Saturday, November 3, 2018

God’s Covenant People: A Response to Objections (Part Four)

Objection: Those in the body of Christ are part of “spiritual Israel” and are beneficiaries of the promise covenants because of what we read in Ephesians 2:11-18.

To better explain why I believe this objection is based on a misunderstanding of Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:11-18, I’ll be breaking up the passage into three sections (verses 11-13, 14-18 and 19-22), and commenting on each section.

11 Wherefore, remember that once you, the nations in flesh -- who are termed 'Uncircumcision' by those termed 'Circumcision,' in flesh, made by hands --
12 that you were, in that era, apart from Christ, being alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants, having no expectation, and without God in the world.
13 Yet now, in Christ Jesus, you, who once are far off, are become near by the blood of Christ.

In this passage there is a clear contrast being made between the previous state or status of those to whom Paul wrote, and their new status as members of the body of Christ. The words “once you” and “you were, in that era” (vv. 11-12) refer to the time of their prior status, and the words “yet now” (v. 13) refer to the time of their new status. Before hearing and believing “the word of truth, the evangel of [our] salvation” - and being consequently sealed with the holy spirit of promise (Eph. 1:13-14) – those to whom Paul wrote were “apart from Christ, being alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants, having no expectation, and without God in the world.” But does this mean that those in the body of Christ were no longer “alienated from the citizenship of Israel” or “guests of the promise covenants?”

Were this the case, it would mean that the believing Gentiles to whom Paul wrote will, in the eon to come, be dwelling on the earth and enjoying an allotment in the land promised to Israel, and will there be caused by God “to walk in God’s statutes” and “to keep God’s ordinances, and do them” (in accord with prophetic passages such as Ezekiel 36:24-31). Among those who believe that the saints in the body of Christ are among the recipients of the “covenants of promise” referred to by Paul in v. 12, I doubt that most would be comfortable with the logical conclusion to which their position leads, if they’re being consistent (which is why most of those who hold to this position are either inconsistent in what they affirm, or simply “spiritualize” all or most of the promises concerning Israel found in the Hebrew scriptures).

Notice, however, that Paul didn’t say that the believing Gentiles to whom he wrote were no longer ”alienated from the citizenship of Israel,” or that they had ceased to be “guests of the promise covenants” (and to assert that this must be the case is to read into the text more than is actually being said). In contrast with those who believe that the saints in the body of Christ belong to the “citizenship of Israel” and are the recipients of the “covenants of promise” belonging to Israel, Paul tells us exactly what the “yet now” status of those to whom he wrote involved: becoming “near by the blood of Christ.” But near to what, or to whom? Answer: near to God, for Paul went on to say that those to whom he wrote were given “access, in one spirit, to the Father” (v. 18).

Some think that the view expressed in the objection is implied by virtue of the contrast Paul was making. However, that this isn’t the case is evident from the following analogy: “Once, you had nowhere to live, being disowned by your father and alienated from your family, and forbidden from even stepping foot on your father’s property. Yet now you have a home and a family of your own.” Here is a contrast between two “eras” in a person’s life. In the previous era, the person was homeless; in the latter era, he had a home. Does this mean that the person in view was no longer disowned by his father, or that he lived with his parents again? No.

But if those to whom Paul wrote had not ceased to be ”alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants,” then why did Paul even refer to their prior status as involving this? The reason is, I believe, fairly simple: the words “being alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants” explain why the Gentiles to whom Paul wrote were “apart from Christ” in the earlier era that Paul had in view. Before Paul’s new administration began and the evangel of the Uncircumcision began to be heralded among the nations, the sort of people who had the greatest advantage and opportunity to be blessed in and through Christ were those who weren’t “alienated from the citizenship of Israel” and who weren’t “guests of the promise covenants” (hence Christ’s words in Matt. 15:24: “I was not commissioned except for the lost sheep of the house of Israel”). In other words, one had to be part of God’s covenant people, Israel (or one had to be a righteous, God-fearing gentile like Cornelius, who – by virtue of his righteous actions in relation to Israel - was worthy to be blessed through and with God’s covenant people). However, this requirement changed after Paul received his “administration of the grace of God” and “administration of the secret” (Eph. 3:2, 9). Those among the nations who heard and believed the evangel of the Uncircumcision that had been entrusted to Paul came to be “in Christ Jesus” (and thus received an expectation and access to God) apart from being members of God’s covenant people.

