Dispensationalists, who characteristically emphasise a literal interpretation of the Bible, frequently criticise others for adopting an allegorising or spiritualising approach. Thus Ryrie writes, “Covenant theologians are well known for their stand on allegorical interpretation especially as it relates to the prophetic Word, and they are equally well known for their amillennialism which is only the natural outcome of allegorising” (p.20). On the same page by way of contrast he writes, “… dispensationalism claims to employ principles of literal, plain or normal, interpretation consistently.” A little later he adds, “If plain or normal interpretation is the only valid hermeneutical principle, and if it is consistently applied, it will cause one to be a dispensationalist” (p.21).
My initial response to this is twofold: first, I myself am a dispensationalist of sorts, though certainly not one of the traditional variety, and I am equally certainly not led to my position by means of a consistently literal interpretation of Scripture. Second, I would want to make a distinction between allegorising and spiritualising. If allegorisation means in practice violating the original intention of Scripture and obliterating the historical element in a particular revelation, then I want none of it. On the other hand, if the Bible can have both a proximate and a more remote meaning, or, as it is often perhaps more appropriately expressed, a primary and a plenary sense, then I have no qualms with spiritualisation. (According to Mathison, p.6, even C.I.Schofield in the Schofield Bible Correspondence Course, pp.45f., once wrote: “It is then permitted – while holding firmly the historical verity – reverently to spiritualise the historical Scriptures.”) Thus in 2 Samuel 7, for example, David’s primary reference is to his son Solomon; more distantly under the inspiration of the Spirit he was referring to the Son who was also his Lord. Indeed, this seems to be fundamental to a proper understanding of the Bible, as I shall endeavour to indicate below (1* For other examples see especially G.E. Ladd, who was a classical premillennialist but not a dispensationalist, on Premillennialism in “The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. R.G.Clouse, Downers Grove, 1977.).
Before leaving this question of hermeneutics, it needs to be strongly insisted that the spiritual does not imply the non-literal but the true (cf. John 6:63; Heb. 8:2, etc.). Spiritual realities are every bit as real or literal as natural ones. Paul goes so far as to say that real life is spiritual life (1 Tim. 6:19).
Apart from its foundation in Augustinian hamartiology or doctrine of sin, the Dispensationalist criticism of spiritualisation appears to be driven by insistence on a false distinction between Israel and the Church, which leads to the idea that certain promises made to Israel must receive a literal fulfilment. This gives rise to the notion of an OT-style earthly millennium during which Christ reigns as King from the earthly Jerusalem. Without going into unnecessary detail, I, along with others, would point out that the evidence of Scripture indicates that just as some of the promises made to Abraham and David are fulfilled in Christ, so the promises made to Israel in the OT are fulfilled in the Church in the NT. There the Israel of God (Gal. 6:15) is surely to be equated with the Church (1 Cor. 10:32) which is made up of all believers Jew and/or Gentile (John 10:16; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:15; 4:13; Col. 3:11, 1 Pet. 2:9, etc., cf. Heb. 11 which has the same implication espec. in vv.39f.). If this is the biblical picture, then it ought not to be unduly difficult to find plenty of evidence for the spiritualisation of the essentially material promises of the OT.
Children of Flesh and Children of Promise
First, however, it needs to be made clear that the seeds of the spiritualisation process are found in the OT itself. Indeed, what I have just written regarding Israel requires qualification, for the Israel that forms part of the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16) is not Israel, the elect nation as a whole, whose branches are pruned, but only its spiritual core. According to the book of Genesis there is a distinction to be made between Abraham’s fleshly seed, Ishmael, and his child of promise, Isaac. In Genesis 17 it is made clear to Abraham that though both his sons are to be given the covenant sign of circumcision (17:25-27), but the everlasting covenant is established with Isaac alone (17:19-21). Thus, as Paul points out in Galatians 4:29f., the slave Hagar and her ‘fleshly’ son Ishmael, who persecuted ‘spiritual’ Isaac, are cast out (Gen. 21:10-12, cf. John 8:35). The present Jerusalem, the wicked city of Ezekiel (7:23; 9:9), corresponding as it does with Mount Sinai which is in bondage to law, is in violent contrast with the heavenly Jerusalem which is free (cf. Heb. 12:22). There is more to be said, however, for the spiritualisation process is taken even further and completed in Christ (Gal. 3:7-9,14,29). So while physical Israel, or the children according to the flesh, is cursed, the spiritual children, including Gentiles who are justified by faith, are blessed with Abraham (Gal. 3:14) and Isaac (Rom. 9:7, cf. 2:28f.).
