THE DEVELOPMENT OF DISPENSATIONALISM
FROM THE EARLY 1800'S TO THE PRESENT DAY
WHEN DID THE PRESENT DISPENSATION BEGIN?
AND
WHEN DID THE CHURCH BEGIN?

Was it Acts 2?  Acts 9?  Acts 13?  Acts 28?  or Acts 28 + + +?

The origin of the 'church' and the beginning of the present dispensation
don't necessarily have to occur at the same time.

(They are TWO SEPARATE QUESTIONS)

So, does a dispensational change
automatically require the birthday of a new church

and the termination of the previous church?

Was there more than one 'church' co-existing at any one time?
Of which 'church' are we members today?
 

by R.L.B.

The Recovery of Dispensational Truth

What is Dispensational Truth?

"God having spoken in many parts and in many ways formerly to the fathers in the prophets, at the end of these days has spoken to us in the person of the Son, whom he has established heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds." (Hebrews 11:1-2)

        The word "dispensation" refers to what God, in His eternal wisdom, has dispensed or administered to His chosen people at various times and under various circumstances.  For example He dispensed the ordinance of circumcision to Abraham; He dispensed the law to his covenant people Israel through Moses; and He dispensed true grace through His Son the Lord Jesus Christ.  During a former dispensation, or administration, His covenant people were forbidden to eat ceremonially "unclean" meats, but in a later administration such meats were permitted (see Acts 10:9-15).

        In this paper, we will be examining some viewpoints various Bible teachers have pondered in their studies of the Word of God as to when the present dispensation began, and, whether God created more than one ekklesia, church, assembly, or gathering to participate in those differing features of truth that He dispensed at various times during and following the Acts.

The View that both 'The Church' and the Present Dispensation Began at Pentecost

        Bible study from a dispensational point of view was popularized by the recovery of some features of bible truth in the 1800's by scholars like John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), William Kelly (1820-1906), Charles. H. Mackintosh (1820-1896), F. W. Grant (1834-1902), and more recently by Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921), F. C. Jennings (1847-1948), Louis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952) and several others.  Most of these men placed the beginning of 'the church' at the day of Pentecost, (i.e., on the Old Testament "Feast of Weeks"), when God poured out His Spirit on the twelve apostles and on other believers assembled that day (Acts 2:1-4).

        J. N. Darby, (1800 - 1882), was a prominent leader in the early Plymouth Brethren movement. The 'Brethren' movement has exerted an enormous effect on the stances held in many modern day religious organizations.  Darby was a prolific writer, and made studious translations of the Bible into English, French and German.  His ministry took him on multiple trips from Great Britain to France, Germany, Canada, and the United States.

        Darby is credited by many with initiating the recovery of the foundations of the largely forgotten body of truth known as "dispensationalism."  A recent television broadcast on "The History Channel" puts this in prospective.  Judging by the so-called 'expert opinions' expressed on the program, the producers of the TV production are decidedly unsympathetic to the biblical concept of dispensational truth.  We, of course, totally disagree with the History Channel's conclusions that dispensational truth is a recent invention of man, that man being J. N. Darby.  Many features of biblical truth were lost very early in the history of the church, including the truth of justification by faith, the character of the local and universal church, and dispensational truth.  These concepts, however, have been in the Bible from the very beginning for all to accept.  The fact that Huss, Luther and others rediscovered many generally ignored biblical doctrines, such as the truth of justification by faith without works, does not mean the doctrine of salvation by God-given faith alone was invented by those reformers.  So with dispensational truth.  Although others before Darby may have begun to understand portions of this system, Darby was certainly instrumental in beginning the process of recovering it, systematizing it, and popularizing it.

The History Channel program made the following observations:

Narrator:  But this gripping end-time scenario [of the rapture and the great tribulation] is not a twenty-first century evangelical invention.  And perhaps more surprisingly, academics donít believe itís a first century concept either.

Dr. Segal:   It comes from nineteenth century, and early twentieth century protestant evangelical preaching which connected together a number of separate scenes in the New Testament and came up with what is essentially a new myth about the end of time.

Narrator:  This influential form of biblical interpretation is called dispensationalism.  It was the brain child primarily of one man, John Nelson Darby, a nineteenth century British evangelist.

Dr. Weber:  John Nelson Darbyís teachings, were called dispensationalism because he divided the Bible into various eras or dispensations he called them.  And he believed that God had worked with humanity in different ways in each dispensation to bring them along in this redemptive process.

Narrator:  Darbyís innovation amounted to a biblical super-system, a way to read Scripture that unified disparate texts and in particular incorporated difficult apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation which were often ignored in mainstream protestant churches. . .  Dispensationalism caught on quickly in America.

Dr. Weber:   And between 1880 and 1940 there were literally dozens of these bible institutes formed all over the country.  And almost without exception, dispensationalism was the perspective taught in those Bible institutes, which put out hundreds and thousands, over the years, of pastors and missionaries and Christian educators.  (The Antichrist, Part II, The History Channel) 

(Above contributors were:  Alan F. Segal, PhD., Professor of Religion, Barnard College, and Timothy Weber, PhD., Author, On the Road to Armageddon)

        One of Darby's valuable contributions to biblical understanding was dispensational truth.  Regarding the differences between "prophecy" and the "privilege of the church," he wrote:


John Nelson Darby
Prophecy applies itself properly to the earth;  its object is not heaven.  It was about things that were to happen on the earth; and the not seeing this has misled the church.  We have thought that we ourselves had within us the accomplishment of these earthly blessings, whereas we are called to enjoy heavenly blessings.  The privilege of the church is to have its portion in the heavenly places;  and later blessings will be shed forth upon the earthly people.  The church is something altogether apart -- a kind of heavenly economy, during the rejection of the earthly people, who are put aside on account of their sins, and driven out among the nations, out of the midst of which nations God chooses a people for the enjoyment of heavenly glory with Jesus Himself.  The Lord, having been rejected by the Jewish people, is become wholly a heavenly person.  This is the doctrine which we peculiarly find in the writings of the apostle Paul.  It is no longer the Messiah of the Jews, but a Christ exalted, glorified;  and it is for want of taking hold of this exhilarating truth, that the church has become so weak. (The Hopes of the Church of God, In Connection With the Destiny of the Jews and the Nations as Revealed in Prophecy, The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2, p. 376, [1840] )

The calling of God for the earth is never transferred to the nations;  it remains with the Jews.  If I want an earthly religion, I ought to be a Jew.  From the instant that the church loses sight of its heavenly calling, it loses, humanly speaking, all. (Op cit, p. 378)

The body or membership of the body forms no part of Peter's revelation.  Nor does he speak of the Church or assembly at all.  Let us now turn to Paul.  He is full upon this question.  He was a minister of the Church to fulfill or complete the word of God.  Hence the doctrine of the Church as the body of Christ is fully developed by him.  (The Church--The House and the Body, The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 14, p. 97 [1867] )

As to the 'birthday' of the church, Darby identified this day as Pentecost.

In the Ephesians, however, when the body is fully spoken of, the apostle refers to the elect saints, who are created again in Christ Jesus, and are sealed for the day of redemption;  that is, united to the Head, as God knows it;  quickened, raised, and seated in heavenly places in Christ the Head.  That which has wrought this unity is the baptism of the Holy Ghost, under which the elect and manifested remnant were brought on the day of Pentecost. (The House of God; The Body of Christ; and the Baptism of the Holy Ghost, The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 14, pp. 24-25, [1860] )

Even in the mid 1800's Darby recognized that God continued to actively deal with the nation Israel until the point when they were "shut up" at the great dispensational milestone of Acts 28:28.

If we trace the actual order of church history in the Acts, we shall find the breaking up and scattering of the central and only church of Jerusalem by the death of Stephen, gone to Jesus - and then the church on earth scattered;  thereon Saul called for, an entirely new instrument to Gentiles, rulers, and the people of Israel;  and thereon the union of the church with Jesus in heaven for the first time mentioned, "Why persecutest thou me?"  but after this (though the principle of Paul's mission and the union of the church with Jesus was established), the patience of God continuing to work by the ministration of Peter . . . the calling of the Gentiles is by his mouth, that the witness of the Jewish stock might still be preserved in grace . . . and thereon extraordinary intervention might effect besides in one born out of due time, the witness of prerogative grace in the disorder of the dispensation as to man.  We find the lingering traces of habitual evil in the saints, for they objected to Peter his having gone to the Gentiles;  yet this was the final sin of the Jews.  Such was the patience of God, that they were not, historically, then shut up, till Paul's intercourse with them at Rome (Acts 28).  (Footnote to Notes on the Revelation, The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2, p. 176 [1839])

It is when the enmity [of man] has arrived at its height, that He says, "Make the heart of this people fat" (Isaiah 6:10):  but it is not until nearly eight hundred years after (Acts 28:27), that we find the accomplishment of this judgment pronounced so long before by the prophet.  It was when the people had rejected everything, that God hardened them, to make them a monument of His ways.  What patience on the part of God!  (The Hopes of the Church of God, In Connection With the Destiny of the Jews and the Nations as Revealed in Prophecy, Lecture 9, The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2, p. 362 [1840] )

        Darby recognized that Acts 28:28 marked the temporary end of God's offer of the millennial kingdom to Israel.  He did not, however, appear to have fully entered into the logical implications of that truth insofar as it contrasts the characteristics of the church which existed before Acts 28:28 with those which characterized it after Acts 28:28.

