greek grammar. I have thus put thousands upon thousands of hours into the study of the language, not only the words, but the syntax, and the various shades of ideas that are expressed by the delicate shades of the grammar. I have done this in order to get at the exact thought of the original, inspired writers. No one can adequately understand the Greek New Testament or the Hebrew Bible unless he is willing to study hard and long to master the principles of those languages.
Our Bible has been translated by scholars out of the original Hebrew and Greek into the English. The American Revised Version is probably the best translation to date—although there are places where it can be improved. It is the work of fallible men, and all men make mistakes. Nevertheless, it is, in my judgment, the best we have. The English reader must study hard and long if he is to get the real message of this excellent translation.
The Bible is God’s revelation to man. We have every reason to believe that, not only the thoughts were inspired, but also the very words by which the ideas were expressed in the original tongues were given infallibly by the Spirit. Thus the sacred writers combined spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. The Lord said exactly what He meant and meant just what He said. The prophets and the Apostles spoke in the language of the people to whom they ministered. At the same time their messages were poured into the moulds of the thought forms of the messengers and those to whom they ministered. The Lord had a very definite idea to convey whenever He made a statement. For instance, let us read the first verse of the Scriptures: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the phrase “In the beginning,” the time element of the creation is given. God the Creator is mentioned in the noun, the subject of the verb. What He did is expressed by the word, created—the bringing into existence that which prior to the act, had no form or substance. The heavens and the earth are the things that are said to have been created in the beginning. This is one of the most profound statements to be found anywhere. It is exact and definite. It is crystal clear, so very much so that it refutes the basic assumptions of most modern philosophies.
We could take any statement found in the Scriptures and see that it has a definite, specific meaning. The purpose which we should cherish is to learn exactly what is said, to arrive at the precise idea of the inspired writer.
The Bible is a spiritual book and must be spiritually discerned. The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit; for he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. There are therefore certain spiritual qualifications which a person must possess if he is to understand the revelation of God.
First and foremost, I would say that the first prerequisite is a person’s loving God. God made of one man every person to dwell upon the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons and the bounds of their habitations that they should seek God. All men have a thirst for God, though it is generally perverted beyond recognition by inheritance and by one’s seeking pleasure in sin. Man’s seeking his own pleasure is the result of this perverted love of God and of man’s ignorance. What he wants is satisfaction, contentment, rest, joy. These can be found in God alone. The soul of man was made and given capabilities and capacities so that he could enjoy these blessings in communion and fellowship with God. But by the introduction of sin and by wicked practices this inborn capacity for appreciating God has become perverted. Man therefore seeks pleasure here and there.
But the one who has followed the natural instinct in seeking after God, has come to Him and found Him, and has been born again possesses a love for God implanted in his soul. This supernatural affection may be cultivated by the individual until he, like David, can say that his soul pants for God as the hart does for the water brooks.
I can understand my wife and the things that she says and does better possibly than anyone else. I love her with all my heart. I have associated with her and known her actions and reactions to various situations. Thus loving her and understanding her, I can evaluate a statement that she might make or some action that she might perform better than anyone else. So it is with the one who knows God and loves Him.
A second prerequisite to knowing God’s Word is to will to do His will. The Lord Jesus Christ said to certain Jews that, if anyone willed to do the will of God, he would know of the teaching which he was then putting forth, whether it was from God or from men (John 7:17). Anyone must come to the point where he has made the will of God his will, if he is to enter into a full appreciation of the revealed will of God. Our Lord Jesus said constantly that He came not to do His own will but the will of Him who sent Him. Thus He continued through prayer in communion and fellowship with God.
Another spiritual qualification is the laying aside of human theories and the practices of men which are contrary to the will of God. In Isaiah 66:1-5 we have a prediction regarding the Jews who will rebuild the Temple and reinaugurate the old Temple services and the Mosaic ritual.
In regard to these Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, said that they will have chosen their own way and that their souls will have delighted in doing their own abominations; He therefore declares that He will choose their delusions and will bring their fears upon them. These men choose the things which they will do and the things in which they delight. Thus they do not consider God whatsoever in their plans and purposes. He therefore chooses their delusions and makes them believe a lie. He then brings upon them the judgment of their deeds.
Certain of the elders of Israel came to Ezekiel. Concerning them the Lord revealed to the prophet that they were not really seeking the will of God, but that they had taken their idols into their own hearts; yet they were coming to him to inquire concerning the will of God. Concerning such people the Lord made this revelation:
“Every man of the house of Israel that taketh his idols into his heart and putteth the stumblingblock of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to the prophet; I Jehovah will answer him therein according to the multitude of his idols; that I may take the house of Israel in their own heart, because they are all estranged from me through their idols” (Ezek. 14:4,5). Thus all idols, of whatever type they may be, must be laid aside if one comes to God—to His Word—in order to ascertain the real message from the Almighty.
Still another prerequisite for the understanding of God’s Word is that each person should pray to the Lord to open his eyes in order that he might see the wonderful things in the Word. David had the revelation of God before his eyes in the form of written documents. He was a brilliant man, but he realized that the human mind must be illuminated by the Spirit of God in order that it might know what is in the Word. The ordinary intellect can grasp some of the facts that are lying on the surface of the Word; but David was not satisfied simply with this superficial meaning of the Revelation. What he wanted was to see the wonderful and the deep spiritual things of the Word. He knew how he could be brought to see them. Thus he cried to the Lord constantly to open his eyes that he might behold these wonderful things. The Apostle Paul urged the church at Ephesus to pray that their spiritual perception might be heightened in order that they might understand the great spiritual realities which are ours in Christ.
I well remember when I learned this important truth. When my attention was called to it, I began to pray for this spiritual insight. The first time I uttered that prayer, the Lord enabled me to see things that I had never observed before, neither had heard fall from any man’s lips. In tens of thousands of instances since that day I have asked Him to open my eyes to behold these wonderful things. He always grants my petitions for further light. I am not one of the Lord’s pets, because He has none. Any of His children who will come to Him and ask Him in faith to give them spiritual insight into the Word will be heard, and the blessing will be granted—provided they will use it to His glory and honor and to their spiritual good. Let us therefore constantly ask Him to enable us to see the wonderful things in the Word. As we learn them, let us put them into practice and go forward in His cause.
We shall now turn to the intellectual requirements that are necessary to the understanding of the Word. In the first place let me call attention to II Timothy 2:15: “Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth.” The Apostle urged Timothy to give diligence to show himself approved unto God, handling aright the Word of God. The King James Version says “study to show thyself approved unto God.” The translation found in the Revised Version is of course the correct literal rendering. But a person may handle aright or incorrectly the Word of God. If he handles it aright, or “holding a straight course in the word of truth,” he will, all things being equal, get the real message of the Word. Paul himself believed in studying the Word, even though he was an inspired apostle. He therefore urged Timothy to bring “the books, especially the parchments” (II Tim. 4:13). Daniel, a prophet of God, studied Jeremiah’s prophecies and compared them with “the books,” probably the books of Kings and Chronicles. In doing this research, the prophet was endeavoring to get at the meaning of the written Word. Let us therefore study the Word in order that we might get its message.
The importance of this principle I may illustrate by the primitive Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian languages. Scholars went through out the ruins of Egypt and stood amazed before the hieroglyphics inscribed on the monuments. They sought in every way to decipher these. All efforts were in vain until the Rosetta Stone was discovered, which afforded the key to this archaic writing. Then scholars began to study and to translate it. Thus there has been extracted from these unique records of Egypt the stories of the ancient Pharaohs.
The old Babylonian and Assyrian monuments were as silent as the grave to us moderns until Rawlinson copied the Behistun inscription, which afforded the key to the old cuneiform writings. Since then scholars have mastered the languages of these peoples and have read the stories of empires long buried beneath the sands of the centuries. It took hard work on the part of these scholars to ferret out the orthography and the grammar of these languages long-dead. Faithful scientific study and toil always bring results.
Thus it is in the field of biblical study. There are certain fundamental laws of biblical thought that must be mastered, if anyone is to understand adequately the message of the Scriptures. Below I am giving the principal laws of interpretation that will be discussed, the Lord willing, in this series of articles:
I. The first step in interpretation.
II. The second step in interpretation.
III. The golden rule in interpretation.
IV. The law of first mention.
V. The law of double reference.
VI. The law of recurrence.
VII. A play on words.
VIII. An analysis of figures of speech.
IX. The avoidance of extreme literalism.
X. The law of the contexts of quotations.
XI. Hebrew parallelism.
XII. Interpretation vs. Application.
XIII. Symbolic language.
XIV. Comparing scripture with scripture.
XV. Studying obscure passages in the light of plain ones.
Read more from Dr. David L. Cooper:
By Andy Woods
What makes someone a dispensationalist? While many view Dispensationalism as a mere theological system, this assessment is inaccurate. In actuality, Dispensationalism has more to do with commitment to a particular hermeneutic then it does to adherence to a theological model. The Dispensational theological system arises out of a hermeneutic rather than from a theology imposed upon Scripture. The purpose of this paper is to describe this hermeneutic and explain how Dispensationalism is its natural by-product.
First, the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic will be defined. In addition to its basic elements, its philosophical goals will be explained. Second, it will be shown that the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic is the same approach used in ordinary communication. In fact, American jurisprudence rests upon this interpretive approach. Third, it will be established that Dispensationalism is simply the outworking of an application of this interpretive approach to the totality of biblical revelation. The historical forces giving rise to the consistent literal approach will be briefly examined.
Literal, Grammatical, Historical Methodology
Post-reformation biblical interpretation employs what is called the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation. Let us break this phrase down into its component parts. The dictionary defines literal interpretation as that type of interpretation that is “based on the actual words in their ordinary meaning…not going beyond the facts.”1 Two concepts seem to be in view. First, according to Ram, literal interpretation encompasses the idea of assigning to every word the same meaning it would have in its normal usage, whether employed in speaking, writing, or thinking.2 Cooper’s “Golden Rule of Interpretation” incorporates such an understanding of literalism:
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.3
Second, literalism resists going beyond what is written. Because literalism resists “going beyond the facts,” when interpreting a given text, literal interpreters resist the temptation to import foreign ideas from outside the text. A classic example of going beyond what the text says is the ancient interpretation that the four rivers in Genesis 2, the Pishon, Havilah, Tigris, and Euphrates, represent the body, soul, spirit, and mind.4 Such an idea is not readily apparent from studying the text in Genesis 2. One must go outside the text of Genesis 2 and bring into it foreign concepts in order to arrive at this conclusion.
