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THEOLOGY > Future > End of the Age > Rapture Question > Israel and the Church   



Two significance principles characterize the interpretation of Dispensationalism. One is the idea of literalness, and the other is the concept of properly dividing the Scriptures. These two principles lead to the Dispensationalist’s definition of the Church and their understanding of the nation of Israel.

As a result of these two concepts Israel and the Church are kept distinct, with no continuity between the two. “The precise point is that the distinguishing features of Dispensationalism do not involve merely a chronology of events about the end times, as important as this may be, but involve some basic principles of interpretation that depart radically from the historic Christian faith, and that are often diametrically opposed to what the church always believed” (Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism, 17). In other words, Dispensationalism’s perspective is flawed even before it begins to outline its view of end-time events. Its error is anchored in its hermeneutics and is manifested in its ecclesiology. And this invalidates its eschatology.

In the scheme of the Dispensationalist Israel always means Israel and the Church always means the Church, and the two never merge. Each word must be understood in a literal sense. The word “Israel” is addressed to one group, and the word “Church” is addressed to a different group. God’s Word requires, they claim, that a distinction be made and maintained. He has one plan for Israel and another plan for the Church, plans that are unique to each and that do not include the other entity.

Unless these two entities are kept distinct and separate, the Scriptures cannot be properly understood. Therefore, the Scriptures must be divided, placing those passages that speak of Israel with Israel and those that relate to the Church with the Church. Thus, the two principles (literalness and properly dividing Scripture) are seen in their applications to these two words.

These two guidelines of interpretation form the foundation of Dispensationalism. If these two are rejected in their extreme form, then the structure of Dispensationalism crumbles. If the understanding Dispensationalists give to literalness and the dividing of Scripture is deemed unacceptable then their strict and limited definition of the Church is undermined. And their view of a pretribulation rapture, which is hinged on their concept of the Church, is also undermined. Consider these two concepts.

From II Timothy 2:15 comes the idea of properly dividing the Scriptures: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” For the Scriptures to be interpreted properly the Dispensationalist argues, they must be properly divided. This verse is used to support their contention that some passages apply to Israel and some passages apply to the Church, and they are not to be confused. The Scriptures are to be divided and applied appropriately, some to Israel and some to the Church. To apply a promise made to Israel to the Church is to confuse the interpretation and to render the correct understanding of Scripture impossible. A workman must rightly divide the Scriptures.

Of course, the Greek for “divide” is orthotomeo, a word that appears only once in the New Testament and is translated “rightly dividing” in the NKJV and “correctly handles” in the NIV. According to Thayer the word means, “to cut straight,” implying “to proceed by straight paths, hold a straight course, equiv. to do right.” He added that in II Timothy 2:15 it speaks of the obligation to “teach the truth correctly and directly.” Instead of implying a dividing up of Scripture, a compartmentalization, the word speaks of properly handling Scripture, that is, to interpret Scripture correctly. It means to expound the Scriptures accurately. Paul was not instructing Timothy to place Scriptures in their proper categories but to teach the truth truthfully. In his Commentary on II Timothy, Calvin spoke of rightly dividing as a “manner of exposition adapted to edify” (314).

Total literalness cannot be rejected because much of the Bible is to be interpreted literally. But the rigid literalness that is characteristic of Dispensationalism undermines the essential unity of Scripture, while providing the basis for its novel interpretation. It is a literalism that cannot be found in hermeneutics prior to the nineteenth century.

Undercut in this hermeneutic is the plain teaching of Scripture that God has a people, one people, not two or more groups of people. At times the people (the redeemed) may be seen only as individuals, as in the case of Abel or Noah, who were believers before the time of Israel. At times the people are to be viewed as the nation God created from the descendants of Abraham, though not all of the physical descendants belonged to the Lord even in the Old Testament, but only those who were true to the Lord and His Word. At times the people are identified with the Church, the people called by the Spirit to be part of the body of Christ. At times the people are called saints as they suffer greatly during the Great Tribulation. At other times the word “elect” is used to describe the people of the Lord. But whether the individual is Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, present day believers, or the saints of the Tribulation, they all belong to one group, the people God has chosen for Himself. God has one people, and the redeemed from all the ages constitutes that people. The Atonement purchased equality not a hierarchy. This is the unmistakable and undeniable teaching of Paul in Ephesians:

11 Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands— 12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of division between us, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, 16 and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. 18 For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father (2:11-18).

In this passage, Paul establishes the unity of God’s people. Gentiles, a reference to all non-Jews who are also called “Uncircumcision” (v. 11), were once in the world with no hope and without God. Israelites, those of the “Circumcision” (v. 11), were the people blessed with God’s Revelation of Himself and with prophetic glimpses of His unfolding plan of redemption. But in Christ the Gentiles who were “far off” (v. 13) have been included by the Atonement; they now belong to “the commonwealth of Israel” (v. 12). Christ is the one who has made “both one” (v. 14); He has created “in Himself one new man from the two” (v. 15). Christ has reconciled them both to God “in one body through the cross” (v. 16). There is no longer separation” (v. 14); there is now union in “one body” (v. 16). The people of God are one.

