Philip Edgcumbe Hughes

 

PROPHECY AND THE CHURCH


Is this church period a parenthesis, a stop-gap, made necessary by the contingency of the rejection by the Jews of the kingdom at Christ’s first coming? Would that kingdom have been set up on earth there and then if their response had been positive? Was God’s position one of doubt and uncertainty, so that he had to wait and see what the answer of the Jews would be? And when it turned out to be a negative answer was he forced to resort to an emergency measure until such time as he could put his original plan into effect? We may assume that it is not the intention of dispensationalists to diminish the competence and sovereignty of Almighty God and the immutability of his purposes; but their explanation of the sequence of events can hardly fail to arouse questions such as these. Indeed, this mentality seems to be little removed from that of Roman Catholic apologists who defend the notion of Mary as co-redemptrix with Christ, or at least as the one who shares with God the credit for mankind’s salvation, on the ground that the incarnation was contingent on her giving an affirmative response to the angel of the annunciation (Lk. 1:38, “Let it be to me according, to your word”).

Certainly, the apostles do not appear to have regarded the era of the church as a parenthesis outside the scope of the prophetic vision. On the Day of Pentecost, for example, Peter assures his large Jewish audience that the sending forth of the Holy Spirit is “what was spoken by the prophet Joel,” through whom God declared that in the last days he would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, with the consequence that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:28-32); that Jesus of Nazareth was delivered up to be crucified “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” and was raised to life again in fulfilment of what “David says concerning him” in Psalm 16; and that his ascension to God’s right hand has brought to pass the prophetic words of David in Psalm 110. “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly,” he concludes, “that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:14-36). Neither here nor elsewhere is there any mention of a postponement of the kingdom or a change of plan on God’s part. Quite the contrary, for all that they are witnessing is in accordance with the predetermined purpose of God and the prophetic utterances of the Old Testament writers. On that historic day some three thousand Jews welcomed the message proclaimed by Peter and were baptized (Acts 2:41).

Shortly afterward, in an apostolic prayer-meeting, recognition is expressed of the fact that fierce opposition to the Gospel (in this church age!) was foretold by David in Psalm 2 and that all the hostile forces that had gathered together to destroy Jesus succeeded in doing only “whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:23-28). Similarly, Paul, formerly the proud Pharisee and persecutor of the church, preaches the fulfilment of the Old Testament scriptures in the blessings of this present church age, including “the holy and sure blessings of David,” which, being the blessings of David, must be kingdom blessings:

“We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he spoke in this way, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ Therefore he says also in another psalm, ‘Thou wilt not let thy Holy One see corruption’” (Acts 13:32-35).

And, significantly, Paul goes on to warn his Jewish audience (in Pisidian Antioch) that rejection of the message of the Gospel will bring upon them the disaster foretold by the prophets of old:

“Beware, therefore, lest there come upon you what is said in the prophets: ‘Behold, you scoffers, and wonder, and perish; for I do a deed in your days, a deed you will never believe, if one declares it to you’” (Acts 13:40f.; Hab. 1:5).

At the first council of the Christian church, commonly known as the Council of Jerusalem, which is described by Luke in Acts 15, called for the purpose of resolving certain questions concerning the position of Gentile believers and the relevance of Judaism to Christian faith and practice, James, the brother of Jesus, addressed the assembly as its president, pointing out that God’s calling of a people for his name from among the Gentiles was in accord with the prophetic scriptures:

With this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written, ‘After this I will return and will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old’ (Acts 15:15-18; see Amos 9:11f.; Is. 55:5; 45:21).

Here is another remarkable instance of a “kingdom” passage, relating to “the dwelling of David,” being interpreted in the most authoritative manner as finding its fulfilment in the events of this church age. Plainly, this synod of apostles and elders (Acts 15 :6), whose judgment was expressed by James, understood the rebuilding of David’s house to be accomplished in God’s building of his church — a structure which, as we have already seen, Peter would describe in a manner entirely consonant with the interpretation of the Council of Jerusalem, of which he was a prominent member, as composed of the “living stones” of believers, “built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5).

If there is a difference between the “kingdom” and the “church,” the apostles and evangelists of the New Testament seem to have been unaware of it. The “good news” preached by the “deacon” Philip in Samaria was “about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12); and Paul spent three months in Ephesus “arguing and pleading about the kingdom of God” in the synagogue there (Acts 19:8; cf. 20:25). This is Paul’s theme again when, during his first captivity in Rome, he called together the local leaders of the Jews and explained to them that it was “because of the hope of Israel” that he was in bonds, and subsequently expounded the Gospel to them “from morning till evening, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets” (Acts 28:17-20, 23; cf. 24:14). It was, indeed, precisely “for hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day,” that the apostle, as he told King Agrippa, had been brought to trial by his fellow Jews (Acts 26:6f.). In the light of such evidence it must surely be clear that in the apostolic doctrine and preaching the church could not possibly have been regarded as a parenthesis hidden from the perspective of the writers of the Old Testament.

This conclusion is confirmed by the readiness with which the apostolic authors of the New Testament epistles cite the ancient promises given to Israel in order to show that it is in Jesus Christ and his church that they find their fulfilment. In Christ, Paul assures the Gentile believers in Corinth and Achaia, “all the promises of God find their Yes. That is why [in our worship] we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20). Thus to them, Gentile members of the Christian church, he applies God’s promise spoken to Israel through Moses and in later days repeated by the prophets as an essential element of the future new covenant: “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people” (see Lev. 26:12; Ex. 25:8; 29:45; Jer. 30:22; 31:33; Ezek. 11:20; 37:26f., etc.); and it is precisely on such passages that he bases his admonition to them not to compromise with unbelief, since “we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:14-16).

The same is true, of course, of Jewish believers whose faith in Christ has likewise brought them into membership of the Christian church. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, informs his readers that the new covenant foretold by the prophets —new, that is, in relation to the Mosaic covenant which was in force in their day — is fulfilled in Christ who is the mediator of this new and better covenant (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). The church of Christ, accordingly, is the sphere of the new covenant, and the blessings of this covenant are bestowed on the members of the church, as summed up in the promise, “I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” while the full realization of all that is promised awaits the eternal perfection of the new heaven and the new earth. But the most significant consideration for our present argument is that though the promise of a new covenant was announced to Israel and Judah — “The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” — yet it comes to fruition in “the church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28), the blood, namely, of the new covenant (Heb. 8:6-13; 9:11-15; 10:29; 13:20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25; Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:22).


 Author

 Philip Edgecumbe Hughes was Visiting Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Associate Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. His other works include Theology of the English Reformers, Commentary on II Corinthians, But for the Grace of God,  and Confirmation in the Church Today.


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