Understanding Dispensationalism

March 13, 2009

by Vern Poythress


Now, in this hour, I intend to address mostly, primarily, people who are not sold on dispensationalism. However, if you agree with this system, you’re welcome to listen in. I’m concerned not only with talking about understanding dispensationalism as such, but also how you carry on a dialogue if you don’t agree with everything that dispensationalists have to say.

I think that part — the part of trying to build bridges where you can and being frank about disagreements, where you have to be — is also important in the Church of Christ, particularly for seminary students and seminary graduates.

I always tell them, “When you go out there and maybe you’re in a small town somewhere, and the only other evangelical church in the town is the dispensational church, well, you better know how to make friends because you don’t have very many friends in a situation like that”

By understanding dispensationalists, you can grasp where they are coming from and have engaging, productive conversations about the Faith.

What Is Dispensationalism?

First of all, what is dispensationalism? Well, it’s not so easy to define, particularly because the system has been around now for about a century, at least, on any reckoning. There are variations to it, as well. I’m going to zero in on the “Scofield Reference Bible.”

This resource has become a standard among dispensationalists, so it’s a natural starting point for the discussion. However, I must warn you that the term “dispensationalism” is used in rather different, and sometimes even confusing, ways.

The term derives from the idea of a dispensation or a period in the history of working out of God’s plan where He tests human beings with respect to particular aspects of His government over the world. It’s an epic in history in which certain distinct things happen and God achieves certain distinct purposes.

Now, the problem is that almost anyone who is an evangelical will recognize that there are distinct periods. For instance, there was a period before the fall of Adam when things were very different because there was no sin and there was no need for redemption, animal sacrifice or any of those things.

After Adam’s fall, there is a long Old Testament period that could be subdivided because, until the call of Abraham, God is not dealing with any particular race or tribe, and then afterward, He is. Of course, with the coming of the New Testament, very distinct things happen.

Almost any Christian can recognize that there are some distinctions. That means that the word, dispensationalism, could describe everybody. But, in fact, we’re stuck with it because that is historically the term that’s been used to label not all evangelicals, but a particular subgroup.

Now, what about this subgroup? Well, you can learn about dispensationalism from the distinctive teachings of people like C.I. Scofield, the older faculty at Dallas Seminary — John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie and J. Dwight Pentecost — and others here in the United States. What do they, in fact, believe?

What Do Dispensationalists Believe?

Well, first of all, they are evangelicals. They’re strongly committed to the inerrancy and the full authority of the Bible. On top of that, they are mildly Calvinistic, meaning they have a high view of the sovereignty of God.

Now, there are variations in that, but I think you could see there’s a certain plausibility to that relationship because of this belief that God has a plan for the whole of history that includes these distinct epochs in which He’s doing distinct things, and that He actually succeeds in working out that plan. Dispensationalists believe in very detailed fulfillment of prophecy, which is difficult to believe in if you don’t believe God is really in control of everything.

In that way, also, I think they stand close to the tradition of Westminster Seminary, but now we’re going to come to some points where there’s not an agreement. The first of these concerns is what’s called a literal hermeneutic, or the principle of a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Now, the trouble is that the word “literal” can mean different things to different people, too. I’m going to hold off for a minute on that and go on to another issue, although that one is a very important one.

The next issue, which is a very important one, is that there’s a distinction between Israel — the nation of the Jews — and the Church, and that they have two distinct and parallel destinies.

Essentially, they believe God is working out two distinct purposes throughout history with reference to human beings — one for Israel, and one for the Church. The Church comes in, beginning with the New Testament era, and has its day, but then it is removed and Israel comes back on the scene, and other things are worked out with respect to Israel.

Now, you can believe that there is a certain amount of distinction between what God was doing in the Old Testament and what He was doing in the New. In other words, you could acknowledge that there was the people of God called Israel in the Old Testament and that they were under a system that involved animal sacrifices, building a temple made of stone and other things which are not, now, the case.

Our relationship with God is not, in all respects, the same today. We can freely eat pork and other foods which were forbidden to the Jews, so there is a distinction. The question is, is that a historical distinction between before and after the coming of Christ into the world? Is there one people of God that God is working with, but there’s a radical change in the way He’s working because of the coming of Christ? Or is it primarily two parallel things?

In other words, are you to think of the line of history as basically two parallel lines of two purposes or one line with a break at the first coming of Christ, so that you have Israel here and the Church here as people of God in two distinct epochs? The old-fashioned Scofield dispensationalists believe that there are two parallel destinies.

