For a long time I had wondered why this Epistle, and those of Peter and Jude and John were called "General Epistles," but now I understand the position. They are general in that they have great value either to Christian Jews or Gentile Christians. James takes a neutral position as regards believers, and declines to take sides against Peter or Paul. Not one of the above Epistles ever mentions Circumcision or Uncircumcision, and yet some have called them "Circumcision" Epistles.
I reckon that Major Withers has made a considerable step forward in his discovery, and it surely will be followed by other discoveries. A.T.
To begin with, the epistle was certainly written after Peter unlocked the Kingdom to Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, it must belong to this present era. If anyone should contend that it belongs to only a part of this era, the onus of proof is on him.
Next, it is equally certain that the epistle was addressed to, and therefore written for, a special circle of readers, namely, "the twelve tribes, those in the dispersion."
From these, certain unquestionable deductions can be made. First, there can be nothing in the epistle contrary to or even incompatible with the Evangel as it now is, that is to say, the Apostle Paul's Evangel. Second, as it is addressed only to a limited circle, it directly applies only to that limited circle, and is to be applied outside that circle only in so far as it is general and universal in scope. Third, any system of interpretation that violates these conditions condemns itself off hand.
Those who contend that it belongs only to the early and the closing parts of this era usually write as if there were now no twelve tribes in the dispersion. This contention would be true if they added the words "who are prepared to listen to James," but only with such an addition. The fact that the message no longer operates for those to whom it was written does not mean that it is withdrawn. To take a simple example: the fact that nobody in my district for many years past has been charged with murder does not mean that the law against murder has been abrogated here; it simply means that nobody is believed to have broken the law in this respect. For a very long time few, if any, members of the twelve tribes in the dispersion have listened to James; nevertheless, his epistle still applies to them, and it will become of the highest importance to them when, once more, they begin to listen.
But what has this to do with us? Simply, that this epistle is Scripture and was given for our learning. However little of it may apply directly to ourselves, any study of what James was commissioned to write to his brethren in the dispersion is bound to shed a strong light on what is true for us today. Meanwhile, if and when the twelve tribes in the dispersion choose to listen to James, here in his epistle is the counsel and help they will need.
At this point someone may well ask: "But is James' Epistle addressed to people who are members of the church which is Christ's body?"
Such a question is not in accord with a form of sound words. What God wishes us to know about the Church which is Christ's body is given to us in the Apostle Paul's epistles, and nowhere else. It is wholly and utterly irrelevant to every other book of the Sacred Scriptures. It would be just as sensible to ask whether James' Epistle is addressed to people with blue eyes or people with brown eyes. This is simply because membership of Christ's body does not arise in this epistle, for nobody but Paul had any commission to write any Scripture about this subject. To speculate as to whether any person from the twelve tribes in the dispersion eventually became a member of the church which is Christ's body is merely to indulge in irreverent guessing about the unknowable. That this epistle together with the epistles of Peter, John and Jude, and to Hebrews, were given to us (as well as to the others) for our learning should be a matter for thankfulness, not an excuse for indulging in day-dreams.
"Dispensationalism" came into being when the more enlightened Christians began to perceive that what is true for Israel is not necessarily true for us who are members of Christ's body.
If they had continued to think and to study Scripture along that line they would long ago have reached a standard of comprehension and knowledge of God's Word that we are still working towards only slowly.
Instead, they gave their fresh enlightenment a false twist that led them into a blind alley. It produced a whole crop of new heresies; for they declared, instead, that what is true for one period of time is not necessarily true for another.
Ask the question: "To whom and about whom was this written?", and at once you are on the way to winning a plain and enlightening answer. Ask: "When was this written?", and you are involved in what is usually unanswerable and always to a large extent irrelevant and unimportant. After all, if God had deemed it necessary to date all the Greek Scriptures for us, He could perfectly well have done so. That He did not indicates conclusively that their dating is unimportant for us.
What complicates the matter, and at the same time affords some excuse (of a sort) for going astray, is that there is one respect in which dating does matter; namely, when two things that are incompatible are in view. The most important example for our present purpose is afforded by reigning-grace and wrath. While God is operating in the one, He plainly cannot be operating in the other, for this would involve selfcontradiction. That is the essence of the point made in the second paragraph of this paper. Since James' Epistle was written during the present period, that is, since Pentecost, its atmosphere cannot be inconsistent with reigning-grace. Yet it need not necessarily comply with the other aspects of Paul's Evangel, always provided that by not doing so it does not produce a contradiction in terms.
