As usual, the main source of trouble is using words without clearly defining their intended meaning.
For instance, what precisely does the commonly used expression "the Pentecostal Dispensation" mean? Does it refer to what was dispensed at Pentecost? Or does it mean that Pentecost inaugurated a period of time distinguished by certain characteristic truths and its own special type of Divine government?
If the former, then the term represents some measure of truth, even though it is not scriptural. If the latter, it is wholly untrue.
What is so extraordinary is that I have never yet come across any writer who has troubled to point out this simple and obvious distinction.
Most of those who talk about "the Pentecostal Dispensation" use their term in the second sense, and then wander off into a maze of guesses, and references to Scripture torn out of their setting and context. No proof of the guesses is ever supplied, which is natural enough, else they would not be guesses; but it is painful to think that those who do these things imagine that they are expounding Scripture. Instead, they are simply weaving webs of fantasy.
To quote an example, it has been declared that Peter's ministry in Acts had to do with a new Dispensation, but had nothing to do with the present Dispensation. ("Things to Come," 1910, p. 51). This sort of talk is quite meaningless; for actually Peter had nothing new to dispense which has not continued into the present period; and there is nothing that he said to the Jews then which would be inappropriate to Jews now except, of course, such things as Acts 1:15-22, which dealt with matters purely of the moment, not general doctrine. The opening of his speech in Acts 2 is, similarly, an explanation of something which was happening at the time; but, even so, the point made then could suitably be conveyed to Jews at any era thereafter with only minor alterations to fit the circumstances of their time.
Peter's statement in Acts 2:17-21 has been grievously misunderstood. He did not declare that Pentecost was the fulfilment of Joel's prophecy. He says much less:—"This is what has been declared through the prophet Joel." We know that the prophecy has not been completely fulfilled. That is simply a matter of history and of plainly visible fact. But Peter could not at that moment point this out; so he simply makes the bare statement as recorded. And Pentecost is exactly that. God did pour out His Spirit, and some did prophesy, and miracles and signs were given. Why?
Simply because the pouring-out of His Spirit was a necessary precondition for what was to follow.
Yet in spite of that the matter rested there; and the fulfilment of the prophecy as Joel framed it checked itself before it had more than begun. Why?
Simply because other things were to happen—things which could not happen amid the fleshly and earthly signs and glories of Joel's full prophecy because they were and are wholly spiritual, and celestial instead of terrestrial. If (had it been possible, which it was not) Paul's call and ministry could have been avoided, there was nothing to prevent the fulfilment of Joel's prophecy going on to finality.
The "Full dispensationalists" have perceived this point; and this perception is the great strength of their position. Unfortunately, their perception failed to go far enough. They imagined that Israel could have accepted Messiah then and there, in spite of what they had already done to Him and soon showed themselves to be prepared to go on doing. Dr. Bullinger said this repeatedly, and stresses that if they had done so the fulfilment of all the prophecies of future blessing for them would have started at once. He failed to tell us what would have happened to the prophecies of judgment. It is quite true to declare that no tongue can tell, because if such a thing had happened it would have completely overthrown what we now know to have been God's plans, and this is unthinkable. Really, it is beyond me to understand how any Christian can seriously suggest that God's plans could have been brought to nothing in such a way.
No. What did happen Was precisely what God intended should happen. The Apostle Paul and his ministry were unalterably fixed as the next step in events as God had planned them. Therefore, the Pentecostal fulfilment of Joel's prophecy had to be cut short. There was no other way.
But does this not mean that it was a foregone conclusion. that Peter's call at Pentecost to repentance would not be heard and accepted by Israel as a whole ? Yes, it means just that.
But does this not mean that Peter's offer that if Israel repented the Kingdom would be set up, in Acts 2 and 3, was a sham?
The answer to this is simple enough. "Full dispensationalists" talk freely about this supposed offer; but nobody has yet produced a scrap of evidence that it was ever made. If anyone still remains unconvinced, let him try a simple experiment. Go through the speeches of Acts 2 and 3, and count the number of occurrences of the word 'if' (Greek, ei). From the way some people write, one might well suppose that these speeches are positively peppered with "ifs."
