This thought presented itself strongly to my mind when I recently considered certain ideas regarding what was called "the premillennial Kingdom of the Heavens." There was so much that was plainly unsound in them, such as repeated insistence that parousia means coming, which it most certainly does not, that some which really were important were swamped. Yet they did suggest that there was need for some fresh thinking, which has, in fact, lately been going on quietly. Now, however, Commander Steedman has compelled a drastic reconsideration of the whole subject of Hebrew Prophecy; and this in turn involves reconsideration of our understanding of those parts of the Greek Scriptures which are directly, and sometimes even indirectly, connected with it.
We had reached clear understanding that the saving-work or God which was sent to the Gentiles would return to Israel before the Day of the Lord and the events associated with it could set in. This sending of the saving-work of God to the Gentiles was something that happened in the time of the fathers of the Jews addressed by the Apostle Paul in Acts 28:26-28. He told them this in the terms of the prophecy of Isa. 6:9, 10, which had been declared a generation before by the Lord Jesus Himself in Matt. 13:14, 15. Yet, in spite of that, the idea widely persists that the return of the saving-work of God to Israel would occur during or after the Day of the Lord. In fact, hitherto hardly anybody has attempted to think out the matter logically and thoroughly.
This failure is not so culpable as appears at first sight; for under the influence of the mistaken notion that only one Seven of the Seventy Sevens of Daniel's prophecy remained to be fulfilled, the events of Prophecy that lead up to or centre round this Seven became so tightly packed together that any sorting seemed a hopeless task. So we were reduced to trusting that the events would work themselves out as the time approached, and that as they were Hebrew prophecies anyhow, their concern with us was only indirect. The situation has become very different, now that we perceive that the whole of the Seventy Sevens lie ahead; for during that time Israel will be "ammi," God's People. They are not so now; and have not been so since the fulfilment of Isa. 6:9, 10 declared in Matt. 13:14, 15. Another consideration that eases the situation is that the circumstance that the whole of the Seventy Sevens remain to be fulfilled automatically means that a Gentile called-out company or church, as we are, must be cleared out of the way before the Seventy Sevens can even begin; and this necessarily means that the proclamation of the Apostle Peter and the rest of the Twelve must once more be in force, entirely displacing the Evangel of the uncircumcision, Paul's Evangel!
Where, then, are we to go for information about this state or affairs? The answer is: the earlier chapters of Acts, in the period before anything was said or done that was outside the concern of Israel including the proselytes of Israel.
After the choice of Matthias to complete the Twelve Apostles, the great drama of Pentecost began. This was started by Peter (Acts 1:15) who, immediately after all were filled with holy spirit, made his first speech (Acts 2:14-36). Here he declared to the multitude that those filled with holy spirit were not drunk, as they were taking it to be (or, assuming); so he asserted: "But this is what has been declared through the prophet Joel, 'And it shall be in the last days—God is saying—I shall be outpouring from My Spirit on all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall be prophesying; and your youths shall be seeing visions; and your elders shall be dreaming dreams; and surely on My men servants and My women servants in those days shall I be outpouring from My Spirit."
Then comes, as Peter tells us in v. 18, what they shall be prophesying; and this we shall attend to presently, only observing here that it is the part which generally receives the most attention. A curious, and most unpleasant, characteristic of the bulk of humanity is that they are always less interested in the good fortune of others than in the disasters that overtake them. A murder, and sometimes even a divorce, will often receive attention in the Press; but never do we see headlines that Mr. and Mrs. A. get on very happily together, unless the news has some very special feature, such as that one of them will be 100 years old the next day. So here. Beyond telling us that Joel's prophecy (Joel 2:27) was fulfilled at Pentecost, few expositors have much more to say.
Actually, this remark (that Pentecost was a fulfilment of ancient prophecy) can readily mislead the unwary; for, more accurately, it was the beginning of the fulfilment of Israel's prophecies. And, in fact, this remark or similar ones have misled many and led them into half-truths which have seriously confused the matter. An outstanding example must be quoted. It reads: "The object of this manifestation, as found in Joel, was to make them know that God was in the midst of Israel (Joel 2:27). Afterwards the signs which usher in the day of the Lord were due. In other words, Pentecost was the prelude to the era of judgment which precedes the setting up of the kingdom. This shows that it was not intended to be the commencement of the present economy of grace which was later introduced through Paul's ministries."