It should be noted in passing that literal interpretation has been unfairly criticized on the basis that it adheres to a wooden, inflexible literalism that fails to allow for types, symbols, figures of speech, and genre distinctions.5 Such a straw man argumentation is easily recognizable by simply reading how those advocating a literal hermeneutic define the term literal. Charles Ryrie specifically notes that literalism “…does not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation.”6 Ryrie further explains that literal interpretation “…might also be called plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech.”7 Ryrie buttresses this point by appealing to the following quote from E.R. Craven:
The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols are used in prophecy, nor does he deny the great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted-that which is manifestly figurative so regarded.8
The absurdity of the notion that a literal hermeneutic fails to encompass basic figures of speech is also illustrated by the fact that the most extensive scholarly treatment of figures of speech available today9 was completed not just by a dispensational literalist, but by a hyper dispensationalist! E.W. Bullinger, the creator of this work, was not only a literalist and a dispensationalist, but a hyper dispensationalist who believed that the age of the church began after Acts 28:28. Thomas Ice observes, “Bullinger’s work demonstrates that literalists have at least thought about the use of figures of speech in a detailed and sophisticated way and do not consider such usage in conflict with literalism.”10
Grammatical interpretation observes the impact that grammar plays in any given text. Thus, bible interpreters must correctly analyze the relationship that words, phrases, or sentences have toward one another. Such an analysis entails the study of lexicology (meaning of words), morphology (form of words), parts of speech (function of words), and syntax (relationship of words).11 Historical interpretation takes into account historical context, setting, and circumstances in which the words of Scripture were written. Milton S. Terry explains:
The interpreter should, therefore, endeavour to take himself from the present, and to transport himself into the historical position of his author, look through his eyes, note his surroundings, feel with his heart, and catch his emotion. Herein we note the import of the term grammatico–historical interpretation.12
In essence, the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation is designed to arrive at authorial intent by allowing the ideas plainly found within the text to speak for themselves.
Why should biblical interpreters employ the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation? J. Dwight Pentecost cites four dangers when such an approach is not used.13First and foremost, the authority transfers from the text to the interpreter. In other words, the basic authority in interpretation ceases to be the Scriptures, but rather the mind of the interpreter. Early church father Jerome warns, “that the faultiest style of teaching is to corrupt the meaning of Scripture, and to drag its reluctant utterance to our own will, making Scriptural mysteries out of our own imagination.”14 F.W. Farrar adds, “…once we start with the rule that whole passages and books of scripture say one thing when they mean another, the reader is delivered bound hand and foot to the caprice of the interpreter.”15 Bernard Ramm observes, “The Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hands of the exegete.”16 Walvoord observes:
It’s not too difficult to account for the widespread approval of the spiritualizing method adopted by many conservative theologians as well as liberal and Roman Catholic expositors. Fundamentally its charm lies in its flexibility. The interpreter can change the literal and grammatical sense of Scripture to make it coincide with his own system of interpretation.17
Thus, scripture becomes held hostage to whatever seems reasonable to the interpreter when the literal, grammatical, historical interpretive method is dispensed with. The text becomes swallowed up in the personal theology of the interpreter rather than allowing the one’s theology to be built from the text.
Second, the Scripture itself is not being interpreted. The issue becomes not what God has spoken but what the interpreter thinks. In other words, the text becomes servant to the interpreter rather than the interpreter being subservient to the text. Terry explains:
…it will be noticed at once that its habit is to disregard the common signification of words and give wing to all manner of fanciful speculation. It does not draw out the legitimate meaning of an author’s language, but foists into it whatever the whim or fancy of an interpreter may desire.”18
Third, one is left without any means by which the conclusions of the interpreter may be tested. When the objective standard of language’s common meaning is dispensed with, one man’s personal interpretation becomes just as valid as anyone else’s. In such an environment, there is no way to determine whose interpretation is correct because there is no longer an objective standard that personal interpretations can be compared to. Fourth, there is no mechanism to control the imagination of the interpreter. Ramm notes:
…to state that the principal meaning of the Bible is a second-sense meaning, and that the principle method of interpretation is “spiritualizing,” is to open the door to almost uncontrolled speculation and imagination. For this reason we have insisted that the control in interpretation is the literal method.19
Thus, literal interpretation properly constrains the dictates of the carnal imagination by allowing it to roam only so far. Otherwise, interpreters (to borrow the language of the great New York jurist, Chancellor James Kent) would be able to “roam at large in the trackless fields of their own imaginations.” In sum, traditional maxims of biblical interpretation have as their underlying goal the pursuit of authorial intent by first and foremost observing the ideas plainly presented in the text. A related goal is to shift the authority in the interpretive process away from the subjectivity of the interpreter’s ever-vacillating imagination and back toward the objectivity of the static text. In essence, the goals of the literal, grammatical, historical method is to dethrone the interpreter in the interpretive process.
Similarities to Legal Interpretation
The above-described hermeneutical philosophy should come as no great surprise. It is the same hermeneutical philosophy that is used in the everyday communication. If the above-described hermeneutic were not adhered to then everyday communication could not take place. Stopping at a stop sign, ordering from a menu, and paying taxes on time could not be accomplished if the literal, grammatical, historical method is dispensed with. The literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic is the same method that is used to decipher any sane piece of literature.
Contracts and Other Devices
This same rationale also exists in the domain of legal interpretation. For the same reasons described above, when interpreting a contract, courts first of all observe the plain meaning of the contract language. Because courts understand that parties have a right to enter into contractual terms of their own choosing, courts understand that they are not in the business of rewriting contracts in a way that is contrary to the expressed wishes of the parties. Therefore, courts allow the authority in the interpretive process to reside in the contract language rather than in their own opinions regarding what the contract should or should not say. Justice Flaherty succinctly summarized the philosophy behind literal interpretation in contract law:
…the rationale for interpreting contractual terms in accord with the plain meaning of language expressed is multifarious, resting in part upon what is viewed as the appropriate role of the courts in the interpretive process: This court long ago emphasized that the parties have the right to make their own contract, and it is not the function of the court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with…the accepted and plain meaning of the language used…In addition to the justifications focusing upon the appropriate role of the courts in the interpretive process, the plain meaning approach to construction has been supported as generally best serving the ascertainment of the contracting parties mutual intent…In determining what the parties determined by their contract, the law must look to what they clearly expressed. Courts in interpreting a contract do not assume that its language was chosen carelessly. Neither can it be assumed that the parties were ignorant of the meaning of the language that they employed…20
Similarly, because courts desire to honor the wishes of the testator, they also allow authority to rest in the testamentary document itself by utilizing a literal approach when interpreting such documents. Moreover, because the judiciary traditionally has not desired to transform itself into a super legislature, it has attempted to follow the plain language of statutes whenever possible when interpreting legislation.
Because jurists have traditionally not desired to amend the Constitution from the bench, they have typically followed the plain language of the Constitution’s drafters thus allowing authority to abide in the constitutional text rather in their own ideological predilections. Traditional principles of constitutional interpretation recognize that the maxim of following the plain language of the text is indeed the best insulation against an overly ideological judiciary. If jurists approached these documents any other way, they would not be interpreting. Rather, they would be amending and rewriting them.
Joseph Story, who was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and the leading constitutional scholar of the nineteenth century, echoed these sentiments. In his influential Commentaries on the Constitution (1833), he called for interpreting the constitution according to the intent of its authors as revealed in the plain meaning of their language. He noted, “The first and fundamental rule in the interpretation of all instruments, is to construe them according to the sense of the terms, and the intention of the parties.”21 Upon informing the readers of the preface of his commentary of his own approach to constitutional analysis, he indicated:
The reader must not expect to find in these pages any novel views and novel constructions of the Constitution. I have not the ambition to be the author of any new plan of interpreting the theory of the Constitution, or of enlarging or narrowing its powers, by ingenious subtleties and learned doubts…Upon subjects of government, it has always appeared to me that metaphysical refinements are out of place. A constitution of government is addressed to the common sense of the people, and never was designed for trials of logical skill, or visionary speculation.22
Story also noted:
In construing the Constitution of the United States, we are in the first instance to consider, what are its nature and objects, its scope and design, as apparent from the structure of the instrument, viewed as a whole and also viewed in its component parts. Where its words are plain, clear and determinate, they require no interpretation…Where the words admit of two senses, each of which is conformable to general usage, that sense is to be adopted, which without departing from the literal import of the words, best harmonizes with the nature and objects, the scope and design of the instrument.23
Similarly, John Marshall, our nation’s third Supreme Court justice, noted:
To say that the intention of the instrument must prevail; that this intention must be collected from its words; that its words are to be understood in that sense in which they are generally used by those for whom the instrument was intended; that its provisions are neither to be restricted into insignificance nor extended to objects not comprehended in them nor contemplated by its framers, is to repeat what has been already said more at large, and is all that can be necessary.24
Thomas Jefferson similarly observed, “The Constitution on which our Union rests, shall be administered by me according to the safe and honest meaning contemplated by the plain understanding of the people of the United States, at the time of its adoption.”25 Moreover, Milton Terry’s above-described definition of historical interpretation bears much resemblance to Thomas Jefferson’s admonition to return to the Constitution’s original intent. Jefferson said that we must:
Carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.26
Although there are similarities in approach when comparing maxims of legal and biblical interpretation, the similarities do not end there. The philosophy of interpretation is also shared between the two disciplines. The underlying goal of both legal and biblical interpretation is to transfer the authority away from the subjective impulses of the interpreter and instead toward the objective standard of the author’s meaning. Although many in today’s theological climate demean the literal, grammatical, historical, method, it is this very method that our judicial system and political institutions are founded upon. When dispensationalists insist upon the literal, grammatical, historical method, all they are doing is asking that the same interpretive approach routinely used in ordinary communication and in the legal system be applied to Scripture.
The Relationship of the Literal, Grammatical, Historical Method to Dispensationalism
What makes Dispensationalism unique as a theological system is not merely its emphasis upon a literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic. Many theological systems selectively incorporate this hermeneutic. Rather, Dispensationalism remains unique in its insistence in consistently applying this literal hermeneutic to the totality of biblical revelation. Thus, Ryrie includes consistent literal interpretation in his sine qua non of dispensational theology when he says, “the distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation.”27 Notice that Dispensationalism does not have as its starting point the Israel/Church distinction that is then read back into the Bible. Rather it has as its starting point a consistent literal approach to Scripture. This approach causes the interpreter to recognize that Israel and the church are unique. Ryrie is clear that the system known as Dispensationalism did not originate from forcing a theological grid upon the biblical text. Rather it arose when interpreters became committed to a consistent use of the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic. For example, if the same literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic that is used to interpret other sections of Scripture is applied to Biblical prophecy, then the interpreter will naturally see a distinction between Israel and the church.
Historical Rise of the Consistent Literal Approach
Let us briefly examine the historical forces giving rise to this consistent, literal approach to Scripture. This brief historical analysis will emphasize the legal background of the leading advocates of literalism. This background is important in grasping that these interpreters simply took the hermeneutical approach necessary to interpret legal documents and applied them to Scripture. Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, both students of the law in their formative educational years,28 played integral roles in rescuing the church from the Alexandrian allegorical method of interpretation that was introduced in the second century and grew to dominate the church throughout the middle ages. Luther denounced the allegorical approach to Scripture in strong words. He said: “Allegories are empty speculations and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture.” “Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt.” “To allegorize is to juggle the Scripture.” “Allegorizing may degenerate into a mere monkey game.” “Allegories are awkward, absurd, inventive, obsolete, loose rags.”29 Luther also wrote that the Scriptures “are to be retained in their simplest meaning ever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids” (Luther’s Works, 6:509).30
Calvin similarly rejected allegorical interpretations. He called them “frivolous games” and accused Origen and other allegorists of “torturing scripture, in every possible sense, from the true sense.”31 Calvin wrote in the preface of his commentary on Romans “it is the first business of an interpreter to let the author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.”32
Both reformers rejected the use of church tradition as a guide for spiritual truth and instead advocated returning to scripture alone or “sola scriptura” as the source of Christian belief and practice. To put this into legal terms, Luther and Calvin rejected the case law approach as a guide to Scripture.33 The case law method places more emphasis on studying what legal authorities have said about a given legal source than on studying the legal source itself. In addition, both reformers recognized the value of knowledge of biblical Hebrew and Greek due to the fact that a return to scripture inevitably required knowledge of the original languages of Scripture.
