When dispensationalists can’t answer critiques of their position, they resort to poisoning the well by claiming that non-dispensationalists reject the Jews by adopting a theological system called Replacement Theology. I see it happen in almost any discussion with a misinformed dispensationalist who repeats what he or she has heard from some well-known dispensationalist author.
For the dispensationalist, God’s redemptive program for ethnic Israel is different from that of the Church that only makes Israel prophetically significant after the so-called rapture of the church when Israel undergoes another holocaust. Supposedly God waits nearly 2000 years to redeem Israel and then He permits the Antichrist to ravage the Jews in a wholesale slaughter (Zech. 13:7–9).
Dispensationalists have perpetrated the myth of an Israel-Church distinction they say is based on a straightforward reading of the New Testament where at a particular point in biblical history God’s redemptive program changed from Israel to a new entity called “the Church.” It’s at this point, dispensationalists argue, that Israel’s prophetic clock stopped and a “mystery parenthesis” called the Church Age was inserted between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 9:24–27) soon after Pentecost. The Church Age will end, so the argument goes, when the Church is “raptured.” It will be at this time the prophecy clock will start ticking again and God will once again deal with Israel during the seven-year Great Tribulation. As I pointed out in a previous article, nothing is said about this view in the New Testament.
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Dispensational author Charles Ryrie considers the Church-Israel distinction to be “the absolutely indispensable part” of dispensationalism.
What marks off a person as a dispensationalist? What is the sine qua non (the absolutely indispensable part) of the system? … A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct…. This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive. The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and one who does will.
If it’s “absolutely indispensable,” then why doesn’t the New Testament say anything about it? Without an Israel-Church distinction and a shift in prophetic programs from Israel to the Church during a long-term parenthesis, there is no dispensationalism. If it can be shown that this Israel-Church distinction and two-program view is based on redemptive fiction, then the entire dispensational system collapses.
An Assembly of God’s People
Gaining a proper understanding of the Greek word ekklēsia, most often translated as “church” in the New Testament, should be our starting point since it is Ryrie’s most indispensable part of the dispensational system. Ryrie considers a “historical-grammatical” interpretive method of the Bible to be “the second aspect of the sine qua non of dispensationalism,” summarized as that approach to the text of Scripture that considers a word’s “normal or plain” meaning. He states that “the meaning of each word must be studied” so that it “involves etymology [the study of word origin], use, history, and resultant meaning.” So what is the “normal or plain” meaning of ekklēsia? Ryrie never tells us. Although he spends an entire chapter defining “dispensation,” he never defines “church.” The following from the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament will prove helpful in establishing a proper lexical definition of ekklēsia:
Though some persons have tried to see in the term ἐκκλησία a more or less literal meaning of “called-out ones” [ek + kaleō] this type of etymologizing is not warranted either by the meaning of ἐκκλησία in NT times or even by its earlier usage. The term ἐκκλησία was in common usage for several hundred years before the Christian era and was used to refer to an assembly of persons constituted by well-defined membership. For the NT … it is important to understand the meaning of ἐκκλησia as “an assembly of God’s people.”
Take note that the authors of this lexicon say the word was in use “several hundred years before the Christian era.” Nothing is said about its “dispensational meaning.” None of the standard lexicons know anything about the meaning of ekklēsia that would square with how dispensationalists understand the word. There is no doubt that ekklēsia takes on greater redemptive significance in the New Testament because of Jesus Christ, but not so much so that it is separated root and branch from its Old Testament meaning. It is here that we will learn its “etymology, use, history, and resultant meaning.”
We will see that there is a continuity of the people of God—called the ekklēsia in the Greek translation of the Old and New Testament—as well as Old Testament images that were first applied to Israel but in the New Testament are applied to the assembly of Israelite and non-Israelite believers as “one new man in Christ” (Eph. 2). This is summed up very well in the epistle to the Hebrews: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church [ekklēsia] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel” (12:22–23).
Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem are equated with the ekklēsia that was enrolled in heaven in the first century that included the great “cloud of witnesses” that the author spoke of in the previous chapter (12:1). The author of Hebrews is hardly describing a dispensational Israel-Church distinction with two, one earthly (Israel) and one heavenly (Church), redemptive programs. You can see how, like Paul in Galatians 4:24–31, the author of Hebrews meshes Israel’s promise of land and place into elements of a “better covenant” that has no individual limits or geographical boundaries.
“The city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” is in essence the same city to which Abraham in faith looked forward, that is, “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (11:10), as it is “the city which is to come,” sought in this age by the people of God, who have no lasting city here (Heb. 13:14), and whose true citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). It is the “the holy city, new Jerusalem,” the capital city of the new heaven and the new earth, in which, in fulfillment of his covenant promise, God dwells with men, and they are eternally his people, and al the former things with their sorrows and imperfections have passed away (Rev. 21:1–4). Indeed, the citizens themselves are the citizens, because, as Peter Lombard suggests, God, who gives them life, dwells in them. The presence of God is what constitutes the new Jerusalem.
These heavenly citizens are made up of Israelites and non-Israelites. There is no redemptive dualism. This “assembly” (ekklēsia) is a gathering of “the firstborn,” “the counterpart of the congregation or “church” of the Israelites assembled under the leadership of Moses at Sinai. Thus Stephen says of Moses: ‘This is he who was in the congregation (ecclesia) in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai’ (Acts 7:38).” This gathering of Israel “is referred to in Deuteronomy (4:10; 9:10; 18:16) as ‘the day of the ecclesia’ (Septuagint).” The use of “first-born” of New Testament believers is another indicator that the promises made to Israel are possessed by the New Testament ekklēsia made up of Israelites and non-Israelites. Israel is God’s “son,” His “first born” (Ex. 4:22). The New Testament ekklēsia is also God’s firstborn (Heb. 12:23).
Israel does not become the church and the church does not become Israel. The ekklēsia is as old as the Bible because it’s the congregation or assembly of God’s people in which believing Jews and Gentiles reside in Jesus Christ. There’s one olive tree, not two.
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H. A. Ironside, The Great Parenthesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1943).
Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, rev. and ex. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 38–39. This quotation is an expansion of the definition given in the 1965 edition Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody, 1965), 44: “A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct.”
The Greek word ekklēsia is used 115 times in the New Testament, and in most translations it is translated as “church.” Exceptions are often found in Acts 7:38, 19:32, 39, 41, and Hebrews 2:12.
Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 40.
Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 82.
J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies,  1996). United Bible Societies: New York
Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 546.
Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 547.
Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 547.