The Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism (4)
Part 4: Promises, Promises
by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com
In this blog I am continuing a study in Ephesians which shows that Paul’s theology contradicts the foundational teachings of dispensationalism. As I noted in the preceding articles (which I have cleverly named: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3): It seems almost as if Paul intentionally designed Ephesians to undermine dispensationalism. Ephesians is virtually a tract to reach out to dispensationalists. Thus, I am outlining “The Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism.”
Of course, if you are a dispensationalist you might initially be tempted to thump your desk (being careful not to strike your mouse so that you lose your Internet connection) and loudly yodel: “Ah ha!!! So then: you admit dispensationalism existed in the first century!!! I rest my case!!!” (Dispensationalists use abundant exclamation points when they speak or write: such is their excitement.)
However, this clever response will not do. After all, in Ephesians 4:11 Paul notes that God “gave some as apostles, and some as prophets.” Indeed, he himself is an apostle possessing prophetic powers, for elsewhere he clearly states: “I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge” (1 Cor 13:2). Thus, he could well have been looking down the unfolding centuries to Dublin, Ireland in October, 1827 when J. N. Darby fell off his horse and struck his head so hard that he came up with the idea of dispensationalism. (When most of us fall of our horses and strike our heads we do not come up with whole new theological constructs. But such was the genius of Darby: he could multi-task.)
Furthermore, we must remember that Paul was not only prophetically-gifted but deeply concerned for his flock. Thus while originally among the Ephesians (Acts 20:17) he prophesied: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking silly things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30. Note: some manuscripts of Acts have the Latin word sillius [“silly”] here instead of the Greek word diestrammena [“perversities”]. This textual variant suggests that Paul knew theological innovators were often comedians.)
(I would also point out that 1 Tim 4:1 reads: “the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to silly spirits and doctrines of dispensationalists” [1 Tim 4:1]. I confess though that this textual reading also includes two variants that may be translated “silly” and “dispensationalists.” Apparently early copyists realized that Paul was speaking of the year 1830 when the dispensational system was finally completed and presented to the world — just in time for the Powerscourt Conferences in 1831–33.)
Israel’s Promises and Jesus’ Church
Now let us move on in our study of Paul’s anti-dispensational polemic. Actually, let us back-up. In my last blog I worked my way through Ephesians 2:19. I will now return to Ephesians 2:11–12 to demonstrate the unthinkable: Paul applies to the new covenant church the old covenant promises given to Israel. This single theological truth absolutely destroys dispensationalism.
In the dispensational view Paul failed to “rightly divide the word of truth.” He foolishly read the Old Testament in the light of the interpretive teaching of Jesus and his divinely-inspired apostles. He should have continued reading the Old Testament as if Jesus had never come and had never rebuked the Jews for misinterpreting Scripture (Matt 22:29; Mark 12:24; Luke 25–27; John 5:39). He should have not depended on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to assist him in understanding the Scriptures. Dispensationalists even argue that he committed a hermeneutic stumble when he wrote in Ephesians “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Eph 1:17; cp. John 14:26; 16:13; Acts 2:16–18; Rom 7:6; 8:5; 1 Cor 2:10–15; 2 Cor 3:6; Col 1:9; 2 Pet 1:21).
One of the classic problems dispensationalism has created for itself revolves around the new covenant. Jeremiah 31:31–34 speaks of a new covenant that will supersede (uh oh!) the old covenant: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.”
Unfortunately for dispensationalism and their flawed hermeneutic, Jeremiah’s prophecy states that this new covenant will be made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” Given their random, only-when-needed-to-save-the-system literalism, the dispensational system forbids the establishing of the new covenant with any other people group than Israel. This has generated intense debate within dispensationalism, leading to their proposing four different approaches to Jeremiah’s rather simple prophecy. Apparently, this is their favored way of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Indeed, they actually read that text as: “rightly dividing over the word of truth,” that is, they divide themselves up into warring camps while deconstructing biblical texts.
The problem for dispensationalism arises from Jesus’ own teaching. The Lord clearly establishes this new covenant when he ordains the Lord’s Supper as one of the two sacraments for his new covenant church: “And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:20; cp. 1 Cor 11:25). What Jesus is effectively doing is declaring a “new Israel”: the new covenant church.
In my last blog I noted that Paul saw Jew and Gentile merged — permanently — in one body, the church (Eph 2:11–19). Now I 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: “remember that you were at that time [before your conversion] separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to 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 to the covenants of promise.” This necessarily means that now that they have come to Christ they are no longer strangers to the covenants of promise. That is, 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 “a that time” (Eph 2:12) excluded and strangers they now “have been brought bear by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13) and that Christ “broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” that separated Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14).
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” (the “dividing wall”), then by parity of reasoning: the Gentiles receive the promises given to Israel. 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.
Is this not demanded by Christ’s own establishing of the Lord’s Supper as the new covenant sacrament for his church? Was not Paul, as the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 1:5; 11:13; Gal 2:8; 1 Tim 2:7), a promoter of the new covenant, calling himself a “servant of the new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6)? Did he not explain the new covenant sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 11:23–25ff) — which he received from the Lord himself (1 Cor 11:23a)?
Of course, the application of Jewish promises and prophecies is abundantly taught throughout the New Testament (which is why dispensationalists want to interpret the Old Testament alone, as if Christ had not come). But our interest is here in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. This apostle to the Gentiles includes Christian Gentiles among the members of “the commonwealth of Israel” and under “the covenants of promise.” Thus, he sees the church as the recipient of the old covenant promises and prophecies.
That’s all. I’m tired.