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With Antichrist possibly about to be revealed . . . the Church is still on earth.

Dispensational Considerations
(especially regarding Israel and the Church)

- by Rhett Totten, MDiv - (c) '99

Interpreting the Bible (Hermeneutics)

Before we look at dispensational issues, we should have a brief description of how to interpret the Bible in order to properly understand what it intends to communicate.

1. A reader should initially take everything in the Bible in its normal ("literal") sense, like any piece of explanatory informative literature, ---while taking into consideration the people (& culture) and time it was written, and the grammar, usage and type of literature. This is the "Grammatico-Historical" method. As part of this, we should try to understand the writing in the very same way in which we honestly think the writer intended his original audience to take it. --Such "normal" or plain interpretation is preferable, and should be accepted --unless the nature of the statements (in their context and literature-type) force the reader to take them in a symbolic or figurative way.

2. Every verse should be taken in its immediate context. -- The nearby verses are usually more relevant than verses further-away; also, verses (or word-usage) on a topic by the same human writer are more relevant than verses (or word-usage) by a different human writer.

3. Clear and direct statements of scripture take precedence over unclear and implicit ideas (e.g. theological "systems") which a reader might impose on the text. -- This basic perspective on how to properly interpret the Bible, is very much in accord with the statement: "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense."

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In 2nd Coming discussions, to be clear about meanings, it is necessary to define especially the following two items:

"Israel" and the "Church."

The term "Israel" initially refers to a national group of natural/physical descendants of Abraham down through his grandson Jacob (called "Israel"), which includes some true believers in God (who are saved/spiritual), as well as many non-believers (unsaved). Then, as we progress on to the teaching in the New Testament, we find clearer and fuller meaning to the term "Israel."
--Therefore, as we go on to read especially Paul's letters in the New Testament, we find it is crucial to understand:

The Difference Between "Israel" and "Israel"

Most passages speak of Israel as the physical descendants of Jacob (the 12 tribes) as mentioned just above, for example, most of the places Israel is mentioned in the Old Testament. They are also called descendants (children) of Abraham, and also "Jews".

However, especially in Paul's letters, several passages speak of "Israel" as referring to a group of spiritually redeemed (saved) people. For example, in Romans 9:6-8, it says:

"...For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but 'Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.' This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring."

In the above verses, the term "Israel" is used twice, in the two different ways, indicating physical descendants first, and then indicating spiritually redeemed people in the second instance, as Paul makes clear. --And similarly, in Romans 2:28-29, Paul writes the following:

"For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a real Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal."

Paul also explains in the whole flow of Romans 9 that God has made many promises to physical Israel which will be literally fulfilled, however, it is ultimately the spiritually redeemed Israelites (the "remnant") who will actually experience the full delivery of those promises --the rest are lost (like the generation in the wilderness).

The Church

Now, the "Church" is that group of people (Jew & Gentile) from all generations, who are truly redeemed and regenerated (born again) by the grace and power of God, through the shed blood of Christ, and have responded in faith (genuine trust) to God's offer of salvation. --When talking about "Church" here, we do not mean any sort of humanly organized group of supposedly "Christian" people who merely profess to know Christ (which virtually always includes some people who are not genuine or regenerate).

As a historical manifestation and work of God's saving grace, the Church first began on the day of Pentecost as described in Acts chapter 2, where the Holy Spirit came (according to the promise of Jesus in Acts 1:5), and believers were "baptized in the Spirit" at that time. That baptism in the Holy Spirit puts (incorporates) a true believer into the "body of Christ," as is clearly stated in 1Cor.12:13, and that mystical "body of Christ" is the "Church" (Eph.1:22-23 ; Col.1:18,24).

The Church did not functionally and organically exist in the Old Testament times, because there was never a "baptism in the Holy Spirit" in the OT, and Messiah had not yet come. Still, OT promises clearly pointed to the Church's formation and existence in the future --although not explicitly using the actual name "church".

