Vol. 27 New Series August, 1966 No. 4
ACTS MISUNDERSTOOD

When the hour of reckoning comes, all of us will find we have been misunderstanding God's Word to some extent through the infirmity that results from our mortality. Recently, I have had to look through old papers by various writers, and I am surprised and shocked to discover how many of the things in them that I accepted without question long ago are plainly faulty.

To blame these writers is an easy reaction; yet we must all keep in mind that if we had been true "Bereans" at the time, they would not have been able to get away with their false teaching. Instead, we would have been able to help them to perceive that they had misunderstood Scripture and to correct their mistakes. We were as much to blame as they; and it is not seemly for those who have themselves been negligent to, blame the negligence of others.

Blame is due and wholly justified when people persist in error after the truth has been pointed out. That is what has been done for Acts, at least in part. As some have refused to look at the truth when it was set out, one has no choice but to display some of the worst errors for what they are.

Although so much has been written in The Differentiator about Acts, the book is still for most people the most misunderstood in the Greek Scriptures. Through much of my Christian life, misunderstanding of Acts has been a major stumbling block, solely because the account is approached with a mass of preconceptions instead of with reverent objectivity. Its purpose was to record the unlocking of the Kingdom; first to Jews, Israelites, all of Israel's house (Acts 2:5, 22, 36); then to Gentiles also (Acts 11:18); and the accompaniment of the unlocking, filling with holy spirit. In spite of this unquestionable fact, most of us still seem to think that it chronicles the stages of a supposed rejection of the Kingdom—and this in defiance of the closing words of the book!

The root of all the misunderstanding of Acts lay in failure to understand the purpose of Pentecost. When I first wrote about the "Acts 28:28 frontier," in our Vol. 10, No.2, 1948, I blundered in thinking that the root of all the evil lay in that "frontier" theory. That error has now been corrected; for it has become plain that though this theory is the cause of a vast amount of error, it is, itself, the consequence of error regarding Pentecost. Failure to perceive that fact has led many people to fill in what they suppose to be gaps in the Acts narrative with guesses of various sorts, until their idea of the book has become more guess than history.

In consequence of this misunderstanding of Acts, it has been almost universally taken for granted among us that Acts covers an era with special "dispensational" characteristics and even various expectations for certain groups of people. These are seldom defined; so we would do well to begin by studying the occurrences of elpis, expectation, in Acts. In the first half, the word is found only once, in Acts 2:26, referring to David's, in a quotation from Psalm 16. In view of this, it is very odd to read of Acts: "At its beginning no one had a heavenly hope." Even stranger is a further remark: "At its commencement the twelve apostles looked forward to thrones, on which they would rule the twelve tribes of Israel," for actualy the only reference to them is in Acts 6:2 and the "eleven" appear only in 1:26; 2:14. Christ is to sit on David's throne (Acts 2:30) and heaven is the throne of the Most High (7:49), and those are the only occurrences of the word. That the Twelve did look forward to thrones is true; but that information is not to be found in Acts, and therefore it should not be imported into it, still less made out to be an outstanding feature.

The chief offenders were the inventor of the "Acts 28:28 frontier" theory, J. J. B. Coles, and his leading successors. In order to make out that the expectation in Acts was millennial they have even given us to understand that Rom. 15:10 refers to the Gentiles being in a place of blessing with Jehovah's people, in millennial conditions. Even a glance at the passage is sufficient to show how nonsensical is this idea. It refers to something happening at the time it was written, not to what was then in the far future. This is plain from the tense of the verb in "And again He is saying." And what is He saying? "Be ye gladdened, O Gentiles, with the people of His" (literally). This quotation is from the close of the song of Moses (Deut. 32:43); but the inspired comment on it (with three other quotations) says nothing whatever about the Millennium or the Kingdom, but is concerned only with gladness of the Gentiles consequent on the mercy now being shown to them. Yes, mercy; and the very same mercy as that written of in such detail in Rom. 11:25-36.

Such mercy ought to be good enough and satisfying enough for anyone; but evidently it is not for those who are dissatisfied with Acts as it is. So one writer says: "Mercy for the nations 'with His people' is not in force now, for His people are not blessed." Note well here how cunningly Scripture is being distorted; for what Paul wrote was, "Yet Gentiles for the sake of mercy are to glorify God" (or perhaps, "with reference to mercy") and "Be gladdened, 0 Gentiles, with His people." There is nothing about "mercy. . . with His people," and it is a shame that anyone should twist and misquote Paul's words in order to make out that there is.

