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Daniel and Revelation
Revelation 20 ---- Dispensationalism
The interpretations of Revelation chapter 20 generally divides into two major camps of eschatology. Is there a literal thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ here on the earth? This question becomes a pivot-point between reading the Bible literally and fulfilled in the future, or more figurative and allegorical. Literal interpretations are from the futurist hermeneutic.
This chapter will take a look at the dispensational interpretation of Revelation 20. Also, a growing minority of futurists are not dispensationalists. They are historical premillennialists after the late George Ladd. After this chapter, chapter 34 will look at the New Wine System view of Revelation 20. The New Wine System, of course, takes the literal and futurist view of Revelation 20. But the New Wine System is significantly different from dispensationalism. The New Wine System is even more literal and picks up where historic premillennialism left off.
Revelation 20:1-8 I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. (2) He seized the dragon, the old serpent, which is the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole inhabited earth, and bound him for a thousand years, (3) and cast him into the abyss, and shut it, and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were finished. After this, he must be freed for a short time. (4) I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as didn't worship the beast nor his image, and didn't receive the mark on their forehead and on their hand. They lived, and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (5) The rest of the dead didn't live until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. (6) Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over these, the second death has no power , but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him one thousand years. (7) And after the thousand years, Satan will be released from his prison, (8) and he will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war; the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.
Both historic premillennialists and dispensationalists view Revelation 20 almost identically. Both are premillennial, meaning that Christ returns before a literal thousand-year reign of Christ here on the earth. Most historic premillennialists come from dispensational teaching. However, most historic premillennialists do not believe in a pre-tribulation rapture. The major distinction between historic premillennialists and dispensationalists is that the historic premillennialist makes much less of a distinction between Israel and the Church. Dispensationalists argue that the Church must be removed from the earth so that God can shift the dispensation back to a focus on Israel. It’s generally argued that in the Old Testament dispensation God required faith plus works for salvation. The New Covenant dispensation, it’s argued, requires only faith. So God must remove the Church from the earth in order to shift back to faith plus works.
There is one body, one faith, one baptism. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Those who are in Christ are Abraham’s seed, and are thus Israel. George Ladd, arguably the most predominant historic premillennialist, believed the Church is a “spiritual Israel.” The New Wine System takes it a step further, saying we are grafted into Israel. Whatever the Bible prophesies about the future of Israel is true of the Church as well, because there is no distinction between Israel and the Church. That does not mean we replace Israel. It means we are grafted into Israel. Bride of Christ is Israel.
Dispensationalism, on the other hand, relies on a huge distinction between Israel and the Church. Israel is related to the previous dispensation and the future dispensation. The Church is a “parenthesis” between two dispensations of God’s plan for Israel and relates only to the current “Church Age” dispensation. Dispensationalists believe the Church is removed from the earth and stays in heaven at least for the duration of the millennium, while Israel rules the world during Christ’s millennial reign.
We must remember that John wrote Revelation, and that John had already written the Gospel of John. Both dispensationalists and historic premillennialists believe that Revelation 20 adds detail to the two resurrections spoken of in John’s Gospel. John 5:28-29 speaks of two resurrections that occur in one “hour.”
John 5:28-29 ESV Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice (29) and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
Both dispensationalists and historic premillennialists believe that Revelation 20 stretches this hour into a thousand years. Or some might say there are really two hours that are separated by a thousand years. The general principle of progressive revelation, however, states that later Scripture should be interpreted in the context of earlier Scripture. This is especially true when it’s the same author. The author and audience of that time would have already understood there to be two resurrections that happen at basically the same time. The “first resurrection” would be the first of those two resurrections. To say these two resurrections are separated by a thousand years makes these words of Jesus, be in direct contradiction. The natural interpretation of Revelation 20 would allow for a third event that happens a thousand years later. But that third event is never actually called a resurrection. To be resurrected means you are brought back to life, with a new body, so that you can live again. To come alive for the purpose of judgment and then being thrown into the lake of fire should not be called a resurrection.
The dispensationalist has another major problem with Revelation 20. After reading Revelation 20 it becomes very clear that the resurrection happens after the great tribulation. The “souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as didn't worship the beast nor his image, and didn't receive the mark on their forehead and on their hand” are resurrected in the first resurrection. They come to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years. This resurrection clearly occurs after the tribulation. Also, John tells us in his Gospel that the resurrection is on the “last day” (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54, 7:37, 11:24, and 12:48). This “last day” must be after the great tribulation. More specifically, it’s the “last day” of Daniel’s 1290 days. With this, the dispensationalist would probably agree. But then look at the rapture verse in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 But we don't want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, so that you don't grieve like the rest, who have no hope. (14) For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. (15) For this we tell you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left to the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep. (16) For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with God's trumpet. The dead in Christ will rise first, (17) then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever.
