Tuesday, August 30, 2016

An Introduction to the Pretribulation Rapture

In the next few blog posts, we shall look at another doctrinal ramification of a strict Israel/Church distinction: the pretribulation rapture theory. Dispensationalists and Bible Presbyterians (at least in Singapore) understand that the Church has no part in the Great Tribulation, because it is a time of Jacob’s trouble. As the Church and Israel are distinct entities, the prophetic clock for Israel will start ticking again after the Church is raptured pretribulationally, that is, before the Great Tribulation.

Donald Campbell agrees that “a recognition of the distinction between Israel and the church supports the belief that the church will be removed from the earth before the Tribulation at the rapture, the first phase of Christ’s return. This is true because the Tribulation primarily concerns Israel, . . . although this period will see the wrath of God poured out on the entire earth, the period relates particularly to Israel.”[1]

The strict dichotomy between Israel and the Church is paramount to the entire pretribulation rapture theory. If the Church is the true, spiritual Israel, the entire foundation for this theory is destroyed. We have seen in the previous chapters that a dispensational understanding of ecclesiology – the distinction between Israel and the Church – is not founded upon sound hermeneutics. It fails to do justice to the New Testament understanding of what the Church is. This ecclesiology, particularly the distinction between Israel and the Church, is foundational to dispensational theology. In the later chapters of this book, we shall also see why a dispensationalist is primarily one who adheres to this strict Israel and the Church distinction.

Pretribulationism is a doctrinal conviction of many Far Eastern Bible College lecturers.[2] Amongst them are Dr Jeffrey Khoo, Dr Quek Suan Yew and Dr Prabhudas Koshy.[3] Khoo, who clearly advocates pretribulationism, writes:

“The Bible tells us that the world will become increasingly wicked culminating with the evil rule of the Antichrist who will set himself up as God, and demand worship from all. During the seven-year Tribulation period, he will persecute Israel. This seven-year Tribulation period is called “the time of Jacob’s Trouble” (Jer 30:7). Israel will suffer during this period. It is “Jacob’s” trouble. Jacob is Israel, not the Church. The Church will not be present during this time, but will be raptured, snatched up in a micro-second to be with Christ in heaven (1 Thess 4:16-17). During this Tribulation period, God will pour out His wrath upon the unbelieving inhabitants of the earth. It will end with Christ returning to earth with His saints to fight the Antichrist and his armies, destroying all of them at the battle of Armageddon (Rev 16:16, 19:11-21).”[4]

In another place, Dr Khoo reiterates the same doctrine:

“The rapture of the saints will occur before God judges the world with His wrath during the 7-year Tribulation period. This dreadful period is called “the great day of His wrath” (Rev 6:17, 11:18, 15:1, 7, 16:1, 19, 19:15).”[5]

It must be emphasized that the Israel/Church distinction is the only hermeneutical basis for the pretribulation rapture theory. This theory will inevitably encounter problems when the reader considers the fact that numerous people, mainly Jews, will be saved during the Great Tribulation. These tribulation saints are obviously part of the church of Christ; even Dispensationalists and Bible Presbyterians must concede that these saints are to be saved via the same gospel. If the Church is to be raptured prior to the time of Jacob’s trouble, why not also the local churches founded during the Great Tribulation? Therefore, if tribulation saints belong to the Church, the practical rationale for a pretribulation rapture – the deliverance of the Church from the Great Tribulation - is completely demolished.

The pretribulation rapture is not a position explicitly taught in the Scriptures.[6] One cannot arrive at this view unless one sees an artificial dichotomy between Israel and the church. Dr John Walvoord, arguably the most influential and prominent defender of the pretribulation rapture position, candidly admits that this doctrine is entirely inferential. It rests squarely upon the sine qua non of Dispensationalism i.e. the distinction between Israel and the church.

