If we are to properly understand, correctly handle and apply the Word of God to our lives, and avoid misunderstanding, disappointment and confusion, it is important to understand that God has different requirements for different people in different ages. There is a word for that. It’s called Dispensationalism.
While the word “Dispensationalism” is not used in the Bible, the concept is taught, just as are the terms “Trinity”, “total depravity”, “original sin”, “eternal security” and “Messianic Judaism”.
Dispensationalism is based on the Greek word oikonomia, which is a combination of oikos “house” and nomos “law”. Oikonomia means the law of the house; the arrangement of the house; administration; stewardship; management; or dispensation – which means the way things are dispensed. It occurs nine times in the New Testament (Luke 16:2–4; 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph.1:10; 3:2, 9; Col. 1:25; 1 Tim. 1:4). The verb oikonomeo, “to administer or manage”. is used in Luke 16:2, and the noun oikonomos, “a steward or manager”, occurs ten times (Luke 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 4:1–2; Gal. 4:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet. 4:10).
Dispensationalism views the world like a household that is managed by God. God is running the world like a manager of a household, “administering its affairs according to His own will and in various stages of revelation in the process of time” (Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p. 31).
Dispensationalism is based on two main principles. First, it is based on a consistent, normal, literal, everyday meaning to the Word of God, unless the text tells you otherwise. In other words, we treat the language of the Bible like we treat other every other language. All languages that are spoken are intended to be taken literally, or normally, recognizing at the same time that all languages have non-literal figures of speech, symbols, allegories, metaphores, etc.
The basic interpretative rule in Dispensationalism is what is known as the Golden Rule of Interpretation: if the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense – otherwise you get nonsense. Therefore, take every word in its primary, ordinary, usual, normal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and fundamental truths clearly indicate otherwise.
We know from the context of the normal literal meaning where a symbol or a figure of speech might be. So, the Bible was written in the language of men and was intended to be taken literally with the recognition of the use of figures of speech. Biblical symbols, with rare exception, are usually explained somewhere else in the Bible. Therefore there is no need to resort to guesswork. For example Revelation 9:1 refers to a star, and “the key to the bottomless pit was given to him”. Obviously “star” in this verse is not a literal star in one of the galaxies, fueled by a nuclear reaction, but refers figuratively to an angel. And yet only two verses earlier, Revelation 8:12 star refers to literal stars that are stars. The context makes it obvious, when star is to be used literally or symbolically.
Dispensationalism insists that every promise God made to the Jewish people which has not been fulfilled will be literally fulfilled sometime in the future. And why not? The Lord’s promises have always been literally fulfilled. God promised Adam and Eve that the Seed of the woman would come. He did. Noah was warned of a great flood that would destroy every living thing on Earth. It came. Abraham’s seed were promised a land. We received it. Moses was promised victory in leading Israel from Egypt. He achieved it. Rebellious Israel was warned of a coming dispersion; it came. The destruction of the Temple and of the nation was prophesied. It happened. Zechariah said King Messiah would come humbly, just and endowed with salvation, and ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. He did. The suffering, death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God were prophesied. They all happened.
If these and dozens of other prophecies like them were literally fulfilled, why should the many remaining prophesies about Israel’s glorious future not be fulfilled literally? Why should they be applied to the Church?
The prophets promised Israel that God would scatter us among the nations, and return us to our ancient home, that He who scattered Israel would gather that same people back to our ancient Land (Jeremiah 31:10). Why won’t that happen literally? The Lord is doing it right now!
The words of the Lord to the two on the road to Emmaus apply: “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken”! Dispensationalism demands that we believe all that the prophets have spoken – a literal interpretation of Scripture.
The second key principle of Dispensationalism arises from the first: there is a consistent distinction in the Scriptures between Israel and the Church, and although there is a connection between the two, and there is a relationship between Israel and the Church, Israel and the Church are two separate entities. Therefore, Israel means Israel and the Church means the Church, and the Church does not mean Israel, and Israel does not mean the Church.
Replacement Theology was introduced to the Church shortly after Gentile leadership took over from the original Jewish leadership, some time after 70 AD. Replacement Theology teaches that the Church replaces Israel in the program of God. The Church is the New Israel, and the replacement for Israel, and the many promises made to Israel in the Bible are fulfilled in the Christian Church, not in literal Israel. Replacement Theology teaches that the Jewish people are now no longer the “chosen people”. In fact, they are no different from any other nation. The Jewish people have no special future, and no longer have a special purpose in the plan of God. In Romans 11:1 Paul asks, “Has God rejected His Jewish people?” Dispensationalists, like Paul, emphatically answer no. Replacement theologians answer yes.
