Part 6: The Hidden Church
by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com
As you may discern from my cleverly repeating the descriptor “Part 6” in both the title and sub-title of this blog, this is Part 6 of a series. I carefully numbered these for the benefit of you the reader. I never even contemplated inserting a mysterious gap in the series, thereby leaping from Part 5 to Part 7. Nor after the last installment will I again revert to an early number (as when dispensationalists re-institute old covenant-like features). For those of you who may have suspected that I am a closet dispensationalist this is strong evidence against such a notion: No dispensational enthusiast can resist imposing gaps in their theology. In fact, gaps are necessary in their exegesis of the biblical record to make their system look like it is working properly.
But of what is this Part 6? By parity of reasoning, one should surmise that Part 6 implies preceding parts that lead step-by-step to this one. Perhaps you are one of the people who have not been reading this blog (there are 6.7 billion of you). If so, read the next paragraph. If not, read it anyway: you do not want to impose a gap in your reading.
So then, of what is this a part? I have been presenting a series that provides a one-stop-shopping refutation of dispensationalism by focusing on Ephesians. Like the evangelistic tool known as “The Romans Road to Salvation” (which presents the gospel wholly from within Romans), I have been presenting “The Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism” which shows from this one letter of Paul several debilitating, crippling, incapacitating, enervating, disabling, and down-right fatal errors within dispensationalism. After carefully reading Ephesians you may adopt dispensationalism for fun and profit, to be sure. But you can never adopt it as a result of biblical exegesis: it is flatly mistaken and fundamentally confused. Dispensationalism is truly a non-prophet organization.
This will be our final presentation from Ephesians. Paul’s practice is generally to lay down doctrinal statements first, then apply those to the lives of his audience. Thus, in Ephesians he lays down his doctrine in chapters 1–3. Then at Ephesians 4:1 he begins by an important “therefore” statement to make practical application of those doctrines: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”
Dispensationalism’s Mysterious Position
As we saw in a previous blog, in dispensationalism the Church of Jesus Christ is a secondary, temporary plan of God, a Plan B. God’s first (Old Testament era), final (millennial era), and most important plan regards Israel, not the Church. What is more, not only is the Church secondary in dispensationalism, but it is deemed wholly unknown and unrevealed in the Old Testament. Dispensationalism does not stop at simply making errors: they make errors and then exaggerate them.
Interestingly, one of the key passages that dispensationalism uses to prove that the Church was not prophesied in the Old Testament is Ephesians 3:3–6. Let us see how this is so, then respond.
Dispensationalism’s color-coded and multi-charted presentation with its Jehovah’s Witness-like graphics study Bible is known as the Prophecy Study Bible (2001; hereinafter PSB). At Ephesians 3:3–6 it defines Paul’s mystery:
“A mystery or hidden secret in the biblical sense was something in the mind and plan of God but unknown to mankind until it was revealed in the New Testament. Here the mystery is not merely that Gentiles would be blessed . . , which was predicted and well known. The mystery, not known in Old Testament times, was that believing Jews and believing Gentiles would be united as fellow heirs within the same body, to be sharers of God’s promise in Christ through the gospel” (PSB 1388).
Indeed, PSB (1338) explains that “the word ‘mystery’ is often used to describe a New Testament truth not revealed in the Old Testament (Eph. 3:3–5, 9; Col. 1:26–27).” The “prophecy of Christ’s Church is carefully defined by the apostle Paul as a ‘mystery, which from the beginning of the of the ages [i.e., eternity past] has been hidden in God’ (Eph. 3:9). . . . The Church itself was a mystery hidden in God until the revelation in the New Testament” (PSB 1286). In fact, of this mystery in Ephesians 3:3–4, 9 the PSB (1402) explains: “Unknown to Israel before Christ, the revelation of this truth was given to Paul and is being fulfilled in the Church Age.”
And it is not just this populist, cartoonish “study” Bible that argues thus. In the Popular Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (2004:54) we read: “The New Testament teaches that the church was an unrevealed mystery in the Old Testament (Romans 16:25–26; Ephesians 3:2–10; Colossians 1:25–27).”
Even the famed Charles Ryrie in his Dispensationalism (1995:124) agrees: “The Old Testament does predict Gentile blessing for the millennial period . . , but the specific blessings do not include equality with the Jews as is true today in the Body of Christ.”
