In the first article I sought to illustrate Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism using the figure of trains, tracks, and engineers.
Covenant Theology was depicted as one train (i.e. God’s people) running through history on one track (i.e. one covenant of grace) picking up passengers as it goes. At the appropriate time, Christ replaces Moses as engineer (i.e. a change of covenant administrators).
Dispensationalism was depicted as two separate trains (i.e. Israel and the Church) running one at a time through history on two separate tracks (i.e. two distinct covenants), with Moses the engineer of one train and Christ the engineer of the other.
In the last article, I set forth an alternative model: A train called “Moses” runs through the Old Testament age bringing its passengers over to a station where a train called “Jesus” awaits on another set of tracks. A call goes out that all passengers are to board this new train. Most refuse to do so and remain in their seats. The “Jesus” train leaves the station and now runs through the New Testament age, while the “Moses” train shortly thereafter derails. This new model, as opposed to the other two, emphasizes what I call transition — i.e. those in Jesus’ day were not told to “sit tight” but to “enter” a Kingdom.
In addition to transition, a second principle is required of any covenantal model seeking to fit the Biblical data: transference.
By this term, I simply mean what Christ declares at the conclusion of the parable of the householder in Matt. 21:43: “Therefore say I unto you, the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits of it.”
Note that privileges were to be taken from Israel and transferred to a new nation.
What is the identity of this “new nation”?
I suggest that it’s the one spoken of in I Peter 2:9, i.e. the Church.
What I’m calling transference is termed by others the replacement motif. As the name implies, this viewpoint sees the church as a replacement for Israel in redemptive history. The benefits and blessings, promises and privileges, once the possession and future prospect of the nation of Israel, are now given to the Church (See Eph. 2:11-13).
Before dismissing this notion as incompatible with a God Who never repents or alters His purpose, stop and consider how often it is that those who wind up with blessing in the New Testament have it because it was forfeited by others (e.g. The Parable of the Householder — Matt 21:33-44; The Parable of the Marriage Feast — Matt. 22:1-10; The grafting of wild olive branches into the good olive tree — Rom. 11:16-24)
This problem—that a God Who never changes His purpose has transferred blessing from Israel to the Church — is the very difficulty Paul is answering in Rom. 9-11. There was the appearance that God’s Word had “taken no effect” (Rom. 9:6). There was the appearance that God had “cast away His people” (Rom. 11:1).
But such was emphatically not the case! For Paul demonstrates that it was always God’s purpose to bring together in one body all who believe on His Son, whether Jew or Gentile.
Many texts could be cited to support this principle of transference. I’ve decided, however, to center upon one where the principle is not readily apparent upon first reading. After digging deeper, however, I trust it will become clear that this text gives striking confirmation to the general pattern stated above.
Consider the account of Peter’s confession in Matt. 16:13-19.
In verse 19, Jesus promises to give Peter something He calls the “keys of the kingdom”. This is a “key” passage, if you’ll excuse the pun! I believe scripture will interpret scripture, if we’ll but let it. So, let’s take a little excursion through scripture to try to get a handle on this passage.
What are the Keys?
What do these “keys” represent? An examination of related passages dealing with the subject of keys turns up Rev. 1:18.
As John beholds the risen, glorified Christ, Jesus tells him that He possesses “keys” — “the keys of hell and death”. Seven letters to the churches in Asia now follow in Rev. 2-3. Each letter begins by identifying its Sender, and it does that by referencing some feature of John’s description of Christ in Rev. 1 (e.g. the One with the seven stars in His hand, or the One Whose eyes are as a flame of fire, etc.) In Rev. 3:7, at the beginning of the letter to the church in Philadelphia, the Sender is identified as having a “key”, which identifies Him with the One described in Rev. 1:18.
This time, however, it’s not “the keys of hell and death”, as we would expect, but “the key of David”, a key “that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth.” Why the difference? The simplest explanation is that these two texts are actually saying the same thing, using different words to express it. The reader is expected to understand that the “keys” of a kingdom are a symbolic way of representing different aspects of a king’s sovereign authority.
For instance, your key chain most likely holds a number of keys–to your car, your home, your office, etc. Each of these represents an area of life where you have the right to enter, to lock, or to open. In Christ’s case, the “keys” on His key chain represent His power over the grave, His power over death, as well as this “key of David” — i.e. His Messianic rule upon David’s throne (See Luke 1:32 and Acts 2:29-32).
What’s the significance of Jesus giving Peter these “keys”? Well, what would it mean for a father to give his teenaged daughter the keys to his car? It doesn’t mean he gives her the car, only the right to use it. The father retains absolute control. Further, if she abuses the privilege, Daddy may well take “the T-Bird away”, as the song goes! May I suggest the same idea here?
When a sovereign “gives” someone the “keys” to his kingdom, he doesn’t surrender the kingdom, but makes the recipient a “steward” — i.e. someone with authority over a particular area of the kingdom. Further, this authority is not given unconditionally, for it may be taken away if the steward proves unfaithful.
A fascinating passage illustrating this principle, and one very important to our present discussion, is found in Isa. 22:15-25.
Isaiah is directed to a man named Shebna, described as a treasurer and the one “over the house” (of David, by implication). He is the chief steward of the king, exercising authority over the matters of the king’s household.
However, he is told that he will be cast out of his office, presumably because of his unfaithfulness, and replaced by another, Eliakim. Eliakim is to be clothed with Shebna’s vestments and authority. Note especially how Isa. 22:22 describes Eliakim: “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” (Note the similarity of this verse with Rev 3:7!) To give Eliakim the “key of the house of David” meant that he would now exercise the authority previously held by Shebna.