The rapture must be after the resurrection. Since the resurrection is after the great tribulation, the rapture must also be after the great tribulation. This then, is the post-tribulation rapture. Dispensationalists require there to be a pre-tribulation rapture because they believe God must remove the Church before he can proceed with the dispensation of Israel. Dispensationalism and the pre-tribulation rapture go hand in hand. One does not work without the other. Dispensationalists will sometimes respond to this point by saying there are two resurrections and two raptures. Both resurrections become the “first resurrection” on the “last day.” How can there be two “first resurrections?” And how can there be two “last days?”
Another big problem with two resurrections involves the question of who will be at the wedding banquet. Dispensationalists separate Israel from the Church. The dispensationalists believe Israel will rule over the earth during the millennial reign while the Church remains in heaven. If this is true, then when are the Old Testament saints resurrected? If there are two resurrections, would not the Old Testament saints be resurrected in the post-tribulation resurrection to be with the rest of Israel? Would they be present at the wedding banquet?
Matthew 8:10-12 When Jesus heard it, he marveled, and said to those who followed, "Most certainly I tell you, I haven't found so great a faith, not even in Israel. (11) I tell you that many will come from the east and the west , and will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven , (12) but the children of the Kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
This verse makes it clear that Gentile believers will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob most likely at the wedding banquet. Most dispensationalists conclude that Old Testament saints will be resurrected along with the Church and will reside in heaven, along with the Church, during Christ’s millennial reign. It’s reasoned that since they will have a resurrection body, they will not be living on the earth. Also, it’s reasoned that the Old Testament saints are currently in heaven, prior to receiving a resurrection body. So they won’t be returning to the earth.
But what about those who accept Christ during the tribulation? Most will be beheaded for not taking the mark of the beast and worshiping the image. They will come to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years. Would they not also have a resurrection body? Would not they also be residing in heaven, alongside the Church, during the millennium?
The term dispensationalism comes from the word “dispensation” in the King James Version (1 Corinthians 9:17, Ephesians 1:10, 3:2, Colossians 1:25), in which the corresponding Greek word means the administration or stewardship (of a household or estate), specifically of a religious “economy.” These verses can be interpreted as Paul speaking about different times. According to dispensationalists, each dispensation shows different arrangements between God and mankind. Dispensationalists agree that it’s not rules of salvation that change from dispensation to dispensation. Hebrews 11 clearly teaches that people of all ages are saved by faith. Under Abraham, God’s people were told to physically circumcise themselves. Was circumcision required for salvation? Under Moses, God’s people were told they must observe certain religious festivals. Was this also required for salvation? Today we are told these things were shadows of Christ. Were words required for salvation in the Old Testament but not in the New Testament? So no one questions that our instructions from God have changed over time. But dispensationalists believe there are different standards by which our faith is tested. And they believe there are seven such dispensations.
1 Corinthians 9:17 KJV For if I do this thing
willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the
gospel is committed unto me.
Ephesians 1:10 KJV That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.
Ephesians 3:2 KJV If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward.
Colossians 1:25 KJV Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God.
Paul, however, only speaks of two dispensations. He speaks of the present dispensation that he saw as being given to him to present to us. Dispensationalists call this the Church age. Ephesians 1:10 speaks of a future “dispensation of the fullness of times,” which is probably Christ’s millennial reign. We can also assume a past dispensation prior to the present age. So we must remember that Scripture itself only speaks of these three dispensations. But dispensationalists extrapolate this thinking out into seven dispensations. (It’s interesting that everyone seems to agree that there are seven dispensations, but they don’t agree on exactly what the list of seven should be.) Still, for argument’s sake, we can agree to a chart of seven ages during which the revelations and instructions of God have been given. But dispensationalists say that recognizing such a chart does not make one a dispensationalist. Real dispensationalism is the separation of Israel and the Church.
When one looks at the verses in which the KJV uses the word “dispensation,” on can see ages and perhaps different “economies” of which God relates to man. The Greek word means the administration or stewardship (of a household or estate), specifically of a religious “economy.” But when one examines the other uses of this Greek word, it becomes doubtful that these are different ages of rules by which God judges men. God is not the “steward.” Men are the “stewards.” The word refers to head servants of a household where the Master of the household gives the responsibility for running the household to one of this servants. We are God’s servants. We are given a stewardship. As we are given new revelation about God, we are given additional responsibilities for what we do with that revelation. We are given a greater stewardship, as servants of God. So it can still be viewed as ages. But it’s not referring to God’s rules for judging our faith. In the following verses, the word “stewardship” is the same Greek word as “dispensation.”
Luke 16:2-4 KJV And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship ; for thou mayest be no longer steward. (3) Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. (4) I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.
1 Timothy 1:4 neither to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which cause disputes, rather than God's stewardship , which is in faith.
