Tuesday, June 9, 2020


As I began a study of Revelation 19:6ff, I recognized some issues that are pertinent to Dispensationalism.  I could have taken this sidetrack in a number of other studies in Revelation, but I have put off doing so.  I did so mainly because Dispensationalism is a very involved theory of last things, and I wanted to keep the focus on the Scriptures at hand.  This particular study will not be sufficient to answer many of the questions that a person new to Dispensationalism would have.  The purpose of the study is to help the reader to be aware of Dispensationalism and some of its basic beliefs.  It also will give that person who is a follower of Dispensationalism some understanding of my own position.  I have discussed many of the issues of Dispensationalism in earlier posts a few years ago, but have not mentioned the subject to any degree lately.  I shall divide this presentation into a presentation of Dispensationalism (present post) and two posts that critique some aspects of the theory.
SOME MAJOR BELIEFS AND THEMES OF DISPENSATIONALISM (which I shall abbreviate as D, and I shall abbreviate Dispensationalists as Ds)
  • God has dealt with humankind in a series of dispensations (defined and listed below)
  • God has also made covenants with people, especially Abraham, Israel, and David, which are, generally, irrevocable
  • The overarching program of God is to bring about the “Theocratic Kingdom” (which is expressed especially during the Millennium)
  • The church is a “parenthesis” within the program of God, in which God deals with people totally separate from the institution of the Theocratic Kingdom
  • Therefore, Israel and the church are two separate peoples who are dealt with in two separate programs
  • Israel has an earthly destiny; the church has a heavenly destiny
  • The Kingdom was offered to Israel by the King, Jesus Christ, but Israel rejected that offer and crucified the King
  • The Kingdom will be offered again in the seven-year period (which I call the Tribulation Period) just before the Second Coming of Christ
  • Immediately after the Second Coming of Christ, the Theocratic Kingdom, centered in Israel, will be inaugurated and Christ will reign 1000 years
  • Because the focus of God’s dealings with humankind during the Tribulation is Israel, the church will be removed from the earth at the beginning of that period; this is called the Pretribulation Rapture
  • At the Rapture, the dead saints will be resurrected and the living Christians will receive resurrection bodies and both groups will rise up and meet Christ, who will take them back to heaven. So the church will live in heaven during the seven-year Tribulation period
  • The church will return with Christ at the Second Coming
    The Ds believe that during the time the church is in heaven after the Rapture, the Christians will be judged at the Judgment Seat of Christ.  This will be a judgment of the deeds (works) of the saints.  It will not determine whether they are saved, but simply acknowledge those works that are worthy of reward.  Then the church will be worthy to be a pure Bride of Christ who is dressed in fine linen, symbolizing the righteous deeds of the saints.  The Bride and the Groom (Christ) will then be married.  After the Second Coming, there will be a Marriage Supper of the Lamb.  Worthy subjects of the Theocratic Kingdom will be invited to the Marriage Supper.  It is believed by some that this Supper is really a parable for the Kingdom.  
    The truth is that dispensations do not play a large role in the thinking of Ds, except that the latter dispensations do receive attention.
    Nevertheless, we should begin by listing the dispensations.  Scofield defines a dispensation as “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.”  (note at Genesis 1:28)  The following are the seven dispensations according to Scofield:
  1. Innocency (created innocent, given an “absolutely simple test and warned of the consequence of disobedience”) (note at Genesis 1:28)
  2. Conscience (humans “responsible to do all known good, to abstain from all known evil, and to approach God through sacrifice”) (note at Genesis 3:23)
  3. Human Government (People are “responsible to govern the world for God.”) (note at Genesis 8:20)
  4. Promise  (the descendants of Abraham “became distinctively the heirs of promise...  [This dispensation] ended when Israel rashly accepted the law.”) (note at Genesis 12:1)
  5. Law (“This dispensation extends from Sinai to Calvary...The testing of the nation  by law ended in the judgment of the Captivities…”) (note at Exodus 19.8)
  6. Grace (“As a dispensation, grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ...The point of testing is no longer legal obedience...but acceptance or rejection of Christ...The immediate result of this testing was the rejection of Christ by the Jews...The predicted end of the testing...is the apostasy of the professing church...and the resulting apocalyptic judgments.”) (note at John 1:17)
  7. Kingdom (“The Dispensation of the Fulness of Times.  This, the seventh and last of the ordered ages which condition human life on the earth, is identical with the kingdom covenanted to David [2 Sam. 7.8-17…] and gathers into itself under Christ all past ‘times’”...) (note at Ephesians 1:10)
    “From the outset of God’s program to manifest His sovereignty by His rule in this earthly sphere until the consummation of that program, when universal sovereignty is acknowledged (I Cor. 15:24), there has been one continuous, connected, progressive development of that program...This whole program may be called the theocratic kingdom.”  (Pentecost, 433)  Pentecost traces the theocracy from Eden through to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the 12 sons) and thence to the kings and then to the prophets and, finally, the captivities. (Pentecost, 435-445) When Jesus came, according to D thinking, Christ “offered” the theocratic kingdom to Israel.  This was “the same theocratic kingdom foretold through the Old Testament prophets.” (Pentecost, 447)  This kingdom was “limited to Israel.” (Pentecost, 450)  “There could be no universal blessings of the Abrahamic covenant applied to the Gentiles until Israel had experienced the realization of the theocratic kingdom, in which kingdom and in whose King the nations would be blessed.” (Pentecost, 450)  
    Although Christ offered the Kingdom to Israel, it was not accepted.  Israel rejected Jesus as its King.  Because of this, Jesus announced the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11, ESV).  “Secrets” is translated “mysteries” in KJV.  The big mystery, according to Pentecost, “was the fact that [Christ]...would be rejected and an age would fall between his rejection and the fulfillment of God’s purpose of sovereignty at His second advent.  The mystery form of the kingdom, then, has reference to the age between the two advents of Christ.  The mysteries [in the parables of Matthew 13]...describe the conditions that prevail on the earth in that interim…” (Pentecost, 143)  This mystery form of the kingdom is during the church age, but includes “more than the church…” (Pentecost, 144)  
At the end of the age, the news of the Kingdom will be announced.  This announcement, Pentecost calls the “gospel of the kingdom,” which he believes is the message of John the Baptist and Jesus and NOT the message of salvation through faith in Jesus, which is the common Christian understanding of the term “gospel.”  (Though he believes people who receive the gospel of the kingdom are saved by their faith in Christ.)  So, in Matthew 24:14, Jesus says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”  Pentecost understands this to be the announcement that “the promised kingdom was ‘at hand.’” (Pentecost, 472)  He understands the “eternal gospel” that the angel proclaims in Revelation 14:6 is “the good news that the king is at hand to establish the kingdom which was God’s eternal purpose.” (Pentecost, 472-473)  This “theocratic kingdom” is the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ.  Notice that this, to Pentecost, is the culmination of the program of God throughout history.  Among the reasons that Pentecost (and scholars whom he quotes) believes that this theocratic kingdom is “an absolute necessity” are 
  • To “preserve the integrity of the character of God”:  He quotes G. N. H. Peters that, unless the Kingdom (of David) is reestablished, God’s own Kingdom “has proven a failure.”
  • “To accomplish God’s purpose of demonstrating His perfect government over the earth”
  • “To restore the original harmony between God and His creation…”
  • “To redeem the earth from the curse imposed upon it”
  • “To fulfill all God’s eternal covenants made with Israel”
  • “To provide a final test of fallen humanity”
  • “To make a full manifestation of the glory of Christ…”
In the midst of this program of God, which culminates in the Millennium, one finds the church.  God’s dealings with the church is considered to be wholly separate from His dealings with Israel.  Pentecost refers to Lewis Sperry Chafer, who enumerates 24 “contrasts between Israel and church…” (Pentecost 201-202) Among these contrasts are
  • The purposes of God for Israel was revealed in “earthly promises in the covenants,” for the church, in “heavenly promises in the gospel”
  • Abraham has the headship over Israel and Christ, over the church
  • God deals with Israel both nationally and individually, but only individually in the church
  • Israel is seen in all the dispensations since Abraham, whereas the church is only seen in the present dispensation
  • Jesus Christ is, for Israel, Messiah, Immanuel, and King; for the church, He is Savior, Lord, Bridegroom, Head
The following is a quote from Chafer (The quotation is from an ebook version of his book, Dispensationalism, so a page cannot be cited.):  “The Bible presents the origin, present estate, and destiny of four major classes of rational beings in the universe:  the angels, the Gentiles, the Jews, and the Christians.  Nothing could be more germane to true Biblical interpretation than the observance of this fact that these divisions of rational beings continue what they are throughout their history.” (punctuation as in the original)  When I read that, I was almost shocked.  Although one could probably quote Scriptures to justify these hard lines of distinction, it seems almost crude to understand the Bible this way.     