It is this unanimity that Dispensationalism rejects. Instead of one plan for one people, God has multiple plans for multiply people. They assert that God has a plan for Israel and a plan for the Church. These plans are separate and do not mix. The promises to Israel are literal and belong to literal Israel. The Church has its promises that apply only to that group of believers who live after Christ and that are caught up at the Rapture before the Great Tribulation. They refuse to see any continuity between Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament. In their thinking, the former does not merge into the latter. Old Israel does not give way to New Israel; spiritual Israel does not replace literal Israel. Their hermeneutic of literalness does not allow it. And in the minds of many this extreme form of literalness has come to be equated with conservatism.

The Dispensational view is anchored in this distinction between Israel and the Church. It is central to their entire system. Without this separation of the two, their end-time scenario collapses. Even Walvoord admitted this: “It is therefore not too much to say that the rapture question is determined more by ecclesiology than eschatology” (The Rapture Question, 1st ed, 15-16). Walvoord added: “Pretribulationism necessarily requires a distinction between these saints [the Tribulational saints] and the saints of the present age forming the church” (165). That is, the basis for their pretribulation rapture is the definition given to the Church rather than the plain teaching of New Testament passages dealing with the sequence of end-time events.

The prior definition that is ascribed to the Church by the Dispensationalists affects their interpretation when they study eschatological passages. For example, the obvious sequence of events in the Olivet Discourse (Antichrist, Great Tribulation, Second Coming) or the sequence in Revelation (Great Tribulation, Second Coming) are dismissed because these passages are made to fit the prior definition they have given to the Church. Their ecclesiology dictates their eschatology.

On the other hand, historic Premillennialism affirms that God has a plan for His people, and His people belong to Israel and the Church. Instead of there being a division between the two, there is continuity between them. Literal Israel is part of God’s total plan in creating a people for Himself. The promises to Israel are literal and spiritual and belong to literal and spiritual Israel, with spiritual Israel being identified with what we call the Church. Thus, the Old and New Testaments are intricately related; Israel and the Church are part of one redemptive plan. In both entities, the true people are known by their inward change not by their outward identification. Old Testament believers and New Testament Christians, and future Tribulational saints, belong to the same group. God has a people, and the Scriptures progressively reveal to us His plan to create such a people. Ladd observed: “While we must therefore speak of Israel and the Church, we must speak of only one people of God (Gospel of the Kingdom, 117).

Beginning early in the Old Testament, God begins to reveal His plan of redemption, a plan that culminates in a people, one people. A crucial passage is Genesis 13:14-17:

14 And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; 15 for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. 16 And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered. 17 Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.”

The important question is the interpretation given to the word “descendants” (vs. 15-16). Literally, the word translated “descendants” is the Hebrew word, zera, meaning, “seed.” In the above passage, each of the three times the word “descendants” appears, it is the Hebrew word for “seed.” Also in Genesis 12:7 and 24:7 where the NKJV has “descendants” the Hebrew word, literally translated, is “seed” (see 15:5, 18; 16:10; 17:7-19; 24:7). In each of these texts, it is a singular noun used in a collective sense, hence, the translation, “descendants.” So a translation of either “seed” or “descendants” is proper, but “seed” is the preferred translation.

But the singular form and the collective sense both have implications for the New Testament. Who is the Seed? Who are the seed? The New Testament has an answer for each question.

The “seed” is Christ. In Galatians 3:16 Paul writes: “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one. ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ.” For Paul, the significance at this point is the singular form of the Hebrew word. Without any question the apostle identifies “the seed” of Abraham as Christ. In God’s Word of prediction to Abraham, Paul points out, Christ was anticipated in the word “seed”; and he emphasizes the singular to buttress his argument. Succinctly, Paul states that the “seed” of the Old Testament is the “Christ” of the New Testament. The “seed” of Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, is Christ, the head of the Church. Christ is the “Son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1) and, therefore, properly called the “Seed” of Abraham.

Not only is the “seed” Christ, but the “seed” is identified with believers. In Galatians 3:7 Paul writes: “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” It is the presence of faith in the life that reveals one’s relationship to Abraham. In this verse the true “sons of Abraham” are defined; and by the definition, they are those “who are of faith.” Therefore, they are limited and distinguished by faith. “Sons of Abraham” includes those of faith and excludes those not of faith. Later in the chapter he writes:

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (vs. 26-29).

Believers have a relationship initially with Christ, and, as a result of that relationship, have a relationship with Abraham. Paul speaks of “sons of God,” those who have “faith in Christ Jesus” and “have put on Christ.” One’s relationship to Christ is the sole condition. And all who are related to Christ, whether Jew or Greek (non-Jew), have become “one in Christ Jesus.”

Then in verse 29, Paul affirms that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed.” At this point, the collective sense of the Hebrew word is foremost in Paul’s mind. The seed of Abraham refers to a large group. To be counted as “the seed” of Abraham, the individual must be a believer in Christ. And only those “who are of faith” are “sons of Abraham.”

