Creation, Covenant, Curse, and the Seed of the Woman (The Story Notes #2)

My church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

Last week we talked about Genesis 1 and the picture it gives us of the God who stands at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. If last week was the first act (Creation), we’re going to dive in and look at that act again from another angle, as well as the second act, the Fall and where we fit into things.

the-garden-of-edenGenesis 2-3

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but vacation is good for about a week, maybe two. After that we start to go stir-crazy. Something in us desires to do something with actual meaning and purpose. We need to take something up, a cause, a piece of wood to carve, or an idea to flesh out with pen and paper, but we need to do something. We’re task-oriented beings at core. That’s part of what this text is about. It’s about our purpose, our place here in the cosmos.

But first, to understand the human task, you have to understand the human set-up.

God Sets Us Up in The Garden – Remember last week we said that God created the world and everything in it as his Temple, the place where he would dwell with his people? Well, these first sections describe the Garden of Eden as a Temple. It’s got everything that is needed for the Temple, including gold, onyx, the right kind of wood, water, garden stuff. Actually if you follow the language used of the Temple and the Tabernacle in the Law, if you read it, it all mirrors the language we find here in the Garden. The Temple was supposed to mirror the Garden in that it was the place that God dwelt and the Garden was a sort of proto-temple.

Now, beyond that, it’s a sweet set-up. God gives us EVERYTHING. There is food, there is beauty, there is companionship between the man and the woman. It truly is the definition of paradise (minus the resort hotel.) But…that doesn’t mean God put them there to sit around.

For a Task – We see that God makes man and woman, male and female in his Image in Genesis 1. That means that there is something about humans that distinguishes us from the animals and puts us in a place of authority whereby we are to run the world the way God would as his representatives. Well, the same thing is true here in Genesis 2.  That’s what the naming the animals thing was about. It’s Adam assuming his authority, to rule the creation. In other words, he’s starting his job.

What that means is that central to our identity is work. This is weird for a lot of us.

N.D. Wilson points out that a lot of us think that if we were just born into the garden, life would be easy. We think that work is there only because of the fall and sin. That’s not true. This is Genesis 2. Sin hasn’t happened yet. Life as God intended it is good, but part of the good life, is good work. We are inherently task-oriented beings, called to be God’s priest-kings. It makes sense, though, right? God works, so we work. We are made for relationship, yes,  but we’re also made for a job. Two jobs, in fact.

Priest-Kings – First, we are to spread the Kingdom of God or God’s Garden-Temple and second, we are to keep it free from the serpent. Adam is placed in the garden to “cultivate (abad)” and “keep (samar)” it (Gen 2:15). The same two words are translated elsewhere “serve” and “guard”, and when they appear together, they are either referring to Israelites serving or obeying God’s word, or more usually, to the job of the priest in guarding and keeping the Temple. (Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 1 Chron. 23:32) .  In those days, the task was to keep God’s garden ordered, and some theologians (e.g. G.K. Beale) argue, to expand it into the deserted areas, sort of advancing the Kingdom of God as we went. God forms and fills the earth, so we do as well.

Next, we were also born to a fight. We forget that before we fell, we had an enemy. Before we sinned, we had an opponent, the Serpent, or the one the serpent represents, Satan.  See, just as the priests were supposed to keep the Temple precincts clean from pollution Adam’s job was to keep the garden free and clean from the corrupting elements of the Serpent, the Dragon.

This is why our hearts resonate when we see these stories about a task, an adventure, a goal, a fight, a great job to build, or grow, or make beautiful all things. It’s what we were created for. We were made to expand the Garden, to create culture, to fight evil and spread beauty throughout God’s world, just as God does.

The Structure of the Job (Covenant) – Now, there was a structure to the task. See, if we look at the text, it actually shows us that our relationship with God was structured like an ancient covenant treaty. What’s that? Well, it’s kind of an established relationship between a Sovereign King, and a sub-king. The King would protect and bless the sub-king and the sub-king would be loyal and serve the great king. If you compare the text to the ancient copies of these treaties, there is a marked structural similarity:

Now, these are the typical features and how it matches up with what we see in Genesis 2:

  1. Parties Named (the Lord God and the humans)
  2. History of relations (Here’s God giving you everything)
  3. Stipulations (Keep the Garden, Don’t eat from the Tree)
  4. Blesses and Curses for obedience (Tree of Life and eventual immortality, Curse of death)

So, Adam and Eve are the sub-kings promised blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience. The idea is “you will have eternal Sabbath and life if you keep the garden, obey God’s commands and enjoy all that you’ve been given. But, If you disobey and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you’re breaking covenant and bringing death on yourself.” Sounds pretty simple right? Good deal? Yeah, it was. Until this happened.

