Dispensationalism is a form of theology that began in 1840’s in England in a group called the Plymouth Brethren. It became very popular in the United States among conservative, evangelical Christians when it was adopted by D.L. Moody, the Billy Graham of his day. He and his team spread the teaching through Bible conferences that were very popular in the later 19th, early 20th century, among evangelicals. Also, the most popular study Bible of the early 20th Century was the Scofield Reference Bible which adopted a Dispensational point of view and promoted its understanding of the Bible in its study notes. It continues to be a powerful influence among conservative Christians today being taught at a rigorous level in institutions like Dallas Theological Seminary and on a popular level by prophesy preachers such as Hal Lindsey and in the Left Behind books and movies.
Before I begin my critique, let me begin by saying Dispensationalists are wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ that God is using around the world to spread his kingdom. This is an intramural debate among Christians Also, Dispensationalism is a multifaceted movement that has many expressions. Not everything I say will apply to everyone who says they are a Dispensationalist. Finally, it is a developing movement that is changing in a more biblical direction with the advent of what is known as “progressive dispensationalism.” But having said all that, let me make a few remarks in loving critique about some points that have traditionally been very important among Dispensationalists as I believe these miss the mark biblically.
When Did the Church Begin?
Dispensationalists believe the church began in Acts chapter 2. The church did not exist before then. But we may ask, where did the apostles get the word “church” (ekklesia in Greek)? They got it from the Old Testament, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that is, a work known as the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, the word “ekklesia” is used dozens of times and in the vast majority of those cases, its used in reference to Israel as the people of God. In our English translations of the Old Testament,that word is most often translated “assembly” or “the assembly the Lord”. That is what the original Hebrew word meant and English Bibles always use Hebrew as the basis of their translations as that is the original language of the Old Testament, inspired by God. But when translating that Hebrew word into Greek, the ancient Jewish scholars used the word “ekklesia” or “church” to describe Israel. When the apostles, writing in Greek, choose a word for the New Testament people of God, they did not invent a new word out of thin air. They used a word that was already being used for the people of God in the Old Testament: the church. Thus the church did not begin in Acts 2. It already existed in the Old Testament as the nation of Israel. This is confirmed in Acts 7:48 and Hebrews 12:2 where the writers of the New Testament refer to Old Testament Israel as the church. That is the Greek word behind the English translations even if yours just says, “the assembly.” The Old Testament people of God were the church and the church continues to exist in the New Testament people of God. They are one and the same.
2) What Did Jesus Come to Do?
Dispensationalists teach that Jesus came to offer a political, military kingdom to Israel. It was only after Israel rejected him as their Messiah that Jesus decided to die on the cross for our sins. This teaching has one enormous theological problem. If Jesus didn’t come to die for our sins, what good would it have been to give an earthly kingdom to Israel? Every human that existed, Jew or Gentile, would have still been under the wrath of God for our sins. Even if an earthly paradise existed, we would all spend eternity in Hell. If this had been God’s plan, it would have been very shortsighted and a trivial victory.
The New Testament is clear as to what Jesus’ mission was. Before he was even born, before anyone any Israel had any chance to respond to Jesus, God declared what his mission would be. He told Joseph and Mary, “you are to give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.” Not, “he will establish an earthly kingdom.” No, he will save his people from their sins. That was plan A. That is what Jesus came for. He is the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the earth. The cross was always the primary purpose in Jesus coming to earth. It had been God’s plan before the universe was created. The cross was never God’s plan B after the Jewish earthly kingdom failed. Thank God, Jesus came to save us first and foremost from wrath, sin, death and hell by dying on the cross for our sin and rising again. That is the glorious plan for which we praise God for.
This is confirmed with the act that began the ministry of Jesus. Jesus began his ministry by being baptized with a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4-5). Since Jesus never committed any sin, why in the world was he baptized for repentance? Jesus was identifying with sinners. He was saying he would stand with sinners. Ultimately he would stand in the place of sinners on the cross. This interpretation is confirmed when later Jesus refers to his upcoming death as his baptism (Mark 10:38-45). Jesus whole ministry from the very beginning was to die on the cross for our sin, not to offer an earthly kingdom to anyone.
Ironically for the dispensationalist interpretation, the people of Israel wanted Jesus to offer them an earthly political, military kingdom. They kept trying to make him into that kind of Messiah. If he would have offered them that kind of kingdom, they would have enthusiastically accepted him as their Messiah. They did not reject Jesus giving them an earthly kingdom. Jesus rejected that desire as being opposed to the will of God. What dispensationalists say was Jesus’s primary mission was the mission that Jesus himself rejected. What dispensationalists say Israel rejected is exactly the type of Messiah Israel would have accepted.
3) Are There One or Two Peoples of God?
Dispensationalism says that God has two separate peoples: his Jewish people and His Gentile people. They have two different purposes and two different destinations. In the end, the Gentiles will rule in heaven and the Jews will reign upon the earth. Recently I have been preaching through Ephesians and I have been impressed that Ephesians seems to have been written to utterly defeat this theology. In Ephesians 2 we are told that God’s purpose was to make Jews and Gentiles one (14), “to create one new humanity out of the two” (15), to make them fellow citizens together in God’s kingdom and fellow children in God’s family (19), to build them together into one building, one temple (21-22). And then moving to chapter 3, “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus (6). Paul says it was God’s glorious purpose that his kingdom manifested in the church would be made up of all the peoples of the earth as the Gentile nations became saved through believing in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. They would become one people as they all became part God’s kingdom which began in Israel and which spread throughout the earth through the gospel. There was, is and will be only one people of God.
This is confirmed when we see that the New Testament over and over again refers to the New Testament church by names that had previously been reserved for Old Testament Israel. For instance, in Peter 2:9-10 the church is called “a chosen people”, “a holy nation”, “God’s special possession”, “the people of God”, all terms previously reserved for Israel. There are not two groups that God has two purposes for. There is only one people of God in both the Old and New Testaments.