Why Is It Called Dispensationalism?

The idea of dispensations isn’t really distinctive. Why should it have happened, then, that this particular view comes to be called dispensationalism? Well, I think it’s not because they recognize that there are dispensations, but because of the particular things they have to say about what happens in a dispensation.

Particularly, one dispensation where this is true is the New Testament dispensation, where they are drawing a radical line of distinction between the church and Israel. So, it’s what they say about the nature of this, that this is not the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. That gets fulfilled in the millennium later on.

What they have to say about this age and what they have to say about the millennium, there is where Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled and not in the Church age. That is a distinction about what’s going on in these dispensations.

Seven Dispensations

Finally, there is the idea that there are seven dispensations. This is from the “Scofield Reference Bible.” He distinguishes seven, although most dispensationalists after him have said that the important thing is not how many there are, but what happens in them.

The seven dispensations in chronological order include:

  • Innocence
  • Conscience
  • Human Government
  • Promise
  • Law
  • Grace
  • The Millenial Kingdom

The next feature is one that’s probably as well known as any to most laypeople, although it’s not as foundational as the rest. It’s the idea that the Second Coming of Christ, or the Millenial Kingdom dispensation, comes in two stages.

The first stage is a rapture where the church is taken off the scene, then there’s a seven-year period where Israel is back on the scene and some prophecies begin to be fulfilled. This concept fits in with the idea of two parallel destinies where one is being worked out with the church, and then the other comes back on the main track.

The second stage is the visible coming of Christ. This one is a secret coming in the sense that only the people who are raptured actually see the Lord with a physical eye. It’s a two-stage Second Coming.

Literal Interpretation

Now, I promised that I’d say a little more about literal interpretation. Let’s dive into what the dispensations themselves say about literal interpretation.

It’s still not exactly clear what Scofield means by literal, but it could mean something like “face value” or “plain,” meaning that a reader would come to it right away when looking at the Bible. Scofield himself has some things to say which qualify his own view of literal interpretation in the “Scofield Bible Correspondence School,” a book he wrote in 1907.

Concerning the Old Testament, this is what he says of the historical parts, the first five books of Moses, Samuel, Kings and so on, “These scriptures are literally true. The events recorded occurred, and yet,” number two, “they have, perhaps more often than we suspect, an allegorical or spiritual significance. Example, the history of Isaac and Ishmael, and your first two Galatians 4:23-31, where the Apostle Paul draws a spiritual lesson from that history of Isaac and Ishmael.”

What Scofield doesn’t add is that many dispensationalists are quite zealous in seeing all kinds of pictures of Christ in the tabernacle and in the story of Joseph and in other Old Testament events. They see those things as having significance for the coming of Christ, and they also apply them to us. We’ll see pictures of the Church, for instance, in some of the women of the Old Testament.

Scofield says, “It is then permitted — while holding firmly the historical verity — reverently to spiritualize the historical scriptures. In prophetic scriptures, we reach the ground of absolute literalness. Figures are often found in the prophecies, but the figure invariably has a literal fulfillment. Not one instance exists of a “spiritual” or figurative fulfillment of prophecy. Jerusalem is always Jerusalem, Israel always Israel, Zion always Zion … Prophecies may never be spiritualized, but are always literal.”

I’ve omitted a few intervening lines, but you’ve got the sense.

Now, the important thing to see there is that Scofield is not a pure literalist, but a literalist with respect to what pertains to Israel. He thinks that prophecy is directed to Israel and not to the Church, and so it must be interpreted on a literal plane.

That idea goes back with not much modification to John Nelson Darby. Darby derived this view partly from the deep and genuine experience he had in realizing the lordship and heavenly exalted character of Christ.

He was confronted with Ephesians 2:6, the passage where it says that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. In his own experience, this emphasis on grace and the grace of God freed him from a sense of bondage to the law.

Darby himself went through a personal experience like that where he realized that he, in virtue of the work of Christ, was seated with Christ in heavenly places, but that led in his own thinking to a sharp distinction between the church, which was in heaven, and Israel, which had to do with earthly things.

Let me give you a quote from Darby. “First, in prophecy, when the Jewish church or nation (exclusive of the Gentile parenthesis in their history) is concerned, i.e., when the address is directly to the Jews, there we may look for a plain and direct testimony, because earthly things were the Jews’ proper portion.”

So, we’re to expect an earthly kind of fulfillment of prophecy. He continues, “And, on the contrary, where the address is to the Gentiles, i.e., when the Gentiles are concerned in it, there we may look for symbol, because earthly things were not their portion, and the system of revelation must to them be symbolical.”

