Summary: Written and published September, 2016. This article is sort of a gentile rant against the unnecessary expanding and bloating that has occurred over the last 150 years to the theological system known as dispensationalism. Many modern systems have from five to nine periods of time known as dispensations. Now, the primary source of dispensational teachings is the major tenet, held by all dispensationalists, that the nation of Israel is not the church and the church is never the nation of Israel. This understanding logically leads to two dispensations, or at the most three. And this is what we actually find in Scripture – there was a Jewish dispensation which was replaced by the current Christian dispensation, and everyone knows there will be a future millennium. Pretty simple, right? And we have the confidence that this is all that Scripture teaches.
This article will be good reading for any believer committed to better understanding the eternal counsels of God. But it was penned a full year and a half before I wrote the fourth book, — How to Better Understand the Bible, Dispensationalism Made Simple. The book is a comprehensive work addressing these theological issues in far greater detail. It can be purchased on Amazon or can be read by going to the book section of this website.
I am not a covenant theologian. I do not believe covenant theology adequately explains Scripture or the counsels of God. Yes, there are covenants in the Bible. Strictly speaking, covenants are how God deals with Israel, both in the past and in the future (Rom. 9:4, Heb. 8:7-13). But God has never dealt with the Gentiles by covenant. And here’s the shocker, and by saying this I may upset many, but the Christian believer’s redemption isn’t by covenant either. Well, I sort of have to leave you hanging here, I’ve already said to much for a summary…
This isn’t going to be an article about turning the minds of dispensationalists to the covenant theology bandwagon. I feel that covenant theology’s interpretation hermeneutic, which leads to their replacement doctrines – Israel’s existence is essentially replaced by the church – is an arbitrary, willy-nilly type of guidance that encourages the grand spiritualization of vast amounts of Old Testament scripture. Their system is far too liberal in its handling of the word of God to suit the disciplined spiritual believer perusing the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:7-16).
Nevertheless, contemporary dispensationalism has wandered off the true course it had in its earliest days, and has given in to pressures and embarrassment from those generally opposed to their system. Dispensationalism has fallen prey to the same or similar mistakes made by those in the covenant system, only not to the same degree. Covenant theology replaces Israel with the church, while dispensationalism prides itself in not doing this, and instead distinguishes the church from Israel. But if I was to characterize all the changes made to dispensationalism over the last 150 years, they all seem to diminish the separation that exists in scripture between Israel and the church. An assumed foundational tenant of classical dispensationalism is its marked distinction of Israel and the church from each other – not one replacing the other or one becoming the other, but the two corporate bodies existing separate from each other. But modern dispensational teaching has wandered away considerably from the sound foundations it was given by John Nelson Darby, William Kelly, and F. W. Grant in the mid to late 19th century, early 20th century. In revised and contemporary dispensationalism the church, unfortunately, looks more and more like Israel.
One of the reasons for this is the dispensationalist’s over emphasis on Zionism (the nation of Israel restored in the land during the future millennium under their Messiah) – the biblical response to the mistaken replacement doctrines of covenant theology. It’s not that Zionism isn’t scripturally correct, or isn’t the appropriate reply to replacement teaching. Rather it is simply that all things about it are earthly and Jewish. Nothing in Zionism directly pertains to the church or is about the church – nothing about her calling, her hopes, or her future and destiny. Zionism is the simple knowledge directly gained from the prophetic scriptures of Israel’s future restoration and greatness in their land. It involves no mysteries – nothing about Zionism was hidden by God from the prophets and ages past (Eph. 3:3-5, 9; Col. 1:26; Rom. 16:25). Zionism is the knowledge of earthly things (John 3:12). It is the biblical understanding of the ways of God’s dealings dispensationally on the earth, especially with Israel and the principle of government. Yet this knowledge isn’t really applicable to the true church. Zionism is not the knowledge of heavenly things (John 3:12). It tells us nothing about the body of Christ. If the dispensationalist over-concentrates on Israel’s restoration in the future, he generally and easily begins to lose sight of the true calling of the church, her position and privilege in Christ before God.
It is fair, I believe, to ask whether contemporary dispensational teachers even have the correct understanding of the doctrine of the church. What is her true calling, position, and privilege in Christ? The proper answers to these questions were always so characteristic of the teachings of classical dispensationalists. In their writings Darby, Kelly, and Grant strongly taught the uniqueness of the church’s calling and heavenly citizenship. They explained, going to great lengths, what these things meant with their eternal consequences. They taught heavenly things (John 3:12) – the heavenly calling and citizenship, the heavenly exaltation and glory of Christ, the church’s union with the raised and glorified Man in the heavens as His body formed by the Spirit sent down, the Father’s house, the Father’s kingdom, the rapture of the church as the removal from the earth of a heavenly body, etc. They taught the believer the importance of seeking things above, and setting their mind on things above; not on things on the earth (Col. 3:1-3). They taught Christians how to do this with the eye of faith, and how the believer can walk by faith as a stranger and pilgrim in the wilderness of this world. Yet it is these teachings the modern dispensationalist is no longer emphasizing or embracing. Whether intentionally or not, he is no longer teaching heavenly things and has strayed from this foundational soundness. It may be a general carelessness in his handling of scripture.
