ARE WE ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION?
The question is often asked, especially among dispensationalists, “when did the church begin?”. Many believe that because the church is characterized by an equality of Jews and Gentiles that the church began when that characterization was manifested. Many say that the preaching of the gospel of salvation to the Gentiles was the first manifestation of the equality which characterizes the church, therefore the church began when the gospel was preached to the Gentiles, i.e. in the mid-Acts period. But in my opinion, that is too narrow a vision on which to base the answer as to when the church began. That is to say, we are asking the wrong question.
As mentioned above, many dispensationalists answer the question of when the church began by determining the main characteristic of the church and concluding that the church began when that characteristic was made manifest. But the church began when the dispensation of the mystery began, and the present dispensation is characterized by more than just one thing. That is to say, the dispensation of the mystery is characterized by more than just equality of Jew and Gentile. There are many more differences between the present dispensation and the preceding one than just that equality. For example, the church of the present dispensation is making known God’s wisdom to principalities and powers in heavenly places (see Eph. 3:10). But there is nothing in Scripture about that being true of the church of the preceding dispensation.
The point is that if we determine when the church began by considering only the difference in the church of the present dispensation (equality of Jew and Gentile) and the church of the preceding dispensation (Israel as God’s chosen nation) and ignore all the other differences in the previous and present dispensations, we do not see the entire picture. By looking at one piece of the puzzle only, we see but a very small portion of the picture and are, in my opinion, much less likely to come to the knowledge of the truth.
I believe that as one considers all the differences between the present dispensation and the preceding one, it will become clear that those differences are not due to the fact that Jews and Gentiles are equal, they are due to the fact that Israel has been set aside. That being the case, because the present dispensation (and the church of the present dispensation) began when Israel was set aside, the question should be, “when was Israel set aside?”, or “when did the new dispensation begin”?
To reiterate, the event that marks the beginning of the church is the same event that marks the beginning of the new dispensation. And that event is not the preaching to the Gentiles, it is the setting aside of Israel. Let me use another example to make that point more clearly. We know that one of the main differences between the present dispensation and the preceding one is that believers of the present dispensation are to live resurrection lives in heaven, whereas in the previous dispensation believers will live resurrection lives on earth, and in the new Jerusalem. What event brought about that change of calling? The preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles did not bring about a different calling. But once Israel was set aside the calling associated with Israel was set aside with Her, so a different calling was needed and offered, i.e. a calling to heavenly places. This new calling came as a result of Israel’s being set aside, not as a result of the Gentiles hearing the message of salvation.
DID THE CHURCH BEGIN BEFORE THE DISPENSATION OF THE MYSTERY?
Many will insist that while it is true that the dispensation of the mystery did not begin until Israel was set aside at Acts 28, the church began before the dispensation of the mystery, i.e. in the Acts period. Let me explain why I believe that the church could not begin before the present dispensation began.
We read of the church which is His body in Eph. 1:22-23 where it is said to be “the fulness of Him That filleth all in all”. In other words, the church which is Christ’s body fulfills Christ and Christ fulfills God. But Christ is God, and as such lacks nothing. What does it mean that the church which is His body fulfills Him? Because Christ is God, and therefore has never lacked anything, I believe that the “fulness of Him” refers to the fulness of His plans and purposes for the ages. In other words, we see here a use of the figure of speech metonymy of the subject, which the Companion Bible defines as, “when the subject is put for something pertaining to it”. So Christ is the subject and is put for something pertaining to Him, i.e. His plans and purpose for the ages.
The point is that the church which is His body fulfills or completes Christ’s plans for the ages. That being the case, there would be no new revelations concerning Christ’s plans for the ages once the church was begun. But there was a very important new revelation after the end of the Acts period. That was the revelation of the dispensation of the mystery. Therefore, the church could not have begun until the dispensation of the mystery had begun. Let me put that in other terms for clarity.
The revelation of the church which is His body fulfilled all Christ’s plans for the ages, i.e. there was nothing new to be revealed. But if the church began before the revelation of the mystery something new was revealed, i.e. the secret hid in God which was the dispensation of the mystery. The only way to avoid this seeming error is to conclude that indeed the church began with the beginning of the dispensation of the mystery.
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PRESENT AND PAST DISPENSATION
Let us look at the differences between the present dispensation and the preceding one in order to establish if indeed it was the putting aside of Israel that resulted in these changes. If that is the case, then one is led to the inescapable conclusion that the present dispensation and the church of this dispensation began with the setting aside of Israel.