But if Abraham’s fleshly and spiritual seed are differentiated, so is the land he, or at least his descendants, was to inherit. Here we might well infer along with the author of Hebrews that the land originally promised to Abraham never materialised in this world (cf. Acts 7:5). Far from inferring that the promise had failed, we draw the conclusion that this became part of his eternal heavenly inheritance (Heb. 11:8-16; 13:14, cf. Rom. 4:13). In other words, Abraham and all his spiritual children, both Jew and Gentile, who believe the promises of God receive a better provision and are perfected together (11:39f.). What matters in the end are not material riches, which undergo corruption, but heavenly or spiritual ones (cf. Mt. 6:19f., Luke 12:33, etc.). And it is on these that believers, whose calling (Phil 3:14; Heb. 3:1) and citizenship are heavenly (Phil. 3:20, cf. Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1-5), set their hearts (cf. Tit. 2:13).
The pattern is the same throughout the Bible as reflection on the difference between Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob and Jeroboam the son of Nebat (e.g. 1 K. 16:2f.,19,26) and David (e.g. 1 K. 9:4; 15:3-5) makes clear. And the contrast between the disobedient slaves who in disbelief refused to aspire to the land flowing with milk and honey that God had promised and those who entered it by faith is referred to repeatedly for purposes of illustration (Ps. 106; 1 Cor. 10, etc.). With regard to the latter, while it may be admitted that the Promised Land was material or physical, initially it had to be possessed by faith after the manner of Abraham, Joshua and Caleb. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that the “land”, like the “rest”, offered to Christians is also “spiritual” as the author of Hebrews strongly emphasises (see respectively chs. 11 and 3-4). Thus the difference between the temporal material and the eternal spiritual is one of the basic themes of Scripture, and failure to recognise it is to err at foundation level. In the words of the author of Hebrews, the first is abolished to make room for the second (10:9).
Jesus’ Stress on the Spiritual
Even if we are unable to appreciate the spiritual nature of God’s promise to Abraham of children (cf. Rom. 9:6-13), land (Heb. 11:8-16) and blessing to the world (Gen. 17:4-6; Isa. 42:6; Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:29), it is almost impossible not to recognise that Jesus himself constantly distinguished between the material and the spiritual. For example, during his temptation by the devil, drawing on the book of Deuteronomy, he points out that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Mt. 4:4). Then, having already stressed the eternal quality of the water he gives (4:14, cf. Isa. 55:1f.), he distinguishes between the corruptible manna in the wilderness and the true bread from heaven (John 6:27,32-35, 48-51). In the same chapter where he had implicitly rejected an earthly kingship in favour of a heavenly one (v.15, cf. 18:36; Mt. 4:10), he insists that those who believe in him will eat his flesh and drink his blood (vv. 53-55). And that his meaning had to be taken in a spiritual sense is explicitly spelt out in verse 63 (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6). Again, even though the law commanded all Jews to honour their parents, Jesus does not hesitate to differentiate between physical and spiritual relationships by claiming believers as his true family members (Mark 3:34f.). Further, it goes almost without saying that, following the OT (e.g. Ps. 49), Jesus underlines the transitory nature of all material things (Mt. 6:19f.; 24:35; Luke 12:13-21, etc.).
If those who spiritualise aspects of the OT like Ezekiel’s temple are accused of taking liberties with the text, they must be excused on the ground that Jesus himself did the same. Indeed, the case of the temple is of prime significance in this regard. First, in a pointed phrase in John 1:14 we read that Jesus dwelt or “tabernacled” among his people as God had done in the wilderness. Then Jesus himself told the Jews in chapter 2:19-21 that his body was the true temple implying that it was the dwelling place of the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16f.; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16). This idea is extended further in Revelation 21:22 (cf. Heb. 8:2) where it is made clear that the ultimate temple is in fact the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.
The spiritual as opposed to the physical nature of the true temple is taught elsewhere. In Mark 14:58 false witnesses who could not agree among themselves claim that Jesus said that he would destroy Herod’s temple and build another not made by hands in three days. This somewhat garbled version of what was actually said (cf. John 2:19 referred to above) bears remarkable similarity to Paul’s reference to the physical body in 2 Corinthians 5:1. In view of this, we are led to draw the inference that the mortal, corruptible body of flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 4:11), which is presently ours, will give way to a heavenly or spiritual body fit for eternity. This clearly ties in with what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:35-55. For all that, many Christians still hanker after a body of flesh in a redeemed earth! But this is no more possible than a material temple (cf. Mark 14:58 and 2 Cor. 5:1) whether made by Moses, Solomon or Herod which at best is only a shadow of the true (Heb. 8:5).
The Heavenly Priest-King
First, we need to note that the David promised by Jeremiah (e.g. 30:9; 33:15) and Ezekiel (34:23f.) is not David redivivus but his Son who is cast in a somewhat different, more spiritual, mould.