However, despite their emphasis upon literally interpreting some aspects of Scripture, Luther and Calvin did not go far enough in applying a literal hermeneutic to all areas of divine truth. Regarding Luther, Roy B. Zuck observes:
Though Luther vehemently opposed the allegorizing of scripture, he too occasionally allegorized. For instance he stated that Noah’s Ark is an allegory of the church. For Luther, Bible interpretation is to be centered in Christ. Rather than allegorizing the Old Testament, he saw Christ frequently in the Old Testament, often beyond what is legitimately provided for in proper interpretation.34
Because the reformers were primarily concerned with soteriological issues, they failed to apply the same literal interpretation that they used to interpret soteriology to the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology.
Such a selective and inconsistent application of a literal hermeneutic was not rectified until the budding of the dispensational movement centuries later. Dispensationalists took the literal hermeneutic applied by the reformers in the area of soteriology and applied it to all areas of theology, including eschatology and ecclesiology. By insisting on the application of a literal hermeneutic to all of Scripture, Dispensationalism, in essence, completed the hermeneutical revolution begun by the reformers.
Emphasizing the legal background of the early dispensationalists is important for two reasons. First, it shows that the early dispensationalists did what the reformers did in applying the same hermeneutic used to interpret legal documents to biblical truth. The only difference between the reformers and the early dispensationalists is that they applied this method more consistently. They applied it not only to soteriological issues but also to ecclesiology and eschatology. Second, according to Charles Clough, the legal backgrounds of the early dispensationalists allowed them to see more clearly than earlier interpreters the nature of a contract or covenant as expressed in Scripture. A major ingredient of Dispensationalism is a proper understanding of the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. If this covenant is unconditional and unfulfilled, then a future for national Israel remains and the church cannot be said to have replaced Israel. Someone trained in the realties of contract law and with an understanding of contract language and the force of a contract would be more sensitive to seeing similar concepts when they occur in Scripture. Clough explains:
Both Nelson Darby and C.I. Scofield studied law in their early years, so they certainly recognized the hermeneutics of contract law. Thus, after uncovering the contractual structure in the Bible through which God governs His relationships with His creatures, these dispensational theologians insisted upon a strict literal and conservative interpretation of contractual (covenantal) terminology.35
Thus, just as Calvin and Luther, the two men most credited for introducing a literal hermeneutic to soteriological issues in the reformation era, were trained in the law, many of the leaders of the dispensational movement were heavily influenced by their legal training and thinking. For example, John Nelson Darby, the man mostly credited with rediscovering the scriptural doctrine of the pretribulation rapture, planned to enter the field of law after graduating from Trinity College in Dublin. He was called to the Irish Chancery Bar in 1822. However, after a spiritual struggle that led to his conversion he opted to give up the law in order to become a priest in the Church of England.36
Another key dispensational thinker was Sir Robert Anderson. Though more recent work may shed new light on Anderson’s prophetic calculations,37 his work The Coming Prince is considered a classic in the area of biblical chronology because of its detailed explanation of the literal fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks. Anderson, like Darby, was also heavily influenced by the legal profession. After receiving his law degree from Trinity College, Dublin in 1863, he became a member of the Irish bar and worked drawing up legal briefs on a traveling circuit. He served as chief of the criminal investigative department of the Scotland Yard. After retiring with distinction, he used his investigative training and ability to think logically to study the Scriptures.38
Cyrus Ingerson Scofield was yet another influential dispensationalist who also happened to be a lawyer. Following the Civil War he studied law and received his law degree. He then entered politics in Kansas. President Grant later appointed him to the office of District Attorney. Scofield’s best-remembered contributions include his influence as a Bible teacher as well asThe Scofield Reference Bible, which advocated a pretribulation rapture, a literal return of the Jews to the homeland, premillennialism, and Dispensationalism.39 In sum, great hermeneuticalstrides have been made in church history when the same literal, grammatical, historical method that is used in ordinary communication is applied to Scripture. Application of such an interpretive approach to soteriological issues ignited the reformation. Dispensationalists finished the hermeneutical revolution begun by the reformers by the applying this hermeneutic to the totality of biblical truth, including ecclesiology and eschatology.
This paper has sought to explain the hermeneutics of dispensationalism. First, the literal, grammatical historical hermeneutic was defined. In addition to its basic elements, its philosophical outlook was explained. This outlook includes allowing meaning to be determined from the text and transferring authority from the interpreter to the text in the interpretive process. Second, it was shown that the literal, grammatical historical hermeneutic is the same approach used in ordinary communication. In fact, American jurisprudence rests upon this interpretive approach. Third, it was established that Dispensationalism is simply the outworking of an application of this interpretive approach to the totality of biblical revelation. The historical forces giving rise to the consistent literal approach were briefly examined. Far from being the product of reading the Bible through an a priori theological grid, Dispensationalism is the product of a consistent, literal approach to Scripture.
1 Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, unabridged, 2d ed., s.v. “literal.”
2 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3d ed. (Boston: W.A. Wilde, 1956; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 89-92.
3 David L. Cooper, The World’s Greatest Library Graphically Illustrated (Los Angeles: Biblical Research Society, 1970), 11.
4 One need only examine the works of Philo to find numerous examples of such a hermeneutical methodology. Philo, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. C. D. Yonge, New updated ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993).
5 For an example of a work that levels this charge, see D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity, 2002).
6 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 86.
8 E.R. Craven and J.P. Lange, ed., Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (NY: Scribner, 1872), 98 (cited in Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 87).
9 Ethelbert W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible: Explained and Illustrated (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968).
10 Thomas D. Ice, “Dispensational Hermeneutics,” Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master, gen. eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 42.
11 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1991), 100.
12 Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (NY: Philips and Hunt, 1883; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 231.
13 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), 5-6. It is instructive to note that Pentecost begins his mammoth work on eschatology with a discussion of literal hermeneutics. Pentecost’s methodology is clear. If the interpreter applies a consistent literal approach to eschatological truths, then the other prophetic concepts found in his book will become readily apparent to the interpreter.
14 Jerome; Quoted by F.W. Farrar, History of interpretation (NY: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1886), 232.
15 Ibid., 238-39.
16 Ramm, 30.
17 John Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 60.
18 Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (NY: Philips and Hunt, 1883), 224.
19 Ramm, 65.
20 Justice Flaherty; Quoted by E. Allan Farnsworth and William F. Young, Cases and Materials on Contracts, 5th ed. (Westbury, NY: The Foundation Press, Inc., 1995), 603-4.
21 Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United Sates, 3rd ed. (Boston, 1858), 1:283, 400.
22 Ibid., viii.
23 Joseph Story; quoted in Edwin Meese, III, Address to American Bar Association, 1985; adapted in “Toward a Jurisprudence of Original Intention,” Benchmark Vol. II, no. 1, (January-February 1986): 10.
24 Chief Justice John Marshall in Ogden v. Saunders, 6 L. Ed. 606, 647 (1827).
25 Thomas Jefferson; quoted in John Eidesmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 392.
26 Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Bergh, ed. (Washington D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XV, p. 449, in a letter from Jefferson to Justice William Johnson on June 12, 1823.
27 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 40.
28 Alan W. Gomes, Reformation & Modern Theology and Historical Theology Survey Course Syllabus (La Mirada: Biola Bookstore, 1999), 23; Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1985), vol. 2: 62.
29 Martin Luther; Quoted in Farrar, 328.
30 Martin Luther; Quoted by Zuck, 45.
31 John Calvin; Quoted in Zuck, 47.
33 John Eidesmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 402.
34 Zuck, 45.
35 Charles Clough, “A Meta Hermeneutical Comparison of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal 7 (April-June 2001): 76-77.
36 Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), 112; Floyd Elmore, “Darby, John Nelson,” in Dictionary ofPremillennial Theology, ed. Mal Couch (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), 82.
37 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 115-39.
38 Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), 119.
39 Ibid., 119-120.
Below is my completed and finished term paper I transcribed for my course and studies in Biblical Hermeneutics. I am indebted to Dr. Mal Couch, President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute in Ft. Worth, Texas for personally grading and editing this time consuming work. In addition, I am also indebted to the scholarly books written by both Dr. Bernard Ramm and Dr. Roy Zuck. Without these two works of literature I would’ve been unable to further understand the basics of Biblical interpretation. I hope this study will benefit others as it has me.
Hermeneutics is the science and art of linguistic interpretation, in this case, Biblical interpretation. It is a science because there exists a systematic, mechanical, and formulated approach to the interpretation process. It is an art because it involves an individual’s talent, skills, and knowledge to perform the task of interpreting the Scriptures. Hermeneutics comes from the Greek form of the god, Hermes, who was a messenger of the gods. According to Greek mythology, Hermes gave and interpreted the messages sent by the immortal gods to be given to mortal man.
The primary need for hermeneutics is to understand and to know what God has said to us through His written word. The intent is to determine the meaning of the Word of God.1 The secondary need for hermeneutics is to put aside any denominational, geographical, or cultural bias’ that separate our minds from that of the writers of the Bible in order that we may better understand the Word of God. Hermeneutics is essential to the student of Scripture. Without it, we cannot properly grasp the message that God desires to convey to us.
Some may argue, “Since the Bible was written some 2,000 years ago, what use is their in interpreting these ancient, age-old scriptures?” A valid argument indeed. However, most, if not all of the scriptures we have today are as it was originally written. For example, according to Dr. Harold Hoehner, Chairman of New Testament Greek Department, Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas; we have 99% or more of the New Testament text, as it was originally written by the apostles.2 Additionally, we have probably some 96% or more of the Old Testament text as determined by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Keys to Interpretation
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Biblical interpretation process is the utilization of Bible tools. Bible tools are a must when studying the Bible. Without them, one could not know the background, or the historical, geographical, and religious settings, the social status, or customs of a particular person, place, or thing mentioned in the Bible. According to Bernard Ramm, an interpreter must have, “those works which deal with the inspiration, canon, and criticism of scripture. He should have standard grammars, lexicons, and concordances of the Hebrew and Greek languages. He should consult the learned commentaries of the past and present.”4
To show an example of the importance and usefulness in using Bible tools let’s briefly examine Paul’s letters addressed to the Corinthians:
From reading these letters, one would not know that the city of Corinth was a major cosmopolitan city in Greece located at a crossroads of travel and commerce5 between the two bustling seaports of Lechaeum and Cenchreae. Because of it’s location, it was a very ethnically diverse city consisting of Greeks, Romans, Jews, and many other people of the Mediterranean. Additionally, the city had it’s share of wealth. By day the people gathered to conduct business transactions and by evening they would conveniently patronize the many now excavated night clubs and taverns that existed throughout the city. To this day archaeologists have unearthed over 33 taverns throughout the city of Corinth.6 Historically, the city was taken as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar almost 100 years prior to the time in which Paul wrote these letters to the Corinthian church. Eventually, during the Roman occupation, the city became the provincial capital of the Roman province of Achaia therefore the residence of the Proconsul Gallio as mentioned in Acts 18:12. As stated earlier, the city had acquired much wealth, and with it came much corruption and sexual immorality. Interestingly enough, the Greek verb korinthiazomai meaning “to practice fornication” is a derivative of the city’s name.7 Paul specifically addresses such issues as sexual immorality explicitly in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:9-20. Another issue Paul raises is about men who pray or prophesy with their heads covered, thus dishonoring God (1 Corinthians 11:3-5). What the scriptures don’t tell you is that it was a customary practice amongst the Romans to wear devotional head coverings during the worship of their many polytheistic gods. Apparently the Corinthian church had observed this practice and followed suit not understanding it’s spiritual implications.