To be in Christ is to be a spiritual descendant of Abraham. To be a seed of Abraham is to be a part of Abraham’s family, and Abraham’s family is the family of God, the people of God. The text is plain in verse 29. Abraham’s Son has many sons. Abraham’s “seed” is both singular (Christ) and plural (believers).

Believers, therefore, are associated with Abraham—they become his children—through faith in Christ. These believers may be Greeks; that is, they are not literal Jews, ethnic Jews, who are descended from Abraham by the flesh. But, because of their being identified with Christ, the Seed of Abraham, they become sons of Abraham. In Romans, Paul also teaches this truth:

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God (2:28-29);

And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised (4:11-12);

But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “in Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed (9:6-8).

These verses in Romans make it plain that literal Israel, composed of those according to the flesh of Abraham, is distinct from true Israel, composed of those related to Abraham by faith. In other words, all those who belong to literal Israel do not belong to spiritual Israel. All who are children of Abraham (flesh only) are not the true children of Abraham (spiritual children). It is believers, who are circumcised inwardly, who are the true children of the promise. There is the circumcision in the flesh, and there is the circumcision of the heart. Those who experience the latter are the ones counted as the seed. It is not the outward but the inward that determines one’s relationship to Abraham. Paul clearly writes: “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (9:6). There is literal Israel, and there is spiritual Israel; and the true Israel is the spiritual Israel. True Israel is “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

This identification of believers as the descendants of Abraham is stated by Jesus in John 8:39: “They answered and said to Him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them: ‘If you were Abraham’s children you would do the works of Abraham.’”  Those who were speaking to Jesus were literal Jews, descendants according to the flesh from Abraham. They assumed Abraham was their father. Pointedly Jesus tells them that they are not children of Abraham, for they do not do the works that Abraham did. The work of Abraham was to believe in and look forward to the coming Messiah. Jesus said that Abraham saw His day and was glad (v. 56). A true descendant of Abraham, therefore, is determined by the Spirit not by the flesh. The true children of Abraham are associated with Abraham through the Messiah; Abraham’s children follow Christ! And by following Christ they prove themselves to be children of Abraham.

Instead of maintaining a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church, as the Dispensationalists do, the New Testament merges the two. Or better stated, the New Testament affirms that the Church is the true continuation of the Old Testament Israel. Therefore, it is improper to divide the two throughout the New Testament, for example, claiming that the elect of Matthew (literal Jews) are different from the elect of the rest of the New Testament (the Church), distinguishing between the saints in Revelation and those in the rest of the New Testament (see: The Word “Saints”). Such dividing of Scripture destroys the unity of Scripture. And it makes it impossible for the people of God to be one people.

But this literalness and dividing of Scripture allows the Dispensationalist to deny that the Rapture is in Matthew 24 because the passage is addressed to Israel and not the Church (The “Elect” in the Olivet Discourse). This same scheme allows them to deny that the saints of Revelation belong to the Church, even though Paul addressed the believers in the churches he wrote as saints. Any passage that has believers suffering during the Tribulation is applied to some group other than the Church. I Thessalonians 4 cannot be harmonized with Matthew 24 because I Thessalonians is addressed to the Church and Matthew 24 is addressed to Israel (see: Harmonization of Scripture). The very points made by this website are dismissed by the Dispensationalist because of a prior commitment to a rigid literalness and to a dividing of Scripture, which separates Israel from the Church and never allows them to meet or merge in time or eternity.

Sacrificed in this system of interpretation is the essential theme of Scripture, the redemptive plan of God that culminates in a people for Himself. Instead of the Scriptures being viewed as a unity, they are compartmentalized and broken up, fragmenting the drama of redemption. Those things which should be viewed as parts of the whole are extracted from the whole, leaving the whole divided up. All of this is possible because Dispensationalism makes an improper distinction between Israel and the Church.

Without realizing it, perhaps, the Dispensationalist undermines the Atonement itself. Christ’s death accomplished the plan of the Father. That plan was to give the Son a people; “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (Jo. 6:37), Jesus asserts. And the people the Father gives is not a divided people. All the ones that Christ died for constitute one people, one bride. The position of being “in Christ” results in the believer standing on an equal plain with all others who are “in Christ.” All those who are saved are equal in Christ and equal before the Father. An improper distinction between Israel and the Church is really an attack upon the purpose, scope, and accomplishment of the Atonement. New Testament believers are really a continuation of Old Testament believers. Dispensationalism makes an improper distinction between Israel and the Church.

Dispensationalism is rooted in Darby’s concept of the church
—a concept  that sharply distinguishes the church from Israel.

It is dispensationalism’s rigid insistence on a distinct cleavage
between Israel and the church,
and its belief in a later unconditional fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant,
that sets it off from the historic faith of the church
Clarence Bass

The theological and exegetical grounds for Pretribulationism
rest on insufficient evidence
non sequitur reasoning,
and faculty exegesis.
Robert H. Gundry

The author takes it as a basic hermeneutical principle
that in disputed questions of interpretation
the simpler view is to be preferred:
the burden of proof rests upon the more elaborate explanation.
George Ladd

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