Hebrews 3:1 (NKJV)
“Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus,”
The different callings of Israel and the church become a simple example of this problem. Israel has an earthly calling. They will inherit the Promised Land and dwell there. The future Messianic kingdom is an earthly kingdom during the millennium, and Israel’s blessings in it will be physical and earthly. They will prosper above all the Gentile nations which remain on the earth. Now quite distinct from this is the church’s calling – as we see in the verse above it is heavenly. The true Christian has a heavenly citizenship. Our blessed hope is the rapture of the church – this involves corruption putting on incorruption, or mortality putting on immortality. This event takes us to the Father’s house, which is not a place anywhere on this earth. We will sit in heavenly places as kings and priests unto His God and Father (Eph. 2:6, Rev. 1:6).
It is also clear from Scripture that the callings of God are eternal, irrevocable, and unchanging (Rom. 11:29). This must be true concerning both the church and Israel. And when we compare the two callings they are in great contrast to each other. This difference also is unchanging and eternal. How frustrating it is to witness both covenant theologians and dispensationalists drag the church back down to the earth and essentially give her an earthly calling similar to Israel’s. How foolish, how wrong, how harmful is this type of effort.
The callings of God are the sovereign choice of God. He chose Israel and distinguished them from all the other nations on the face of the earth (Deut. 4:37; 7:6-8). This was God’s doing and had nothing to do with them other than they happened to be the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since Abraham was the sovereign choice of God in calling and election, there was no great human attribute even in him we may claim as the reason for God’s choice. All was done by God, and this within Himself. Israel’s calling was earthly, as they would inherit the land, and be blessed and physically prosper in it (Deut. 4:38-40).
However, God chose the believer/church under slightly different circumstances. The choice was certainly in His sovereignty, as all He choices must be. But God’s election of the believer/church was before the foundations of the world (Eph. 1:4-6). Also it is specifically described as an election “in Christ.” These are two important differences that form a contrast and separation when we compare the two callings under question here. The biblical consequence of these distinctions is that the believer/church is not of the world as Christ is not of the world (John 15:9, 17:1-17). This simply isn’t true concerning Israel’s calling. They are part of the world and earth, and always will be (John 8:21-23). Now, is it any wonder that the believer’s/church’s calling is heavenly, if it is we are not of the world and earth? This is a third great difference of calling from that of Israel (Heb. 3:1).
If we go on in Scripture, the differences between the two callings have results which keep stacking up. Israel’s citizenship is of the Promised Land; the believer/church’s citizenship is of heaven (Phil. 3:20). Israel’s inheritance is the land; the believer’s inheritance will be in heaven (I Pet. 1:4). We are co-heirs with Christ Himself, who as the resurrected and glorified Man is the heir of God. As sons of God by faith in Christ, we are heirs of God just like Jesus is (Gal. 3:26; 4:5-7, Rom. 8:15-17, Eph. 1:11-14). The believer/church will enjoy the same inheritance that Jesus will be given; we are co-heirs with Him. The inheritance that will be given by God to Jesus and all the other sons of God with Him and in Him will be of all created things (Eph. 1:10, Phil. 1:15-17).
Israel’s blessings from God will be earthly and physical, and result in their prosperity and growth in the land. The believer’s blessings are all spiritual and in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3). Israel’s habitations and dwellings will be in the Promised Land; the true Christian’s eternal habitation and abode is in the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem. So on and on go the differing consequences of the two distinct callings. The character of Israel is earthly; everything about them is an association as part of the world. The character of the believer/church is heavenly; our character is not earthly or as part of this world; our place is in heaven itself.
If the callings of God are eternal, why would we be so bold as to introduce any teachings which do not maintain such a sound biblical understanding? Why have instruction which seems to change the believer’s true calling and character? Why hold teachings which diminish the distinction between Israel and the church just to appease our critics or to be politically correct? These are really Judaizing efforts. It is not a simple matter of a difference in interpretation, but rather a question of biblical truth and error. Why hold doctrines that inherently encourage us to lose sight of our true position and privileges “in Christ”? We are becoming the blind leading the blind. In a subtle round-about way, intentionally or not, we are denying the distinctiveness of the church’s true calling, and therefore denying the sovereign choice and work of God.
God makes a choice – are you going to undermine the reality and distinctiveness of His choices? As the Sovereign God He has every right to make choices as it pleases Him – according to the good pleasure of His will (Eph. 1:5, 9, 11). Will you rail against God because He can and does make His own choices exclusive of man (Rom. 9:11-14), and that these choices are the only things that end up being eternal? The calling of the church is quite distinct from that of Israel – as different as the heavens are from the earth. The church’s calling always will be distinct. But this was God’s choice, God’s good pleasure of will; it was God’s doing.
What would help the modern dispensationalist get back to his proper and sound roots? One important understanding is what we are talking about above – honoring the sovereign choices of God instead of doing away with them. When was the last time you heard a message on the heavenly calling of the church? Or a sermon on the believer’s heavenly citizenship? When was the last time you were taught that the rapture of the church is our blessed hope because it fulfills our heavenly calling? Who was the last minister who taught you about heavenly things or even knew what such things were (John 3:12)? Have we been taught how to seek things above? It begins with the knowledge of our calling (Heb. 3:1). Our destiny is to be like Jesus, conformed into His image, and to live in the Father’s house in the heavens (Rom. 8:29-30, John 14:1-3). Again, in their writings both Darby and Kelly do a great job of teaching the believer these heavenly truths. But today so many Christians do not know these things, and therefore do not believe them.