He comments later on, “Prophecy applies itself properly to the earth; its object is not heaven. It was about things that were to happen upon the earth; and the not seeing this has misled the church. We have thought that we ourselves had within us the accomplishment of these earthly blessings whereas we are called to enjoy heavenly blessings.”

Now, you see that? It’s a clear distinction between heaven and earth. I can confirm that in Scofield, in what he does with the promise made to Abraham. God made a promise to Abraham that he would have numerous descendants and that all nations would be blessed through him. The promise, with respect to his offspring, is quoted in Galatians 3. The Apostle Paul says that we are the offspring of Abraham in Galatians 3:28 and following, so heirs by promise.

That’s the kind of passage which, at first blush, you would think, “Well, doesn’t that break down, Mr. Scofield, the distinctions that you’re making?” Because here’s the promise made to Abraham, and here, apparently, it’s fulfilled in the Church.

Scofield has a very neat answer to precisely those kinds of cases. I’m saying this partly because I want you to appreciate, if you’re not a dispensationalist, what may look crazy. I know to some people outside, dispensationalism looks crazy. However, it’s not crazy inside the system. It makes a lot of sense if you make certain assumptions.

Now, Scofield says, concerning this kind of thing, in the “Scofield Reference Bible” note on Genesis 15:18. “I will make of thee a great nation.” That’s the language of the Scripture. Concerning that, Scofield says, “Fulfilled in a threefold way: (a) In a natural posterity — ‘as the dust of the earth’; namely, the Hebrew people.”

Here, it’s as if Scofield says, “Here is Earth, okay? And on the earthly level, you have Israel as the fulfillment, the Hebrew people as the fulfillment of that.”

Scofield continues, “(b) In a spiritual prosperity — ‘look toward heaven … so shall thy seed be.’” Here’s another fulfillment, but it’s on a heavenly level. “Namely, all men of faith, whether Jew or Gentile. (c) fulfilled also through Ishmael.”

The main point is that Scofield conceives of a possibility of double fulfillment. I would suggest that what is going on here is not a purely literal approach to Scripture, but rather a literal approach with respect to what pertains to Israel. The deeper distinction for Scofield himself is this distinction between the Church and Israel.

So, if you have a word in the Old Testament — like people or offspring, or mention of a blessing or a curse, or a promise of land or command given — then you expect that, on the primary level, it will have a material meaning and an earthly fulfillment with reference to Israel and the Jews. Secondarily, there may be a spiritual meaning for us, too, as heavenly people.

That structure derives from Darby’s experience in his being gripped by the fact that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Though I think Darby did have an experience that was, to a large extent, the work of the Holy Spirit in his being freed from the curse of the law, I don’t agree with all the deductions that he drew from that.

Variations Within Dispensationalism: Hard vs. Soft

I want to make a distinction between what I call a hard dispensationalist and a soft dispensationalist. That’s my own term for it, but what do I mean by it?

A soft dispensationalist is someone who holds to the traditional details with respect to the last things and the Second Coming. He believes, in particular, in a two-phase Second Coming, that the Jews have a particular role in the tribulation and that a millennium follows that.

Now, even supposing you don’t agree with all that, what characterizes this as soft? Because that’s common in all dispensations. He agrees with all those things, but when he reads his Old Testament and when he reads prophecy, he applies it to himself. I think if you’ve been around the church and dispensation circles, you find people like that. They read the whole Bible and apply that whole Bible to themselves.

On the other hand, the hard dispensationalist will hold to this, but he will also be one who, in the dispensationalist jargon, rightly divides the Word of Truth. This catchphrase describes the procedure of carefully distinguishing what passages of the Bible were written to us and were to be applied to us, and what passages were not for us.

So the hard dispensationalist, for instance, would say, “You, as Christians, are not to use the Lord’s Prayer. That prayer is for the millennial period. In addition, large portions of the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are for the Millennium period and not for us.”

Now, you can see that this belief is much more serious. That’s hard dispensationalism, right? If those people are wrong, as I believe they are, what they’re doing to the Church is really devastating because they’re removing the power of the Word of God to really reach people and transform their lives. All these passages which should be applied to Christians are not being applied. Large portions of the Old Testament are no longer relevant for Christians.