That is bad enough, but not alone. One man writes of Peter "using the keys given to him to open the kingdom (1) to Jews in the land and (2) to Gentiles in Samaria and Galilee. These Gentiles were admitted to a participation in Israel's privileges in order to fulfil the many prophecies which had foretold the rejoicing of Gentiles with God's people Israel,. . ." The account of what happened under (2) in the foregoing is found in Acts 10 and 11. There is no mention of Samaria in them and Galilee is referred to only in 10:37 in connection with John's baptism. There is a reference to Galilee and Samaria in 9:31, where Luke says that "the church throughout the whole of Galilee and Samaria had peace." Anything more dishonest than trying to use this to make out that something that subsequently occurred in Joppa was restricted to "Gentiles in Samaria and Galilee" is hard to imagine! The fact that Cornelius was "a centurion out of the squadron called Italian" speaks for itself The geographical location of Peter's declaration is immaterial: Cornelius was not a Gentile either of Galilee or Samaria.

Apart from this, Luke's narrative is absolutely plain. The faithful Circumcisionists were amazed that on the Gentiles the gratuity of the Holy Spirit had poured out (10:45), and in 11:18 we read, "Now on hearing these things they quiet down and glorify God, saying, 'Consequently to the Gentiles, also, God gives repentance into life'."

True, those who were dispersed by reason of the affliction which was occurring on account of Stephen were talking the Word to no one except Jews only (11:19). "Yet some out of them, Cyprian men and Cyrenians; who, indeed, coming into Antioch, talked toward the Greeks also, evangelizing the Lord Jesus; and the hand of the Lord was with them" (11:20, 21). Sufficient is it to observe that the failure of some to receive the lesson given to the Apostle Peter did not invalidate it, as many would have us believe.

The crowning evil in this mass of false doctrine is the description of the event as "a participation in Israel's privileges." We need say no more than that Scripture itself is completely silent about such "participation" here.

Error is always self-contradictory, and so it is in this matter, for presently we read concerning the alleged "Acts dispensation": "We Gentiles should have been left still 'without hope' but for the later epistles subsequently written for our obedience of faith." Are we seriously expected to believe that those on whom the gratuity of the Holy Spirit had poured out were actually "without hope" in spite of that? But even more fantastically ridiculous is the absurd remark about the later epistles. Whoever would suppose from the pronouncement. that "faith obedience" does not occur in any of them, but only in Rom. 1:5; 16:26? Of these, the latter refers to a secret "manifested now," that is, when Romans was written, well before Paul went to Rome. How can we justly blame the sects for maltreating Scripture when our own leaders are so unscrupulous?

One beautiful disclosure in the Apostle Peter's first Acts speech is that the promise of the gratuity of the Holy Spirit was not only to his hearers and their children but "to all those into a distance" (Greek: "into far"). This began to be fulfilled for the Gentiles in 10:45—11:18; and it has been going out afar ever since. But that was not good enough for one teacher. He had to add, by way of explanation: "(i.e. the Dispersed of Israel)." He offered no proof. There is none, for his phrase is entirely unscriptural and diaspora, dispersion, occurs only in John 7:35; James 1:1; 1. Peter 1:1, the first of which refers to Greeks, not to Israel at all!

We return now to elpis, expectation, in Acts. Not until Acts 16:19 does it occur again, and then it has to do with expectation of income. Next, it occurs in the Apostle Paul's speech in Acts 23:6: "concerning expectation and resurrection of dead ones." Then Paul had "expectation into God"; and in 26:6, 7 he speaks of "expectation of the promise made by God to our fathers" and in 28:20 of "the expectation of Israel." The only other occurrence is expectation of being saved from shipwreck in 27:20. This hardly justifies any sort of reference to a transformation in Acts of the expectation of Gentiles.

We ought also to observe that Eph. 2:12 is a reference to the former general state of the Gentiles. That came to an end with the event recorded in Acts 10:44, 45. Incidentally, some assume that Cornelius was a proselyte.

By one writer we are treated to another remarkable assertion once more without proof: "The first part of Acts is concerned with the kingdom promised to Israel. The last two years deal with it as repudiated." Actually, the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel is repudiated, so far as "at this time" is concerned, at the start of Acts (1:6) and "that which concerns the Kingdom of God" is told by the Lord Jesus at the very beginning; and at the very end Paul was for two whole years "proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching that which concerns the Lord Jesus Christ, unforbiddable." If that is repudiation of the Kingdom, it would be a happy thing for us if there could be such "repudiation" in our own time. In fact, where such proclamation is possible at all, it generally falls on deaf ears. And yet that writer goes on to say: "In between is the transitional era which chronicles the stages of its rejection." How strange that Acts completely fails to say so!