The church is a “mystery.”  “Mystery” in this use is a technical term that refers to something that was previously unknown and is revealed.  The mystery is that “God was going to form Jews and Gentiles alike into one body…” (Pentecost, 201)  This formed the church, which is on earth during the present period.  As the current program of God, the church is considered to be a “parenthesis,” meaning that God has temporarily suspended His dealings with Israel and is dealing with humanity especially through the ministry of the church.  At the same time, the principles of the “mysteries” in the parables of Matthew 13 are in operation.  This can be quite confusing.  (I follow Pentecost in this explanation.)  The church age, from the day of Pentecost to the rapture, is at the same time the “mystery form” of the Kingdom.  The sowing and reaping, wheat and tares, and so forth, are in operation within and beyond the church during this age.  So, “mystery” is applied to the present age and, in a separate meaning, to the church.  In both cases these developments were unrevealed until the New Testament era.  Jesus expounded the mysteries of the Kingdom (Matthew 13), and Paul expounded the mystery of the church (Ephesians 3:6).  
THE PRETRIBULATION RAPTURE OF THE CHURCH (abbreviated as “Pretrib Rapture”)
    Probably the most well-known teaching of D is the Pretrib Rapture of the church.  As I have discussed above, the church is considered to be a separate entity that is the focus of the program of God during the present period of time.  When the last seven years before the Second Coming begins, the Ds believe that the church will be raptured “out” of the world and go to heaven to be with Jesus during those seven years.  (Many people refer to that entire seven-year period as the “Tribulation,” and that is why it is called the “Pretrib Rapture.”  Many D scholars consider only the last part of those seven years to be the actual Tribulation, which Jesus refers to in Matthew 24:21-22.)  
    The Rapture is a concept that has a strong Scriptural basis.  In I Corinthians 15:50-55, Paul describes the concept of the Rapture.  Among the points he makes are the following:
  • “Flesh and blood” (our bodies in the present order of existence) cannot participate in the Kingdom of God.  
  • Most Christians will die and be resurrected.  It is implied their resurrection bodies can participate in the Kingdom.
  • But not all Christians will die, yet they will be changed--so that their bodies can participate in the Kingdom.
  • This change will be instantaneous at the last trumpet.