Replacement Theology does not believe that all the prophecies in the Holy Scriptures concerning the blessing and restoration of Israel to the Land of Promise, like Ezekiel 36-48, and Zechariah 12-14, much of Isaiah 59-66, and many other prophetic passages are to be taken literally, but taken non-literally, or “spiritualized” into promises of God’s blessing for the Church. However, the prophecies of condemnation and judgment still remain for the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. Those passages are taken literally. When you take away the promises of blessing from the Jewish people, and leave only the curses, this lack of theological balance can lead to anti-Semitism, which some accuse Replacement Theology of being guilty of.
But, if God has rejected Israel, and there is no special future for the Jewish nation, how do we account for the supernatural survival of the Jewish people among the nations for 2500 years, Israel’s rebirth among the nations, a flourishing modern democratic Jewish state, these amazing victories in major wars with the surrounding Egyptian and Arab nations, who have a vastly larger population, supported by great oil wealth? How about the Spirit of God being given to more and more Jewish people, so that the Messianic Jewish community is growing and growing?
If God has rejected Israel, why should Christians stand by Israel? And if they don’t stand by Israel, won’t they be in danger of going along with the nations, and experiencing the punishment foretold in Joel 3:1-2? “In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat. Then I will enter into judgment with them there on behalf of My people and My inheritance, Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations; and they have divided up My land”.
Might Christians not join with all the nations that unite to destroy the Jewish people who will be in the Land of Israel in the Last Days and wind up fighting against the Lord (Zechariah 12)? Who is a Christian to stand with? The nations of the world, and their united nations army, or little Israel? Aren’t they in danger of experiencing the curse found in Genesis 12? I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you?
The eschatology of the Scriptures is connected to the nation of Israel. Paul tells us that the future blessing of the entire world depends on Israel, and on Israel’s salvation. “If their transgression be riches for the world, and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be?” And, we want that “how much more”! Paul also writes, “if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” When the majority of Israel accepts Messiah Yeshua, and God’s full acceptance of us, it will be like life from the dead, resurrection for the entire world, like a whole new glorious golden age for mankind.
And Christians should want to be part of that, and work with God toward that glorious goal. But you generally won’t if you accept Replacement Theology. You will, if you believe in Dispensational theology. If you are a Dispensationalist, you take these things literally, and your sympathies tend to be with the Jewish people. If you are a Replacement theologian, then generally you are not very sympathetic to Israel.
Christians should be the greatest lovers and supporters of the Jewish people. Salvation has come to the Gentiles to make the Jewish people jealous! So Christians should have a special love and sympathy and compassion and heart for the Jewish people. But that has rarely been the case in the Church – in fact, quite the opposite, and part of the fault lies with Replacement Theology.
Other Examples of Confusion
Anytime Dispensationalism is rejected, it leads to all kinds of theological and Biblical confusion. For example, some involved in the Messianic Jewish Movement are demanding that Gentiles Christians keep all of the laws that are part of the Sinai Covenant, even though most of the laws of that age are specifically directed to the Jewish people, and were never obligatory for Gentiles.
Another example of confusion is the “prosperity teaching” which teaches that Christians should be experiencing financial prosperity and perfect health. Part of this false teaching is based on the blessings and promises directed to the nation of Israel and which are part of the Covenant made at Sinai.
What Are These Dispensations Or Administrations?
Dispensationalism recognizes that God has made different demands of different peoples at different times. It sees a progression in salvation history, a progression in the revelation of God’s will. Although others have arrived at other numbers of dispensations, I see seven dispensations:
The First Dispensation was the age of Adam and Eve before the Fall. God did not make many demands on Adam and Eve. He told them to take care of the Garden and not eat from the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The Second Dispensation goes from the Fall to the Flood. The Lord provided a means of atonement. Animal were allowed to be killed, and their blood shed, so that Adam and Eve and their descendants, who are fallen human beings, could be reconciled to the Creator.
The Third Dispensation was the age from the Covenant made with Noah, to the call of Abraham. The Covenant that the Lord made with Noah after the Flood established human government, and gave it the right of capital punishment in the case of murder. The diet of man was changed, permitting humans to kill and eat animals, but not their blood.