       Charles Henry Mackintosh, (1820 - 1896), was a teacher in the so-called "Plymouth Brethren" movement along with J. N. Darby.  He was the beloved author of numerous books, such as his six volume set of Notes on the Pentateuch and seven volumes of Miscellaneous Writings.  C.H.M. said the following regarding the essential characteristics of the church:


Charles H. Mackintosh

 In Matt. xvi., we have the very earliest allusion to the Church, and there our Lord speaks of it as a future thing.  He says, "On this rock I will build My Church."  He does not say, "I have been, or I am building."  In short the Church had no existence until our Lord Christ was raised from the dead and glorified at the right hand of God.  Then, but not until then, the Holy Ghost was sent down to baptise believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, into one body, and unite them to the risen and glorified Head in heaven.  This body has been on the earth since the descent of the Holy Ghost; is here still, and shall be until Christ comes to fetch it to Himself.  It is a perfectly unique thing.  It is not to be found in Old Testament Scripture.  Paul expressly tells us it was not revealed in other ages;  it was hid in God, and never made known until it was committed to him.  (See, carefully, Rom. xvi. 25, 26; Eph. iii. 3-11; Col. i. 24-27) . . .  The termini of the Church's earthly history are Pentecost (Acts ii.), and the rapture (1 Thess. iv. 16, 17).  ( C. H. Mackintosh, Footnote in The Assembly of God, pp. 18 - 19)

Thus, C.H.M. believed there were several prerequisites that had to be met before "the church" could be formed.

But aside from stating when "the Church" began, C.H.M went on to identify what he believed was the true earthly character of the church that existed from Pentecost to the close of the Lord's ministry to the earthly Nation Israel at Acts 28:28.  He also seemed to be at the very edge of discovery of the truth of the remarkable manifesting of the Body of Christ's never-before-revealed heavenly character by Paul in his prison epistles written after national Israel was temporarily set aside:

The doctrine of the Church's heavenly character was developed in all its power and beauty by the Holy Ghost in the Apostle Paul.  Up to his time and even during the early stages of his ministry, the divine purpose was to deal with Israel.  The thought of a church composed of Jew and Gentile, 'seated together in the heavenlies', lay far beyond the range of prophetic testimony.  The Kingdom was still the very highest thought.  The Church as seen in the opening of the Acts ... was still the Kingdom, and not the great mystery of the Church.  Those who think that the opening chapters of Acts present the Church in its essential aspect, have by no means reached the divine thought on the subject."  (C. H. Mackintosh, Concluding Remarks, Miscellaneous Writings, Volume 5, Loizeaux, pp. 127-130).

When Christ was raised from the dead, all the members of His body were raised also; when He ascended into heaven, they ascended also; when He sat down, they sat down also; that is, in the counsel of God, and to be actualized in process of time by the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.  Such was the thought and purpose of the divine mind concerning them.  Believers did not know this at the first; it was not unfolded by the ministry of the twelve, as seen in the Acts of the Apostles, because the testimony to Israel was still going on; and so long as earth was the manifested scene of divine operation, and so long as there was any ground of hope in connection with Israel, the heavenly mystery was held back; but when earth had been abandoned and Israel set aside, the apostle of the Gentiles, from his prison at Rome, writes to the Church, and opens out all the glorious privileges connected with its place in the heavens with Christ.  (Op cite, p. 144)

As to Acts 28:28, C.H.M clearly understood the significance of Paul's quotation of the Holy Spirit's words to Israel from Isaiah 6:9-10, that this was God's final closing judgment on Israel.

There was now no more hope.  Every effort that love could make had been made, but to no purpose; and our apostle, with a reluctant heart, shuts them up under the power of that judicial blindness which was the natural result of their rejection of the salvation of God.  ...now all was over...he must therefore set himself to bring out that holy and heavenly mystery which had been hid in God from ages and generations---the mystery of the Church as the body of Christ united to its living Head by the Holy Ghost.  Thus closes the Acts of the Apostles, which like the Gospels, is more or less connected with the testimony to Israel.  So long as Israel could be regarded as the object of testimony, so long the testimony continued; but when they were shut up to judicial blindness, they ceased to come within the range of testimony, wherefore the testimony ceased.  (Op cite, pp. 141-142).:

We could prolong the very interesting quotes which indicate that even before his death in 1896, C.H.M. had begun to appreciate many features of truth which would eventually be researched and developed by others, only to be misunderstood, rejected, and abandoned by a majority of present-day Bible teachers. 

We have only to glance at the history of the Church for the last eighteen centuries to see how feebly [the mystery revealed through Paul the prisoner] was held and how speedily it was let go.   I am deeply conscious of how feebly and incoherently I have developed what I have in my mind concerning the doctrine of the Church, but I have no doubt of its real importance and feel assured that as the time draws near, much light will be communicated to believers about it.  At present, it is to be feared, few really enter into it.  (Op cite, pp. 146-150)

        Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843 - 1921), was a congregational minister, who is probably best remembered for his 1909 dispensational and premillennial Scofield Reference Bible.  He was also author of a dispensational Bible course, and of other writings.  Many of his dispensational conclusions were similar to those of J. N. Darby.  In fact, the system he taught is sometimes referred to as the "Darby - Scofield" position.  We present here a very small sampling of his writings, having to do with the subject of the present dispensation and the birthday of "the church."


C. I. Scofield

Further, Scripture shows the student that neither Israel nor the church always existed; each had a recorded beginning. The beginning of Israel he finds in the call of Abram. Looking then for the birth of the church he finds (contrary, perhaps, to his expectations, for he has probably been taught that Adam and the patriarchs are in the church) that it certainly did not exist before, nor during, the earth life of Christ, for he finds Him speaking of His church as yet future when He says (Matt. 16:18), "Upon this rock I will build my church." Not, have built, nor am building, but will build.

He finds, too, from Ephesians 3:5-10, that the church is not once mentioned in Old Testament prophecy, but was, in those ages, a mystery "hid in God." Scripturally, he finds the birth of the church in Acts 2, and the termination of its career on the earth in I Thessalonians 4.  (C. I. Scofield, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, Chapter 1, The Jew, the Gentile, and the Church of God).

       In the above quotation, Scofield cites Ephesians 3:5-10 as the basis of his position, that what he terms "the church" was never mentioned in the Old Testament, and had its birth in Acts 2, (on the day of Pentecost).  Scofield appears to treat this "church" as a static organization and applies "the mystery" of Ephesians 3 to that "church" throughout it's historical manifestation, from it's inception at Pentecost to the present time.  However, he does appear to depart somewhat from Darby's position by stating that the "sixth dispensation", began not at Pentecost, but at the cross:

Man under grace. The sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ introduced the dispensation of pure grace, which means undeserved favor, or God giving righteousness, instead of God requiring righteousness, as under law. Salvation, perfect and eternal, is now freely offered to Jew and Gentile upon the acknowledgment of sin, or repentance, with faith in Christ.  (C. I. Scofield, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, Chapter 2, The Seven Dispensations).

        Lewis Sperry Chafer, (1871-1952), who authored his eight volume Systematic Theology, held a position very similar position to that of Darby and Scofield as to when the church began.  Like them he also believed "the Church" was the "mystery" cited by Paul in Ephesians 3:3-6.  But as to the significance of Acts 28:28 Chafer, and many others, deemphasize or ignore it:


Lewis Sperry Chafer

The word church is not found in the Old Testament because of the fact that the Church did not then exist, and being a mystery or sacred secret of the New Testament (Eph. 3:3-6), it is not even a subject of Old Testament prophecy.  [It is used but] once in a prophecy by Christ of the true Church which was yet to be formed (Matt. 16:18).  The true Church could not have existed until Christ died; for she must be redeemed by His blood (Eph. 5:25-27).  The true Church could not have existed until His resurrection;  for she partakes of His resurrection life, and she is the harvest of which He, in resurrection, is the "Firstfruits" in the New Creation.  The true Church could not have existed until His ascension; for He must first become "head over all things to the church."  Likewise, the true Church could not exist until the advent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost; for she can be formed only by the present ministry of the Spirit in baptizing all members into one body and causing them to drink into one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:14).  Therefore we turn to the Epistles [of Paul] for the unfolding of the doctrine of the Church.  This revelation was given to the Apostle Paul (Eph. 3:3-6), as before stated, and is set forth by him particularly in the Ephesian and Colossian letters.  (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Major Bible Themes, The Church: Her Membership, p. 205-206.)