In a second Scripture, Paul relates this transformation of the living Christian’s body to the timing of the Resurrection of the dead in Christ.  This description is in I Thessalonians 4:13-18.  Paul is comforting those Christians whose love ones have died (are “asleep”).  He explains that there is a future for the dead Christians.  He summarizes that future in verse 14, which makes the following points:
  • The basis for hope is the accomplished fact of Jesus’ resurrection.
  • God will take care of those who have died, which are referred to by the euphemism “fallen asleep.”  
  • God will bring “with him” (Jesus) those who are dead.
There is a prepositional phrase, “through/in Jesus.”  In the sentence.  Its place in the word order makes its function somewhat ambiguous.  ESV translates it as modifying the verb “bring”:  It is through Jesus that God will bring the dead with Him.  NIV, NASB, and KJV consider it to modify “sleep”:  God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
In the remainder of the passage, Paul gives additional details, which are as follows:
  • Jesus will descend from heaven with a shout.  (4:16a)
  • The dead in Christ (dead Christians) will rise from the their graves.  (4:16b)  From the following verse we infer that the dead not only come out of graves but begin ascending up to the clouds of the sky.
  • Next, the living Christians will be caught up together with the resurrected Christians into the clouds. (4:17a)
  • The two groups, now joined into one, meet the Lord in the air, to be with Him forever. (4:17b)

    We seem to be justified to join the two passages, I Corinthians 15:51ff (as well as earlier parts of the chapter) and I Thessalonians 4:13ff, to form a fairly complete description of the Rapture/Resurrection.  The following is a summary.
  • Jesus will descend from heaven with a trumpet blast
  • The dead in Christ will be resurrected, as they are equipped with glorified bodies.  They will ascend through the air toward the clouds.
  • Immediately after this, as they are ascending, the living Christians will be “raptured”:  their bodies will be transformed into glorified bodies and they will ascend toward the clouds, as they join with the rising bodies of those who were resurrected.
  • They will meet Jesus in His descent in the clouds.
  • They will be with Jesus forever.

    IT IS WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE NEXT-TO-THE-LAST STEP AS WELL AS THE TIMING OF THE WHOLE EVENT  in the list above that creates much controversy.  
  • Classical D’s believe that the crowd of those who have been resurrected or raptured will RETURN WITH JESUS TO HEAVEN AND REMAIN WITH HIM THERE FOR SEVEN YEARS.  This understanding is called the Pretrib Rapture.
  • Some scholars, who consider themselves Ds, do not agree with the Pretrib Rapture.  Some believe the resurrection/rapture will occur about halfway through the seven year period.  Their theory is referred to as the “Midtrib Rapture.”  (In some cases it is referred to as the “Pre-wrath Rapture.”) 
  • Others, who also consider themselves Ds, believe the resurrection/rapture will occur at the end of the seven years.  Their theory is referred to as the “Posttrib Rapture.”  See Gundry.
  • Others, like myself, disagree with many of the teachings of D.  However, they do believe that the Resurrection/Rapture will take place at the end of the seven years at the Second Coming of Christ.
  • In the last two cases, the scenario does NOT include going to heaven with Jesus.  It understands that those who have been resurrected or raptured will meet Jesus and join Him in His descent to the earth.
    The “Millennium” is derived from the Latin for “1000 years.”  The corresponding term from Greek is “chiliasm”--which can refer to the Millennium or to the belief in the Millennium.  “Chiliastic” refers to a person who believes in the Millennium or to a doctrine that espouses it.
    D posits a thousand-year reign of Christ who sits on the throne of David in Jerusalem and rules Israel as well as all the nations.  This is often what is understood to be the “Kingdom of Heaven” or “Kingdom of God” or the “Theocratic Kingdom” (see above).  It is believed by some Ds that the the parables that describe a great banquet or a marriage supper are parables of the Millennium.  Thus, when Revelation 19:9 refers to the Marriage Supper, it is understood by Ds to refer to the Millennium.  (Pentecost, 228)  However, Pentecost points out that Chafer considers that there is a Marriage Supper in heaven with only Christ and the church and a Marriage Feast on earth after the Second Coming (and during the Millennium).  (Pentecost, 228)

