Monday, August 17, 2015
THE CHURCH’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE NEW COVENANT
*Cody Montandon is a graduate student at Tyndale Theological Seminary
Scripture taken from the THE NEW SCOFIELD REFERENCE BIBLE, AUTHORIZED KING JAMES VERSION, WITH WORD CHANGES IN THE TEXT TO HELP THE READER, COPYRIGHT © 1967 By Oxford University Press, Inc.
Much disagreement has existed and exists between traditional dispensationalists as to the nature of the church’s relationship to the new covenant. All dispensationalists agree that the new covenant was originally made between God and Israel. It is agreed that Israel is distinct from the church, and will remain a distinct nation for all of eternity. It is also agreed that the new covenant will see a literal earthly fulfillment in national Israel after the Messiah returns to set up His kingdom on earth following Daniel’s seventieth week. However, there are differences of opinion among dispensationalists as to how the church fits in to all of this. The New Testament clearly teaches that Christ is the mediator of the new covenant, and some passages seem to indicate that the church enjoys many of its blessings. Some will deny that the passages in question should be interpreted in that way, and argue that the church has no part in the new covenant. Other dispensational scholars believe that there are actually two new covenants, one for Israel and another, referenced in the New Testament, for the church. Some take the position that the new covenant is not fulfilled in the church, but that the church enjoys some of its blessings due to its relationship with the covenant’s Mediator. This paper will not seek to serve as a survey of dispensational thought on this issue, as much has been written on the subject already. Instead it is the author’s aim to present his own view, after spending the better part of the last twenty years as a dispensationalist. Additionally, it should be said that Scriptural references to the new covenant are vast, and cannot all be covered in a paper of this size. Therefore, a handful of representative passages have been selected for the purposes of providing a Biblical foundation to the arguments made.
Many dispensationalists may be afraid to see any relation of the church to the new covenant. After all, it has traditionally been covenant theologians who have done so, and in fact this relationship is central to their theology. However, when covenant theologians state that the new covenant is related to the church, they mean that the new covenant is completely fulfilled in the church, with no future fulfillment for national Israel. This is the foundation of replacement theology, and no dispensationalist would want to flirt with anything remotely related to such an unbiblical notion. To do so may allow one to fall over the edge! Not to mention that walking near it may bring an alarming response from fellow dispensationalists, and few would want to be misunderstood or condemned by one’s colleagues! As a result, it seems that many otherwise sound theologians have worked over time to try and distance the church from the new covenant. No matter how admirable one’s intentions may be, if his conclusions are not biblically defensible, those conclusions must be rejected.
The author agrees that the new covenant was made with the nation of Israel, and that it will be fulfilled at a future time in the nation of Israel, and in all of the literal ways described in Scripture. It is also agreed that there is a clear distinction between the church and Israel. This paper, however, will take the position that the church does in fact benefit from the new covenant, and is related to the new covenant by means of her union with the covenant’s Mediator, Jesus Christ. In Him, we enjoy many of the blessings promised to national Israel under the new covenant. Jesus, Himself, intimated as much in Matthew 15:21-28 when the Canaanite woman came to Him asking for mercy for her demon possessed daughter. As a gentile, outside of the nation of Israel, she had no right to ask the Messiah of Israel for blessings that He came to bring the Jews. In fact, when she addresses Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, He ignores her. He then plainly tells her that He had come exclusively to the lost sheep of Israel (v.24). He had a new covenant to keep with Israel, and was under no obligation to share its blessings with this Canaanite woman. However, when she came to him by faith, worshipping Him as Lord, He responded. He allowed the woman to partake of the crumbs of the meal He had prepared for Israel, and as result this Canaanite sinner enjoyed the blessings of the Jewish table. What a beautiful picture of the church’s relationship to the new covenant. She has no rights to it. It wasn’t promised to her. She wasn’t even invited to the meal. But because of the loving relationship the Host has with her, He allows her to partake freely of the meal prepared for others. This, of course, does not mean that the original guests are uninvited, or that His plans for them have changed at all. The entire meal was prepared for them! They will still arrive right on time, and enjoy the fullness of the meal promised long ago, and prepared just for them.
In Jeremiah 31:31-34 the new covenant is promised to Israel (v.31). By implication the covenant they were under at that time is what can be called the old covenant. That covenant was, of course, the Mosaic covenant. God specifically states that there will be two parties to this forthcoming covenant: Himself, and Israel. It was not made with the church. As the late, great dispensational scholar Charles L. Feinberg rightly points out, the church did not exist. No old covenant had been made with the church, and therefore no new covenant could be made with her! This, however, in no way means that the church has no part in it. Feinberg argues:
Does this mean that believers today have no part in the new covenant? Surely not,
for the same death of Christ that implemented the new covenant for Israel does so
for all sinners for all time. The testimony of the NT is too clear on this point to be
misunderstood. Because Israel rejected the covenant in the first advent, Gentiles
availed themselves of its provisions (cf. Rom 0:30-13:1); and Israel will yet ratify
it at the climax of her history (cf. Zech 12:10-13:1). Thus it is correct to say that
all believers in Christ are by virtue of this covenant grafted into the stock of
Abraham (cf. Rom 11:16-24)... Though Jeremiah 31 does not state it, the making
of the new covenant was inextricably bound up with the crucifixion of Christ for all mankind... salvation is possible only through the death of Christ, and this is the
basis for of the new covenant. All sinful mankind is thus in view in this covenant.
