Chapter 7: Two Forms of Christian Judaism

A strong case can undeniably be made for Sabbatarianism by a particular use of the Bible. The Puritans, for example, were giants in biblical learning, and they buttressed their Sabbatarianism with voluminous biblical support. The Westminster divines and other great students of the Word such as Charles Hodge, Arthur Pink and John Murray did likewise. Seventh-day Adventists have "won" three million Christians to their Sabbatarian viewpoint, and they support their case with many scriptures.

Some of my Sabbatarian readers have undoubtedly been mentally reviewing the Scriptures for texts which counter the evidence I have presented from the Pauline Epistles. It is not difficult to find "proof"-texts for or against Sabbatarianism. Those who do not acknowledge this have not candidly examined the opposing view.

It does not help to deride the mentality, much less the motives, of those who take another viewpoint. But we need to be reminded that there is a correct and an incorrect way to read the Bible.

The Old Testament is divided into the law and the prophets. The New Testament proclaims that Jesus fulfills both. Therefore the Gospels interpret both.

The Prophets

For illustrative purposes, we will consider the Old Testament prophets first. The prophets were Jews, and they spoke to Jews about God's glorious purpose for His people. The only way they could describe the coming salvation was to use the imagery and language of Palestinian geography, history and culture. Thus, the prophets spoke of the coming salvation in terms, of blossoms in the desert, springs in the parched places, prosperity in Jerusalem, the restoration of David's fallen tent, the conquest of the Edomites and great blessings upon the house of David. The New Testament everywhere announces that all these promises have been fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ, in the inauguration of His reign and in the outpouring of His Spirit on His believing people. It takes the same kind of faith to believe this as it takes to believe the gospel. In fact, believing that Jesus fulfills all these promises is believing the gospel (Acts 13:32, 33).

If one begins with the Old Testament and holds to the letter of the Palestinian promises, those promises certainly do not sound like New Testament realities. A literal reading of Amos 9 does not sound like the missionary thrust of the early church (cf. Amos 9:11-12 with Acts 15:14-19). Isaiah 40:3-5 does not sound like John the Baptist. (Did he build highways in the desert?)

It was not their study of the Old Testament prophets which led the apostles to believe that Jesus was God incarnate or that He rose from the dead. Nor was the starting point for the apostles' theology a particular view of the Old Testament into which they fitted the story of Jesus. Rather, they were confronted with the historical reality of Jesus -- His life, His miracles, His death and His resurrection. They then read the Old Testament and interpreted it in the light of God's final revelation in Christ. They saw that Jesus was the new Creation, the new Adam, the new Moses, the new Temple, the new David, etc. They also saw that Jesus and His people were the new Israel, the eschatological remnant which had inherited all the promises God made to Israel.

The apostles did not interpret the Old Testament prophets according to the letter of their Palestinian language--as though springs in the desert meant the irrigation of avocados in Palestine or as though God's defense of Jerusalem meant British bombers defending the holy sites during World War II. They interpreted the Old Testament prophets with a great deal of prophetic freedom. For when Jesus fulfilled the hopes of Israel, He transformed them. How could the prophets adequately convey the wonder of Christ's act of redemption and the glory of His reign?

Yet popular evangelicalism (dispensationalism) insists that the prophets must be fulfilled to the letter -- Palestinian baggage and all. The desert means the desert, rivers mean rivers, rain on Palestine means rain on Palestine (even though Peter interpreted rain to mean the outpouring of the Spirit [cf. Joel 2:23, 28-32 with Acts 2:15-21]), and Jerusalem means Jerusalem (even though Paul says that Hagar means earthly Jerusalem and that the Jerusalem community means the Christian church). By insisting on the fulfillment of the letter of prophecy, dispensationalism tries to squeeze the awesome eschatological acts of God into a Judaistic framework. But the mighty act of God in Christ was completely beyond the limits of prophetic expression. When Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophets, He far surpassed the narrow vistas of the Judaistic hope. The new wine of His gospel cannot be contained within the old wineskins Of the Old Testament of Judaism. The prophets must therefore be interpreted, even reinterpreted, by the New Testament message.

In attempting to restore the letter of Old Testament prophecy, thereby establishing a place of privilege for the literal Jews, dispensationalism preaches Christian Judaism. Paul may well have had to meet such teaching from apocalyptically-minded Jewish Christians.

The Law

Just as dispensationalists have insisted on interpreting Old Testament prophecy by the letter, so Seventh-day Adventism has insisted on interpreting the Old Testament law by the letter. But just as we must allow the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament prophets in its own way (i.e., in light of the gospel), so we must allow the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament law in its own way (i.e., in light of the gospel). The Christ event made a great difference in the way the apostles read the Old Testament prophets, and it made a great difference in the way they read the Old Testament law. They reinterpreted the law with the same prophetic freedom with which they reinterpreted the prophecies. For example, Paul reinterpreted the Mosaic law concerning oxen as follows:

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn't the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely He says this for us, doesn't He? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? -- 1 Corinthians 9:7-11

In Jesus Christ. God has made all things new. As Paul declared, "The old has gone the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Because of Christ's coming, we cannot read the prophets in the same way anymore: nor can we read the law in the same way.

Yet Seventh-day Adventism builds its theological base from the Old Testament It derives its ethics from the letter of the Old Testament law and then tries to fit the New Testament message into this Judaistic framework. But this is simply an attempt to pour the new wine of the gospel into the old wineskins of Judaism.

This occurs not only with Seventh-day Adventism's treatment of the Sabbath commandment, but with its application of the Levitical aspects of the law as well. For example, Adventism has meticulously studied the two-apartment sanctuary schema in Leviticus. Then, reasoning from the premise that what was done in the type must be done in the antitype, it has projected this two-partite Levitical sanctuary into heaven.

Actually, dispensationalism is British born Adventism, and Seventh-day Adventism is American-born Adventism. Both movements are branches of an Anglo-Saxon apocalyptic movement which began on opposite sides of the Atlantic in. the 1830's and 1840's. And interestingly, both movements have attached a Judaistic understanding of the Old Testament the Christian message. Dispensationalists have done with the prophets what Adventist have done with the law. If dispensationalists read the law as they read the prophets, they would be Adventists; and if Adventists read the prophets as they read the law, they would be dispensationalists.

I would like to suggest to my dispensationalist and Adventist friends (for I heartily recognize both as my brethren in Christ) that establishing either our ethical or prophetic presuppositions from the Old Testament and then trying to adapt the New Testament to them is an unsatisfactory use of the Bible. We must allow the New Testament to interpret the Old. If our ethical prophetic system finds no support in New Testament, we ought to call it into question.

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