        The following passage describes what is often called the Great White Throne Judgment:
Revelation 20:11-15  Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it...And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.  Then another book was opened, which is the book of life.  And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done...Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  This is the second death, the lake of fire.  And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
    The following passages indicate that a judgment that ends in the Second Death will NOT be experienced by believers in Christ:
  • John 5.24 ...whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
  • Rom 5.1 ...justified by faith, we have peace with God
  • Rom 8.1, 8.33 ...now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  8:33:  Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.
However, not all Scriptures related to judgment make a separation between the judgment of the righteous and unrighteous.  See, for example, John 5:26-29.  
    The idea that Christians will undergo a judgment--separate from the judgment of sinners--is widespread and not limited to Ds.  This understanding is based on Scriptures that indicate such a judgment, such as the following.
  • Matt. 6:1-6, 16, 18:  Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.  Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet...And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  And when you pray...go into your room...who sees in secret will reward you.  16: And when you fast...they have received their reward.  18:  ...Father, who sees in secret...
  • Matt. 10:41-42  The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward...whoever gives one of these little ones...cold water because he is a disciple...by no means lose a reward.
  • Rom 14:10-12 Why do you pass judgment on your brother?  Or you, why do you despise your brother?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”  So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
  • I Corinthians 3:13ff  Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire...If the work...survives, he will receive a reward...If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
  • II Corinthians 5:9ff So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil

    The following are some brief observations about judgment of Christians, some of which are relevant to D and some that are not directly related.
  1.  Salvation by grace through faith brings an end to the condemnation that hangs over a person because of his or her identity in Adam and the sinful and rebellious condition of the heart and the sinful deeds that have been committed.  Those who have been saved will not “perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  Those who are not saved do not have their names written in the Book of Life and will be condemned and thrown into the Lake of Fire.  (Revelation 20:15)
  2. Nevertheless, although we can say there are only two categories for the basis of judgment (saved and unsaved), it is evident that God does pay attention to what everyone does.  In the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15), “books” are opened and people are judged by what has been written in them, which is a record of their deeds.  Moreover, we are reminded that Christians also will be judged according to what we have done.  Some understand this as a purification process that gets rid of the bad stuff, while others see it as establishing a basis for rewards.  It is possible that it may involve both.  At any rate, it seems that Scripture witnesses to a “judgment of works” of the Christian that does not determine eligibility for eternal life, but does bring recognition of that which is worthy of praise.  It is possible that the “judgment seat of Christ” is a separate “judgment of works” that brings about rewards for the Christian.
  3. I believe that one aspect of this judgment of the Christian is what I call a “judgment of ministry.”  This seems to be the emphasis in I Corinthians 3:13ff.  The context is how people should understand the ministries of Paul and Apollos.  Paul then turns to the general subject of building the Temple of God on the foundation of Christ.  Some will build out of spiritual motivation as junior partners in the work of God.  Others will build “in the flesh” out of human motivation.  The fire of judgment will reveal the genuineness of the ministries (not just of professional ministries, but of all Christians who are involved in the building of the house of God).  (See Pentecost, 224. Pentecost agrees that the passage is concerned with actions that build the church, but he folds this in with a general judgment of Christians’ works.)
  4. Because of other considerations--especially the idea that the church will be taken to heaven after the Resurrection/Rapture--the Ds understanding is that the judgment of the works of Christians at the Judgment Seat of Christ will take place in heaven before the marriage of the Lamb to the church.  
Chafer, Lewis Sperry.  Dispensationalism.  Fort Worth, Texas:  Exegetica Publ., 1951 (Amazon ebook version)
Gundry, Robert H.  The Church and the Tribulation.  A Biblical Examination of Postribulationism.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publ. Academie Books, 1973.
Pentecost, J. Dwight.  Things to Come.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publ., 1958.
Scofield, C. I.  Holy Bible.  The Scofield Reference Bible.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1945.

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