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The Christian’s Hope (3)

Malcolm C Davis, Leeds

Its Characteristics

This is the more technical aspect of the subject, but nonetheless a quite crucial one. It is necessary to explain the more important doctrinal features of the Christian’s hope, without which we would not have such a blessed prospect in view.

The hope is literal and future

First and foremost, then, we shall consider the importance of understanding that the Christian’s hope is both literal and future, just as was Christ’s first coming for Old Testament believers. It is vitally important that we understand that all Scripture alike must be interpreted in its most literal sense possible, consistent with the use of human language, to express its primary meaning. Ordinary figures of speech may be used to convey this meaning, and, at times, symbolical language, as is the case in the apocalyptic books of Scripture especially. All these forms of expression describe what has been, or will one day be, a literal historical truth or fact which has been revealed to us in the Bible in advance of its happening. The God of eternity is well able to predict future events, because He alone fully controls them. To deny this is the essence of unbelief.

Furthermore, it is essential to treat prophetical Scriptures as having a literal meaning and fulfilment as much as Scriptures referring to matters of salvation and holiness of life. The result of not doing this is serious doctrinal error and confusion in understanding and applying the Scriptures as a whole. The so-called "amillennial" view of prophecy falls down on this point. This view fails to distinguish between the various progressive dispensations in God’s revelation of Himself to mankind, and seeks to make the present age of God’s grace in Christ merely a modified continuation of the Old Testament economy of law, instead of the distinctive age of the New Testament Church. Amillennialists sincerely believe that there is New Testament Scriptural warrant for interpreting the prophetical Scriptures concerning Christ’s second coming in both Testaments in a spiritualised sense only. This particularly as they pertain to a future earthly kingdom of God even although many do accept that Jesus Christ is coming again to judge the world and deliver true believers in it.

Believing scholars who accept the literal truth of all Scripture alike are known as "premillennialists". There have been many such students of Scripture since the early years of the nineteenth century, beginning with the older so-called assembly writers, mainly in Britain and North America. During the latter half of the twentieth century many believing scholars in North America established the premillennial understanding of Scripture on a very firm theological basis, and in their extensive writings elaborated its implications most helpfully and in great detail. One of their findings has been that in the earliest centuries of the Christian Church the literal premillennial view of the coming kingdom of God on earth was the predominant one among believers. The amillennial view of the kingdom only took root after Augustine’s "City of God" writings and the rise of the false Roman Catholic Church to temporal power in this age. Amillennialism can thus be seen to have been a deviation from sound apostolic doctrine, premillennialism representing the original apostolic doctrine of Christ’s second coming.

This latter doctrine was almost wholly lost to view during the Middle Ages, but has been recovered with increasing clarity from the time of the early assemblies movement until today. The literal view of Scripture on this matter is therefore not a complete theological novelty, and thus suspect on the ground of that supposed novelty. It is sound apostolic doctrine. Minor differences in points of detailed interpretation of the less clear Scriptures still exist between believers in these matters, as in other parts of Scripture, but there is a substantial agreement between premillennial students of the prophetic Word. It is both a more believing approach to Scripture than the amillennial view, and the only one which provides a clear, comprehensive, and spiritually helpful exegesis of all parts of Scripture as a unified whole.

Our hope is heavenly

Second, it is essential to understand that our hope today is heavenly, not earthly, and is distinct from that of Israel. "Israel" means the earthly nation of Israel in every reference in both Testaments, whereas "the Church" means the New Testament Church, comprising all true believers, both Jewish and Gentile, from Pentecost until the rapture. It was formed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and not before then. Israel, God’s earthly people, is quite distinct from the Church, God’s present heavenly people, throughout Scripture. Unless this distinction is understood, there is complete confusion in grasping the outline of God’s revelation in Scripture as a whole. There have been, and will yet be, various different dispensations in God’s dealings with mankind throughout history. Because both Israel and the Church are peoples of God, and God’s governmental ways with men are broadly similar in every age, parallels have been drawn in the New Testament between Israel and the Church. Illustrations of the Church are sometimes to be found in the Old Testament, although that Testament largely concerns Israel. But it does not follow from this fact, namely from the New Testament quotations of the Old Testament with reference to Israel, that the New Testament Church is simply a continuation of Old Testament Israel. The proof of this distinction is in Romans 11, which clearly predicts a future for the earthly people Israel as distinct from the largely Gentile Church, the New Testament people used as the vehicle of God’s testimony in the earth. Believing Jews today comprise God’s "remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom 11.5). This and other Scriptures indicate that the earthly people Israel will not come into God’s blessing again until after "the fulness of the Gentiles be come in" (Rom 11.25), that is, not until after the New Testament Church has been raptured to heaven.

Paul, in his letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, clearly reveals for the first time in Scripture that the New Testament Church, the Body and Bride of Christ, was a mystery hidden in God from all previous generations of mankind. This has now been revealed as the highest truth of His purposes of grace and redemption based upon Christ’s sacrifice for sin at Calvary. For God was not taken by surprise when His earthly people Israel rejected His Son incarnate as their long-promised Messiah and rightful Davidic King. This is clearly recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. He simply overruled their unbelief and rejection as the opportunity to reveal Himself in even greater glory and grace by introducing the New Testament Church comprising both Jews and Gentiles in the same Body. This had never happened before, and will never happen again. From the time of the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13, the Lord Jesus began to develop two parallel strands of truth. First, a distinct parenthesis in His dealings with His earthly people Israel before the ultimate fulfilment of the Old Testament kingdom promises to that nation, coupled with some details of events that would take place during that parenthesis. Second, the gradual revelation of the truth of the New Testament Church, the heavenly people of God, embracing believers of all nations from Pentecost until the Rapture. This begins with the first reference in Matthew 16.18, "I will build my church", which there refers to a then future event. The New Testament Church, as being the one new man in Christ (Eph 2.15), both His body (Eph 1.23; 2.16; 3.6) and bride personally (Rev 21.9), is not an earthly people of God at all, unlike Israel. Rather, we are God’s parallel heavenly people, destined not for earth, but for heaven.

Our prospect is to share Christ’s glory and throne in the future millennial kingdom, and the new heavens and earth in eternity, even judging angels and always having a place of unique intimacy and privilege with Christ Himself. Members of the Church today should therefore not be looking for an earthly material hope like Israel, but for "his Son from heaven" (1 Thess 1.10). He will be our deliverer from the wrath to come. We cannot rightly appreciate our Christian hope unless we grasp this distinction between Israel and believers today who comprise the true Christian Church. Sadly, many true believers do so fail, and this fact accounts for much of the somewhat misguided teaching regarding this subject and the Scriptures generally, in Christendom down the New Testament era.

To be continued.


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