Mid-Acts Dispensational Positions

        The forgoing Bible teachers believed that God's company of believers (the ekklesia or 'church') began on the day of Pentecost, which is the Old Testament "Feast of Weeks" and that this particular 'church' is the same church which is in existence today.  In addition, it appears that many, with the exception of C. H. Mackintosh, believed that the present dispensation also began at the day of Pentecost and continues today.  (Scofield indicated that the present dispensation began at the cross, and Mackintosh seems tantalizingly close to an Acts 28:28 position).

        But, dispensational Bible knowledge, initially recovered and systematized by John Nelson Darby, became relatively stagnated, both within the so-called Brethren movement and to the non-reformed branches of the evangelical community throughout the world.  There were other Bible researchers who took up the challenge begun by C. H. Mackintosh.  These teachers, like C.H.M., concluded that advances could and should be made in this branch of study which could shed light on some problems they felt were inherent in the Darby/Scofield dispensational format.

Ethelbert W. Bullinger
Ethelbert W. Bullinger

       In the late 1800s a Vicar of the Church of England, Dr. Ethelbert W. Bullinger, (1837 - 1913), along with J. N. Darby, C. H. Mackintosh, and others, came to realize the distinctive roll the apostle Paul played in revealing to God's people what Bullinger termed 'church truth,' as opposed to 'kingdom truth.'  Bullinger was editor of "Things to Come" magazine, secretary of the Trinitarian Bible Society, and prolific author of many scholarly and helpful works including A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament (1877), and his ground-breaking and exhaustive work on Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1898)His most outstanding achievement, however, was The Companion Bible, of which he was primary editor.  Bullinger attempted to take a fresh look at the Scriptures, believing that to many, Bible doctrines had become like creeds which are repeated without really understanding the basis of their truth.

Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Darby, and Newton would be surprised to-day to find that those who question what they believed are treated as guilty of presumption, and of a sin to be visited with excommunication!  These good men little thought that the inferences which they drew from the Bible would be raised to a position of almost equality with the Bible itself.  (E. W. Bullinger, How to Enjoy the Bible, Introduction, p.xv, 1907)

        Bullinger attempted (at least in his own mind) to be as consistent as possible in applying dispensational concepts to the various topics of Bible study, such as the second coming of Christ, law & grace, kingdom & church, etc.  Bullinger's dispensational positions varied widely as he struggled to consistently interpret Scripture.  For example, in his relatively early book The Church Epistles he does not at all discuss the time of the inception of "the church."  Indeed, he lumps together Paul's letters to the seven churches, thus indicating his belief that "the church" must have begun sometime before Paul wrote his epistles to those churches.  But, he goes a step further.  In a discussion of Hebrews 13:13 regarding "the camp" Bullinger said the following, cryptically implying (if I read him correctly) that "the church" may have begun at Pentecost:

Paul, in the epistle to the church of God at Corinth, shews also that the church up to that time was the antitype of the Camp in the wilderness. [see 1 Cor. 10:1-2, 6, & 11 - Ed].  So Scripture teaches us in the plainest language possible that the Camp spoken of in Heb. xiii. 13 is not Israel as a nation, but the company of believers in the apostles' day, as seen in the "Acts of the Apostles," in association with Jerusalem and endued with visible power from on high. . . .  The deliverance of Peter, first from the high priest, and afterwards from Herod, with the death of Herod, and the deliverance of Paul at Philippi, shew that the believers were one Camp, whether at Jerusalem or among the Gentiles, wherever any were gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus, so long as the patience of God lingered over Jerusalem and the things that pertained to the kingdom of God were the subject of the apostles' preaching.  While this continued the Gentiles were brought into the Camp by the ceremonial purification, the washing of the flesh in water, when God had purified their hearts through faith (Acts x. 47 and xv. 9).  (E. W. Bullinger, The Church Epistles, p. 180-181)

In a later writing, however, Bullinger stated that the present dispensation began with the apostle Paul during his early ministry.

This Dispensation . . . commenced outwardly by the ministry of Paul, in the Dispensation or administration committed formally to him. (E. W. Bullinger, How to Enjoy the Bible, p. 95)

Bullinger regarded the Lord's declaration in Matthew 16:15-19 to be future to the present day: regarding this future ekklesia which He would build, Bullinger said the following:

On Him, the Messiah, His Ecclesia or Assembly, spoken of in the Prophets, would yet be built.  "I will build" are His words.  "I will call" are Jehovah's words in Hosea: "I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.  And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people: there shall they be called the children of the living God.  Isaiah also crieth CONCERNING ISRAEL, though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, A REMNANT SHALL BE SAVED" (Rom. ix. 25-27).

This Remnant is the Ecclesia mentioned by the Lord in Matt. xvi. 18.

The gates of hell will strive against it, as Rom. ix. 29 testifies, but the remnant shall be saved.  This future Ecclesia of Israel is to be built UPON Christ, the Messiah, as the Foundation Stone.

The Church of God is now a spiritual building IN Christ: but the Ecclesia of Matt. xvi. 18 is the future, corporate, saved "remnant" of Israel.

The special usage of this word Ecclesia, in this Present Dispensation, by the Holy Spirit was not known until it was revealed to Paul as the Secret (or Mystery) which had been "hid in God" (Eph. iii. 9); "hid from ages and from generations" (Col. i. 26); "kept secret since the world began" (Rom. xvi. 25).   (Op cit, p. 147-149)

Bullinger considered the book of Acts as 'transitional' in nature. For example, he wrote:

Up to Acts xxviii, Peter's offer of the kingdom (Acts iii, 19-21, R.V.) was still open.

Not until Acts xxviii, 25, 26 was Paul commissioned to pronounce this threatened judicial blindness, for the third, and last time.

It is obvious that not until after Acts xxviii, could any declaration of the Mystery have been made.  Until then nothing could be said which would be incompatible with the possible acceptance of Peter's offer. (Op cit, p. 178-179)

But although he recognized Acts 28 as an important dispensational marker, he (in 1907) seemed not to understand the full implications of that marker.  For example, his book How to Enjoy the Bible avoids discussing the birthday of the present day church.  So while Bullinger, at this time, appears to have taken a 'mid-Acts' position with regard to the beginning of the present dispensation, it is not entirely clear whether he also took a 'mid-Acts' position as to the birthday of the church.  Later in his ministry, as we shall see, Bullinger emphatically denied that "the church" began at Pentecost. 

John C. O'Hair
John C. O'Hair
     John C. O'Hair, (1876 - 1958), followed in the dispensational footsteps of Dr. Bullinger's early ministry and became a prominent dispensational Bible teacher in the United States.  He was the author of numerous booklets describing the distinctiveness of the present dispensation.  J. C. O'Hair was one of several important leaders who helped launch the current "Grace Movement."  This movement evolved into a 'loosely bound' denomination known as "The Grace Gospel Fellowship" or "GGF," officially organized in 1944.  Various members of the GGF are known to hold at least two distinct positions regarding the beginning of the present dispensation and the historical beginning of the church, namely that the church was born either at Acts 9 with the conversion of the apostle Paul, or that it began at Acts 13 with the commendation of Barnabas and Saul for the ministry of the word by the Holy Spirit and by the brethren at the church in Antioch.

 

Cornelius R. Stam
Cornelius R. Stam

         Cornelius R. Stam, (1908 - 2003), (brother of John Stam, martyred missionary to China) was the former editor of The Berean Searchlight, and late president of the Berean Bible Society.  Although he was an early member of the GGF, certain side issues prompted him to form a rival organization in 1967 known as the Berean Bible Fellowship.  Stam specifically placed the birthday of the church at the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9.  He believed Saul of Tarsus was the first member of the body of Christ.  Stam says the following in his commentary on the Acts: 

 

          THE PENTECOSTAL CHURCH  --  In this passage [Acts 2:42-47] we find the first mention of "the church" in Acts.  This fact has been used to support the traditional view that the church of this age (the Body of Christ) had its historical beginning at Pentecost -- that Pentecost was "the birthday of the Church."  This is one of the great blunders which has caused such confusion and division among God's people today.  (Cornelius. R. Stam, Acts--Dispensationally Considered, Vol. 1, p. 116)

Expressing his view that the birthday of the church and the beginning of the present dispensation were simultaneous occurrences, Stam goes on to say:

[Paul's] conversion marked the beginning of the new dispensation . . . of grace.  (Op cit Vol. 2, p. 17)  [The reader is encouraged to refer to Stam's five specific proofs of his position, pp. 176-180.]

Charles F. Baker
Charles F. Baker

         Charles F. Baker, (1905 - 1994), was an important organizer of the Grace Gospel Fellowship (GGF).   A graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, he edited the Biblegram and also Truth magazine beginning with the magazine's inception in 1950. He also founded the Milwaukee Bible Institute (now Grace Bible College of Grand Rapids, MI) in 1939, serving as its president for 29 years. He is the author of numerous books dealing with dispensational themes.  He, along with a majority of GGF members, believed that both the church and the present dispensation began, not at Acts 9 at the conversion of Saul, but with the commencement of Paul's ministry (as commended by the church at Antioch) in Acts 13.