Most dispensationalists have an inadequate or mistaken understanding of the church’s heavenly calling. Their thoughts often are that the rapture takes the church to the heavens only for a temporary stay and that we return back to the earth to reign with Christ and live here at the beginning of the millennium. From this point many of them are confused as to whether the Christian believer is above or beneath Israel. As a consequence some dispensationalists teach that the believer/church gets the covenantal scraps discarded from Israel’s table of blessing (Matt. 15:26-27). This isn’t humility, but instead it is biblical ignorance. Our calling is heavenly. Our destiny is to be conformed into the image of God’s Son, and then all the sons together living and abiding forever with our Father, in the Father’s house. His house is not earthly and never is part of this world – it is the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. Even in the eternal state where there is the new heaven and earth, and the holy city is seen as coming down from God, it still never gains an earthly character (Rev. 21:1-8).
The misunderstandings of some of the large passages of scripture we find at the end of the book of Revelation (Rev. 19:11-22:5) continue to plague theologians, both covenant teachers and dispensationalists. In this article we don’t have time to address covenant theology’s misapprehensions stemming from their grand spiritualization of the future millennium (Rev. 20:1-10). But the contemporary dispensationalist’s insistence on a straight-line historical progression as the correct interpretation of this entire section of God’s word creates its own misunderstandings. I addressed these dispensational issues in a previous article (Blog Post #38 – Millennium or Eternal State…?). Prophetic passages are usually either historically progressive (follow in time the passages that precede them) or character descriptive (a simple depiction of the moral character of a prophetic object or subject). Revelation 21:9-22:5 is a new and separate vision for John from the passages that precede it. This passage is descriptive rather than being historical – it describes the heavenly place and function of the church as the tabernacle of God in blessing and grace coming down from God over the millennial earth. Because this passage and vision follows after a passage that describes the eternal state (Rev. 21:1-8), it is erroneously interpreted as being part of that state. But the passage is millennial, and it is a mistake to view it otherwise. This misconception helps the dispensationalist to weaken and eventually deny the heavenly calling of the church. Once our heavenly calling is diminished, then substituting an earthly calling and character for the church is the easy thing to do. However, this error has its harmful effects and consequences on all New Testament doctrines, giving them an earthliness and Jewishness the Spirit of God and scripture never sanctioned. Again, it is the writings of Darby and Kelly (Darby’s editor) that bring out these important points and understandings, and warn us of the deleterious effects the errors have on Christian doctrine.
Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). But faith only involves things unseen. The believer’s proper hopes from God are never seen in the present dispensation, and faith is the substance of all such hope (Heb. 11:1, Rom. 8:24-25). How important is the believer’s walk of faith before God? How can he walk by faith if he doesn’t see the things that are unseen? (II Cor. 4:18; 5:7) And are not heavenly things all unseen? Is the modern dispensationalist teaching us how to walk by faith? He isn’t when he emphasizes a Messianic kingdom for Israel as the only legitimate form of the kingdom of God. Any unbeliever can see that no such kingdom exists on the earth today. Therefore the dispensationalist will reason by sight and teach us that the kingdom of God has been postponed, that it doesn’t exist as yet. This walk by sight is taught only because he does not see with the eye of faith that which is unseen, and doesn’t walk by faith himself in these matters. The unequivocal testimony of the Spirit of God in New Testament scripture is that the kingdom of heaven was established on earth after Jesus was raised and glorified, and went back to heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the definite existing form of the kingdom of God in the present dispensation. Unfortunately, in walking by sight, looking instead for a Messianic kingdom, most of the modern dispensationalists have completely missed what God has established and the matters of faith which characterize the current dispensation. Imagine that! – A dispensationalist not recognizing the form and character of the present dispensation! This has become a major error in contemporary dispensational teaching.
If we want to understand the use of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” as it is unique to Matthew’s gospel, we must go back to Darby’s teachings during the mid-1800s. If we want to understand the importance of Matthew thirteen and the seven parables found there, six of which are similitudes of the kingdom of heaven, we will have to return to Darby. He and Kelly are the ones who show the importance of chapters eleven and twelve of Matthew, the rejection by Israel of their Messiah (Matt. 12:23-24), and in turn, His rejection of them (Matt. 11:20-24; 12:34-50). They show how all this leads to a new revelation of a new crop planted by God in the world (Matt. 13:3, 24), one that is different and distinct from the old vineyard of Israel (Isa. 5:1-7). They show how this new planting in Matthew thirteen is the beginning of the new dispensation and identify it as such – the Christian dispensation, or as Jesus says, the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:11). These men also clearly showed the dispensational character of Matthew’s gospel, and the proper relationship of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-7:29) with the new Christian dispensation. It is Darby and Kelley who make from New Testament scripture the all-important distinction between the corporate bodies of Christendom and the true church, the body of Christ – a point of great biblical value, yet something contemporary dispensationalists fail to properly distinguish today.
It seems that most of these understandings have been lost, and as a consequence what currently exists is an obscure and indistinct form of the dispensational system. Most contemporaries seem to define dispensationalism as the understanding that separates the existence of Israel from the existence of the church. But this is just one of the many proper conclusions or results of sound dispensational thinking, rather than being the inception of the entire system. No doubt it is an important understanding to apprehend, but how does it define the principles of a theological system? Any bible seeking and believing Christian, guided by the Spirit of God, would and should be able to come to the same conclusion without having any preconceived directions or instructions given to him by a theological system. Scripture is clear that Israel is different and distinct from the body of Christ. There has to be many, many believers who hold this truth without being adherents to any brand of theology. But if we examine classical dispensationalism we find that its characteristic principles are far more involved than the simple biblical distinction between Israel and the church.
