Evidently many of us are not clear in our minds about what happened to the Twelve and to those who had been converted through their preaching recorded in the earlier part of Acts, the people whom Mr. Knoch calls "Circumcision believers," in fact.
It will be simplest to consider first the Twelve. Their expectation and destiny had been all along fixed and are not open to question. They are destined to be seated on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. They are the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb (Rev. 21:14). Without scrapping their own calling, they could never in any circumstances have become members of the church which is Christ's body.
For all we know, there may have been other saints called to some destiny in association with the Twelve; but, if so, Scripture is silent about the nature and circumstances of any such call, and we have no right to guess about them, and should not desire to do so. In the Gospels people were called to the Kingdom, but nothing is said about the Millennial Kingdom being at hand, and as a matter of historical fact it was not. Nowhere in the Gospels, Acts or the Epistles is anything said about any change in the nature of the Kingdom first proclaimed. Not even Heb. 3:1 stated explicitly what calling its author had in mind.
After the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17, when all members of the church which is Christ's body will have been snatched away, the position will be different. No more members can then be called to form the body, for it will already have been completed. For God's saints, called from that instant on, there will be other and different destinies. As yet we know little of what these will be, and there is room for research into such passages as Rev. 3:10; 6:11; 7:3, 9, 13-17.
Next comes the position of those who were converted before Paul's Evangel was promulgated. So far as I can discover, Dispensationalists have always placed these in what they call "the Kingdom"; and only allowed into the body those who were converted through Paul's Evangel. Some have even gone so far as to declare that only those who consciously and deliberately follow Paul can ever become members of the body. In plain words, they believe in an election from within the elect. That is to say—to continue to speak with great plainness—people's standing and hope depend in the first place on whether they have chanced on Paul's Evangel and then whether, having done so, they have believed it and entered into the full understanding of the Prison Epistles. Otherwise, they go into "the Kingdom," by which is apparently meant the Millennial Kingdom. But nowhere does Scripture speak of such a special elect class; nowhere is there any mention of salvation by reigning-grace plus meritorious research, nowhere is there even a hint of two classes side by side, one members of the body, the other an inferior and much more numerous set of people.
There have always been many who, not content with the Evangel as it is, have wanted to add "improvements" of some sort or other. There is no need for such ideas and no justification of any sort for them.
The fact is, Paul's Evangel, taken at its face value, makes no sort of provision whatever for any kind of sub-evangel. So far as it is concerned, those who are Christ's in this era are wholly His. Their standing and destiny depend on Him entirely and exclusively. Anything based on merit, on having attained a profounder grasp of Scripture or on a deepened spiritual life, is completely foreign to it. To introduce considerations of that sort is simply to introduce works into it, though perhaps in a more subtle way, thus turning it into the false evangel, to condemn which Paul wrote Galatians. While Paul's Evangel is in force, it is exclusively in force and can suffer no rival.
All this is, however, an artificial issue, a problem invented by the type of people who are impelled somehow to add something to the Evangel, at no matter what cost in the way of corrupting it. The real problem in this connection, and the only one, is what determined the standing and destiny of any particular individual at the times around Pentecost.
The short answer is that in most cases we do not know and therefore should not ask.
Among certain Dispensationalists a favourite answer has been that at "a change of dispensation" the whole of God's people on earth change their calling and destiny instantly. Before Acts 28:28, for instance, "the Kingdom" is supposed to have remained open to everyone and all believers were in it; but after this pronouncement, "the Kingdom" is supposed to have been postponed, so that "the Mystery" came into, force and has so remained ever since; with everyone at the instant of the pronouncement suddenly switched over to the new calling and destiny. So far as I am aware, the exponents of the theory never put it so bluntly (no doubt they would say "so crudely") as this. At first, like many others, I accepted, some sort of formula which amounted to this but which concealed its absurdity; but I never really believed it as it is, and I doubt if anyone would really believe it if confronted with the issue in plain terms. It would be sufficient for us that Scripture shows no trace of such an idea.
At this point someone may exclaim: "But he does teach this very thing, that at the instant of the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 there is an abrupt change in the calling and destiny of all God's people!"
Any idea of this kind is a complete misconception. At that instant of fulfilment, all members of the church which is Christ's body will be snatched away, none will be left. There fore, nobody at all of God's people will change his calling and destiny. Those who come to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ after this instant will come into another calling and destiny; but as at that instant none of God's people will be left on earth, nobody already believing will exist to experience any switch-over. Admittedly, some have taught that only "waiting believers," those who are perpetually ready to go to their Lord, will enjoy that marvellous experience; but that is only what they teach, not what God's Word teaches.
Apparently there are certain Jews now who are praying and watching for the coming of their Messiah. Perhaps they may be destined to form the nucleus of the faithful of Israel in days to come—or perhaps not. Once again, we do not know and therefore should not guess. Perhaps some of them genuinely have a saving faith on the Lord Jesus. If so, whatever they may think they are, in fact they are then true Christians and therefore members of the body; for the standing of each one of us in Him does not depend on our knowledge, but on our faith. If all this be so, then a great surprise is awaiting them in resurrection. But such a surprise is also awaiting many other uninstructed Christians and, moreover, all who presume to suppose that they can pick and "choose which calling of God they prefer. If such Jews exist, it proves nothing except the enormous capacity for error of death-stricken humanity.
