Kim Riddlebarger answers…

Robert Mosley (December 2006) asks:
I skimmed through your A Case For Amillennialism (reading most of it). It would seem to me that Ephesians 2:11-22 would be the clearest biblical answer to the dispensational claim of two plans of salvation.  But you make no reference (that I saw) to this passage.  Why?

_______________________________Robert:This should be a lesson to you not to skim my books!  I do indeed quote this passage on pages 120-121, and state that this passage (along with Galatians 3:28) “are clear challenges to the dispensational notion of two distinct peoples of God with separate redemptive economies” (A Case for Amillennialism, 120).  But your question gives me a chance to elaborate a bit more on this very important text, and the dispensational interpretation of it.

Dispensationalists obviously struggle with this critical Pauline passage because it so clearly states something completely different from the dispensational claim that although there is but one gospel, nevertheless, there are distinctive redemptive purposes for national Israel, as well as for the Gentiles.

It is helpful to see how various dispensational writers approach this passage.  Pentecost, for one, argues that this passage describes God’s purpose for the present age, but not for the millennial age.  Pentecost contends that this passage is indicative of God’s distinct program for his earthly people Israel, and for the church (J. D. Pentecost, Things to Come, Zondervan, 1978, 528-529). 

John Walvoord sees the passage as referring to the “new program” for the church (which was a mystery in the Old Testament), in which a living union is formed so that Jew and Gentile are brought together so that all racial tensions are eliminated (Walvoord, Major Bible Prophecies, Zondervan, 1991), 241-242. 

Charles Ryrie cites Ephesians 2:15 as proof that the church was a mystery in the Old Testament (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Moody, 1996), 125.  While Charles Dyer agrees with this, he gives the following caution.  “One must be careful in reading too much meaning into an analogy,” referring to Paul’s use for the phrase, “the new man.”  Dyer concludes, “the mere presence of an analogy does not automatically argue for the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy” (Charles Dyer, “The Biblical Meaning of Fulfillment” in Issues in Dispensationlism, Moody, 1994, 60). 

Barry Horner contends that the Reformed interpretation of this passage–which he correctly acknowledges is to us a critical passage–completely eliminates any distinction between Jew and Gentile.  Horner sees this as a “fundamental error” because it supposedly obliterates any cultural distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians, when the New Testament allows for such distinctions.  (cf. Barry Horner, Future Israel, B & H Academic, 2007, 269-275).There are several things to say in response to the dispensational interpretation of this passage.  First, suppose, for the sake of argument, that this passage is indeed talking about God’s “new program” for the church age, and that Paul is describing what happens when God temporarily joins Jew and Gentile together in the church (his purpose in this present age).  But what happens when the Gentile church is raptured from the earth at the beginning of the seven-year tribulation period?  From that point on (according to dispensationalists), God’s redemptive purposes once again shift from salvation of the Gentiles, back to national Israel during both the tribulation and millennial age.  That which Christ came to do–make the two peoples one (Ephesians 2:11-22)–is now completely undone in the millennial age. 

If dispensationalists are correct, this means that redemptive history moves forward (from type and shadow to fulfillment and reality) until the tribulation.  Then, in one gigantic redemptive-historical U-turn, God’s purposes now return to the same Old Testament types and shadows which existed before the coming of Christ, which pointed to him, and which he fulfilled!  This, of course, is not the case.Second, as Charles Dyer points out, dispensationalists need to be clear that Paul is only using an analogy here, and that he is not speaking literally.  This is rather amusing, since dispensationalists often chide amillennarians about supposedly allegorizing clear passages and “spiritualizing” them.  Now, says Dyer, the heart of Ephesians 2:11-22 (v. 15) is a mere analogy about the “new man” and has nothing whatsoever to do with the fulfillment of prophecy. 

Don’t you just love it when those (like Dyer) who claim to hold their view because they interpret the Bible “literally,” now fall all over themselves to deny the literal interpretation of a passage which largely serves to undo the entire dispensational hermeneutic.  Yes, Paul is using the new man analogy in verse 15 to explain to his readers the wonder of what has happened with the coming of Christ.  Gentiles, who were separated from Christ and aliens to the commonwealth of Israel, who were strangers to the covenants of promise, who were without hope, and without God in the world (vv. 12-13), have now been brought near by the blood of Christ (v. 13)!  Wasn’t all of this prophesied in the Old Testament, and fulfilled by Christ during his messianic mission?  What I am missing?