But why did the pentecostal signs, the tongues, healing, etc., remain, even to the time when Paul wrote I. Corinthians? But why not? Paul explains that spiritual things of that type belong to immaturity. Such immaturity was the general condition then; and until the fate of Israel became apparent to all, and until Paul's Evangel could be set out and developed fully in his epistles; the mature state could not exist among believers, except here and there, and even then only in a developing condition. Pentecostal events will appear again—when pentecostal conditions occur again. That is to say, when 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is fulfilled, Israel's insensitiveness will be removed. Then the stage will be set for Joel's prophecy to be completely fulfilled, and no doubt it will be, with all the phenomena which accompany it appearing in full measure; far fuller, indeed, than anything which happened at Pentecost. Their cessation was not due to any withdrawal or postponement; they were simply overlaid by a fresh revelation which swamped the fleshly terrestrial spiritual gifts and substituted the" all spiritual blessings H which are ours among the celestials; just as the rising sun reduces the waning moon to no more than a pale wraith in the sky.
Incidentally, we are not told whether or when pentecostal phenomena will cease after the complete fulfilment. Obviously, spiritual immaturity will be general at the start; and the terms of the New Covenant show that full maturity will eventually come; but whether that will have any bearing on the gifts is not stated. My own guess, for what it is worth, is that it will not; as blessings then will be fleshly as well as spiritual.
A moment's thought will show that the question whether a proclamation is or is not answered makes no difference to the question whether it is or is not genuine. In the Hebrew Scriptures are recorded many appeals to Israel which fell on deaf ears; but nobody would deny their genuineness on that account, and would not in the Acts history if they had no ulterior motive for so doing. Peter simply told Israel to repent, and indicated what would happen when they did. The appeal has yet to be heard and obeyed by more than a relatively few. When it is obeyed by Israel as a whole, then the consequences promised by Peter will follow. That is all ; and nobody would have found the slightest difficulty over this who was not searching for one. After all, when we come to look at the matter in the cold light of common-sense, even without taking into account our present knowledge of what happened then and thereafter, what else could Peter and the rest of the Twelve have done? He was commissioned with the keys of the Kingdom, and he used them to unlock:it. John the Baptist in heralding King and Kingdom had proclaimed repentance to Israel. Why not Peter?
Yet we are told by Dr. Bullinger that "surely it is hardly necessary for us to press home the solemn alternative that on any other interpretation" but his "we are to suppose that the Holy Spirit Who was speaking by Peter, was mocking the nation by promising to 'send Jesus Christ,' when that sending was not then imminent, on the conditions named. Surely those 'seasons of refreshing' and those 'times of restoration' were not then some nineteen centuries away in the far distant future." (The Foundations of Dispensational Truth, p. 209).
How can otherwise sound expositors be so blind? Those things were at least nineteen centuries away; and there is absolutely nothing in what Peter actually declared which conflicts with this fact. Quite likely he was not aware of it; but he evidently was aware that a long delay was possible, else he would not have said that heaven must indeed receive Jesus Christ "until times of restoration of all which God talks" (Acts 3:21). Actually this verse is better in harmony with a long delay than with a brief interval.
Again, We are told of Peter's speech in Acts 2 that "he goes on to quote what Joel had said about 'the day of the Lord: That day was to begin by the pouring out of spiritual gifts, and the manifestation of the Spirit's powers: and it had begun." But it had not begun, and has not begun even yet; and Acts 2:20 does not say that the Day had begun, but that these things would happen before it began. Such a statement comes very queerly from those who seek to mix up the Thessalonian epistles with this prophecy, and in the face of 2. Thess. 2:2 also.
We are also told that "while the mind is obsessed with the idea that Joel and Peter were concerned in the formation of the church, it is impossible that their words can be understood." This talk about obsession comes ill from those who are them selves obsessed with the idea that the Apostle Peter was talking about the Kingdom in Acts 2 and 3. In actual fact, the word' kingdom' (basileia) occurs in Acts only in 1:3, 6; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31; whereas the word 'church' (ekklEsia) occurs no less than 24 times. I am not pointing this out in order to follow a thoroughly bad example by pretending, in turn, that Peter was speaking concerning "the Church," although this word does perhaps occur in Acts 2:47, but merely to show how illegitimate that sort of statement is. Joel and Peter were not concerned with either subject in what they said in this context. Why not accept their words as they stand, without these glosses and guesses? This trick of presenting one with a false alternative is an old forensic dodge; but it does not inspire confidence. We are told in effect: Either Peter was talking about the Kingdom, or he was talking about the Church. But neither happens to be the truth.
