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Dispensationalist Beliefs – The Church (Part II) by William E. Cox

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Dispensationalism

Dispensationalist teaching on the church is one of so many doctrines where the wish is father to the thought; for the Bible simply will not bear out Darby’s ‘rediscovered truth.’ While much of the New Testament could be used to refute this doctrine, one of Paul’s epistles alone will serve to undermine all dispensational teachings concerning the relationship between the church and national Israel.

One might think in terms of dispensationalism versus Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

1. Dispensational Teaching:

The church is a parenthesis, i.e., a temporary thing lying between God’s two dealings with national Israel.

Paul’s Ephesian Epistle Teaches:

The church is the very body of Christ, and is therefore the fullness of God.

…the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all (Eph 1:22,23).

2. Dispensational Teaching:

The church is not even mentioned in the Old Testament.

Paul’s Ephesian Epistle Teaches:

The church was mentioned in the Old Testament as early as Genesis 2:24. For Paul quotes the passage from Genesis 2:24, and then says that this verse was spoken concerning Christ and the church.

For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church (Eph 5:31,32 RSV).

3. Dispensational Teaching:

Israel and the church are separate bodies and are to remain so.

Paul’s Ephesian Epistle Teaches:

God took two ‘men’ (Israel’s believing remnant and Christian Gentiles) and made the two of them into one ‘man.’ Now, therefore, there are no longer two bodies, but one.

For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby (Eph 2:14-16).

4. Dispensational Teaching:

National Israel will carry out God’s main purpose during a future millennial period.

Paul’s Ephesian Epistle Teaches:

The church is God’s main instrument for carrying out his plans. This – the plan that the church would be the fullness of God (Eph 1:23) – was according to the eternal purpose of God, and has been realized in Christ Jesus.

To the intent that now unto the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places might be made known through the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph 3:10,11).

Both Darby and Scofield taught that Israel was a type of the church. They went on to teach, however, that the church was not prophesied in the Old Testament, and that the type was never meant to have a fulfillment. This is indeed difficult to reconcile, a type without an antitype. In fact it is the only such type in their entire system. All other types, they say, were fulfilled through Christ.

To say, as dispensationalists do, that the church is parenthetic while national Israel is the eternal ‘chosen people’ of God is to violate an important rule of hermeneutics. This is to make the type more important than its antitype. Someone has well said that a shadow can not cast a shadow. Israel was the shadow, the church is the substance. Abraham is the father of all the righteous; yet one must never lose sight of the fact that it is not through Abraham that one becomes righteous, but rather it is through Abraham’s Seed which is Christ (Gal 3:16).

So instead of the church being a temporary thing in the plan of God while national Israel is the main piece on the chessboard, actually the opposite is true. National Israel was chosen as a channel for a limited time. In other words, national Israel was the parenthesis which dispensationalists class the church as being. Many scriptures, in the Old Testament as well as in the New, plainly state that Israel’s was a temporary role lasting only until the first coming of Christ. Indications that Messiah was to take over the scepter of Israel are given as early as the book of Genesis:

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be (Gen 49:10).

The coming of Shiloh (Messiah) was longingly looked for by all the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament period. In John 8:56 our Lord reminded the unbelieving Jews that Abraham had prophesied the first advent: Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad. To apply this verse to the second coming of Christ is to completely ignore the context in which it was spoken.

National Israel was characterized by three things – nationality, law, and circumcision. Again these were for a limited time only. These were shadows or types of our Lord’s earthly ministry and the church. A statement by Phillip Mauro (The Gospel of the Kingdom, p.81) sheds light on this fact.

It is appropriate here to point out that one of the glaring errors of ‘dispensational teaching’ is the failure to recognize what the New Testament plainly reveals, namely that names which God temporarily gave to the shadowy and typical things of the Old Covenant, belong properly and eternally to the corresponding realities of the New Covenant. Thus we are given the proper meaning of ‘Jew’ (Rom 2:28,29); ‘Israel’ (Rom 9:6; Gal 6:16); ‘Jerusalem’ (Gal 4:26); ‘Seed of Abraham’ (Gal 3:29); ‘Sion’ (1 Pet 2:6; Heb 12:22; Rom 9:33). Likewise it is made known that according to the New Covenant meaning, ‘the tribes of Jacob’ are those who are Jews inwardly, that is to say, the entire household of faith (James 1:1; Acts 26:7).

