How Does Premillennial Dispensationalism And Covenant Theology Interpret The Parable of the Tenants In The Vineyard Matthew 21:33-44?
Posted by Job on August 26, 2009
The parable of the tenants of the vineyard of Jesus Christ is as follows.
Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him. When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons. Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.
The Word of God for the people of God, praise be to God.
Now, this is a parable that should cause trouble to both covenant theology and premillennial dispensationalism. First, regarding covenant theology “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” has to point to a clear distinction, a clear demarcation between Israel and the church. Further, the fact that there were 12 apostles does so as well. The 12 apostles clearly supplant the original 12 tribes of Israel. It is the apostles and prophets that are called the foundation of the church, not the patriarchs of the 12 tribes, and even Moses is only included in the church’s foundation inasmuch as he is a prophet. Further, when Jesus Christ stated that he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist, whom Jesus Christ called the greatest of prophets (meaning greater than Moses) then the church age prophets would have been greater than the Old Testament prophets. Now, it is true that there is one people of God; one elect people, and further that everyone in this elect group was justified by the work of Jesus Christ. However, this group does not only include Israel and the church. It also includes Seth, Enoch, Noah, Job, Melchizedek, Jethro/Reuel, the Queen of Sheba, and many others that cannot be called “Israel” in any sense. Just as Job and the Queen of Sheba were most certainly not Israelites, having no part in the Sinai covenant or Abraham’s lineage, the Israelites are certainly not part of the church. Also: the Bible makes it clear that everyone who is in the universal, invisible church, the actual body of Christ, is born again and thus heaven bound. It is self-evident from scripture that every Israelite was not and is not heaven bound. Yet, covenant theology maintains that “Israel was the church of the Old Testament” because covenant theology was created to support the concept of the state-church where everyone in a given jurisdiction was initiated into by paedobaptism (infant baptism) as opposed to a confession of faith and subsequent believer’s baptism (which is the method that the Bible actually commands and gives examples of whereas there is not a single instance of paedobaptism recorded or commanded in scripture despite the best attempts of paedobaptists to claim that the command “believe and be baptized and you will be saved, you and your house” to the Philippian jailer justifies this doctrine, ignoring the critical “believe” portion of the formula which precludes sprinkling babies) and state church advocates openly acknowledged that not everyone in these churches was born again, that only the ecclesiola within the ecclesia (the hidden invisible smaller subset within the larger church) was going to heaven. Keep in mind: there was never any denial that the state church was one where people were joined to by compulsion (with death or banishment to those who refused) and was maintained not for political purposes but because of the belief that a single religion was necessary for political and cultural unity and stability, not for religious reasons. So, with the need to maintain such political-religious institutions, the notion that baptizing unregenerate and non-elect infants into the church was the same as circumcising non-elect Jews under the old covenant was a natural progression. However, once one actually obeys James 4, Romans 12:1-2, John 14-17 and learns from the typology of the sacrificial system (where it wasn’t even lawful to use tools to cut the stones for the altar or else the altar would be rendered ritually impure by the tools and the hands that used them … the seed of the “by the gracious work of God and not the works of men” doctrine) and removes the holy sanctified church from the unholy and defiled state and larger society, the whole “Israel is the church of the Old Testament” idea falls apart, and the concept of the theocracized government and culture with it.
Now for premillennial dispensationalism. The first servant rejected by the tenants was Moses, which happened when Israel refused to enter Canaan, choosing to believe the evil report over the good report of Joshua and Caleb. The second servant rejected by the tenants was Samuel when Israel asked for a king. Then Israel – or at least the northern kingdom – rejected the line of David. The subsequent servants rejected were the prophets who warned Israel of their apostasy and called them to repent, but ultimately were not heeded. And finally, Israel rejected the Son Jesus Christ. Now a key here is this portion: “When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.” Please note that while Jesus Christ did not emphasize their interpretation, He did not deny it either. Rather, He assented to it, and moved on to the main point that He was trying to make. Yet the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to recall and include this answer – which was in no way wrong – for a reason. The destruction of the wicked men who rejected the Son of God was a reference to the destruction of the Jewish temple and the nation in 70 A.D., a topic that Jesus Christ gave more detailed attention to in the Olivet discourse. (While I am not a preterist – whether partial or full – this is the portion of “this generation” of Matthew 24:34 and similar that was fulfilled in 70 A.D. Of the range of meanings of “genea”, it cannot mean “nation or race” for the Jewish nation will never be destroyed, and whether it means “age” or “generation” is of no consequence, as the Jewish age did come to an end at 70 A.D., and it happened within that generation, the people living in that time.)
And this brings us back to “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” What of the premillennial dispensationalists calling “replacement theology” an evil, anti-Semitic heresy? Who was the kingdom of God taken from but the Jews? Who was it given to but the church? In particular, this is a problem for the premillennial dispensational “Jewish millennium” doctrines, which states that after the church age ends, a newer, better Jewish age will begin with Jesus Christ ruling from the Jewish temple, the sacrificial system and priesthood reinstituted (which completely rejects or ignores virtually everything in the book of Hebrews), and all nations and people serving Israel. If the kingdom of God was taken from Israel, then the millennium will not be Jewish but Christian, and Jews will participate only inasmuch as they become Christians and join the church.