The first of these assertions would be true in part if for "the" at the start we were to read "an." Another, and much more important, object was to pour out God's Spirit on all of Israel who believe. Yet another was to do likewise to believing Gentiles (Acts 10:44-46). Yet another was to prepare the way for the Lord's Day. And yet another was to open up an opportunity to the Apostle Peter to testify to Jesus the Nazarene, as he did immediately after his quotation from Joel. The comment quoted above is extraordinarily misleading. It reflects the widespread confusion among us and goes far toward making it worse. To begin with, Peter himself is prophesying, so he alters the setting of the quotation from Joel's prophecy accordingly. To understand what he is doing here, we need to read the context in Joel 2. It is a prophecy of the rout of an enemy, the giving of the former rain and the latter rain, and prosperity. It is by these things (according to Joel) that Israel shall know that God is in the midst of them, not by what was happening at Pentecost. The outpouring of holy spirit was only on those who believed. For the rest, God was in the midst of them only in a very limited sense. And, it is most important to note, Joel 2:28, 29 and Acts 2:17, 18, cannot be said to have been fulfilled at Pentecost except in an even more limited sense. Apart from any consideration of faith in God's Word, common-sense applied to the record should suffice to make this fully plain.
Joel speaks of this outpouring as something that is to follow after the deliverance and the subsequent prosperity—and so does the Apostle Peter in his inspired comment: "in the last days, God is saying." So what happened at Pentecost actually does open the way to the fulfilment of Joel's prophecy. It is a great turning-point in history. Some of its consequences took place at once; others later on, in and through the call and ministry of the Apostle Paul; the rest will occur at some future time when the events prophesied by Joel begin to take their place in history.
Acts is all of a piece, one single unit; not like a patchwork quilt, as some would have us believe. It is the history of the Ascension, the choice of the twelfth apostle in order to complete their number, and then the great Event of Pentecost, and then the history of it and what followed from it. This last is all the history we need to know, for it tells us everything that matters. The rest, what there is of it, is all Prophecy. This aspect of Acts is for us the key to the understanding of God's immediate plans, yet we have shamefully neglected it. And, in spite off acts that lie plain before our eyes, by some extraordinary quirk, many of us have made it a book of jerky steps and fresh starts, and even, for many of them, transitional "dispensations." There is nothing transitional in that sense in Acts. Instead, it records the orderly development of the tremendous events recorded in the Gospels.
But was not Pentecost a fresh start? No! It was fulfilment of the Lord's own words, the necessary development from them. Then, was not Paul's ministry a fresh start? By no means! The very first time Luke writes of Gentiles (Luke 2:32) and of saving-work (Luke 2:30), the account makes perfectly plain that in the Lord Jesus was this purpose also—veiled, indeed—but plain enough when viewed in the light shed by the prophecies in Acts and by Acts 10:34-38; 28:28. In man's eyes it seemed to be a fresh start; but only because it necessarily had to be hidden until God chose to make it plain when the due time arrived. There is priority of Jew in some respects (Rom. 1:16; 2:9, 10), priority of Gentile in others, and in some even equality (Rom. 9:24). Abraham believed first as Gentile, only later did he receive the sign of circumcision. God has His plans for both Jew and Gentile. Some are working out for Gentile at present; in due time, others will work out for Jew—all these before the Day of the Lord can come.
Peter's presentation of Joel's prophecy is carefully stated by him in two parts. First, in the last days, an outpouring of God's spirit on all flesh and the consequences of it, one of which is that they themselves will be prophesying the second part of Joel's prophecy concerning the Lord's Day (Acts 2:19-21).
Thus, Acts lays out before us: Pentecost, a preliminary outpouring of God's Spirit on believers of the Gentiles, a future outpouring of God's Spirit on Israel and, lastly, what Israelites will prophecy under this outpouring—the coming of the Lord's Day, the great and shining-forth Day.