John Walvoord elaborates:

“It is safe to say that pretribulationism depends on a particular definition of the church. . . . If the term church includes saints of all ages, then it is self-evident that the church will go through the Tribulation, as all agree that there will be saints in this time of trouble. If, however, the term church applies only to a certain body of saints, namely, the saints of this present dispensation, then the possibility of the translation of the church before the Tribulation is possible [sic] and even probable.”[7]

Even if we graciously allow dispensational ecclesiology to be a tenable position (which all Covenant theologians believe to be clearly unscriptural), Dr Walvoord admits that the pretribulation position is only possible, or at best, probable. But given the erroneous ecclesiology of Dispensationalism, where, then, is the foundation for a pretribulational rapture? Will the Bible Presbyterians accept the dispensationalist’s definition of the term church i.e. that it “applies only to a certain body of saints, namely, the saints of this present dispensation?” Surely the Bible Presbyterians are not trying to insinuate that Old Testament saints are not part of the church.

Dr Walvoord emphasizes the fact that “if the term church includes saints of all ages, then it is self-evident that the church will go through the Tribulation.” Bible Presbyterians, therefore, must consider whether the Church includes saints from all ages, that is, both the Old Testament saints and the New Testament saints. If they accept the Reformed teaching of the Church as consisting of saints from all ages, then they must seriously rethink their position on pretribulationism.

William Cox summarizes the Reformed position on ecclesiology:

“The church existed in the Old Testament in the form of the elect remnant within national Israel. Israel was the type while the Christian church is the antitype or fulfillment. Christ, by dying on the cross, tore down the middle wall of partition, took the two men – Israelites and Gentiles – and made the two into one man thus constituting the body of Christ. (Eph. 2:14-16). Though the mystery was hidden from the Old Testament prophets in general, it was God’s plan all along to include Gentile believers in the body of which the believing remnant of Israel was the human foundation. (Eph. 3:4-6).”[8]

Dispensationalists, therefore, err gravely by putting asunder what God had joined together.

References


[1] Donald K. Campbell, “The Church in God’s Prophetic Program,” in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, eds. Stanley Toussaint and Charles Dyer (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 150.
[2] As discussed in chapter 1, dispensational ecclesiology contradicts the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXV, sections I, II and III, as well as the Belgic Confession of Faith, article 27.
[3] James Oliver Buswell, however, “took the mid-tribulational view of the rapture of the church. According to him the “last trump” of 1 Cor 15:52 is to be identified with the seventh and last trumpet of Rev 11:15. The Church Age (“the times of the Gentiles,” Luke 21:24) ends at this moment.” See Jeffrey Khoo, “Dispensational Premillennialism in Reformed Theology: The Contribution of J. O. Buswell to the Millennial Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 4 (2001): 713. But this understanding of the Church Age also sees it as essentially a parenthesis within God’s prophetic program for Israel.
[4] Jeffrey Khoo, “Three Views on the Millennium: Which?,” The Burning Bush 5, no. 2 (1999): 71.
[5] Jeffrey Khoo, Fundamentals of the Christian Faith: A Reformed and Premillennial Study of Christian Basics (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College Press, 2005), 133.
[6] For an introduction to the problems of pretribulationism, see Brian Schwertley, Is the Pretribulation Rapture Biblical? [article on-line]; available from http://reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/rapture.htm; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005. Please note that Schwertley’s eschatological position is Postmillennialism.
[7] John Walvoord, The Rapture Question, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 21-22.
[8] William E. Cox, Amillennialism Today (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1966), 56. See pp. 34-56 for a concise, yet superb rebuttal of Dispensational ecclesiology. Cox was a former Dispensationalist who subsequently became an Amillennialist.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The New Testament Understanding of the Land Promise

The land of Palestine in the Old Testament typifies the promised rest of the elect in Christ. Just as the nation of Israel looked forward to her everlasting rest in the Promised Land, which was never fulfilled due to her faithlessness, the elect of God now find rest in their Savior Jesus Christ. Faith is, and always will be, the requirement to enter God’s rest. As Holwerda explains:

