In the preceding six articles I worked through Ephesians showing how it is virtually a theological tome against dispensational theology. In this blog I will summarize the preceding studies reducing them to a dispensationalist-sensitive, non-comical, politically-correct, user-friendly, handy-sized, non-fattening tract.
This tract will be suitable for using as you witness to dispensationalist family members, friends, companions, partners, neighbors, acquaintances, associates, comrades, cohorts, helpers, co-workers, colleagues, pastors, Sunday school teachers, elders, deacons, evangelists, missionaries, strangers, drifters, aluminum storm door salesmen . . . whoever. If you find it suitable (if not for hanging, at least for distributing), I hope you will cut-and-paste the material below into a small handout for your victims. They will thank you for it. But I will not — because there is no way I will even know you did so.
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DISPENSATIONALISM AND EPHESIANS
The Glory of Dispensationalism
One of the distinctive advantages of dispensationalism is that it “rightly divides the word of truth.” That is, it properly sorts out those things in Scripture that belong to Israel and those which belong to the Church. It recognizes that the current Church Age was unknown to the Old Testament prophets and is a temporary aside in the major plan of God as his prophetic time-clock was put on hold in the first century when Israel rejected Jesus as their Messiah. In this age we are awaiting the Rapture and the consequent conversion of Israel during the Great Tribulation.
Dispensationalism greatly extols Israel as “the apple of God’s eye.” It recognizes the future glory awaiting them when Christ returns to the earth to re-build their temple and to establish his millennial kingdom headquartered in their holy city, Jerusalem. This system of biblical truth promises that we will rule and reign with Christ as the glorious Old Testament prophecies finally come to perfect fulfillment.
Many of us have grown up in homes where the Scofield Reference Bible was held in high esteem. We have attended churches and Sunday schools where we learned that we are living in the last times just preceding the Rapture of the Church. Our parents and pastors have encouraged us to live expectantly, awaiting the time when God will again turn his attention to Israel. What could be more exciting?
Is this your experience as a Christian? Do these doctrinal commitments sound like your own? Have you experienced this excitement of living in the end times? You are not alone. For tens of millions of Christians this outlook on Scripture and the world is the very foundation of their spiritual lives and religious commitments.
Dispensationalism is widely believed and promoted. But is it biblical? That is the question that we must consider if we are truly Bible-believing Christians.
The Challenge of Ephesians
Let us take a brief walk through Ephesians, one of Paul’s most beloved epistles. Let us see if Paul’s outlook is compatible with dispensationalism. Unfortunately, as we will see, Ephesians directly contradicts many of the very foundations to the system that so many hold dear.
We will work our way through Paul’s letter in the order he presents it, rather than in any sort of theological order. As we read along, you may become surprised at how clearly Ephesians conflicts with this beloved system.
(1) Christ is presently ruling in his kingdom
Dispensationalism teaches that Christ is not presently enthroned as king. His enthronement awaits the future establishment of his kingdom during the millennium. But in Ephesians 1 Paul teaches that Christ was already established as the king and enthroned in the first century. His statement shows that Christ is not now awaiting his future kingly reign.
In Ephesians 1:20–23 Paul declares:
“He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.”
Note the following complicating problems that arise from this statement.
First, we see quite clearly that Jesus in fact has already been seated at God’s right hand in heaven. This being “seated” (note the past tense) at “God’s right hand” obviously speaks of his being seated at God’s throne in heaven. After all, Jesus himself declares elsewhere that he “sat down with My Father on his throne” (cp. Mark 16:19; Acts 7:56; Heb 8:1; 1 Pet 3:22).
In fact, when he was being tried by the rulers of Israel they asked him if he was the Christ. He chastised them for not believing him in this regard (Luke 22:66–78). He then warned them that he was soon to be seated with God in heaven: “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69). No postponement theory here: in the very context of Israel’s formal, official, and final rejection of him he declared that he would be “seated at the right hand of the power of God” despite their rejection.
Second, we further learn that his throne is in heaven and not on the earth. This contradicts a fundamental of dispensationalism’s premillennial scheme. The Messianic throne is not a literal throne on earth, it is a spiritual reality in heaven. Thus, his reign does not involve political and bureaucratic rule. Rather it is a spiritual-redemptive reality. The earthly kingship of Christ is absolutely denied by Paul.
Third, this enthronement in Ephesians gives Christ authority “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Indeed, God “put all things in subjection under His feet.” This is as high an authority as is possible. What would be the point of his coming to the earth to rule in a literal millennium? He is the ruler of all things now. Why would he come to rule in Jerusalem in a millennium? Why would he leave his heavenly throne where he rules universally to return to his earthly footstool to rule locally (Isa 66:1; Matt 5:35; Acts 7:49)?
