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Dispensational Considerations

From a Progressive Dispensational Perspective

- by R. Totten, MDiv - © '99

Interpreting the Bible (Hermeneutics)

Before we look at dispensational issues, we should have a brief description of how to interpret the Bible in order to properly understand what it intends to communicate. A reader should initially take everything in the Bible in its normal ("literal") sense, like any piece of explanatory informative literature, ---while taking into consideration the people (& culture) and time it was written, and the grammar, usage and type of literature. This basic perspective on how to properly interpret the Bible, is essentially in agreement with the statement : "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense." Such normal or plain interpretation is primary, and should be adhered to -----unless the nature of the statements, in their context and literature-type, force the reader to take them in a symbolic or figurative way.

To be clear about meanings, it is necessary to define the terms "Israel" and "the Church."

The term "Israel" basically refers to the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob (made up of 12 tribes), ----however the context of a passage may indicate that "Israel" is referring to a spiritual body of redeemed people. For example, in Romans 9:6, the term "Israel" is used twice, in both ways, indicating physical descendants first, and then indicating spiritually redeemed people in the second instance. God has made many promises to physical Israel which will be literally fulfilled, however, it is ultimately the spiritually redeemed Israelites who will actually experience the full delivery of those promises ----the rest are lost (like the generation in the wilderness).

Now, the "Church" is that group of people (Jew & Gentile) from all generations, who are truly redeemed and regenerated (born again) by the grace and power of God, through the shed blood of Christ, and have responded in faith (genuine trust) to God's offer of salvation. ----When talking about "Church" here, we do not mean any sort of humanly organized denomination or group of supposedly "Christian" people (which virtually always includes some people who are not regenerate).

As a historical manifestation and work of God's saving grace, the Church first began on the day of Pentecost as described in Acts chapter 2, where the Holy Spirit came (according to the promise of Jesus in Acts 1:5), and believers were "baptized in the Spirit" at that time. That baptism in the Holy Spirit puts (incorporates) a person into the "body of Christ," as is clearly stated in 1Cor.12:13, and the "body of Christ" is the "Church" (Eph.1:22-23 ; Col.1:18,24). The Church did not functionally and organically exist in the Old Testament times, because there was never a "baptism in the Holy Spirit" in the OT, and Messiah had not yet come. Still, OT promises clearly pointed to the Church's formation and existence in the future ----although not explicitly using the actual name "church". In the OT, the "Church" (explicitly as such) was an unrevealed "mystery" or "secret" (Eph.3:3-6), which was unknown to the OT saints, ----however, since the day of Pentecost, Christ now baptizes all believers in the Holy Spirit into his body (the Church), and the "secret" has been told to all in the NT Scriptures (Col.1:26,27), so, the Church will never again be such a "mysterious" unknown secret.

----Ever since the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Church does exist, and it (the body of Christ) is the means of grafting Gentiles as unnatural "branches" into the natural "olive tree" of Israel (Rom. 11:11-24), so that Gentiles who believe in Christ will be included as citizens of Israel and will also be heirs of the OT promises made to those of physical Israel who are also elect (saved) (Eph.2:11-13,19 ; Gal.3:29).

What is a Dispensation?

The Greek word "oikonomia" in the New Testament, is usually translated as "dispensation," but it also carries the sense of an "arrangement," "administration," "plan" and "management." In the Bible, the word dispensation (oikonomia) is used to indicate different arrangements which God has established down through history under which he manages the affairs of mankind and administers the plan of the salvation of mankind. As God's plan to save the world moves along, he modifies the various arrangements in order to progressively attain the final goal of glorifying himself through establishing the Kingdom of God.

Thus, our definition of a "dispensation" is : A distinguishable arrangement, sovereignly established by God, in the administration of human affairs and responsibilities (especially concerning salvation), as revealed and instituted during a given time-period of history, in order to progressively establish the Kingdom of God to the glory of God.

What are the different dispensations?

Many varying listings of the dispensations have been proposed over the years, but for the purposes of both simplicity and thoroughness, the following six dispensations adequately outline salvation history:

Salvation Down Through the Dispensations

No matter which dispensation is being talked about, there is only one way that a person can be saved, and that is through the sacrifice of Christ by the power of God --but this sacrifice was not specifically and clearly understood in the Old Covenant. In all of history, man is only saved by grace through faith alone in God plus nothing.