The pattern and principles of a biblical dispensation looks something like this: there is a sovereign work of God that begins every dispensation; then there is responsibility given to a corporate group for testimony and care of the original work; then there is success or failure by this corporate group of their collective responsibility, and if failure, then decline from the original position set up by God; the dispensation then continues on only by the longsuffering and mercy of God in saving some; when the growing evil and corruption of the corporate body has exhausted the patience of God, He then brings in judgment to end the dispensation. This is what the classical dispensational system originally was through Darby and Kelly. These principles and understandings have all but disappeared in revised dispensationalism.
Darby and Kelly correctly taught the corruption and ruin of Christendom in the present dispensation, and that this ruin is the testimony of God in New Testament scripture. Darby is accused of teaching the ruin of the church, but a moderately attentive reading of his teachings will show he was always referring to the ruin of the “nominal church” or “the outward external body” – a.k.a. Christendom. In his later writings Darby used the term Christendom more frequently. Kelly used the term often. These men were too spiritually intelligent to ever teach that the true church, the body of Christ, could be ruined if God Himself was building it (Matt. 16:18, Eph. 1:22-23; 2:13-22). But back in the mid-1800s most Christians referred to Christendom as the church. It took time for Darby and Kelly to build the use of this important distinction in early dispensationalism – the difference between what God builds and what man builds. However, what man builds on the earth has failed (Christendom), and will eventually be subject to the judgment of God (I Cor. 3:9-17). Does not judgment start at the house of God? Peter is referring to the whole of Christendom (all that names the name of Jesus Christ) as the house of God.
Here are some important contrasts and understandings between the dispensations that were taught by Darby and Kelly, enhanced a little by this author:
1.) There are only three dispensations worth speaking of from Scripture: the Jewish dispensation, the Christian dispensation, and the future millennium, in that order. These three span the scriptures from Exodus one through the end of the book of Revelation (the exception to this categorization is the first eight verses of the 21st chapter of Revelation, which speak of the eternal state, which is not a dispensation of time). All dispensations have a similar pattern they follow (the general pattern described in bold type a few paragraphs above).
2.) The Jewish dispensation involved God’s dealings with the nation of Israel. This nation’s redemption out of Egypt was a mere change of location – a redemption in the flesh, which was external and outward. The sovereign work of God was displayed in beginning the dispensation – the right hand of God’s mighty power brings them out through the Red Sea on dry ground, destroying all their enemies. This establishes a defining characteristic of the Jewish people, one of many – when they are redeemed by God, it will always be through external conflict and tribulation. Israel is brought to Jehovah at Mt. Sinai on eagles wings (Ex. 19:4).
Israel was privileged by God as His chosen people; they had every advantage God could give fallen man, and this above and different from all other nations on the face of the earth (Deut. 7:6-24). Judaism was a walk by sight and senses, and a following after signs (I Cor. 1:22). Israel’s special portion from God was always to be physically blessed and prospering in this world. If the Jews were responsible in obeying Jehovah, obeying the covenant they made with Him at Mt. Sinai, they would have been exalted above every nation on the earth (Deut. 28:1-14). The promise to them was that they would be the greatest nation and that the order and government of the world would be centered on them (Deut. 32:8-9). The Gentile nations would be serving them, and were to find their blessing though Israel. The Jews were given an earthly calling and destiny by God, and they were to inherit the Promised Land.
The question we must ask is whether the promises God made to the forefathers of Israel – to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – were these promises ever fulfilled to Israel during the Jewish dispensation? Before we answer this, let us look at God’s perfect intentions (God’s counsels) concerning Israel, spoken by Jehovah about Israel while they were still in captivity and slavery in Egypt;
Exodus 6:1-8 (NKJV)
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh. For with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.”
And God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them. I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the Lord.’”
These promises were never fulfilled during the Jewish dispensation; the covenant God made with the forefathers of Israel has yet to be fulfilled. I do not doubt that someday in the future they will be fulfilled by God on Israel’s behalf, for God can be no less than a faithful God, and He will perfectly do everything He has promised. Yet from the above passage in Exodus we can see that it was God’s intention to do so during the Jewish dispensation when we find Israel still in servitude in Egypt. What happened? What is the explanation? Why couldn’t these things be sustained the first time Israel was redeemed? Jehovah did say, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God.” So how are we to understand the failure? And what were its real reasons?
If you want to understand dispensationalism as a theological system, and understand specifically the Jewish dispensation, then you must first comprehend how God proved the utter depravity of man in Adam. It is the key understanding of the entire Old Testament. Further, it explains all of Messiah’s dealings with Israel in the gospels, up to the cross and His death. The understanding explains God’s purpose in giving the law of Moses to the Jews, which was their covenant and religion. This understanding is critical to sound theological thinking because it explains so much.
Here is the understanding as God has given me ability and words to describe it. When Adam was chased out of paradise man’s state and condition was that he was fallen and a sinner. From that time until the cross of Christ God had placed man on probation; God had yet to declare man condemned and lost. While on probation man would be tested by God as to the principle of creature responsibility – every creature who is conscious of having a relationship with the Creator is responsible to obey the will of the Creator. This principle was first tested by God when Adam was still in the state of innocence. He disobeyed and the entire human race in Adam fell into sin. God further tested man in Adam as a sinner. This He did in three different ways – man without the law, man with the law, and the coming of God Himself into the world by the promise of Messiah to Israel. The last two of these testings of creature responsibility involved the nation of Israel and the entire time of the Jewish dispensation – therefore Israel served as a test-case representing all mankind. The entire time of the Jewish dispensation involved the last two ways God tested man in Adam when he was still on probation. Israel failed miserably under these two separate testings, even though they were the most privileged people with the greatest advantages God could give to fallen man. Before the cross God condemns mankind (John 12:31) and declares him lost. The testing and the probationary period were over – man in Adam was proven utterly depraved by God.