Fourth, in fact, Paul says that Christ’s rule continues “not only in this age [right now!], but also in the one to come.” If dispensationalists claim that Christ is not now ruling, then what is Paul talking about? Paul sees Christ’s current function at the right hand of God as not only present now, but as continuing into the future age which lies beyond the present age. Put in the best possible light for dispensationalism, they should argue that his kingship takes a new form in the millennium. But their peculiar system construct will not allow this. In their view, Christ’s kingdom was presented, rejected, and postponed. He is not now in any way reigning as king.
Fifth, this kingly rule of Christ is related “to the church.” And this church is “His body.” But the church is the very redemptive-historical institution that dispensationalism distinguishes from Israel — and therefore from the millennial kingdom. In fact, in their dispensational structuring of history (“rightly dividing the word of truth”), the present age is the Church Age, which is to be followed by (and distinguished) from the Kingdom Age (the millennium).
(2) We are presently ruling with Christ
Dispensationalism teaches that Christ’s future literal rule from a literal throne will include our reigning with him But since his kingdom is not now present, then obviously we are not now reigning with Christ. But Ephesians contradicts such an interpretation.
In Ephesians 2:4–6 we read:
“God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–6).
And where had Paul just stated that Christ was seated? According to Ephesians 1:20–21 God “raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” He is at God’s right hand ruling over all.
According to the plain-and-simple method of literal interpretation our enthronement must wait until after the second coming of Christ at the Rapture. Why does Paul here speak in the past tense by using the aorist verbal forms of “raised” and “seated?” Why does he teach that Christians in the first century are already enthroned with Christ, that is, that they are already ruling and reigning with him in his kingdom?
And Paul is not alone in this: Peter calls first-century Christians a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9), i.e., a kingdom of priests. And even John, does the same — long before he speaks of the millennium (which occurs in only one chapter in all of the Bible, which happens also to be its most difficult book) and our reigning with Christ as kings and priest (Rev 20:6). John states in the past tense: “He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Rev 1:6).
To seal the matter, Paul even mentions the celebration of Christ’s enthronement in Ephesians 4. He speaks of his enthronement in terms reflecting a formal Roman triumph where the conquering ruler returns to his capital and divides the spoil with his jubilant citizens. In Ephesians 4:8 Paul states regarding the heavenly-enthroned Christ: “When He ascended on high, / He led captive a host of captives, / And He gave gifts to men.”
(3) The Jew and Gentile are forever merged into one body in the final phase of God’s redemptive plan.
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: “This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist.”
We must note two aspects of the matter that come undermine 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?
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 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 continues 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 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 declares this fact once again: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens” (Eph 2:19). This is their new experience and condition.
10. He insists: “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. 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.
Dispensationalism distinguishes Jew and Gentile permanently. Paul merges the two into one new body permanently.
(4) Paul sees Gentiles as receiving Jewish promises.
In our last comment we noted that Paul saw Jew and Gentile merged — permanently — in one body, the church (Eph 2:11–19). Now we would note that in the early part of that text he teaches that this new, merged body — the church — receives the Old Testament promises given to Israel. Consider Paul’s statement to these Gentile Christians:
“remember that you were at that time [before your conversion] 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” (Eph 2:12).
What is happening here? Paul is speaking of matters involving “the commonwealth of Israel.” He is declaring that before these Gentiles came to Christ they were “strangers to the covenants of promise.” This necessarily means that now that they have come to Christ they are no longer strangers to the covenants of promise.
Thus, they are now recipients of “the covenants of promise,” which include the distinctive Abrahamic Covenant with Israel (Gal 3:16–18). After all, he goes on to say that though they were “a that time” (Eph 2:12) excluded and strangers they now “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13) and that Christ “broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” that separated Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14).
Thus, if Gentiles are no longer “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel,” if Gentiles are no longer “strangers to the covenants of promise,” if Gentiles “have been brought near,” if Jew and Gentile are merged into one body , and if that which distinguishes Jew and Gentile has been “broken down” (the “dividing wall”), then by parity of reasoning: the Gentiles receive the promises given to Israel. How can it be otherwise? The two are now one, so that the promises to the old covenant people belong to the new covenant people who have been merged with them.
(5) The rebuilt temple is the Church of Jesus Christ.
The future rebuilt temple is a distinctive feature of dispensationalism. 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).
Paul is provides a spiritual interpretation of the promise of a rebuilt temple. 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).
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.
(6) The mystery of the Church was revealed in the Old Testament
The Prophecy Study Bible (2001; hereinafter PSB) defines the mystery character of the Church:
“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).
However, once again, Paul contradicts this dispensational view, as we see when we look closely at one of the very verses used to support the system. 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. Paul states that “in other generations [it] was not made known to the sons of men” (Eph 3:5a). By “sons of men” Paul is referring broadly of 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. 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” is a comparative. That is, this revelation was not revealed during the Old Testament era to the degree that 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. In fact, we know he is speaking comparatively, not only because of he uses the word “as,” 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.
My dispensationalist friend: Though your system is touted as plain and simple, the fact is that it actually contradicts Scripture. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians shows that several of its very foundation stones are mistaken. Dispensationalism is an erroneous, non-biblical system. You really should re-think it.