Friday, December 30, 2016

Dispensationalism’s Relationship to Both Continuity and Discontinuity: Bringing It All Together

by Michael J. Vlach

This blog entry is a summation of my two previous blogs addressing continuity and discontinuity within Dispensationalism. Below are the eight areas of continuity and five areas of discontinuity. For more information on each point see the previous two blogs:

1  Storyline Continuity (the storyline of the Old Testament is literally fulfilled over the two comings of Jesus)

2  The kingdom of the Messiah is consistent with the kingdom promised in the Old Testament

3  Israel

4  Israel’s land and Jerusalem

5  Day of the Lord

6  Messianic salvation extending to believing Gentiles

7  Salvation by grace alone through faith alone

8  The New Testament quotes and alludes to the Old Testament in ways consistent with the original literal meaning of the Old Testament writers.  

1  Israel and the church

2  Mosaic Covenant to New Covenant

3  Dispensations

4  People of God

5  Role of Holy Spirit

Based on these points I am hesitant to identity Dispensationalism as solely a “discontinuity” system. Dispensationalism seems to evidence a healthy balance of continuity and discontinuity. Since Dispensationalism affirms a literal fulfillment of the promises, prophecies, and covenants of the Old Testament it seems to evidence more continuity than discontinuity.

For more on this issue see the excellent book, Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship between the Old and New Testaments, edited by John S. Feinberg. This is one of the most important theology books I have read. It contrasts dispensational and nondispensational scholars on issues of continuity and discontinuity. It also helped me become a convinced dispensationalist.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dispensationalism and Discontinuity

by Michael J. Vlach

In a previous blog I mentioned eight areas of continuity in Dispensationalism. This current entry is devoted to discussing areas of discontinuity in Dispensationalism. There are five major areas of discontinuity to note. Like the previous entry on “Dispensationalism and Continuity,” the goal here is not to be exhaustive on these topics but to point out major areas of discontinuity within Dispensationalism as a point of reference for understanding and evaluating Dispensationalism.

1  Israel and the church.  Dispensationalism affirms the biblical distinction between Israel and the church. Israel consists of the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that comprise the nation Israel. Some Israelites are saved and some are not, but Israel always has an ethnic component in the Bible. The church, on the other hand, is the New Covenant community of believing Jews and Gentiles in this age who have believed in Jesus the Messiah. The church includes believing Israelites (“Israel of God” Gal. 6:16; Rom. 9:6) but is not the same thing as “Israel.” With the 73 references to “Israel” in the New Testament none refer to the church, nor are Gentiles ever referred to as “Israel.” Dispensationalism affirms that Israel is a vehicle for bringing blessings to Gentiles (see Gen. 12:2-3), but it is not God’s intent to make Gentiles part of Israel.

From Exodus 19 onward the nation Israel was the mediatorial vehicle for God’s purposes in the world. Yet with Israel’s failure, culminating in Israel’s rejection of her own Messiah, the church became God’s vehicle for Gospel and kingdom proclamation in this age between the two comings of Jesus. God is still saving Israelites, but in this age the church is the messenger of God’s kingdom program, taking the gospel to all nations. When God saves the mass of national Israel in the future (Rom. 11:26) Israel will once again have a mediatorial role of service and leadership to the nations under Jesus the Messiah who at that time will be ruling the nations (Isa. 2:2-4; Matt. 19:28; Rev. 19:15). But in this age the church is the primary agent for God’s kingdom purposes.

Israel has deep roots in the Old Testament. The church is linked with all who have believed in Jesus the Messiah and have experienced the New Covenant ministry of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the church began on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus (Acts 2). Some want to make the “church” the people of God of all ages but that is not correct. Jesus and the New Covenant are the main ingredients for the church and only New Testament saints have experienced these yet.