Re-read Chapter 3:1-11

The Lie and the Fall -  We don’t have time to go into all of this, but what was the Serpent’s basic lie? “God is holding out on you. If you’re going to have the life you deserve, the one you need, you’ll have to take it for yourself apart from God’s command.” This is absurd on multiple levels. In light of what we just read, the idea that God is holding out is ridiculous, right? He gave us everything plus the promise of eternal life, right? But we fell for it. We still do. We still believe if life is going to be good, we need to take control and take what we need for ourselves.

That’s kind of what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is about.  Some think that eventually we would eat from it, when we were ready and had proved faithful, at the time that God appointed. But for now, it remained a test: whether we are going to trust God for our knowledge and life, or if we are going to try and rule our own lives as if we were the great king, instead of just the sub-kings who learn from God what is right and wrong. Will we rule as God would, or will we make up our own rules and take what we think he’s holding out on us?

The Fallout – Now, what could have happened was God could have just killed us right there.  I mean, that’s what he said. That would have been justice. But, but…God is gracious. You might not see it, but what God says next is actually grace.

(Read the curse, Gen. 3:14-24)

Everything is cursed because of them, human relationships, our ability to take delight in our work, and nature itself. In a sense, as they were the King and Queen, like the first link a chain, their fall, their disconnection from God took everything down with them. Now, the grace of this is that, well, again, he didn’t just end it. He let life go on when he could have snuffed it out there.

The second grace is that God frustrates all of our possible attempts of living our lives apart from him. If relationships were perfect, we could make them into gods. If work was perfect, we could make it into a god, that we trust for our happiness and joy. God looks at us and says, ‘I will not let you settle for less. You will try to worship created things, but I will frustrate your efforts to rob yourself of your thirst for a knowledge of me.’ That is grace.

The Hope – Now, looking at things, how do things go forward? God gave them a task, but history has stopped. They believed the lie and fell into sin. They were supposed to keep the garden and defeat the snake, but now they’ve been kicked out of the Garden and been defeated by the snake. God didn’t end it, but on their own, it was still hopeless. On their own, they were out on their luck.

So where does the story go from here? How does it move forward, when Adam stopped it up with sin? With God’s word. That’s how it always works. Creation happened at God’s word and so does the rest of the story.

Curse to the Snake, Promise to the Woman – There is a line here in the pronouncement of God to the snake that is a curse to the snake, but promise to the woman. It says that the ‘seed of the woman’ will crush the Serpent’s head. See, now that’s a weird promise because everywhere else in scripture, ‘seed’, which refers to an heir or progeny, is related to a man. So, it would be ‘Adam’s seed’, or ‘Joseph’s seed.’ But here, it is the seed of the woman who would conquer the Serpent.

Now, back then it could have only been a tantalizing mystery, but for us today, this side of Jesus, we realize that the Seed of the woman refers to Mary’s Son, the great descendant Son of Adam and Eve. Jesus is the who comes to rescue us from the plight we were in.

Jesus is the hope of Adam and Eve and the rest of the world. We’ll continue to see this later on, but Jesus is the new Adam who does right all that Adam did wrong. He is the priest who spreads the presence and kingdom of God throughout the world, like Adam was to do in the Garden. He is the king who defeats Satan the Serpent, and rids the world of his pollution.

And how does he do it? He does it by suffering the curse for us. See, it says that the serpent will bruise his heel.  When Jesus went  to the Cross, the Serpent was going for his heel. But he didn’t know that by going to the Cross Jesus was lifting his heel up to crush his head. The irony is that on the Cross, Jesus suffered the judgment that our sin deserved, the curse that God said would come on Adam. By doing so, he  suffers it in our place and then, passes on the blessings that He actually earned by obeying what Adam was supposed to. This is what we call substitution. Jesus gets what we deserve and we gets what he deserves. In this way, he overcomes the Serpent’s lies and tricks that lead us to death, and gives us life.

This is grace. This is salvation. This is our hope.

Wrap-up – I don’t know where you’re at tonight, but I do know this: you were made for a task. God put you here for a purpose, but like our spiritual parents, you and I have believed the lie that God was holding out on us and have brought death into our lives by trying to get happiness for ourselves. The challenge might be different for all of us tonight:

  1. Stop believing the lie that you need to provide life for yourself and believe that God is good and has given you all you need in Jesus.
  2. Get up and realize that you were made for more than you’ve settled for. You were created for a task, for a fight, for a life that reflects God’s will for the world.
  3. Trust that Jesus has defeated our enemies, taken the curse, and that you’re not disqualified from that calling.