“The promised rest, symbolized by the land, was never really enjoyed in the Old Testament, at least not for long. The rest joyfully proclaimed by Joshua became only a temporary blessing later lost. Thus within the history of Israel in the Old Testament the original occupation of the land became only an anticipation of a rest still to be enjoyed. As faith was required then, so Hebrews declares that now faith in Christ is required to enter God’s rest (Hebrews 4). This rest is not achievable within the territorial boundaries of any specific land on earth because it is a blessing associated with a heavenly country and city, a land and a city whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11).”[1]

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (Matt. 5:3-5).” Our Lord promised the kingdom of heaven to the “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3, cf. Luke 6:20), and the earth to the “meek” (Matt. 5:5). Concerning the recipients of these heavenly blessings, Brueggemann aptly comments:

“The land will be given not to the tough presuming ones, but to the vulnerable ones with no right to expect it. The vibrations begin about the “meek” inheriting the land, not the strident. This is a discernment that Israel would no doubt have wished to reject. The world believes that stridency inherits, but in its vulnerability Israel learns that the meek and not the strident have the future.”[2]

From the New Covenant perspective, it is clear that God has promised His covenant children the earth as an inheritance, and not just a localized piece of land in Palestine. The scope of the inheritance of God’s covenant people has been expanded, and indeed, has acquired a universal character. Jesus evidently applies the Abrahamic covenant, including the land promise, to the Church by expanding the original promise of Palestine to include the New Earth (Rev. 21:1).

The apostle Peter writes, “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness (2 Pet. 3:13).” Peter did not exhort the New Testament believers to anticipate a period of residency in Jerusalem or Palestine; he urged them to look for “a new earth,” which is part of the redeemed creation following the Parousia of Christ. Likewise, Jesus did not limit the land inheritance to only the Jews, but emphasized that the “meek” shall “inherit the earth,” regardless of nationality or ethnicity. “Yet many theologians in the present day continue to interpret the promise of the land in the old covenant in terms of its shadowy, typological dimensions, rather than recognizing the greater scope of new covenant fulfillments.”[3]

Elsewhere, Robertson writes:

“[The] land-possession always fitted within the category of shadows, types and prophecies characteristic of the old covenant in its presentation of redemptive truth. Just as the tabernacle was never intended to be a settled item in the plan of redemption, but rather was designed to point to Christ’s tabernacling among his people (cf. John 1:14), and just as the sacrificial system could never atone for sins, but could only foreshadow the offering of the sacrifice of the Son of God (Heb. 9:23-26), so in a similar manner the patriarch Abraham received the promise of the land but never experienced the blessing of full possession. By this non-possession, the patriarch learned to look forward ‘to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Heb. 11:10). Abraham and his immediate descendants never returned to the fatherland which they had left, because ‘they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one’ (Heb. 11:15-16).”[4]

The earthly city of Jerusalem is a type which points towards the anti-type: the new, heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2). As we have seen in the previous chapter, the earthly city of Jerusalem – which is a symbol of Judaism - is in bondage to the law (Gal. 4:21-31). “But there is another Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that is above, from which the enthroned Son of God sends forth his Spirit. Apart from this Jerusalem, none of us would have a mother to bring us into the realm of God’s redemptive working, for she is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26).”[5]

The earthly Jerusalem is no longer the city of promise; it has lost all its significance as the Holy City of God, the city of God’s covenant people. Just as the patriarchs desired a better, heavenly city (Heb. 11:16), the Church looks forward to an eschatological, heavenly Jerusalem. “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26).” Therefore, according to the New Testament record, “the historical disobedience of Jewish Israel has shattered the salvific significance of historical Jerusalem.”[6]

The promises associated with the city of Jerusalem are still in force today, but the New Testament explains to us that these promises can no longer be associated with this earthly city. God has now built a heavenly city; He has redeemed unto Himself a people who shall inherit this New Jerusalem by faith via the New Covenant administration. Holwerda elaborates:

“An underlying premise of New Testament teaching is that the promises that once were attached to the earthly Jerusalem are now attached to the heavenly and New Jerusalem. Believers in Christ have been born in Zion because Jerusalem is “our mother.” . . . The New Testament affirms that believers from every tribe and nation are citizens of Jerusalem and heirs of its promised salvation. Jerusalem has become a universal city and, as such, a symbol of the new earth. The fulfillment of the promise of land is under way, and the meek will inherit the earth.”[7]

The Psalmist proclaimed that “the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. . . . The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever (Ps. 37:11, 29).” Consistent with the Reformed understanding of the Abrahamic land promise, our Lord Jesus applies Psalm 37 to the New Testament Church in His Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not spiritualizing away Israel’s covenant promise when He applies it to the Church. He is expanding the covenant to include Gentiles, and widening Israel’s territorial promise to encompass the whole of redeemed earth.

The Apostle Paul, likewise, comprehended the land promise to be universal in scope: “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:13; emphasis added).” God’s covenant with Abraham, in the light of the New Covenant, has no geographical boundaries.

Jesus and the apostle Paul undoubtedly interpreted the Abrahamic land promise to be universal and cosmological in extent and dimensionality. This inheritance was not to be granted based upon race or nationality, but “through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13) in the Messiah. In the light of New Testament revelation, we understand that Abraham’s children (Gal. 3:6-7) will not only inherit the land in Palestine, but the entire cosmos (Rev. 21:1-2).

The land in Palestine served as a type of the true inheritance of the elect, which is “a better country, that is, an heavenly (Heb. 11:16).” This land of promise is not limited in its scope, but includes the renewed Heaven and Earth. This is also the Promised Land which the patriarchs had looked forward to, which is embraced by faith in the promised Messiah.

The promises of God to Abraham thus find their glorious fulfillment in the New Testament Church:

“The New Testament has neither forgotten nor rejected the promise of the land. Earthly Jerusalem has been transcended, but the present location of the city in heaven is viewed within the continuing history of redemption, which will culminate on the renewed earth. The heavenly Jerusalem will descend as the new Jerusalem, but not until its citizens have been gathered from among the nations of the world. Judging from this perspective of fulfillment, one may conclude that the original land of Canaan and the city of Jerusalem were only an anticipatory fulfillment of God’s promise. As such they function in Scripture as a sign of the future universal city on the renewed earth, the place where righteousness dwells.”[8]

Hence, from the New Covenant perspective, the land promise has acquired a universal scope. The meek shall inherit not only the New Earth, but will also be made citizens of the new, heavenly Jerusalem.[9]

Conclusion

We have seen in the previous blog posts that the primary premise of dispensational hermeneutics is the assumption that a consistent, literal reading of Scripture will provide us with its intended, authorial meaning. But this principle of hermeneutics is apparently inadequate. The assumption that a literal understanding of Old Testament prophecy is the correct understanding undermines and ignores how New Testament writers interpreted similar passages of the Old Testament.

From a New Covenant perspective, the exegete should employ the principles of interpretation laid out in the New Testament by comparing Scripture with Scripture. Old Testament prophecies cannot be completely understood apart from New Testament revelation. Furthermore, the exegete should not interpret all Old Testament prophecies with a crass, wooden literalism. A more serious blunder would be to impose the erroneous, literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecies upon New Testament Scripture.[10] With progressive revelation, Old Testament typological and shadowy forms become lucid and clear in the New Testament.

