Dispensationalism is a theological system held by untold millions of Bible-believing Christians in thousands of churches across our land. Some of the great evangelists of our day and of the recent past have faithfully preached dispensational ‘truths’. Dispensationalism extols Old Covenant Israel as “the apple of God’s eye.” It recognizes the future glory awaiting the revived kingdom when Christ returns to the earth to re-build the Old Covenant temple and to establish a temporary kingdom in Jerusalem. Dispensationalism is widely believed and promoted, but is it biblical?
The Challenge of Ephesians
Let us take a brief walk through the first couple chapters of the Epistle to the Ephesians to see if Paul’s outlook is compatible with dispensationalism. We will work our way through the first few chapters of Paul’s letter in the order he presents it. As we read along, you may become surprised at how clearly Ephesians conflicts with this beloved system.
(1) Christ is Presently Ruling
Dispensationalism teaches that Christ is not presently enthroned as king. His enthronement awaits the future establishment of his kingdom during the millennium. But in Ephesians 1 Paul teaches that Christ was already established as the king and enthroned in the first century. His statement shows that Christ is not awaiting a future kingly reign.
In Ephesians 1:20–23 Paul declares:
“Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.”
Note the following complicating problems that arise from this statement.
We see quite clearly that Jesus in fact has already been seated at God’s right hand in heaven. This being “seated” (note the past tense) at “God’s right hand” obviously speaks of his being seated at God’s throne in heaven. After all, Jesus himself declares elsewhere that he “sat down with My Father on his throne” (cp. Mark 16:19; Acts 7:56; Heb 8:1; 1 Pet 3:22).
This enthronement in Ephesians gives Christ authority “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Indeed, God “put all things in subjection under His feet.” This is as high an authority as is possible. He is the ruler of all things now (Isa 66:1; Matt 5:35; Acts 7:49).
In fact, Paul says that Christ’s rule continues “not only in this age [right now!], but also in the one to come.” If dispensationalists claim that Christ is not now ruling, then what is Paul talking about? Paul sees Christ’s current function at the right hand of God as not only present now, but as continuing into the future age which lies beyond the present age. Put in the best possible light for dispensationalism, they should argue that his kingship takes a new form in the millennium. But their peculiar system construct will not allow this. In their view, Christ’s kingdom was presented, rejected, and postponed. He is not now in any way reigning as king.
(2) We are Presently Ruling with Christ
In Ephesians 2:4–7 we read:
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved); And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus”
And where had Paul just stated that Christ was seated? According to Ephesians 1:20–21 God “raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” He is at God’s right hand ruling over all.
Why does Paul here speak in the past tense by using the aorist verbal forms of “raised” and “seated?” Why does he teach that Christians in the first century are already enthroned with Christ?
And Paul is not alone in this: Peter calls first-century Christians a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9), i.e., a kingdom of priests. And even John, does the same — John states in the past tense: “And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father” (Rev 1:6).
To seal the matter, Paul even mentions the celebration of Christ’s enthronement in Ephesians 4. He speaks of his enthronement in terms reflecting a formal Roman triumph where the conquering ruler returns to his capital and divides the spoil with his jubilant citizens. In Ephesians 4:8 Paul states regarding the heavenly-enthroned Christ: “When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.”
(3) The Jew and Gentile are One
In dispensationalism’s two-peoples-of-God theology they must hold that God (1) distinguishes Jew and Gentile and (2) that he does so permanently. Paul notes very clearly and forcefully that God merges Jew and Gentile into one body, which we now call the church. He even encourages the Gentiles with the knowledge that they are now included among God’s people and are partakers of their blessings. They are not separate and distinct from Israel but are adopted into her. Note Ephesians 2:11–19:
“Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye 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: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God”
Note very carefully what Paul states and how it contradicts the notion of a distinction between Jew and Gentile, between Israel and the church:
1. Paul states that the Gentiles were “in time past . . . at that time . . . being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2:12). This is an observation about their past condition.