14 For He is our Peace, Who makes both one, and razes the central wall of the barrier
15 (the enmity in His flesh), nullifying the law of precepts in decrees, that He should be creating the two, in Himself, into one new humanity, making peace;
16 and should be reconciling both in one body to God through the cross, killing the enmity in it.
17 And, coming, He brings the evangel of peace to you, those afar, and peace to those near,
18 for through Him we both have had the access, in one spirit, to the Father.

In these verses Paul is addressing the Gentile members of the one body of Christ, and telling them that, in this one body, Jews and Gentiles are made one and created into “one new humanity.” From its earliest days the body of Christ has consisted of people who are from both a Jewish and a Gentile background. But there is nothing said in this passage (or anywhere else in Paul’s letters) which indicates that every Jewish believer on the earth at the time Paul wrote had been called through the evangel of the Uncircumcision to the one expectation of the body of Christ, and had been spiritually baptized into the one body of Christ (concerning the “razing” of the “central wall of the barrier” referred to in v. 14, click here to see my remarks on this subject in my 2015 article, “A Response to Charles Welch”).

19 Consequently, then, no longer are you guests and sojourners, but are fellow-citizens of the saints and belong to God's family,
20 being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, the capstone of the corner being Christ Jesus Himself,
21 in Whom the entire building, being connected together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord:
22 in Whom you, also, are being built together for God's dwelling place, in spirit.

It is in this verse that Paul shifts his focus from the saints in the body of Christ alone and considers their relationship to all of the saints on earth at that time (i.e., their relationship to those who belonged to that company of saints which - as even Unknown would have to concede - predated the formation of the body of Christ). Whether belonging to the body of Christ or to that company of saints which predated the body of Christ, all of the saints in Paul’s day “belong to God’s family.”

Some who hold that the believing Gentiles to whom Paul wrote were no longer ”alienated from the citizenship of Israel” and had ceased to be “guests of the promise covenants” think this view is implied by what Paul wrote in verse 19. However, the contrast being made in this verse is not said by Paul to involve either “the citizenship of Israel” or “the promise covenants” referred to back in v. 12. Instead, the contrast being made in v. 19 involves the Gentiles to whom Paul wrote being no longer guests and sojourners in regard to being “fellow-citizens of the saints,” and to belonging “to God’s family.” Paul chose his words carefully in this verse, and avoided affirming that those to whom he wrote had come to belong to “the citizenship of Israel,” or had become recipients of “the covenants of promise” which belonged to Israel.

But what about the “apostles and prophets” referred to in v. 20? Must we understand this as a reference to the twelve apostles? Not at all. These are most likely the apostles and prophets to whom “the secret of Christ” (i.e., that which is in accord with the administration given to Paul) had been made known (Eph. 3:1-13). In fact, the larger context of this very letter (see Eph. 4:7-14) indicates that the “apostles and prophets” which Paul had in view here were given by Christ after he had already ascended to heaven (and would include men such as Paul himself, Barnabas, Apollos, Silas, Timothy, etc.). It was those who were given by the ascended Christ who were given “for the up-building of the body of Christ.” Understood as a reference to apostles and prophets who were given by Christ after his ascension, the twelve apostles cannot be in view here. For they, of course, were made apostles before Christ’s ascension into heaven (see Matt. 10:1-5; Mark 3:14; 6:7, 30; cf. Matt. 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:1-5). Insofar as this is the case, the twelve apostles are necessarily excluded from the category of “apostles and prophets” referred to by Paul in Eph. 4:11 (and, by implication, Eph. 2:20 and 3:5).