Here James' remarks about righteousness spring to the mind. If it be true, as many expositors confidently assert, that James' Epistle "teaches justification by works and lawkeeping," then it is wholly irreconcilable with Paul's Epistles and, so far as this present period is concerned, rightly and properly rejected as (to quote Luther's expression) "an epistle of straw."
In actual fact, this assertion is a gross libel on James and should never have been made by any Christian. The very fact that no proof of it has ever been attempted ought to indicate plainly to us that it is a false and ungodly invention bound to bring eventual shame on its authors.
For what James has to say about faith and righteousness is a valuable corrective of the human tendency to antinomianism. And it is said to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, not to the people who as Gentiles received Romans and Galatians. Those who lay too much stress on outward observances at the expense of the spiritual realities that should be lying behind such things, having swung to excess in one respect, are all the more prone to swing to excess in the opposite direction when they have become convinced of their error. No doubt, many Jews had heard the Apostle Paul's teaching about righteousness and law, and grasped the part that appeared to relieve them of the obligation to law-works, without correspondingly accepting the faith that alone gave works any sort of value at all. These are evidently the people James had chiefly in mind in James 2:14-26. Gentiles of that time, such as those chiefly addressed by Paul, would not be quite so severely tempted to antinomianism as these Jews, for they had had little, if any, experience of the Law. The pagan legalism they had lived under, though savage and brutal, lacked the imperative force of the Law of God. Yet all suffer the temptation to antinomianism to some extent; so all can benefit by what James had to say about law. In this respect, there is nothing in his epistle that is obsolete for us or anyone else.
Where we do come to something that is not altogether consistent with Paul's Epistles is in James 5:14-16. The Epistle as a whole consists of a series of exhortations to the author's "brethren," fifteen in number; and this particular exhortation to "anyone infirm among you" and to "the elders of the church" comes in the last but one of them. It must therefore be read in accord with the general sense of them. Right at the start of the fifteen, the twelve tribes in the dispersion are addressed as "my brethren" (James 1:2) and later (2:2), repeating "my brethren," James speaks of "your synagogue." This is conclusive. The "church" here is an assembly in a synagogue and the brethren are faithful men of the twelve tribes in the dispersion. If you belong to these twelve tribes and worship in a synagogue of such brethren, then James 5:14-16 applies to you; but not otherwise. There is no question of any "dispensationalism" involved in this: it is as true now as it ever has been or will be, but it is inoperative at the present time because no such assembly, no such brethren, no such synagogue, exist anywhere at the present time. The matter is as simple as all that!
But does not this clash with reigning grace? It might, so far as we can tell (bearing in mind that healing of this sort is out of harmony with the purely spiritual blessings that are ours) if these "brethren" were members of the church which is Christ's body. But if they were, they would not be either Jews or Gentiles, so they could not properly be addressed as "the twelve tribes in the dispersion." In other words, there is and can be no clash, because this exhortation is not applicable in present conditions—not because it is not true in itself, for it is wholly true, but because the circumstances in which it can operate cannot come into being in present conditions.
Every difficulty in correction with this epistle springs directly from the mistaken notion of "dispensations" or "economies" as periods of time. Because we all exist in time our minds are conditioned by time. Certain things occur during periods of time; but they are not defined by the period in which they happen but by the conditions that are in operation at any particular moment. At the present moment, grace reigns. At first sight it may seem fairly harmless too shift the emphasis from the FACT of reigning-grace to the TIME during which grace reigns; but it is not. The whole "dispensational" system has been built on such a shift. Only when the system was taken to its logical conclusions did the evil become fully apparent. Its adherents became so obsessed with their time boundaries that they had no thought to spare for anything else and Scripture had to be forced into their strait-jacket, with disastrous results.
When we attempt to confine reigning-grace within a defined period of time, we immediately raise such a question as, "Was James' Epistle written during the period of reigning-grace or before it?" As we do not know, we must guess. If we reply, "During the period of reigning-grace," we have either to ignore or explain away the "dispensational" anomalies that present themselves. If we reply, "Before the period of reigning-grace," we are logically bound to write off the epistle for everyone for the whole of this present period; and then we are faced with the question, "Why was it given for a very few Jews for a very short time and then, so to speak, put in cold storage for some 1900 years or more?" And this is not the only artificial problem thus fabricated. The old (and very silly) question of the "dispensational" position of Acts arises. Was James' Epistle written in "the Acts dispensation" or in one of the Acts "dispensations"? If the latter, which? How do we know it was written before "the dispensation of the Mystery?" So we come back to an endless treadmill.
