Why Covenant Eschatology?
What does “Covenant Eschatology” Mean?
“Covenant Eschatology” is the term I prefer when discussing what is sometimes referred to as “the AD 70 doctrine.” It is more than a single doctrine. In fact, it shouldn’t be called a “doctrine” at all; not if one intends to deal fairly with it. Instead, it is an extensive treatment of ALL of Israel’s promises concerning her hope of restoration under Messiah. More accurately, it should be seen as the uncovering of the eternal purpose of God. It affects an extensive range of biblical doctrines and promises, and sees the NT as being the announcement, warning and prompting concerning the fulfillment of those promises.
“Eschatology,” from the Greek escato” (eschatos, last), is the study of final things. “Covenant” directs ones attention to what was being finalized: the covenant made through Moses. Both Jer. 3131 and Heb. 813 spoke of a new covenant replacing the old. At the time Hebrews was written, that first covenant was “becoming obsolete and growing old,” it was “ready to disappear” (Heb. 813). God made promises to Israel regarding the hope she would realize in her last days. Therefore, Covenant Eschatology is a look into the last days of one covenant as it gave way into the hope of the new one. In short, it is the study of God keeping His promises to bless and restore Israel at the end of His first covenant with her.
Why do Some Oppose It?
Maybe you’ve heard what some say: “The ‘AD 70 doctrine’ splits churches.” Others say, “It steals our hope.” Still others, misunderstanding (or, misrepresenting) what those who embrace “Covenant Eschatology” really believe, set forth “straw men” in order to “show it false” by means of their arguments and syllogisms. Some find their foil in 2 Tim. 218 and the supposed “Hymenaean Heresy,” misunderstanding both the timing of the verse and the first century concepts of resurrection and of hope. Others are just like I was and do not see the power of abundant NT passages which speak of the coming, judgment and reward as imminent early in the 1st century.
Missing the Imminence
Overlooking the significance of such verses, simply because they didn’t make sense in a futurist paradigm, we didn’t see their impact. What should we do, for example, with 1 Pet. 47: “the end of all things is at hand”? That end was at hand when Peter wrote; was he mistaken? Did the Holy Spirit really tell Peter what to write? Did the end of all things really take place shortly after he wrote? This demands an answer or atheists will “eat our lunch!” Or, how should we understand James when he asserted to beleaguered brothers in that first century: “be patient…the coming of the Lord is at hand…the Judge is standing right at the door” (Jas. 58–9)? Is that poor judge still standing there, nearly two thousand years later? Or, did He actually come, just like He promised? Other verses could be adduced; I mention these to show our need to re-examine them and restore their weight in the discussion of final things.
See Don K. Preston’s Can God Tell Time, for an excellent “primer” on the issue of the Biblical Time statements.
To the concern that this understanding splits churches I can only say, this is simply not true. I could call the charge a red herring, but that would be inflammatory. I could say that throughout history churches have been splitting with sickening predictability, but that would be evasion. What I will say is this; doctrines do not split churches, misbehaving men split churches. And so in this case, if we behave like Bereans, nothing untoward will happen. Open-hearted listening leads to honor, respect and good will; not to division. Honest study with open Bibles leads to common understanding. Misbehavior, on the other hand, leads to tension, irritability, strife and, ultimately, to division. In short, we should lay the blame of splitting churches where it belongs; not on a doctrine—any doctrine—but on the shameful behavior of men, whether well-intentioned or not.
But doesn’t the “AD 70 doctrine” rob good people of their hope? I grant that a surface consideration might leave one wondering: “What’s in it for me if there isn’t a future return of Jesus to gather up His people from their graves and take them back to heaven?” But this begs the question, doesn’t it? Consider: What if there never was such a return scenario, if all our expectations were pinned to a misunderstanding of those texts? Then it was only a phantom hope. No realistic expectation can be based on misinterpretation.
Compare this to the Jews of Jesus’ day. They had their hopes tied-up in an unrealistic expectation. They hoped for the overthrow of Rome in order for the Messianic Kingdom to commence. Once, they actually tried to force Jesus to be King (John 615). Even His own disciples sadly headed home after His crucifixion, crushed in their hearts and aspirations. “We were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel,” they moaned (Luke 2421). There they were, hope crushed with a decision to make: should we go back to what we always believed, or should we rethink our hope in light of fresh examination of the scriptures? Should we hold on to the hopeless “hope”; or should we lay hold of the true one?
Discarding the old “treasure” in light of fresh study is a good thing. Jesus taught as much. In Matt. 1352, after a long string of parables He challenged His disciples: “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household who throws out of his treasure things new and old.” Note that a scribe was not the average Jew; he was one well-learned in the scriptures. Also note, a disciple is more than a casual follower: the word means “student, learner; one who yearns, more than anything else, to be like his Master.” Additionally, note the discretionary authority every disciple has: he is like the head of a household! He decides for himself what to keep as his “treasure.” Further note that I replaced “brings forth out” in the NAS rendering with “throws out.” Here is why I did so. Everywhere else in Matthew this Greek word, ekballw, (ekballo, throw out), is translated “cast out” (as when Jesus would cast out an evil spirit in Matt. 1224). Surely that was Jesus’ intent here, as well. Finally note: one’s “treasures” refers to those dearly-held doctrines and beliefs that Jesus had been challenging.
Here is what Jesus taught. Even if one is like a scribe, well-studied in his bible, if he is truly a “disciple of the kingdom” he will exercise his discretion and gladly discard from his treasured beliefs anything that fresh study exposes as being incorrect or inaccurate. This is the same noble attitude that Luke praised in the Bereans (Acts 1711–12).
So, if a study of Covenant Eschatology promotes tension and seems to destroy hope, why study it? Why not leave well-enough alone? Obviously, I deny both assertions! Tension is created by resistance to study, not by honest Bible examination. And, true hope emerges when misplaced hope is exposed. This is exactly what happened to Paul, who held so tenaciously to the things that were “gain” to him (Phil. 37) until he relearned the OT passages and saw their true meaning in Jesus. Then he counted it all as “loss” in order to truly gain Christ (Phil. 48). His hope was even brighter after the “correction” than it was before. This is the same kindness I intend to promote: to help people divest themselves of a false-hope and gain and rejoice in the truth.
I write to achieve understanding among God’s people. I want to dispel the sense of hopelessness that comes over those who misunderstand the beauty of fulfillment and who rely on misplaced hope. I intend to clarify what I see in the biblical doctrine of The Resurrection. I also want to accurately identify what Old and New Covenant authors meant by “The Judgment.” I am passionate to remove from the skeptic any and every ground for reproach and accusation that arises when he thinks the NT writers were mistaken in their end-time predictions. And most assuredly, I exult in the New Heavens and the New Earth which came down out of heaven so God could tabernacle with His sons and daughters (Rev. 211–4).