2  Mosaic Covenant to New Covenant.   The Mosaic Covenant was a temporary and conditional covenant given to Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). The era of the Mosaic Covenant ended with Jesus’ death and the establishment of the New Covenant (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 8:8-13). Most dispensationalists hold that the Mosaic Covenant was a unit that ended with the death of Christ. We are now under Jesus’ priesthood associated with the New Covenant, not the Aaronic priesthood of the Mosaic Covenant. As the writer of Hebrews stated, “when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also” (Heb.7:12). As a result dispensationalists believe Christians are under the New Covenant, not the Mosaic Covenant. Likewise Christians are under the Law of Christ as our code for life, not the Mosaic Law. This Law of Christ will have many similarities with the Law of Moses concerning moral laws since God’s moral standards remain constant, but the Christian is no longer bond by the Mosaic Law as a rule for life. With 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 Paul explicitly stated he was under the Law of Christ, not the Mosaic Law.

3  Dispensations   Like all Christians, dispensationalists believe in dispensations—eras in which God works with His people in different ways. The pre-fall era with Adam and Eve was obviously different than the post-fall era. The present church age is different from Israel’s previous theocracy under the Mosaic Covenant. The kingdom that follows Jesus’ return will differ in some ways from the present age we live in as Jesus rules from and over the earth (Zech. 14:9). Yet even with differences among the dispensations salvation has always been by grace alone, through faith alone, based on the atonement of Jesus. Dispensations may change but the way a person is saved always remains the same (Gen. 15:16; Rom. 4).

Dispensationalists debate the number and characteristics that make up the various dispensations (as nondispensationalists also do), but they acknowledge that God has worked in different ways at different times. Yet the way of salvation remains the same throughout history. Thus, the dispensations evidence both continuity and discontinuity.

4  People of God  The concept of the people of God has varied throughout some dispensations. To be clear—all God’s people from beginning to end are saved the same way (i.e. continuity), but the people of God concept has varied. From Adam until Moses there was no nation of Israel so the people of God were not related to any one nation. According to Paul this was also an era in which people were sinners even though they did not have special specific verbal revelation that Adam and Moses had (see Rom. 5:13-14).

With Israel becoming a nation, the people of God concept was strongly linked with Israel and the message of salvation coming from Israel. Under the Mosaic Covenant era becoming a believer usually meant becoming a proselyte to Israel. Yet because of Jesus and the New Covenant, the people of God concept expanded to include believing Gentiles alongside believing Israelites. This expansion of the people of God concept does not mean believing Gentiles becomes Jews or Israel as nondispensationalits believe, but they do become the people of God alongside believing Israelites. This is what Paul discusses in Ephesians 2:11-3:6 and what Isaiah predicted in Isaiah 19:24-25 (see also Acts 15:14-18).

5  Role of Holy Spirit   Most dispensationalists believe the Holy Spirit’s role of permanently indwelling saints began as a result of Jesus’ ascension and pouring out of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2. Before His death Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit lives with them, but will be in them (John 14:17).

In His person and character the Holy Spirit never changes. Yet during Old Testament times He came upon some persons for temporary indwelling for service (Exod. 31:3). But His role of permanent indwelling and empowerment of all Christians for sanctification is closely linked with the death and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. This does not deny that the Holy Spirit saved Old Testament saints but there is greater enablement for sanctification with the coming of the New Covenant (see Rom. 8:1-4). Thus, the role of the Holy Spirit is different in the New Testament era.

There is much to discuss concerning the above five points of discontinuity, but my main point has been to highlight five areas where Dispensationalism see areas of discontinuity in the Bible. These areas appear to arise naturally from a grammatical-historical approach to the Bible and are not artificially imposed on the biblical text.

NOTE: I write as one who is a revised dispensationalist. I understand that I do not speak for all dispensationalists and I understand that other dispensationalists might word things differently. Yet I do believe that the points above represent the dispensational tradition as a whole accurately.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Magi at Christmas Time

For much of my life I thought the account of the Magi who visited Jesus when He was a child was a nice story—a true story, but I did not think much about its significance. The mysterious travelers crossed my mind when we sang “We Three Kings,” put up our nativity set, or when I watched the TV special, Little Drummer Boy.

But according to Matthew 2, the account of the Magi has important kingdom implications. According to Matthew’s gospel, certain “magi from the east” arrived in Jerusalem (2:1) declaring, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (2:2).

Most scholars think the “magi” belonged to a priestly caste of astrologers from Persia. Many automatically think there were three of them, mostly because they brought three specific gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But we are not told their number. By the third century some in the Christian tradition believed they were kings. And in the sixth century names were attributed to them—Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa.