Yet if we regard the reign of grace as a thing in itself, thanking God for it, and refusing to bother about irrelevancies such as the exact moment it came into being; we are delivered from all these perplexing problems. What really matters about James' Epistle is who it was written to. The rational and proper attitude for us is to accept the epistle as a document for the twelve tribes in the dispersion and also to accept it as written for our learning, thus getting from it the spiritual enlightenment for ourselves it was designed also to confer.
Yet such a sensible—one might well say, common-sense—attitude is hardly to be found anywhere.
The C.V. Introduction to James' Epistle is a painful example of such lack of balance and good sense. It spoils an excellent start by classing it as a "Circumcision Epistle," regardless of the fact that it never even touches on the subject or on covenant; and then in Line 5 says: "Its conflict with Paul's epistles is so profound that Luther rejected its authority, and endless attempts have been made to find a means of reconciliation, without coming to any satisfactory solution." But, as we have already demonstrated, no conflict exists.
Next, it associates James himself with "the energy of the flesh." Well, perhaps so, for those who can think in that way—but I, at any rate, cannot find much "of the flesh" in James 1:3, 12, 16, 17, 21, 22, 27; 2:1, 5, 23, 26; 3:2, 13, 17, 18; 4:10, 11; 5:7, 10, 19. On the contrary, I find a great deal that is very testing indeed for my own life and profoundly humiliating in the way it exposes my own failure. But perhaps all this is a personal eccentricity not suffered by one who can bring himself to write that James "drags the nation down into the sphere of flesh, thus preparing the way for their repudiation by God."
At the opposite pole is the sort of writer who is determined, by whatever means he can, to amalgamate James and Paul.
One such, Philip Mauro, starts this task by asking: "Is it for the Church?" Instead of clearly defining what he means by this, he asserts that James 5:14-16 "contains directions for the people of God when sick"; and that these commands are "apparently" given "to the saints of this dispensation." Soon what was only apparent to him becomes certain. His "proof" is very odd. He asserts: "We know what 'the Church' is and what 'the elders' are; and there is not the slightest thing to suggest that those familiar words have a different meaning here to that which they have elsewhere." So our "Church" is in a synagogue and our "elders" are men of the twelve tribes! A truly remarkable discovery!
Next, James 1:1, 18; 4:5 are quoted, with the comment: "So there cannot be the smallest doubt that the epistle was written to the saints of this dispensation." One who is satisfied with so flimsy a "proof" as this is not worth listening to, yet, so low is the spiritual state of most "believers," he commanded a substantial following. Apparently, he had never discovered that the Spirit descended on Jews (Acts 2) as well as on Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48). I trust that no one will resent the placing of "believers" in inverted commas here. When I see some of the things written by people who describe themselves thus, I wonder whatever it is they do believe, for it certainly is not Scripture.
So this melancholy essay in "special pleading" continues. After pointing out, correctly, that the epistle "describes with great distinctness the conditions of the last days of this age" and citing James 5:1-8 in particular, this writer refers it all to ourselves! He blandly ignores the fact that at the very end of the eon or age God will be dealing with His People Israel again and preparing to gather to Himself the very ones to whom this epistle is specifically addressed.
To confuse the issue as much as he possibly can, he then asserts that distinguishing between ourselves and the twelve
tribes in the dispersion is setting up again the "middle wall of partition" now razed. This distresses him greatly, for
apparently he has never managed to understand Eph. 2:13. Just as James writes to his particular readers of the twelve
tribes, so Paul in this verse is writing to the saints in Christ
Jesus: "Yet now, in Christ Jesus, you. . . are become near. ."
The emphasis here is unmistakeable, but it is quite lost on this
writer, who has no more understanding of the supreme
excellence of our spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus than has the
dead paper upon which he writes. To deny the truth about
God's special blessings for Israel in days to come, merely on
the ground that He has reserved other special blessings for us
now, and then to reprove us for believing Scripture as it
stands—that is emphatically not the attitude of a trust
worthy teacher; even though he did perceive important
truths overlooked or avoided by others. He invariably
created heavy bias against these truths by overstating them,
or setting them against other truths, or by supporting them
with inaccurate quotations from Scripture and half truths so
worded as to be entirely misleading.
Here is a typical example:
Having laid his foundation on the clouds of his own dreams, this man comes to his real purpose, "the wonderful secret" he erects on it, namely, that "Israel" in God's contemplation:
We do not all, even yet, fully appreciate the terrible damage wrought by the people who treat God's Word in this way. Yet if anyone has the temerity to declare in plain words what this sort of thing really is—blasphemous and evil altogether—a storm of protest arises. If we not merely pass over these attacks on God's Holy Word but openly scold those who have the courage to expose them for what they are, how can we expect to prevail against His enemies?
