Part 3: Separating What God Has Joined Together
by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com
Don’t you think the British have a funny way of pronouncing “aluminum”? I only mention this because an important key to good writing is opening with an effective “hook” to grab your reader’s attention. Now that I have your attention please go to the next paragraph.
This is my third installment in my series titled “The Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism.” (Now you can see why I didn’t want to open with this rather boring sentence. No zest whatsoever. In fact, it wearies me to think about it.) In my mission work among the dispensationalists I have found that Ephesians is a helpful epistle for exposing several of their leading theological errors — and in a compressed, self-contained format. It is almost as if Paul wrote it as a tract to reach out to them as he ministered among the Jews in the synagogues (for that is precisely where you would find the dispensationalists gathering to learn more about their old covenant future in the millennium where they will be the Jews’ servants).
Irony in the Theology of Ephesians
It is ironic that Ephesians would be so helpful for summarily critiquing dispensationalism. After all, the word “dispensation” occurs only four times in the Bible (in the King James Version) and two of them are in Ephesians (Eph 1:10; 3:2). That the word also appears in Colossians 1:25 is expected since it is known as the “twin epistle” of Ephesians because it covers much of the same material and in the same general order. Colossians is as similar to Ephesians as Jude is to 2 Peter. And it as similar to Ephesians as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth is to all other dispensational books.
Nor should we be surprised to find the word “dispensation” in 1 Corinthians 9:17. After all, that church suffers a great number of debilitating problems. Indeed, the word “ignorant” occurs in the Corinthian corpus more than in any other epistles sent to one community: 1 Cor 10:1; 12:1; 14:38; 2 Cor 1:8; 2:11 (KJV).
The irony of Ephesians being a contra-dispensational missive is intensified when we note another startling fact. In the NASB version exactly twenty-five verses in Ephesians contain words that start with the exact same letter as does the word “rapture”: redemption (1:7, 14; 4:30); riches (1:7; 3:8, 15), reason (1:15; 3:1, 14; 5:14), revelation, reveal, or revealed (1:17; 3:3, 5), riches or rich (1:17; 2:4, 7), raised (1:20; 2:6), right (1:20), rule (1:21), rest (2:3), result (2:9; 4:14), remember (2:11, 12), reconcile (2:16), referring (3:4), read (3:4), rulers (3:10; 6:12), rooted (3:16), reference (4:22; 5:32), renewed (4:23), righteousness (4:24; 5:9; 6:14), rather (as an adverb, not as the family name of the former CBS news anchor, 4:28; 5:4), respect (5:33), render (6:7), receive (6:8), and resist (6:13).
This indisputable phenomenon can be no more an “accident” of translation history than the fact that the seven churches of Revelation outline church history with dates involving precise increments of tens. According to the Scofield Reference Bible each age of the church both starts and ends with dates that are perfectly divisible by ten. Furthermore, that exactly twenty-five words would start with “r” in an English translation cannot be an accident. As everyone knows, twenty-five is the sum of two twelves (the number of the tribes of Israel), with a one thrown in just for fun.
Getting Our Bearings
In my two preceding installments I noted that: (1) Christ is currently enthroned as Messianic king (Eph 1:20-23). He is not awaiting a postponed kingdom opportunity as per dispensationalism. (2) We are currently ruling and reigning with him (Eph 2:6). We are not awaiting a postponed kingdom of priests as per dispensationalism. These are debilitating observations for dispensationalism which is rigorously premillennial, expecting Christ’s future kingdom and our future reigning with him.
In this article I will show that God has merged Jew and Gentile into one body — finally and forever. This one point all by itself destroys the whole dispensational scheme. After all it contradicts one of its two foundation stones: the distinction between Israel and the church. (The other fundamental is the “literal” interpretation of Scripture which is used randomly as a deus ex machina to make the system appear to work.)
The Jew and Gentile Merger
The leading classic dispensationalist scholar of the last fifty years is Charles C. Ryrie. On p. 39 in his important 1995 work Dispensationalism he reiterates his 1966 observation from the book’s first edition: “A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct.” According to Ryrie: “A. C. Gaebelein stated it in terms of the difference between the Jews, the Gentiles, and the church of God.” He then states rather dogmatically (and self-destructively): “This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist.”
In introducing the sine qua non of dispensationalism (p. 38) he discounts three issues that some might consider essential. He notes that “distinguishably different economies [in God’s] governing the affairs of the world” is not distinctive — despite the system’s name “dispensationalism.” He then points out more narrowly that even “the number of dispensations” is not a fundamental issue — despite the dominant affirmation among dispensationalists of seven distinct dispensations. He finally denies that “the issue of premillennialism” is determinative of dispensationalism.
When he finally comes to stating the sine qua non he begins with the Israel / church distinction. This is a fatal admission, for it contradicts the clear New Testament revelation and destroys the flow of redemptive history. Let us see how this is so.
We must note two aspects of the matter that come back to haunt the system. In dispensationalism’s two-peoples-of-God theology they must hold that God (1) distinguishes Jew and Gentile and (2) that he does so permanently (at least in history, though many carry the distinction into eternity). How are these observations fatal to the system? And in light of our study in Ephesians, how do we see that problem in Paul’s epistle?