All this talk about "the Church" (with a capital 'C') is itself almost a badge of error. The word 'ekklEsia' means a called-out company, any called-out company, any collection of people who for some particular purpose have come together out of the population as a whole. In a town one may see people leaving the street to enter, say, a theatre or concert hall, and another lot to enter a chapel, and yet another to enter a tavern. Each of these separate companies is an "ecclesia" in the strict sense of the Greek word thus taken over. The first certain occurrence of the word in Acts is in 5:11; where it plainly means the assemblage of people who beheld the tragedy which had taken place. Acts 7:38 refers to the company of Israelites in the wilderness; 8:1 to those in Jerusalem who had heard Peter's call; likewise in 8:3; whereas 9:31 refers to a wider company or group of companies. And so on. In none of these is there even a trace of the idea of "the Church" being founded or of any definition .of such a term. Nor, indeed, is there any talk concerning the Kingdom after Acts 1:6 till we reach Acts 8:12.
In fact, what is bound and loosed in these two unlockings is not quite the same; which is what we might expect in view of the wholly different callings which result. No doubt many of these believers of Israel went on to receive Paul's Evangel; but the purpose of Peter's call to them was not to lead up to this Evangel, in which he was not in any way directly concerned, but Israel's repentance as Israel. On the other hand, the action on Gentiles, as Gentiles and not as proselytes to Israel, though its immediate working-out was also repentance unto life, eventuated in a phenomenon unparalleled since the call of Abraham, righteousness by faith wholly apart from law. During the long interval, such dealings as God did have with Gentiles were exceptional acts of grace in an abnormal regime; but these pentecostal acts on Gentiles were the normal. It is special dealing with a favoured Nation which is, strictly speaking, abnormal.
We do not understand Pentecost properly unless we understand Matt. 16:17-19 and John 14:16, 17, 26; 15:26, 27; 16:7-11; 1. John 2:1-2; and there is nothing at all of the more sensational aspects of Pentecost in these passages. The first tells us about the Church of Christ, that is, the whole called-out company of Christ's people, irrespective of whether they have been called to Peter's Evangel or to Paul's Evangel; for if Peter had not carried out his mission with the keys of the Kingdom of the heavens, there would have been no Church of Christ of any sort. It must be remembered too that Saul did not become "also Paul" until Acts 13:9, some time after Peter's action in Acts 10. Paul's distinctive ministry had to wait on the completion of Peter's.
As regards the Kingdom problem, it seems that the first eight verses of Acts were written in vain, so far as the "dispensational" theorists are concerned. It is very plain to anyone whose mind is not befogged by theorizing that the Lord Jesus deliberately fended off the apostles' question in Acts 1:6. If it really were the truth that the first duty of the Twelve at Pentecost would be to offer the Kingdom to Israel, here Was the place to have made the point fully clear to us all. But instead, the reply of the Lord Jesus Was one of the most cryptic utterances He ever made, and in violent contrast to the confident, but wholly untrue, assertion made by Dr. Bullinger regarding Peter's proclamation, that "the day of the Lord had indeed drawn nigh" (The Foundations of Dispensational Truth, p. 33). Acts is devoid of any sort of crisis as regards the Kingdom, unless the unlocking be regarded as a crisis, which would be a very far-fetched idea. It begins with the information that the Lord Jesus was telling the apostles "that which concerns the Kingdom of God" (1:3); it ends with Paul "certifying to the Kingdom of God" (28:23) and proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and teaching that which concerns the Lord Jesus Christ" (28:31). And note particularly, these two are on either side of the supposed point of crisis of Acts 28:28. Plainly, if it was a crisis at all, it was not one concerning the Kingdom; the history of which was beyond question steadily following its predetermined course.
Peter's first action in Acts was in connection with completing the Twelve once again. Then he carried on his appointed Pentecost task; first proclaiming Jesus as Lord as well as Christ, then repentance. In other words, he used the keys committed to him; evangelizing first Israel, then the Gentiles. Note the reference to John's baptism in Acts 10:37 and the falling of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles in 10 : 44. This ends Peter's mission for that time, and, his task completed, he soon disappears from view; the other incidents being but a gathering up of loose ends.
