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Dispensational Interpretation & the Rapture

Dispensationalism: A Principle of Interpretation

A dispensational interpretation is an interpretation which rules that a passage of scripture is not directly applicable to every person in every age. This principle is necessary and should be admitted by everyone who believes in the Bible. Adam was given the job of being a gardener in the Garden of Eden. However, if Adam is told to be a gardener, that does not mean that people are sinning if they are not gardeners. That rule was given to Adam alone. Ancient Israel was directed by the Law of Moses to make sacrifices at a temple and to do an “ashes of the red heifer” ceremony to cleanse certain defilements. Christians today feel no obligation to do animal sacrifices or meal offerings. Jonah was dispatched with a mission to Nineveh. But we don’t feel obligated to go to Nineveh with that message.

Dispensationalism thus is a necessary hermeneutic, no matter what one’s views are on the Rapture or the relationship of the Church and Israel. Nonetheless, for some persons (often “Covenant Theologians" ) Dispensationalism is more or less a curse word. And the specific application of the dispensational principle is much in dispute.

A Dispensationalist in the more narrow sense, uses a dispensational hermeneutic to interpret the Law of Moses, the Old Testament in general, prophecies concerning Israel’s future, and in some cases, the Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Some use the dispensational hermeneutic to interpret Acts, in smaller or greater part, and even some of the epistles. Some would go so far as to say that teachings in Acts and some epistles do not directly apply to the Church today, but to some special period in the early church.

Dispensationalism & the Law of Moses

A dispensational approach to the Law of Moses would make the entire law not directly applicable to the Church, but only to Israel in the period from Moses giving the law until the cross of Christ. However, a dispensational approach recognizes that there is some spiritual application of all the Bible to the Church; there are lessons in the Law of Moses that edify the Church. And some of the teachings of Moses are timeless in application, such as the rules to love God and neighbor, as well as all of the 10 Commandments, except Sabbath keeping. The principle of distinguishing dispensation rules vs. timeless principles is as follows: All the Law of Moses, in its specifics, is directly applicable to Ancient Israel only, except when the context or other scripture indicates otherwise. For example, loving one’s neighbor is taught in the epistles. And in Leviticus, certain practices are forbidden to Israel with the explanation that the Lord abominates these practices; and that because other nations did these things, the Lord judged them. Such a statement indicates a universal application.

The Dispensational Interpretation of Israel vs. the Church

A (narrow sense) dispensational interpretation of Israel and the Church: The two groups are distinct: Prophecies about Israel may not be fulfilled by the Church. The promises given in the OT to Israel then must be fulfilled with Israel. Thus this dispensational interpretation tends to be more literal than for those who want the Church to be a continuation of Israel. If one wants to make the Church be Israel, then the fulfillments of the promises to Israel will probably have to be changed from literal to figurative; instead of a literal Davidic Kingdom to come in the future, the Kingdom may be changed to a spiritual kingdom in persons’ hearts.

The Dispensational Interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth

A dispensational interpretation of Christ’s ministry finds that Christ ministered when the Law of Moses was still in force. The Church Age was not yet begun, although it was predicted by the Lord. The Lord Jesus was offering the Davidic, literal Kingdom on earth to Israel on the condition of repentance; but Israel did not repent. There were also special dispensational rules that the Lord Jesus gave to his apostles, rules not meant to be eternal. For example, He gave special directions in Matthew 10 to the apostles for a preaching tour on which He was sending them with the proclamation of the offered Kingdom. These rules He Himself rescinded later in His ministry. And after having taught persons to turn the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount he directed the use of a sword. Some dispensationalists consider the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety to be directly applicable only to the time of His ministry on earth. Of course the parts of it that are repeated in the epistles would be directly applicable.

If has been held by dispensationalists that the Lord Jesus, during His earthly ministry, offered the Davidic Kingdom with its spiritual AND physical blessings to Israel: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven/God is at hand.” Those who heard this message were not in error for thinking that He meant to establish a physical, political rule on earth, with Israel in the prominent role. Their error was in not repenting and in rejecting their Messiah. After Israel rejected and delivered Christ up to be crucified, the Lord started a new work on the Day of Pentecost, a work called the Church.

It is also possible to be a dispensationalist in a narrower sense, and reject the two paragraphs above, even ruling that the target audience of the Sermon on the Mount includes the Church.

Dispensationalism & the Rapture

The question of when the Rapture is to happen, is much entwined with an acceptance or rejection of Dispensationalism applied to the OT and Israel. Daniel’s 70th week, popularly & loosely called “The Tribulation,” is viewed dispensationally as a resumption of Israel’s history.

Qualification of the Above

There are numerous variations in the beliefs of those who call themselves dispensationalists. It is not maintained that all dispensationalists hold all or the same views on the issues above. This piece is intended to be only a general introduction to dispensational interpretation; so there may be some over generalization above. The author considers himself a dispensationalist and was formally trained in this method of interpretation.