Could man in Adam be responsible to God and have a relationship with Him? The answer is an emphatic no. This is the key understanding concerning the Jewish dispensation. Israel’s responsibility was tested by God in two specific ways: first was their obedience to the law; second was whether they would receive their Messiah when God would send Him. Israel failed under both testings, and man in Adam was judged as lost and utterly depraved. In the first they built a golden calf and failed before the law made it down the mountain and into the camp. In the second they failed by rejecting their Messiah and putting God’s Son to death on the cross. The first failure lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians. The second failure lead to the Romans doing the same in 70 AD. Because Judaism is a walk by sight and Israel’s redemption was only in the flesh, it is much easier to see the dispensational principles, responsibility failures, and judgments from God involved in the Jewish dispensation. Realizing God’s purpose in testing mankind’s responsibility through Israel in this way and how He proved man in Adam’s depravity, is the only way to properly understand the Jewish dispensation. But is the modern dispensationalist teaching this? Also realizing man has been given responsibility to care for and testify of the work of God beginning the dispensation, is a hallmark of proper dispensational thinking. Is this being taught today? These dispensational characteristics are so readily observable in the Jewish dispensation.
3.) The Christian dispensation is characterized by the profession of faith. This makes everything different from the Jewish dispensation, except for the general pattern that every dispensation follows. The true believer sees what is unseen with the eye of faith; the Christian is to walk by faith (II Cor. 4:18; 5:7). Judaism is a worldly religion and a walk by sight, and this characterized the Jewish dispensation. But the matters of faith, the mysteries of faith, characterize the kingdom of heaven – the Christian dispensation (Matt. 13:11). All Christian hopes are unseen and beyond this world and beyond the time of the dispensation (Rom. 8:23-25; 5:1-2, Eph 1:18, Heb. 6:17-20). Our portion presently is to suffer with Christ (Rom. 8:17-18), to patiently wait with Christ as He waits (Rev. 3:10), and to be a light while persevering in the wilderness of this world; this is so that after the Christian dispensation we will be glorified with Him. During this dispensation the believer caries a cross as Jesus did and is rejected by the world as He was (Mark 8:34-35, Luke 14:27, John 12:24-26; 15:18). While Jesus now sits at the right hand of God and waits (Heb. 10:12-14), the believer carries a cross in humiliation, and suffers in this world.
What also characterizes the Christian dispensation is the biblical truth that Jesus is presently sitting at the right hand of God (Heb. 1:3; 10:12). Where the glorified Son of Man is today (the physical location of being in the heavens) completely determines the character of the believer’s relationship with God – a heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1); a heavenly citizenship; a heavenly destiny and abode (John 14:1-3); the church is a heavenly body in union with its Head in heaven (Eph. 1:22-23). The true Christian will sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (the place of the Father’s kingdom and government over the millennial earth – Eph. 2:6, Matt. 13:43) and be blessed there with every spiritual blessing that God desires to provide (Eph. 1:3; 2:7). Now again, all these truths are matters of faith – promises of things unseen during the present dispensation. These are hopes unique to Christians, yet they only will be fully fulfilled beyond the dispensation.
Christ is hidden in God now, hidden from the world and all those in unbelief (including the Jews). Jesus was rejected by the world – therefore He is hidden from the world during the Christian dispensation (Col. 3:1-3) – this is also dispensationally characteristic. Consequent to His resurrection from the dead He was given all authority and power in heaven and earth (Matt.28:18). But at the present time He does not take up His power to reign over the earth. He sits at the right hand of His Father’s throne, and patiently waits. For what we might ask? Until it is time when His Father will say, “Get up from My right hand, take up your great power and reign over your enemies on the earth.” We know that this will not be until the beginning of the next dispensation. So what characterizes the present Christian dispensation? It is Christ rejected by the world, but patiently waiting for the time when He will rule over the world; He is not presently using His authority and power. Satan continues on in the heavens as the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:7-12). He is the god of this world and the leader of spiritual wickedness in the heavenlies (II Cor. 4:4, Eph 6:11-12). In the heavens Jesus is the High Priest for the church (Heb. 7:25-26), while Satan is there as the anti-priest against the church. Christ is hidden in God. Jesus is the believer’s life and so we look with the eye of faith at things above in the heavens where He is; we are to look at heavenly things. The believer is hidden in God with Him (Col. 3:1-3). These understandings also characterize the Christian dispensation.
4.) The future millennium is characterized by “every eye will see.” (Rev. 1:7) The dispensation for the world, involving the correction, judgment, and setting right by God of everything associated with the world and earth, will be a walk by sight. The law of God will be written in the minds and hearts of a saved Jewish remnant (Heb. 8:10-11, Jer. 31:31-34). They will be the source of the restored nation of Israel inheriting the Promised Land. They will obey God’s law and be greatly blessed (Deut. 28:1-14). They will grow and prosper physically, becoming the greatest nation on the millennial earth. The Son of Man will rule the nations with a rod of iron, making judgments in righteousness according to God’s law. His throne will be in Jerusalem and Israel will be the center of His government over the millennial earth. In the future millennium the believer/church will be found with Christ in glory (Col. 3:4), and we will reign with Him over the earth. Our place and abode will be in the heavens, the New Jerusalem, the Father’s house. The church’s place is not in the Son of Man’s kingdom on the earth, but in the Father’s kingdom in the heavens, where all the Father’s sons will shine in glory as the sun (Matt. 13:43).