There are many questions about this mysterious group. They appear in the seventh century as a tribe within the Median nation. Daniel 4:9 and 5:11 appear to link the prophet Daniel with this group which may indicate how the Magi had knowledge of Israel’s coming King. As John MacArthur notes, “Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, it seems certain that the magi learned much from that prophet about the one true God, the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming glorious King.” 

As they traveled to find Jesus, the Magi most probably journeyed with Oriental pomp and escort that could hardly be missed by those who crossed their path. But significantly, Gentiles from a faraway country were determined to travel a great distance and worship the One who would be King of Israel. This was not just some great wise man or philosopher they were seeking. They were coming to worship a King.

From a theological perspective, this was an early and important indicator that Jesus’ mission would extend beyond Israel to Gentiles and that people from faraway lands could find salvation in Him. This King of Israel will also be King of the entire world (see Zech 14:9), including this band of astrologers from Persia. This truth would challenge many Jews who were resistant to God’s kingdom extending to Gentiles (see Matt. 8:10-11). These Gentile astrologers from afar grasped what many inside Israel refused to see.

The Magi’s quest for the King intersected with another ruler, Herod, who viewed himself as king of the Jews. Their arrival in Jerusalem indicated that they expected to find the King in the city of David. When Herod heard of the Magi’s quest he was disturbed (2:3) and inquired more information from the chief priests and scribes. Relying quite literally on the OT prophet, Micah, we are told:

They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
and you, Bethlehem, land of Judah are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for our of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (2:5–6).

The religious leaders of Israel viewed the coming King as a “ruler” over “Israel.” Herod certainly had this understanding, viewing the child-king as a threat to his political position. The religious leaders understood that the kingdom of Messiah would involve a political rule over Israel. No indication exists that the Jewish religious leaders were wrong in their understanding. The perception that the Messiah would be a political ruler over Israel is correct. Isaiah 9:6 predicted this: “the government will rest on His shoulders.” Of course, Jesus would be more than a political ruler. He would also be a Savior from sin. But these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. A savior from sin can also be a political ruler over nations. From our standpoint in history, Jesus became a spiritual Savior to all who believed on Him with His first coming, but a political rule awaits His second coming (Rev 19:15).

Herod expected the Magi to return back to him after visiting Jesus. After their encounter with Herod the Magi left and were guided by a star that took them directly to where Jesus resided (Matt. 2:9). They “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy,” and entered the house. They then saw Mary and fell to the ground to worship the child Jesus. Then the Magi presented Jesus the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:10-11). Significantly, when Jesus rules in His future millennial kingdom, the gifts of gold and frankincense also will be brought by the nations (see Isa. 60:6).

Unlike the wicked Herod, these Gentile travelers welcomed the King of Israel. After being warned by God in a dream, the Magi did not return to Herod but went back to their own country by a different way (Matt. 2:12). So not only did they come to worship the King, they obeyed God in protecting Him from harm.

The account of the Magi is an important reminder that the Messiah of Israel will bring blessings to all who will worship Him, including those outside of Israel. Many within Israel would miss their Messiah but this traveling band from the East did not.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dispensationalism and Continuity

Theology systems often can be placed on a Continuity–Discontinuity spectrum or scale. “Continuity,” in this context, refers to a connection or carryover of an Old Testament (OT) idea or concept into the New Testament (NT). Discontinuity refers to a change or disconnect between the OT and NT.

Dispensationalism is often known as a “discontinuity” system mostly because it sees a distinction between Israel and the church. In the very important and helpful book, Continuity and Discontinuity, edited by John S. Feinberg, Dispensationalism was identified as a discontinuity system.

But while affirming important areas of discontinuity in the testaments, Dispensationalism also affirms significant areas of continuity as well. That is what I want to focus on in this entry. Below are areas where Dispensationalism affirms continuity between the OT and NT. Note that each of these eight points below could be developed over many pages, but for the sake of brevity of a blog post, I list them with a short explanation.