We must first ask the question regarding the dispensationalist’s assumption: Who makes up the people known as “Israel”? The obvious answer is “Jews,” the genetic offspring of Abraham. But then the question arises in the debate: Does God establish a new entity in redemptive-history which also includes Jews? The answer is: Yes. The church of Jesus Christ. In fact, it was established in the very context and on the foundation of Israel.
Indeed, Paul notes very clearly and forcefully that God merges Jew and Gentile into one body, which we now call the church. He even encourages the Gentiles with the knowledge that they are now included among God’s people and are partakers of their blessings. They are not separate and distinct from Israel but are adopted into her. Note Ephesians 2:11–19:
“Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision,’ which is performed in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household.”
Note very carefully what Paul states and how it contradicts the notion of a distinction between Jew and Gentile, between Israel and the church:
1. Paul states that the Gentiles were “formerly . . . at that time . . . excluded from the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2:12). This is an observation about their past condition.
2. He argues that the Gentiles were “formerly . . . at that time . . . strangers to the covenants of promise” (plural covenants / singular promise). This is an observation about their past condition.
3. He reiterates the Gentiles’ former condition that has now been changed: “But now in Christ you who formerly were far off have been brought near” (Eph 2:19). This is their new experience and condition.
4. He resolutely declares that Christ has effected “peace” in that he “made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph 2:14). This is their new experience and condition.
5. He restates this once again by noting that Christ made “the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Eph 2:15). This is their new experience and condition.
6. He will not leave the matter alone, for he recasts this very thought noting that Christ determined to “reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.” This is their new experience and condition.
7. He refuses to cave to the Jews and dispensationalists of his day by insisting that Christ “came and preached peace to you [Gentiles] who were far away” (Eph 2:17). This is their new experience and condition.
8. He comes dangerously close to becoming a classic bore when he states still again that “through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18). This is their new experience and condition.
9. He risks never being able to enroll in Dallas Theological Seminary by absolutely and positively refusing to cease and desist as he becomes stuck in a groove like a broken record (Or to update this cliche: like a CD with a child’s candy-sticky fingerprint on it. I don’t think this will ever catch on though. We are stuck with the older cliche. But as a writer I hold the rule: “Avoid cliches like the plague.” So let’s forget this whole cliche enterprise and move on): “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens” (Eph 2:19). This is their new experience and condition.
10. He risks becoming an absolute and detestable bore at rapture parties by droning interminably: “but you are fellow citizens with the saints [obviously the Jews], and are of God’s [singular] household” (Eph 2:19). This is their new experience and condition.
11. When will it all end? Can we never rapture out of this endless loop-cycle? Paul states once again that the Gentiles are a part of “the [singular] whole building, being fitted together” and “are being built together” (Eph 2:21). This is their new experience and condition.
How many different ways can the denial of a distinction between Jew and Gentile be stated? I am exhausted in laboring through this repetitive passage. Paul’s theology has absolutely no place for the first sine qua non of dispensationalism. And remember: sine qua non means “without which [there is] nothing.” That is, “without this element there is no system.” Though it is an essential definitive precondition for dispensationalism Paul will not allow it to stand.
Elsewhere Paul claims to be a “master builder” who is intent on laying “a foundation” (1 Cor 3:10). But here he becomes a one man wrecking crew. He has removed dispensationalism’s chief cornerstone. Like Jesus commanding Lazarus’ friends to “remove the stone” (John 11:39), Paul single-handedly removes this foundation stone. It is almost as if Paul were demanding: “raze it, raze it, to its very foundation” (Psa 137:7). Dispensationalism is not built upon a rock but upon sand. But “if the foundations are destroyed what can the rapturists do?”
But this represents only my first complaint about the matter before us. There is still another. If you read the passage carefully (I dare say you could even read the passage recklessly — even left-handedly — and come to the same conclusion) you will note that the whole tenor of Paul’s theological observation is that: Jew and Gentile have been merged into one body forever. There is absolutely nothing in the passage that hints at or even will allow that this union into one new body is temporary. Everything about the passage demands that this merger be permanent.
Read it again and try to find any intimation that this merger of Jew and Gentile is just temporary until the Rapture or the millennium or whatever. You will find nothing that leads to that conclusion and everything that militates against it:
“Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision,’ which is performed in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's [singular] household.”
Christ did not preach a temporary “truce” between Jew and Gentile, but a permanent “peace.” He did not suspend the enmity between Jew and Gentile for awhile but “put to death the enmity.” He did not bring the two peoples together for a time (nor even for a time, times, and half a time) but he permanently created a new man. Dispensationalism’s theology requires that ultimately we must separate what God has joined together. It allows the rebuilding of the dividing wall.
I don’t know how badly a system must miss the mark before its adherents admit their mistake and leave it behind. It has been said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. I would say that dispensationalism is a farce resigned to confusion.
If you are still having trouble escaping dispensationalism, I highly recommend that you get our DVD “The Late Great Planet Church.” You really need to rapture out of the system.