Part 5: Forward to the Past
by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com
In my past four blogs (seven, if you have a time machine and have driven into the future and have already read all of them) I have been presenting Paul’s case against dispensationalism as found in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Just as evangelicals use “The Romans Road to Salvation” as an evangelistic tool, I believe we can reach out to dispensationalists by employing “The Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism.”
We need to understand an important reality: dispensationalism is not simply an eschatological outlook, a prophetic construct. Rather it is a whole, complex, and distinctive theology. And as a theological system it differs from mainline evangelical theology in many areas, impacting most of the formal loci of systematic theology.
Dispensationalism’s theological problems arise from its devastating mistakes regarding: (1) the role and function of Israel, (b) the proper apostolic interpretation of prophecy, (iii) the unified, progressive nature of redemptive history, and (four) . . . I forgot what I was going to say. These system errors (at least the first three I mention, since I cannot remember the fourth — though I am sure it was a good one) are absolutely destructive of a biblical construct for systematic theology.
One of the most remarkable and disturbing aspects of dispensationalism is its inherent redemptive retrogression. Dispensationalism necessarily requires a future re-institution of blood sacrifices to be conducted in a rebuilt temple under the direction of a new, formal line of priests. It rejects the biblical view that Christ is the final redemptive blood-letting in that he is the conclusive, perfect fulfillment of the sacrificial system. Though in the millennium “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid” (Isa 11:6) and though “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” (Isa 65:25), the lamb and the kid had better keep a wary eye out for any approaching priest.
Once again, Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians exposes dispensational error. And this time one of their most bizarre errors. Let us see what Paul has to say about the matter.
The Rebuilt Temple and the Old Testament
In order to exalt Israel, to restore her to where she left off in redemptive-history, to re-institute her sacrificial system, and to employ a long line of priests, dispensationalism applies its off-and-on-again literalistic sleight-of-hand hermeneutic to argue for a rebuilt temple. As they read the Old Testament (divorced from any knowledge of Christ, the Apostles, and the New Testament) dispensationalists note Old Testament statements regarding the temple which suggest to them that it will be built again in the future.
For instance, the Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Kregel, 1996; hereinafter, DPT) states that:
“the prophecy of a future Jewish temple in Jerusalem . . . is part of the greater restoration promise made to national Israel. This promise, made at the close of the first temple period (cf. Isa. 1:24–2:4; 4:2–6; 11:1–12:6; 25–27; 32; 34–35; 40–66; Jer. 30–33; Ezek. 36–48; Amos 9:11–15; Joel 2:28–3:21; Micah 4:–5; 7:11–20; Zeph. 3:9–20), made again by the prophets who prophesied after the return from captivity (cf. “Dan. 9–12; Hag. 2:5–9; Zech. 8–14; Mal. 3–4), and reaffirmed in the New Testament (cf. Acts 3:19–26; Rom. 11:1–32) contained inseparably linked elements of fulfillment. . .” (DPT 404).
Before I proceed further I must briefly comment on DPT’s listing of prophetic passages, using its first two cited prophecies by way of example: Isaiah 1:24–2:4 and Isaiah 4:2–6.
Regarding the Isaiah 1:24–2:4 proof-text: Oddly enough, dispensationalism’s (occasional, though erratic and sometimes dizzying, but always fun) literalistic approach to this prophecy produces an absolute absurdity. It requires the ridiculous notion that Jerusalem will actually “will be established as the chief of the mountains, / and will be raised above the hills” (Isa 2:2b). Somehow Jerusalem will remain intact as the tectonic upheaval and its consequent mountain-thrusting forces raise Mount Zion to new heights.
Furthermore, despite the enormous difficulties involved in scaling this mountain, “all the nations” will stream to it — even though it is now on a mountain higher than Mt. Everest (apparently snow tires will be much more effective in the millennium than they are today).