Space would not allow for me to list the many more examples of additional information that can be obtained from the use of Bible tools specifically pertaining to the Corinthian letters. Many numerous books ranging from commentaries to study series have been written about 1st and 2nd Corinthians alone. Just imagine the vast wealth of information that exists and are at the disposal of our fingertips pertaining to the Bible in it’s entirety. Personally, I have enjoyed utilizing a recently developed resource in my study of God’s Word — the internet. Many seminaries, universities, organizations, ministries, and scholars have provided much information to the public about the Bible. Some sites have devoted itself to the sole purpose of teaching God’s Word and nothing else. Aside from the internet, I myself proudly boast of an extensive library consisting of many Bible references such as: Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, The (surprisingly conservative) Oxford Companion to the Bible, Matthew Henry Commentary Series, J. Vernon McGee’s Thru the Bible Commentary Series, Harper’s Encyclopedia of Bible Life, The NIV Complete Concordance, The Complete Works of Josephus, Halley’s Bible Handbook, The Thompson Chain Reference Bible Companion, The New Bible Atlas, and lastly, The Master Christian Library (V.5) on CD-ROM which consists of a multitude of reference works.
Aside from the utilization of Bible tools and reference books, it is also important to know and understand the original languages used in the Bible for the interpretation process. According to Ramm, “To be a competent Biblical interpreter a knowledge of the original languages is indispensable.” Additionally, Ramm notes, “It is a principle of Protestantism, the soundness of which has been confirmed by the experience of centuries, that there should always be in the churches a body of men able to go behind the current versions of the Scripture to the original tongues from which these versions were executed.”8 The Bible as we know it was originally transcribed in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, with some Aramaic. It is therefore essential and imperative for an interpreter and student of the Scriptures to learn at least one of these languages. Why? Today’s English versions of the Bible are mere translations of the original text. They have undergone many translations since the inception of the Bible itself. For example, the Septuagint in the second century B.C., the Masoretic Text of the Middle Ages, the William Tyndale translation into English in 1526, and finally the King James version of 1611, not to mention the many popular versions and translations of the 20th century alone. Please see previous study entitled, A Brief History of the Bible. One can see the necessity of going back to the original tongue to truly understand the proper and in-depth meaning of the words contained within the Scriptures. It is also important for the student to know the original tongues to truly understand the message that the authors of the books were trying to convey to the audience. With a thorough knowledge of at least one of the original languages coupled with utilizing available Bible tools such as a Greek lexicon, an interpreter will get a very good idea of what the author is saying. I myself have had no linguistic training in any of the original languages of the Bible, with the exception of Spanish since Paul himself had visited Spain (Romans 15:24,28), although it is irrelevant in the interpretation process. However, because of my training, I am somewhat aware of the language barrier that Paul might have faced when he in fact did visit Spain. In conclusion, a knowledge of any or all of the original languages of the Bible is essential and imperative in attempting to fully and properly understand the message and words of the Bible.
The Interpretation Process
Within the science of interpretation there exists three essential and primary steps in the interpretation process. They are: Observation, Interpretation, and Application.
Observation is the first of three steps in this interpretation process. This step asks, “What does it say?” As the interpreter, we are to objectively observe the whole picture of what we are attempting to interpret. Figuratively, we are to act as a detective — investigating, and examining what the passage is saying. Within this process, the interpreter is to determine the background and setting of all that encompasses the passage, including that of the author himself. Additionally, he is to observe the text itself, determining what is a metaphor, simile, transitional or comparative word, etc. Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
– Who are the key figures in the book? Who is Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Cyrus, Paul, Timothy, Barnabas, Peter, John, Luke, etc.?
– What are the key dates? When was the book written? When did the author die? When did King Cyrus reign? When was the temple completed?
– What are the key verses in the book? What are the key words? What statement is the author trying to convey?
– What are the key events taking place? Pentecost? Martyrdom of Stephen? Paul’s conversion? The calming of the storm? Christ’s resurrection?
– What conclusions can be drawn from this passage? Must we observe Jewish customs and laws while being a Christian? Can we summarize the passage?
– What is the historical setting? When was Ephesus occupied by the Romans? When did Paul setup the church at Antioch?
Additionally, the interpreter will observe any key doctrines, themes, and the author’s intention in writing the book. It is within this process that the interpreter would greatly benefit by utilizing Bible tools and references. Dictionaries, commentaries, Bible atlases, concordances, etc. It is important to interpret literally in this process and to allow the Bible to speak for itself. In the Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute’s, Hermeneutics course study notes, Dr. Mal Couch points out, “study objectively not subjectively.” It is important to not allow any preconceived conclusions to influence this vital step of interpretation. This includes denominational beliefs, personal opinions, spiritualizing or excessive allegorizing of the passage, etc. Lastly, without this first process of observation, the interpreter cannot properly continue to the next step — interpretation. As Zuck states, “Interpretation should build on observation and then lead into interpretation.”9
Interpretation is the second of three steps in the process of interpreting the Bible. This step asks, “What does it mean?” As discussed earlier, the interpreter must first perform a thorough and concise observation of the book or passage prior to continuing on with the remaining steps of the interpretation process. Within the process of interpretation, the interpreter is to determine the meaning of the passage or book, and to whom it is addressed to. Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
– Who wrote the book? Paul? Moses? Luke? David? Who in fact did write Hebrews?
– What is the overall theme of the book? About God’s grace? God’s love? The establishment of the Law? Paul’s missionary journey’s?
– Who is the third person? Me? God? Jesus? Who is the “I” referring to? Daniel? When Christ said, “God so loved the world.” Who is the world? Only those that believe?
– Can certain passages be generalized? Or must it be specified? Is it literal? Is it symbolic? The Beast of Revelation. Is it an actual man, or is it a system?
– Does the passage only refer to that particular generation? Or does it similarly refer to our generation of today?
– What does the passage mean? When Jesus said, “I am the vine.” What is the vine referring to? What does the term, “last days” mean? Was it at the time of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.? Or is it yet future?
As can be clearly seen, it is obvious that the interpreter will have to again consult his or her Bible references and tools during this process. Additionally, a lot of cross-referencing will be made as well. For example, in comparing similar passages that can be found throughout the synoptic gospels. How does Luke describe the account of Jesus’ miracle of calming the storm versus Matthew’s account? Or, what is the difference between the Holy Spirit of the Old Testament such as in Psalm 51:11 and that of the New Testament at the day of Pentecost, it’s first arrival after Christ’s ascension? These are but a few of the many questions that can be asked within this vital step of interpretation. It is worth noting that this crucial step of the interpretation process, “is perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming of these three steps.”10 If ever there were a step that should not be avoided, ignored, or even misused, it is this one. After confidently analyzing and interpreting the applicable book or passage, the next step of the interpretation process is application.
Last and foremost is the application process. This step is the final of three steps in interpreting the Bible. This step asks, “How does it apply to me?” Without this step, the reader will not properly understand how the passage pertains to his or her life. Perhaps the most important aspect of this step is in determining who the passage is both directly and indirectly addressed to. Additionally, it must be determined if the passage can be applied directly to all, at any time, or not. These determining factors can be better labeled as: Direct, Indirect, and Generic.11 Some of the questions the interpreter might ask are:
– To whom is the passage addressed to? Timothy? Titus? The church at Colosse?
– What is the passage about? Church government? Marriage? How to approach a brother who might be in error? Spiritual gifts?
– Who is the passage directly applied to? Me? Timothy? Anyone?
– How would it be indirectly applied? Written directly to Timothy, but indirectly to pastors? Spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6 applied directly to the church at Ephesus but could it be indirectly applied to any of us today?
– How can I determine if it is a generic application? What key words are observed in determining this? For example, all, you, I, the church at Philippi.
Using Galatians 3:26-27 as an example. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We must determine to whom Paul has directly and indirectly applied this passage to. Clearly, the passage was directly written to the church in Galatia. By using the interpretation process, the student will have seen that in Roman society, a youth coming of age laid aside the robe of childhood and would put on a new toga. This represented his passage into adulthood with full rights and responsibilities. Paul combined this cultural understanding with the concept of baptism. After being baptized, the Galatian church were becoming spiritually grown up and ready to take on the privileges and responsibilities that came along with being more spiritually mature.12 Indirectly, this passage can be applied to all of us today. Some of the key words can be observed, “…all of you who were baptized into Christ“. All of us who have been baptized must recognize we too have now put on new robes and have clothed ourselves with Christ, ready to take on anything the Lord might give us. After all, we have had the honor and blessing of being called, “sons of God”.
On a personal level, I myself have struggled with this particular step in the interpretation process. Because of this, since becoming a Christian, I have purchased what is called the NIV Life Application Study Bible by Zondervan publishers. This Bible has been instrumental in assisting me in understanding the Bible and how it applies to my life today. I strongly suggest this study Bible to all who might likewise have difficulty in understanding the application of the Bible to one’s own personal life.
As with any book of the Bible it is important to know and understand the elements of the setting of the book in which you are about to study or interpret. Let’s take the book of Ephesians for example. First, in the observation process, we must present ourselves with many questions. Who are the Ephesians? Where are they located? What is their history? What are their cultural and social customs like? What spiritual problems were they faced with? What was the overall religious life like in Ephesus? Personally, one of my favorite passages and one of the most well known and commonly used verses in Ephesians is chapter 6:10-18 regarding spiritual warfare. Why did Paul write this passage? Were the Ephesians faced with hostile forces around them? Were they constantly being persecuted? Were there many opposing religious beliefs around them? It is important for us to understand these elements and to answer the questions before beginning the process of interpretation and application. Without knowing the background and setting of the book, we won’t know what the intention of the author was in writing the book and therefore not fully understand how it applies to us today.