1 Corinthians 4:1-2 So let a man think of us as Christ's servants, and stewards of God's mysteries. (2) Here, moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
Galatians 4:1-2 But I say that so long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a bondservant, though he is lord of all; (2) but is under guardians and stewards until the day appointed by the father.
Titus 1:7 For the overseer must be blameless, as God's steward; not self-pleasing, not easily angered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for dishonest gain;
1 Peter 4:10 KJV As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
Now let’s take another look at those four verses with the word “dispensation” in the KJV. But this time, we will use a translation that uses the words “stewardship” or “administration.”
1 Corinthians 9:17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward. But if not of my own will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me.
Ephesians 1:10 to an administration of the fullness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things on the earth, in him;
Ephesians 3:2 if it is so that you have heard of the administration of that grace of God which was given me toward you;
Colossians 1:25 of which I was made a servant, according to the stewardship of God which was given me toward you, to fulfill the word of God,
There are no dispensations, as in ages of which God changes his rules for judging our faith. Dispensationalists believe the previous dispensation and the next dispensation of Israel require works, whereas the current Church age dispensation does not. If anything, in this present age, we have a stewardship that is based on the new revelation of Jesus Christ. This stewardship, by definition, is an expectation of works. As Paul says, we have a “stewardship” entrusted to us.
But what about the question of faith and works? It’s true that we are saved by faith alone under the New Covenant. But we are also expected to obey God’s commandments. These commandments involve works. Faith without works is dead. Exercising our spiritual gifts, and doing the works of the Father, help us to overcome sin. One can be resurrected to live in the millennium without works. But it would be a salvation that’s like escaping from a burning house. One is still alive. But he has nothing to show for it. If we expect to inherit the kingdom, we must store our treasures in heaven. This means doing the works of the Father. I think that even in the Old Testament, the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sins (Hebrews 10:4).
The core belief of dispensationalism is to distinguish “two purposes of God.” The pre-tribulation rapture is argued on that basis. One purpose is said to be “heavenly” and the other “earthly.” Generally speaking, the heavenly purpose is the Church, and the earthly purpose is Israel. Only the dispensation of the Church age is involved in the heavenly purpose. All other dispensations are of the earthly purposes. This distinct purpose for the Church age is a “parenthesis” in God’s purposes. Each individual believer is either in the Church or in Israel. Thus each individual believer is either for the heavenly purpose or for the earthly purpose of God. Thus it’s argued that the rapture must be before the tribulation in order for God to switch purposes from the Church back to Israel. All the heavenly purposed individuals must be removed before earthly purposed believers will begin to believe in Christ. Without the pre-tribulation rapture, under this system, there would be no one left to populate the earth in the millennium. This distinction of two purposes between Israel and the Church is what makes one a dispensationalist.
It’s important to remember that Scripture never mentions these two purposes of God. These two purposes are seen as necessary by dispensationalists in order to resolve the friction between the Old and New Testaments in the area of covenants, prophecies, and promises, without reverting to spiritual interpretation. Yet few seem to realize that the same thing can be accomplished by saying that the Church is Israel. The Church can be the recipient of the literal fulfillments of all the covenants, prophecies, and promises. This is not covenant theology where the Old Testament is reinterpreted in light of the New Testament. This amillennial-based reinterpretation uses allegorical and figurative methods to force the Old Testament to fit what is traditionally understood about the New Testament. Instead, we should interpret the New Testament in the context of a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, even if it forces us to reexamine some of our traditional beliefs. Under such a system there would not be two purposes of God, because Israel and the Church would be the same. But under such a system there would not be a pre-tribulation rapture either. So it would not have the popularity that dispensationalism has received.
Darby developed dispensationalism around 1830. It was spread over Europe and America primarily through the Scofield Reference Bible. Over the years since Darby, dispensationalism has evolved into three major flavors. From Darby forward is now known as “classical dispensationalism.” From the late 1950’s to the late 1970’s emerged what is known as “revised dispensationalism.” And then “progressive dispensationalism” emerged in the 1990’s.
Classical dispensationalism teaches that the people of God’s two purposes remain eternally separate. During the millennium there is the “kingdom of heaven” here on earth, and the “kingdom of God” in heaven. After the millennium those on earth become the “kingdom of God” in the new earth. Those in heaven become the “kingdom of God” in the new heaven. Revised dispensationalism brought the two groups together after the millennium, some saying it’s to be a “kingdom of God” on earth, and others saying it’s to be a “kingdom of God” in heaven.
Both classical and revised dispensationalists view the covenants similarly. All the covenants are to be fulfilled literally in Israel. But the Church only gets the covenant with Abraham and the new covenant. And for the Church they are only fulfilled spiritually (or “typologically”). Since Augustine, right up to Darby, the church has been almost exclusively amillennial. With amillennial teaching, Christians think of themselves as going to heaven eternally when they die. There is not much thought about living on earth after the resurrection. So naturally, to the amillennialists, the old covenants would seem to be about Old Testament Israel. That’s why the Bible was once divided into the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant”, which means the same as the Old Testament and the New Testament.