In the OT, the "Church" (explicitly as such) was an unrevealed "mystery" or "secret" (Eph.3:3-6), which was unknown to the OT saints, --however, ever since the day of Pentecost, Christ baptizes in the Holy Spirit all true believers into his body --the Church (1Cor. 12:13), and the "secret" has been revealed to all through the NT Scriptures (Col.1:26,27). Ever since that day of Pentecost, God's plan of salvation has progressed to that point, and it will not regress to the old program again --which the book of Hebrews makes clear (esp. chs. 8,9 & 10). The Church will never again be such a "mysterious" unknown secret as it was under the Old Covenant. --This spells out some of the "progressive" nature of the type of dispensationalism advanced in this article.

Also, in regard to Israel, it must also be remembered that on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, all the Old Testament saints (true believers such as Abraham and the OT prophets) were also incorporated into the Body of Christ (the Church), with the result that all saints in heaven and on earth were included, and the avenue of fulfilled promises to Israel was opened up through the body of Christ (the Church). The Church is God's salvation-program for Israel.

--So, ever since the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Church does exist, and it (the body of Christ --the Church) is the means of grafting Gentiles as unnatural "branches" into the natural "olive tree" of Israel (Rom. 11:11-24), so that Gentiles who believe in Christ will be included as citizens of Israel and will also be heirs of the OT promises made to those of physical Israel who are also elect (saved) (Eph.2:11-13,19 ; Gal.3:29). Any Jews who do not believe in the Messiah, Jesus, are cut out of their own olive tree.

Main Points Regarding the Church and Israel

1. The "New Covenant," which was ratified by the shed blood of the Jewish Messiah (see 1Cor. 11:25), is the founding "document" of the Church (1Cor.10:16), and the "New" is a covenant (agreement or contract) which God made "with the house of Israel" (read Heb.8:8-10; 9:15; 10:16). God did not fundamentally make it with Gentiles. Messiah-believers (Christians) commemorate this New Covenant every time they take the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:25), and it was established by the Messiah's shed blood and his resurrection. The New Covenant was promised to Israel (Jer. 31:31-34) and established with Israel, therefore the Church is fundamentally (at is foundation) a Jewish entity. Christ is the Jewish Messiah and the King of Israel. The Church is being built by the Jewish Messiah (Mat. 16:18), on the cornerstone of the Jewish Messiah and the foundation of Jewish apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). --Christianity at its foundation and core is Jewish.

2. But there is a distinction between literal, physical Jews (descendants of Jacob) who are National Israel, and spiritual or "real" Jews ...as the apostle Paul says: "He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual not literal" (Rom.2:28-29). --This is why Messiah Jesus declared to a Jewish leader that "You must be born again," because "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3, 7).

3. Paul described physical Jews generally as "my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons ...the covenants, ...and the promises" (Rom.9:3,4). And remember: This includes the New Covenant. -- But the spiritual distinction is again emphasized, which says that "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. ...it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring" (Rom.9:6-8). -- Again, the distinction is made when a person is "born again" by having true faith and trust in Messiah Jesus, the Lord (the God/Man). --These people are the "children of promise" and "Abraham's offspring" in the spiritual sense. So, all the promises of Land and Seed and Blessing (Gen. 12:1-3) will be fulfilled only for physical Israel who are also spiritual "children of promise," ...and these promises include all Gentiles who believe in Messiah Jesus, as Paul says: "If you belong to Christ (Messiah), then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29).

4. The "Olive Tree" which is God's own spiritual people (now the Church), belongs properly to the Jews (Ro. 11:18); . . . and when a Jew is saved, they are "natural branches" to be grafted back into "their own olive tree" (Ro. 11:24). When a Gentile is saved, they are un-natural "wild" branches who are spliced into that Jewish tree, and gain the benefits (the promises) thereof.

