I’m sure that right away there are some who don’t know this term, so let me define it. It is single-handedly the main doctrine behind the pre-tribulation rapture. Coupled with “imminence”, the only way that you are left viewing the Scripture is that there is a soon impending devastation to befall the whole world, and that we are luckily about to be raptured out of danger to be with the Lord. Before I can say anything in response to this, I need to establish a bit of what is said and believed. From the beginning, I want to make it clear: I am not battling in this post the idea of pre-tribulation rapture, though I also don’t hold to this notion either. My main purpose here is to clear up some of the misconceptions being taught through dispensationalism.
To define our term, I want to take note that the word “dispensation” is the main word. What does it mean to be “dispensational”? Essentially, this is the belief that God has dealt with mankind differently throughout history. These various manners, or administrations, can be seen and categorized in a successive manner. The teaching fundamentally emphasizes the distinction between God’s plan for national Israel, and for the New Testament Church. Below are a list of the dispensations:
1) The dispensation of innocence (or freedom) – Genesis 2:8-17, 25
2) The dispensation of conscience – Genesis 3-5, Romans 2:11-15 (Adam to Noah)
3) The dispensation of government – Genesis 6-11, Romans 13:1 (Noah to Abram)
4) The dispensation of patriarch (or promise) – Genesis 12-51, Galatians 3:15-19 (Abraham to Moses)
5) The dispensation of the Mosaic Law – Exodus through Malachi, Galatians 3:19 (Moses to Christ)
6) The dispensation of grace – Romans 5:20-21, Ephesians 3:1-9 (current age)
7) The dispensation of the Millennial Kingdom – Isaiah 9:6-7, 11:1-9, Revelation 20:1-6
Notice a couple things here. Each of these dispensations represent a different way that God deals with mankind. Each dispensation has a cycle. God creates the world pure, sin enters, God judges, and God brings restoration through covenant. For Adam, we see that the covenant was in making animal skin clothes, and Cain and Abel then offer sacrifices in Gen 4. For Noah, the new dispensation after the judgment of the flood begins with the covenant of the rainbow. For Abraham, the covenant was circumcision, but we could even use God’s calling of him out of all nations, which had just been judged at Babel, in order to bless all nations through him. For Moses we obviously see Sinai as the covenant. Jesus establishes the new covenant, which we are currently under. Yet, it isn’t so obvious to me what exactly the end of the new covenant is supposed to be in order to bring the Millennial Kingdom into manifestation.
It is from this that we have four main tenants:
1) A fundamental distinction between Israel and the church – i.e. there are two peoples of God with two different destinies.
2) A fundamental distinction between Law and Grace – i.e. there used to be a gospel of the kingdom under law, but now we see the gospel of grace.
3) The view that the New Testament Church is a parenthesis in God’s plan which was not foreseen by the Old Testament.
4) A distinction between the rapture and the second coming of Christ – i.e. the rapture of the church at Christ’s coming “in the air” (1 Thess 4:17) precedes the “official” second coming to the earth by seven years of tribulation.
With this established, I think I can better respond to these assertions.
For that first tenant, I would like to give a little bit of information regarding where the word “church” comes from. The Greek is ecclesia. The Old Testament was translated into Greek before the time of Jesus, and when it was translated from Hebrew to Greek, we find that the word kahal is often translated to ecclesia. Now, the question then becomes: what does kahal mean? Kahal is the Hebrew word used to address the assembly of Israel. When the people gather to a certain place, it would be called the kahal. The Greek would be synagogue when addressing the place, but ecclesia when the assembly itself is being addressed.