Now, in the first three dispensations, as more revelation was progressively given by God through the prophets, the conscious object of faith for a saved person was obviously not Jesus the Messiah. But still, in every dispensation, the object of saving faith was the one true God ---even though the picture about God would grow progressively clearer as more was revealed in future revelation, and supremely so in the incarnation. Even though saints in the first dispensations were not aware of it, the total basis of their salvation was on the atoning death of Messiah Jesus of Nazareth.

To answer how people were saved in the OT dispensations : ---It was by grace through faith (trust) in God alone, as demonstrated through obedience to the commands He had revealed at the time. ----Those believers (elect) were not part of the body of Christ at that time (because Messiah Jesus had not yet come) ---but later (since they were elect), they would also be joined into the body of Christ (the Church) on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) at the same time this happened to all other believers (Heb.11:39,40) through the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Thus, the initial beginning of the body of Christ (the Church) on that day included not only living believers, but also Abraham, David and all Old Covenant believers.

Physical Israel (the 12 tribes) still exists today (just as in the day of Paul, - Rom.9:3-4), ---but most of Israel is currently unregenerate. The Church doesn't displace physical descendants of Israel out of their promised literal blessings from God, -----however, ever since the Church began (in Acts 2), every single redeemed (saved) Hebrew (Israelite or Jew) has been part of the body of Christ (the Church) ...and it will remain that way. On the day of the Second Coming of Christ, "all Israel will be saved" (Rom.11:26), meaning that every single living Israelite (Hebrew) on earth will become regenerate (born again) at that time, and will become "baptized in the Holy Spirit" and, thus, become part of the body of Messiah (the Church).

There is no other way of salvation, nor will there ever be. Thus, since the day of Pentecost, we now have the "Ecclesial (Church) Dispensation," and this outline of salvation history is "progressive" in the sense that there will never be a "going back" to the possibility of anybody being saved apart from belief in the finished work of Christ, nor apart from being baptized in the Holy Spirit and made part of the body of Christ.

The promised gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33 & Ezek.36:27)) was a promise made to Israel (see Acts 2:36-39), ...and the coming of the Holy Spirit (on the birthday of the Church at Pentecost) was prophesied to Israel through Joel (2:28-32) ---as is made absolutely clear when Peter speaks of the coming and baptism in the Spirit, by saying "this IS what was spoken through the prophet Joel..." (Acts 2:16). So, the Church (with the indwelling Holy Spirit) is God's program of salvation for the people of Israel, and it is the way that they partake in the promised "New Covenant" of Jeremiah 31:31-34 -----as was explained to the Israelites (Hebrews) in the book of Hebrews 8:6-13. This promised "New Covenant" (in Messiah Jesus' blood) is made fundamentally with the "House of Israel" (Heb.8:10). And furthermore, how are these Israelites sanctified unto salvation? Read what is said to the Hebrews in chapter 10 ----verse 10 says, "we (Israelites) have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." - - -The body of Messiah (the Church) is God's only program of salvation for Israel, and because of God's grace, we who are Gentiles are blessed to be "hangers-on" ("grafted in") to this wonderful provision of salvation.

Progressive Dispensationalism

The perspective taught here is called "Progressive Dispensationalism", which is a modification of what many people have traditionally understood under "dispensationalism". Major published proponents of this perspective are C. Blaising and D. Bock (professors from Dallas Theological Seminary), who have written a book named "Progressive Dispensationalism," (BridgePoint, Wheaton, '93), and it is excellent (except they fail to follow through on the progressive dispensational perspective, to draw the logical conclusion of post-tribulationism from that perspective). Another book explaining this viewpoint, is "The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism," by Robert Saucy (Zondervan, 1993).

The older Scofieldian-type of "Classical (or "Primitive") Dispensationalism," seemed to many to be somewhat abusive on scripture, making the "Church" a "parenthesis" or some sort of an "afterthought" in the history of salvation. An overview of the relevant scriptures, however, do not portray the Church as a parenthesis, but rather, it is God's only program of salvation, which was promised in the OT, and innaugurated after the ascension of Messiah. ----And since God's salvation program has so powerfully "progressed" through Christ, from the Old Testament arrangement to the "New Covenant," it cannot ever go back to the "Old" again (just to work with Israel during the tribulation, for example). The book of Hebrews and the writings of Paul do not explain all the tremendous things accomplished by the ministry of Christ just to have Bible-teachers in the 20th century presume that many of his accomplishments (namely, involving the Church) will be "suspended" for some vague and questionable theological reasons.

