Sunday, 16 July 2017

How to Interpret Old Testament Prophecy

There are two common approaches to Old Testament prophecies about Israel and related objects, which I think are both often not adequate:

One, sees the fulfilment as postponed until the future. They think God's still got to save Israel, and rebuild their Temple, etc.;

The other approach sees it as fulfilled already, but alters the identity of Israel and other themes in the prophecies so that they think it never meant literally Israel at all. It means the Church instead, and the physical details have been fulfilled spiritually.

The problem with the first view, is that if Israel's promises are still future, then none of us are saved - because Gentiles were said to be grafted in to Israel's salvation.

And if it's still future, then Jesus was too early in history to be Messiah - because the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah occurred in the same prophecies about Israel's salvation.

That also implies a return to Judaism in future, because the same prophecies described Messiah coming at a time when Levitical-style worship would be carried out - but the Apostles ruled-out any validity of returning to Levitical-style worship.

And the problem with the other view, is that it removes the objective, physical, geographical, historical basis for the Christian faith - it reduces our claim to something subjective, ethereal, experiential.

The Apostles' claim was made quite differently to both of those approaches, I feel. The Apostles said that God had fulfilled everything that He'd promised Israel, and that in that very setting their Messiah had come - they were eyewitnesses - with irrefutable proofs.

Of course, that brought a spiritual experience to the individual; and Gentiles later came to participate fully in its blessings - but there was first and foremost a fulfilment in Israel of promises which God had spoken about Israel. That is the basis for the Apostles' claim - the Gospel! And we lose that if we make it future or if we spiritualise it all.

An objection to my understanding of it, might be that some of the details in the prophecies about Israel don't appear to have come to pass in Israel. Granted, and the Apostles had to deal with that question. But how did they deal with it - by relegating fulfilment to the future? No. By spiritualising the identities in prophecy? No. The Apostles dealt with that by explaining that even the prophets forewarned that only a remnant of Jews would believe.

An important part of the Apostles' message was also that Messiah's coming was to be a two-phase thing. The Gospel is a single scheme, but in two phases. Messiah's first coming, and His second coming. Some major themes of Old Testament prophecy are yet to be fulfilled at His second coming, according to the Apostles' message. Things like the resurrection, judgment and new heavens and earth. But Israel's salvation-scheme was not something that has been delayed until then - it had come! And then Gentiles were grafted into it too.

Some details in Old Testament prophecy also described vision, and were written in the apocalyptic genre, not in straight-prose. But other parts were written plainly. For example, Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones coming to life; and perhaps some of the dimensions of the temple he saw, and the river that flowed from its door - these might not all have been meant literally. Even the Jews might have understood that. Yet Ezekiel's contemporaries were told to act on the inspiration provided by the visions. They couldn't have been expected to act on it if it is all still future.

An interpretive key which I apply to Old Testament prophecies is that any prophecy which was about Levitical-style worship being carried out, must have been fulfilled while the Old Covenant still stood - because God isn't into returning to the shadow. That's applying a New Testament key to unlock the door of Old Testament prophecy. That helps rightly divide the details in a prophecy between what is now past, what is present and what is still future. The best aid to rightly dividing the word is New Testament theology - found in the sermons in Acts, in the Epistles, based on the history found in the Gospels.

So, I think the story of Israel, their captivity, their restoration, grew naturally into the story of their Messiah, and into the story of the Church which at first was all-Jewish and then later came to include Gentile members. The story of Israel and the story of the Church are not two separate stories, not two separate spiritual identities, not two separate ways to salvation.

The story of the Church was told by the Apostles as the apex of the story of Israel. It was at its inception an all-Jewish story. Only afterwards did Gentiles become part of it. Now it's a unified story, fulfilling prophecy and promise, as God always intended to do. It's a scheme which takes nothing away from any people or nationality - it only adds to them!

One Lord. One faith. One Messiah. One people of the Messiah. We are in Him. The Church. His body.

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