The Fourth Dispensation was the age from Abraham to the Exodus from Egypt. The Lord made a covenant with Abraham and began the creation of a new people, a Chosen People, and placed new demands on them, like circumcision. He gave them a special land. His plan was to use them to bring the knowledge of God and salvation to the other nations of the world. They had fallen into terrible darkness, worshiping false gods who can’t save, and sacrificing their children to them, engaging in warfare, slavery and sexual perversion.
The Fifth Dispensation is from the Covenant made at Mount Sinai to the First Coming of the Messiah. The Lord rescued Israel out of Egypt, and raised up Moses, the Law Giver, who gave many new laws to Israel. The Temple at Jerusalem, along with the Levitical priests, and the God-ordained sacrifices which could only be offered at the Temple, provided the means of atonement.
The Sixth Dispensation is from the First Coming of the Messiah to the Second Coming of Messiah. At the First Coming, Messiah makes a New Covenant with the House of Israel and Judah, which also includes Gentiles. Those who enter this New Covenant, Messiah’s Covenant, become part of Messiah’s Holy Community, the Church, which is made up of Jews and Gentiles. The Church had a distinct beginning (Yeshua said, “I will build – future tense, a future event – My Ekklesia – My Called Out Ones, My Church”, Matthew 16:18). Therefore the Church did not exist as an entity in the Old Testament. The Church is not identical to Israel.
The Seventh Dispensation will take place in the future, when the Son of God returns to Earth, and rules from Jerusalem over Israel and the nations for 1,000 years. Satan is chained and thrown into the Abyss. There is a time of restoration. Nature is transformed, human life-span is increased, peace and prosperity abound. It is during this thousand years that all of God’s promises made to the Jewish people through the prophets, apostles and Messiah, will literally be fulfilled. In the Millennium, God will administer the world and dispense His laws in a new way.
How do we know there will be a future Millennium, a 1,000 year rule of Messiah on Earth? Here is just one passage from the Tenach (Old Testament) and one from the New Testament. They should be understood literally. In Isaiah 65, the Lord declares: I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; My chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. There must be a literal kingdom on Earth for this promise to the Jewish people (and there are many other promises to us) to be fulfilled.
Look at how many times “thousand years” is mentioned in the following passage from the New Testament: John writes: “Then I saw an angel coming down from Heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time. Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Yeshua and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Messiah for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Messiah and will reign with Him for a thousand years. When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the Earth.
Has the first resurrection, which takes place before the thousand years, already taken place? No. Are we in this thousand years right now, with Satan’s influence limited? Is Satan chained right now, like those who don’t take this passage literally, believe? Look at what he has helped accomplish in the last century: World War One, World War Two, the Holocaust, Arab wars against reborn Israel, dozens of other wars, the tens of millions of murders under Mao and Stalin, the genocide against the Armenians, the genocides in Ruanda and Cambodia, 40 million children murdered in their mothers’ wombs, just in the United States. If he is chained, his chain must be very long indeed!
Finally, after the Millennium, this present universe is going to be destroyed. Then there will be the Day of Judgment, and then the Creator will make a New Heavens, a New Earth and a New Jerusalem, where God and Messiah will rule over redeemed humanity for eternity, with peace and perfect happiness, with God and the Sacrificed Messiah supremely glorified. That is the goal to which we are headed.
The Relationship Of Messianic Jews
To The Laws Of The Previous Dispensation
- The covenant upon which much of the Torah is based is a broken covenant (there is no Temple and therefore no sacrifices by which we may draw near to God and obtain eternal life). It is impossible to keep all the laws of the Mosaic Covenant today. In addition, most Jews live outside of Israel, and many of the laws only apply to life within Israel.
- The laws that are part of the covenant mediated by Moses are still extremely valuable and relevant. The Torah continues to inform and guide the life of the Jewish people. It teaches us the right things to do and gives us a good way to live. It helps us live an authentic Jewish lifestyle. It helps us remain part of the Holy People. The issue of assimilation is a major problem for Messianic Jews. Historically, Messianic Jewish families that make no effort to live a Jewish lifestyle or to be involved in Jewish evangelism will almost always assimilate and lose their Jewish identity within a couple of generations. The issue of assimilation is something that is addressed in the New Testament. Rabbi Paul commands Messianic Jews to not become uncircumcised (1 Corinthians 7:18), which means not to seek assimilation into the prevailing Gentile culture, but to continue their Jewish way of life.
- The Torah is more than the Mosaic Covenant. All of the Word of God, including the New Covenant, is “Torah” (literally, “teaching” or “instruction”).