        To promote unity between the two camps within the GGF, (i.e., between those who hold an Acts 9 position and those who hold an Acts 13 position), the "Grace Gospel Fellowship," adopted the following less specific doctrinal statement:

In the present dispensation there is only one true Church, which is called the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:22, 23; 3:6). The historical manifestation of the Body of Christ began with the Apostle Paul before he wrote his first epistle (1 Thess. 2:14-16 cf. Acts 13:45, 46; Phil. 1:5, 6 cf. Acts 16; 1 Cor. 12:13, 27 cf. Acts 18) - (Doctrinal statement of the Grace Gospel Fellowship)

        One of the implications of the view that a 'new church' was born at Acts 9, or Acts 13, is that 'two bodies,' or 'two distinct churches,' (a Pentecostal Kingdom Church, and the church known as 'Christ's body'), must have coexisted side-by-side after the 'new church' began.  This view has been held by many dispensational teachers, including a dear brother this writer was once privileged to know, the late Ike T. Sidebottom (1897 - 1970), former editor of The Timely Messenger, and pastor of "The Church at 615 College Avenue" in Fort Worth, Texas, from 1929 to 1965.  More recently Dr. W. Edward Bedore, former Executive Director of the Berean Bible Institute, an arm of the Berean Bible Society, expressed this view in an article in The Berean Searchlight, a 'mid-Acts' publication.

The foregoing list of things that took place following Paul's conversion provides compelling evidence that there was a major departure from the prophecy program at that time.  God dispensed grace instead of wrath.  This unprophesied dispensing of grace initiated a new Church, the Body of Christ, which over the next several years would grow even as the existing Kingdom Church would wither and finally die out. - (W. Edward Bedore, The Practical Beginning of the Body of Christ, in The Berean Searchlight, February 2006, p. 20)

        Dr. Bedore believes, along with many mid-Acts teachers, and with many Acts 28 dispensationalists, that the Scriptures teach a new ekklesia (church, assembly, or gathering) was born at the precise historical time that the present dispensation was manifested, whether that time was Acts 9, Acts 13 or after Acts 28:28.  In the case of the mid-Acts systems, this requires the problematic theory that 'two bodies' simultaneously existed during the Acts, as implied by Dr. Bedore (above).  As just one example of the difficulties created by this approach, the Acts 9 system holds, for example, that when Saul of Tarsus initially believed the gospel, he became the first member of the ekklesia known as the "Body of Christ," yet he was baptized with water, an ordinance believed by many mid-Acts dispensationalists to be a 'kingdom ceremony.'  Moreover, Ananias, who baptized Saul, was undoubtedly part of the Acts 2 ('kingdom') church.  Thus we have someone in the 'old' church baptizing someone into an entirely different, 'new,' church, with a water ceremony which mid-Acts dispensationalists teach has no part in the present dispensation.

        One problem is that some dispensationalists simply take for granted that the historical beginning of the present "church" must necessarily coincide with the establishment of the present dispensation, whether that timeframe is Acts 9, Acts 13, after Acts 28:28, or during a second imprisonment of Paul.  Many assume a new church would necessarily have to be born, or "initiated," whenever God, in His sovereign wisdom, introduces a new administration, or dispensation.   For example, when Israel's opposition to their Messiah became irrevocable, God initiated the present (new) dispensation, and, the popular theory says, this new dispensation could not be compatible with the church already in existence, so God must have created a 'new and distinct church' that would be consistent with His new dispensation.  More on this theory later.

The Acts 28:28 Position

        In England, in the early 1900s, after discussions with a young man, Charles H. Welch , the aforementioned Dr. E. W. Bullinger, became convinced that his previously held 'mid-Acts' position was inconsistent with the kingdom miracles and signs that took place in the Acts and earlier Pauline epistles, and with their complete absence in the 'prison epistles.'  Although the majority of Bullinger's earlier writings appear to reflect a 'mid-Acts' position, his final writings adopt a firm Acts 28:28 position which held that both the birthday of the present day church, the body of Christ, and the beginning of the present dispensation, took place following the significant dispensational boundary line at Acts 28:28.

Before we take up the Prison Epistles, written after Acts xxviii, 29, 30, it is absolutely necessary that we should have a very clear understanding of the great dividing line which separates the earlier from the later Pauline Epistles.

In order to gain this understanding we must have a clear view of the scope and design of the Acts of the Apostles as being a Dispensation characterised by CONCLUDING ISRAEL'S BIBLICAL HISTORY.

Of no book of Scripture has the key been more effectually lost, or more difficult to recover.  The eyes of Christendom have been blinded by the tradition, originated by the Popes of Rome, that "Jesus Christ came on earth to found a church, and that He gave the keys to Peter, and Peter gave them to the Pope."  This, or the milder and more modern form of expression, "The Church began at Pentecost," is the root of all the darkness, which, like a thick veil, hides the truth from the churches to this very day.

Through the unfortunate translation of ekklesia by "church" in Matt. xvi. 18, instead of "assembly" or "congregation" (as in the Old Testament), the Romish and Protestant figments have brought forth the pernicious fruit that, in the Acts of the Apostles, we have the formation of "the Christian Church." - (E. W. Bullinger, The Foundations of Dispensational Truth, p. 182)

        Charles H. Welch, (1880 - 1967), began his ministry as editor of The Berean Expositor, which commenced publication in 1909.  He also organized 'The Berean Forward Movement.'  The author of the paper you are now reading met Mr. Welch during his visit to the United States in 1955.  Mr. Welch has consistently held to an Acts 28:28 dispensational position.  Regarding Pentecost he said:

Charles H. Welch

It is practically a "fundamental" that "The church began at Pentecost."  This consensus of opinion has wrought havoc among the people of God.  It has been the foundation of much of the "gifts" and "tongues" movements, "faith healing," and the many sects and splits that go to form Christendom.  We unhesitatingly challenge this hoary tradition, and seek to show by the Word itself that Pentecost has nothing whatever to do with the "church," but like "Matthew," and the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus, is a continuation of the gospel of the kingdom, related to Abrahamic and Davidic promises, hopes, and people. (Charles H. Welch, Dispensational Truth: or the Place of Israel and the Church in the Purpose of the Ages, p. 137)

When does a dispensation begin?  The question is important because of its bearing upon the claims of Acts twenty-eight, or of Acts thirteen, to be the beginning of the dispensation of the Mystery, and of the Church which is the One Body. . . .  Paul received the dispensation of the grace of God by revelation when he became the Prisoner of Jesus Christ for us Gentiles (Eph. 3:1-13).  Did this take place at Acts thirteen?  There can be but one answer to these questions.  They did not take place until the events recorded in Acts twenty-eight became history.  A dispensation is a "stewardship."  A stewardship implies a steward who receives a commission, and a dispensation "begins" when that steward receives the command "Go . . . tell this people" (Isa. 6:9), even as Paul waited until words of the Lord were recorded, "unto whom now I Send thee" (Acts 26:17).   (Charles H. Welch, Acts Thirteen or Acts Twenty-eight? or When did the present dispensation of the Mystery begin?, p. 1, 1957)

        Others who held dispensational positions similar to those of Mr. Welch included Otis Q. Sellers (1901 - 1992), founder of The Word of Truth Ministry in 1936, and the late Oscar M. Baker, (1898 - 1987), editor of Truth For Today which began publishing in 1948.  The ministry of the Berean Forward Movement continues today under the leadership of Mr. Stuart Allen.     

Post Acts 28:28 Positions

        Gordon K. Edgar claimed that the complete revelation of the truth of the present dispensation did not take place until well after Acts 28:28, and, consequently, that even the prison epistles are "transitional" in nature.  Commenting on Acts 28:28 Edgar states:

It may be asked whether the quotation of Isaiah 6:9, 10 in the latter portion of Acts 28, had any real significance at all.  The answer is, yes it did, but the importance of its appearance during the events at Rome must be neither minimized nor overemphasized.  (Gordon K. Edgar, Dispensationalism and Acts 28:28, Sept. 10, 1953, p. 26)

There can be no doubt that this was an important step away from the program of God to Israel.  It is as it were a climactic event in the history of the Acts, yet it was several years later before we have tangible evidence that God was absolutely through with Israel as a nation.  That evidence is presented historically in the destruction of both the Temple and the city of Jerusalem by Titus in 69-70 A.D.  (Op cit, p. 27)

Finally, we must take note of when the present economy of grace actually did begin if, as claimed in this study, it did not begin at any time during the book of Acts.  The answer is, that in conformity with the unique character of this administration, it had its beginning secretly and mystically, with no recorded action to mark the historicity of the event.  The transitional nature of many of Paul's final epistles gives adequate evidence as to the evolutionary nature of the administrational change.  Because of this, we must be especially alert to "test the things that differ" in those epistles of Paul written after the close of the book of Acts.  For some of these writings are transitional in nature and contain much material related to the systematic closing out of the kingdom program of the Acts era, as well as the unfolding and expansion of truths connected with this present administration.  (Op cit, p. 28)

        While there is overwhelming Biblical evidence to support the fact that "A church," (i.e., the future kingdom ekklesia that Christ promised to build (Mat. 16:18-19), began at Pentecost, the complete absence in Scripture of comparable evidence for the later birth or initiation of another ekklesia seems to have led Mr. Edgar and others to propose what they felt was a plausible solution to the problem:  "that in conformity with the unique character of this administration, it had its beginning secretly and mystically, with no recorded action to mark the historicity of the event."  This strange theory, void as it is of scriptural support, is also known as reading the "wisdom of man" into the text of the inerrant Word of God.  Or, as another put it, "Reading the Word of God with pre-focused glasses."