Or again, maybe the challenge is just to worship the great Priest-King, and praise him for his glorious victory over the Serpent, the Dragon. He has conquered through the curse and crushed our enemies’ head!

Soli Deo Gloria

4 Sources of Wisdom (Or, How to Stop Being a Moron)

Proverbs was one of my favorite books in the OT as a teenager because it was just straight advice. Advice is a good thing when you’re a moron high schooler. I mean, I didn’t understand half of it, but the verses were short and it felt easier to read. When I hit college and went through my bitter realist phase (which I may or may not still be in) Ecclesiastes and Job jumped up the list. The reality that life doesn’t work out cleanly, that bitterness has corrupted our work and our play “under the sun”, and that our only hope is in Christ really resonated. It still does.

Still, now that I’ve got my own ministry working with college kids I find myself returning to the Proverbs. One of the things I’ve realized about my job is that I’m not just here to preach the Gospel. I mean, that’s my main job, but part of loving and discipling college students is teaching them some of basics of being an adult. Apparently, I’m supposed to teach them wisdom–the practical knowledge of living in God’s world. Go figure.

Since I’m still somewhat of a youngster myself, the Proverbs have been a blessing to me. In many ways it’s a biblical short-cut on the road to not being a moron.

As I started doing some more in-depth study, I picked up Tremper Longman III’s commentary on Proverbs in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms series. (Book nerd note: it’s excellent, readable, preachable, and scholarly.) In it, he notes that not only do the proverbs teach us specific bits of wisdom and practical advice like, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1), a key tidbit to remember in the blogging world, but also teaches the way to gain wisdom.

Longman specifically notes four sources of wisdom in Proverbs–where morons ought to look to become wise:

1. Observation and Experience. This should be obvious, but wise people are those who pay attention to life and reflect on the meaning of their experiences. In 6:6-11, the teacher tells the student to go look at the ant, observe his ways, and learn diligence. Wise people stop and think about which of their behaviors work and which don’t. They consider the actions of others, the way the world, history and draw lessons from it. This is why typically older people have more wisdom. Longman points out that in the Proverbs it is always the father or the mother instructing the son and never the other way around. (pg. 75) This not a universal truth–I’ve met some old fools–but it is a general one, that you will grow wiser as you grow older because you’ve experienced more. So, if you’re young and wanting to gain wisdom, listen to older people who’ve gone before and learn from their experiences. It’s the first step to not being a moron.

2. Instruction Based on Tradition. This last point is the essence of the next source of wisdom: tradition. In this passage, a father tells his son to cling to the instruction that was taught to him by his father, which apparently has served him well in his own life:

Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight,
for I give you good precepts;
do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father,
tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,
he taught me and said to me,
“Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live.
Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.”
(4:1-5)

See, tradition is not just dead, trite ritualism. Over the years accumulated observations about successful and failed strategies for living, truths of human nature, and relationships end up becoming “tradition” that we can learn from. To some degree we know this instinctively. When we want to learn a new skill or a trade, we apprentice ourselves to someone who knows it–an expert that’s been doing it long enough to know the ins and outs of the business. Living well is also a skill, a practice that people have been working at for a long time, and the wise take advantage of the wisdom of their elders. That’s another great way to not be a moron.

3. Learning from Mistakes. Connected to the last two is the idea of learning from one’s mistakes. A great amount learning from experience and heeding the wisdom of the tradition has to do with finding out what doesn’t work. The sages know that you’re gonna screw things up as you go. That’s why two common words you’ll find in the Proverbs are “discipline” and “correction.”

“Those who love discipline love knowledge; and those who hate correction are dullards.” (12:1)

“Those who guard discipline are on the way to life, and those who abandon correction wander aimlessly.” (10:17)

The idea is that the wise are those who receive correction, learn from their mistakes, and do not reject the counsel of those who are trying to return them to the way from which they’ve strayed. This is why pride is so foolish; the proud never learn from their mistakes that eventually lead to their destruction. (Prov. 16:18) On the contrary, the wise humble themselves to the point of loving correction because it leads to wisdom. (Prov. 9:8) The bottom line is that a significant part of learning from experience and from tradition is figuring out what didn’t work and avoiding it. Only morons don’t learn from their mistakes.

