In my previous article (“A Seismic Shift in Eschatology Has Begun”), the letter writer begs the question by assuming dispensationalism is true, biblically foundational, and has a long and respected historical pedigree. He doesn’t argue for these positions; he simply states them as fundamental, self-evident truths. His arguments, such as they are, are similar to those used by evolutionists, global warming, and same-sex/transgender advocates: “The debate is over! There’s nothing to discuss.” If that were true on all elements of theological debate, then the first Jerusalem Council would never have happened (Acts 15) and Paul never would have rebuked Peter for his wrong-headed theology (Gal. 2:11–21).
My critic’s arguments are based on what others have written. There is no indication that he has done any independent research. “I’ve come to trust some and discount others,” he writes, “like everybody else.” It’s obvious that he has read very little of what I and others have written on the subject or is aware of the mountain of material covering this subject.
A Beginner's Guide to Interpreting Bible Prophecy
With so much prophetic material in the Bible — somewhere around 25% of the total makeup of Scripture — it seems difﬁcult to argue that an expert is needed to understand such a large portion of God’s Word and so many ‘experts’ could be wrong generation after generation. If God’s Word is a ‘lamp to our feet and a light to our path’ (Psalm 119:105), how do we explain that not a lot of light has been shed on God’s prophetic Word and with so little accuracy?Buy Now
It is neither an argument for nor against a position that someone (e.g., Hank Hanegraaff) has changed his views. It happens all the time. If a non-dispensationalist becomes a dispensationalist after 25 years of being a non-dispensationalist, would my critic condemn this change? Of course not! Those who do change to a new (for them) prophetic position often tell me that they did not know there was an alternative position. They adopted the status quo position because someone told them it was what the Bible taught, and they joined a fellowship where nearly everyone held the same view, and if you didn’t hold this view, then, well, you weren’t a real Christian. When they actually started to read and study the Bible on their own, questions arose and good answers were not forthcoming from those who held the present status quo (dispensational) view. This is what happened to me, and it’s happened to many others. I have the testimonies to prove it.
As the Apostle Paul writes, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). The Bereans were described as “noble minded,” for while “they received the word with great eagerness,” they examined the Scriptures daily to determine whether what Paul was saying was true (Acts 17:11). It’s no wonder that Paul accepted the scrutiny since he exhorted the Thessalonians to “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21), something some of their countrymen had refused to do (Acts 17:1–9). While we are not to test God, God’s Word does tell us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
When I suggested to my critic that we engage in an exchange of material, here was his response:
I’d rather not speak to him. He is convinced & so am I. I’m not going to accept his position no matter the discussion or debate.
Can you imagine such an attitude? He would not accept my position “no matter what the discussion or debate.” Unbelievable! I’ve had people fight me tooth and nail over eschatology. It’s amazing how many apologies I’ve received over the years. I remember a call I got some time ago when I was interviewed on an Orlando, Florida, radio station. This guy chewed me out for my “heretical views.” I told him to read my book Last Days Madness. He called me about six months later to apologize. Last Days Madness had convinced him that what he had believed could not stand the scrutiny of the Bible. I’ve learned a lot from critics. Their arguments force me to do more study. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I have it all figured out. I want to be challenged. It’s how we grow.
“Boasting against the Branches”
I would like to know why it’s “boasting against the branches” (Rom. 11:18), as my critic maintains, to question the basic assumptions of dispensationalism. Such a specious argument is typical of some dispensationalists who find it difficult to represent non-dispensational views accurately and have trouble offering a coherent biblical defense of their dispensational paradigm without numerous interpretive caveats (e.g., gaps) when challenged on basic claims (e.g., that dispensationalists are the only ones who interpret the Bible in a consistently “literal” way). Dispensationalists fail to note what else Paul writes just a few verses later in Romans 11: “And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (v. 23). Israelites will be grafted in if and only if they give up their unbelief. The same is true of non-Israelites. I don’t know anyone who believes Jews are excluded from the gospel now that non-Jews are included. That would be “boasting against the branches.”