Overall, the book of Ephesians is a letter of encouragement to the believers at Ephesus. It was not meant to address any particular heresy or problems such as in the case of other letters Paul had written. The Ephesians are a group of people who reside in the city of Ephesus located just east of Athens across the Aegean Sea. It is located in Asia Minor in what is today modern day Turkey. Historically, Cyrus of Persia in the 6th century B.C. and Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. both had left their marks on the Asiatic peoples that made up it’s population. Under Roman rule, which began about 190 B.C. Ephesus became a racial melting pot.13 Because of this, it became a point of many diverse religions and beliefs of the Roman empire. The dominating religion of the area was that of Diana worship. The goddess of fertility. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world once existed in Ephesus, the Temple of Diana. It was a splendid building of great architecture especially for it’s time. As an Ephesian Christian it would be quite common to witness legalized prostitution that was so prevalent throughout the city. These prostitutes were simply a part of the religion and worship itself and were referred to as “temple prostitutes”. Sex was a means of worship to the goddess of fertility. In addition to Diana worship, emperor worship was another major religion of the area. Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero were deified by the peoples of Rome. Statues and sculptures of these Roman gods can be found throughout the Roman empire and local cities. These and many other acts of worship were against the very nature of God. The local Christians at Ephesus were faced with these issues on a daily basis and needed the comforting and encouraging words that Paul had written to them. Additionally, the passage on spiritual warfare was added ammunition for their constant spiritual battle that surrounded them. With the discovery of many Christian decorated tombs and burial sites and unearthed churches and inscriptions it’s apparent that Christianity eventually became the flourishing and dominant religion of Ephesus.14
We can clearly see now why Paul was led by the Spirit to write this book. We see what issues existed, and what the church was up against in Ephesus. More so, we can now properly understand the intention the author had in writing this book and how it applies to us today. Does Ephesus resemble America today with it’s many religions, cults, and beliefs? What about the moral dilemma we face in our country? Just like the Ephesians, we too see prostitution on our streets, and the worship of sex on television, internet, billboards, magazines, etc. The large temples constructed to worship the goddess of fertility in the form of “Gentlemen’s Clubs”, and “Cabaret’s”.
Knowing the Writer
Aside from understanding the background of a book, it is also quite important to fully know and understand the writer of the book you are about to examine and interpret. A knowledge of the writer himself will in turn give you a brief glimpse into his life and his intention in writing the book in the first place. As an example, let’s examine the one man most known for writing numerous books of the New Testament, the apostle Paul. What are some important factors about the background of this most remarkable man? Let’s examine.
Aside from Bible reference tools, we can learn quite a bit about the apostle Paul just from the Bible alone. Before becoming the apostle Paul, he was known as Saul. He was born in Tarsus of Cilicia (Acts 22:3). He was a descendant of Abraham from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1). He was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28). Saul was a learned Jewish scholar under the teachings of Gamaliel where he received thorough training in the law (Acts 22:3). He knew the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages (Acts 21:40). He was a tentmaker by trade (Acts 18:2-3). He was a Pharisee (Acts 26:5) He hated and persecuted Christians (Acts 22:4). He was supernaturally converted to Christianity by the Lord Himself (Acts 9:3-9, 22:6-11). His name changes to Paul (Acts 13:9). He received the gospel through direct revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12). He partly received this revelation while in the desert of Arabia (Galatians 1:17). He undertook three primary missionary journey’s with a fourth to Rome:
– First Journey (A.D. 47-48) Acts 13-14
– Second Journey (A.D. 49-52) Acts 15-18
– Third Journey (A.D. 52-56) Acts 18-21
– Fourth Journey (A.D. 56-58) Acts 21-28
These missionary journey’s consisted of winning people to Christ, preaching the Gospel, church planting, establishing church government, defending the faith, appealing before governors, and writing numerous books of the New Testament. As a Christian, Paul is believed to have written some 13, possibly 14 books of the New Testament to various peoples and churches. He appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11). Paul was imprisoned many times, his last imprisonment was in Rome while under house arrest under the watch of a soldier to guard him (Acts 28:16). Lastly, the fate of his death is uncertain. The most popular tradition depicts him as a martyr in Rome, beheaded during the intense persecution of the Emperor Nero in the 60’s A.D.15 In regards to Paul’s character, we have learned several things about him. He was a very spiritual person. He was devoutly committed to his Jewish faith and even more so with his faith in Christ as a Christian. Furthermore, we know that he was a very aggressive and zealous person. From his persecution of Christians as a Jew to becoming a light unto the Gentiles zealously spreading the gospel of Christ to all men at all costs. Perhaps he was what we call today, an extrovert — outspoken, bold, involved, and always on the go. All of these factors are important in knowing more about the letters he wrote throughout the New Testament.
The Human Drama
One of the ways in further understanding the author’s intention in writing a particular book is to understand his emotions and feelings, and the circumstances that might have motivated his writing. This is called the “human drama”.
The “human drama” is the emotional expression behind the author’s writing. There is perhaps no more profound example of this drama than what can be found throughout the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms is a written expression of man’s innermost heart, mind, and soul and it’s communion with God. King David is the author of a majority of the Psalms. He is attributed with writing at least 73 of them. It is easy for the reader to see David’s heartfelt emotions throughout the Psalms. One Psalm in particular touches my own heart. Shortly after David had committed the grave sin of adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:4), I visualize him flat on his face dressed in sackcloth, alone before God. He can easily be seen with tears running down his face, unkempt hair, perhaps barefoot, humbly begging and pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Just listen to King David’s heart as it cries out in anguish to the forgiving and loving God:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:1-12)
The intensified emotion and drama can clearly be seen in this Psalm written and expressed by David. Knowing the background behind a particular Psalm or book can better assist the reader in understanding the author’s emotions and feelings at the time he wrote it.
There are many more examples of the “human drama” that can be found expressed throughout the Psalms, not to mention the New Testament as well. For example, many times Paul was imprisoned for various reasons. Amazingly, it was while he was imprisoned that he wrote many letters of the New Testament known simply as the Prison Letters. These letters consist of: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. These were written primarily during his imprisonment while in Rome. Many times throughout these letters we can see his emotions found within the letters themselves. More times than not they were expressed positively and optimistically because of his sincere joy in Christ. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12) Additionally, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21-24)
The Audience to Whom the Book is Written
It is imperative in knowing whom the book is written to. This will impact the interpretation of any given passage of the book. In many of Paul’s epistles the titles of the books themselves are addressed to a particular people, i.e. Corinthians, Thessalonians, Hebrews, etc. Who were the Corinthians? What were they like? Were they comparable to our society today? These questions must be asked and answered by the interpreter before he is to study the book itself. This is so that he might better understand what issues are applicable to us today and how it may directly or indirectly relate to or effect us.
Hermeneutically Teaching the Word
There is a distinct difference between preaching and teaching. “Preaching” (Greek: kerusso) is to proclaim, publish, or herald the Good News. While teaching is to systematically and objectively instruct, guide, and apply others through the Word of God. With the direction of the Holy Spirit, both can ultimately lead to a person’s salvation. In general, preaching should be used for the unsaved while teaching should be used for the saved. In comparing the two, the Bible clearly places greater emphasis on teaching over preaching. Jesus himself was often times referred to as “Teacher” (Matt. 8:19, 12:38, 19:16, 22:24) or “Rabbi” (John 1:38). Additionally, many New Testament passages allude to teaching more clearly:
– “Command and teach these things.” (1 Timothy 4:11)
– “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1)
– “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct…” (2 Timothy 2:25)
However, we are not to neglect preaching. Jesus tells us to, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mark 16:15). Paul tells us to, “Preachthe Word; be prepared in season and out of season, correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)
Within our society today one can clearly see two distinct types of pastors and ministers within our churches. There are those who “preach” the Word, and then there are those who “teach” the Word. A layman who belongs to a church whose pastor might be more of a preacher rather than a teacher might not gain any additional knowledge of the Word of God. However, he or she will be well versed in knowing how to proclaim the Good News or in evangelizing. On the other hand, an individual whose loyalty lies with a teaching pastor will clearly obtain further knowledge and understanding of God’s Word but might lack the “know-how” in witnessing to others. Together, when the two means are correctly utilized can compliment one another. One is not inferior to or worse than the other. Personally, I have heard some really good preaching throughout my walk with Christ, primarily at the time of my conversion. I have also received excellent Biblical teaching as well, both of which have helped my growth in Christ.
The Point of Contact
Having once served in the military and having been inundated with multitudes of acronyms, I like to refer to it as the POC. The point of contact is simply the primary issue that connects the teacher to his/her audience. It is the central focal point that the audience can easily relate to. It’s important for the Bible teacher to determine the issue(s) that are currently affecting the audience prior to engaging in a systematic approach to teaching the Bible. He must ask himself, “How can the lesson be applied to at least a majority of the audience?”
Additionally, he must be educated in knowing how to present and apply the Bible to them while maintaining their attention and focus. For example, a Bible teacher is teaching a middle-class audience. He would want to apply the Bible to issues that affect people of that particular working or social class. Issues such as: money, family, and work. These are the points of contact. Once the teacher has determined the needs and issues of the audience, he can now begin to formulate a way of presenting the applicable passages to the audience. For instance, the teacher might want to apply the following passages to the audience.
– Money – the parable of the loaned money (Matthew 25:14-30)
– Family – the passage for Christian households (Colossians 3:18-21)
– Work – working as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:22-24)
This is only a brief example of the many verses that can be found throughout scripture that can be readily applied to this particular audience. Only the process has been explained. A good teacher will be well educated in knowing how to determine the point of contact of any audience that God might provide them. Only with prayer and practice can this be accomplished.
Determining the Social Environment of an Audience
It is important in knowing the audience you are about to teach and guide through the scriptures. This way the teacher will be able to formulate a concise way of communicating God’s Word to them in a way in which they will fully understand and comprehend.
There is clearly a distinct social difference between an audience from The Bronx, New York and that of Beverly Hills, California. Harlem, New York and Newport, Rhode Island. The West End and Plano, Texas. It can be determined by simply observing the audience before you. Mannerisms, dress, race, material possessions, can all be contributing factors in this determination process. Additionally, being aware of the occupational and educational backgrounds of the audience as a whole can be beneficial as well. You’ll get a feel as to where to begin your approach. “How much do they already know? Are they culturally biased? Will they be able to relate to this passage?” These are all questions that a Bible teacher can ask himself beforehand in determining the social environment of an audience.
Throughout history, there have been many big names in the study of hermeneutics and Biblical interpretation. Some have had a significant positive impact while others have had quite the opposite. As you will see, there have also been both liberal and conservative approaches to interpretation sometimes resulting in heresy or even pure mysticism. We will only examine the one’s who have made significant impacts, both good and bad, within the study of hermeneutics. But before I begin, I must explain allegory first since this was the primary divisive issue throughout the history of Biblical interpretation.
Webster’s dictionary defines allegory as, “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.” Or, “a symbolic representation.”16 Zuck summarizes allegory as, “a narrative or word picture which may or may not be true-to-life, with many parts pointing symbolically to spiritual realities.”17 Both of these definitions accurately describe allegory. There is a correct place for allegory to be interpreted in the Bible just as there is not. For example, many times Christians have suggested that the nation of Israel of the Old Testament is symbolically representative of the Church. Or, the inner chambers of the Jewish Temple is symbolic of the inner recesses of man’s mind and heart. These both have been mistakenly interpreted as an allegory. A correct example of allegory is shown in Psalm 80:8-11: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its boughs to the Sea (probably the Mediterranean), its shoots as far as the River (Euphrates or Jordan).” The “vine” in verse 8 is undoubtedly the nation of Israel and refers to it’s exodus led by Moses in 1446 B.C. “You drove out the nations and planted it.” This is referring to Israel’s many victorious battles against the people who inhabited the land of Canaan, and their geographical establishment as a nation. Verses 9-10 describes Israel’s expansion throughout the newly conquered land. In verse 11, it says, “It sent out its boughs to the Sea, its shoots as far as the River.” This is referring to the nation of Israel’s outermost reaches and boundaries. These are just a few examples of correct and incorrect allegorical interpretation.