When the old covenants are interpreted literally, there is a tendency to assume they are exclusively about Old Testament Israel. Dispensationalists put major emphasis on the “grammatical-historical” hermeneutical system. So it’s clear that the covenants must be fulfilled literally. Covenant (reformation) theology holds that Israel is the Church. Therefore, if millennialism were to be applied to covenant (reformation) theology, the covenants would be literally fulfilled in the true Church, which is true Israel. But dispensationalists must show a distinction between Israel and the Church. To show this distinction, dispensationalists say the covenants are only to be fulfilled spiritually (or “typologically”) in the Church. Therefore, classical and revised dispensationalists go against their own principles of hermeneutics and revert to a spiritual (or “typological”) interpretation of the covenants for the Church. But if the Church were Israel, this problem would be eliminated.
Recognizing some of these problems, “progressive dispensationalism” emerged in the 1990’s. Progressive dispensationalism does not see the Church as spiritually (or “typologically”) fulfilling any of the covenants. All the covenants are literally applied to both Israel and the Church. Progressive dispensationalism believes that the covenants have not been completely fulfilled. But today, aspects of the covenants are being fulfilled. They are being partially fulfilled in the Church.
For example, the Davidic covenant is about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom is in our hearts, but not yet in the world. So the kingdom of God is here and now, but not yet. When Christ returns, the kingdom will be literally set up. The same is true with all the covenants. They are progressive. When Christ returns, they are to be completely fulfilled in Israel as well as the Church. Thus the covenants are “progressive” in nature, which leads to the name “progressive dispensationalism.” Progressive dispensationalism still distinguishes the Church from Israel.
Progressive dispensationalism does not have two purposes of God. Both Israel and the Church are together on earth during the millennium. Without the two purposes of God, there is no longer an argument for the pre-tribulation rapture. In other words, the original argument for the pre-tribulation rapture was so that God could shift back to the earthly purpose of Israel, remove all the heavenly-purposed believers, and then get some new believers in order to repopulate the earth during the millennium. Without the two purposes, we are all really one body, one faith, and one baptism. So for this I applaud progressive dispensationalists. But are progressive dispensationalists really dispensationalists? It takes more than simply acknowledging a chart of dispensations to be a dispensationalist. Perhaps they still consider themselves dispensationalists because they still distinguish the Church from Israel. Yet even this distinction is vague. Perhaps they still consider themselves dispensationalists in order to keep in good standing with Dallas.
Progressive dispensationalists tend to keep silent about the pre-tribulation rapture. They would say that it’s an optional belief. But people forget that dispensationalism was the original Scriptural argument for the pre-tribulation rapture. Now, it would seem, progressive dispensationalists want the pre-tribulation rapture doctrine to stand on its own.
One verse that is sometimes used by dispensationalists is Romans 9:3-4. Paul is speaking about his brothers of his own race, who had rejected Christ. He said, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.” Some dispensationalists distinguish between the covenants and the promises, saying that promises can be given to the Church, but the covenants are strictly for Israel. But Paul is making no such distinction. As a matter of fact, Galatians 3:17 (quoted below) directly equates the covenant with the promise.
The context of these verses is Paul’s anguish over his own race, and the fact that apparently God’s word had failed. How could those who are “adopted as sons, recipients of the covenants, of the law, of the temple worship, and of the promises” have rejected the Messiah? Paul concludes by saying that those who did this were not really the true Israel. They were Israel only by their physical bloodline. Paul is saying that their bloodline did not make them Israel. If they were not Israel, then they were not the recipients of the covenants, of the law, of the temple worship, and of the promises. On the contrary, it is all who are in Christ who are “adopted as sons” (Ephesians 1:5). Thus, it would also follow that those who are in Christ are also recipients of the covenants.
Ephesians 1:5 having predestined us for adoption as children through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his desire,
Consider Galatians 3, which teaches Gentiles are Abraham’s Children:
Galatians 3:6-9 NIV Consider Abraham: "He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." (7) Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. (8) The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you ." (9) So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
So, being children of Abraham, we are blessed along with Abraham. But is this blessing simply salvation? Or does it include the covenant of Abraham?
Galatians 3:15-17 NIV Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. (16) The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ. (17) What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.
Notice how this verse equates the covenant with the promise? Paul is using these two words interchangeably. Thus as children of Abraham, we are heirs of the covenant of Abraham. This one verse alone should cause one to reject dispensationalism. These verses prove that all true Christians are the true and literal heirs of the literal covenant with Abraham. And this implies we are the true literal heirs of all the Old Testament covenants. But generally people spiritualize verses that are in disagreement with what they want to believe. In this case, dispensationalists say the Church is a recipient of this covenant in only a spiritual way. But Paul concludes by saying that there is no difference between Jew and Greek (Gentile). And that anyone who belongs to Christ is Abraham’s seed, and heirs of the covenant (promise.)