Which of the extremes considered above is the worse? It is hard to say, and of no practical importance anyhow, so let us turn to more constructive ideas.
To those who are so obsessed with what they are pleased to describe as "the unusually low plane of truth in" James' Epistle, I would like to ask one searching question: "Does your faith come up even to the 'low plane demanded by James?'"
No sensible person would deny that Paul and James view the relation of faith and works from very different standpoints; and it is true that the former sees it largely from the divine side and the latter from the human side. And why not? Yet it is false to assert, as does the C.V. Note to James 2:14: "But James is not speaking of a pretended faith"; for that is precisely what he is doing. If the supposed "faith" does not eventuate in works, it is no real faith at all. And Paul expects faith to be followed by works, too. James does not say, "Faith cannot save him," but "The faith cannot save him," that is, the sort of "faith" James has just written about, a sort of "faith" that is not followed by works. Admittedly, James does not say "followed by," but neither does he say "preceded by." Only by deliberate perversity can we read the latter into what James wrote. Indeed, in James 2:22 we read (literally): "You are observing that the faith worked together with the works of him, and out of the works the faith was matured." The C.V. sadly blunts the force of this by cutting out "the" all four times. Rotherham puts the first part of James 2:14 very clearly, thus: "What the profit, my brethren! If perchance one be saying he has faith, but should not have works?" Quite obviously, in James' mind "works" are thought of as following faith, not the other way round.
In short, we can make out that James opposes Paul here only by twisting James' words.
There still remains the question of the reign of grace to be cleared up. If James' Epistle belongs to this period of reigning grace, how comes it to be addressed to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, considering that the recognition of the twelve tribes as such is altogether foreign to Paul's Evangel?
This is actually only a variant of the question already dealt with earlier in this paper.
For a moment let us set aside the idea of the reign of grace and consider instead the contrasted thought of the reign of sin in death and what relation it has, if any, to James' Epistle. The only word connected with rule is royal in James 2:8. The two words sin and death come together in the epistle in two places: "Thereafter, the desire, conceiving, is bringing forth sin. Now the sin, fully consummated, is teeming forth death." (1:15); and "Let him know that he who turns back a sinner out of deception of his way will be saving his soul out of death and covering a multitude of sins." (5:20). Only the first of these has any bearing on our topic and there is nothing in it that clashes with Rom. 6:23.
Yet, on the other hand, there is nothing in it that could by any stretch of the imagination be reckoned as reigning grace.
When grace ceases to reign God will once more be reckoning mankind's fallings-aside to them and, as we learn from Prophecy, the world will plunge into the darkest sin and the direst judgments of all the ages, so that God's indignation and fury will be poured out on it. This will occur concurrently with the fe-emergence of the twelve tribes of Israel as such on the stage of history.
What has James' Epistle to tell us about judgment?
The word kritErion, tribunal, occurs in James 2:6, and elsewhere in 1. Cor. 6:2, 4 only, and need not detain us. The noun judge in 2:4 need not detain us either. Three passages remain for consideration. The first, 2:12, 13, reads: "Thus be talking and thus be doing, as through liberty's law about to be accepting judging. For the judgment is merciless to him who exercises no mercy: mercy is vaunting over judgment." Here an important consideration forces itself on our attention. C.V. and other versions translate krinesthai by to be judged, but the form of the verb is Middle, as also in Acts 25:10; Rom.3:4; 1. Cor. 6:1; whereas the Passive form krithEnai occurs in Matt. 5:40; Acts 25:9; Rev. 11:18. For the former, therefore, some English form ought to be found to register the distinction, and I can think of nothing better than what is here chosen. There is an important corollary to this: the judgment here is a voluntary judgment, not one imposed by force.
The next passage is James 4:11, 12, which reads: "Be not talking against one another, brethren! He who is talking against a brother, or judging his brother, is talking against law and judging law. Now if law thou art judging, thou art not doer of law, but judge. One is the Lawgiver and judge, Who is able to save and to destroy. Yet who art thou who art judging the neighbour?" It is an interesting point that James changes over from plural to singular in v. 12, and thus makes his exhortation a very personal matter.
Lastly, there is James 5:9: "Be not groaning, brethren, against one another, lest ye may be judged. Behold! the Judge stands before the doors." This last is the sole word of threatened judgment and, even so, the Judge is not contemplated as in session any more here than elsewhere, such as in Paul's epistles.