Where’s the Keys?
Will Christ pull the keys promised to Peter out of His pocket? I think not.
Isa. 22 gives us a clue. Note that the key given to Eliakim is a key taken from Shebna. It’s not a newly manufactured key, but a key already in existence, which is being transferred from the one man to the other.
Isn’t this precisely what Jesus is describing in the Parable of the Householder? Because of their unfaithfulness, those who have custodial care of the nation of Israel are about to lose their rights and privileges. These blessings, says our Lord, will be given to others who will be faithful. If we think of “keys” as a figurative way of representing these privileges, could it not be said that the “keys of the kingdom” would be taken from them and given to others? Based on the scriptural precedent of a transference of keys from Shebna to Eliakim, I think this is exactly what Christ is saying.
The keys to be given to Peter were keys already in existence and in the hands of others.
Binding and Loosing
A further clue, showing that we are on the right track, is found in what Peter was to do with these keys. He was to “bind” and to “loose”.
This language gives us insight into who previously possessed these keys, for this is the language of the Scribes.
Originally, a Scribe was one who merely copied the Law of Moses. In Ezra’s day, however, their role was expanded to become teachers and interpreters of the Law. In Christ’s day, the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel and the continuation of those judges appointed under Moses, was comprised of Priests, mainly of the Sadducees, and Scribes, mainly of the Pharisees. These men authoritatively applied the Law to Israel.
Lest we question the legitimacy of their office, note that Jesus Himself recognizes their authority in Matt. 23:2, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” As such, they were to be obeyed, but not imitated, for they were hypocrites. The exercise of their office is described in verse 4: “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”
To “bind” was to lay upon a person an obligation or duty; to “loose” was to absolve a person of a duty. Thus, the authority Peter is to exercise, “binding” and “loosing”, is no new power, but one already in existence — and scripture even associates it with a “key”!
Note Luke 11:52, where Jesus declares: “Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge; ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in, ye hindered.”
So “keys” — involving the knowledge of the manner of entering the kingdom, and the power of binding and loosing, are already in the possession of others. Yet these “keys” are to be taken from them and given to Peter — and not to Peter only, but, as the rest of scripture shows, to the other Apostles as well.
Using the Keys
Do we ever see Peter using these “keys”?
Consider Pentecost: Peter is opening the kingdom of heaven to men through the proclamation of the Gospel message. He does the same to the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home.
What about “binding” and “loosing”? This was the constant activity of the Apostles throughout the New Testament.
At the council in Jerusalem, they loose the Gentile believers from the ritual of circumcision and bind them with certain food regulations and with abstaining from fornication (see Acts 15:19-20).
In the epistles, the Apostles lay down the rules that are to regulate the faith and conduct of believers and of Christ’s church. By what right do they do this? By the Christ-given authority granted to them as His Apostles! They viewed their commandments to the Church as nothing less than the commandments of Christ (See I Cor. 14:37 for an example).
What does all this mean, and how does it impact the covenantal question?
Suppose you are a Jew living in the Old Testament age. How would you know your duty before God? Study the law? Well, the law had to be interpreted and applied, and that was the domain of men like the Scribes. Their job was to determine specifically how God’s law applied to you individually in your unique circumstances.
But now, in this New Testament age, where do we go to learn our duty to God? To Rabbis and Scribes? No, we turn to the teaching of the Apostles, i.e. the New Testament scripture.
Now please do not misunderstand! This is not to say that the Old Testament has no authority, or that God’s law has no abiding validity — and it’s certainly not saying that we are free from duty or law to God. Rather, it’s simply to acknowledge that the “keys” have been transferred to the Apostles.
The authority to interpret God’s Law and to apply it to His people has been passed.
The Apostles are foundational to the Church — see Eph. 2:20.
As a foundation determines the scope and extent of the building built upon it, so the teaching of the Apostles prescribes the scope and extent of Christ’s Church. Their teaching determines what’s “in” and “out”, so far as the Church is concerned. They bind us with our duty, both as to our faith (what we are to believe) and to our practice (what we are to do). They convey through the New Testament scriptures the “key” of knowledge whereby men may enter the kingdom. But they are not the “cornerstone” of the Church!
In no way do they rival or supplant Christ. Neither can their authority be passed down to others, as the fiction of Rome suggests. Yet, we must recognize that Christ gave them the “keys”. The faith once delivered to the saints was, in fact, delivered to the saints through the agency of Christ’s Apostles. What we know about Jesus and Gospel truth, we learn, humanly speaking, through the Apostles. Further, the covenantal privileges once belonging to Israel have now been transferred to the Church. The great promises of God are fulfilled in Him, and, therefore, to all who are “in” Him (see II Cor. 1:20). As such, it’s not surprising to see promises first enunciated to Israel now quoted and reapplied by the Apostles to the Church – (see I Peter 2:9-10 and II Cor. 6:16-18 for examples).
So we see again both continuity and discontinuity: continuity, in that our duty before God is still based on the moral principles of God’s law; but discontinuity, in that Christ’s Apostles are now interpreting and applying these principles in a new age, to a new people, in a new situation.
Now I recognize this observation alone will not settle the various issues arising out of the covenantal question in our day. However, it should give us a hint as to where we ought to start in seeking the answers. We should look to see how the Apostles handled and applied the law. Their teaching, embodied in the New Testament scriptures, should be given a primacy in discovering our duty before God, for, after all, to them were given the “keys”.
Next, the conclusion