Galatians 3:26-29 NIV You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, (27) for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (28) There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (29) If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
No Jew is or was a child of Abraham except by faith. No Gentile is or was a child of Abraham except by faith. So all who are children of Abraham, and heirs of the covenants, are in the vine of Israel.
Dispensationalism is based on the idea that Jews after the rapture, who are physically descendants of Abraham, and who also receive Christ, will be sole literal heirs of all the Old Testament covenants. But according to Paul, being a physical descendent of Abraham is not significant with regard to the "promise," which are the covenants. Romans 9:6 says:
Romans 9:6 NIV It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.
This is like saying not all Christians are Christians. People can go to church and take the sacraments. But does that give them the "promise" of inheriting the kingdom? Likewise, being a physical descendent of Israel does not give anyone a promise or covenant. Otherwise, God’s word would have failed.
The next verse says,
Romans 9:7a NIV Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.
This makes it clear. They are not his descendants simply because they have Abraham's physical seed. We see the same thing in John 8:39-40. Jesus is telling the Jews that they are not Abraham's children. Then in verse 44, he says their father is the devil. Being a child of Abraham is the same as being a child of God. It is only by faith. According to Jesus, even the Jews in Jerusalem were not Abraham's children. They were instead children of the devil.
John 8:39-40 They answered him, "Our
father is Abraham." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children,
you would do the works of Abraham. (40)
But now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from
God. Abraham didn't do this.
John 8:44 You are of your father, the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and doesn't stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks on his own; for he is a liar, and its father.
Paul goes on to say:
Romans 9:7b-8 NIV On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." (8) In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.
It's only by faith that we are "Abraham's seed," with regard to anything having to do with either inheriting the kingdom, or with the promises that were given to Abraham. How can any of the covenants apply to people who are not children of Abraham? In other words, the covenants themselves have nothing to do with being Abraham's physical seed. They all have to do with being Abraham's seed by faith.
Next, Paul goes on to explain why this is true:
Romans 9:9-13 NIV For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son." (10) Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. (11) Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: (12) not by works but by him who calls—she was told, "The older will serve the younger." (13) Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."
The promise is the covenant of Abraham. Paul is making the point that the promise was not to be given through Ishmael, even though Ishmael was also Abraham's physical seed. Then he makes the same point with Jacob and Esau. The promise was to go through Jacob, even though Esau was Abraham's physical seed, and even the first-born. So the covenants themselves are not for the physical seeds of Abraham. It's for those who God chooses, which are those who have faith (Hebrews 11). That's because faith only comes from God. Those who have faith in Christ are those in the vine of Israel, which is Christ. The promises (covenants) of Abraham are only for those who are true Israel, which is the same as true Christians. Since the covenant of Abraham only applies to the true children of Abraham, the covenants of Moses and David, who were Abraham’s children, would also only apply to Abraham’s children.
Of course you can say that many or most Jews will turn to Christ in the end times. This is true. But that doesn't change the fact that the promises given to Abraham are to those who are by faith children of Abraham. Again, Paul says, "it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring" (Romans 6:8). Those who have faith in Jesus Christ are the chosen people. Paul is making this clear. He is showing that the promises didn't fail when the Jews rejected Christ at his first coming (Romans 9:6). He is saying that these promises (covenants) are instead fulfilled through God's elect. The Jews had considered themselves to be God's elect because of their birth. But Paul and Jesus are saying that the true children of Abraham are only Abraham's children by faith in Jesus Christ.
Romans 9:6-7 NIV It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. (7) Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned."
The Church is the elect (Matthew 24:31, Rom. 8:33, 16:13, Col. 4:12, 2 Tim. 2:10, Titus 1:1, 1 Peter 1:2, 2:4, 2:9, 2 John 1:1, 1:13, all use the same Greek word). There is no difference between the elect of the Old Testament and the chosen people of the New Testament. Thus those who are chosen by faith to inherit the kingdom are those who also receive the promises of the covenants.
We have been discussing Romans 9. Chapters 9-11 are all about Paul's agony over the fact that the Jews didn't accept Christ. In Romans 11 Paul concludes that they will accept Christ after the full number of Gentiles have accepted Christ.