Shiloh came nearly two thousand years ago, took over the scepter from national Israel, and began his reign in the hearts of his people. At that time the types faded in the pure light of the Substance to which they had pointed. Although the unbelieving part of Israel still held on to the shadows of nationality, law, and circumcision, the Israel of God (Gal 6:16) condemned their continuance (Rom 6:14; 7:4; 10:4; Gal 3:23-26; 4:9-11; 5:6). Having become the great Antitype of national Israel, the law, circumcision (Rom 2:28,29; Phil 3:3; Col 2:11), and the prophets, our Lord formed the believing part of Israel (Rom 11:5) into the Christian church. Nor was this an impulsive innovation; it was fulfillment of that which had been in the eternal plan of God (Cp Gen 12:3, 22:18; Gal 3:7-9,14,16,27-29; Eph 3:4-6).

Some are troubled by the fact that some of these Old Testament promises were eternal, yet ceased to be in effect. The Bible is its own interpreter. That is, we arrive at the meaning of any passage by a comparison of Scripture with Scripture. Looking at the Old Testament use of the word ‘eternal’ one finds that it must be interpreted according to the radius of time being dealt with. An eternal priestly promise was in effect just as long as the priesthood existed; a legal eternal promise was in effect only so long as the law was in effect; an eternal promise to national Israel was in effect just as long as God dealt with Israel as a nation; an eternal promise with reference to the temple was binding upon God until the very second the temple ceased to exist; an eternal promise given under the old covenant was in effect during the entire life of the old covenant. Theological pandemonium has grown out of the attempt to make promises made under the law binding upon God long after the law has served its purpose in God’s program.

Perhaps an illustration might help at this point. Let us say that a nation is on the gold standard and promises to stand behind its money forever. Then let us say that nation, by an act of congress, decides to change its money system. It is no longer on the gold standard, but is now using a completely different system of exchange. Gold may suddenly become worthless. Confederate money after the Civil War well illustrates this point.

The writer had the experience of serving with a tank battalion during World War 11. During the Hitler regime the mark was the standard money in Germany. However, after the defeat of Hitler the money was completely changed by the Allies. Our soldiers went into many bombed-out banks after the Nazi surrendered. Many a soldier found bills which under Hitler’s rule would have been worth thousands of marks. Now the soldier had a nice souvenir, but it was worthless. Why? Because new money had been printed. So with most eternal promises of the Old Testament. With the close of the Old Testament, God’s program moved into an entirely different era.

Old Testament promises were eternal or everlasting for the duration of time God decreed to use a given method of dealing with his people. The duration usually was known to God alone. Israel’s national promises were given during the period of the law and were eternal so long as the law was in effect. With the coming of Christ into the world, the period covered by the promises came to an end, and, therefore, the promises are no longer binding upon God. Paul speaks in 2 Cor 3:13-18 of the non-eternality of the law, and says in verse 14 that it is done away in Christ.

In 2 Chron 7:16 it is recorded that God promised to live in Solomon’s house forever; yet that house was destroyed and does not exist today. Did God break his promise? No, ‘forever’ meant for as long as the house stood.

The same is true with reference to the priesthood as instituted during the Old Testament era. In many passages – of which Exod 40:15 and Num 25:13 are examples – we are told that the house of Aaron constituted an everlasting priesthood. All Protestant Christians are agreed that the old priesthood came to an end and was replaced by Jesus, who became our High Priest. The book of Hebrews makes this fact quite clear. So that the priesthood of law was everlasting only as long as the law was in effect.

In dealing with Gen 13:15, which reads For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever, Adam Clarke (Clarke’s Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 99) says:

… and this was always the design of God, not that Abram himself should possess it, but that his posterity would, till the manifestation of Christ in the flesh. And this is chiefly what is to be understood by the words for ever, ad olam, to the end of the present dispensation, and the commencement of the new. Olam means either eternity, which implies the termination of celestial luminaries; or a hidden, unknown, period, such as includes a completion or final termination, of a particular era, dispensation, etc.; therefore, the first is its proper meaning, the latter its accommodated meaning (italics mine).