Objection: Based on what we read in Phil. 3:3, those constituting the body of Christ are “spiritual Israel,” and that there is no difference between the saints to whom Paul wrote and the saints to whom Peter (or James or John) wrote.

In Phil. 3:3 Paul warned believers against the Judaizers as follows: “Beware of the maimcision, for we are the circumcision who are offering divine service in the spirit of God, and are glorying in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in flesh.” And in Col. 2:11, Paul referred to those in the body of Christ as being “circumcised also with a circumcision not made of hands.” In these verses, Paul was not saying that those in the body of Christ constituted a “spiritual Israel.” In Phil. 3:3, Paul referred to those in the body of Christ as “the circumcision who are offering divine service in the spirit of God” to emphasize the fact that the “circumcision” which we’ve received is far superior to the circumcision of the flesh that the Judaizers (the “maimcision”) were trying to get believers among the nations to undergo.

But what was the nature of the “circumcision” that Paul had in mind? Some assume that what Paul had in view was the so-called “circumcision of the heart” that is required for Israel (Deut. 10:12-16), and which Israel will eventually receive from God in order that they can faithfully keep the law given by God to Israel (Deut. 30:6). This promised “circumcision of the heart” is equivalent to the promised “new heart” and “new spirit” that God will give Israel to enable his covenant people to keep the law during the eon to come (Ez. 11:17-20; 36:24-27; cf. Jer. 31:33). This is not the “circumcision” that Paul had in mind.

The “circumcision” which Paul had in view in Colossians 2:11 is said to consist in “the stripping off of the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ.” This “circumcision” has nothing to do with being supernaturally enabled by God to keep the law. Rather, it refers to the justified and reconciled status of all who are in the body of Christ, who - by virtue of our spiritual union with Christ - can be said to have been “entombed together with Christ through baptism into death,” and whose “old humanity was crucified together with Christ, that the body of Sin may be nullified” (Rom. 6:4-7). In other words, this “circumcision of Christ” refers to our inseparable, spiritual union with Christ in his death, entombment and resurrection (which is the basis of our being “justified through the faith of Christ,” and which is something that you won't find referred to anywhere outside of Paul’s letters to those in the body of Christ).

Objection: Based on what we read in Hebrews 3:1 and 1 Peter 1:3-5, the original recipients of this letter should be understood as sharing in the same celestial expectation/allotment as those who constitute the body of Christ.

In Hebrews 3:1, the author referred to the calling of the believing Israelites to whom he wrote as follows: “Whence, holy brethren, partners of a celestial calling, consider the Apostle and Chief Priest of our avowal, Jesus, Who is faithful to Him Who makes Him, as Moses also was in His whole house.” Does this mean that the eonian expectation of those to whom the author wrote is also “in the heavens” and “among the celestials?” Not at all. The author of the letter to the Hebrews expected the Jewish believers to whom he wrote to be among the beneficiaries of the new covenant that God promised to make with the house of Israel and house of Judah. And as beneficiaries of the new covenant, these Jewish believers will enjoy the blessings described in Ezekiel 36:24-31 and elsewhere (which will involve dwelling in the land promised to Israel, and walking in the statutes and keeping the ordinances given by God to Israel). Given that the expectation of those in the body of Christ is distinct from the new covenant-based blessings and expectation described in Ezekiel 36:24-31, it follows that the author of Hebrews did not write to members of the body of Christ.