Soft Dispensationalists

If you’re simply a soft dispensationalist, you’re still applying all the things to us, but you have particular differences in your eschatology. Even if people who hold this view are wrong, they are wrong on minor details because we believe that Christ is coming bodily and that He will reign forever from that point onwards, and we will be transformed, we hope, for the resurrection of our body, and so on. We share all those important beliefs with other evangelicals.

If you were wrong in this detail, then that may have some subtle influence on your life now, but when Christ returns, you just say, “Well, I was wrong.” You see, it’s not at the same weight. I want to distinguish people with whom we can say, “We agree on the basics.”

If I’m talking to a soft dispensationalist, I say, “We’re basically in agreement,” and I’ll try and encourage him to apply those scriptures in the Sermon on the Mount and the Old Testament even more than he’s doing. Basically, I feel much greater sympathy for those people and say they’re basically doing a lot of good things and are maybe wrong here and there.

They may say, “I’m wrong here and there,” but they’ll agree, “I hope I’m doing a lot of good things.” The hard dispensationalists are another matter.

Hard Dispensationalists

There’s a bit of a spectrum of hard dispensationalists, and Scofield himself was not as hard as some of his followers.

With respect to the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, he has a note in the “Scofield Reference Bible” saying that this is about the millennium. He says that it has a beautiful secondary moral application to the Church and to the Christians. It’s very important to me that he put that in and I’m very grateful for it. I wish he’d said it stronger, but at any rate, there it is. Some of his followers have been more extreme than he was, in that respect.

I also want to mention that there are some variations that have developed since Scofield. The variations are best conceived of in terms of the way they deal with the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The old Scofield said there are two parallel destinies. You have the heavenly people in the church and Israel, and then you have two sections of the Old Testament that address them.

Old Testament history, of course, is about Israel, but then it also has secondary typological symbolic lessons for the Church. On the other hand, when you come to prophecy, there’s nothing there. It’s entirely related to the millennium and to Israel. Now, that’s awkward.

Later dispensationalists have come along, and some of them are saying, “Prophecy, as well, will have secondary applications to the church. Even if the primary fulfillment is here, there are, nevertheless, general principles. There’s teaching there. There’s an illustration that we apply to ourselves.”

This idea is coming closer to what I would consider a more balanced view, so I call that the New Dallas, (Dallas Theological Seminary), but you can conceive of things going even further when they start talking about the secondary applications. The more you talk about them, the more you think, “Well, God intended those things from the very beginning. Maybe it’s really already the fulfillment of what He designed — not the ultimate fulfillment, but the first bit of it.”

You may begin to talk about partial fulfillment even within the New Testament period. In that case, you are closer to a classical kind of premillennial view. In this situation, you may say that there’s one people of God in the Old Testament prophecy, then Israel merges into the church in the New Testament. This is partial fulfillment within the New Testament epic, and a bigger fulfillment in the millennial kingdom will come afterward.

If you go all that way, you could also conceive of saying, “Maybe we don’t even need a millennium. This is already the eternal date or the consummation right here,” and that’s the ultimate fulfillment.

What we have are a number of variations and the possibility of the Church coming back together, of people who find themselves on one of the extremes, gradually coming to acknowledge that there is more to fulfillment of prophecy in the New Testament than they thought. As they do that, they move closer to the position of Westminster Seminary, and we may move into dialogue with them.

Raising Questions About Literal Interpretation

I want to talk now about a particular problem. I’ve talked a lot about understanding the whole dispensationalism position as a whole, but I want to show how things work with respect to particular texts, such as 1 Corinthians 15. This discussion is also meant to raise certain questions about this idea of literal interpretation.

Now, I’m not objecting to doing our utmost to really understand what God is saying without simply imposing our own ideas. If that’s what we mean by a literal interpretation or trying to understand what God was saying to those people back then, as well as us now, then that’s fine. However, sometimes difficulties arise in trying to understand what God is really saying, and 1 Corinthians 15 will illustrate it.

I’ll begin at verse 50. “I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”

The problem is that here, we have a description of the resurrection of the dead, which everyone agrees will occur at the Second Coming. However, the dispensationalist system, as you remember, requires a two-stage Second Coming. The resurrection of our bodies occurs here, but the phrase in verse 52 says, “the last trumpet,” which really sounds like everything is at an end.

Now, you might say, “Well, maybe the last trumpet is blown there and there are just more events afterward, but there are no more trumpets afterward.”

The trouble with that is that Matthew 24 does mention a trumpet. Matthew 24:31 says, “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”

There is some difficulty interpreting when this particular thing that Jesus is prophesying takes place, but dispensationalists, one and all, agree that this is the visible Second Coming, and it certainly sounds like it from previous verses.