In his analysis of Christian Zionism and Dispensationalism, Sizer accurately perceives that the fundamental error of dispensational hermeneutics is its failure to interpret Old Covenant shadows with the light of New Covenant reality. Sizer elucidates:

“Christian Zionism [and Dispensationalism] errs most profoundly because it fails to appreciate the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the ways in which the latter completes, fulfils and annuls the former. It is fundamental that Christians read the Scriptures with Christian eyes, and that they interpret the Old Covenant in the light of the New Covenant, not the other way round. . . . Under the Old Covenant, revelation from God came often in shadow, image, form and prophecy. In the New Covenant that revelation finds its consummation in reality, substance and fulfillment. The question is not whether the promises of the covenant are to be understood literally or spiritually as Dispensationalists like to stress. It is instead a question of whether they should be understood in terms of Old Covenant shadow or in terms of New Covenant reality. This is the most basic hermeneutical assumption which Christian Zionists consistently fail to acknowledge.”[11]

Rejecting the Dispensationalist’s tendencies of regression to Old Testament types and shadows, Reformed theologians anticipate an inheritance well beyond the land of Palestine. In the light of New Covenant reality, the Reformers look forward to a kingdom far more glorious than any Jewish monarchy in the land of Palestine. Contrary to the Judaistic expectation of a reestablished throne of David on earth, the New Testament sees the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant with Christ ruling on the throne of David at the right hand of the Father. It is with confidence that Christians can declare that, “we have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens (Heb. 8:1b).”

For a Christian today, the subject of Israelology extends beyond its theological ramifications. A correct perspective of Israel and its land promise have far greater implications than some might want to admit.[12] Christian Zionists and those who support their theology of Israel (i.e. Israelology) are inadvertently directing Jewish eyes to look away from the heavenly realities, and down towards the physical piece of land in Palestine. Instead of guiding the Israelites to look at the far greater fulfillment of Old Covenant promises in Christ Jesus and His Church, it is sad that some well-meaning Christians are in fact misdirecting the Jewish people back to Old Testament shadowy forms and figures. Surely, Reformed theologians must reject such a retrogressive interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.

Robertson observes that,

“In the process of redemptive history, a dramatic movement has taken place. The arena of redemption has shifted from type to reality, from shadow to substance. The land which once was the specific place of God’s redemptive work served well in the realm of old covenant forms as a picture of paradise lost and promised. But in the realm of new covenant fulfillments, the land has expanded to encompass the whole world. In this age of fulfillment, a retrogression to the limited forms of the old covenant must be neither expected nor promoted. Reality must not give way to shadow. By claiming the old covenant form of the promise of the land, the Jews of today may be forfeiting its greater new covenant fulfillment. Rather than playing the role of Jacob as heir apparent to the redemptive promises made to Abraham their father, they could be assuming the role of Esau by selling their birthright for a fleshly pot of porridge (Gen. 25:29-34; cf. Heb. 12:16).”[13]

Therefore, if the Jews are to continue with their insistence of a literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise, the tragedy for national Israel today will be the forfeiture of the blessings of the New Covenant for a piece of temporal, earthly inheritance.

References

[1] David Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995), 105.
[2] W. Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 39, quoted in Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 89, n. 7.
[3] O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2000), 27.
[4] O. Palmer Robertson, “A New-Covenant Perspective On the Land,” in The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000), 125-126.
[5] Ibid., 138.
[6] Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 109.
[7] Ibid., 110.
[8] Ibid., 111-112.
[9] Current amillennial thinking has emphasized the earthy nature of the consummative phase of the Kingdom. For example, see Anthony A. Hoekema’s book Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1979).
[10] Sizer explains that “Christian Zionism is born out of the conviction that God has a continuing special relationship with, and covenantal purpose for, the Jewish people, apart from the church, and that the Jewish people have a divine right to possess the land of Palestine. This is based on a literal and futurist interpretation of the Bible and the conviction that Old Testament prophecies concerning the Jewish people are being fulfilled in the contemporary State of Israel.” See Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 20.
[11] Sizer, An Alternative Theology of the Holy Land, emphasis mine.
[12] For the profound political implications of Christian Zionism, see Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon, 206-253.
[13] Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 30-31.