Romans 11:25 says,
Romans 11:25-26 NIV I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. (26) And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
This verse can be interpreted two different ways. Israel is experiencing a hardening in part. Does that mean that some but not all the Jews were hardened? Or is Israel here the true Israel? And the true Israel is experiencing a hardening in part because the Jewish part of Israel is hardened. I interpret it the second way. Both ways of interpretation mean that Jews will be grafted back in after the full number of Gentiles have come in. But Israel should be considered to be the vine into which both Jews and Gentiles are grafted. Right now, the hardening is the fact that Jews are not coming into the vine, as Paul had desired. Thus, when Paul says "and so all Israel will be saved," he is saying that “all Israel” includes Gentiles and then later many Jews after they are no longer hardened.
Paul then quotes the end-times covenant from Isaiah 59:20-21 to prove that all Israel will be saved. Paul is thus recognizing that the covenants are for true Israel, which includes both Jew and Gentile. He then concludes with:
Romans 11:28-32 ESV As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. (29) For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (30) For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, (31) so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. (32) For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
In other words, Paul is saying that because of God's love for the patriarchs, that their physical descendants will not be forgotten. They will become part of the elect, and thus will be given faith to turn to Christ. This brings them back into the vine. But all who remain in the vine are still recipients of all the covenants, including the New Covenant, which is the covenant for those who will inherit the kingdom. Gentiles are recipients of the New Covenant, because we are Abraham's children by faith. Likewise we are recipients of Abraham's covenant and the Davidic covenant as well. There is all one body, one faith, and one baptism. And that one faith makes you a child of Abraham.
God says that Israel is a “people called by My Name” (2 Chronicles 7:14, 6:5-6, 1 Kings 8:16, Nehemiah 1:9, Isaiah 43:7, Jeremiah 7:12, 7:30, Acts 9:15). Is this name Jehovah or Yahweh? Israel was never called by that name. They wouldn’t even say that name. Israel was called by the name Israel. Those who are God’s people are Israel.
2 Chronicles 7:14 If my people, who
are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face,
and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their
sin, and will heal their land.
2 Chronicles 6:5-6 Since the day that I brought forth my people out of the land of Egypt, I chose no city out of all the tribes of Israel to build a house in, that my name might be there; neither chose I any man to be prince over my people Israel: (6) but I have chosen Jerusalem, that my name might be there; and have chosen David to be over my people Israel.
1 Kings 8:16 Since the day that I brought forth my people Israel out of Egypt, I chose no city out of all the tribes of Israel to build a house, that my name might be there; but I chose David to be over my people Israel.
Nehemiah 1:9 but if you return to me, and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts were in the uttermost part of the heavens, yet will I gather them from there, and will bring them to the place that I have chosen, to cause my name to dwell there.
Isaiah 43:7 who is called by my name, and whom I have created for my glory, whom I have formed, yes, whom I have made.' "
Jeremiah 7:12 But go you now to my place which was in Shiloh, where I caused my name to dwell at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel.
Jeremiah 7:30 For the children of Judah have done that which is evil in my sight, says Yahweh: they have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to defile it.
Acts 9:15-16 But the Lord said to him, "Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel. (16) For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name's sake."
Genesis 32:22-32 tells us the story about Jacob receiving his new name Israel. Jacob wrestled with a man who is God. The man, of course, is Christ. He said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” In each of the seven letters to the seven churches, Jesus says that those who overcome are given some aspect of inheriting the kingdom. We overcome as we “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12) “For it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12) God does this only with those whom God chooses. God’s chosen people are the people who overcome. The people in true Israel are a chosen people. The people in the true Church are a chosen people. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (NIV Ephesians 4:4-6). The name Israel means, “he struggles with God.” So God’s chosen people, those who wrestle with God and with men to overcome sin, are Israel.
After Jacob wrestled with Christ, Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” But Christ replied, “Why do you ask my name?” The name Israel means, “he struggles with God.” We are given that name because we struggle to overcome sin. But Christ also struggles with God. He doesn’t struggle to overcome his own sin, because He has no sin. Christ struggles with God and with man to overcome our sin. Christ works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose. Christ is our mediator. He struggles alongside us. He is our advocate. Christ is our High King, and He is our High Priest. As King, he is the Anointed One (Messiah). The High King and the High Priest are our representatives to God. Since Christ struggles with God on our behalf, Christ is Israel. Christ is the King of Israel.
The Church is the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-33). Israel is the Bride of Christ (Ezekiel 16). Thus the Church is Israel. Hosea 2:16 tells us about the future time when Israel will no longer call Christ “Master”, but will call him “Husband.” Revelation 21:2,9 tells us about the time after the millennium, after the new heaven and the new earth, when all who have overcome sin will be the Wife of Christ. This must include redeemed Jews and Gentiles from every age, and from every nation, tribe, people, and language. The true Bride of Christ is Israel. Christ gives His Name to his Bride. We are a people called by His Name. We are Israel.
Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:1-5). This had to infuriate the Pharisees because in the Old Testament, the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grape vine are all symbolic of Israel (Judges 9:7-15, Habakkuk 3:17, Haggai 2:18-19). So those who abide in the vine are Israel. If Christ’s words abide in you, then you are Israel. Paul used the symbolism of the vine in Romans 11:13-24. Those who are in the vine are in Israel. Those who are in the vine are in Christ. Christ is the root (or the head) of Israel. From this text some have spoken of “natural Israel” and “spiritual Israel.” But the text never mentions “spiritual branches.” Romans 9:8 speaks of the “natural children” as specifically not being God’s children. So they are not Israel. Paul refers to “natural branches” as opposed to branches from a “tree that is wild by nature.” In this context, Paul is comparing Jews with Gentiles with respect to the fact that the Promise of Christ came though the Jews, and that the Jews had been trained in God’s word from birth. The Gentiles were simply chosen by God’s Grace (favor) alone. But Paul never speaks of a “spiritual Israel.” He is simply pointing out that not all Israel are Israel (Romans 9:6). In other words, not all Christians are true Christians.
James addresses his letter “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1). Some dispensationalists will go to the extreme and say the book of James, Matthew 24, and parts of Hebrews are not written for the Church, but are written for Israel. The early Church canonized the book of James. They would not have effectively discarded it by saying it’s only for Jews. The followers of this extreme form of dispensationalism apparently do not understand dispensationalism itself. Most dispensationalists would say that all Christians, Jew or Gentile, who accept Jesus Christ before the rapture are said to be a part of the Church-age dispensation. They are said to be a part of the heavenly purpose of God, because they are to be caught-up in the rapture. The Christians to whom James was writing would certainly be a part of this dispensation. James was simply writing to the Church. James obviously considered the Church to be the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations.”
Also, remember that James was written before 70 AD. Jews were living abroad at that time. To refer to the tribes as scattered among the nations is an obvious allusion to the scattering of Israel to Assyria, and to the later scattering of Judah to Babylon. Also remember that the Jews at the time of Christ were descendants of Judah, re-gathered from Babylon. The northern ten tribes have not been re-gathered. No doubt James understood this. So James seems to be addressing the Gentile Church as being the lost tribes of Israel.
As stated previously, the opposite of dispensationalism is the belief that true Israel and the true Church are one and the same. This is held to be true by covenant (reformation) theology, and was the basic belief of Calvin and the reformation. It was important to the reformation because it allows for the priesthood of the believer. It gives Scriptural justification for the believer to be saved without being a part of an earthly church system such as the Catholic Church. However, covenant (reformation) theology also implies a lot of spiritual (“typological”) interpretation of Old Testament Israel to force it to fit traditional New Testament interpretations. In so doing, covenant theology would hold that the Church replaces Israel. A better way of looking at the equality of Israel and the Church is to say the Gentile believers are grafted into Israel. The olive tree, into which Paul said we are grafted, is Israel.
One important consideration to remember is that at the time of the reformation, the Protestant church was almost exclusively amillennial. Amillennialists will always interpret Old Testament prophecies about Israel with spiritual (“typological”) methods of interpretation. There were groups like the Anabaptists who were millennial. But they were considered to be heretics. Therefore covenant (reformation) theology could be considered as strictly amillennial. From the amillennial perspective, covenant theology would say that the old covenants are fulfilled in the Church, in a spiritual (or “typological”) way. The amillennialist would not, for example, believe that the covenant of land with Abraham is to be literally fulfilled when Christ returns. But the core belief of covenant theology is that the true Church is true Israel. If we can continue to insist upon the “grammatical-historical” hermeneutical system, and at the same time recognize the truth that Israel is the Church, then we must conclude that all the covenants will be fulfilled literally in the Church, which is Israel.
The best way to measure whether or not there is a difference between the true Church and true Israel is to examine the covenants and to see if there are differences in the promises of God between his different adopted children. We must also ask, “Who are God’s adopted children?” Are not the children of Abraham really the same as God’s adopted children? Are not the promises given to Abraham promises for all of God’s children? And in sticking with the “grammatical-historical” hermeneutical system, can we arbitrarily say that some of God’s children receive the promises with spiritual (or “typological”) fulfillments, while others receive literal fulfillments of the very same promises?
At the Last Supper, Jesus instigated the new covenant. He said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 20:20). Is this the same “new covenant” as is spoken of in Jeremiah 31:31 and Hebrews 8:8? This question has been debated quite a bit amongst dispensationalists. In order to better distinguish the Church from Israel, some dispensationalists have said that there are two new covenants. Others say the new covenant is spiritually (or “typologically”) fulfilled in the Church, and is to be fulfilled literally in Israel. In their book “Progressive Dispensationalism”, Craig A Blaising and Darrell L Block write about this controversy (page 37).