Mervin A. Tillinghast

Mervin A. Tillinghast, (1909 - 1998), and the author of this paper were involved together in several gospel ministries.  We regularly gave gospel messages to inmates at a county jail, we gave out gospel tracts together, and we visited numerous people in need of physical help and of eternal salvation.  "Merv" and I also engaged together in numerous in-depth discussions regarding various features of truth found in the Scriptures.  We also published a limited circulation monthly Bible study known as "The Steward."   As to whether the birthday of the body of Christ and the beginning of the present dispensation occurred at the same historical time, this brother came to believe in his later years that "the body of the Lord Jesus Christ could not begin" until the truth of that one body was revealed.  Furthermore, he eventually came to believe that this truth is not revealed to every believer, but only to a chosen few. He believed that while they may be "saved," they are not necessarily part of the body of Christ, but could be part of God's former kingdom program.

I have been interested in looking at the Truth as it pertains to the Church, the Body of Christ.  I started out by using Eph 3:9, 10, 11 as my base "The purpose of the ages are purposed in Christ Jesus."  Therefore all truth centers in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Since all growth of the Body comes from the head Eph. 4:15, 16 and Col. 2:19 therefore there can be no Body of Christ until there has been the revelation of the Head. . . .  The Church is only made known to those who are chosen Eph. 1:3-5.  -  (Merv Tillinghast, letter dated Aug 22, 1996)

Brother Tillinghast believed, along with Gordon K. Edgar, that Ephesians and other prison epistles written during Paul's first imprisonment contained a number of elements of 'kingdom truth.'  In my opinion this theory puts Ephesians and other prison epistles outside the 'zip-code' mail zone specifically addressed to believers in the present dispensation.  We believe such a position leaves little or no Scriptures upon which to base God's message for believers following the final default of the nation Israel at Acts 28:28.

Supportive arguments for and against the various positions

        Thus far we have cited four views as to when the present dispensation began.  These are:

        There are variations on the above four positions, but inasmuch as these are the most popular stances taken on this issue we will confine our discussion to them.  We will not be discussing "covenant of grace" views in this paper.

The Position of ThyTestimonies.com

         A common interpretation of the New Testament Scriptures is that the beginning of one of God's dispensations must coincide with the historical beginning of the particular church, assembly, or gathering (ekklesia) that participates in that "dispensing" of the particular features of truth that distinguish one dispensation from another.  Thus, if one believes that 'the church' began at Pentecost that automatically means that the present dispensation must also have begun at Pentecost.  Note the following examples of commonly held beliefs:

If the "church" began at Then the present dispensation must also have begun at
Pentecost Pentecost
Conversion of Saul (Acts 9) Conversion of Saul (Acts 9)
Commissioning of Paul & Barnabus (Acts 13) Commissioning of Paul & Barnabus (Acts 13)
At or shortly after the blinding of Israel (Acts 28:28) At or shortly after the blinding of Israel (Acts 28:28)
Considerably after Acts 28:28 Considerably after Acts 28:28

        It is the belief of the author of this paper that when a new dispensation begins this does not necessarily mean that a new 'church' must begin.  In other words, God may gather a company of believers (a "church") under a particular system of beliefs and practices, but somewhere along the way He may add or subtract certain outward doctrines and practices as His Sovereign Plan may require.  When God then dispenses new features of truth to His people this does not necessarily imply that He has caused a new 'church' to be born.

        We see, for example, that God called Abram in uncircumcision, added the covenant of circumcision to his earthly plan, singled out Isaac as the promised seed to head the line of His earthly descendants, added the law to the requirements for His earthly people, sent those people into captivity, and promised a new covenant that would provide future spiritual as well as physical blessings.  At none of these significant events did He cast away His earthly people Israel and start again with some completely new nation to take their place.  Thus, although God's revealed plans and requirements had changed for His earthly people, these "updated" plans and requirements applied to the same people.  This is what we believe happened with the introduction of "Christianity" in the Book of Acts.

        To explain this idea in terms of what happened during and after Luke's historical account in the book of Acts we will treat the subject under two themes:  When did the present dispensation began, and when did the present "church, assembly, or gathering" begin?

When did the present dispensation begin?

       As stated above, we do not believe God necessarily begins a new 'church' (ekklesia) whenever He starts to dispense a new program.  We believe the concept of when a 'church' began and when a new dispensation began are two entirely distinct features of truth.  Being part of Christ's universal church is a privilege enjoyed by every person who has a personal spiritual link to our Savior.  This 'membership' has nothing to do with 'belonging' to some local church, chapel, or man-made religious organization on earth.  Thus, Christ's church (i.e., His 'gathering') began when the first repentant believer was baptized by the Lord Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit into that church. We propose to show that this event, (this beginning of Christ's 'gathering') occurred when God was literally offering the earthly kingdom to Israel within the framework of the prophesied new covenant.

        From Pentecost to the present time, God has administered to His company of believers comprising Christ's "gathering" three strikingly different spiritual and physical programs, or dispensations:

1.  The kingdom dispensation to prepare Israel for world missionary work.
2.  The kingdom dispensation in mystery form while Israel was still part of God's program (Gentiles grafted into Israel's covenant blessing to provoke Israel to jealousy).
3.  The mystery dispensation following the judicial blinding of Israel, where sinners are called and blessed entirely apart from covenants previously made with Israel.

Dispensation #1:  When God first began to 'gather' His ekklesia  on the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), God offered to 'restore' the literal, physical, prophesied millennial kingdom to Israel through the resurrected Messiah (Acts 3:19-21).  Those who believed this message became a remnant of believing Israelites (Isa. 10:21) known as the ekklesia (church, assembly, gathering).  The Hebrew prophets foretold that God would pour out His Spirit upon His 'gathering' (Isa. 44:3; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28) and put His Spirit within them (Ezek. 37:14; 11:19; 36:27), just as happened on the day of Pentecost.  For the time being, those who rejected His offer continued to be God's covenant people, having access to the promises of God, but without actually partaking of the good of those promises.  During the dispensation that began at Pentecost absolutely no Gentiles participated in the blessings offered to the Jews through the twelve apostles.  It was not yet their time, because corporate Israel, (the potential missionaries who possessed God's law), had not yet believed in their Anointed One.  The unique characteristics of that kingdom dispensation became obvious when Peter preached to the Jews, offering them the physical return to earth of the Lord Jesus Christ, and 'times of refreshing,' conditional on Israel's repentance and ceremonial purification (baptism) with water.  This kingdom dispensation began at Pentecost and continued until the stoning of Stephen.  During that dispensation only Jews (no Gentiles) were in the ekklesia, and certainly there existed no "Body" of Jews and Gentiles on an equal footing, blessed in "heavenly places" in Christ.

Dispensation #2:  The next dispensation, began shortly after the Jerusalem Israelites decisively rejected their Messiah by stoning God's prophet Stephen.  This took place approximately ten long years after Pentecost. 

        This stoning was reckoned by God as being the same as if the Jews had stoned the Lord Himself (see Mat. 25:40), except that now they were also rejecting the works of the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 12:31 and Acts 7:51, 55).  These works of the Spirit were obvious in the miracles and signs presented as Divine evidences to the Jews.  These miraculous signs were the "powers of the age to come", that coming age being the millennium (see Heb. 2:3-4 & 6:5).  Because of their unbelief, God at that time began (note the change in God's administration) an outward, ongoing, process of hardening Israel's heart.  Note that whereas the Lord Jesus was seated at the right hand of God (Mk. 16:19), Stephen saw the Lord Jesus "standing," not "seated" (see Isa. 3:13 & James 5:9).  This was a warning that the Lord Jesus was standing in judgment, as if ready to pour out terrible judgment upon His people Israel.  Up until this point in the book of Acts the gospel had been preached to Jews only, because, according to prophecy, Jews were to be God's missionaries to enlighten the Gentiles (Isa. 2:2-3; 42:6; 49:6; 60:1-3).  The Lord Himself told the Samaritan woman, "...salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22).  In order for Yahweh to use Israel as His missionaries, Israel must first believe the word of God and accept their Messiah.  But in Acts 7, rather than bow in worship to their Messiah, the Israelites at Jerusalem demonstrated their unbelief, thus disqualifying themselves from fulfilling their prophesied missionary roll. Just as Prince Edward VIII abdicated his kingship so that he might marry a woman unsuitable to royalty, so the Jewish leaders at Jerusalem, blinded by their unbelief, abdicated their covenant position, in effect selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.

