(This is the first article in a series that explores God’s plan and the Christian’s place in the unfolding drama that is indeed the greatest story ever told. It is God’s story, not ours, yet God has graciously made our story part of a larger, exciting, awesome, and beautiful story – God’s redemption of the world. Included in this story is the Great Tribulation. Will Christians be Raptured and thus escape this troubling time or must they be prepared to be faithful witnesses through it?)
The teaching you receive in your particular church tradition likely forms your understanding of redemptive history and your place in God’s plan.
My first exposure to Protestant Christianity was teaching based on what I now consider a flawed theological framework – Classical Dispensationalism. According to this theological construct, history is divided into dispensations (periods of time) during which God tests humanity’s obedience and manages the relationship of humans to himself. What is peculiar or distinctive about Classical Dispensationalism is that it teaches that God is pursuing two different redemptive purposes – one resulting in a heavenly humanity and one resulting in an earthly humanity.1
Of course, if there are two kinds of people, the tendency for humans is to elevate one over the other. Usually we elevate ourselves, but in Classical Dispensationalism, Israel holds the dominant role in redemptive history while the Church is merely a parenthesis in the plan of God, inserted into history because of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah and the resulting postponement of his kingdom.
Furthermore, according to Classical Dispensationalism, the Church is comprised of a heavenly people who have no significant role in the redemptive purposes of God as they relate to the earth. To make matters worse, those who have taken this belief system to the extreme of Christian Zionism declare to us, based on Genesis 12:3, that our fate while on earth is largely dependent on how we treat unbelieving Jews living in the land of Israel!
This dualism between Israel and the Church leads to the idea that promises of a restored land (or any physical earthly promises) apply only to national Jewish Israel and must be fulfilled in a dispensation following the present dispensation of the Church. Accordingly, this necessitates the removal of the Church via the Rapture so that God can deal with Israel separately and fulfill all the prophecies literally and politically.
Teachers of this view would often remind the congregation that as Gentile believers of the Church Age we were really just a parenthesis, a Plan B, and that we should just be grateful that we have been grafted into the olive branch. I could never reconcile this idea with the teaching that God would remove the Church before the tribulation while subjecting Israel to the worst time of human history. This seemed to me an odd outcome for a group of people these same teachers acknowledged as the apple of God’s eye and his chosen people. I can only imagine that any Jew who because of his people’s suffering over the millennia has mused that maybe God should choose someone else once in a while, would be even more inclined to think that way upon learning of this prominent Christian teaching.
This view of redemptive history never inspired me to go and make disciples of all nations. If anything, it inspired me to buy “fire insurance” to keep me out of hell, root for the coming of the end times, support efforts by man to re-gather Israel (so that the timetable of dispensationalism is met allowing God to rescue me via the Rapture) and encourage others to do the same. This view of redemptive history is prone to an ignorance of any meaningful doctrine of suffering which is a chief means used by God to sanctify his elect. For some, the danger inherent in such a view is to not become a disciple of Jesus who prepares for the arrival of the bridegroom at the 2nd Advent, but instead to become enamored with the teaching of the Rapture only to find oneself unprepared for Jesus’ return and upon his arrival be told “I don’t know you” thus becoming the one who is “left behind” (See Matthew 25:1-13).
Can this concept that the Church is a parenthesis in God’s plan of redemption or the idea that Israel and the Church are totally distinct from each other be supported by the biblical text? I believe the answer is a resounding no! My next two posts in this series exploring redemptive history will raise this question – If Israel and the Church are so distinct, why are they often described in the same way, or called by the same name?
- Dispensational thought has moved away from the Classical Dispensationalism teaching of two separate redemptive plans and away from the Revised Dispensationalism teaching that Israel and the Church are eternally distinct entities to a belief that the Church is a vital part of a single progressing redemptive plan of God. (See Progressive Dispensationalism by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, 1993, BridgePoint Books)