1  Storyline Continuity Dispensationalists believe there is strong continuity between the storyline of the OT and the storyline presented in the NT. In other words, while the NT adds details to the Bible’s storyline it does not change the story.  Dispensationalists believe the covenants, promises, and prophecies of the Old Testament are and will be fulfilled literally through the two comings of Jesus. This includes all physical and spiritual realities along with all particular (Israel) and universal entities. While affirming the importance of spiritual realities such as salvation, forgiveness, new heart, and indwelling Holy Spirit, dispensationalists do not believe physical realities are spiritualized or transcended with the coming of Jesus and the NT era. This contrasts with nondispensational systems that often see the NT as transcending, transforming, transposing, or spiritualizing the message of the OT. To repeat, Dispensationalism affirms that the storyline begun in the Old Testament is fulfilled literally through the two comings of Jesus. The story is not changed. This includes many realities concerning the Messiah and His role, Israel, the land, Jerusalem, the temple, nations, etc.

2  The kingdom of the Messiah is consistent with the kingdom promised in the Old Testament. The prophets and Psalms predicted a future earthly kingdom of the Messiah where He transforms the planet and rules the literal nations of the world (Ps. 2; 72; 110; Isa. 2, 11, 25). Dispensationalists see these predictions coming true as a result of the second coming of Jesus the Messiah. Just as the Old Testament promised a future tangible earthly kingdom over the nations, so too does the New Testament (Matt. 19:28; Rev. 19:15). The kingdom is not spiritualized or transcended. Thus, when John the Baptist and Jesus declared, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17) they meant the prophesied earthly kingdom of the Old Testament. This is in contrast to some nondispensational systems that often see the promised earthly kingdom of the OT spiritualized to a present reign of the Messiah from heaven.

3  Israel. The Israel of the Old Testament consists of the ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that comprise the nation of Israel. Sometimes these Israelites are saved and sometimes they are not. Likewise, all 73 references to “Israel” in the New Testament refer to ethnic Israelites or ethnic Israelites who have believed in Jesus (“Israel of God” Gal. 6:16). There is no transformation or transcending of the concept of Israel. There is no enlargement or expansion of Israel to include Gentiles, although there is expansion of the “people of God” concept to include believing Gentiles alongside believing Israelites (Eph. 2:11-22). Thus, “Israel” in the New Testament carries the meaning of Israel found in the OT. This is in contrast to some nondispensational systems that often view Israel as being redefined, enlarged, or transcended to include Gentiles.

4  Israel’s land and Jerusalem.  Israel’s land and Jerusalem continue to remain significant in New Testament times. Jesus offers instructions for people living in Judea in the last days and anticipates a coming restoration of Jerusalem (Matt 24:15-22; Luke 21:24). Thus, this is another area where Dispensationalism affirms continuity.

5  Day of the Lord.  The coming day of the Lord that impacts both the land of Israel and the entire world is taught in the NT as well as the OT (Isa. 13; 1 Thess. 5; 2 Thess 2). The OT prophets predicted that the Day of the Lord would involve the judgment of the nations, the regathering of Israel and an earthly kingdom following judgment (Isa. 24-27). This scenario is affirmed in the NT (Matt. 24-25).

6  Messianic salvation extending to believing Gentiles. The OT predicted that Gentiles would become the people of God because of the Messiah (Amos 9:11-12) and that has happened in NT times (Acts 15:14-18).

7  Salvation by grace alone through faith alone.  Dispensationalism affirms that salvation in all ages is by grace alone through faith alone (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4). While the content of revelation increases throughout the canon there is great continuity regarding salvation. OT saints and NT saints are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, based on the atonement of Jesus.

8  The New Testament quotes and alludes to the Old Testament in ways consistent with the original literal meaning of the Old Testament writers.  There are about 350 quotations of the OT in the NT. While there are some challenging cases, the vast majority of OT uses in the NT, are contextual and consistent with the ideas of the OT writers. This fact emphasizes continuity between the storyline of the OT and that found in the NT. Dispensationalists may vary to some degree on NT use of the OT but overall most affirm continuity concerning OT meaning and NT use of the OT.

These are just some areas of continuity. Contrary to what some critics claim, Dispensationalism does not start with the concept of “discontinuity” and impose it on the Bible to find what it wants to find.

Because I see much continuity in Dispensationalism I would not identify this system as solely a discontinuity system. I would say Dispensationalism is a healthy and biblical balance of both continuity and discontinuity. I will comment more on the discontinuity elements in a future blog entry.