Concerning the “celestial calling” referred to in Hebrews 3:1, A.E. Knoch remarked as follows in his commentary (emphasis mine):

“It is not easy, in English, to distinguish between the celestial calling, here referred to, and the “calling above” (Phil. 3:14) of Paul’s latest revelation. That which is celestial as to location is often spoken of in Ephesians as our blessing among the celestials (1:3), His seat (1:20), our seat (2:6), the sovereignties and authorities (3:16), our conflict (6:12). This is in the dative case, which gives us the place in which anything is found. It occurs once in Hebrews (12:22). The genitive denotes source or character…the celestial calling [of Hebrews 3:1] is from the ascended Christ, not to heaven, but from heaven. We [those in the body of Christ] are called to heaven, the Hebrews are addressed from heaven.”

What about what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:3-5? In these verses we read that Peter and those to whom he wrote had been “regenerated…for the enjoyment of an allotment incorruptible and undefiled and unfading, kept in the heavens for you, who are garrisoned by the power of God, through faith, for salvation ready to be revealed in the last era…” What, exactly, is the “allotment” that Peter had in mind here, which he said was being “kept in the heavens” for the believing Israelites (i.e., the “chosen expatriates of the dispersion”) to whom he wrote? It should be noted that we’re not told that Peter and those to whom he wrote would enjoy this “allotment” in the heavens. Rather, it’s in the heavens that this allotment is being “kept.” The fact that it’s being “kept” there doesn’t mean it’s going to remain there.

Consider the fact that, during his earthly ministry, Christ was the “Servant of the Circumcision, for the sake of the truth of God, to confirm the patriarchal promises” (Rom. 15:8). In accord with this patriarchal promise-based administration, the eonian allotment of which Christ spoke during his earthly ministry - and which he promised those who followed him - is one that will be terrestrial in its location (see, for example, Matthew 5:5, as well as part two of my study, “God’s covenant people”). Keeping this fact in mind, Christ declared the following in Matthew 6:19-21: Do not hoard for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and corrosion are causing them to disappear, and where thieves are tunneling and stealing. Yet hoard for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor corrosion are causing them to disappear, and where thieves are not tunneling nor stealing; for wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Did Christ believe that those to whom he spoke would be enjoying their “hoarded-up treasure” in heaven? No; the “treasure” to which Christ was referring here has to do with the rewards that the faithful among Israel will receive from him after his return to earth. Later – in Matthew 19:28-30 – Christ declared the following to his disciples:

Yet Jesus said to them, “Verily, I am saying to you, that you who follow Me, in the renascence whenever the Son of Mankind should be seated on the throne of His glory, you also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who leaves houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or fields, on account of My name, a hundred-fold shall be getting, and shall be enjoying the allotment of life eonian. Yet many of the first shall be last, and the last first.”

The “hundred-fold” that Jesus promised his faithful followers would receive after his return to earth will be the “treasures in heaven” that these same followers were exhorted by Christ to “hoard” for themselves through their faithful conduct prior to his return to earth. In Rev. 22:12, Christ declared the following to those whose eonian expectation will involve reigning on the earth (Rev. 5:10): “Lo! I am coming swiftly, and my wage is with me, to pay each one as his work is.” Notice that Christ said that the “wage” with which he would pay the saints was “with [him].” It is after Christ has returned to earth that those whom he had in view will receive their “wages”; until then, this “wage” is being “kept in the heavens” for them.

Later in his letter – and in accord with what Christ himself declared in Rev. 22:12 and elsewhere - Peter explained what he had in mind by the “incorruptible” and “unfading” allotment referred to in 1 Pet. 1:3-5: “…when the Chief Shepherd is manifested, you shall be requited with an unfading wreath of glory (1 Pet. 5:4). Whether one understands this “unfading wreath of glory” to be a literal or figurative “wreath,” it’s clearly something with which the saints among Israel will be requited at the coming of Christ referred to in places such as Matthew 24:29-31, Acts 3:21 and Rev. 1:7 (which is undoubtedly the “manifestation” of the “Chief Shepherd” to which Peter was referring here). Until then, this allotment – like the “treasure” referred to by Christ in Matt. 6:19-21 - is being “kept in the heavens” for those who are called through the evangel of the Circumcision, and who endure to the end.

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