Finally, Israel as a nation will ratify the covenant after the “full number of
Gentiles has come in” (Rom 11:25-27).
Though one may take issue with Feinberg’s statement that “all mankind was in view” when God made His covenant with Israel, the implication is right on. While God made His covenant with Israel, it was indeed always His plan to bring salvation to non Jews by way of the Mediator of the new covenant. So, while the new covenant will see its ultimate fulfillment in Israel at a future date, during the millennial reign of Christ, the church is today participating in some of the benefits of that covenant. The new covenant was inaugurated at cross (Matthew 26:27-28), and the church, by virtue of her union with Christ shares many of its spiritual benefits. MacArthur concurs:
In principle, this covenant, also announced by Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20), begins
to be fulfilled spiritually by Jewish and Gentile believers in the church era (1
Cor 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb 8:7-13; 9:15; 10:14-17; 12:24; 13:20). It has already
begun to take effect with “the remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom.
11:5). it will be realized by the people of Israel in the last days, including the regathering to their ancient land, Palestine (chps. 30-33). The streams of the
Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants find their confluence in the millennial kingdom ruled by the Messiah.
MacArthur makes an important point when he says that the new covenant begins to be fulfilled spiritually in the present dispensation. Though the author agrees with MacArthur’s general premise (that the church is enjoying some of the blessings of the new covenant today), he is not sure if MacArthur’s statement that the new covenant is beginning to be fulfilled in the present age is the best way to state the fact. The new covenant will be fulfilled in Israel, at a future date. Period. To argue that the church enjoys and participates in its blessings in the present age does not negate this important fact.
A survey of a handful of Old Testament passages announcing the new covenant is in order:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the
house of Israel, and with the house of Judah, Not according to the covenant 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, saith the Lord; But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the
house of Israel: after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward
parts, and write it in their hearts, and 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 the Lord; for they shall all know me, from the least of them
unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will
remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Walvoord notes that it is easy to see that the promises listed in this passage have no literal fulfillment in the present age. However, they certainly correspond to the spiritual blessings realized by the church. It is clear from the above passage (the only one in the Old Testament that specifically refers to the new covenant by name), that the covenant is with Israel, and that one cannot argue that it has been fulfilled in any way in the present age. It is, however, obvious, that the promised blessing of forgiveness that was promised to Israel is already being enjoyed by the church! In Jeremiah 32:37-40, God expands upon the new covenant, providing the reader additional information. Not only will God be Israel’s intimate Lord, and not only will He write His law on their hearts, and not only will all know him (another promise that has not yet been fulfilled), but the new covenant includes a promise that national Israel will be regathered to her ancient land (v.37), and will dwell in that land forever (v.41). These are physical blessings that only Israel can enjoy, and therefore can only be fulfilled in Israel. In Isaiah 61:8-9, God promises that under the new covenant that Israel will be publicly blessed in front of all the peoples of the world. Only national Israel can enjoy the fulfillment of this promise, and the fulfillment can only be future. This, it seems, is true of all of the physical promises of the new covenant.
The claim should not be made that the new covenant is currently being fulfilled, or even that it has begun to be filled. This can only happen in the nation of Israel and the fulfillment will be literal. However, the New Testament is clear that the spiritual blessings that the new covenant will bring are already being enjoyed by the church. In Hebrews chapter 8, the author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 while speaking to Jewish Christians. As Dr. Fruchtenbaum points out in his excellent exegesis of Hebrews, the author of Hebrews did not do so in order to claim that the promises of the new covenant were fulfilled in the church, or that the church replaced Israel, but to demonstrate the supremacy of the new covenant over the old, and that the old covenant was temporary. The New Covenant brought the promise of the forgiveness of sins, which would lead to internal change, which would lead to a new relationship with God. The author of Hebrews is arguing that his audience should take advantage of this, and realize that this promise could be realized by them, at that time! He goes on to argue that when Jesus died, the old covenant was rendered inoperative, and that his readers could now enjoy the benefits of the new covenant that God would make with Israel. Everything had been accomplished that needed to be in order for the new covenant to take effect, and in fact chapter nine goes on to demonstrate that Christ is already serving as the high priest, replacing the high priest of the old covenant, and serving in the heavenly tabernacle that the old tabernacle was a type of! Under the old covenant an earthly priest would purify the earthly tabernacle with blood, but the new High Priest has purified the true, heavenly tabernacle with His perfect blood (Hebrews 9:23), and now because of His perfect sacrifice He has put away sin (v.26), just as promised would be the case under the new covenant. It is important to remember that the context of this entire section of Hebrews is a dissertation on the superiority of the new covenant over the old. One cannot escape that conclusion that the salvation that the twenty-sixth verse speaks of is a blessing that was promised to Israel under the new covenant that is enjoyed today by both Jewish and gentile believers in Christ, which clearly proves the point that the church enjoys blessings of the new covenant. In fact, this is so very clear that many dispensationalists of the past have actually invented a “second” new covenant for the church. In their understandable attempt to stay away from the cliff of replacement theology that the covenant theologian falls over, and therefore to ensure that a proper difference is discerned between the church and Israel, they concluded that there must be another new covenant, since the new testament is so clear that the church benefits from a new covenant! However, as stated earlier, the church was never under an old covenant, therefore what new covenant could this possibly referring to, if not the one Israel was under formerly? The obvious conclusion is that the AH must be talking about God’s old covenant with Israel, and he makes this crystal clear in Hebrews chapters 8-10. The salvation that the church enjoys is none other than the salvation promised under the new covenant, bought and paid for by the new covenant’s mediator, Jesus Christ.