Verse 30 says: “At that time, the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.”

Sounds like the open Second Coming. The problem is that the passage in 1 Corinthians calls that the last trumpet, so the rapture is already the last trumpet. We appear to be bound up to a situation where it really is last, and it means the Second Coming is all one big event that you can’t stretch out into two phases.

Now, what do you do about that kind of thing? You may say, “Well, I want to be faithful to the understanding of these particular verses and follow them wherever they go.” In other words, you want to be literal in your interpretation of these verses, whatever literal means. I think that’s a slippery word. If we stick with it, whatever it means, it would seem that a normal interpretation of this passage means this trumpet really is last.

There is a standard dispensationalist answer to this verse, but it’s nevertheless a good verse to use, particularly with many people who had been dispensationalists and grown up in dispensationalist churches.

I’m going to discuss the answer because I think it is revealing about the system. However, if I were talking to a dispensationalist, one-on-one, I’d probably try to let him wrestle with it and see if he was able to come up with the standard answer.

The standard answer is this: 1 Corinthians 15 is talking about events with respect to the Church. With respect to the Church, this is indeed the last trumpet. However, with respect to the history of Israel, there’s an entirely different set of events, and those sets of events are the ones being talked about in Matthew 24. Consequently, this last trumpet is last only with respect to the Church.

Now, what has happened is that we already assume there are two parallel sets of events going on. Once that’s assumed, it does make some sense to say, even though there’s no explicit qualification there in the context, that the last trumpet blows in respect to the church.

If you come to the Bible with the expectation that, over and over again, it’s going to be talking about one or the other, the Church or Israel, then indeed, the answer makes a certain amount of sense. I think that’s useful because it raises the question of, “What are our principles for interpretation?”

The idea of literal interpretation can be waved about like a banner saying, “I’m more literal than you are. I take the Bible more seriously than you do.” I don’t think it’s that easy, because literal interpretation for dispensationalists tends to mean bringing in this background of a system. In effect, it’s a kind of a circular argument. I’m saying, “I establish the system, and you appeal to verses which are interpreted on the basis of the system.”

No one is free from their teaching background, and it’s not altogether a bad thing. We gain a good deal from Bible teachers and parents and pastors who have helped us understand the Bible. The fact is that, when we find ourselves in a dispute with fellow evangelicals, there’s reason to pause and reexamine how much of our interpretation is due to a certain mindset rather than what the passage itself says. This concept is important to understand and can help us to not get mad right away.

Sometimes, people get frustrated because they’ll pull out verses and try to argue with a dispensationalist, so the dispensationalists try to argue with the non-dispensationalist and they pull out their verses, and neither side can get anywhere. One of them is a theological argument that depends on the overall understanding of the Bible, and one of them is an argument using a particular text.

Theological Argument

The theological argument depends on our reflection on what Christ has done for us and how he is the head. He’s called the Last Adam in Romans and in 1 Corinthians 15. Like Adam, he is the head of a whole race, the head of a whole people.

The argument in 1 Corinthians 15 is “As an animal dies, so in Christ, all will be brought to life.” As Adam’s one transgression resulted in the whole human race being consigned to sin, so Christ’s righteous act and His atoning death will bring life for all those he represents.

Adam, of course, represented the whole human race. Christ represents those who are his, those who belong to him, those who believe in him. The benefits come to all those who believe.

The important thing to observe is that, as the unity of the human race is founded in the common headship of Adam, so the unity that we have is founded in our relationship to Christ.

We are bound together into one body by virtue of our being united to Jesus Christ intimately, by His spirit and by His work. Now, you see, that brings together the fact that Christ brought us salvation and the fact that it makes us one new people of God.

In some sense, the deepest problem for dispensationalist theology is right there. Namely, that they, along with all other evangelicals, want to say there’s only one way of salvation. They do say it more clearly now than in the past. We’re all saved by grace through faith in the promises of God, which find their fulfillment in Christ. They want to say that and we want to say that. Everyone wants to say that.

On the other hand, they also want to say that there are two parallel people. However, the one Christ implies one way of salvation, but also one people who are united under him as head, as the last Adam.

Two Questions

Another way of approaching this concept is by reflecting on the promises of God in the Old Testament. Of course, here is where it comes home a little bit because that’s one of the areas of dispute, isn’t it? What about these promises and prophecies?

Well, you can put the argument in terms of two questions, and this is what I owe to Dr. Edmund P. Clowney, who taught me this some years ago.