- The early Messianic Jews had a favorable view of the Torah, and many were zealous to live in accordance with it (see Acts 21:20-26). History documents that Messianic Jews continued to live a distinctly Jewish, Torah-based lifestyle for centuries after the arrival of Messiah Yeshua. There is no incompatibility with being “zealous for the Torah” and being a Messianic Jew.
Therefore: I am pro-Torah, while recognizing that the Covenant made at Sinai is a broken covenant. I am pro-Torah, valuing the great wisdom that is found in the Torah. I am pro-Torah, recognizing that all Believers are in some sense to fulfill the Law (Romans 8:4), but that not all of us are obligated to fulfill the same requirements of the Law (for example, Gentiles need not be circumcised). I am pro-Torah, recognizing that nobody (Jewish or otherwise) can be saved by the works of the Law. I am pro-Torah, recognizing that Messiah’s teaching helps return us to the Torah’s original intent regarding issues such as a man being married to only one woman. I am pro-Torah, understanding that one of the main purposes of the Torah is to point us to Messiah. I am pro-Torah, accepting the fact that Messianic Jews who choose not to keep every aspect of the Law, particularly the ceremonial laws, do not lose their salvation. My personal experience is that I have become more observant over time, but it was a process that took years. Therefore I encourage Messianic Jews to identify with and embrace their Jewish heritage, which in large part is based on the Torah; and I encourage Messianic Jews to be gracious to each other regarding others’ level of Torah observance.
As Messianic Jews work out their salvation with fear and trembling, we need to be gracious to each other in the area of practice. Those Messianic Jews who want to live a life that is more Torah-observant have the freedom to do so, but they can’t demand that others live the same way. Those Messianic Jews who want to keep the customs and traditions of our people are free to do so, provided those customs and traditions do not contradict the teaching of the Word of God. Many rabbinic customs and traditions are profound and a blessing to Jewish life. But, there is a danger. Jewish traditions and practices and forms can be over-emphasized, so that Orthodox Judaism is unduly elevated in the minds of our people. The result is that non-Messianic Judaism starts being wrongly perceived as more genuine, authentic and authoritative. Then some go on to abandon Messianic Judaism and deny their faith in Yeshua altogether. Also, the forms and traditions can become so important that Yeshua is crowded out, and He becomes little more than a bystander in our services, or a footnote in our prayer books. Another consideration: Far from attracting more Jewish people, such models of ministry are a turn-off to most Jewish people in the United States and Israel, most of whom don’t want long Orthodox-style services. A recent study shows that only 9% of Jewish people living in the United States in the 30-39 age group consider themselves Orthodox, and 16% of Jews aged 18-29 now identify themselves as Orthodox.
I love the Messianic Jewish Movement and am committed to it! I want to see many healthy Messianic congregations with strong Jewish identity and commitment. I want our synagogues to identify with Israel and the Jewish people, and also with the entire Body of Messiah. I want to see Messianic Jews taking more of a leadership role in the Christian Church. I want to see us committed to world evangelism, fulfilling our calling to be a kingdom of priests and a light to the nations. I especially want to see our synagogues committed to bold evangelism among our own people (including partnering with Jewish missions organizations). I long for the new wine of modern Messianic Judaism to be Yeshua-centered, with Spirit-directed, bold evangelism as its centerpiece. I want our congregations to creatively adapt to their time and communities, mixing old and new, the best of Judaism and the best of Christianity, so that it resonates with the souls of the current generation.
Gentile Christians And Their Relationship
To The Laws Of The Previous Dispensation
The Church, Messiah’s Holy Community of Jews and Gentiles, while having much in common with Israel, is not identical to Israel. The New Covenant is not the same as the Old Covenant. Jews who enter the New Covenant remain Jews, and Gentiles who enter the New Covenant remain Gentiles. Being grafted into Israel doesn’t mean that Gentile Believers become Israel or are required to live the same way as Israel. Gentiles Believers are not the same as the Gentile foreigners who lived in the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant. Gentile Christians have an elevated status compared to the aliens who lived in the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant. They are fully co-heirs of the Kingdom with the Jewish saints.
One way to understand the Mosaic Covenant is as Israel’s constitution. However, not all 613 laws that make up the Torah are meant to apply to everybody. There are laws that only apply to priests. For example, the High Priest couldn’t marry a divorced woman or a widow, whereas a regular Israeli could. There are laws which apply only to the king (such as writing his own copy of the Torah). There are laws that apply to men and not to women, and vice-versa. Most of the laws were directed to the Jewish people, rather than Gentiles. The requirements of the Law differ for different groups of people.