Historically, there have been many schools of allegorical interpretation. Greek allegorism – which was later adopted by both Christians and Jews alike. This particular school incorporated philosophical thinking with the prevailing religious traditions of its time. Jewish allegorism – this school of interpretation utilized three primary means of determining what should be allegorized. They are: a) if a statement says anything unworthy of God; b) if a statement is contradictory with some other statement or in any other way presents us with a difficulty; c) if the record itself is allegorical in nature. Christian and Patristic Allegorism – this school had the basic conviction that the Old Testament was a Christian document. Thus, through the allegorical method of interpretation they attempted to make the O.T. a Christian document. From this school many prominent individuals had sprung forth: Clement, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine to name a few. Catholic Allegorism – within this school there were ten primary rules and guidelines of interpretation in which the interpreter had to adhere to. For example, the Latin Vulgate was the only authorized version that the interpreter was to use. Only the Church dictated on matters of authorship and Biblical introduction. The interpreter had to accept all verses which the Church had already interpreted. Ultimately, the Catholic Church is the official interpreter of Scripture.18 Within these schools of allegorical interpretation much liberty was taken, and consequently, many abuses of the Scripture. There were those who allegorized everything and then there were those who never allegorized anything. Today, with experience, prayer, and the aid of Bible tools much of these issues of interpretation can be easily clarified and resolved.
Origen (ca. 185-254), an early church father “was a man of great learning and magnetic personality.”19 He developed many works of ecclesiastical literature such as the Hexpala, an arrangement of parallel text consisting of Greek and Hebrew versions of the O.T. Additionally, he wrote the Treatise Against Celsus and De Principiis both of which were works of apologetics. His basic thought of interpretation was allegory. He believed that there were deeper hidden messages contained within the passages of Scripture because of its vast amount of parables and symbology. He is primarily known to have taken this measure to an extreme, allegorizing everything. One writer stated, it was “fantasy unlimited.”19 In his book, De Principiis, Origen said that Scripture itself demands that the interpreter employ the allegorical method. Additionally, he observed a threefold meaning in Scripture – literal, moral, and spiritual/allegorical. These were the basis of his means of interpretation. He based this theory on the Septuagint’s translation of Proverbs 22:20-21. “Do thou thrice record them…that thou mayest answer with words of truth.”In summary, his approach and method of interpretation can be explained in four primary beliefs:
1) The literal meaning of Scripture is only the preliminary level of Scripture.
2) To truly understand the Bible, we must have grace given to us by Christ.
3) The true exegesis is the spiritual exegesis of the Bible.
4) The Old Testament is the preparation of the New Testament.20
On the surface these methods don’t sound absurd. However, after examining some of Origen’s examples of his allegorical means of interpretation, one can clearly see the absurdities. Examples of some of his allegorical interpretations are as follows:
– He taught that Noah’s ark was representative of the church and Noah represented Christ.
– Rebekah’s drawing water at the well for Abraham’s servant meant we must daily read the Scriptures to meet Christ.
– In Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the donkey represents the Old Testament and the newly acquired colt represents the New Testament.21
This is obviously a gross distortion of the true literal meaning of Scripture. This method was used up until the Middle Ages. Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, rejected Origen’s extreme use of allegories and is quoted as saying, “Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt.”22 In conclusion, there is a proper place for allegory in Scripture, Origen however saw no limitations of it’s usage and at times clearly violated the true meaning of Scripture with his excessive use of allegory.
What Origen did with allegory, Luther did with literalism but not as extreme. Unlike Origen, Luther was much more rational with his interpretations. Luther denounced and opposed the allegorical schools of interpretation. Additionally, Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation (1483-1546) rejected the fourfold sense of scripture which was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages. Instead, he stressed the literal sense of the Bible. He held to a strong belief in the primacy of the Scriptures by going back to the original languages of the Bible in which he was well learned. In his book, Luther’s Works he wrote, “the Scriptures are to be retained in their simplest meaning ever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids.”23 At the time, much of the Roman Catholic church adhered to the allegorical and mystical senses of Scripture. While faithfully serving within the Roman Catholic Church as a monk and eventually a priest, Luther was fully taught the Catholics interpretation of Scripture. For a good part of this time within the Church, Luther struggled with much of these interpretations. Later, as a result of his diligent studying, his emphasis on the original languages, and a literal view, he came to understand and interpret the Scriptures in a whole new light that eventually would lead to the Protestant Reformation.
Luther believed and taught that the common man can now understand the words of the Bible without relying upon the mother Church. He believed that the central focus of Biblical interpretation was centered on Christ. Rather than allegorizing Christ in the Old Testament, he instead saw Christ quite frequently throughout the O.T. Luther adopted six primary principles of hermeneutics, they are as follows:
1) The psychological principle – This principle relied on the direction of the Holy Spirit for insight into the Scriptures. In addition, the Bible was to be looked upon and treated differently than any other form of written literature.
2) The authority principle – The Bible is the final and supreme authority on all theological and doctrinal matters.
3) The literal principle – With attention to the grammatical and historical aspect of interpretation, this principle dismisses allegory and accepts the literal view of hermeneutics with the aid of the original languages of the Bible.
4) The sufficiency principle – The competent Christian was sufficient enough in interpreting the Scriptures without the aid of the Catholic clergy.
5) The Christological principle – The end and final means of interpretation is to find Christ. This is Luther’s intention of making the Bible a Christian document.
6) The Law-Gospel principle – This principle insured the interpreter to distinguish between the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ. The Law exposes man’s sin, while the Gospel cleanses man’s sin.24
With his knowledge of the original languages, the guidance of the Spirit, and the literal view of the Bible, Luther was able to clearly and effectively interpret the Scriptures in the way it was intentionally written by the writers themselves.
In the days of the Post-Reformation (1600-1800), a multitude of movements developed within the field of Biblical interpretation. One of these movements was Rationalism. Rationalism allowed human intellect to determine what is true and what is false in the Bible. What corresponded with man’s reasoning was considered true. What was contrary to man’s reasoning was considered false. One of the pioneers of this movement was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). He was a Dutch Jewish philosopher that taught human reason is free from theology. He denied the miracles of the Bible because of its lack of reasoning and believed the Bible is to be studied solely for historical interests. He did however believe in the necessity of knowing the original languages and the importance of knowing the backgrounds of each book contained in the Bible.25
Friedrich D.E. Schleirmacher
Friedrich D.E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a 19th century liberal theologian/interpreter. He rejected the authority and primacy of the Bible and firmly believed Christianity to be a religion of “feeling and self-consciousness.” Additionally, he believed in subjectivism which holds to the view that knowledge of the Bible comes through ones own experience. A statement from his book entitled, Monologues sums up his view of Christianity, “Christianity should be viewed as a religion of emotions, not as a series of dogmas or a system of morals.”26
Like Schleiermacher, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, who was known as “the father of modern existentialism” believed in the subjective experience of an individual to determine his or her true faith. Overall, Kierkegaard rejected Christianity as a whole because of its vast amount of creeds and rationalism.27 However, unlike Schleiermacher, he did believe the Bible to be the Word of God. He believed the academic study of the Bible was only a preliminary reading of it and the Bible is to be read for what it truly is, God’s Word. To cloud it with ignorance, carelessness, or professionalism will only hinder the underlying message of the Bible.28
Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) basically believed the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was penned by separate individual authors rather than the one author commonly known to be Moses. He adopted this view from Karl Graf and called it the Documentary Hypothesis. This hypothesis consisted of four different authors: Author J – compiled the sections of the Pentateuch that invoked the name of “Jehovah”. Author E – compiled the “Elohim” sections. Author D – was the Deuteronomist, and Author P – compiled the Levitical Priestly code and law. Additionally, he held to the heretical belief that the religion of the O.T. people evolved from a polytheistic religion to animism to eventually monotheism.29
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) believed the Bible is to be interpreted existentially, meaning by one’s own personal experience. Additionally, because they cannot be scientifically proven, he also did not believe in the miracles as described in the N.T. This he labeled the “mythological principle” in his understanding of the Bible. Anything that cannot be scientifically proven is simply passed off as a myth. He attributes the miracles as poetic prose to entice the reader.
Bultmann adopted seven primary principles in his interpretation process that he called “the new hermeneutics”.30 These principles are:
1) The scientific principle
2) The critical principle
3) The mythological principle
4) The demythological/existential principle
5) The dialectical principle
6) The revelational principle
7) The law principle
The Catholic Church
Since the Catholic church was the predominant universal church for nearly 1400 years until the Protestant Reformation, I thought I would add their view on the interpretation of the Scriptures. The church in general to this day relies heavily upon it’s own historical interpretation of the Scriptures. The Catholics view of the Bible is very different from the Protestant view. For example, they only accept the Latin Vulgate as the “authentic” version. Additionally, they believe the Church is the official interpreter of the Scriptures. The priests, or Fathers, are to be guides in interpreting the Scriptures to the laity. Lastly, any passages that seem obscure or unclear, they simply refer to the unwritten traditions of the Church. In conclusion, the Catholic church does not view the Bible as the sole authority (sola Scriptura) for all matters of dispute pertaining to doctrine and interpretation. Instead, the Church feels they possess the authority to make conclusive decisions on all Biblical issues.
Revelation vs. Inspiration
Webster’s Dictionary defines revelation as, “an act of revealing or communicating divine truth.”31 Revelation simply is something that is revealed by God to man. Revelation is very much and still is abused to this day. Within some Charismatic churches today, there are many that still claim to receive revelation from God to be used as additional God-breathed scripture. It is through the supposed revelation from God that Joseph Smith received the words of what is today the Book of Mormons.
On the positive side, when the disciple John was exiled to the island of Patmos, it was there where he received direct revelation from God about future events that would take place throughout the world. He penned this revelation in the Book of Revelation. Additionally, the Apostle Paul received the gospel not by man but by direct revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12).
The entire scriptures were written by means of inspiration. It was written by man inspired of God. In other words, God put His infallible words in written text. The words themselves are what is inspired, not the writer.
It is important for the interpreter to recognize the Bible as a wholly God-inspired work and not just some mere religious book containing words written by man. If an interpreter does not recognize this fact then he will easily find inconsistencies and find the stories rather strange or extraordinary. As Ramm notes, “The divine inspiration of the Bible is the foundation of historic Protestant hermeneutics and exegesis.”32
Other Key Factors of Interpretation
Bible Cultural Background Interpretation
As mentioned earlier, understanding and knowing the cultural backgrounds of the people contained in the books of the Bible is imperative to the interpreter. For example, knowing the Galatian culture might assist the interpreter in better understanding the book of Galatians and their livelihood. He will be able to better understand the issues effecting the Christians of Galatia and Paul’s intentions of addressing them in his epistles.
Even more so, the interpreter must take into account the cultural differences between the Galatians of the Bible and that of today’s culture. Are some of the issues addressed to the Galatian church irrelevant to us today? How does the interpreter determine what is and is not relevant to our cultural practices and customs today? Zuck further elaborates, “The issue of cultural relevance is an important one because of the two tasks of the interpreter: to determine what the text meant to its immediate readers in that cultural setting, and to determine what the text means to us now in our context.”33
The issue of head coverings is an issue that I personally have observed as being a cultural difference. It was about 55 A.D. when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. In this letter, chapter 11, Paul emphatically demands that women are to wear head coverings while prophesying and/or praying. Since a majority of these activities take place in church, I’m sure Paul also intended for women to wear their coverings while attending church or fellowship. How often do we see our Christian sisters wearing hats today in our churches? Not very often. Occasionally, I will see perhaps an elderly woman dawn her beautiful knit hat complete with white, ruffled, feathers and satin bows. But I’m quite sure she was not purposely observing Paul’s ordinance of head coverings. Why is this so? Is it because hats were in fashion 1,944 years ago and aren’t today? If the interpreter consults his tools of references, he will better understand this issue.