In dealing with Gen 17:8, which reads: And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God, Clarke has this comment:

Here olam appears to be used in its accommodated meaning, and signifies the completion of the Divine counsel in reference to a particular period or dispensation. And it is literally true that the Israelites possessed the land of Canaan till the Mosaic dispensation was terminated in the complete introduction of that gospel… (Clarke’s Cornmentary, Vol.I, p.114).

There is a sense in which every eternal or everlasting promise never comes to an end. This is in fact the true sense in which these words are used throughout the Bible. If this proper sense were understood, many of our differences would immediately clear up. We refer to the fact that most if not all promises, covenants, ordinances, etc., of the Bible have different forms through which they pass. The all-wise God who gave them knew of these forms at the time he inspired his writers to use the words ‘eternal,’ ‘everlasting,’ ‘forever.’ While every form has its ‘end,’ the actuality, of which the form is only one phase, never ends.

Illustrations could be picked at random of everlasting things instituted by God which have passed through different forms, each form having its definite end. Among such illustrations might be listed: law, Sabbath, circumcision, kingdom, priesthood, the Israel of God. These by no means exhaust the list, but certainly they are among the more pronounced scriptural examples of the point being made. Each illustration listed – law, Sabbath, circumcision, kingdom, priesthood, God’s chosen people – was definitely instituted and pronounced by God himself to be eternal. Each illustration listed has gone through developments (forms); and, while the realities themselves remain, in new form, the developments have long since ceased to exist.

The forms through which these everlasting things develop are essentially three in number: (1) from their inception until the first advent of Christ; (2) from that advent (at which time each one developed into a much higher form) until the second coming of Christ to earth; (3) from that second coming (which is yet future) they will be developed into the Eternal State which will have no end.

Viewing the entire Bible – while keeping in mind Paul’s warning that the letter kills, while the spirit gives life – three definite points may be arrived at by way of concluding this chapter.

  1. God made a two fold covenant with Abraham, the main references to this covenant being recorded in Gen 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-15; 22:1-19. This is called a two fold covenant because most of it involves believers from all nations, (cp. Genesis 12:3, 22:18 with Gal 3:7-9,14,16, 27-29). While a part of it was fulfilled in national Israel, the main parts of this covenant were spiritual and were ordained to include believers from every nation, including national Israel. Note that Israel was not even born at the time the Abrahamic covenant was first made.
  2. To implement his plans God arbitrarily chose Israel to be his peculiar people only until the first advent of Christ (Gen 49:10). The Abrahamic covenant was renewed with Israel at Sinai. This was not a separate covenant of works, but was the same covenant which had been given to Abraham, renewed with Isaac, Jacob, and now with Moses at Sinai. At Sinai Israel was also given conditional promises which applied to her alone and were to be in effect only until the coming of the church. By the time the church was established at Pentecost, all these national promises had been either literally fulfilled or invalidated through unbelief and disobedience.
  3. Our Lord at his first advent (particularly through the death, burial, and resurrection) fulfilled the promises to national Israel and became their Deliverer (Luke 1:30-33,76,77; 2:25,30). He was pointed to as the One through whom the Abrahamic covenant was to have its main fulfillment (Gal 3:16).

He came as a Deliverer out of Zion (Rom 11:26) and all believing Jews (the remnant spoken of in Rom 11:5) were given power to become the sons of God. As many as received this opportunity, and indeed all who shall receive it during this present age, were formed into the Christian church which is the apex of all Jesus’ suffering (Eph 1:20-23). Believers from every nation, including Israel, are being saved and brought into the church in fulfillment of Gen 12:3; 22:18, and other such passages. This gathering will continue until our Lord returns to claim his vineyard which he has intrusted to disciples.

Envision for a moment the marshalling together of the church fathers, all the great Reformers, most of the outstanding contemporaries of J. N. Darby, and all the great theologians who labored to produce our Bible commentaries. If such a marshalling were possible, all these we have mentioned would line up with Paul and all the other apostles in condemning any teaching which makes the church a mere parenthesis. These men would say that the church for which our Lord bled and died was the very apex (as the body of Christ) of all God’s planning. They would say, with Darby and Scofield, that national Israel was a type of the Christian church; then they would go on to the only logical conclusion, i.e., that all types have their antitype or fulfillment, and that the church, as the body of Christ, is the embodiment of all that national Israel typified.