What is the relationship of Gentile Christians to the laws found in the Covenants made with Noah, Abraham and at Sinai? What relationship does the Gentile Christian have to the 613 laws of the Torah? The book of Acts records that Messiah’s Emissaries (the Apostles) and the Elders of Messiah’s Holy Community met to decide this very issue. This meeting, recorded in Acts 15, is often referred to as “the First Jerusalem Council”. According to the binding, Holy Spirit-inspired decision issued by the Emissaries and Elders, apart from saving faith in Messiah Yeshua, only four things – the Four Essentials, are obligatory for Gentile Christians to observe (see Acts 15, especially verses 19-20, 28-29). In addition to the Four Essentials, obedience to the Moral Law is required (laws such as not murdering, not stealing, and not committing adultery. God has written these moral laws on everyone’s heart – see Romans 2:14-15). Apart from the Four Essentials and the Moral Law – everything else, including the Sabbath and holidays and dietary laws, are non-essentials, and come under the area of Christian Freedom and Liberty.
If a Christian wants to observe a Biblical holiday or custom, there is the freedom to do so, but there is no obligation to do so. If someone wants to observe a Biblical holiday or custom, there is freedom to do so, but there is no obligation to do. Gentile Christians have the freedom to celebrate the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays, or not observe them. If someone says, “Messiah is my Passover and I don’t need to celebrate a Passover Seder” – that’s fine. If someone says, “Messiah is my Sabbath, and I’m resting in Him, and therefore I don’t need to rest on the Sabbath” – that’s OK. If someone wants to observe the first day of the week as a day of rest and worship, he has every right to do so. All that is necessary for Gentiles is to have faith in Messiah Yeshua. That alone saves them. Then there are the four basic requirements in Acts 15. There are also the moral requirements of the Law that are already written on everyone’s heart. Anything beyond these requirements is optional.
However, that being said, there are many principles for godly living that may be applied from the Torah to the life of the Christian. Torah means “teaching” or “instruction”, and it still serves as a teaching guide for Messiah’s Holy Community of Jews and Gentiles (the Church). For example, should a Christian have a tattoo? The New Testament is silent on the subject, but the Torah already gave us instruction on this practice (see Leviticus 19:28).
Most critics of Dispensationalism claim that Dispensationalism is a recent doctrine invented in modern times by Dr. C. I. Scofield, editor of the famous Scofield Reference Bible, and John Nelson Darby; implying that Dispensationalism is a new doctrine; and if it is new, it can’t be true and therefore does not have Biblical authority. However, neither C. I. Scofield or John Nelson Darby are the inventors of Dispensationalism or the final authority on the subject.
True, Dispensationalism has been systematized in recent centuries, most famously by Darby and Scofield, but this overlooks the fact that various doctrines have been detailed at various times in church history. For example, the early church spelled out the doctrines of Messiah and the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. In other eras the doctrines of the Bible, the Church, and salvation have been clarified and expanded.
The truth is that early church fathers wrote of God’s working in various times from creation to the present age. Since doctrinal refinement has always characterized the church, it should be no surprise that Dispensationalism has been refined in recent centuries.
Many of the early church fathers history believed in divisions of history based on God’s dealings with man. Among those whose doctrine of ages and dispensations has survived from the Ante-Nicene period are Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and to a minor degree Victorinus of Petau”.
[Justin Martyr (AD 100-165): according to Crutchfield, Justin believed in four phases of human history in God’s program. The first was from Adam to Abraham; the second was from Abraham to Moses; the third was from Moses to Christ; and the fourth was from Christ to the eternal state. Irenaeus (AD 120-202): The dispensational scheme of Irenaeus is four in number. They are: 1. From the Creation to the Flood. 2. From the Flood to the Law. 3. From the Law to the Gospel. 4. From the Gospel to the Eternal State. He continues, “Irenaeus, Victorinus of Petau, and Methodius’ number of dispensations is artificially restricted to four … the dispensations are most often spoken of the early fathers in terms of the prominent persons”. He lists the persons as; Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Christ. “Dispensational divisions were customarily made along the boundaries of these five men’s lives and times”, concludes Crutchfield.] Those who reject dispensational teaching by ascribing the late date of the 1800 and 1900’s are ignorant of the facts.
This message heavily utilizes articles by Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Roy Zuck, Ken Blue, Andrew David Naselli and Alan Torres.