Finally we should ascertain what James has to say about thumos, fury, and orgE, wrath. The former presents no problem, for it is absent from his epistle. The second is found in 1:19, 20, thus: "Now be aware, my beloved brethren! And let every man be swift to hear, tardy to talk, tardy to wrath; for man's wrath is not working God's righteousness."
So, in spite of the fact that James' Epistle is addressed to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, it carries with it no trace whatever of the fearful judgments characteristic of the end of this eon, its atmosphere is quite different from that of Matthew 24, 2. Thess. 2:3-12 and the Apocalypse. Also, it carries with it nothing whatever of the transcendent spiritual blessings that belong to Paul's Evangel. It simply by-passes them both. Neither reigning grace nor active judgment and wrath of God come into this epistle. For all it has to say about them, neither might ever exist at any time for any person. This is an inescapable fact. And why should this be so? Simply because, as James' Epistle covers in the time-series both periods, it is forced to ignore the special characteristics of both; and that is precisely that we find it has done when we read it as it is, freed from the glosses which well-meaning, but prejudiced, expositors have read into it.
So far as James' Epistle is concerned the issues commonly described as "dispensational" do not arise, because they are totally irrelevant. Such issues underlie Paul's epistles, because if they did not, such epistles as those he was commissioned to write could not exist at all. If God has not elected to commission Paul specially for Gentiles as such, the line of teaching which we descibe as "Pauline" could never have come into being. Paul details God's Evangel, and he does so to demonstrate how it applies to Jews as such and how it applies to Gentiles as such; but he actually applies it only to the latter. Furthermore, he has to justify applying it to Gentiles as such at all. This takes up quite a substantial part of his writings; and properly so, for if he had not been able to justify bringing the saving work of God to the Gentiles' so that they could hear it on their own account, his own special commission would have been wholly out of order. But James is entirely unconcerned with this problem. He addresses himself to the twelve tribes in the dispersion without regard to any other considerations whatsoever—except one only, as we have just demonstrated; namely that nothing he writes shall be incompatible with the reign of grace, and that nothing shall by its very nature be tied to the future judgment and wrath. The one exception to the former of these two conditions, James 5:13-16, is explicitly tied to the synagogue, and by that fact set apart from the rest.
To clinch the argument, let us take a look at the epistles to the Seven Churches in the Province of Asia. As Dr. Bullinger demonstrated long ago, these churches are Jewish through and through, and they are churches of Israel in the dispersion by the fact of geography. Yet contrast them with James' Epistle! We cannot compare them, for they have nothing in common. As Dr. Bullinger said of the seven: "The difference between these Epistles and all other Epistles in the New Testament is so great, that one wonders how it was possible for them ever to be supposed as being addressed to the Church of God, the members of the Body of Christ! . . . But all is warning or reproof. Promises are made only to the 'overcomer,' and to those who shall 'endure unto the end.'" These seven have a stern and menacing atmosphere utterly at variance with every other epistle in the Greek Scriptures.
Few seem to have observed that James' Epistle, like James himself, stands aside from the issues between Peter and Paul. For all we learn of these in his epistle they might never have been raised by anyone.
"Like James himself," above, is written deliberately, for that is the precise position. In the first reference to him in Acts (12:17) we find tacit recognition of his leadership of the brethren in Jerusalem. In Acts 15:13 we find his leadership established beyond question. What we also find is a pronouncement by James which deliberately declines to take sides either against Peter or against Paul. It is not that James "sits on the fence," but simply that he declines to discriminate against the Gentiles. True, he does impose four conditions on them, but these conditions are so easy that they would not have been a serious burden to anyone. They were, in fact, calculated to remove friction. No doubt, all concerned appreciated that they were simply an interim arrangement.
What does seem rather surprising is that it should have been necessary to impose the first two conditions at all, for no person who truly believed the Evangel would have any dealings with either thing. Perhaps the persons James really had in mind were unbelievers, both Jews and Gentiles, who had made or were making their first contact with the Evangel; and that the compromise involved was intended for them; in return for Gentiles on the verge of conversion yielding on the four points, the Jews were intended to refrain from imposing any other of their practises.
However all this may be, the important point for us at this moment is the neutral position taken by James. The same neutral position appears in Gal. 2:6-10. James himself was very conciliatory and friendly; much more so, apparently, than those who came from him (v. 12).