Indeed, the contrast between David and his greater Son is plain for all to see in Scripture. David was only a type who reigned physically on the throne in Jerusalem. Jesus was never king or priest in this world. The author of Hebrews goes out of way to show that Jesus, being from Judah, was disqualified on genealogical grounds from being a priest on earth (7:14; 8:4). He is nonetheless a priest who has made purification for the sins of his people and sits as their high priest at God’s right hand (Heb. 1:3; 2:17f.). He has thus rendered redundant the entire Levitical system including the tabernacle/temple. So far as his kingship is concerned Jesus does not deny before Pilate that he was born to kingship (John 18:37). But he explicitly denies that his kingship is of this world. If it were, he implies that it would follow the pattern of David’s kingship and be based on human power and fighting ability (John 18:36). It is interesting to note that in the OT David, as a man of blood, did not build the temple but left it to his son Solomon to build. A further point worthy of note is that Peter distinguishes between David and Jesus in Acts 2 where he indicates that David’s earthly remains are still entombed with them at the present time (v.29). In contrast, the body of Jesus that was raised from the dead underwent transformation (replacement) at his ascension into heaven, the realm of the spirit. His earthly grave was empty.
The angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that God would give her son the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32). In light of the above and of Acts 2:29-36; 15:16f. (2* The comment of F.F.Bruce, a member of the Plymouth Brethren throughout his life, on these verses is worth reproducing: “The primary sense of the MT is that the fallen fortunes of the royal house of David will be restored and it will rule over all the territory which had been included in David’s empire. But James’s application of the prophecy finds the fulfilment of its first part (the rebuilding of the tabernacle of David) in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, the Son of David, and the reconstitution of His disciples as the new Israel, and the fulfilment of its second part in the presence of believing Gentiles as well as believing Jews in the Church (cf. p.158, on Ch. 7:46)”, The Book of Acts, London, 1954, p.310.), for example, it is scarcely surprising that the Jesus who is King of kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 17:14; 19:16) exercises his sovereign mediatorial rule not on an earthly throne but seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly realm from where he is slowly but surely putting all things, including his enemies, under his feet (Mt. 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:24-28).
Just as there are two Israels in Scripture, so there are two Jerusalems or Zions. The first, the earthly city, is described by Ezekiel, for example, as violent (7:23) and bloody (9:9; 24:6,9) and ripe for destruction (cf. Mt. 23:37f.). While it can, like the earthly temple, be attacked, destroyed, rebuilt and finally rendered redundant, the second, the heavenly, is permanent (cf. Joel 3:20) and not subject to the ravages of time and corruption. While Paul refers to the new Jerusalem as our mother (Gal. 4:26) and John as a bride (Rev. 21:2), the author of Hebrews describes Zion as a city of joy and festivity, the city of God (11:10; 12:22) which lasts forever (13:14). The difference between the earthly and the heavenly, the material and the spiritual is beyond dispute.
The contrast made by Paul between the first and second Adams is especially sharp (Rom. 5:21-21; 1 Cor. 15:45-49). The one is physical or fleshly, created from the earth (Gen. 2:7). He is naturally susceptible to weakness, temptation, sin, perishability and death. By contrast the second is spiritual and emanates from heaven. While he voluntarily becomes incarnate and is a true son of the first Adam, he is nonetheless essentially eternal (Heb. 7:3,16,24f.), immortal and even in the flesh uniquely able to overcome temptation, sin and, by resurrection, death (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 7:28). In the providence and purpose of God, we human beings who are created in the image of God are able to share in the nature of both Adams. Ultimately, the physical or natural gives way to the spiritual as moral, corporeal and generic perfection in Christ is achieved (cf. 1 Cor. 15:46; 2 Cor. 5:5).
If the body is subject to spiritualisation as Paul teaches explicitly, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:44,46, cf. v.50, then so is fleshly circumcision. In the OT it is primarily a physical operation involving the removal of the foreskin to signify membership of the (physical) children of Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14,22-27); and later it is used virtually as a synonym for all Israelites who possess the law (cf. Lev. 12:3; Jos. 5:2-9; Gal. 5:2-4,11; 6:15, etc.). In the NT, however, the elect nation is made up preponderantly of uncircumcised Gentiles (cf. Eph. 2:11). For all that, the latter who exercise faith in Christ are nonetheless, according to Paul, circumcised spiritually (Col. 2:11) and comprise, along with believing Jews, the true circumcision (Rom. 2:28f.; Phil. 3:3). But, if this is so, the implication we necessarily draw is that Israel itself must be spiritualised, and this is precisely what the NT teaches. John the Baptist (Mt. 3:7-12), Jesus (John 8:34ff.; 15:1ff.) and the apostles (Rom. 9:6, etc.) all indicate that Israel is in the last analysis a spiritual rather than a physical entity (Rom. 2:29; 9:6ff.), and the description of Israel at the Exodus as a holy nation and a royal priesthood (Ex. 19:5f.) is applied in the NT to those who exercise faith in Christ (1 Pet. 2:9).