5. We see "the Israel of God" in Gal.6:16, and W. Grudem explains that "the church [is] the true Israel of God in which the Old Testament promises to Israel find their fulfillment." (Syst.Theol. p.862). -- So, God's OT promises to natural physical Israel are still valid and will be literally fulfilled, however, only fulfilled for those Jews who are saved (born again) and found in the Jewish Messiah (in Jesus Christ: Gal. 3:26-29).
. . . Grudem explains that in Progressive Dispensationalism "God does not have two separate purposes for Israel and the church, but a single purpose --the establishment of the kingdom of God--- in which Israel and the church will both share. Progressive Dispensationalists would see no distinction between Israel and the church in the future eternal state, for all will be part of the one people of God" (p.860).

What is a Dispensation?

The Greek word "oikonomia" in the New Testament, is usually translated as "dispensation," but it also carries the sense of an "arrangement," "administration," "plan" and "management." In the Bible, the word dispensation (oikonomia) is used to indicate different arrangements which God has established down through history under which he manages the affairs of mankind and administers the plan of the salvation of mankind. As God's plan to save the world moves along, he modifies the various arrangements in order to progressively attain the final goal of glorifying himself through establishing the Kingdom of God.

Thus, our definition of a "dispensation" is : A distinguishable arrangement, sovereignly established by God, in the administration of human affairs and responsibilities --especially concerning salvation, as revealed and instituted during a given time-period of history, in order to progressively establish the Kingdom of God to the glory of God.

What are the different dispensations?

Many varying listings of the dispensations have been proposed over the years, but for the purposes of both simplicity and thoroughness, the following six dispensations adequately outline salvation history:

Salvation Down Through the Dispensations

No matter which dispensation is being talked about, there is only one way that a person can be saved, and that is through the sacrifice of Christ by the power of God --but this sacrifice was not specifically and clearly understood in the Old Covenant. In all of history, man is only saved by grace through faith alone in God plus nothing.

Now, in the first three dispensations, as more revelation was progressively given by God through the prophets, the conscious object of faith for a saved person was obviously not Jesus the Messiah. But still, in every dispensation, the object of saving faith was the one true God --even though the picture about God would grow progressively clearer as more was revealed in future revelation, and supremely so in the incarnation. Even though saints in the first dispensations were not aware of it, the total basis of their salvation was on the atoning death of Messiah Jesus of Nazareth.

To answer how people were saved in the OT dispensations : --It was by grace through faith (trust) in God alone, as demonstrated through obedience to the commands He had revealed at the time. --Those believers (elect) were not part of the body of Christ at that time (because Messiah Jesus had not yet come) --but later (since they were elect), they would also be joined into the body of Christ (the Church) on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) at the same time this happened to all other believers (Heb.11:39,40) through the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Thus, the initial beginning of the body of Christ (the Church) on that day included not only living believers, but also Abraham, David and all Old Covenant believers.

Physical Israel (the 12 tribes, intermixed) still exists today (just as in the day of Paul, - Rom.9:3-4), --but most of Israel is apparently unregenerate. Only a believing remnant is saved and "true" Israel. The Church doesn't displace physical descendants of Israel out of their promised literal blessings from God, --however, ever since the Church began (in Acts 2), every single redeemed (saved) Hebrew (Israelite or Jew) has been part of the body of Christ (the Church) ...and it will remain that way. On the day of the Second Coming of Christ, "all Israel will be saved" (Rom.11:26), meaning that every single living Israelite (Hebrew) on earth when Christ returns will become regenerate (born again) and trust in Christ at that time, and will be "baptized in the Holy Spirit" and, thus, become part of the body of Messiah (the Church). -- Read more about this full-scale repentance and salvation of all Jews on the day of Christ's Second Coming, in Zechariah 12:10 - 13:1.

There is no other way of salvation than through Jesus, and becoming part of his body (the Church), nor will there ever be. Thus, since the day of Pentecost, we now have the "Ecclesial (Church) Dispensation," and this outline of salvation history is "progressive" in the sense that there will never be a "going back" to the possibility of anybody being saved apart from belief in the finished work of Christ, nor apart from being baptized in the Holy Spirit and made part of the body of Christ.