There is much talk in some quarters about the present "parenthetic period," which, we are told, would never have existed "had the nation of Israel repented, and the Pentecostal economy continued without interruption." But it has continued without interruption (though Scripture never speaks of the period covered by Acts, or the periods as supposed, as economies). The outpouring of the Spirit of God on the believer continues still, though its startling accompaniments as detailed in Acts quickly vanished as they became obsolete with the coming of the mature (1. Cor. 13:8-12). What was achieved then has not been lost or forfeited since. Even for Israel it is only apparently in abeyance while God's dealings are with Gentiles alone; for the Jew can partake of all those blessings simply by believing as Saul did and following the example he set as Paul. Moreover, as Joel and Peter declare, the outpouring of God's Spirit will go on continuing. In fact, our snatching away will not be in any sense an interruption in this respect but will be a return to the conditions as they were when Peter spoke.
Having answered the question in Acts. 2:12, Peter turned from the prophetic side of events to what essentially mattered then and there: the presentation of Jesus the Nazarene to be the Christ as demonstrated to be from God. It was necessary to link up Pentecost with Prophecy; it was absolutely essential to set forth the Lord Jesus and the resurrection. So Peter completes his speech with the climax: "Let every house of Israel know certainly, then, that God makes Him Lord as well as Christ—this the Jesus Whom you crucify." (Acts 2:36).
Then, and not till then, comes a question from Peter's hearers to him and the rest of the apostles: "What should we be doing, men, brethren?" Here, in the full fervour of Pentecostal blessing, we get faith and then the firstfruit of true faith: works. This sequence is strongly enforced in James' Epistle; but its also an important element in Paul's teaching, as we can see from Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:10; 1. Thess. 1:3; 5:13; 2. Thess. 1:11; 2:17; 1. Tim. 6:18; 2. Tim. 3:17; Titus 3:1, 5, 8, 14, to mention only some from the later epistles. Note how Titus 3:5 stresses the teaching of Romans, yet does not deny the value of good works; and note, too, that the action demanded by the Apostle Peter, "Repent and be baptized," is something that has to be done. There is no such thing as a merely static faith. The instant we believe God, something presents itself to be done: "Repent!"; and that is not only a matter for Israel but for everyone, as Paul declares most plainly in Acts 17:30.
Note, too, the reference back in Acts 2:39 to Joel's prophecy; and also the strange circumstance (at first glance) that it was immediately misunderstood. This was due largely, no doubt, to the hearers' horrified realization of what they had done to Jesus, now that they understood "that God makes Him Lord as well as Christ" (Acts 2:36). The long-promised Messiah had come—and this was, what they had done to Him! Moreover, the Apostle Peter added exhortation and entreaty: "Be saved from this crooked generation!" As so often in those very young in the faith, one result of all this was to cause fear, even very great fear; as they supposed that the second part (Acts 2:19-21) of Joel's prophecy was imminent. Consequently, they did what has so often since then been done at moments of great exaltation and excitement—dropped abruptly all normal living (2:44, 45). This part of the narrative is merely recorded here and in Acts 4:32, and left at that; for they also showed the fruit of the Spirit in simplicity, sobriety and service, and for this they are commended. What some have affected to regard as an experiment in Communism, though in practise it has no resemblance whatever to the real thing, soon vanished: there is nothing even remotely like it anywhere else, not even in 1. Thessalonians.
No further prophecies of that sort came from Peter's lips. He and the apostles evangelized the Christ, Jesus (Acts 5:42), that is, preached the good tidings concerning Him. Those dispersed by Saul's persecution evangelized the Word (Acts 8:4). Philip "evangelized concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ"; but the only mention of the idea of "evangel" by Peter is in Acts 15:7, and it is very significant: "Men! Brethren! You well know that, from early days, God, among you, chooses that through my mouth, the Gentiles should hear the word of the Evangel, and believe." "The word of the Evangel" in this context is precisely what Peter spoke of throughout, summed-up in his speech in Acts 10:34-43 and expressed even more concisely, in three words, in Acts 5:42; "the Christ, Jesus."
Much evil has come to us from the exponents of extreme "dispensationalism" in both adding to, and taking away from, this truth. On the one hand, they have attempted to add covenant and even the circumcision to it ; on the other, they have tried to remove the Gentiles from it. The one thing such people have consistently refused to do is believe it as it stands, just that and neither more nor less.