2. He argues that the Gentiles were “in time past . . . at that time . . . strangers to the covenants of promise” (plural covenants / singular promise). This is an observation about their past condition.
3. He reiterates the Gentiles’ former condition that has now been changed: “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” (Eph 2:19). This is their new experience and condition.
4. He resolutely declares that Christ has effected “peace” in that he “made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (Eph 2:14). This is their new experience and condition.
5. He restates this once again by noting “for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace” (Eph 2:15). This is their new experience and condition.
6. He declares this fact once again: “ye are no more strangers [from covenants] and foreigners [from Israel]” (Eph 2:19). This is their new experience and condition.
7. He insists: “fellowcitizens with the saints [Old Testament Jewish believers], and of the household of God [One people of God]” (Eph 2:19). This is their new experience and condition.
Dispensationalism distinguishes Jew and Gentile permanently. Paul merges the two into one new body permanently.
(4) Gentiles Receive Old Testament Promises.
Paul has stated that Jew and Gentile are merged in one body, the church (Eph 2:11–19). Now we would note that in the early part of that text he teaches that this new, merged body — the church — receives the Old Testament promises given to Israel. Consider Paul’s statement to these Gentile Christians:
“That at that time ye 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” (Eph 2:12).
What is happening here? Paul is speaking of matters involving “the commonwealth of Israel.” He is declaring that before these Gentiles came to Christ they were “strangers from the covenants of promise.” But now that they have come to Christ they are no longer strangers to the covenants of promise. Thus, they are now recipients of “the covenants of promise,” which include the distinctive Abrahamic Covenant with Israel (Gal 3:16–18). After all, he goes on to say that though they were “at that time” (Eph 2:12) excluded and strangers they now “are made nigh by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13) and that Christ “hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity..” that separated Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14-15).
Thus, if Gentiles are no longer excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, if Gentiles are no longer strangers to the covenants of promise, if Gentiles have been brought near, if Jew and Gentile are merged into one body, and if that which distinguishes Jew and Gentile has been broken down, then by parity of reasoning: the Gentiles receive the promises given to Israel (“fellow citizens”). How can it be otherwise? The two are now one, so that the promises to the old covenant people belong to the new covenant people who have been merged with them.
(5) The Rebuilt Temple
The future rebuilt temple and return to the Old Covenant sacrificial system is a distinctive feature of dispensationalism. Paul, however, does not provide a dispensational interpretation of the promise of a rebuilt temple. In Ephesians 2:19–22 he states:
“Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”
The Apostle certainly believes in a rebuilt temple; he sees “the whole building” as currently in his day already “being fitted together” and “growing into a holy temple in the Lord.” He allows this despite the fact that the earthly temple is still standing as he writes.
Paul sees the rebuilt temple in spiritual terms because it is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” with “Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.” And the current and ongoing building process involves Christians themselves as the building stones for “ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”
This is why Jesus could inform the Samaritan woman:
“Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. …But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24).
This is no stray statement by Paul: he returns to this theme time-and-again. We read of his conception of the spiritual temple in the following verses:
“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” (1 Cor 3:16–17)
Also see 1 Cor 6:19 and 2 Cor 6:16
The third sample in 2 Corinthians 6:16 is important because it specially applies Old Testament prophecy to the New Testament spiritual temple. Notice how Paul argues: “for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’” The Old Testament backdrop to this “just as God said” statement is Ezekiel 37:27: “My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people” – a verse cited in favor of a physically rebuilt temple.
What is remarkable about all of this is that this Paul takes this statement from Ezekiel’s prophecy of Israel’s dry bones coming back to life. Thus, Paul commits two hermeneutic sins [according to Dispensationalism]: (1) he applies a prophecy regarding Israel to the church and (2) he spiritualizes God’s prophetic dwelling, applying it to God’s spiritual indwelling his people, rather than God’s building a new temple.
Select portions revised from: A Tract For Dispensationalists by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.