Those differences are:
A NEW CALLING
A NEW SPHERE OF WITNESSING
THE GIFT OF HEALING
THE WORD “ETHNOS”
PROPHECY THAT CENTERS ON ISRAEL
THE HOPE OF GLORY
A NEW CALLING
We read in Matt. 8:11, “And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the kingdom of Heaven”. We know that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were promised land on the millennial earth (see Ezek. 48). Because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be in the kingdom of Heaven, we may conclude that the kingdom of Heaven is on earth. (The paper on this web-site will prove from scripture that the kingdom of Heaven is the land of Israel in the millennial reign of Christ). And we read in Acts 1:6 the question of the apostles put to Christ just before His ascension, “Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel”. We learn from the phrase “restore again” that they were asking about a kingdom that had once existed, the kingdom of the reign of king Solomon. King Solomon’s reign was, of course on earth, the restored kingdom then must also be on earth. In short the calling of the preceding dispensation was to earth.
But we read in Eph. 2:6, “And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus”. This could not be more clear, the church of the present dispensation is called to heaven. Note that Eph. 2:6 is put in the past tense, “hath raised” and “made us sit”. Some believe that because while we are reading this verse it is obvious that we have not already been raised and seated with Him, that this verse should not be taken literally and therefore does not tell us that the church is called to “far above the heavens”. Let us examine that thought.
There is a figure of speech being used in this verse. It is the figure of speech called “heterosis”. The Companion Bible defines “heterosis” as, “Exchange of one tense………for another “. Eph. 2:6 is, of course, not put in the present, but in the past tense. But I believe that the sense of the figure is the same, i.e. future events being described in the present or (as in the case of Eph. 2:6) in the past tense. Figures of speech are used to enhance the meaning of a passage, not diminish it. In the case of this particular figure of speech, I believe it is used to assure us that what is promised will, without doubt, be fulfilled. Let us consider other scriptures that use the figure of speech, “heterosis”.
Isaiah 53 was written hundreds of years before the coming of Christ to earth to die on the cross. But we read in verse 3, “He is despised and rejected of men”. Verse 4, “Surely He hath borne our griefs”. “Yet we did esteem Him stricken”. Verse 6, “the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Verse 7, “He was oppressed and was afflicted”. Verse 8, “He was taken from prison and from judgment”. Verse 9, “He made His grave with the wicked”.
The figure of speech is not used to diminish the truths expressed in this passage, it is used to enhance the truths. Are we to believe that Christ did not bear our griefs because the figure of speech heterosis” is used? Or that God did not lay on Christ our iniquities because of the use of this figure of speech? The answer is so obvious as to not require an answer. The figure of speech is to assure us that these things will be accomplished. (Please see the paper on the calling of the church for a more complete discussion of this subject).
We are now ready to ask ourselves what was the event that led to a different calling? It certainly was not the preaching to the Gentiles that led to a new calling. But, as mentioned above, when Israel was set aside Her calling was set aside with Her. It was therefore necessary to offer a different calling, and that is exactly what God did. The point is that the new calling presented in the new dispensation came as a result of the putting aside of Israel.*
A NEW SPHERE OF WITNESSING
We read in I Peter 2:9, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should shew forth the praises of Him Who hath called you out of the darkness into His marvelous light”. The note in the Companion Bible on the word translated “generation” tells us that it is better translated “race”. Therefore it is used of all Israel not just the generation to which Peter was writing. The point is that Israel was to be a witness of God. To whom were they and will they be witnessing? As one reads the Old Testament it is exceedingly clear that Israel was a witness of God to the people of the earth.
But as mentioned above, the church is being used of God to make known His wisdom to principalities and powers in heavenly places. We read in Eph. 3:10, “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God”. Let us ask ourselves, what was the event that led to this new sphere of witnessing? It certainly was not the preaching to the Gentiles. The church is intimately connected to heavenly places because Israel, as God’s witness to those of the earth, was set aside.*
THE GIFT OF HEALING
The last recorded miraculous healing we read about is in Acts 28:8-9. This passage tells of the sick father of Paul’s host. We read in verse 8b-9, “Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured”. We learn from this passage that, as late as Acts 28, Paul had, and used, the gift of healing by the laying on of hands.