One who, perhaps, should have known better even declares that "Peter here refers to Cornelius, and his words must be taken. . . as the Jews present would have understood them. Peter's preaching to the nations was confined to proselytes in the land." Apart from the ridiculous implication that proselytes were so numerous as to form whole nations; the trouble with this assertion is that it goes far beyond what the record states; for, so far as it actually tells us, Peter spoke to Cornelius only. Nevertheless, the very first thing he said was perfectly general: "On truth I am grasping that God is not partial, but in every nation the one fearing Him and working righteousness is acceptable to Him." Moreover, on those who heard Peter's words the Holy Spirit fell. The Circumcisionists who came with Peter heard them speaking tongues and magnifying God; and they were amazed, seeing that on the Gentiles also the gratuity of the Holy Spirit had poured out. How can we possibly confine this to proselytes? Why, Peter himself said "every nation"! May we not believe him?
Are we even justified in assuming that Cornelius was a proselyte? The account does not say so, Peter does not even imply such a thing. In fact, to his opening words we could add: "in the same way as Abraham believed God and was therefore accounted as righteous" without contradicting them or adding anything to what they imply. That fact does not mean that we ought to add anything; but "fearing Him and working righteousness" imply that much, nevertheless.
Yet in fairness to those who devise such limitations to Peter's meaning, one has to admit candidly that some limitations did exist at first. For instance, Peter's closing words before Cornelius (Acts 10:43) are "To this are all the prophets testifying: everyone who is believing into Him is to be obtaining pardon of sins through His name." Even so, Peter later amplifies this (15:11), and even puts Gentiles first! "But through the grace of the Lord Jesus we are believing, to be saved in a manner even as they." Not even the Apostle Peter was immune from the great change that began with the fulfilment of Isa. 6:9, 10 in Matt. 13:14, 15. Why, indeed should he have been?
A curious and rather important question arises here: Why does Peter say "the word of the evangel" rather than, simply, "the evangel"? The immediate answer is that Peter has no evangel for Gentiles as such, for it had just been agreed that the Evangel of the uncircumcision was entrusted to Paul and that of the circumcision to Peter. The phrase, "the word of the evangel" is found nowhere else. What, then, did Peter mean? The words evangel and word come into close proximity here and in Eph. 1:13; Col. 1:5; 1. Thess. 1:5. Only the second of these appears to have any relevance at all: "which you hear before in the word of the truth of the evangel"; and that does not really get us any further.
Let us, then, turn back to Peter's first speech. The first part ends with his great announcement in Acts 2:36: "Let all the house of Israel know certainly, then, that God makes Him Lord as well as Christ—this the Jesus Whom you crucify!" Then, at the request of his audience, he gives out the second part (vv. 38-40), and we read: "Those, indeed, then, who welcome his word are baptized."
So this is "Peter's word": "Repent, then, and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, into the pardon of the sins of yours; and you shall be obtaining the gratuity of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 3:38).
The correctness of this understanding of the matter is confirmed at once when we read on from Acts 15:7: "And God, the Heart-knower, testifies to them, giving the Holy Spirit according as to us, also; and does not judge differently at all between us and them, as to the faith cleansing the hearts of them."
So "the word of the evangel" was Peter's; and, though given first to those of Israel who believed, was presently given by him also to Gentiles who believed, as soon as God had sufficiently prepared him and the path he was to follow for his immense privilege and duty. This explains even more urgently than ever the need for the strange vision of the sheet and the events that accompanied it.
Here, then, is the great foundation "word of the evangel," which underlies the whole Evangel, whether Paul's Evangel of the uncircumcision now, or Peter's Evangel of the circumcision in days to come. Thus it was possible for Lydia to believe and be baptized (Acts 16:13-15) and for Paul to open his full ministry in Thessalonica.
All this is in no way disturbed by the fact that water baptism soon disappeared. The essential, unalterable, thing, which Peter implied and Paul was soon to specify, was spirit baptism. In fact, some of Peter's words were more than simple implication, as Acts 11:15-I7 shows most plainly.