Was James the Lord's brother himself an apostle, though not of the Twelve? I can find no published renderings that satisfy me, for none appear to allow for the fact that heteron, used here, means different in kind. So it appears to me that Paul's meaning is "yet of persons different from the apostles I perceived none, except James the Lord's brother." The New World Version supports this idea: "But I saw no one else of the apostles, only James the brother of the Lord." However, whether James was an apostle or not, it is manifest that he was not involved in, and was therefore able to stand aside from, all controversies about circumcision or uncircumcision. As brother of the Lord in flesh, he was able to minister to the brethren of the twelve tribes in the dispersion, giving them greatly needed help, but not committed in any of the matters commonly called "dispensational." So, as regards his ministry, we also should shut them firmly out of our minds and thus avoid involvement in controversies which are artificial. But can it not also be said that Peter's Epistles are "dispensationally" neutral? We have discussed two features of James' Epistle which some regard as incompatible with Paul's teaching and gave the excuse to call it "an epistle of straw"; but nobody has ever said such a thing about Peter's Epistles. He does not trespass on Paul's ground at all; but he had to avoid even the appearance of doing so. As certain things had to be said that might seem to touch Paul's teaching, it was the essentially neutral James who had to say them. The only point where Peter's Epistles touched Paul, 2. Peter 3:15, 16, involves no difficulty, for here he recommends his readers actually to go to Paul.
Like James, Peter in his first epistle addresses himself to "chosen exiles of dispersion," and that colours all he writes, as for instance, 1. Peter 2:5, 9-12 (note "exiles" and the reference to Gentiles in v. 12),21-25; 3:10; 4:7, 12, 17; 5 :1-4, 8. None of these are applicable to those to whom Paul wrote; but also, little or nothing in the rest of the epistle either is definitely inapplicable to them. Furthermore, at the beginning is a benediction curiously like that with which Ephesians starts; and at the end is a statement that the message is transmitted from Babylon through Sylvanus, one of the apostles specially associated with Paul. These are like two Notice Boards, quietly warning the reader against associating the epistle with the troubles affecting Peter and Paul recorded in Acts and Galatians.
The second epistle is much more general in tone. Both epistles have the words righteous and righteousness, but the second uses them more frequently. Neither uses them in any way that impinges on Paul's teaching, though 2. Peter 1:1 does refer to God's righteousness. Neither mentions law at all. Both refer to grace but avoid Paul's teaching, and neither mentions circumcision anywhere.
The "dispensational" neutrality of these three epistles, in spite of the fact that their authors addressed themselves to their own kinsfolk, is thus established, and we need not add that John's three epistles are even more plainly neutral.
Beyond any doubt, Jude's Epistle is chiefly intended for and applicable to Israel in the days to come. Yet although it pronounces condemnation of "certain men" (vv. 4 and 11) and refers to past judgments (vv. 5-7), we cannot claim that there is anything in it comparable with the epistles to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Nor can it be said that grace is absent from it (v. 4) as it is from those seven. So, like its predecessors, it is neutral "dispensationally"; that is to say, those who try to bring that sort of issue into it are actually distorting it; and anyone who ventures to assert that vv. 3, 4, 8, 11, 17, 18, 24, 25 have no relevance for ourselves is simply blind to plain facts.
On this account, I cannot leave unnoticed the assertion regarding v. 3 that "this faith, once given over to the saints, is the evangel of the Circumcision." This ties up with another heresy I recently heard of, that "the saints" always refers to Israel; and with the better-known heresy that the Evangel of the circumcision was proclaimed during "the Acts period" and withdrawn. Neither is true at all. Anyone tempted to support the assertion needs do no more than study the fifteen occurrences of the word hapax, once. The" faith" here can only refer to the broadest basis of belief, God's Evangel (Rom. 1:1-4); the faith which all God's people then and now and in days to come share in common, altogether independent of whether they receive it in uncircumcision or under covenant. It is altogether deplorable that the 1930 C.V. Notes to vv. 1,2 and 3 should introduce such discordant ideas as they do.
So, in the face of all these things, we can only wonder whether the translators of King James' Version were so far astray, after all, when they labelled these as "general" epistles. Certainly they are more "general" than any of those by the Apostle Paul. And why not? If James, Peter, John and Jude had confined themselves strictly to matters that concern the twelve tribes in the dispersion and nobody else, they would have had very little to write about. Surely it is not difficult to perceive that during the period from the Ascension till the Lord's return to Mount Olivet there is a real need for writings generally applicable to all God's people on earth, whatever their calling? These writings we have in these seven epistles and in that "to Hebrews." In the first days after Pentecost and in the last days after we have been snatched away, these writtings will be precious beyond measure for Israel; and nobody who takes the trouble to read them without prejudice can contend that they are without much value to us who are members of the church which is Christ's body now. Indeed they are of the utmost valuenot so important as Paul's Epistles, for those are in a very special way our very own, but certainly indispensable, so that even the least of them is not so inferior in importance that we can afford to neglect it. Not the smallest part of the harm done by excessive preoccupation with "dispensations" has been the consequent neglect of these epistles and the loss of balance that has resulted from it. These writings are all for our learning; and any who dare to despise them as "unspiritual" are simply aiding the enemies of God's truth.