With reference to Rom. 16:7 I have been asked if there had been any change in the standing of Andronicus and Junia as the result of the proclamation of Paul's Evangel. The fact that they came to be in Christ before Paul and that they were relatives of his shows that they were Jews converted by the preaching of Peter or some other of the Twelve or some disciple of theirs. Since we know who comprised the Twelve and that there is not even a hint anywhere of any addition to their number; we can safely deduce that, some time after their conversion, they accepted Paul's Evangel and became apostles with him. This is borne out by the fact that they were his fellow-captives, though where we do not know, or whether Paul himself was in captivity at the time when he wrote Romans. There is no trace in history of any persecution there before or at that time which would involve imprisonment for them, so this may refer to earlier events in Asia of which we have no record. That many such occurred is evident from 2. Cor. 11:23-25. The fact that these two came to be in Christ before Paul himself is really irrelevant to their standing. Whatever they supposed their standing might have been when they heard the Twelve and received the Word has no bearing whatever on what subsequent enlightenment showed their standing actually to be. Let us not forget that we all were chosen in Christ before world-foundation (Eph. 1:4).
Not one of us has been free from confusion over this matter. I am no exception; for I believe I have declared somewhere, either in print or in a letter, that the Apostle Paul was the first member of the body. This is untrue. He was the first to become aware of being a member, but others certainly preceded him in actual membership; for such membership is not a matter of our personal choice or the extent of our awareness, but of God's calling. It may well be that most Christians who were still living when Paul proclaimed his Evangel had been, without realizing it at first, called to such membership. I can only repeat that we have no means of knowing at present; so we ought not to guess, for it is none of our business. We must always keep in mind that we can never know for certain in this world whether any particular individual of our circle is or is not a member. If we cannot know this for certain of our immediate neighbours, how can we expect to know it of persons who died nineteen centuries ago?
Peter evidently had some understanding of Paul's ministry; but why should we be surprised at this? Paul understood Peter's ministry. I cannot help thinking that the root cause of all the difficulties which so many people find in these matters is the idea, carefully cultivated by the Dispensationalists who support the "Acts 28:28 frontier" theory, that the ministry of the Twelve is a thing of immaturity and of essential inferiority to ours. This idea, in whatever form it is put, is definitely not true. That ministry is different; but for us to label any of God's wonderful gifts as "inferior" or "immature" is most unbecoming. They are just different, and we have no right to try to sit in judgment on them. Nor have we any right to try to fill in what appear to us to be gaps in Scripture. The canon is complete for the purpose for which it was written; it is incomplete as a full and detailed account of all that happened, as the Apostle John himself points out in the closing words of his Gospel. Why not leave it at that, instead of fretting because it does not pander to our curiosity?
The studies of the expression ek peritomEs, published several years ago, indicate that during the period covered, at least, by Acts there was a Circumcisionist Party who seem to have stressed the vital importance of circumcision for them selves. Nowhere is there the smallest suggestion either of praise or blame for this. Where they are blamed is for attempting to force their ideas on others, and the blame is very severe. Surely the conclusion to be drawn from this is plain enough? They had obviously believed on the Lord Jesus as Israel's Messiah before the Apostle Paul was commissioned; and so far as they were concerned He was first and foremost Israel's Messiah. That there was also to be a company called from Gentiles and those of Israel who chose to take a place as sinners from among the Gentiles because they had perceived that all standing according to flesh had disappeared, had not penetrated their minds and therefore meant nothing to them. It is not our place to judge them, in view of the fact that the Scripture records do not. Nor is it our place to speculate about them, who have long passed from this earth. Why speculate, when Scripture is completely silent except for one passage, Rom. 4:12, which certainly states that God has made provision for them? Why not leave it at that?
It is sufficient, and it ought to be recognised as sufficient, for us to know that at one time in the past and in an era to come approach to God will be along the line of covenant, and that in this present era it is along the line of reigning-grace and wholly independent of covenant. Surely that is enough for us? Boundary conditions are no affair of ours, so why worry about them?
Possibly, after we have been snatched away, there may arise a Uncircumcisionist Party whose members will have come to a partial understanding of Paul's Evangel but will have failed to realize that it will have become obsolete. Again, this is outside our business and our knowledge; but it has value as a warning against being too ready to sit in judgment on others.
Perhaps the point should be stressed that we are told in Scripture very little about ultimate matters. What we learn about the Twelve from Matt. 19:28 is quite sufficient for its purpose, but it is nevertheless strictly limited to that purpose. To read into it notions about the permanent destiny of the Twelve is to go beyond both Scripture and good sense. The same applies to the relation of the church which is Christ's body with Israel during and after the Millennium. Actually, we know nothing of it. Yet again, it is none of our business at present. In fact, what sort of work and service God has awaiting us is another undisclosed matter, and one which is obviously better undisclosed, even if it could be explained to us while our minds are yet clouded by mortality; for our part here and now is to get to know Him, first and foremost; and, if need be, to struggle and suffer for Him. When our education is completed, then, and then only, will we be fit for the glorious things that await us. Only those who have mastered their proper curriculum have any right to demand to be told what follows; and who may dare to claim that?
Another matter about which there still may be cause for confusion is the celestial calling referred to in Hebrews. We are not told that it is celestial in location, but that it is celestial in nature. The celestial Jerusalem is to come down from heaven. But what eventually is to happen is quite another matter. When God is all in all, the distinction between celestial and terrestrial may disappear as a distinction of quality and earth be undistinguished from heaven. But why speculate? Surely we can leave all this to be revealed to us in God's own good time?
In conclusion, let us frankly face the fact that if we try to regard it as a sort of universal encyclopaedia God's revelation is very far indeed from being at all adequate or complete. But why make the attempt? There is no reason to suppose that it was ever intended to be, and every reason to believe that it was not. Surely, for us, the beginning of wisdom is to fear God, and not to chafe because He has not told us all we would like to know, but to receive and learn with thankful humble hearts what He has disclosed?
R.B.W. Last updated 19.1.2006