In turn, this explains why Paul in his epistles uses repent only once (2. Cor. 12:21) and repentance only four times (Rom. 2:4; 2. Cor. 7:9-10; 2. Tim. 2:25). Strictly, it is not part of his Evangel—not because, as some assert who have been blinded by erroneous tradition, repentance is unnecessary; but because it is part of the foundation "word of the evangel" given to the Apostle Peter.
Baptism, for the same reason, has little part in Paul's Evangel; for most of his references to it are as to something accomplished. For baptism in spirit comes instantly with faith and is inseparable there from. This was not at first entirely clear, vide Acts 19:1-7; but all loose ends were speedily tidied up in Paul's Epistles. This, however, is a subject that is still much misunderstood and itself greatly needs to be tidied up.
The Apostle Peter's words in Acts 15:7-11 are his last recorded statements in Acts; and James takes over with his only recorded speech there. As did Peter and Paul, James begins: "Men! Brethren!"; and then he says: "Hear me! Symeon unfolds how, at first, God visits, to be taking out of Gentiles a people for His name. And with this are in harmony the words of the prophets. . . ."
Now, it is most important to note the verb sumphOnousin, are agreeing or are in harmony with. James does not say that this action of God is a fulfilment of the prophecy, presently to be quoted, but that it is in harmony with it. What had happened then, one might say, fits into the prophetic scheme, but does not change it. He was assuring his brethren that, although Peter's words and acts were surprising and even for some of his audience to all appearance outrageous, yet, nevertheless, they were not only part of God's purposes but actually in harmony with Hebrew prophecy, Amos 9:11, 12 (Acts 15:15).
To begin with, we have a translation problem in the word anastrephO. This is by translators given several meanings: overturn, return, behave. In the C.V., return belongs also to hupostrephO and overturn also to katastrephO, leaving behave, which, however, obviously does not fit at all into this context. From this it is plain that some of the usages of this Greek word are idiomatic; so here our only proper course is to get down to the basic meaning as far as we are able. Looking, then, at the Greek of Acts 15:16 we observe two verbs, anastrepsO and anoikodomEsO, both first person singular future tense and connected by kai, and. Clearly, therefore, the two have a common object: "the tabernacle of David which has fallen." So, I suggest, we should read: "After these things, I will upturn and rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen; and what is turned down of it I will rebuild, and I will re-erect it." Some may query the rendering of anastrepsO by I will upturn (or I-shall-be-up turning, as the Greek literally reads) ; but surely that is what is meant? When a small boat is upturned on the shore to protect it from the weather and damage, what is beneath comes to be on top and the keel is seen. The ground is upturned in ploughing. So here. What has been to all appearances lost or hidden will come into view once more, so the tabernacle can be rebuilt and be seen again.
And this is to be after these things, after God visits, to be taking out of Gentiles people for His name. James recognized that a tremendous, revolutionary change had taken place, that a period had begun during which God would be acting on Gentiles, and that after this period He would resume His dealings with Israel.
This towering fact makes utter nonsense of many of the ideas which have been so sedulously propagated among us. If there is any crisis in the Acts history that can be described as constituting a "dispensational change," we must place it here; and it is not Peter, it is not Paul, it is James who makes the announcement. However, I cannot accept this idea of "dispensational changes," in Acts or anywhere else. James' announcement here, astounding though is must have been to the multitude present, was simply one step in the sequence which marks the change-over from conditions as they were at the start of the history to conditions as they were at the close. And it was not James who made the change. His is simply the voice whose function it was to announce it.