Made By Hand and Not Made By Hand
The phrase “made by hand” is quite common in the OT and frequently refers to the idols which were made by the heathen (e.g. Lev. 26:1,30). What scholars in general, even Lohse (TDNT, 1X, p. 436), seem to miss, however, is that the expression is depreciatory or pejorative (cf. Ps. 135:15-18) even when God himself is the Maker. For instance, God’s rescue of the Israelite slaves from Egypt ”by hand” falls short of his liberation of slaves from sin in the NT. For the latter is accomplished, as has just been implied in the previous paragraph, not so much by strength of hand (Ex. 3:19f.; 6:1; 13:3;15:6), arm (Dt. 4:34) or even finger (Ex. 8:19) but by spiritual means – first, by the death of Christ and, secondly, by the work of the Holy Spirit himself. In fact, the various references to “not made by hand” (acheiropoietos) in the NT are highly instructive and stand in strong contrast to whatever, including but not only the idols of the heathen (Ps. 135:15; Isa. 44; Jer. 10), is made by hand. For as Hebrews 1:10-12 (cf. Ps. 8:3) makes clear, while creation itself as made by the hand God is of limited value and duration and is subject to eventual destruction or removal (12:27), heaven, the dwelling place of God, is eternal, clearly not of this creation (9:11,24). Again, while man is “made by hand” (Job 10:8f.; Ps. 119:73), he needs to be born of the Spirit from above (cf. John 3:6), in other words made “not by hand”, that is, not manufactured as Adam originally was from the earth. (The difference between the mortal fleshly Jesus (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18, etc.), the son of Adam (Luke 3:38) and the immortal Son of God (Heb. 7:3,16,24,28) ought to be plain to all.)
The Letter to the Hebrews
All this points to a radical process of spiritualisation which is one of the basic characteristics of biblical theology. The movement from flesh to spirit is fundamental (1 Cor. 15:44,46, cf. v.23). This is nowhere made more transparent than in the letter to the Hebrews where the word ‘better’ might well be used as an indicator. Thus we are introduced to better things (6:9), a better hope (7:19), a better covenant (7:22; 8:6), a better ministry (8:6), better promises (8:6), better sacrifices (9:23), a better possession (10:34), a better country (11:16), a better life (11:35), a better something (11:40) and a better word (12:24, ESV) not to mention a city whose builder and maker is God (11:10,16; 12:22; 13:14). It is noticeable in this letter that God is portrayed as the Father of spirits in contrast with our fleshly fathers (12:9, cf. v. 23; John 1:13). And it is in this letter in particular that the types and shadows of the OT give way to the spiritual realities associated with Christ (e.g. 10:1ff., cf. 12:18-24).
The contrast between the spirituality of the new covenant and the materiality of the old covenant is apparent even in the OT itself and is especially plain in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf. Ezek. 11:19; 36:26f., 37:26). The author of Hebrews (8:8-12) draws attention to this text and proceeds to indicate that the old covenant as such is obsolescent (8:13) like the material creation itself (1:11). He even goes so far as to say that the law is weak and useless and quite incapable of making anything perfect (7:18f.). Though his emphasis may differ (cf. Rom. 7:12; 8:3), Paul also teaches that the “handwritten” law (Col. 2:14) lacks the capacity to give life (Gal. 3:21) and is in the process of disappearing (2 Cor. 3). And in light of Matthew 5:18, 24:35 and 28:20 it is not difficult to believe that the apostolic stress on the contrast between the old and new covenants stemmed from the teaching of Jesus himself.
In sum, the material old (or first) is abolished so that the spiritual new (or second) may be established (Heb. 10:9, cf. 1 Cor. 13:10; 15:45-50; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 5:6; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:11, etc.). In the words of the author of Hebrews, all created things are ultimately destined for removal (12:27, cf. 2 Cor. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:14; Rev. 20:11; 21:1,4). From this we may conclude that while restoration is a basic theme in the OT, removal and replacement figure prominently in the NT.
Spiritualisation is intrinsic to Scripture, and given that our destiny is the presence of God who is spirit (1 Pet. 3:18; 4:6; Heb. 2:10), this is hardly occasion for surprise.
K.A.Mathison, Dispensationalism, Phillipsburg, 1995.