The first question is, which of the promises of the Old Testament — promises to Abraham, of offspring, of land, of the line of David — are fulfilled in Christ? The answer is, all of them. In 2 Corinthians 1, it says that all the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ. That’s question one.

Question two is, which of the promises are we heir to, by virtue of our being united to Christ? Answer all of them, because Christ possesses all the fullness of God bodily, and we are brought to completion in him. By virtue of our union with him, we have all that is his.

The Apostle Paul virtually argues that way in 1 Corinthians 3:21, which says, “So then, no more boasting about men, all things are yours, whether Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, including the land of Palestine.”

Do you ever think of yourself as inheriting the land of Palestine? Paul is arguing that here. Everything belongs to you, including the land of Palestine, “Or life or death, or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.” Of course, those last phrases indicate in what sense they are ours, in virtue of our union with Christ.

Now, you see, I think you can say all that without abolishing the fact that the Old Testament was different, and because Christ did not yet come into the world. People enjoyed the fruit of his atoning work in certain preliminary ways, and yet, that work hadn’t been accomplished.

There’s a kind of insufficiency in the Old Testament. There is, of course, a distinction between Israel and the nations in the Old Testament. After Christ comes, everyone who believes in him is also united together with him and, in that union, possesses the fulfillment of the promises.

Now, that’s, as I say, a theological argument. I think it’s something you can leave with people without saying they have to agree right away, but the sort of thing that lets them think about it.

Periodically, prospective students have come to Westminster who are trying to make up their minds between Westminster, which is a non-dispensationalist seminary, and Dallas, which is a dispensationalist seminary. The students feel they have to make up their minds right away about whether dispensationalism is correct or not before they’ve even been to seminary and gotten some detail.

I usually tell them, then, about this and say, “I want you to think about that.” The other thing I’ll tell them is to read the Book of Hebrews, which is the most extensive discussion of the relationship between the Old Testament to the New Testament. It is there where I would hope that a lot of the dialogue can start or go back to because it is the most extensive discussion.

I think, in many respects, the nub of the dispute is really about how prophecy is fulfilled and how we are to understand the Old Testament in relation to us.

Why Has the Dispute Lasted So Long?

The reason why the dispute has lasted so long is a complex question.

The Old Testament is a rich collection of books, and the New Testament’s relationship to that is also a complex one, as you can see. I tell people to read the Book of Hebrews with an open mind. Don’t just try to reconfirm your own ideas, but ask the Lord to cause you to submit to whatever new ideas are taught in that book.

One of the passages which I think is most fruitful in that respect is Hebrews 12:22 and the following verses:

“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

A casual reading of this may not reveal how many Old Testament themes are being picked up. For instance, the phrase, “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant,” refers backward in the first instance to what the Book of Hebrews has been establishing all the way through, but the phrase, “new covenant” refers back to Jeremiah 31.

The Book of Hebrews, I believe, and some dispensationalists have now come to agree, is arguing that we, as believers in Christ now, as members of the Church, participate in this new covenant, which was prophesied in the Old Testament.

Here is an element of fulfillment, but it isn’t the ultimate realization. The ultimate realization comes in the new Jerusalem, which is pictured in Revelation 21 and 22. Hebrews does speak of our already coming to that, doesn’t it? But what we have is only a foretaste of the full inhabiting and enjoying of that new Jerusalem, which Revelation speaks of.

In Revelation, with new Jerusalem, there is a fulfillment of the promised Abraham. I think dispensationalists themselves can see the way in which the language of Jerusalem is rooted in the Old Testament, in the promised Abraham, that he would have a land and a city.

Now, all this is compatible, so far, with this picture of saying, “Okay, well, Abraham goes, and he and his descendants inherit the earth and the Jerusalem there, and we, as Christians, inherit the Heavenly Jerusalem, and it’s just two levels.”

The problem with that is that that fulfillment in the eternal state is the Jerusalem that comes down from heaven to earth, and which has, on its foundations, the names of the 12 Tribes of Israel. In other words, it’s both our hope and the hope of Israel. It’s both the fulfillment of all that we possess now, in terms of our ability to enter heaven through union with Christ, and its fulfillment of those Abrahamic promises.

When you read that in the light of Hebrews, it’s not arguing that there are two parallel things. It’s saying the heavenly is the real, which has now come and superseded what was partial. I think it comes back to a historical progression, of saying, “That was partial. That was shadowy. Now, we have the real, which will never be superseded.”

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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What to Say When You Are Asked About the Rapture

March 13, 2009

by Vern Poythress