Contrary to our culture today, at the time I Corinthians was written it was customary in the eastern world for those that were in subjection or shame to wear some form of veil or covering 34. This is why Paul addresses this issue to women. The woman was subject to her husband while her husband was subject to Christ. By the woman wearing her head covering she is publicly acknowledging her submission to her husband and thereby honoring him. The man on the other hand is commanded to take off any head covering to give full honor to Christ. Should women therefore wear head coverings today in our churches? No. In today’s society quite the opposite is true concerning head covers. Instead, they show authority, importance, or dominion.
We can clearly see the cultural differences of yesterday versus today. This is an important and significant issue that the interpreter must sincerely contend with. He must establish what is and is not relevant to us today. If an issue is not relevant then sometimes the principle is. In which case the interpreter can apply a relevance that pertains to us today and apply it to that very same principle. This cultural understanding is vital in the interpretation process.
Grammatical interpretation is “the process of seeking to determine its [Bible] meaning by ascertaining four things.”35 These four things consist of:
a) lexicology – determining the usage and meaning of words.
b) morphology – determining word forms and how they are structured.
c) parts of speech – determining certain functions of words.
d) syntax – determining the relationship of words and how they are used together.
Grammatical interpretation is important in the overall principle of hermeneutics. Understanding the grammatical usage of words, a particular sentence, phrase, or paragraph is imperative so that the interpreter can get a fuller sense of the meaning of which the writer was trying to convey. Since the Bible is a verbally inspired work then we must truly begin to understand every single word, “jot and tittle”, so that we can grasp every meaning that can possibly be found throughout the scriptures.
Rhetorical interpretation is the process of determining the literary quality of a writing by analyzing its genre, structure, and figures of speech and how those factors influence the meaning of the text.37 In other words, it is the determining process of understanding the organizational layout and different styles of expression and words contained within a certain passage.
Figures of Speech
A figure of speech is a form of written expression used to vividly illustrate a point by using forms contrary to normal laws of grammar. An example of such can be found in John 4:13-14 when Jesus refers to himself as “living water” with his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The “living water” the woman thought of was literal water that would never make her thirst again. The “living water” Jesus was referring to was Himself, the living Word.
Do figures of speech go against literal interpretation? Generally not. In fact, figures of speech can be used to “drive home” (figure-of-speech intended) a literal point or truth. The “living water” is a figure of speech for Christ’s offer of eternal life to all who drink of it. This point is a factual, literal, and true statement. All who accept Christ into their lives will have everlasting life. Zuck gives some primary rules in determining what is figurative and what is literal:
a) Always take a passage literally unless there is ample reason not to.
b) If it is impossible for it to be literal, then the figurative sense is intended.
c) If the literal interpretation is an absurdity, then the figurative approach should be used.
d) Take note of a literal statement immediately following a figurative statement.39
Syntax comes from the Greek word syntassein, which means “to place in order together.”36 Syntax is the process of determining the relationship between words and how they are used together to form sentences, phrases, etc. The order in which words appear and how they are used relationally can make a significant difference in what it is saying. It is important for the interpreter to determine the correct usage of a sentence or phrase by examining this relationship of words.
Literary genre is a category depicting the various forms or types of literature found throughout the Bible. Some of the primary categories are: Legal/Law – consisting primarily of the Pentateuch, replete with a systematic form of rules, ordinances, etc. Narrative – consisting of a story that entails a crisis, problem, or issue that might occur in an individual(s) life with progressive problems that finally reach a climax. Ultimately, the story will end with some form of a solution or victory. Poetry – books put to song, prose, and lament with the intention to convey an important message. Wisdom Literature – consisting primarily of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes because of the vast amount of wisdom given. Gospels – the form of literature used to describe the life of Christ complete with biography, doctrine, and narrative. This form of literature consists of the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of John. Logical Discourse – these are the epistles that can be found throughout the New Testament. Two kinds of epistles exist: expository and hortatory discourse.38 Prophetic Literature – material that consists of information, revelation, and disclosures pertaining to future events. The Book of Revelation written by John is most notable for this form of literature.
A synecdoche is a phrase used to substitute a part of something for a whole or a whole for a part. The term Gentiles is used quite frequently to represent all that are not Jewish. In yet another example in the Olivet Discourse when Jesus was talking about the end-times and days of tribulation, he spoke of two men in the field, one will be taken and the other left (Matthew 24:40). He was not speaking of their being just two men, he was speaking in generalities of many men that will be taken and many that will be left. This is an example of synecdoche.
A merism is a type of synecdoche that comprises of two opposing parts signifying a whole singular concept. An example of such can be found in Isaiah 11:6: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat…” Although these exact animals may in fact live amongst one another peacefully someday, the message here is that there will be a universal peace that will transcend the earth when Christ returns to forever reign. A time when all living creatures, great and small, will live peacefully with one another here in the new earth or in the kingdom of God.
A hendiadys is as Zuck states, “the substituting of two coordinate terms (joined by “and”) for a single concept in which one of the elements defines the other.”40 One example of a hendiadys can be found in I Thessalonians 3:12: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else…”Here, “increase and overflow” can be used as “increasingly overflow”. May the Lord make your love “increasingly overflow” for each other and for everyone else.
Personification is the attachment of human characteristics or expression to anything that is not a human. One such example can be given in Isaiah 14:8, “Even the pine trees and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you and say, ‘Now that you have been laid low, no woodsman comes to cut us down.”
An anthropomorphism is the ascribing of human elements to God. Recently, on a local Christian radio station I was listening to R.C. Sproul. He asked the listening audience to close their eyes and to visualize what God looks like to them. Afterwards, he called upon certain people to describe what they envisioned. Some envisioned God as depicted in Michelangelo’s famous painting at The Sistine Chapel in Italy of the old yet muscular man reaching out to Adam. Others envisioned him as a spirit containing human emotions and characteristics. These are all considered to be anthropomorphisms.
An anthropopathism is a type of figure of speech attaching human emotions and expressions to God. Such an example can be found in Nahum 1:2a, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.” Jealousy is a component of human emotions, thus an anthropopathism.
A zoomorphism is the ascribing of animal characteristics to God.41 Shortly after the mass exodus from Egypt, the Israelites encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai. Moses then went up to the mountain to receive instruction from God. God told Moses what to say to the people. “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4) “eagles’ wings” is an animal feature used to describe God’s carrying the people out of Egypt.
An apostrophe is a figure of speech describing someone speaking or talking to an object as if it were a person. Additionally, it is the description of someone speaking to an absent or imaginative person. An example of this is when Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33) Satan himself was probably not physically there. The Bible makes no reference to it. Yet Jesus addressed Satan as if he was right there amongst the disciples.
A euphemism is “the substituting of an inoffensive or mild expression for an offensive or personal one.”42 Euphemism comes from the Greek word, euphemismos, which means auspicious or to sound good.43
An ellipsis is a set of words to be added by the reader to better understand what seems to be an incomplete sentence or phrase. In Romans 5:13, it says, “For until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” (NASB). For until the Law what? The reader simply adds, “was given” to understand this verse more clearly.
A zeugma is a sentence containing two nouns associated with one verb, when only one noun would suffice. An example of a zeugma can be found in Luke 1:64 which reads, “His mouth was opened and his tongue.” Here there are clearly two nouns associated with only one verb. As Zuck stated, “The NIV has supplied the words “was loosed” after the word “tongue” in order to render the sentence in good English.”44
An aposiopesis is a sudden break in a sentence. This is usually due in part to the character’s overwhelming emotions. Such example can be given in I Peter 2:4-5,“As you come to him, the living Stone rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” It can be speculated that Peter, the author of this book, was caught up in the emotion at the time he wrote this, thus the sudden breaks in the sentences.
A rhetorical question is a question asked by someone that does not necessarily require an answer. It’s primary purpose is to make a certain point and to allow the reader to ponder the thought or reasoning rather than providing an answer. In my own estimation there is perhaps no more profound example of rhetorical questioning as can be found in the Book of Job. Instead of God answering Job’s questions, Job is presented with a series of many questions by God, questions that no man could ever answer. Such questions as:
– “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:4)
– “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb?” (Job 38:8)
– “What is the way to the abode of light?” (Job 38:19)
– “Have the gates of death been shown to you?” (Job 38:17)
– “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?” (Job 38:31)
There are many more that follow. God knew that Job couldn’t possibly even begin to answer these questions. God’s intention for these rhetorical questions was to simply get Job to recognize his awesome power and sovereignty.
A hyperbole is simply an expression used to emphasize a point by using slight exaggerations. One such example can be found in Matthew 18:21-22. Peter went up to Jesus and asked him how many times shall we forgive a brother when they sin against us. Peter went on and asked, “Up to seven times?” Jesus’ response was quite amazing. “Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Jesus obviously did not mean for us to forgive someone only 77 times and after that, that’s it no more forgiveness. He meant that we shouldn’t even keep track of how often we should forgive someone. Just as we have been forgiven we too should also continuously forgive others as long as they are truly repentant and seeking our forgiveness.
A litotes is an understatement or a negative connotation to express a positive point or affirmation. When Paul was expressing how God had given him the grace to preach to the Gentiles, he referred to himself as “the least of all God’s people” (Ephesians 3:8). Additionally, when expressing how Christ Jesus came to the world to save sinners, Paul referred to himself as the “worst of sinners” (I Timothy 1:15). The King James version says he was the “chief” of sinners. Nevertheless, the underlying point is that Christ can save anyone, even Paul, who as he claims, is the worst of all sinners.
Webster’s dictionary defines irony as, “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.”45 When Jesus was explaining to the religious leaders who his Father was, the leaders were responding by saying God was their Father. Jesus then responded with, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” (John 8:44) At first glance it sounds as if Jesus was agreeing with them saying, “You belong to your father…”, then He equivocally continues by saying, “the devil”. He goes on to agree that they do in fact carry out their father’s desires.
A pleonasm is a repetition of words or the adding of similar words.46 Perhaps an example of a pleonasm can be given from Psalm 17:6, “I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.” The passage, “Give ear to me and hear my prayer” seems to be a slight repetition of words or expression. Instead, the Psalmist could’ve said, “give ear to my prayer” and the question would’ve been the same with less words.
An oxymoron is an expression containing two opposing words to make a point. The word oxymoron comes from two Greek words oxus (“sharp”) and moros(“stupid”).47 Paul gave many oxymorons when he was addressing the Corinthians about the importance of not being yoked together with unbelievers. For example:
– “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?”
– “Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
– “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?”
– “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?”
These can also be construed as rhetorical questions. However, these questions contain opposing words to enforce the issue more clearly. Another oxymoron can be found when Jesus was speaking of who will be first in the kingdom of God. “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matt. 19:30) Here are two opposite phrases used together in the same sentence, an oxymoron.