More than that, God took these two different groups and made them one, making Jew and Gentile alike fellow citizens of the same spiritual house (the church–vv. 19-22).  This is why Paul can speak of the barrier wall, which separated the outer court of the Gentiles from the inner court in the Jerusalem temple, as being “torn  down” (v. 14).  This happened, in a theological sense, when Christ fulfilled the Mosaic economy (rendering it obsolete–cf. Hebrews 8:13), and united both Jew and Gentile into one “new man” (v. 15-18).  The ground of God’s hostility toward us (our sin), as well as our hostility toward each other (Jewish exclusiveness and Gentile godlessness) have forever been removed.  That which was hidden in type and shadow in the Old Testament has been fulfilled, and now fully brought into the open through Christ’s redemptive work.Third, Horner completely misses the point Reformed amillennarians are making about this passage when we speak of God’s purpose in Christ as making the two peoples (Jew and Gentile) one in Christ.  When God brings Jews and Gentiles together in the church, he never insists that Jews stop living as Jews (culturally or ethnically).  Rather, the apostles repeatedly warn Jewish Christians (cf. Galatians 1-3; Acts 15) that it is a condemnable error to insist that Gentile converts to Christianity live as Jews (and accept ritual circumcision, keep the dietary laws, and feast days) in order to be justified.  Paul’s point is that God takes ethnic Jews (with all of their history and culture–indeed Paul himself lived as a Jew, although he was willing to become all things to all men) and then joins them together with Gentiles (of every race and tongue) into one church, the temple of the living God.  

In fact, God’s joining of Jew and Gentile together into one new man takes place on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work (v. 16), not because Jews give up their cultural identity.  Don’t forget that it was the same Apostle Paul who tells us in Galatians 3:26-29, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise?”If Horner’s take on the Reformed hermeneutical principle is correct–that the joining of these two different peoples into one church requires us to deny any diversity whatsoever–then we as Reformed Christians would certainly argue that once we become Christians, men and women are to become androgynous, because the joining of male and female into one body (the church) obliterates all diversity.  There’s a reason why we don’t argue that way in Galatians 3:28.  There’s a reason why we don’t mean such a thing in Ephesians 2:11-12.  Surely, Dr. Horner ought to rethink that charge. 

Furthermore, as someone who is not Dutch (I’m a German) and yet who serves as a minister in a largely Dutch Reformed denomination, I can tell you that people of various cultures and ethnic backgrounds, get along just fine in the church, even if the ethnic and cultural differences remain.  Throw in several Asian cultures, some hispanics, and add a few Filipinos to the mix, and that’s just part of what you’ll find in our church.  What unites us is a common faith, not a common culture.  That is what was to unite the Ephesians as well.In this passage, I take Paul to be making the following point.  Through the redemptive work of Christ (vv. 13, 16), God has brought Gentiles (formerly aliens and strangers, vv. 12-13) into God’s house (the church, vv. 19-22), along with those Jews who likewise embrace Christ through faith (vv. 14-19).  This was God’s purpose from the beginning.  Indeed the church is God’s holy temple, indwelt by Christ’s blessed Spirit.  This is not a temporary situation.  Rather, this points us in the direction of the final consummation, because that same indwelling Spirit guarantees the resurrection of our bodies (Ephesians 1:13-14), so that we dwell upon a new heaven and earth, the home of righteousness.

To insist, as dispensationalists do, that this glorious temple which Jesus is currently building is somehow torn apart when Christ returns to remove the Gentile church (which includes Jewish believers) and set up his millennial reign upon the earth, misses the whole point of Ephesians 2:11-22.  To argue that the point of this passage is but a mere analogy with no reference to fulfilled prophecy also misses (rather badly at that) Paul’s point.  And to argue that the Reformed interpretation somehow requires a complete obliteration of the distinction between Jews (ethnically/culturally) simply cannot be sustained.

It is hard for me to see how this passage is anything but a serious challenge to the dispensational reading of Scripture.