        In response to their unbelief, God began the process of hardening corporate Israel's heart (Rom. 8:18), and of provoking them to jealousy (Rom. 10:19; 11:11; see also Acts 17:5), while mercifully saving a "remnant" of individual Jews (Rom. 11:1, 2, 5, 14; 1 Cor. 9:22).  This dispensation, in which God began the process of terminating His prophesied covenant relationship with Israel, spanned the twenty or so years from Acts 8 through Acts 28:28.

        In order to provoke His people Israel to jealousy God sovereignly called Gentiles to partake of His mercies (Rom. 11:11), even though the Jew was at this time "first" in God's plan of blessing (see Acts 3:26; 13:46; 26:20; Rom. 1:16; 2:9-10).  Gentiles were grafted into the olive tree which was a figure of Israel's unique earthly blessing under God's covenant relationship with the Jews.  This inclusion of Gentiles into an earthly covenant was accomplished not through the preaching of a believing Israel, but in spite of the fact they refused to believe.  Thus, the manner in which Gentiles were included in God's program was completely different from the way the prophets had spelled it out.  It was one of the pieces of God's program that was not revealed to the prophets.  It was a 'mystery' (Rom. 11:25; 16:25).  Peter, the apostle with the keys of God's government, or kingdom, was used by the Holy Spirit to open the door of salvation to Cornelius, a Gentile (Acts 10 & 11).  God then raised up His "chosen vessel," Saul of Tarsus, to be the specific "apostle of the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:13).

        Yet, during that 'dispensation,' in spite of the fact that Paul was the apostle of the Gentiles, whenever he entered a new city on one of his missionary journeys, he always preached the word to the Jew first.  Paul said preaching to the Jews first was "necessary" (Acts 13:46).  Christians in some modern Messianic movements wrongly believe the Jew is still first!  Not so!  That faulty belief hangs on a failure to "rightly divide" the Word of truth.  The requirement that the Jew must be first was terminated when the final outpost of the Jewish dispersion (Rome) officially rejected their Messiah, resulting in the offer of God's salvation being immediately taken from them and given to the Gentiles (Acts 28:28).  But up until the very last day of his ministry during the Acts, Paul declared: "on account of the hope of Israel I have this chain about me." (Acts 28:20)

Dispensation #3:  The present dispensation began shortly after Acts 28:28.  At Acts 28:28, when Israel's rejection of God's Son became final and complete, God temporarily suspended His covenant relationship with Israel, and opened the door of blessing to all people, both Jews and Gentileswithout regard to nationality or any former covenant position.  For the first time Gentile blessing was no longer tied in any way to corporate Judaism.

        When we come to the final chapter of the Acts, the gospel had been sent to the Jews at Jerusalem and to the dispersed Israelites throughout much of the world, but the leaders of the Jewish dispersion at Rome had not yet officially rejected the gospel.  When the gospel was preached at Pentecost it was sent to the Jewish leaders at Jerusalem. These leaders who represented National Israel rejected their King.  Moreover, the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit had also been signally rejected by them (see Mat. 12:31).  Finally, at Rome, Paul preached his last appeal to the Nation that had killed the prophets, and had even executed their blessed Holy Messiah. He declared to the Jewish leaders  "on account of the hope of Israel I have this chain about me." (Acts 28:20)  At this sad point in Israel's history, the Jews of the dispersion at Rome joined their unbelieving brethren at Jerusalem by likewise rejecting the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and by rejecting the miracles and signs of the Holy Spirit, the very signs of the millennium to come (Heb. 2:5; 6:5).  With finality Paul then quoted the judgment presented by the prophet Isaiah that decisively sealed Israel's blindness, deafness, and hardness of heart.  This rejection of their Anointed One ended Israel's opportunity to fulfill God's prophetic program at that time.  With this final rejection, we believe the kingdom signs and wonders ceased, because they no longer served a purpose in provoking Israel to a jealousy that, could once have led them to salvation.  Even the Gentiles would no longer possess those signs, because Gentiles had received them specifically as signs as part of God's covenant purpose toward unbelieving Israel (1 Cor. 14:22).  The purpose of these signs of the coming millennial age were not designed, as some suppose, to verify God's message until the canon of Scripture would be finished (which wasn't until about AD 98).  The purpose of these signs was, in fact, to provoke Israel to jealousy.  In other words, 'Get off the fence': 'either believe the good news of the kingdom, or reject it to your own terrible loss.'

        Following Acts 28:28, additional features of the 'mystery' were revealed in all its fullness.  The Jew was no longer first.  Their preferential covenant position had been placed in abeyance.  Corporate Israel was reckoned now as being no different from any of the other nations.  An unbelieving Gentile and an unbelieving Jew now have the same doctrinal and governmental standing before God.  The Jew is now considered "Lo ammi", ("not My people" - see Hosea 1:9).  The gospel is now presented to Jew and Gentile on an equal basis.  The Jew no longer has advantages not enjoyed by GentilesGentiles are no longer blessed by placing them in a Jewish covenant blessing from which a Jew had been removed.  In other words, the Jew is no longer "first."

When did the present "church" begin?

        The previous section has dealt with the dispensational differences which mark the three periods from Pentecost to the present day.  We now deal with the separate question of when the present-day church began.

        The Lord Jesus clearly indicated in Matthew 16:18-19 that He would build His "ekklesia".  This was a future event (I will build), and therefore it excludes all assemblies, churches, congregations or gatherings mentioned in the Old Testament, or in the Gospels that existed prior to His Divine pronouncement to Peter.  Any other "gathering" or "church" (ekklesia) was not the "church" Christ would build. The ekklesia Christ would build is not mentioned until *Acts 2 (or *Acts 5), the Jewish day of Pentecost (Feast of Weeks). 

"and the Lord added to the assembly daily those that were to be saved." (Acts 2:47)

 *[Note: many Greek manuscripts omit the word "ekklesia" in Acts 2:47, making it read "And the Lord added to them daily those that were to be saved."]

"Those then who had accepted his word were baptized; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls." (Acts 2:41)

At the untimely death of Annanias and Saphira mention is also made of this "assembly"

"And great fear came upon all the assembly, and upon all who heard these things." (Acts 5:11)

This "assembly" (ekklesia) had been announced as a future "gathering" in Matthew 16:18-19, but it is described as a present reality in Acts 2 and 5.  Therefore it must have come into being sometime between these two boundary points.

[This "assembly" (ekklesia) is mentioned 18 (or 19) times in the book of Acts (Acts [2:47]; 5:11; 8:1,3; 11:22,26; 12:1,5; 13:1; 14:23,27; 15:3,4,22; 18:22; 19:31,39,41; 20:17,28).]

It seems clear, therefore that the particular "assembly" Christ promised to build began on the day of Pentecost when Jews from many nations 'gathered' as required by the feast of weeks described in the Torah:

"And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the first-fruits of wheat-harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year.  Thrice in the year shall all thy males appear before the Lord Jehovah, the God of Israel." (Ex. 24:22-23)

At the birth of Christ's "gathering" (ekklesia) on the feast of weeks (Pentecost) were a number of confirming events, (noted by Lewis Sperry Chafer earlier):

Most dispensational Bible scholars concur that " A " church began at Pentecost.  The big question is whether that "church" is the same "ekklesia" that exists today.  Note the following thoughts:

How many "Churches" existed during the historical period covered by the Acts?

        Some dispensational teachers who rightly recognize the millennial kingdom character of the early ekklesia conclude that two churches must have existed simultaneously during the Acts period, a kingdom church (which began at Pentecost) and a grace church which began subsequent to Pentecost.  They hold that as the gospel of the uncircumcision committed to Paul took hold, the kingdom gospel, (the gospel of the circumcision), committed to the twelve gradually faded away during the Acts.

        There are two basic positions taken by those who see two separate churches coexisting during part of the Acts period.

  1. The present day church began not at Pentecost but at the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9.  He was the first member of the 'grace' church.
  2. The present day church began at Acts 13:2 when the Holy Spirit selected Barnabas and Saul, and they were commended by the disciples of Antioch to preach the gospel of 'grace.'

        There are also two positions taken by some who recognize that National Israel forfeited God's millennial kingdom offer at Acts 28:28.  Many of these hold that the church which exists today is a completely different church than existed during the Acts period, (while Israel's kingdom hope was active).  We label these as positions 3 and 4.