Entwined with this is a discussion of the time when the Prison Epistles were written and, needless to say, there is a reference' to "the epistles written before Acts 28:28 and those thereafter," a tacit assumption that Coles' "Acts 28:28 frontier" is valid and not the most misleading and pernicious guess that it actually is. Its writer then alleges that "it is more than probable that the prison epistles were written during the two-year period mentioned in Acts 28:30." How such an assertion could have been so confidently made is impossible to understand. As a matter of fact, Acts finishes with Paul remaining "two whole years in his own hired house" and that his ministry was not liable to any prohibition whatsoever. If that is an imprisonment, it must be one unique in human history! Paul was sent to Rome to appeal to Caesar. From v. 21 it is evident that the Jews there had no material on which to base a case and from v. 18 that the Romans did not wish to proceed against him. No record exists that any charge was ever formulated there, and the suggestion that the whole business was quietly dropped is irresistible.

There is an item of indirect testimony which clinches the whole matter. Paul says (28:20): "For on account of the expectation of Israel have I this chain laid about me." But in Ephesians Paul speaks emphatically of himself as "the prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you of the Gentiles." Therefore that must have been another and a different imprisonment to that of which he spoke in Acts 28:20. And by the time Paul wrote 2. Cor. 11:23 he was already no stranger to jails. Why, then, should anyone insist that the two imprisonments just referred to must have been the same?

That sort of assumption is the bane of Scripture study. Why not sit down before the facts and accept them as they are, instead of inventing theories and trying to force the facts to fit them? The moment we assume that there was only one imprisonment of Paul we are forced to fit Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians {and, though the article does not mention it, 2. Timothy) into the framework of Acts 28. Yet this last epistle simply will not fit into it; and surely, anyhow, we should leave the apostles to do their own fitting themselves?

If it had mattered one straw how Paul's Epistles fitted into the framework of Acts, we would have been told. One of the conspicuous features of Acts is the way such considerations are ignored. This must have been intentional, and the reason is obvious: they are irrelevant to one another. We know when Paul evangelized the Thessalonians and we know that, later, he wrote his epistles to them. Just when he wrote is immaterial so far as Acts is concerned, for it has nothing to do with the purpose for which Acts was written.

This brings us to the question: What was that purpose?

Here we encounter almost frightening confusion. Yet the answer is plain enough, if only people would believe it: the unlocking of the Kingdom and its consequences for those who believed; which are filling with holy spirit, the baptism promised in Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; Acts 1:5; 11:16. Acts has the words baptize and baptism more than any other book: for Jews, and for Gentiles also later. All that is in separably linked to the Kingdom; which amply explains why the Kingdom, though mentioned only eight times altogether, is so conspicuously placed in Acts, as it was in the first Gospel references to baptism.

Those who propagate the doctrine that Acts deals with the rejection of the Kingdom always manage to convey the impression that it specifies Peter as proclaiming the Kingdom to Israel and that his appeal was rejected. The nearest to a positive assertion of this idea that I can find is a statement that Matt. 4:17 (which is about the Kingdom) was the basis of Peter's appeal on the day of Pentecost. Perhaps it was realized that in the Acts record Peter never once uses the word kingdom, so it was deemed best to avoid anything more direct. Another cunning example of studied vagueness was the assertion that the Thessalonian believers "had obeyed Peter's call and repented." The call to repent was universal, so in that sense the assertion is true; yet, in fact, it was Paul who evangelized the Thessalonians and whose call was obeyed. That is a typical example of the sort of "special pleading" which works greater havoc than any open lie.

Nevertheless, in spite of the foregoing facts, which cannot be gainsaid, some still insist that Acts chronicles the stages of the rejection of the Kingdom. This is, simply, not true. Even a glance at the concordance is sufficient to demonstrate that; for the second half has five references to the Kingdom, out of eight altogether, all of which have to do with Paul; and the last, at the very end, is followed by his epistles with no less than fourteen references. Why is it that even honoured teachers can bring themselves to put out confident assertions that are obviously untrue?

The answer is that they were misled by predecessors, in this instance men not only mentally inferior, but spiritually as well. The lesson we should draw from that is that if the wood, grass, straw is to be burnt out of our work here and now the task must be accomplished by ourselves and not left to our successors. We cannot rely now on others for this.

Readers will have noticed my long preoccupation with Acts. This has been due to the discovery that this book was the most misunderstood one in all the Greek Scriptures. When the call came to elucidate the so-called "Acts 28:28 frontier," I had already been misled myself into supposing that this was the only serious problem in an otherwise straightforward historical narrative. Apart from the "frontier" theory itself, never was there a greater mistake! Presently it began to appear that the "frontier" error was merely the consequence of a series that culminated in it. From the very start, ideas had been read into the history which were completely foreign to it and corrupted it utterly. Their dupes talk glibly of the Kingdom having been offered and rejected. Not one ever troubles to notice that neither of these words is ever used by Scripture about the Kingdom. One cannot expect to find the right road by starting along a wrong turning.

R.B.W. Last updated 13.4.2006