A paradox is an expression of terms containing what might seem an absurdity or contrary to normal opinion.48 An example of a paradox can be found in Galatians 2:20. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Obviously, Paul was not literally crucified with Christ on the same day Christ was crucified on the hill at Golgotha. Additionally, the term “crucified” is not synonymous with “life” such as how Paul uses it in this passage. This is considered a paradox.
A paronomasia is better known as a “play on words”. These words sometimes contain a two-fold meaning. Webster’s defines paronomasia as, “to call with a slight change of name.”49 A good example of a paronomasia can be be found in Matthew 4:19, “Come, follow me, Jesus said, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus knew Peter and Andrew’s trade as fishermen. He knew they could catch fish physically. Instead Jesus chose the words, “fishers of men” so that Jesus could show them how to be productive spiritually. Like bringing fish out of the water so to were Peter and Andrew to bring men out of one element into another.
This is a word by which the sound of the word itself is also the very meaning of it. Such examples are: bang, clang, chirp, buzz, ring, etc. In the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13, Paul uses an onomatopoeia in verse 1. “If I speak in tongues of men and of angels, but have no love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” The word “gong” is not only a percussion instrument, it is also the sound it makes. Additionally, the word “clanging” is also the very sound a cymbal makes (clang) when struck together. These are all examples of an onomatopoeia.
An idiom is an expression used that seems strange or foreign to certain people because the expression itself is unique to another group of people. Culture seems to have a substantial influence on how idioms are used. Zuck gives an example of the differences in the expression, “He has a hard heart,” which in English means, he is stubborn, or indifferent to another’s needs or desires. However, in the Shipibo language of Peru, the expression means, “he is brave.”50 Quite the opposite of our English rendering of the expression.
How does this differ from a typical figure of speech? It differs only because the expression is unique to a certain people group or country. Whereas, a figure of speech is generally acknowledged or better understood universally and is more commonly used.
One example of an idiom used in the Bible can be found in the book of Acts. At Paul’s conversion while he was on the road to Damascus, the Lord appeared to him.“He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) The literal Aramaic rendering of the term, “why do you persecute me?” is, “Why do you continue to kick against the goads?” This term is used later when Paul is giving his defense before King Agrippa. “About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:13-14) According to Webster’s dictionary, a goad is, “a pointed rod used to urge on an animal”.51 An oxgoad was a pointed stick commonly used in the Middle East generally to prod cattle. Saul was making a pointless effort in urging the Christians to recant or turn from their faith, ultimately he was only hurting himself. He was “kicking against the goads”.
Like figures of speech, an idiom can mistakenly be considered to go against literal interpretations or be considered as mistakes. Idioms should not be thought of as that. Zuck explains, “Idioms should not be thought of as mistakes in the Scriptures; they are ways in which the thought is conveyed in that native language.”52 When the interpreter begins to understand the underlying meaning of a particular expression, in this case an idiom, by consulting his Bible tools such as a Greek lexicon, he will get a certain idea as to the true meaning of what the writer was originally trying to convey. Without referring to Bible reference books, the interpreter will be ignorant to the meaning of certain idioms and expressions used throughout the Scriptures.
I once read a story about a group of men from Wycliffe Bible Translators who were missionaries/Bible translators living in a remote village of Central Africa. In their attempt in translating the Bible to the local natives they ran across many obstacles of linguistics. One such example was their attempt in trying to translate the expression, “light of the world” found in John 8:12. The local natives had no idea what the expression meant since they themselves knew not what light was. The only light they were familiar with was the light that emitted from small contained fires, just enough to light up a small village. So the interpreters had to provide a translation into their native tongue that best describes a light unto the world. A universal light. This is an example of an idiom. “Light of the world” is an expression used that a specific group of people were simply unfamiliar with. The translators had to come up with an interpretation that the natives could readily understand.
A symbol is a depiction represented by an object or action to give a meaning or purpose. In my own opinion, there is perhaps no more profound and controversial symbol used than that of the Lord’s Supper. For centuries past, the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper/Communion has been very divisive. It was because of this symbolism, one of the reasons the Protestant church was formed. For many years the Catholic church believed in the literal partaking of Christ’s body and blood in what is called, “transubstantiation”. They believe that Christ’s body is literally transformed into the bread, or wafer. Likewise, his blood is transformed into the wine. The partaker then consumes his flesh and blood and is thus receiving Christ into his or her own body. This is in essence similar to a minor form of cannibalism.
It is apparent to us as Protestants that this is obviously a fallacy. We most certainly believe that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is symbolic of Christ’s body that was broken and His blood that was shed for us. The bread is symbolic of His broken body, the wine/fruit of the vine is symbolic of His shed blood.
How can we better interpret what is meant to be symbolic versus a literal interpretation? Zuck provides 9 essential principles in determining and interpreting symbols. Briefly, they are:
1. Observe the three elements in symbols (the object, the reference, and meaning).
2. Remember symbols have their base in reality.
3. Determine the meaning or resemblance, if any is assigned to the text.
4. If no meaning is given in the verse, check other references to it within the Scriptures.
5. Be cautious in assigning the correct characteristics to the symbol.
6. Look for major point or resemblance.
7. Realize one referent may be depicted by several objects.
8. Pertaining to prophetic literature, do not assume the whole passage contains symbolism.
9. Do not assume all future things prophetic are symbolic when it is possible to be literal.53
What is a parable?
A parable is simply a fictitious story that illustrates a religious principle or truth. The word finds it’s root in the Greek word parabole which refers to short statements and proverbs also called similitudes. There are many parables found throughout the Bible. Perhaps most famous are those told by Christ to His disciples. However, these particular forms of parables are not found in John’s gospel, they are found extensively in the Synoptics.54
The Parabolic Teachings of Jesus
The question is asked, “Why did Jesus teach in parables?” Jesus used parables primarily for two purposes. Zuck states, “One was to reveal truths to his followers and the other was to conceal truth from “those on the outside” (Mark 4:11).”55 However, these two purposes seem to contradict one another. But as you will see, there were legitimate reasons behind these purposes.
Jesus wanted to truly impart his truths and teachings to his disciples unhindered. He desired for them to learn and grow from these most profound illustrations. Jesus knew that these parables would be forever written on the hearts of men and women and would make disciples of of people for centuries to come. He employed the use of parables to enlighten, exhort, and edify the believers. On the other hand, He also knew that the ones who were plotting to kill Him, and setting out to destroy Him, such as the religious leaders, i.e. Pharisees, Saducees, etc. would be unable to understand or comprehend the true underlying spiritual meaning of his parables. They were simply blinded by the hardness of their hearts and their unbelief. To the unbeliever, on the surface these parables seemed like mere stories containing good moral principles. However, they contained much more than that, they were “meat” for spiritual growth and stories to help illustrate godly principles for living.
Jesus also knew the effectiveness of using parables. Generally, He used stories containing elements that the average person could relate to. I personally have made an observation that a majority of the parables contain some form of element relating to agriculture or farming. Such examples as the parable of: Sheep and Wolves (Matt. 7:15), The Soils (Mark 4:4-8), The Mustard Seed (Luke 13:18-19), The Workers in the Harvest (Matt. 20:1-6), The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), just to name a few. Unlike today, this was a common way of life for most people living at that time. Because of this, Jesus was able to maintain their attention and focus and effectively communicate to them the underlying spiritual implications of these stories.
Additionally, these parables moved the listener to think. It required much thought and effort to understand and decipher the meaning of the parable. It stimulated the mind and aroused their curiosity. It moved them to enact and apply the message to their own lives.
Jesus was obviously well acquainted with the purpose and effectiveness in using parables. Parables were commonly used in the era in which Christ lived. Even more so in the Middle East. He knew what the results would be in using His parabolic teachings. It would cause growth for some, yet blind others, his enemies.
I have demonstrated the important need for hermeneutics in it’s most basic sense. We can conclude that it is absolutely imperative for any serious student of the Bible to apply the given processes of interpretation to his or her studies. Without a systematic approach to Biblical interpretation, the translation can run amok and thus be a stumbling block to others and ultimately to oneself. The processes of interpretation, knowing and understanding the many aspects of the English literary language and figures of speech, and with a basic knowledge of at least one of the original languages of the Bible can better equip the student and/or believer to not only understand and comprehend the Word of God, but to withstand the many liberal translations and interpretations of the Bible that is so rampant in our society today.
I do sincerely hope that this article has provided a clear and concise basic overview about the system of hermeneutics. Just prior to taking this course I had absolutely no idea what hermeneutics was. It is considered a required course for all seminary students and I am glad it is. Like it has with me, I hope you as the reader can apply this knowledge of Biblical interpretation to help benefit your studies of God’s most precious Word, the Bible. God Bless.
For further reading and studies on this issue, I strongly suggest two particular books that were course requirements for me. They are:
- Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Bernard Ramm (1970) Baker Book House
- Basic Bible Interpretation by Dr. Roy Zuck (1991) Chariot Victor Publishing
1 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970)2
2 Mal Couch, Ph.D., Hermeneutics Course Notes , 2
4 Ramm. Ibid. 16
5 Richard E. Oster, Jr., “Corinth” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993)134
6 Madeleine S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (NY: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1958)112-113
7 Oster. Ibid. 134
8 Ramm. Ibid. 15-16
9 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1991)13
10 Zuck. Ibid. 10
11 Mal Couch. Ibid.
12 NIV Life Application Bible (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. and Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991) 2121
13 Miller. Ibid. 167-168
14 Miller. Ibid. 167-168
15 John W. Drane, “Paul” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993)576
16 Noah Webster, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1974)30
17 Zuck. Ibid. 221
18 Ramm. Ibid. 24-45
19 Zuck. Ibid. 36
20 Ramm. Ibid. 32-33
21 Zuck. Ibid. 36
22 Zuck. Ibid. 45
23 Zuck. Ibid. 45
24 Ramm. Ibid. 53-57
25 Zuck. Ibid. 51
26 Zuck. Ibid. 52
27 Zuck. Ibid. 52
28 Ramm. Ibid. 75-76
29 Zuck. Ibid. 52-53
30 Ramm. Ibid. 83-91
31 Webster. Ibid. 991
32 Ramm. Ibid. 93
33 Zuck. Ibid. 90
34 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. VI “1 Corinthians (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1935)561
35 Zuck. Ibid. 100-101
36 Zuck. Ibid. 117
37 Zuck. Ibid. 124
38 Zuck. Ibid. 134
39 Zuck. Ibid. 146
40 Zuck. Ibid. 151
41 Zuck. Ibid. 152
42 Zuck. Ibid. 152
43 Webster. Ibid. 394
44 Zuck. Ibid. 153
45 Webster. Ibid. 611
46 Zuck. Ibid. 159
47 Zuck. Ibid. 159
48 Zuck. Ibid. 160
49 Webster. Ibid. 834
50 Zuck. Ibid. 165
51 Webster. Ibid. 493
52 Zuck. Ibid. 166
53 Zuck. Ibid. 1185-187
54 Dr. Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963)12
55 Zuck. Ibid. 197
This article was written and submitted by: Gregory B. Dill, who manages a Christian website called The Dill’s Family Home page. If you want good, thorough Bible studies, you need to visit this site. “This contributed article is copyright protected, and the sole property of the contributing author. The materiel may be freely used by anyone, as long as it is not sold or in any way used for monetary or property gain by the users!” Document expiration: indefinite.