But as we shall see as we examine Scripture, Paul no longer had the gift of healing after Acts 28. We read, for example in II Tim. 4:20, “…..and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus”. If Paul had the gift of healing he would certainly not have left his co-worker sick.
Another passage that tells us that Paul did not have the gift of healing after Acts 28 is Phil. 2:25-30 where we read of Epaphroditus who was sick unto death (verse 30). But Epaphroditus did not die. Was that because Paul had healed him through the gift of healing, as he had done in the passage we read in Acts 28:8-9? I believe not. Paul writes in verse 27b, “But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.” God cured Epaphroditus directly. To say that Paul cured him by the gift given him by the Holy Spirit is to read something into God’s Word that is simply not there. Furthermore, the fact that Trophimus (II Tim. 4:20) was not healed by Paul’s gift, adds strength to the conclusion that neither was Epaphroditus cured through the gift of the holy spirit.
Let us look also at I Tim. 5:23, where Paul advised Timothy, “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses”. In my opinion, this proves that indeed no one had the gift of healing after Acts 28. If they had, Paul would have told Timothy to go to that person. But Paul told Timothy to drink some wine.
Let us ask once again, what was the event that led to Paul no longer having the gift of healing? We read in I Cor. 1:22, “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom”. Indeed we read dozens of times in the Old Testament that God gave Israel a sign.
Here again, because signs were given to Israel, when Israel was set aside, all signs ceased .*
Let us first consider the importance of the temple to Israel. In Exodus 25:21-22 we read, “Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony which I will give you. There above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all My commands for the Israelites”. And in Deut. 12:11 we read, “Then to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for His Name …there you are to bring everything I command you”. The “ark of the testimony” was, of course located in the temple. It is clear that God told Israel that He would dwell and meet with them from wherever the ark of the Testimony was, i.e. in the temple.
God promised in II Chron. 7:14-16 “… if My people who are called by My Name will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and I will forgive their sins and heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place, My eyes and My heart will always be there“.
So God promised to meet with Israel from His temple. It is no accident that there is no temple standing today. It is not standing because Israel is not God’s people today, therefore God is not meeting with them. God allowed the Roman army to destroy the temple in 70 AD. It was not destroyed because the message of salvation was preached to the Gentiles. It was destroyed because Israel was set aside. Here again, one of the main differences between the present dispensation and the preceding one is a result of the fact that Israel was no longer God’s people.*
THE WORD “ETHNOS”
The Greek word “ethnos” is used of Gentiles as opposed to Jews (Matt. 10:5-6). It is used of the nations (Acts 13:18-19) and it is also used of the people of the nations as in John 11:51-52, “…..he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation (ethnos); and not for that nation (ethnos) only…..”. It is clear that Jesus died, not for a nation as such, but for the people in the nation(s).
It is important to know that in the prison epistles the Greek word “ethnos”, when speaking of those of the present dispensation, is the term for the people of all nations, including Israel. That is to say, the word is not used of Gentiles as opposed to Jews because there are no Jews in God’s sight. If there are no Jews then “ethnos” cannot be used of those who are not Jews. In point of fact, whereas in the Acts period Jews and Gentiles were equal, in the dispensation of the mystery they are more than equal, they are the same.
Let us consider just a few of the occurrences of the word “ethnos” in the prison epistles which will prove that God does not see Jews and Gentiles in the present dispensation.
Eph. 3:8, “…..that I should preach among the ethnos the unsearchable riches of Christ”. Surely Jewish believers were not excluded from the unsearchable riches of Christ. That being the case, “ethnos” must be understood as the people of the nations. If we translated “ethnos” as “nations” rather than “Gentiles” we include all believers of the nations, not just Gentiles.
Eph. 4:17, “……walk not as other ethnos walk…..”. Verse 18 goes on to explain more specifically how they walked, “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart“. I believe this is applicable to both Jews and Gentiles. I believe that if “ethnos” were translated “nations” and understood to mean the people of the nations, then this passage would be more clear, i.e. the people of all nations are included in the term “ethnos”.
Col. 1:27, “To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the ethnos, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory”. Are we to understand that Paul is excluding Jews from the hope of glory? I think not. I believe that here too if we translated “ethnos” as “nations” and understood it to mean all the people of the nations all believers are included and all is clear.