4. Revelation. Longman notes that while these three sources–experience, tradition, mistakes–are key for gaining wisdom, nothing is more foundational than revelation, for “at the heart of wisdom is God himself.” (pg. 78) This is clear from the very beginning:

“The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (1:7)

How can you know how to live properly in the world, if you don’t know the character of the one who made it? Indeed, it’s not simply that God is an important feature of reality that one must account for in order to be wise. The Lord is the source of wisdom:

For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
guarding the paths of justice
and watching over the way of his saints.
(2:6-8)

Ultimately God is the one who teaches you through experience, tradition, and correction. Whatever you learn, you learn because of him. This is why, according to Proverbs, the way to gain wisdom, and yes, stop being a moron, is to humble yourself before the creator of the universe and ask him for it.

Wisdom in Christ

Finally, for the Christian the ultimate source of wisdom is Christ himself “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3) If we want to see the fullness of human life, to know what a truly wise life, a life lived in sync with the rhythm with which God created all things, then we must look to Christ. He is not simply wise, but wisdom from God himself, incarnate for us. (1 Cor. 1:30) Jesus is God’s gracious wisdom come to us–to help us stop being morons.

Soli Deo Gloria

G.K. Beale on the Presence of a Covenant in Gen. 1-3

Alright, I finally cracked open G.K. Beale’s 962 page beast, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New.  It’s been staring at me, tempting me with it’s theological awesomeness, so I finally gave in. At about 60 pages in I can safely say this is going to be a watershed work in New Testament studies. Describing the project in a short blog-post while doing it any sort of justice is next to impossible, especially when you consider the fact that Beale’s own description takes him about 25 pages. Still, the title alone points us to fact that one of the main thrusts of Beale’s work is to show how the New Testament can only be understood as the unfolding of the grand story-line of the Old Testament.

In order to do so, he opens with a summary and theological analysis of that story-line, beginning with a focus on the first 3 chapters of Genesis. He pays special attention to Adam, the concept of the Image of God,  and the eschatological thrust of the creational command to “conquer and subdue” the earth and “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), themes of crucial importance for understanding the rest of the tension and story-line of the OT.

It’s at this point that I ran across a very helpful passage discussing the presence of a “covenant” in Gen 1-3. After some careful examination of the texts Beale notes that there are a number of considerations that point us to the idea that it is possible, indeed necessary, to speak of a “covenant” relationship between God and Adam in the Garden, despite the objection that the word “covenant” is not used in the passage. The passage is worth quoting at length here:

In light of these observations, we can speak of the prefall conditions as a “beginning first creation” and the yet-to-come escalated creation conditions to be a consummate “eschatologically” enhanced stage of final blessedness. The period leading up to the reception of these escalated conditions is the time when it would be decided whether Adam would obey or disobey. These escalated conditions indicate that Adam was in a covenant relationship with God. Although the word “covenant” is not used to describe the relationship between God and Adam, the concept of covenant is there. God chooses to initiate a relationship with Adam by imposing an obligation on him (Gen. 2:16-17). This obligation was part of the larger task with which Adam had been commissioned in Gen 1.:28: to “rule” and “subdue” creation and in the process to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Adam’s “ruling and subduing” commission included guarding the garden from any threat to its peaceful maintenance. In light of Gen. 2:16-17 and 3:22, Adam would receive irreversible blessings of eternal life on the condition of perfect faith and obedience, and he would receive the decisive curse of death if he was unfaithful and disobedient. Thus, the discernment of irreversible escalated creation conditions discussed above is the best argument for such a covenant notion.

Consequently, the argument that the word “covenant” is not used in Gen. 2-3 does not provide proof that there is not covenant relationship, just as Adam and Eve’s marriage relationship is not termed a “covenant” in Gen. 2:21-24 but expresses covenantal concepts and, in fact, is identified as a covenant elsewhere. Likewise, it is profitable that God’s covenant with Adam is referred to as a covenant elsewhere in the OT. The essential elements of a covenant are found in the Gen. 1-3 narrative: (1) two parties are named; (2) a condition of obedience is set forth; (3) a curse for transgression is threatened; (4) a clear implication of a blessing is promised for obedience. It could be objected that there is no reference to either party reaching a clear agreement or, especially, to Adam accepting the terms set forth in this so-called covenant. However, neither is this the case with Noah and Abraham, with whom God made explicit covenants. -A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, pp 442-43

Again, these conclusions come after a solid examination of the texts (pp. 30-41), and is followed by reinforcing argumentation (pp. 43-46). Still, I found this passage to be helpful in showing that to speak of God’s creational covenant with Adam, or a “covenant of works”, is not an obvious imposition of foreign concepts onto the text in order to fit it into a theological grid, as is so often charged.  Rather, something like this is positively required by a close, narratively-oriented reading of the text.