  1. The present day church began shortly after Paul pronounced blindness on the Nation Israel at Acts 28:28, and the offer of the millennial kingdom to Israel was withdrawn.
  2. The present day church began at an undisclosed time following Acts 28:28, perhaps several years after Acts 28:28, near Paul's second imprisonment, or perhaps even after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

        All four of the above positions concede that "A church" began at Pentecost, but that a new church had a historical beginning after Pentecost, at either Acts 9, Acts 13, shortly after Acts 28:28, or at an undisclosed time following Acts 28:28 (depending on which of the four positions are held).  According to the dual-church concept, (positions 1 & 2), as God unfolded His purposes Israel rejected the gospel of the kingdom preached to them beginning at Pentecost and a new 'church' began as God moved on to include Gentiles.  This new church existed along side the original church that had begun at Pentecost.  Those holding positions 3 & 4 point to the significant differences between the character of the church as described in the Acts and the church as revealed in Paul's prison epistles, and thereby conclude that the original church that began at Pentecost folded and was replaced by a brand new church which began subsequent to Acts 28:28.

        I have pondered the reasoning and scriptural references put forth in support of 'two church' theories, but fail to find a definite point in Scripture where any new church (ekklesia) had a definite historical starting point.  It is quite clear in Matthew 16:18-19 that Christ promised to "build" His gathering, which assembly (gathering) had its historical beginning on the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Pentecost).  Or, to put it more scripturally, it was on the day of Pentecost that the Lord Jesus began to "gather" those who believed He was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and to "build" them on Himself according to that profession of Peter. (See Mat. 16:16).  But it is far from clear that Scripture indicates a new "church" was born when God opened the door of salvation to Gentiles in order to provoke the Jews to jealousy.  In fact, the salvation of Gentiles during the period Acts 10 through the end of Acts is intimately connected to the Kingdom Church of Pentecost by virtue of its hoped-for effect on the unbelieving Jews as described in Romans 11.

        In our main article above we have attempted to show by Scripture that the nature of that kingdom assembly which began at Pentecost changed dramatically as God's longsuffering attempted to provoke Israel to jealousy by placing Gentiles in the Olive Tree blessing which Israel should have enjoyed. And it changed again at Acts 28:28 when Jerusalem and the Diaspora at Rome had with finality told God "we will not have this man to reign over us," at which time the Holy Spirit "spoke" the words of Isaiah 6:9-10 for the final time and cast God's judicial sentence of blindness upon that covenant Nation.  However, there seems to be no clear evidence that God began a new ekklesia at any of these significant eschatological turning points cited by those holding a dual-church position.  On the contrary, there are strong, easy to understand, arguments indicating that as God 'dispensed' new features of truth to His 'gathering,' the saints gladly accepted these new features of truth as soon as they were revealed.  Thus they were faithful to the new light afforded them and received the reward of that faithfulness by participating in the enhanced blessings revealed to them.

        For example, when God changed His 'Israel only' program by commanding Peter to preach to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10), God's gathering (the Jewish believing remnant) gladly accepted God's new plan:

"And when they heard these things they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then indeed God has to the Gentiles also granted repentance to life." (Acts 11:18)

        No new ekklesia was necessarily created at this point.  Christ's existing 'gathering' continued intact.  However, the nature of the ekklesia changed dramatically, because Gentiles had now been grafted into the Olive Tree blessing previously enjoyed only by the Jewish believers (Rom. 11).  But it was still the same "church" (gathering) seen at Matthew 16:18-19 and at Acts 2.

        And after God blinded and deafened National Israel at Acts 28:28, and withdrew the offer of the earthly kingdom from them, did the believing Jews and Greeks, bond and free, who had been 'baptized' into one body "in the power of one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13, J.N.D. translation), lose their church, and have to become part of an entirely new 'gathering'?  No, they continued to be "gathered" to God in the Name of Jesus Christ.  As a matter of fact, soon after the blinding of Israel at Acts 28:28 and the withdrawal of the offer of the earthly kingdom, Paul penned the Epistle to the Ephesians outlining an entirely new sphere of blessing for these believers, "in the heavenlies in Christ."  These believers who "gathered" to the blessed name of the Lord Jesus no longer had an earthly kingdom blessing.  But there is no indication that a "new ekklesia" came into a historical beginning at that juncture.  The same believers who had been "gathered" during the Acts period simply had wonderful new blessings to enjoy.

        Additionally, Paul appears to take the historical basis for the Ephesians' salvation and eternal security back to a promise about the Spirit made by John the Baptist.

   " In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise." (Eph. 1:13)

        Paul, by inspiration, could easily have simply said "ye were sealed with that holy Spirit" period.  Yet it was necessary to include the words "of promise" to emphasize the continuity of, and association with, all that had taken place during the earlier dispensation.

        Paul also stated in Ephesians that the same basis of their eternal salvation had not changed (Eph. 2:8-9), nor did the historical foundation of the assembly:

   "So then ye are no longer strangers and foreigners, but ye are fellow-citizens of the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the corner-stone." (Eph. 2:19-20)

        One final consideration:  three times Paul regretfully confessed that before his conversion he had persecuted "the Church," certainly referring to God's "gathering" that began at Pentecost (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6).  Carefully note the following postulations:

     In summary, if a new 'mystery' or 'grace' church began at Acts 9, Acts 13, or after Acts 28:28, Paul must have become part of that so-called "new" gathering at the time it was formed.  Therefore, if a new church came into being at either Acts 9 or Acts 13 then two "assemblies" must have existed simultaneously side by side, the old "church" and the new.

In view of the above presuppositions please take note of the following three statements Paul made, in First Corinthians, in Galatians, and in Philippians: (Note:  Paul's epistle to the Philippians was a "prison epistle" written after God had withdrawn Israel's kingdom offer at Acts 28:28).

     "For *I* am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called apostle, because I have persecuted THE assembly of God." (1 Cor. 15:9)

     "For ye have heard what was my conversation formerly in Judaism, that I excessively persecuted THE assembly of God, and ravaged it." (Gal. 1:13)

     "as to zeal, persecuting THE assembly; as to righteousness which is in the law, found blameless." (Phil. 3:6)

        Note, in all three passages Paul did not say he persecuted "A" church (gathering or assembly), he persecuted "THE" assembly (church).  Note the definite article is present in the Greek in each of these three passages.  Although the mission, the nature, and the eschatological position of "THE" church had changed dramatically since Pentecost, Paul considers that there was only one ekklesia, one church, one assembly, one gathering, built on the foundation of the apostles, and Jesus Christ the corner-stone.  The confusion has partially arisen because teachers have wrongly attached doctrinal and dispensational labels to the word "church."  The "church" that existed at the time Paul wrote Philippians 3:6 was a "church" that had a calling and blessing in heavenly places.  It partook of that wonderful body of truth known as "the mystery."  Yet Paul recognizes that the "church" that once had a kingdom calling was also "THE church," because "the church" in every dispensation since the Lord proclaimed it is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the corner-stone."  It was one and the same ekklesia ("gathering") which existed at Pentecost and the same ekklesia that existed when Paul wrote Philippians 3:6.  But with very different gifts and future expectations.

        When a controversy arose as to whether believing Gentiles must be circumcised, (i.e., become Jews), before they could be saved (Acts 15:1), Paul did not make an independent pronouncement that Gentiles need not be circumcised.  Since there was only one church, (which included the Jerusalem Jews, the Jews of the dispersion, and the Gentiles), and because the offer to the Jewish nation of God's new covenant and millennial kingdom was still on the table, Paul took his case to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.  These apostles had been specifically given authority to make such decisions as directed by the Holy Spirit (Mat. 16:19; John 20:22-23).  It was Peter, James, and the apostles at Jerusalem, not the apostle Paul, who made the final pronouncement that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised.  When Peter, James and other Jews in Jerusalem reached this decision,  "the apostles and elders, with the whole church" at Jerusalem sent a company of Jews from their assembly to the Gentile believers to convey that decision, thus strongly reinforcing the unity of all believers, and the authority of the eleven remaining apostles, whether they were located in a local congregation at Jerusalem or in the far off lands of the Gentiles.  There was only one church, not two.

        In addition, Paul's teaching about "the body of Christ" is a truth revealed to him about the relationship of believers to one another and to Christ their Head.  When God reveals something new it by no means says he is terminating one 'church' and starting another.  It simply means that He is bringing those who have a spiritual link with His Son into a further advancement of the truth.  Each time Paul wrote letters to various groups of Christians he revealed numerous features of truth that had not previously been known.  That does not mean that with each teaching in an epistle a new ekklesia was born and anything previous must pass away.  All of our dispensational positions must be based on the Scriptures, not on "I think such and such...."  In other words, we must be a Berean!

