It is tremendously important to distinguish between passages that deal with matters of fundamental importance and those that are concerned with nonessentials. When we are dealing with basic Bible doctrines or principles a certain set of principles applies. On the other hand, when we are dealing with matters of moral indifference, an entirely different set of rules is applicable. If we confuse the two, the results can only be catastrophic.
Let us illustrate what we have just said. If the passage under study deals with the deity of Christ, or His sinless humanity, or His substitutionary sacrifice, or His bodily resurrection, there is no room for difference of opinion. These are nonnegotiable truths of the Christian faith, and no compromise is possible.
Or think of some of the unchanging moral laws of God. It is always wrong to commit adultery. It is always sinful to lie and to steal. Idolatry in any and every form is forbidden by the Scriptures. In these and many similar areas, there can be no excusing, no palliating, no ameliorating, no softening. We must stand unequivocally with God against these evils.
But there are other matters in the Christian life that we speak of as matters of moral indifference because they are not right or wrong in themselves. The principal examples given in the New Testament are:
Eating food that has been offered to idols.
The observance of days.
Eating meat (in contrast to vegetables only).
Eating foods that were unclean under the Law of Moses.
Methods of Christian service.
When we come to passages dealing with these questions, we find room for a difference of opinion. Provision is made for a certain degree of latitude.
With regard to foods that have been offered to idols, the principal passages are 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and 1 Corinthians 10:14-30. The gist of the teaching there is that it is all fight to eat such foods as long as the Christian does not participate in the feast where the food is offered to idols, as long as his conscience is clear in the matter, and as long as he does not stumble some other person. But when Paul says, "All things are lawful," we must understand that he is not speaking about all things without exception. He is referring only to the subject at hand-matters of moral indifference. If you don't see this, you might adopt the gross interpretation that Paul would condone immorality!
Chapter 14 of Romans deals with the subjects of observance of days, eating meat (in contrast to vegetables only), and drinking wine. Among the other guidelines which Paul lays down is this one: "Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind." Now if you take this out of its context and apply it to such doctrines as the inspiration of the Bible or salvation by grace through faith, you are in serious trouble. It is imperative to see that the principles laid down in Romans 14 deal only with matters that are not black or white in themselves. Another statement in Romans 14 that must be understood in this same way is verse 14: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself . . . " (RSV). Paul knew as well as we that certain things are unclean, but here he is only speaking of foods like pork, shrimp, or rabbit that were unclean under the Old Testament regime.
In Titus 1, Paul devotes considerable attention to those false teachers who were trying to put the Christian believers under the Law of Moses. In verse 15 the Apostle says:
To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted (RSV).
Now it should be clear that when Paul says, "To the pure all things are pure," he is not stating a universal truth, but is referring only to such matters as meats that had been condemned as unclean by the Law of Moses. To the Christian in this age of grace, all foods which God has provided for human consumption are pure. The labels "Kosher" and "Non-Kosher" no longer apply.
In the matter of Christian service there is allowance for a certain amount of accommodation to the culture and customs of the people. Thus in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 Paul tells how he identified with his audiences (without, of course, sacrificing any basic truth or compromising his loyalty to Christ).
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law-though not being myself under the law-that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law-not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ-that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (RSV).
But when Paul says, "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some," there is no suggestion that he ever compromised the truth of the gospel or participated in any sinful activity. Where it was possible to make a concession without sacrificing truth (as in the circumcision of Timothy, Acts 16:3), he made the concession in order to get a greater hearing for his message. But where the truth of salvation by grace apart from law-keeping was at stake (as in the controversy over circumcising Titus, Galatians 2:1-5), Paul never budged an inch.
The student of the Bible should learn to detect those passages that deal with non-vital matters and should realize that the principles found there must not be applied to basic truths or unchanging laws. This will save him from coming up with applications of the Word that are grotesque and ludicrous.
When we come to the study of the prophetic Scriptures, one of the most helpful keys is to realize that some prophecies have more than one fulfillment. It is not unusual to find a prediction that has a preliminary, partial fulfillment and then later a full, final accomplishment. This is known as the "law of double reference."
The classic example is Joel's prophecy concerning the pouring out of the Spirit.
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days I will pour out my spirit. And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And It shall come to pass that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered (Joel 2:28-32a RSV).
When Peter quoted this passage on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-21), he said, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel." But he could not have meant that it was a complete fulfillment, since some of the things that Joel mentioned did not occur at Pentecost.
The Spirit was not poured out on all flesh, but only on three thousand Jews. There were no wonders in the heavens-the sun was not turned to darkness, nor the moon to blood. Not all the signs on earth occurred, either-such as blood and fire and vapor of smoke.
This means that Pentecost was an early and incomplete fulfillment of Joel's prophecy. Its total accomplishment will take place at the Second Advent of Christ. His coming will be preceded by the predicted signs and followed by the pouring out of His Spirit on all flesh in the millennial earth.
We have another illustration of the "law of double reference" in the famous "virgin" passage of Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (RSV).
The prophecy obviously had an immediate meaning for King Ahaz, namely, that a child would be born and named "God with us," implying that victory was near. Before the child would be old enough to discern good and evil the Syria-Israel alliance would be crushed, and within a few more years the child would be living on the fat of the land (v. 15).
But the complete unfolding of the verse came with the birth of Christ.
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us) (Matt. 1:22, 23 RSV).
A third example of dual fulfillment is found in Psalm 118:26a.
Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord (RSV).
On the first Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the crowd shouted,
Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord! (Matt. 21:9 RSV).
But we know that this did not exhaust the prophecy, because in His later lament over Jerusalem the Lord Jesus said,
For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (Matt. 23:39 RSV).
The final fulfillment will occur when the Savior returns to earth in power and glory to a people who will welcome Him as Messiah and King.
Still another illustration of a prophecy which has two fulfillments concerns the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus predicted the desolation of the city in Luke 21:20-24. His words obviously came to pass in A.D. 70, when Titus and his Roman legions sacked the city and levelled the Temple. But Jerusalem's woes are not all past. It is clear from Revelation 11:2 that the Gentiles will trample on the holy city for forty-two months during the Tribulation period.
Psalm 2:1, 2 is quoted in Acts 4:25, 26:
'Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the people imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth set themselves in array,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed.'
In Acts 4:27 the words are applied to the crucifixion of Christ:
For truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel ...
That was a preliminary and partial fulfillment of the Psalmist's words. They will have a still further fulfillment at the close of the Tribulation when world rulers will unite in a futile attempt to prevent Christ from taking the reins of universal government.
A final example of the law of double reference can be found in prophecies dealing with the regathering of Israel (Isa. 43:5-7; Jer. 16:14, 15; Ezek. 36:8-11; 37:21). These prophecies had a very partial fulfillment when a remnant of the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity to Israel, as described in Ezra and Nehemiah. But the main event is still future. Any past regatherings have been only a trickle. During the time of Jacob's trouble, God will bring His chosen earthly people back to Israel from all over the world (Matt. 24:31; Deut. 30:3, 4; Ezek. 36:24-32; 37:11-14). Then and only then will the prophecies be completely and finally fulfilled.
To obtain a copy of this book, please write to:
P. O. Box 2216
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Copyright 1975 by William MacDonald