The promised gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33 & Ezek.36:27) was a promise made to Israel (see Acts 2:36-39), ...and the coming of the Holy Spirit (on the birthday of the Church at Pentecost) was prophesied to Israel through Joel (2:28-32) --as is made absolutely clear when Peter speaks of the coming and baptism in the Spirit, by saying "this IS what was spoken through the prophet Joel..." (Acts 2:16). So, the Church (with the indwelling Holy Spirit) is God's program of salvation for the people of Israel, and it is the way that they partake in the promised "New Covenant" of Jeremiah 31:31-34 --as was explained to the Israelites (Hebrews) in the book of Hebrews 8:6-13. This promised "New Covenant" (in Messiah Jesus' blood) is made fundamentally with the "House of Israel" (Heb.8:10). And furthermore, how are these Israelites sanctified unto salvation? Read what is said to the Hebrews in chapter 10 --verse 10 says, "we (Israelites) have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." - - -The body of Messiah (the Church) is God's only program of salvation for Israel, and because of God's grace, we who are Gentiles are blessed to be "hangers-on" ("grafted in") to this wonderful provision of salvation.

Progressive Dispensationalism

The perspective taught here is called "Progressive Dispensationalism", which is a modification of what many people have traditionally understood under "dispensationalism". Major published proponents of this perspective are C. Blaising and D. Bock (professors from Dallas Theological Seminary), who have written a book named "Progressive Dispensationalism," (BridgePoint, Wheaton, '93), and it is excellent (except they fail to follow through on the progressive dispensational perspective, to draw the logical conclusion of post-tribulationism from that perspective). Another book explaining this viewpoint, is "The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism," by Robert Saucy (Zondervan, 1993).

The old or "Primitive" Dispensationalism, (as championed by L.S. Chafer and C.I. Scofield) seemed to many to be somewhat abusive on scripture in places, making the Church a "parenthesis" or some sort of an "side-program" in the history of salvation... in fact, old dispensationalism portrayed two separate programs of salvation: one for Israel and another for the Church, with two separate destinies: an earthly one for Israel, and a heavenly one for the Church. An overview of the relevant scriptures, however, do not portray the Church as a parenthesis, but rather, it is God's only program of salvation, which was promised to Israel in the OT, and innaugurated for them after the ascension of Messiah. --And since God's salvation program has so powerfully "progressed" through Christ, from the Old Testament arrangement to the "New Covenant," it cannot ever go back to the "Old" again (as Primitive-style dispensationalists suggest will happen during the tribulation, in order to work with Israel again). The book of Hebrews and the writings of Paul do not explain all the tremendous things accomplished by the ministry of Christ --just to have old-style dispensationalists in the 20th century presume that many of his accomplishments (especially involving the Church) will be "suspended" for such vague and questionable theological reasons.

No. --The New Covenant was promised to Israel in the O.T. (Jer. 31:31-34), and we now know that that New Covenant includes the formation of the Church (starting on the day of Pentecost), which is the form in which the promises and covenantal blessings to Abraham and his descendants will be enjoyed by both Jews and Gentiles alike. --And this includes all the national promises to physical Israel (Land, Seed & Blessing), which will be fulfilled literally here on earth when Jesus returns to set up the Davidic Messianic Throne in Jerusalem during the millennium. --Though many (or most) of Israel will have died in their sins and unbelief during previous millennia, "all Israel" alive at the 2nd Coming of Christ will be saved on that day (Rom.11:26), and that "salvation" means that they will all be incorporated into the body of Christ (the Church ) for all eternity. It is only "in Christ" (& therefore in his body, the Church) that all the promises will be literally and ultimately fulfilled to a believing remnant of physical Israel.