There is no getting away from the fact that words with a strong "dispensational" flavour, such as covenant, circumcision, uncircumcision, law, baptize, baptism, Israel, Israelite, Jew, Abraham, Judea, Moses, are to a large extent avoided in what are described by the C.V. as the "Circumcision Epistles." Indeed, the invention of this name is an unconscious admission that this avoidance is inconvenient, and attempt to make up for it.
In spite of everything that has been said about the subject, the two quotings of Isa. 6:9, 10 are still to a large extent misunderstood. Matt. 13:14, 15 is not the pronouncement of a curse; it is not even the pronouncement of a judgment, it is simply a statement of accomplished fact. The actual judgment is in Matt. 13:11, and what follows is simply the explanation why it was made. What Isaiah had prophesied had been fulfilled by the people of Israel themselves. The Lord Jesus actually did no more than point this out, explaining that it had not been given to them to know the secrets of the Kingdom of the heavens. The form of the verb here is Middle, carrying with it the suggestion that they had not given themselves any chance to know these secrets. It was, in fact, a self-inflicted punishment; and did not imply that God Himself had changed His attitude toward them. Indeed, the very contrary; for His disciples, true Israelites, could know these secrets. If the quotation had been judgment on Israel as a whole, none of them could have escaped it. That was the position then, that is the position now and right on till the descent of the Lord Jesus to Mount Olivet.
Superimposed on it in Acts is the further fact that the saving-work of God was sent to the Gentiles. The effect of this on Israel is that, at present, there are no Israelite disciples left. Nevertheless the way is still open to them when eventually some of Israel become disciples again. What suspends the blessings to Israel is not the withdrawal of them but Israel's withdrawal from them. This withdrawal it is that makes possible the sending of the Evangel, in fact, any evangel at all, to Gentiles. For any evangel to Gentiles apart from Israel is impossible so long as Israel's privileged standing remains in being on earth. That is the point of the conclusion in Rom. 3:22, 23 of the first part of Paul's extended argument.
For Paul had to demonstrate that no person was entitled to stand on covenant privilege before he could start to set forth an aspect of the Evangel that depended on the absence of covenant privilege. But that meant that Paul was irrevocably bound to this aspect of the Evangel and therefore could not give any such recognition to any other as would be implied in writing to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, not even a general message that would include them in its scope, such as James could. He had to set out God's Evangel, because that was the basis of his own Evangel, but he confined himself to the basic facts of it and avoided any development of it into the full covenant evangel entrusted to the Apostle Peter. That he left to its future place. He had no direct message to Israel, and in his references to them in his epistles he did not go one hair's breadth beyond what his readers, chosen from among the Gentiles, needed to know. Peter does mention God's Evangel (1. Peter 4:17). That is the only time he uses the word in his epistles; and there he takes it for granted as something well understood by his readers.
More important is the only other passage in which Peter uses "evangel," in Acts 15:6-11. This is a plain reference back to the story of Cornelius and the consequent falling of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48; 11:13-18). Though it was Peter who thus unlocked the Kingdom to the Gentiles, through whose mouth the first word came to them (11:14), the continuance of this mission was not for him, but for Paul, and he vanishes from the account in Acts. And, note, it was all about the Gentiles. Of the Evangel of the circumcision specifically entrusted to the Apostle Peter there is no word by him anywhere. Apart from its inauguration becoming possible through the events at Pentecost, we learn nothing about it except in Paul's cryptic words in Gal. 2:7, 8. How it will all work out in the future we do not know and ought not attempt to guess.
All this is why provision for God's people in general, that is to say, such matters as are independent of Paul's special commission, had to come through such writings as the epistles of James, Peter, John, Jude and that to Hebrews, or not at all. To send them through Paul would have been out of the question. Similarly, the Gospels and Acts are entirely independent of Paul himself. Acts has a great deal to say about Paul and quotes some of his speeches; but he appears as a character in its narrative, not as the narrator.
These things would have been obvious if, instead of thinking of "dispensations" in terms of periods of time, we had thought of them in terms of God's various activities: that is, whether He is working in and through His earthly Covenant People, Israel, or working His purpose wholly independently of them. For James, in his epistle, what matters is that those of the twelve tribes in the dispersion who choose to hear him should be faithful to what light they have; and he does not concern himself with the issues associated with covenant. When the time for these does arrive, due provision will be made. Until then they are outside everyone's terms of reference.