Premillennial dispensationalism, however, rejects this and states that the millennium will be one of Messianic Judaism (or what Messianic Judaism is fast becoming, see exhibit 1 and exhibit A, exhibit B and exhibit C and exhibit D and many more!) and not Christianity hence the true Messianic age. In that case, what does that make the church age? A type or foreshadowing of the Messianic dispensation? If that is true, what does that make Old Testament Israel? Premillennial dispensationalism makes Israel the center of God’s salvation-historic plan, and the church goes from the mystery planned but kept secret from the foundation of the world that the prophets spoke of whose true nature will not be revealed until the seventh trump sounds in Revelation to being a “make-work keep busy project” between the two Israel ages, and Christianity becomes an inferior and temporary – though suitable for Gentile purposes – form of the true eternal revelation and religion, which is Judaism. This rejects even the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah, which states that rather than Israel being the center of God’s salvation-historic plan, the purpose and role of Israel in redemption was transferred to the Son of Israel Jesus Christ, which in these days is accomplished by the Body of Jesus Christ, which is the church.
Now of course, Paul the Benjamite did say that God has not cast aside His people and that all Israel will be saved after the times of the Gentiles are done. However, a contextual reading of Romans (and everything else that Paul wrote, not to mention everything else that Peter, James, John, Luke, Jude, the writer of Hebrews etc. wrote) makes it clear that all Israel will be saved by virtue of hearing the gospel, which means that all Israel joins the Gentiles in the church to form one new man. Premillennial dispensationalism does give a plausible explanation for why the millennium will be a Jewish one: the church will have been raptured. This allows premillennial dispensationalism to interpret the Kingdom of Heaven parables to refer to the Jewish nation during the millennium as opposed to the church age. (Seriously, that is what this system teaches. So, “the pearl of great price” under this system does not refer to either a man giving up everything – his old nature – to become saved or Jesus Christ’s lowering Himself and going to the cross to redeem the church, but rather the Jewish remnant during the great tribulation.) So, while it is possible that Paul’s prophecy “all Israel will be saved” will occur during the millennium, the idea that it will happen with the restoration of the Jewish kingdom directly conflicts with Jesus Christ’s statement that the kingdom was taken from the Jews and given to another nation (the church) and its fruits. Indeed, “all Israel shall be saved” will be counted as the fruits of the church.
The bottom line: Jesus Christ specifically stated that the kingdom was transferred from the Jews to the church, and this message was modeled by His choosing 12 apostles to replace the original 12 patriarchs of Israel, and it was repeated by the writers of the New Testament. Though the Bible does say “all Israel will be saved”, at no point does it say that the kingdom (meaning the focus of God’s economy, the people of God, the people that give God prayer, worship and praise that He accepts, and the people that God works through to carry out His purposes) would be transferred back to Israel. No scripture text that can be interpreted as claiming that the kingdom would revert from the church back to Israel can be found in either the Old or the New Testament, and no doctrine based on scripture can be formed to even explain why this will have to take place. Now the kingdom was taken from Israel first for their breaking the Sinai covenant terms in Deuteronomy (read first where Deuteronomy predicts that this will happen, and second where Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets state that the old covenant was broken and will be replaced) and second for their rejecting Jesus Christ. The new covenant will not be broken and the church will not and cannot reject Jesus Christ because of A) the promises of the new covenant and B) the church is Jesus Christ’s own Body and as such is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and God the Father, and no part of the Godhead can reject or be divided against Himself. So, the only way that the kingdom of God can revert back from the church to the Jews is the rapture of the church. With the church out of the picture (meaning out of the way) things can simply revert back to how they were in the Old Testament, right? Pardon me, but that would mean rejecting the cosmic effects of the incarnation, the cross of Jesus Christ, and the resurrection. Like time itself, salvation history only goes forward, it cannot go back. Moreover, the book of Hebrews describes the ultimate relevation of God to be through Jesus Christ by way of His incarnation, cross work, resurrection, and return. Premillennial dispensationalism makes the salvation of Israel during a second age of grace the ultimate revelation of God, and removes Jesus Christ’s own Body in order to facilitate it!
It really is no surprise that premillennial dispensationalism is so attractive to Messianic Jews who want to retain the essentials of their old system. It treats the church age as just an interstitial intermediary between the first Jewish age and the second Jewish age, and further one that happened not because it was God’s plan and the climax of His salvation plan all along, but only as punishment for the Jews for first failing to keep the Torah and second for failing to accept Jesus Christ. Once these errors are atoned for, things go right back to where they should have been all along! Further, premillennial dispensationalism re-instates the wrongheaded ideas about the millennium/Messianic age that Jesus Christ corrected! This is probably the one good point that the amillennialists do make: that the Jews in the time of Jesus Christ were expecting a political liberator and ruler who would usher in the Messianic age and institute a global Jewish theocracy and a time primarily for the benefit of Jews, not the God-man Saviour who would usher in an age of grace for the benefit of all nations. The Jewish religion still teaches the error of the Pharisees and Sadducees to this day, and premillennial dispensationalism – which includes most strands of Messianic Judaism – tells them that they are right about everything save the timing.
The core of premillennial dispensationalism is that God ceases dealing with His temporary vehicle the church and begins dealing with the Jews anew. However, unless premillennial dispensationalists can identify a part two of the parable of the tenants that describes when this will happen (and more importantly, how and why such a thing will happen in a manner that makes it consistent with New Testament doctrines and promises) this area of their doctrine is Biblically unjustified. Premillennial dispensationalism teaches that their doctrines concerning the millennium allows for the fulfillment of all the promises made to Abraham, David and Israel under the old covenant. However, in order to accomplish this, their doctrines require breaking the promises made to the church under the new covenant!
So, just as the parable of the tenants is very problematic for covenant theology by declaring an explicit distinction between the church and Israel, it is even more so for premillennial dispensationalism by explicitly proclaiming that with regards to their place in God’s economy, just as the the second temple could not match the glory of the first (for it did not include the ark of the covenant with the rod that budded or the tablets of the law), for the Jews the former things are no more, and their only place in the latter things (which are greater than the former because the latter is founded on better promises, bought with the Blood of Jesus Christ and hence incorruptible) will be inasmuch as their place is found alongside the redeemed and grafted in Gentiles in the church.