One last general point needs to be made about the current teaching in contemporary dispensationalism – it concerns the plain or literal hermeneutic which guides their teaching and governs their theological system. Hermeneutics are the principles by which one is guided in interpreting scripture. It is obvious that certain methods in certain cases are better than others, and this may be true in looking at a majority of scripture passages. Unfortunately, it isn’t true for all scripture. This is the first shortcoming – there does not exist a method of interpretation that can always, unerringly, give the believer the divine meaning and understanding of all passages of scripture. The simple truth is that all hermeneutical systems are the product of human wisdom – please realize this and admit it as true. You cannot find a hermeneutical system outlined or described by the Spirit of God anywhere in Scripture. They all are the creation of the human mind.
How is the believer to understand Scripture and arrive at the correct meaning of any bible verse or passage? The means by which we comprehend is emphatically answered in the word of God, but it is not through an outlined hermeneutical system. The means is the Holy Spirit as our teacher and the word of God as the material to be understood. Divine teaching and divine truth only come from a divine being, and the material having a divine source (please read I Cor. 1:18-31; 2:1-16). I understand all scripture by the teaching of the Spirit of God:
I Cor. 2:7-16 (NKJV)
“But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory…But it is written; “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him…But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received…the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual…he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one…we have the mind of Christ.”
No man by human wisdom and intelligence can know the things of God. Only the Spirit of God knows the things of God. Therefore the Spirit of God must be our teacher, and the word of God our subject or source. The above passage says God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. The things of God are not made known to us through a humanly-designed hermeneutical system. The meaning of scripture is not discovered through human wisdom and intelligence. No one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.
The natural man does not comprehend the things of God because he has not been given the Holy Spirit – this includes all Jews and Gentiles. It is the true Christian believer who has been sealed by and possesses the Spirit of God (Eph. 1:13, I Cor. 6:19 – the possession of the Holy Spirit by the believer is itself a paramount and defining characteristic of the Christian dispensation). And as the passage above declares, now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God (I Cor. 2:12). And for what purpose? The above passage answers this – that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.
The apostle John tells us that the believer has an unction from the Holy One, and he knows all things (I John 2:20). This unction is the Holy Spirit teaching us. In the passage above Paul makes the distinction between the natural man and the spiritual man. The natural man is referring to any and all unbelievers in the first Adam; the spiritual man is the believer born of God (John 1:12-13), born of the Spirit (John 3:6-8), residing “in Christ” the second Adam. The biblical definitions of the two words used here are more absolute than how we might commonly use these terms to describe an impression we might have of one person being more spiritual than another. The bottom line is that only Christian believers have the Holy Spirit, who is essential for teaching them the true meaning of any passage of scripture. So Paul can say similar to what John said; “…he who is spiritual judges all things…” All this is finally why Paul can say, but we have the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:16) – this mind would be all God’s counsels in Christ (Eph. 1:9-11), and certainly includes from the passage above the hidden wisdom which God ordained for our glory (I Cor. 2:7), and the knowledge of the things that have been freely given to us by God (I Cor. 2:12). The following passage from John seems to sum up these thoughts;
John 16:13-15 (NKJV)
“However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.”
All things that the Father has, now have been given unto Christ and belong to Him (given to Him now as the glorified Man in the heavens). It is the Holy Spirit who makes known to the believer all that belongs to Christ. The Spirit takes what is Christ’s and reveals it to us. Pretty special privilege this is stemming from the Christian’s relationship with God through Christ.
However, the truth taught by the Spirit of God is not human wisdom and intelligence – I would classify it as the wisdom of God, the thoughts of God, and divine instruction. The guidance the Holy Spirit gives is not through a particular hermeneutical system. If it was a system of interpretation by which divine truth is revealed to us, we would find this described in scripture – but we don’t find that. What we find is all the passages above about the Holy Spirit, and many more I could bring out to confirm this important point. The Holy Spirit is the teacher; He is the revealer of divine truth; it is the Spirit of God who makes known the thoughts of God; and His teaching cannot be reduced to human wisdom or a human system of interpretation.
Certainly the word of God clearly teaches this point. So why have Christian leaders resorted to something different? Is it not because we have grown so unfamiliar with the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit? As previously said, His presence is one of the major characteristics of the present Christian dispensation. Yet because we can’t bottle up the Holy Spirit and place His divine guidance under close scrutiny, and because we have so many issues with knowing how to actually walk by faith, we default back to human methods and systems – these things we have tested, we can see and understand them with our eyes and don’t have to make discovering and understanding truth a matter of faith. We are comforted in having a settled system of interpretation which we have reasoned out with our minds. A divine teacher we cannot see. The Holy Spirit may have methods that are not necessarily our own or according to our standards, and this only makes us revert to the things that we have devised and we can control.
The word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). Hermeneutical systems never include the Holy Spirit as the only teacher of the believer. All hermeneutical systems will eventually teach you to do without the Spirit of God, and rely on human scholarship and intellect alone. In the place of the Spirit, these systems substitute the natural mind, and human wisdom for the ability, power, leading, and discernment of the Holy Spirit.
If a divine being like the Holy Spirit is to teach divine things such as the things of God, then the use of a humanly devised hermeneutic that can’t be found anywhere in Scripture surely isn’t the means. I’m not against literal interpretation. It’s just that stringently following it does not always lead to receiving divine teaching from the Spirit of God. It may be the best place to start, but in all reality the Holy Spirit is our hermeneutic. Dictionaries and concordances of Greek and Hebrew words are still books written by men. If you have one written by the Holy Spirit, then you would have something special. It will always be the word of God taught by the Holy Spirit, and this is enough for the spiritual man. Other resources may have a place. But often, I am sure, the dependence on them (as they are the works of men) grows to the point where the guidance of the Holy Spirit is abandoned and divine understanding and instruction is lost.