As I continue to dive into this ambitious, and already thoroughly rewarding work, I’m sure more excerpts and summaries will follow this.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Most Important Thing You Can Ask for in Ministry

Ever since I was a kid, the story of Solomon’s prayer for wisdom has been a favorite of mine. My mom would read it often to me and recall it to mind when we were talking about pretty much any subject, so that I should always seek wisdom from God before anything else. I think she knew I was going to need it.

For those of you who don’t know the story, the first half of 1 Kings 3 recounts the story of God appearing to the young Solomon in a dream after the death of his father King David. God grants him one request at the beginning of his reign. To God’s great delight, Solomon replies:

And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?
(1 Kings 3:7-9)

Understanding, wisdom is Solomon’s request. God has put him in charge of a great people and he knows that he needs wisdom in order to administer justice among them for he is only a young man. God hears this and is greatly pleased and tells him that because he did not ask for money, power, the defeat of enemies, or anything of the like, but rather wisdom to administer justice, he will have all of these things and in spades. Not only will he be wise, but he will be wiser than any that have come before and any that follows. Beyond that, God will bless him with peace, wealth, and general prosperity in a way that Israel will not experience under any other king.

Ruling a Great and Mighty People I come back to that story now as a young guy starting out in ministry and I read it with new eyes. As a minister of the Gospel, I’ve been called to “rule”, administer, and care for the people of God. Call it what you want, there is an authority and a responsibility to shepherd God’s flock given to those of us who work in the church, paid or not. This is a scary task. Many of us don’t stop to think about it, but we are taking care of GOD’s people. They’re his. He cares about them. They are his blood-bought  people, so for him to place them in our hands is a weighty thing. It’s the kind of thing that we probably need a lot of understanding to accomplish.

When I read this story it is humbling and kind of convicting to think about my prayer life (and, at times, lack thereof.) What am I praying for as a minister? Working at an North American church it’s really easy to get caught up in asking for all sorts of things besides wisdom. We can get caught up asking for numbers so the attendance sheets look full and your ministry seems effective. Or how about funding? It’s easy to think that if I just had a bigger budget, I’d be able to buy the right tools to make my ministry cutting-edge, or position us to host the right events, etc. Or maybe we pray for more leaders? If I just had a little more help this thing would come together, more people would be ministered to, and the Gospel would go forward.

Now, all of these things would be nice. They’d be great. It’s no shame to ask for them. In fact, you probably should be praying for these things. Funds do help. The harvest is plentiful and we need more workers in the field. Numbers are not a bad thing. A lot of really “spiritual” Christians think that it’s a virtue to not care if your church is empty. It can be when that means fidelity despite unpopularity, but otherwise we should want people to be joining the family of God in our congregations. Still, none of these things means anything if you don’t have the wisdom to know what to do with them. Without wisdom you will spend your cash foolishly, your leaders will fail, and people will walk in and then walk out the doors–or worse still, remain in your church unchanged.

We need to be praying for wisdom. Much of Solomon’s wealth, success, and the peace of his kingdom came as a result of his wisdom. Wisdom helps you find good leaders, work with the funding you have, and know what to do with your people when you get them.  Thankfully, God is rich in wisdom and generous with it. He gives it to any who asks in faith. (James 1:5) So, just ask.

(What are some things that you pray for your ministry about? What do you usually feel is the most pressing need? Why? How good would it be without wisdom?)

Wisdom is Needed Even for Two  Something else to realize is that this goes for you–whoever you are. Everybody needs to be asking for wisdom to care for the people of God, even if you only have a congregation of two.

That’s one of the things we see in the final story of the chapter, with Solomon’s famous decision about the two women and the child. (1 Kings 3:16-28) Two prostitutes who were room-mates bore children within days of each other. One woman’s child died in the night and so she switched the two babies, claiming the live one was hers. They came before Solomon with a plea for justice. Solomon came up with a way of determining who was the true mother by offering to chop the baby in half and give each a piece. The true mother said to give the child to the other mother in order that it might be spared; the other one didn’t care. Solomon then gave the child to the one with compassion. Scary, kinda gruesome, but wise.