        Therefore, based on Scriptural evidence, instead of a new church being initiated at Acts 9, or at Acts 13, or after Acts 28:28, the character and message of the church which had existed since Pentecost simply changed with whatever dispensational theme God, in His absolute sovereignty, had brought to the called saints.  Once God shut up corporate Israel in unbelief, He no longer offered the millennial kingdom to Israel.  Those who did become believers no longer were part of Israel's new covenant, no longer had miraculous powers, no longer spoke in tongues, but they now had the very highest blessings to be revealed, blessings in the heavenlies in Christ (Eph. 1:3; Col. 3:1-3).  Yet Scripture indicates that these new heavenly blessings were given to individuals who comprised the same "church" that had existed since Pentecost, a "church" that no longer was expecting the soon coming of Christ to set up his kingdom on the earth, a "church" that no longer had the signs and wonders of the millennial age to come.
 

        Although our understanding is that Scripture teaches that the present dispensation began after Acts 28:28 we do not necessarily agree with all of the practical conclusions of some who hold that both the present dispensation and the church, the body of Christ began following Acts 28:28.  For example, we must ask which practices of the early church are 'truth for today,' and which belonged strictly to the early church that preached the 'restoration' of the earthly kingdom to Israel.  Indeed, the fact that the prison epistles stress the unity of the church from Pentecost to the present time requires us to resolve these questions in a totally Scriptural manner, as 'Bereans,' rather than by adopting inflexible formulae to either include or to exclude certain early practices.  God dispensed differing gifts, differing practices, and differing 'marching orders' to the ekklesia at various times during and following the Acts period.  Rather than using a 'computer driven algorithm' to determine what is 'truth for today,' we need to look deeper into the scriptural significance of various practices to see how they relate to the various dispensations, past and present.

 Concluding Remarks

        We have seen evidences that a new church, separate from the 'church in the wilderness' (Acts 7:38), began on the day of Pentecost, in accordance with the promise the Lord Jesus Christ made in Matthew 16:18.  On the Jewish Feast of Weeks, (Pentecost), Christ baptized believers with the Holy Spirit, and "gathered" them into a company known as the ekklesia.  At various times in God's plan several differing blessings would be dispensed to that ekklesia depending on the stance of faith national Israel exhibited towards their Messiah Jesus.  This promised 'church' or 'gathering' of God's elect continued to exist throughout the various changes in God's programs during the book of Acts, and this same 'church' continues to exist today. 

        But this one 'church' has thus far been part of three very different dispensations.

Dispensation #1 (Acts 1 - 7):  God makes an actual offer of the earthly kingdom to Israel in preparation for their 'great commission' ministry to all nations (Mat. 28:19).  This offer of the kingdom was part of the 'new covenant' promises made to Israel and Judah, and was accompanied by the miracles and signs of the Holy Spirit which verified to Israel the authenticity of God's message.  In that dispensation, Israel was to be God's vehicle to bring salvation to all the nations (Gentiles) in accordance with prophecy.  The actual offer of God's earthly kingdom to Israel took place at Acts 3, and there is no indication in Scripture that it was withdrawn until Acts 28:28.  However, the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 marked the time the official leaders of the Jerusalem Jews officially rejected God's Anointed Son.  Stephen was a prophet 'filled with the Holy Spirit' (Acts 6:5).  When the Jewish leaders at Jerusalem killed Stephen, they were both crucifying afresh the Son of God, (Cf. Mat. 25:40), and were rejecting the witness of the Holy Spirit (see Heb. 6:6 & Mat. 12:31-32).  This raw demonstration of Israel's unbelief prompted the unfolding of the second dispensation in the book of Acts. 

Dispensation #2 (Acts 8 - 28):  God provokes Israel to jealousy because of their stubborn rejection of the witness of the Holy Spirit.  To provoke Israel to jealousy, God gave to Gentiles the miracles and signs which actually belonged to Israel.  He broke off some natural, (Israelite), branches from the olive tree (Rom. 11:17).  The olive tree represented the Jew's covenant position of blessing.  By grafting Gentiles into the Jew's exclusive position of blessing it created unmitigated jealousy on the part of the unbelieving Jews.  (See Acts 22:21-22 where the Jews listened to Paul only until he mentioned the word "Gentiles.")  In other words, Gentiles partook of the blessings that Israel should have had by prophetic promise. Prophecy envisioned that Gentiles would be blessed through the missionary endeavor of a faithful, believing, Israel.  But now God was doing something quite different.  God now bypassed His prophetic promises that Gentile blessing would take place through a faithful Israel, instead, began to bless Gentiles in spite of an unfaithful Israel.  This period is referred to by Paul as the mystery of Israel's blindness (Rom. 11:25).  It was a "mystery" because this order of things was not to be found in the Old Testament scriptures or in the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.

During dispensation #2, Paul systematically went to the responsible leaders of the Jews of the dispersion in every city, offering the gospel to them (Acts 19:10).  Each time they rejected it Paul went to the Gentiles, much to the consternation of the Jews.  Finally, when his message had been rejected by the Jews throughout the world, he presented the truth of the Messiah to the large gathering of Jews at Rome.  This gathering in Rome of the Jewish clergy represented the final outpost of the Jews of the dispersion.  And, it was the final opportunity of Israel to believe on and obey their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.  When these officials of the Jewish dispersion joined with the non-believing Jews at Jerusalem by rejecting the Lord of Glory, Paul quoted the curses that the Holy Spirit had spoken in the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10, thus imposing Divine judgment upon Israel in accordance with the authority granted him as an apostle to bind in heaven what had taken place on earth (see Mat. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23).

    "And being disagreed among themselves they left; Paul having spoken one word, Well spoke the Holy Spirit through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers,
    "saying, Go to this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear and not understand, and seeing ye shall see and not perceive.
    "For the heart of this people has become fat, and they hear heavily with their ears, and they have closed their eyes; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.
    "Be it known to you therefore, that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they also will hear it.
    "And he having said this, the Jews went away, having great reasoning among themselves. " (Acts 28:25-29)

Dispensation #3 (Prison Epistles):  The heavenly blessing of believers.  Following this pronouncement of Divine judgment, National Israel temporarily ceased to be God's prophetic instrument for the salvation of the Gentile world.  With Israel out of the picture there was no longer need for the Jewish miracles and signs that confirmed the earthly kingdom gospel and its heaven-sent messengers.  Paul introduced wonderful new features of truth for members of God's gathering, the body of Christ.  These truths were collectively known as the 'mystery,' because they had been hidden in God throughout the Old and New Testament record, until revealed specifically to Paul the apostle.  They were hidden in God, not hidden somewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, and were not to be found by 'reading between the lines.'

This "mystery" goes further than the "mystery" stated in Romans, (which was the blessing of Gentiles apart from the prophesied roll Israel should have had, in order to provoke Israel to jealousy).  Although some features of the "mystery" of Romans continued beyond Acts 28:28, its purpose was no longer to create jealousy in the hearts of the nation Israel.  National Israel was now shut out of covenant blessings because of their unbelief.  Their 'olive tree' blessing was withdrawn and Gentiles were no longer co-partakers of it.  In fact, all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, were given a blessing that was different from the 'olive tree' blessing.  It was a blessing never before mentioned in the pages of Holy Scripture.  Some of the Scriptural points contained in the "mystery" in Ephesians and Colossians are as follows:

This present day heavenly blessing does not include such things as:

We nevertheless believe there is overwhelming evidence that Christ's gathering (i.e., 'church') began on the day of Pentecost.

But is this 'church' which had its historical beginning at Pentecost the same church as exists today?

        We suggest that once Israel forfeited the earthly kingdom offered to them by Peter in Acts 3, believers at Ephesus would by this time have lost all of the spiritual gifts of the earthly kingdom.  This is because they were no longer grafted into Israel's position of spiritual blessing depicted in Romans 11 since that place of blessing no longer existed.  It was cancelled by the pronouncement of blindness upon corporate Israel at Acts 28:28.  Was the church now defunct?  By no means!  Paul unfolds to this 'gathering' of believers wonderful spiritual blessings never before made known, blessings in the heavenlies that far exceed anything that had previously been spoken of.  But along with that, by using the words "of promise," Paul purposefully links these Ephesian believers to the mighty work of God, the church of the living God, that had its doctrinal and historical beginning at Pentecost.  (Note: we did not say it had its dispensational beginning at Pentecost).

        Based on the testimony of Scripture, we believe the unfolding of this current dispensation in Paul's prison epistles did not terminate the church that came into being on the day of Pentecost.  As God's program with Israel progressed, first with the kingdom offer by leaders of that original church, then with His ministry of blindness upon Israel and the Divine hardening of Israel's heart, and finally with the temporary shutting up of Israel, and the subsequent full revelation of the mystery to believers in that church, these saints remained in Gods "gathering," the church, receiving whatever new and wonderful blessings God, in His sovereign mercy, dispensed to them.

Be sure to read our articles entitled

The Miracles, Signs and Wonders of the Great Commission

and

 Acts Viewed Dispensationally

and

"The Church," How and Why it Changed During the Book of Acts

or

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