No. ----The New Covenant was promised to Israel in the O.T. (Jer. 31:31-34), and we now know that that New Covenant includes the formation of the Church (starting on the day of Pentecost), which is the form in which the promises and covenantal blessings to Abraham and his descendants will be enjoyed by both Jews and Gentiles alike. ----And this includes all the national promises to physical Israel (Land, Seed & Blessing), which will be fulfilled literally here on earth when Jesus returns to set up the Davidic Messianic Throne in Jerusalem during the millennium. ---All Israel will be saved at the 2nd Coming of Christ (Rom.11:26), and that salvation means that they will all be incorporated into the body of Christ (the Church ) for all eternity. It is "in Christ" (& therefore in his body, the Church) that all the promises will be literally fulfilled to Israel.

Now that God's program of salvation has "progressed" to today's stage of blessing, which includes the placing of all true believers "in Christ" and in his body (the Church), it will never digress or give up any of the ground that has been gained. The burden of proof is on anyone who says that all the great and precious provisions afforded by the body of Christ will not benefit some future believer. Everyone who is saved from now on, after the day of Pentecost (in Acts 2) until eternity, must be part of the body of Christ, the Church (...and this must include every blood-bought saint "in Christ" in the tribulation). No going back. No afterthought. The body of Christ (the Church) is the only place of salvation God has provided for all mankind.

NOT "Replacement Theology"

Progressive Dispensationalism is not some sort of "Replacement Theology," which teaches that Israel, having failed God, has been replaced by the Church. Progressive Dispensationalism is a clear departure from the old Classical (or Primitive) Dispensationalism which draws a hard line between God's dealings with Israel and the "Church" (as they conceive it).

Instead of "Replacement Theology," Progressive Dispensationalism might more closely be described as "Fulfillment Theology", because it portrays the Church (being all regenerate, redeemed people) as a blessing which was promised as part of the New Covenant with Israel in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah 31. The Church is not a secondary redemption plan separate from the plan for Israelites, but rather, the body of Messiah (the Church) is the fulfillment of the primary and only plan of redemption for Israel and all mankind, and the place where all the redeemed will share (both now and in the future) in God's blessings of salvation despite ethnic, gender or national differences. The Church is the "one new man" in Christ (Eph. 2:15), meaning redeemed humanity as over against unsaved mankind.

Progressive Dispensationalism portrays the body of Messiah (the "ekklesia" or "Church") as the only framework of salvation and blessing within which the unconditional and unbreakable promises to Abraham and David will be literally fulfilled to the literal people of Israel, but only regenerate Israelites will actually receive and walk in those final blessings. God has always reserved for himself a regenerate (born-again, saved) remanent out of the people of Israel (Romans 11), and that regenerate remanent is now permanently located in the body of Messiah ever since the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The body of Messiah Yeshua is the "Church" (Eph.1:22-23), and that place of salvation is God's plan for his chosen people, Israel, and Gentiles are graciously "ingrafted" as unnatural branches, and allowed to be citizens of God's household which is fundamentally Jewish. It must be clearly said that God has in no way either rejected or replaced Israel and the Jewish people, but he is fulfilling his promises to them by putting them into the body of their own Jewish Messiah, through the baptism in the Holy Spirit (1Cor.12:13), according to the promise of that Messiah, Jesus (Acts 1:5), and in fulfillment of prophecies in Ezekiel 36:26-27 , Isaiah 59:21 and Joel 2:28-32.

Tribulation Implications

Since the body of Messiah (the Church) is the only one program and framework of salvation for all mankind (in heaven and on earth) since the day of Pentecost (in Acts 2), the Church (the body of Messiah) must necessarily be present on earth during the great tribulation. This is unavoidable, since there will clearly be regenerate saints on earth (Rev.13:7,10 ; Rev.14:12), who are persecuted by Antichrist and die "IN the Lord" Jesus (Rev.14:13). The body of Christ (the Church) is the only place of salvation God has provided for all mankind, so the tribulation saints can only be the Church on earth during the great tribulation.

Because the Church is on earth during the great tribulation, the pre-tribulation (as well as mid-trib) rapture theory loses its main argument, and we are left with a post-tribulational rapture.

- - - Blessings to All!

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Relevant Articles (Links):

- - - Why Messianic Judaism?

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