I Tim. 2:7, “Wherefore I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle…..a teacher of the ethnos in faith and verity”. Paul did not exclude Jews from his preaching, God is no respecter of persons. Here again, if “ethnos” were translated “nations” all would be included. However, we must use common sense and understand it to mean the people of the nations.
The point of what has been discussed above is that while it is true that Jews and Gentiles were equal in the Acts period, it is also true that in the present dispensation, Jews and Gentiles are more than equal, they are the same, i.e. people of the nations. What was the event that brought about this dramatic change? The obvious answer is that it was the setting aside of Israel that resulted in there being no Jew and Gentile.*
THERE ARE ALMOST NO OLD TESTAMENT PROPHESIES BEING FULFILLED IN THE PRESENT DISPENSATION
Some have pointed to the return of Israel to the land since 1948 as the fulfillment of prophecy. But let us consider just two of those prophecies which speak of Israel’s return to the land.
We read in Ezek. 20:33-38 of the gathering of Israel from the nations. But we learn from verse 38 that some will not be allowed entrance into the land. “And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against Me: I will bring them forth out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel….”. There is no such purging of Jews today, all Jews who wish to live in Israel may do so freely.
Let us also consider Zech. 8:12 where we read, “For the seed shall be prosperous; the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of the People to posses all these things”. It is true that the land of Israel has been exceedingly prosperous since the modern day return of Jews to Israel. But this is not a fulfillment of Zech. 8:12 because that prophecy is given to the remnant. The “remnant of the People” are the believers of Israel. The land is not now being occupied primarily by believers.
The only prophecy concerning Israel in the dispensation of the mystery that is being fulfilled today is that of Hosea 1:9 and 2:2 which tells us that Israel is lo-ammi (“not My People”) and divorced. It should be pointed out that the lo-ammi period about which Hosea wrote was the 70 year Babylonian captivity, and the present lo-ammi period is a fuller fulfillment of that prophecy. Let me explain what I mean by the term “fuller fulfillment”.
Let us look at another fuller fulfillment of prophecy in order to set the precedence for such a thing. We read in Is. 7:14, “….the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel'” I believe the best way to explain this verse is to quote the Companion Bible note. “Heb., the virgin: i.e. some definite well-known damsel, whose identity was then unmistakable, though unknown to us. ……the virgin = damsel. Heb.= ha-almah. ……..it occurs seven times…… . The Heb. for virgin (in our technical sense) is bethulah, and occurs fifty times……Its first occurrence is Gen. 24:16, where compared with vs. 43, it shows that while every bethulah is indeed an almah, yet not every almah is a bethulah. The prophecy does not lose its Messianic character, for Mary, in whom it was fulfilled, is designated by the same holy inspiring spirit as ‘parthenos’ (not gune). As a sign to Ahaz this damsel was an almah.. As a sign, when the prophecy was fulfilled (of filled full), it was Mary, the parthenos or virgin”.
In short, the one about whom Isaiah wrote was to be a sign for Ahaz was a damsel, but not a virgin. But Mary was, of course, a damsel and a virgin when she conceived Christ by the Holy Spirit.
The point is that when this verse is quoted in Matt. 1:23 it was a fuller fulfillment, or as Dr. Bullinger wrote, a prophecy that was “filled full“. That serves as our precedence for seeing the prophecy of Hosea 1:9 and 2:2 as being a fuller fulfillment in the present dispensation than at the time it was fulfilled in Hosea’s time.
We are now ready to come back to our question as to what event led to the fuller fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy in the present dispensation. Obviously, it was the setting aside of Israel.
It should also be pointed out that Paul in his epistles to Timothy does speak of the last days, but those are the last days of this dispensation, not the end times centering on Israel.*
THE HOPE OF GLORY
Col. 1:27 reads, “To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles (Gr. ethnos), which is Christ in you, the hope of glory“. I would remind the reader that because Jews are certainly not excluded from this hope of glory, “ethnos“, translated “Gentiles” in this verse should be understood as “people of the nations”, including Israel . Having said that, we are now ready to consider the hope of glory. The word “glory” appears two times in this verse. The first time is in reference to the glory of this mystery, the second is in reference to the “hope of glory”. Let us consider the first one first.
We know from the phrase “the glory of this mystery among the ethnos“ that the glory of this mystery has something to do with the fact that the Gentiles as well as Jews are included. In other words, there is something that is true of the people of all nations, not just of the nation of Israel, that had been a mystery and is glorious. What is that mystery that was so glorious? We know by the phrase “which is” that the glorious mystery is explained. It is the “hope of glory”, which is Christ in you. That brings us to a consideration of the second time “glory” is used in this verse.