Dispensationalism’s literal hermeneutic handcuffs its modern teachers and theologians, forcing them down paths of enquiry that only end in error. I have previously written many articles showing different misunderstandings in contemporary dispensational teachings. Here I can only site a few examples that are obvious, starting with the interpretation of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven”. This phrase is only found in Matthew’s gospel, there some 33 times. If it is only found in Matthew and nowhere else in all Scripture, shouldn’t we reasonably think the Holy Spirit had something special in mind for this phrase and for the gospel of Matthew? But literalness fails to reveal the Spirit of God’s special use of this phrase and the special character given to Matthew’s gospel. Let us look at how the literal hermeneutic of modern dispensationalism handles this phrase.
The word “kingdom” is taken literally, but the thought most interpreters have is an outward, external, geo-political, earthly kingdom. Naturally their thoughts turn to a Messianic kingdom, as this is what is promised by God for Israel throughout the prophets and Old Testament prophecies. It is this presumption that leads to a multitude of errors. They reason that Jesus is the one speaking in Matthew’s gospel and He is the only one using this phrase, and He is the Messiah sent to Israel, so naturally, if He is speaking of the kingdom of God, He must be referring to a Messianic kingdom presentation. So then it is assumed that every time Jesus uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven’’ He has to be speaking of a Messianic kingdom that He is offering to Israel as their Messiah, and simply mimicking the same things that the Old Testament prophets revealed about the coming kingdom of God (Isa. 9:6-7, Luke 1:32-33). So goes their reasoning.
Have they ever asked the question whether kingdom understandings might change with the ending of one dispensation and the beginning of another – when the Jewish dispensation ended and the Christian dispensation began? A Messianic form of the kingdom of God is only associated with the Jews and the nation of Israel, and we would have to reason, associated with times when God acknowledges or recognizes Israel as His people and He as being their God. Now when would these times be? The only plausible answer to this is during the Jewish dispensation (Ex. 6:7, Jer. 7:21-28) and then, during the future millennial dispensation (Jer. 30:1-22, 31:1-34, 32:37-41; Ez. 11:16-20, 34:22-31, 36:16-3; Heb. 8:6-10). But aren’t there times when the Jews are not so acknowledged by God? – (Hos. 1:9)
The present time is the Christian dispensation and not the Jewish one. Israel has been set aside by God for close to two thousand years as a wicked, evil, and unbelieving generation (Matt. 12:39, 45). And here again the dispensationalist’s literal hermeneutic improperly forces a meaning for the word “generation” which doesn’t agree with how the Holy Spirit is using it. Literally they think of 30-40 years of time, while the Spirit means a continuing moral condition – one that will last for the nation from Christ’s first coming as Messiah until His second appearing to them (Matt. 23:37-39; 24:34). But my point is that with the change of dispensation God instituted, He would also institute a change in the form and appearance of the kingdom of God – a change in the kingdom that would better suit the character of Christianity and Christendom and the Christian dispensation, rather than a Messianic kingdom which suits Judaism and Israel and a future dispensation.
There is no doubt that any thought of a Messianic kingdom was set aside by God when His Son was rejected by Israel (Matt. 21:42-44). But it is foolish to teach there is no kingdom of God today in the world. The kingdom of heaven exists today as the development of Christendom and Christianity in the world – this encompasses all that professes faith in Jesus Christ, all that comes under His name regardless of denomination or form. Rather than Judaism, it is Christianity that is acknowledged by God; instead of the Jews and Israel, it is Christendom that is the corporate body God recognizes during the present dispensation. This represents the external form of the kingdom of heaven anyone may see with their eyes. But there are other special understandings about this present form which are not obvious to our physical senses.
Then what are these special understandings of the present form of the kingdom of heaven? They are all the “mysteries” involved in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:11). And here in Matthew thirteen the Holy Spirit’s use of the word “mystery” is broader than the usual definition given it by dispensationalists using their literal hermeneutic. The Spirit’s use of it here is more than just something that God kept from revealing to and through the Old Testament prophets – the common biblical definition used. This definition is adequate for how Paul uses the word in Ephesians 3:1-11 and Col. 1:24-27, but not for his use of it in II Thess. 2:7 – the “mystery” of lawlessness is something that cannot be seen or touched, that is unknown and hidden to the physical senses, yet exists as evil character and influence growing and ripening to its full display and end. So the use of the word in II Thessalonians has little to do with God hiding revelation from ages past, but refers instead to something not easily perceived with the physical senses. The word’s use by the Spirit in Matthew thirteen (Matt. 13:11) encompasses both these thoughts. Christendom, Christianity, a Christian dispensation, and the body of Christ, the true church, were all things hidden by God from the prophets of old and from ages past. But also there are many things associated with “the kingdom of heaven” that are unseen and unknown by the physical senses – all the matters of faith and walking by faith involve seeing things which are unseen, yet the true believer seeing them by the eye of faith (Heb. 11:1, II Cor. 4:18, 5:7). The mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, which God intends to reveal only to Christians, are both things hidden from the prophets and things hidden from a walk by sight. However, the dispensationalist’s literal hermeneutic has a hard time allowing the Holy Spirit to use two different meanings for the same word.