So, we see that ecclesia is not separate from Israel in the Old Testament. What about the New Testament? Almost 80 times the word Israel appears in the New Testament, and not one time is it used to mean the church universal. Over 185 times the word “Jew”, or “Jews” is used, and not one time is it used in relation to a Gentile. Instead, what we find is that there is the notion that “a Jew is not one outwardly, but inwardly.” Now, if I were to say, “Real men care for their wives and families, and aren’t afraid to cry, and tell their children they love them,” am I then limiting my statement if I continue with, “Now let me talk to you men”? No, we all understand that what I’m saying is that true manliness is defined in these ways, but that doesn’t mean the person who is female is suddenly male if they have those qualities, nor that a male who does not have those qualities is suddenly female. The context is obvious. This happens with the word Jew.
So, we see that Israel is never called the church, and that the church is never called Israel. However, there are two passages that need to be weighed. Romans 11:11-24 and Ephesians 12:12-16 both seem to indicate that the reason that these words are never used synonymously is because of a mystery. When we read Ephesians 2:12-16, we see that Paul is emphasizing that the Gentiles have now been brought into the family of God. While it was in the past considered exclusively Israelite, now the Gentiles are being welcomed. But what precisely does that mean? You see, Paul is saying that Jesus has “made the two one” to create in himself “one new man”. According to this passage, the church is distinct from Israel because it incorporates the Gentiles and Israel into a new phenomenon.
Let us consider Romans 11 before making hasty conclusions. In Romans 11:11-24 we read of the Gentiles being engrafted branches. What does that mean? Whatever it is that the Gentiles are being grafted into is already present. It isn’t a new phenomenon. Yet, when we read Ephesians 2:12-16, the “new man” seems to be a new phenomenon. Confused? Let me explain. Before we reach Romans 11:11, we must first read Romans 11:2-5. Here we find Paul explaining that in Elijah’s day there was a remnant – a 7000 who did not bow the knee to Baal. Similarly, there is a remnant today. The question is this: is Paul saying that the remnant are the Jewish believers, or is Paul saying that the church is the remnant?
Initially it appears to be that Paul is saying the Jewish believers are the remnant. The 7000 that did not bow the knee to Baal were Jewish, and so too there is a remnant today chosen by grace. This is where it becomes fascinating. In Acts 2, Peter was addressing the Jewish people from all nations. There were most likely no Gentiles that Peter was speaking to on the day of Pentecost. In Acts 3, Peter is addressing the Jewish people. In Acts 7, Stephen claims that there was an ecclesia (church) at Sinai (see verse 38). Then, in Acts 8 we find the first mention of going out of Jerusalem. Now, most think the Ethiopian eunuch would have been Gentile, and he very well might have been, but why is it that Peter has to have a vision in Acts 10 to even realize that God is choosing some of the Gentiles to be part of this?
Do you see the thrust of this argument? Paul is saying that there was a remnant of Jewish people chosen by grace, just like the first portion of Acts is entirely devoted to the Jewish Church. There were no Gentiles in the Church. Then, just like Peter went to Cornelius and discovered that God has chosen the Gentiles as well, Paul shifts focus slightly to explain that God has grafted Gentiles into this already existing Jewish remnant. What is the church? It is the remnant of Israel. That believing remnant has always had Gentiles within it. Egyptians joined with Israel in the exodus. Rahab was a Gentile, Ruth was a Moabite, Bathsheba was born of a Hittite, which means Solomon wasn’t even fully Hebrew (neither was David, actually).
What makes the church a new phenomenon is not the fact that there are now both Jews and Gentiles, but that Gentiles don’t have to become Jews in order to be grafted in. They are transformed, and through the new birth are grafted into the “commonwealth of Israel”. Now, with this bit of information we can fully question the first tenant. How can there be a distinction between Israel and the church beyond the simple agreement that there has always been a believing remnant? And, if the distinction is only in believing versus ‘will one day believe’ (see the conclusion of Paul’s statement in Romans 11:25-26), then what credence do we have in saying that they have two distinct destinies? No, we have the same destiny. The unbelieving Jew cannot fulfill their purpose without us, and we cannot fulfill our purpose without them. It is one and the same, and without one another – when the two shall become one – our purpose cannot be accomplished.
In part two we shall examine that second tenant.