Now that God's program of salvation has "progressed" to today's stage of blessing, which includes the placing of all true believers "in Christ" and in his body (the Church), it will never regress or give up any of the ground that has been gained. The burden of proof is on anyone who says that all the great and precious provisions afforded to believers by Christ's work will not benefit every born again believer --whether Jew or Gentile. Everyone who is saved from now on, (after the day of Pentecost in Acts 2) until eternity, must be part of the body of Christ, the Church (...and this must include every blood-bought saint "in Christ" in the tribulation). No going back. No temporary "parenthesis" in history is coming, where Israel is God's people on earth and the Church is not. The body of Christ (the Church) is forever the only place of salvation God has provided for all mankind --Jew and Gentile alike.

NOT "Replacement Theology"

Progressive Dispensationalism is not some sort of "Replacement Theology," which teaches that Israel, having failed God, has been replaced by the Church. Progressive Dispensationalism rejects such a notion. And it is a clear departure from the old "Primitive" Dispensationalism which draws a hard line between God's dealings with Israel and the "Church" (as they conceive it). Old "Primitive" Dispensationalism saw two separate programs of salvation, where Israel was a group of saved people forever distinct and separate from the Church (people in the body of Christ).

Instead, Progressive Dispensationalism would more accurately be described as "Fulfillment Theology", because it portrays the Church (being all regenerate, redeemed people) as a blessing which was promised as part of the New Covenant with Israel in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah 31. The Church is not a "parenthesis" or secondary redemption plan separate from the plan for Israelites, but rather, the body of Messiah (the Church) is the fulfillment of the primary and only plan of redemption for Israel and all mankind, and the church is the place where all the redeemed will share (both now and in the future) in God's blessings of salvation despite ethnic, gender or national differences. The Church is the "one new man" in Christ (Eph. 2:15), meaning the totality of redeemed humanity --as over against unsaved mankind.

Progressive Dispensationalism portrays the body of Messiah (the "ekklesia" or "Church") as the only framework of salvation and blessing within which the unconditional and unbreakable promises to Abraham and David will be literally fulfilled to the literal (physical) people of Israel --however, only regenerate Israelites who truly believe in Messiah Jesus will actually receive and walk in those final blessings. God has always reserved for himself a regenerate (born-again, saved) remnant out of the people of Israel (Romans 11), and all of that regenerate remnant is now permanently located in the body of Messiah ever since the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The body of Messiah Yeshua is the "Church" (Eph.1:22-23), and that place of salvation is God's final plan for his chosen people, Israel --and Gentiles are graciously "ingrafted" as unnatural branches, and allowed to be citizens of God's household which is fundamentally Jewish. It must be clearly said that God has in no way either rejected or replaced Israel and the Jewish people. Writing during this present church-age, Paul rejects any notion of God rejecting the Jews by saying, "I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew" (Romans 11:1-2). --On the contrary, God is fulfilling his promises to physical Israel by putting the believing remnant into the "body" (the Church) of their own Jewish Messiah, through the baptism in the Holy Spirit (1Cor.12:13), according to the promise of that Messiah, Jesus (Acts 1:5), and in fulfillment of prophecies in Ezekiel 36:26-27 , Isaiah 59:21 and Joel 2:28-32.

Tribulation Implications

Since the body of Messiah (the Church) is the one and only program and framework of salvation for all mankind (in heaven and on earth) since the day of Pentecost (in Acts 2), the Church (the body of Messiah) must necessarily be present on earth during the great tribulation. This is unavoidable, since there will clearly be regenerate saints on earth (Rev.13:7,10 ; Rev.14:12), who are persecuted by Antichrist and die "IN the Lord" Jesus (Rev.14:13). After the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the body of Christ (the Church) is the only place of salvation God has provided for all mankind (including Israelis), so the tribulation saints can only be the Church on earth during the great tribulation. There can never be any other "saints."

Because the Church is on earth during the great tribulation, the pre-tribulation (as well as mid-trib) rapture theory loses its main argument, and we are left with a post-tribulational rapture.

- - - Blessings to All!

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Relevant Articles (Links):

- - - Why Messianic Judaism?

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