What we all tend to overlook (and some still overlook it completely) is that when God dispenses anything the important, point is what He dispenses and how He dispenses it, not the actual moment when He begins to dispense it. Sharp time boundaries do exist. One will be when the feet of the Lord Jesus again stand on Mount Olivet, another when His shout gathers us to meet Him in the air. But Scripture does not define the point of time at which grace began to reign.
Another thing only partly understood is the principle declared in Rom. 11:29: "For unregrettable are the graceacts and the calling of God." They are not subject to change of mind, still less to withdrawal. Where this assurance is thought of at all, it is generally limited to demonstrating that God's promises to Israel for the future cannot in any circumstances be broken; but it means more than that. The Lord Jesus called the Twelve to a very special standing and privilege (see Matt. 19:28 in particular). Moreover, the writing of a substantial part of the Greek Scriptures was allocated to one or other of them. The epistles of James and Jude were written by other Israelites associated with them; so, perhaps, was the Hebrews Epistle. A considerable number of Israelites was in association with them, and so remained for some considerable time. All these, the whole lot so far as we know, remained united together till we lose sight of them in the fog that descended on history. There is not even a hint, anywhere at all, that they, or at any rate the bulk of them, followed Paul in repudiating their standing as Israelites, as partakers of God's calling to Israel. The Twelve could not. There is no reason to suppose that the others either needed to, or did. The fact that an altogether different calling had come into being does not upset this; for they could all take their stand on the principle declared in Rom. 11:29 which, by the way, was no new secret but entirely in harmony with what is set out again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures: that when God promises a blessing, He keeps His promise.
It is certainly true that the Twelve and their associates could have done no more than they are recorded as doing, for Covenant was eclipsed by Paul's Evangel; but also they could have done no less. Their part was to remain faithful to their calling till God chose to remove them by operation of death from this earthly scene. The call to repent had to be made, as before, to Israel first, those who received it had the right to receive such blessings as were practicable in the circumstances. Those who listened to Peter at and after Pentecost, and received his word, had an unassailable right to continue in it unless something better was presented to them in its stead. Are we to suppose that in addition to what he said in Gal. 2:6-21 Paul further proclaimed secretly to the assembly at Jerusalem that they were all to abandon the Twelve and follow him? Why should they? And why should we believe any such thing?
They had received the Evangel of the Kingdom and joined themselves with the Twelve. The full fruition of the fulfilment of God's promises to Israel leading up to the conclusion of the New Covenant lay far in the future. Yet they had something, and something that was very precious, to them. What was good enough for Peter and James was good enough for them, even though it was not all that Israel hoped for.
Dispensationalists have long seen that so far as true Israelites were concerned Pentecostal conditions lasted for only a brief period. What they have failed to see is the reason for this. The Kingdom had to be unlocked for Israel, and that unlocking would have been a barren formality if no Israelite had entered. The fact that shortly after it would also be unlocked for Gentiles was no concern of such Israelites, nor, in practise did it affect them in any way except to cut short the time during which the Israelite could enter as an Israelite instead of having to surrender his Israelite standing as Paul had to and did. But we cannot reckon this as "a change of dispensation" in the ordinary usage of the term. There is no reason to suppose that, at some instant, believing Israelites abruptly changed their status to become members of the church which is Christ's body. Certainly, that could not, and did not, happen to the Twelve; and it is for anyone who may suppose that it happened to James and others to produce at least a scrap of evidence for their supposition.
For Israel's own calling in the New Covenant a long winter had set in while everything was in abeyance. What if it meant long and patient waiting? Are we not waiting too for the fulfilment of our hopes? It is quite possible, even likely, that the church in Jerusalem, and in Babylon and elsewhere, associated with the Twelve, fully understood that their circumstances were very fleeting and that after their death many centuries would pass before there would be any other true Jewish churches anywhere at all. They would accept their position with resignation and patience, even hope, knowing full well that Hebrews 12 and 13 applied primarily to them and that their witness had its proper place in God's plans.
For the time will come, and possibly is not far away, when life will stir in Israel. Then Israelites will read Paul's Epistles as belonging to past history, in the light of the rest of the Greek Scriptures, together with the epistles written to the twelve tribes in the dispersion; and presently God will commission the proclamation of the Evangel of the circumcision.
James was chosen for a special mission because of his special qualifications, and we ought to respect him, not despise him.
R.B.W. Last updated 2.11.2005