Now that we’ve gotten some preliminaries out of the way, what is the truth behind the charge that non-dispensationalists believe in “replacement theology,” that the Church replaces ethnic Israel and her promises and that God is through with Israel forever? As I will show, the Gospels and Acts demonstrate that the first New Covenant believers were Jews who were defined as the Church by Jesus and Stephen. The use of the word Church in a Jewish context demonstrates the truth that the Church is not a “mystery parenthesis.”

One of the arguments that dispensationalists use to prove the pre-rib rapture is that after Revelation 3, the word “church” no longer appears.[1] This must mean, according to a basic tenet of dispensationalism, that the church will be “raptured” so God once again can deal covenantally with ethnic Israel. The age of the church parenthesis is over when the rapture occurs. Dispensational logic is clear: The presence of the word “church” means the church is a present reality, while the absence of the word “church” means the church is absent from the earth.

Dispensationalists believe the church is a parenthesis in God’s plan with Israel because she rejected Jesus’ offer of the kingdom. The majority of classic dispensationalists are “Acts 2 Dispensationalists.” They believe the church began at Pentecost. Other dispensationalists believe the church started when Paul is told to “bear [Jesus’] name to the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15), when Paul started his mission to the Gentiles (13:2), or with Israel’s rejection of the kingdom of God and the sending of God’s salvation to the Gentiles (28:26–28), a view made popular by E. W. Bullinger (1837–1913). Some also see the transition from Israel to the Church taking place in Acts 8 or 11. For our discussion, it’s only important to know that all the dispensational systems claim the Church does not begin until after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

Any mention of the church prior to Pentecost would destroy the entire parenthesis argument. Jesus tells His disciples that He will build His church “on this rock” (Matt. 16:18). If the Church is a “mystery,” and the supposed parenthesis does not begin until at least Acts 2, then why is there this mention of the “Church” when Jesus is dealing almost exclusively with the “house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24)? The dispensationalist will argue that Jesus is describing the future: “I will build My church.” But if the Church is a mystery that does not come into being until Pentecost, then why didn’t Peter ask, “What is the church?”

The Church is mentioned again in Matthew’s gospel: “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer” (18:18). This church discipline discussion takes place within a Jewish context. Notice that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 19:15 and the requirement of two witnesses (Matt. 18:16). “Tell it to the church” is the Greek way of saying “tell it to the congregation,” that is, the assembly of Israelites. If the person in this context is to be treated as a “Gentile and a tax-gatherer,” it’s obvious that he is being treated as a non-Jew, excommunicated from the Jewish assembly. These two references in Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospels, are a clear refutation of the claim that the Church does not begin until Acts 2 or later.

The Church is as old as covenantal believers. This is why Stephen could describe Israel as the “church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). The New American Standard Version obscures this fact by translating the Greek word ekklesia as “congregation” instead of “church.” The translators do offer a marginal note that reads, “Or, church (Gr., ekklesia).” The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, often abbreviated as LXX, uses the word ekklesia 73 times (e.g., Deut. 9:10; 18:16). To say that the church is a post-Pentecost “mystery” unknown by the writers of the Old Testament is a myth that ignores the New Testament evidence found in Matthew and Acts based on word usage alone. If for the dispensationalist the absence of the word church in Revelation means the church has been raptured, then the presence of the word church in the gospels means the church is a Jewish reality.

The first NT believers were Jews. They continued the legacy of the Old Covenant assembly of believers, what the NT defines as the church. Nothing was postponed. All was fulfilled. As we will see, Gentiles were grafted into an already-existing Jewish church.


[1] Actually, “the church” as a universal body of earthly believers does not appear anywhere in Revelation, not even in chapters 2 and 3. It’s always “the church in” (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). These are seven local churches that existed in the first century. The word “churches” is used in the same way (1:4, 11, 20; 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 22:16).