Do you remember when you heard the news about 9/11? I was in Geology as a high school freshman. After school, I opened my Bible to Matthew 24. This is Jesus’ famous “Olivet Discourse,” His sermon on the “signs of the times.” I determined to study this passage until I understood from Scripture what was happening in our world.
It didn’t take long for me to realize Jesus wasn’t speaking about 9/11. In fact, His sermon didn’t have anything at all to do with terrorist attacks on the United States! But I had been led to believe the Bible predicted current events in the Middle East.
When 9/11 occurred, the Left Behind series (1995-2007) was halfway through publication. It novelizes the end of the world according to the authors’ interpretation of Bible prophecy.
This series is wildly popular. It consists of sixteen books, three of which reached #1 on the New York Times’ best-seller list. Total sales exceed 65 million dollars. The franchise also includes movies, video games, graphic novels, and youth series.
Left Behind’s popularity is probably due to the popular theology underlying it. The series espouses a school of theology called “dispensationalism.” The first book is only twenty years old. But churches in America have been enraptured by dispensationalism for nearly two hundred years!
Dispensationalism is a system of Bible interpretation. It teaches that God has divided history into different ages, during which He relates to man under a unique set of requirements (or “dispensations”). It was popularized by the preaching of John Nelson Darby in the 1800’s.
Dispensational theology insists on a “literal” interpretation that requires the physical, word-for-word fulfillment of prophecy. It claims God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament still stand. He will fulfill them by reestablishing an earthly Jewish kingdom.
This has produced a sharp distinction between Israel and the church. Dispensationalists say God has two separate peoples, with a separate “program” for each. The church is merely an interruption in the fulfillment of prophecy. Once it is raptured out of the world, His program for Israel can resume.
Israel → Church
The Bible is clear that God does not have two separate peoples. Rather, He has one people – the church. Under the new covenant, the church has replaced Israel as the people of God. But it has not replaced Israel by setting it aside; rather, it fulfills and supersedes Israel.
Paul emphasizes race alone does not grant membership into God’s people: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.” (Romans 2:28-29)
He goes on to explain not all Jews were truly members of God’s people: “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” (Romans 9:6-7) It is unbiblical to suppose God will once again favor the Jews simply because of their ancestry.
Later, Paul symbolizes the people of God with an olive tree whose natural branches (unbelieving Jews) were broken off so wild branches (believing Gentiles) could be grafted on (Romans 11:1-24). In other words, the remnant of old covenant Israel was merged with believing Gentiles into the new covenant people of God.
He says elsewhere that in Christ, Gentiles are “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19). He declares, “Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (3:6).
Through the prophet Amos, God promised to rebuild David’s kingdom (Amos 9:11-12). The Jerusalem Council convened to discuss the conversion of the Gentiles. James concludes, “God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written…” (Acts 15:14-15). He goes on to quote Amos 9:11-12.
Dispensing with Dispensationalism
The church is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. The New Testament gives no hint that the church is a backup plan or afterthought. Nor does it suggest the church must be taken out of the way for prophecy to be fulfilled. Rather than dispensing with the church, we ought to dispense with dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism’s primary flaw is that it disregards how the Bible interprets its own prophecies. For more on this, click here!
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