Paul is not dealing with a Church-Israel distinction in Romans 11. There is nothing in Romans that indicates that there is a Church-Israel distinction. The word “church” doesn’t appear until chapter 16 where it refers in two places to local assemblies of believers (16:1, 5). Nothing is said about a “rapture” of the Church, Israel becoming a nation again, a rebuilt temple, or the return of Jews to their land as a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. There is a single olive tree, and believing Jews and Gentiles become a part of the same tree in the same way: belief in Jesus as the Christ. “For there is no partiality with God…. For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:11, 28–29).
In Galatians we read something similar: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28–29). It’s not flesh and blood Israelites who are the heirs of the promises first made to Abraham. If a person belongs to Christ, then he or she is an heir of Abraham. The Bible couldn’t be any clearer on this point.
In Romans 15, we see that the distinction is, once again, between the “circumcision” (Israel) and the “uncircumcision” (Gentiles), not Israel and the Church.
For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, “Therefore I will give PRAISE TO YOU AMONG THE GENTILES, and I will sing to Your name.” Again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people.” And again, “Praise the Lord all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise Him.” Again Isaiah says, “There shall come the root of Jesse, and He who arises to rule over the Gentiles, in Him shall the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:8–12).
The promises to “the circumcision” (Israel) were not postponed by way of parenthesis so God could deal with a new redemptive entity called the Church. Paul states that God had confirmed “the promises given to the fathers.” They were being realized in Paul’s day. He asks, “God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be!” (Rom. 11:1). As evidence, he offers himself as proof: “I too am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (11:1). By his example and thousands of other Jews who had come to Christ (Acts 2:5, 37–41), he assured his readers that “God has not rejected His people” (11:2). He is not describing something that’s going to take place in the distant future. It was happening right then and there!
Recalling the story of Elijah who thought he was the only one who had not bowed the knee to Baal, Paul writes, “In the same way then, there has come at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (11:5). Notice, it’s “at the present time” that God was being faithful to the promises He had made “to the fathers” (15:8). Paul was describing what was going on in his day: “But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them” (11:13–14). Paul does not hint that there is a parenthesis. He is dealing with the “now” of his day, not a future separated by a postponed prophetic period that has now stretched to nearly 2000 years: “For just as you [Gentiles] once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their [Israel’s] disobedience so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy” (Rom. 11:30–31).
There’s Only One Tree
Two additional points need to be discussed. First, contrary to J. W. Brooks, Gentiles are grafted into Israel; “Jews or Israelites” are not absorbed “into the Gentile Church.” The believing Jews and believing Gentiles make up a single body of believers (Eph. 2:11–22) that draws its sustenance (blessings) from the original Israelite Olive tree. This means that Israelites and Gentiles alike partake of what the original tree represents. The promises made to Israel belong to believing Israelites and believing Gentiles since they are part of the same original Israelite Olive tree.
If Gentiles had never been grafted in, then the Olive tree would have continued to grow to dispense its blessings to Israelites only. The tree does not stop dispensing covenant blessings to Israelites now that Gentiles are grafted in, and neither are these blessings withheld from Gentiles because they were first promised to Israelites. Whatever nourishment is fed to the Israelite branches is also fed to the Gentile branches. The Olive tree is the new community of believers in Christ, what the New Testament calls the ekklēsia, an assembly of believers.
Second, the Israelite branches that were broken off were the result of unbelief. These Israelite branches thought it was enough to be Abraham’s physical seed. John describes the mindset: “[Jesus] came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11–13). John Murray comments:
In unbelief there is no respect of persons (cf. [Rom.] 2:11). God did not spare the natural branches and neither will he spare the Gentiles (vs. 21). If they continue not in faith, they also will be cut off (vs. 22)…. Christian piety is constantly aware of the perils to faith, of the danger of coming short, and is characterized by the fear and trembling which the high demands of God’s calling constrain (cf. I Cor. 2:3; Phil. 2:12; Heb. 4:1; I Pet. 1:17). “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12).
Questioning the dispensational system of interpretation is not questioning what Paul forcefully argues in Romans 9–11. There is one tree, not two. There is one redemptive people of God, not two.
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J. W. Brooks, Elements of Prophetical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Orrin Rogers, 1841), 180.
John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT), 2 vol. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 2:87–88