Revised dispensationalists who were disciples of Lewis Chafer, notably Ryrie and Walvoord, originally defended Chafer’s opinion that the new covenant which the New Testament saw fulfilled in the church, was not the new covenant predicted by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Charles Ryrie wrote in 1953 that if the doctrine of two new covenants were given up, dispensationalism would be weakened. Soon after that, however, both he and Walvoord abandoned the view, for the simple reason that it was not biblically defensible. Moreover, the opposite view, that the same new covenant predicted by the Old Testament prophets was in fact regulating God’s relationship to the church today, was undeniably taught in Scripture! This was argued convincingly by John F. McGahey in 1957 in a doctoral dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary. (McGahey became a long-term faculty member and chairman of the Bible and Theology department at Philadelphia College of Bible until his death in 1986.)
Here is the New Covenant as prophesied in the Old Testament.
Jeremiah 31:31-37 Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: (32) not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was a husband to them, says Yahweh. (33) But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: (34) and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Yahweh; for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says Yahweh: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more. (35) Thus says Yahweh, who gives the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, who stirs up the sea, so that its waves roar; Yahweh of Armies is his name: (36) If these ordinances depart from before me, says Yahweh, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me forever. (37) Thus says Yahweh: If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, then will I also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, says Yahweh.
Hebrews quotes the New Covenant from that Old Testament prophecy.
Hebrews 8:8-13 For finding fault with them, he said, "Behold, the days come," says the Lord, "that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; (9) not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they didn't continue in my covenant, and I disregarded them," says the Lord. (10) "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel. After those days," says the Lord; "I will put my laws into their mind, I will also write them on their heart. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (11) They will not teach every man his fellow citizen, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. (12) For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness. I will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more." (13) In that he says, "A new covenant," he has made the first old. But that which is becoming old and grows aged is near to vanishing away.
In Hebrews 8:8, we have a quote of the new covenant from Jeremiah 31:31. It’s the longest quote in the New Testament of an Old Testament verse. The writer of Hebrews is making it clear that the old covenant (of Moses) had been made obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), and that this new covenant replaced the old covenant. This, of course, matches the teaching of Paul about the Law of Moses, and God’s Grace that was given after Christ’s crucifixion.
The big problem that dispensationalists have with this new covenant, is in the wording of both Jeremiah 31:31, and its quote in Hebrews 8:8. Both state clearly that the covenant is “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” If the Church is not Israel, how can the new covenant be fulfilled in the Church? Dispensationalists use that license of “spiritual interpretation” to eliminate “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” from the covenant. The “grammatical-historical” wording of the new covenant, however, in both New Testament and Old Testament, proves that the Church is Israel. The verses that directly follow the new covenant in Jeremiah are even more convincing that this covenant is literally with Israel.
Jeremiah 31:35-37 NIV This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD Almighty is his name: (36) "Only if these decrees vanish from my sight," declares the LORD, "will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me." (37) This is what the LORD says: "Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done," declares the LORD.
In order for dispensationalists to interpret the Church’s relationship to the new covenant as spiritual (or “typological”), they not only have to do so with Old Testament Scripture, they also have to deny the literal interpretation of Hebrews 8 as well. But how can there be a spiritual (or “typological”) interpretation of Hebrews 8? Is the writer of Hebrews trying to say that a spiritual interpretation of a literal covenant is making the old literal covenant obsolete? It’s hard to get your mind around such an idea. How can you get a spiritual interpretation of a literal covenant by quoting the literal covenant?
Or dispensationalists may take the older position that there are two new covenants. Then they must completely deny any natural interpretation of Hebrews 8, which quotes the new covenant, saying that it replaces the old covenant. Some dispensations go to the extreme and say that all or parts of Hebrews is not for the Church. So they would say Hebrews 8 is not speaking to the Church. Yet Hebrews was written during the Church dispensation. And the audience of Hebrews are readers that were all in the Church dispensation. Dispensationalists who deny that some parts of the New Testament are for the Gentile Church are known as hyper-dispensationalists or ultra-dispensationalists. They say that some parts of New Testament Scripture are for Jews and other parts of the New Testament Scripture are for Gentiles. Yet classic and revised dispensationalism is not supposed to distinguish Jew from Gentile. It’s supposed to identify only dispensations, saying that believers from each are for two different dispensational purposes. It’s not supposed to say the rules and the arrangement between God and men are different for Jews after Pentecost.
So the dispensationalists continue to abandon their “grammatical-historical” hermeneutical system and say that the new covenant is fulfilled in the Church in only a spiritual (or “typological”) way. They are not about to let the covenant be literally fulfilled in the Church, because that would show that the Church is literally Israel. Yet no one has told us what aspect of the new covenant is to be fulfilled literally in Israel, but not in the Church.
All this confusion about the new covenant clearly shows that neither the writer of Hebrews, nor Jeremiah, ever intended for there to be two new covenants, nor two interpretations of one new covenant, one for one class of believers and one for another class of believers.