Elsewhere Paul Benware in his Understanding End Times Prophecy (1995:86) writes:
“The church and Israel are not the same because the Body of Christ is said to be a ‘mystery’ by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 3:3–6 and Colossians 1:26. In the New Testament a ‘mystery’ is a truth that was not revealed previously in the Old Testament. . . . This mystery was known only to God until He chose to reveal it to the apostles.”
But does Ephesians present the Church as a mystery “unknown until it was revealed in the New Testament”? Was it “not known in Old Testament times”? Was it really “unknown to Israel before Christ”? Did the Old Testament revelation not “include equality with the Jews” in its prophecies? Was this truth “not revealed previously in the Old Testament”?
Dispensationalism’s Manifest Error
Paul will have nothing of this. His words in Ephesians 3 are being distorted so greatly that they are made to state the very opposite of what he intended. Let us see how this is so. Let us see how this Ephesians road leads t he thinking Christian out of dispensationalism.
Paul’s full statement in Ephesians 3:1–10 reads as follows:
“For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles — if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you; that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God's grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.”
Paul certainly states that “by revelation there was made known to me the mystery.” We are clearly dealing with a biblical mystery, and one that was especially revealed to Paul. But notice what he actually says:
1. The “sons of men.” Paul states that “in other generations [it] was not made known to the sons of men” (Eph 3:5a). By “sons of men [Gk.: huiois ton anthropon]” Paul is referring broadly to all men, especially those outside of Israel, the Gentiles. He uses the phrase that often appears in the Old Testament to refer to men generically, the wider human race.
David uses this phrase in Psalm 14:2 in speaking of the fool who says there is no God and who works wickedness in order to “eat up my people” (Psa 14:4). We see this generic usage also in Psalm 21:10; 31:19; etc. Indeed, the psalmist declares that “the Lord looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men” (Psa 33:19; cp. 53:2; Jer 32:19). Even when he uses the term inclusively as including Israel, it is because Israel is a part of the whole human race. Ecclesiastes frequently employs the phrase generically (Eccl 1:13; 2:3; 3:10, 18–19; 8:11; 9:3, 12). Daniel 2:38 agrees.
Thus, Paul is teaching that the human race outside of Israel as such did not know the blessings God had in store for them. Paul has been commissioned to take this news to them: “of which I was made a minister’ according to the gift of God’s grace” (Eph 3:7). We must remember that he was appointed as the Apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 1:5; 11:13; Gal 2:8; Eph 3:5–6; 1 Tim 2:7).
2. “As it has now been revealed.” Paul continues by adding: “as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph 3:5b). The word “as” (hos) is a comparative. That is, this revelation was not revealed during the Old Testament era to the greater degree as it is now revealed in the New Testament. He is comparing the revelation of the mystery in the Old Testament to its fuller revelation in the New Testament. Thus, the earlier revelation was not to the same degree as that which “has now been revealed to his Holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit.” We must not overlook the comparative.
3. Paul’s statement elsewhere. In fact, we know he is speaking comparatively, not only because of he uses the word hos, but because of what he states at the end of Romans. In Romans 16:25–27 we read:
“Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.”
Note that in this passage he clearly declares that this mystery “now is manifested,” but then immediately adds: “and by the Scriptures of the prophets.” Here he speaks of the Old Testament Scripture for he opens Romans by a similar expression. At Romans 1:2 he speaks of the promise “beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:2), which definitely refers to the Old Testament Scriptures. Indeed, all through Romans he refers to the Old Testament as “the Scripture[s]” (Rom 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 11:2; 15:4), just as he does elsewhere (1 Cor 15:3–4; Gal 3:8, 22; 4:30; 1 Tim 5:18).
Thus, this “mystery” is a revelation of God that cannot be accessed by man’s unaided wisdom. But it appeared before in the Old Testament Scriptures, though it is now made more central and clear in the New Testament. In fact, Paul even adds in Romans 16:26b that this “has been made known to all the nations.” So then, this mystery is no longer confined to Israel in her covenantal Scriptures, but is now being proclaimed to all the nations.
I am now concluding this brief series. Though in my next blog I will bring together all of these thoughts into a brief tract that you might useful for giving to your dispensational friends. I will leave out the tongue-in-cheek humor so as to make the study more useful in your theological evangelism.
As a master builder Paul lays down several nice pavement stones for his Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism. In Ephesians we do not discover a stray, unclear statement that might conflict with dispensationalism. We find one statement after another in the doctrinal portion of Ephesians that clearly and overtly contradicts several of dispensationalism’s main tenants. We have in Ephesians Paul’s six-fold witness against this wide-spread, confusing doctrinal construct.