What is more, Jerusalem itself will dwarf the mountain upon which it sits, for it will be 1500 miles high — according to the often-literalistic, ever system-building hermeneutic approach to Revelation 21:16. And yet the world population (using today’s figures, which probably are lower than those of the peace-enhanced millennium) of six billion people will gather three times a year in Jerusalem for worship festivals (Deut 16:16). The traffic congestion will be awful, probably worse than the famed Orange Crush in Orange County, California where I-5 and Highways 22 and 57 come together.
Despite the enormous height of the orogenically (tectonics + volcanism = orogenesis) re-shaped mountain and the even more impressive size of the city, the upper winds apparently will be stilled (perhaps due to their being over 1470 miles above the earth’s atmosphere — they surely will have petered out at that distance). After all, according to DPT’s second set of proof-texts (which does not even mention a temple, by the way) the smog will be suffocating — virtually on the order of the thermal-inertia-induced Venusian atmosphere. Note that the verse states (literalistically!) that “the Lord will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, even smoke” (Isa 4:5). Thus, the “whole area of Mount Zion” — not part of it, that would not be literalistic! — will be covered by “smoke.” Apparently this is at least partly due to the automotive exhaust emitted by enormous number of cars necessary for carrying six billion people to the thrice-yearly festivals.
But we are analyzing Paul’s “The Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism.” What does Ephesians have to say about all of this? I mean what does it say about all of this beyond that fact that Jesus is enthroned “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph 1:21) which (according to dispensational exegesis) matches perfectly with his ruling from a 1500 mile high Jerusalem?
The Rebuilt Temple and Ephesians
We have been seeing that Paul is not a dispensationalist. What is more, we have noted that his letter to the Ephesians serves as a blatant, point-for-point rebuttal to dispensationalism. Let us now consider Paul’s understanding of the rebuilt temple.
Paul is a blatant spiritualizer, according to the dispensational system. For in Ephesians 2:19–22 he states:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”
The Apostle certainly believes in a rebuilt temple, but not one built of stone. He sees “the whole building”as currently in his day already “being fitted together” and “growing into a holy temple in the Lord.”He allows this despite the fact that the earthly temple is still standing as he writes. And despite the fact that the millennium still lies off in the distance (already almost 2000 years distant, at least). Remember: the prophecies of the glorious, rebuilt temple refer to the millennial temple, not the tribulation temple because “the tribulation temple will be built by unbelieving Jews . . . [whereas] the millennial temple will be built by the Messiah (Zech. 6:12–13) and redeemed Jews” (DPT 404).
To make matters worse, Paul sees the rebuilt temple in spiritual terms because it is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” with “Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.” And the current and ongoing building process involves Christians themselves as the building stones for “you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” This is why Jesus could inform the Samaritan woman: “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. . . But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:21, 23). And Jesus presents this “coming” hour as a permanent, final reality not to be withdrawn as a new order of localized, physical temple worship is re-instituted.
This is no stray statement by Paul: he returns to this theme time-and-again. We read of his conception of the spiritual temple in the following verses:
“Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.” (1 Cor 3:16–17)
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19)
“What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will Dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people’” (2 Cor 6:16).
The third sample in 2 Corinthians 6:16 is important because it specially applies Old Testament prophecy to the New Testament spiritual temple. Notice how Paul argues: “We are the temple of the living; just as God said, ‘I will Dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’” The Old Testament backdrop to this “just as God said” statement is Ezekiel 37:27: “My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.”
What is remarkable about all of this is that this Paul takes this statement from Ezekiel’s prophecy of Israel’s dry bones coming back to life. Thus, Paul commits two hermeneutic sins: (1) he applies a prophecy regarding Israel to the church and (2) he spiritualizes God’s prophetic dwelling, applying it to God’s spiritual indwelling his people, rather than God’s building a new temple.
Paul’s writings destroy dispensationalism — which may explain why dispensationalists prefer to take Old Testament texts on their own, apart from any New Testament understanding. Truly, Paul provides a tract for our times, an “Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism.”