In context, the story shows Solomon’s wisdom was sufficient for administering justice within the whole of the nation. But here’s the thing, essentially the problem occurs between two women. That’s all it takes. Small-group leaders and one-on-one disciplers need wisdom just as much as mega-church pastors running congregations of thousands, because people are people no matter the size of the group.

Really Ask for Wisdom A final point when considering this story: we really need to be asking for wisdom. No, this is not just pointless repetition. One bad way of reading this story is to think that if we ask for wisdom, God will automatically give us all these other things. No, that’s not how it works. You can’t trick God into giving you a bigger budget or a bigger congregation. If your real desire is these things, wisdom will not come because you’ll fall into the foolishness that comes with obsessing over these things. Worry about getting wisdom first, seeking righteousness in the way that you care for the flock of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

Soli Deo Gloria

The temple and the Church's Mission

G.K. Beale on the difference between a “Literal” and a “Biblical” Hermeneutic of Old Testament Prophecies

G.K. Beale is quickly becoming one of my favorite New Testament interpreters. He has a long list of impressive works including authoring what is likely the new standard commentary on the book of Revelation, editing the New Testament Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, and delivering the recent tome that is A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. Needless to say based on the titles of these last two works, one of his specialties is the problem of the interpretation of the use of the Old Testament, especially prophecies, in the New Testament.

One of the main issues in this area of study is whether or not certain interpretations, both by the NT authors and their later commentators, seem to illegitimately “spiritualize” the fulfilment of a “literal” prophecy. Beale has a helpful passage on this very problem with respect to his interpretation of the Antichrist (“the man of lawlessness”) and the Temple in 2 Thessalonians in his work The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God.  One of the central contentions of his book is that in the NT, the Temple is replaced by Christ and in Christ by the people of God.  Therefore, the reference to the Temple in 2 Thessalonians is a reference to the church. On this basis and many other exegetical insights he claims that the prophecies of Daniel being alluded to in the text about the man of lawlessness setting up his rule in the Temple are ultimately taking place in the Church, not in some reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem as is commonly thought in popular Dispensationalism.

Obviously, for those advocating a strictly “literal hermeneutic” this will be a hopelessly spiritualizing interpretation that violates the principle by which all Scripture is to be interpreted. His responses to this charge are instructive both for general biblical hermeneutics as well as the specific problem of prophecy:

First, a ‘literal hermeneutic’ is not the best way to describe a biblical hermeneutic. Perhaps a ‘literate hermeneutic’ that aspires to the broad literary meaning in the canonical context is the better way to put it. We should want to follow an interpretive method that aims to unravel the original intention of biblical authors, realizing that that intention may be multi-layered, without any layers contradicting the others. Such original intentions may have meaning more correspondent to physical reality (hence so-called ‘literal interpretation’) while others may refer to ‘literal’ spiritual realities…”

So, there is a difference between reading something “literally” and “literately”. Kevin Vanhoozer has elsewhere said that if we want to talk about what the Reformers meant, and we ought to mean, by the term “literal interpretation”, we should speak of a “literary interpretation.” Basically, if the author intended a statement to be taken as a straightforward description, “the tree is outside”, we should understand it that way. But, if the author says, “the tree was a skyscraper”, we shouldn’t understand him to be saying that the tree is actually “scraping” the sky.  So, if a text is meant to be taken spiritually, then to read it appropriately is to read it spiritually.

“Second, the progress of revelation certainly reveals expanded meanings of earlier biblical texts. Later biblical writers further interpret earlier biblical writings in ways that amplify earlier texts. These subsequent interpretations may formulate meanings that earlier authors may not have had in mind but which do not contravene their original, essential, organic meaning. This is to say that original meanings have ‘thick’ content and that original authors likely were not exhaustively aware of the full extent of that content. In this regard, fulfilment often ‘fleshes out’ prophecy with details of which even the prophet may not have been fully cognizant.” (pg. 289)

So, a prophecy about the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth amongst his people, can ultimately fulfilled in the church, who are now the dwelling place of God on earth amongst his people. For a prophecy to be fulfilled this way is not disruptive or illegitimate because the essential, organic content of the prophecy is preserved and grows naturally out of the original. Beale uses the example of a father in the year 1900 promising to buy his son a horse and buggy when he gets married, but by the time the son has grown up 30 years later, he ends up buying him a Ford. (pg. 291) The essential content of the promise is fulfilled even if the form is somewhat altered in a way the original utterer of the promise was unaware of.

I found these insights helpful. I pass them on to you with the hope that they will aid in your understanding of the scriptures and the surprising way that all of God’s promises “find their Yes in him.” (2 Cor 1:20)