Here is where the value appears of the identification set out in p.269 of The Differentiator, Vol. 25 (Dec., 1963); whereby it is shown that the Apostle Paul's visit to Jerusalem "after fourteen years" (Gal. 2:1-10), here described from his own personal standpoint, is identical with the visit in Acts 15:1-29 that we have been discussing. I even suggested that the preliminary private conference, described so briefly in Acts 15:4 and in such a non-committal manner, is the conference described at length in Gal. 2:1-10. Here the reader should study again Vol. 25, pp. 269, 270, when he will see that the Galatians account fits into the context of Acts 15:4 as a key into a lock. The friendly agreement concluded in Gal. 2:6-10 entirely explains the conciliatory tone of Peter and James in the subsequent negotiations. James realized, most likely in a sudden, startling illumination, that what Paul had disclosed to him concerning his Evangel of the uncircumcision was not, after all, inconsistent with Hebrew Prophecy. In fact, Amos 9:8-10, though not quoted by James, is one side of the present state of world-history and Acts 15:14 the other. To James was it given to display both, as a numismatologist might hold up a coin and display one side and then the other. He was, in fact, stating in this particular context what is true in dispensationalism: that while there is no gap or interference in the broad stream of God's purpose, there was at that moment revealed an immense gap in the previously declared statement of His purpose.
Only when we manage to achieve an inside view of such matters as this can we perceive in proper proportion such controversies as that connected with what has been called "the gap theory." Both those who attack the view so called, and those who defend it, have some measure of right on their side. Perhaps that is why the struggle between them has always been so bitter. The tragic side of the affair is that there was never any need for bitterness. If the two contesting sides had managed to rise to an adequate understanding of the whole subject, they would have realized the extent of their folly. The attackers grasped that the graces and the calling of God are not liable to change of mind by Him; so any idea of change of His plans, with perhaps even improvisations to meet it, must be altogether out of the question. The defenders grasped that the revelation of God's plans is in an unfolding sequence, as it were; so that at certain times there appears to be a gap in them, so far as men's knowledge, at the time, could tell. Here James displays the gap; while Paul in Gal. 2:1-10 displays the continuity; and the two together explain why these things are so.
Both sides of the controversy were influenced more by hidden, unacknowledged fear that they might, after all, be mistaken, than by any genuine desire to discover the whole truth of the matter. Wedded to their traditions, their main concern was to defeat the other side. A painful instance is what the Companion Bible says about Amos 9:11, 12: "In Acts 15 the time had come, had the People obeyed Peter's call in Acts 3:18-21. But it was finally rejected (Acts 28:25-28) and this prophecy, therefore, still awaits its fulfilment." So, in order to bolster up an untenable tradition, Acts 15:13-15 is calmly ignored. In any other branch of study, such treatment of facts because of traditions into which they do not fit, would be impossible and would if attempted meet with ridicule.
Much play has been made with the fact that it was James, not Peter, who made the announcement. We are even told that if Peter's "wise and weighty words had been heeded all would have been well. But the legalists were too strong, and listened to James, their leader, the brother of the Lord according to the flesh, rather than to one who was not only one of His brethren in spirit, but had been trained and commissioned to lead His people."
But Peter's words were heeded, as Acts 15:13-18 shows beyond any possible doubt. What James thereupon decided himself is in no way inconsistent with the Apostle Peter's wise and weighty words. It simply implemented them (v. 19) and added a face-saving admonition, obviously intended to quieten the doubts and misgivings of the multitude (v. 12), not to save his own face. This display of grace on both sides (for see also Gal. 2:10 and the remarks in our Vol. 25, p. 270) was altogether admirable. The word edoxe, it seems (good or desirable) occurs also in Luke 1:3, and certainly there is no hint anywhere that what was done was bad or undesirable. Indeed, we are almost bound to wonder, in the face of such an assertion as quoted above, whether we ought to listen at all to men who can write in such a way. The only value of such pronouncements, if it be a value at all, is the warning they provide against the habit of misrepresenting Scripture.
Nevertheless, the question should be examined why Peter left it to James to lay down such a ruling.
The answer is found, clearly enough, in Gal. 2:6-10. The Apostle Peter had accepted his own commission and acknowledged that of the Apostle Paul. Though he could not detail that, his closing words in Acts (15:7-11) were in complete harmony with it, and that was as far as he could go, for he had continually to bear in mind his own commission. As this was in abeyance he could not continue along the lines of James' declaration. This subject must be developed later.
There are no further prophecies in Acts concerning Israel's affairs; but there is one that amplifies what James uttered in Acts 15:6, namely, the well-known Acts 28:28. Not through Jew or Israelite, but on their own account, were the Gentiles to hear the saving-work of God.
R.B.W. Last updated 10.3.2006