What is that hope of glory? We know that it is a hope, which means that it is not yet realized. When will it be realized? I believe the obvious answer is that this glorious hope will be realized at resurrection. But why would Paul write that this glorious hope was a mystery? The answer to that question brings us to the difference between the hope of Gentiles in the previous dispensation and the hope of the people of all nations in the present dispensation.
We read in the Old Testament that Israel will be glorified in the millennial reign of Christ. Gentiles were grafted into Israel (see Rom. 11:11) but the glory was not theirs as such, it was Israel’s glory in which believing Gentiles were included. There was no glory for believing Gentiles apart from Israel. Let us look at just a few of those Old Testament passages that speak of the glory of Israel in the millennium.
Is. 60:14,”The sons of your oppressors will come bowing before you (Israel); all who despise you will bow down at your feet and will call you The City of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel”.
Isaiah 60:3, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn”.
Is. 60:5,”Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you riches of the nations will come”.
Is. 60:10, “Foreigners will rebuild your walls, and their kings will serve you”.
These passages all show the glory of Israel in the millennium. Again, believing Gentiles (except for those of the dispensation of the mystery) will be included in that glory, but it was not promised to Gentiles, per se, it was Israel’s glory. But in the dispensation of the mystery, believers of every nation have been promised glory in resurrection that has nothing to do with Israel. Where we read of the “riches of the glory of this mystery” we are reading of the fact that glory will be given to the people of the nations in resurrection, apart from Israel.
Again, our question is: what brought about this change? Again the obvious answer is that the setting aside of Israel was the event that resulted in this change. That is to say, when Israel was set aside, the promises of glory given to Her were temporarily set aside with Her, which meant that believers of the present dispensation have the hope of a glory that is uniquely theirs, and has nothing to do with the glory that had been promised to Israel.*
WHEN WAS ISRAEL SET ASIDE?
Some have argued that the nation of Israel began to be put aside at Acts 13. In other words, the suggestion is that those who would not hear the word of God were set aside at Acts 13 when the gospel was sent to the Gentiles, but the remnant of Israel who did hear the word were not set aside until Acts 28. I disagree with that suggestion for two reasons.
1) We read in Acts 13:46, “Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God would first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles'”. The turning to the Gentiles in no way indicates that Israel was being set aside as God’s chosen nation. To say that it does is to add something to the Word of God that is simply not there.
2) The second reason I do not agree that the setting aside of Israel began at Acts 13 is because as we study the Old Testament lo-ammi period of the 70 year Babylonian captivity, we will see that the nation of Israel, the believing remnant as well as unbelievers, were all set aside. Furthermore, while it is true that the destruction of Jerusalem happened in stages, there is no evidence that one stage included only unbelievers and the last stage included only believers.
Let us consider the lo-ammi period of the Babylonian captivity which sets the precedence for the lo-ammi period of today. We read in Hosea 1:9, “then said God, ‘Call his name Lo-ammi: for ye are not My People, and I will not be your God'”. We read then in Hosea 2:2, “Plead with your mother, plead: for she is not My wife, neither am I her husband.….”.
Israel was of course Jehovah’s wife and will, in due time, become His Bride. A wife is either divorced or not divorced. Either God is Israel’s Husband or He is not Her Husband. He is not a Husband to part of His wife and divorced from another part of His wife. In short, it makes no sense to say that some of Israel was divorced while another part was not divorced. Israel was divorced as an entity, not by bits at a time. She was divorced at Acts 28 (please see the paper on the dispensational boundry for the scriptural evidence of that statement).
For a more complete discussion of when Israel was set aside please see the paper “When Did the Church Begin?” .*
I believe that the wrong question will lead us to a wrong conclusion. That wrong question is: when did the church begin? So what is the right question? The right question is: when did the dispensation of the mystery begin? Once we determine what it was that led God to reveal the mystery hid in God (i.e. dispensation of the mystery), then we can determine when the present dispensation began. The obvious answer to that question is that the setting aside of Israel is what led to the revelation of the mystery. When was Israel set aside? Israel was set aside after the end of the Acts period. (Please see the paper which discusses the dispensational boundary).
*The bold type in the quotations were added.
This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. If you would like to respond please e-mail at: email@example.com