What does the literal hermeneutic do for the word “heaven” in the phrase “the kingdom of heaven”? This is where things really become odd among the dispensationalists. Literally “heaven” would mean heaven – the place above in the heavens, and not of the earth, where God resides and angels, and the souls of Old Testament saints as well as departed believers “in Christ”. Literally it is a physical location. So then, “the kingdom of heaven”, in using the literal hermeneutic, should mean a kingdom in heaven and located there. Why then do most dispensationalists bend and manipulate this phrase to mean a kingdom on the earth and in this world? They do so only by arbitrarily ignoring their own hermeneutic. All of a sudden they cannot tolerate a literal meaning for the word “heaven”. They often insist that the phrase has to refer to nothing other than a Messianic kingdom in Israel, because this external, religious, geo-political kingdom of God is the only form of a kingdom we are taught by the prophets to anticipate. But what about things hidden from the prophets by God? Are we forgetting this? And how can a kingdom of heaven be a kingdom of the earth?
Most modern dispensationalists adhere to a spiritualized meaning for this phrase: They teach “the kingdom of heaven” is the expected earthly kingdom of Messiah and Israel, just with a heavenly character associated with it. Dr. Alva McClain, regarded by many dispensationalists as a stalwart of kingdom theology teaching, in his book, The Greatness of the Kingdom, makes this critical mistake. Dr. McClain also believed that everything Jesus and the disciples taught about the kingdom of God was the same and in line with what the Old Testament prophets spoke. But they were Jewish prophets who only spoke of a Messianic kingdom for Israel – they only prophesied of what God was willing to reveal at the time. This spiritualized meaning of the phrase cannot account for many New Testament passages. Jesus said He was not of this world; He also said believers are not of this world (John 17:14-16). He went on to say before Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). If He was referring to the kingdom of heaven and it was not of this world, then I am confident in saying there is an existing kingdom, and it is likely to be in a form unseen to the physical senses. Now, what would be needed to see and enter into an unseen kingdom? Jesus gives the answer to this in John 3:1-8 – being born-again. This is the work of God, His agent is the Holy Spirit, and the birth is unseen (John 3:8). Everything in the Christian dispensation involving God’s truth and true work are matters of faith involving things unseen. And true Christians are presently in a kingdom that is not of this world.
But you say the church is in this world and on this earth, and so it should be reasonable for the dispensationalist to interpret the kingdom of heaven as being earthly. But I say why don’t we see the church as the heavenly body God has destined it to be? Its calling, its citizenship, etc.? Wouldn’t it be better to make the connections in our understanding that if the present form is labeled “the kingdom of heaven” it is related to the biblical truth that a heavenly body is being presently gathered for the purpose of being physically united to its Head in the heavens? Jesus Christ is this body’s Head, to which it is brought in union with by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:12-13). The body’s Head is in heaven were He has gone as the forerunner (Heb. 6:19-20). We make the connections and the reasonableness as to why the present form of the kingdom of God is so labeled, “the kingdom of heaven.” And we soon realize in this present dispensation the phrase has nothing to do with an earthly Messianic kingdom for the Jews.
It should be clear to all teachers and theologians, and especially dispensationalists, that God kept hidden from the prophets and from ages past certain mysteries of His purposes and will, only to reveal them through and after the Holy Spirit was sent down at Pentecost (Eph. 3:3-5).
“having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together into one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth – in Him. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.”
The Holy Spirit revealed the mystery of God’s will – what does this involve? What we may not realize is that the mystery is more than just the body of Christ, the church. Yes, the body of Christ is made to be part of the mystery of God when the apostle discusses this subject in Ephesians 3: 1-11 – but is this the sum total of the mystery? In the passage above the mystery of God’s will made known to us includes an inheritance of all created things to be given to Jesus Christ as Heir – heavenly things being distinguished from earthly things with Christ being the center of all. What was also mystery is that others, consequent to trusting in Christ through the gospel, regardless of being Jew or Gentile, near or far from God, are brought in as co-heirs with Christ of this same inheritance. In Colossians one the church is again referred to as the mystery (Col. 1:24-26), yet also the redemptive truth of Christ dwelling in us, our hope of glory (Col. 1:27). So we see that the mystery of God cannot be confined to simply the body of Christ – it would include everything that was hidden by God from the prophets.
Dispensationalists have completely lost sight of the important understanding that Christianity as a religion and Christendom as a corporate body are part of what God kept hidden from the prophets and ages past. Christianity replaced Judaism and Christendom replaced Israel as integral parts of the Christian dispensation. And because of this, wouldn’t the Christian dispensation itself be considered part of the mystery? When did the prophets prophesy of the coming Christian dispensation? They didn’t; they skipped over it; it was a parenthesis, a hidden mystery. And the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” strictly refers to these things – Christianity, Christendom, and the Christian dispensation. At the same time it excludes the other – Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish dispensation. The Holy Spirit never uses the phrase differently from what has been outlined above.
Quickly, here is another example: The literal hermeneutic of dispensationalism would never easily recognize the prophetic allegorical structure of the judgments of Christendom in its progressive history depicted in the first three chapters of the book of Revelation. The candlesticks or lampstands represent the corporate responsibility of Christendom as it progresses in time through the Christian dispensation (Rev. 1: 10-16; 2:5) – candlesticks is one of the many allegories found in these three chapters. The literal hermeneutic cannot possibly reveal what the Holy Spirit alone can teach, and would be steering you in the wrong direction. Literally you have seven different first-century Asian churches in various conditions and circumstances. But literalness can never give the believer an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22); it doesn’t give you the prophetic meaning and understanding of the seven messages. And when you realize the prophetic character of Matthew thirteen you will see that it is not a coincidence that a similar phrase to this is used there by the Lord (Matt. 13:9).