It should be noted that nowhere does Hebrews, or any other New Testament passage state that the new covenant has been fulfilled. It is this author’s opinion that if one is to use a consistent literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic, then the fulfillment of the new covenant can only take place when Israel is regathered to her ancestral land, and Christ returns to set up His millennial kingdom (Jeremiah 32:37-41). This will take place after the fullness of the Gentiles be come in (Romans 11:25). At that time, all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26), experiencing the forgiveness of sins promised in Jeremiah 31:34. God will write His law on their hearts, and they will enjoy an intimate relationship with Him as their God that will be unique to that dispensation. Israel will dwell in complete peace and safety in their land (Jeremiah 32:37), and unlike in the past the nation will be completely faithful to their God (Jeremiah 32:40). When these promises that God made to the nation of Israel are fulfilled literally, then one will be able to say that the new covenant has been fulfilled. In the meantime, saved Jews, and saved gentiles enjoy the forgiveness of sins, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that the new covenant will bring Israel during the kingdom.
While preparing this paper the author invited some friends over for dinner. A grand feast of grilled hamburgers, sausages, and hot dogs was promised. A date was set. Guests marked their calendars for the appropriate time on the appropriate day. While preparing the meal, the host noticed that there was going to be plenty of delicious meat for everyone, multiple times over. The smell was incredible. The host wasn’t the only one who thought so. His loyal dogs, Yogi and Teddy, sat eagerly next to the grill with watering tongues hanging out. They, from past experience, were aware that the chef was prone to drop meat while moving it from the grill to the plate, and they were ready. They were not disappointed! Not only did their master drop some, but because of his love for them he actually gave them some on purpose. Then, after the meal, when the guests had left, Yogi and Teddy got leftovers. They enjoyed so much grilled and seasoned meat that night they were laying belly up on the hardwood floor in the living room in a total and complete food coma. Looking over at them, the author thought about the church and the new covenant. That meal was not promised to those dogs. They weren’t even invited to the party! In fact, the promise of the party wasn’t fulfilled until the guests arrived, and it was fulfilled only then. But the food had to be prepared for the invited guests. And, because of their intimate relationship with the host, and his affection for them, those dogs had one of the best nights of their lives. They got to eat the crumbs that fell from the table of the party. And guess what? The friends who were originally promised the meal got all they wanted to eat, as well.
God didn’t promise a new covenant to the church. He promised it to Israel. And one day that promise will be literally fulfilled. But in the meantime, like those dogs, the church gets to live under the new covenant today, and enjoy some of its blessings.
Decker, Rodney J. “Why Do Dispensationalists Have Such a Hard Time Agreeing on the New Covenant?” Paper Presented at the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, September 2008.
Dyer, Charles. “Jeremiah,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament. ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. USA: Victor Books, 1987.
Fruchtenbaum, Arnold J. Ariel’s Bible Commentary: The Messianic Jewish Epistles. San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2005.
Feinberg, Charles L. “Jeremiah,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 6, ed. Frank E.
Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981.
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005.
Pettegrew, Larry D. “The New Covenant” The Master’s Seminary Journal. 10/2 (Fall 1999), 251-270.
Toussaint, Stanley D. Behold The King: A Study of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: 1980.
Walvoord, John F. The New Covenant With Israel, from the series Eschatological Problems, www.walvoord.com.
 Rodney J. Decker, “Why Do Dispensationalists Have Such a Hard Time Agreeing on the New Covenant?,” Paper Presented at the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, September 2008.
 Larry D. Pettegrew. The New Covenant. The Master’s Seminary Journal. 10/2 (Fall 1999), 251-270.
 Stanley D. Toussaint. Behold The King: A Study In Matthew. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1980), 194-195.
 Charles L. Feinberg. “Jeremiah,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 6 . (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986, 575.
 Charles Dyer, “Jeremiah,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Old Testament. ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. (USA: Victor Books, 1987). 1171-1172.
 John MacArthur. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. (Nashville, TE: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 868.
 John F. Walvoord. “The New Covenant With Israel,” in the Eschatological Problems series. www.walvoord.com.
 Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Ariel’s Bible Commentary, The Messianic Jewish Epistles. (San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2005), 112.
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