Bearing in mind the agreement between Peter and Paul set out in Gal. 2:7, together with the now established fact that Peter never proclaimed the Evangel of the circumcision which he had accepted in trust; we see that Peter must have been aware long before the completion of his recorded history that he would never be able to complete his whole mission in the Acts period, at any rate to the extent of witnessing the repentance of Israel as a whole. Undoubtedly in unlocking the Kingdom to Israel he also unlocked the door for the Evangel of the circumcision; we might almost say, laid the train for it, ready to be ignited and to spread throughout Israel at the appointed time. Whether this suffices to cover the terms of his commission in Gal. 2:7, or whether he will complete it eventually in resurrection, is not a matter over which I am disposed to speculate. But we can, I believe, safely assume that quite soon after Pentecost Peter was informed by the Holy Spirit of the great gap in time to which he refers in 1. Peter 1:10-12. Otherwise it is inexplicable that he, of all men, so quietly and meekly took the back seat and Was content to fade into oblivion, and that he did not regard Paul as an interloper, as indeed he Was if the so-called "Pentecostal Dispensation" was to last till the (supposed) final pronouncement of the judgment in Isa. 6:9-10 had to be made on the Jews of Rome in Acts 28:28. The supporters of this theory have never explained why it was Paul and not Peter who had to do the deed. If, as the supporters of the Acts 28:28 boundary-line theory appear to teach, Peter's commission did not finally fail until that crisis; why did Peter vanish less than half-way through the story? We were told by Dr. Bullinger that the Thessalonians were "a simple assembly of those who had received the word of Peter and Paul"; but if this be so, nobody has yet disclosed why Paul came into the affair at all. I cannot see there could have been any point in bringing Paul into what, presumably, the Twelve were perfectly competent to do themselves. The difficulty is insuperable; but there is no difficulty at all about the truth; which is that after Peter had completed his commission at the time" Paul was called for his own special commission, and carried it out. It is so easy to make wild statements such as the one just quoted, but so false and dangerous. As a matter of sober and unchallengeable fact, the Thessalonian Epistles make no reference, direct or indirect, either to Peter or to his ministry. No wonder Acts is still a puzzle-book to many.
Perhaps someone may retort: "But why should not God have planned the events as He wished and without reference to what We may consider to be the way they ought to have turned out?" Why not, indeed; for that is my whole point! It is these weavers of theories who are trying to lay down the law as to what God ought to have done and what therefore, according to them, He must have done. For myself, I am content to sit down patiently to learn what He did do and to leave guessing to them. I am quite satisfied to believe Scripture as it stands and to refrain from inserting all sorts of man-made speculations into it.
We were further told that "the realisation of the hope of 1. Thessalonians was dependent on Israel's repentance." No proof of this wildly untrue statement was offered. Even worse, if possible, is the statement (Things to Come, 1910, p. 52) that up to Acts 28:25, 26 no Gentile could get a blessing except in connection with Israel. Why, why, do Christian invent such ideas merely to support their palpably false theories?
Elsewhere I have referred to another odd theory, that the' change in God's attitude towards the Gentiles has occurred "since Israel refuses to convey His blessing to them." This belongs to another line of teaching, associated with Mr. A. E. Knoch; but it is all the same kind of error, "improving" on God's Word. Open unbelief is far less culpable; for at least it displays itself as what it is, and does not masquerade as the final fruit of reverent research.
The final fruit of this covert unbelief is seen in the following quotation from the Foundations of Dispensational Truth, p. 221:—"Are we to-day, as Gentiles, called to that gospel that Paul then preached? If so, our standing is exactly the same as that of those to whom he preached. And we are also bound to 'walk orderly and keep the Law,' as so many are seeking to do. If so, we are on the same footing before God as Israel then was, and our claims are based on the prophetic utterances of the Old Testament."
For those who can believe this, Romans and Galatians were written in vain. Let us make a strong stand against such evil and hold firmly to the truth.
Yes; at a casual glance; but not when we go into the matter. We are told that the word" Jew" occurs 25 times in the earlier epistles of Paul but only once in the Prison Epistles. What we are NOT told is that this word occurs only once in the Thessalonian Epistles, and the rest of the words listed not even once in them. Dr. Bullinger never mentioned this fact; and Mr. Welch, though he has had over forty years in which to discover it, has not done so either. These gentlemen were very careful not to investigate too far.
Yet if the argument of Dr. Bullinger and Mr. Welch were sound, then they ought to have carried it to its logical conclusion and separated the Thessalonian epistles "dispensationally" from the other early epistles, and, indeed, from the Prison Epistles also. That would not have done at all. As we have already noticed, their "dispensational" theory declares that the prophecy of 1. Thess. 4:17 belonged to Israel, and that "had the nation repented, they would have been caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air." (The Foundations of Dispensational Truth, p. 144). Dr. Bullinger here airily handed over our meeting the Lord in air to Israel; notwithstanding that the Thessalonian Epistles not only do not mention Israel, and the Jew only incidentally and then only once, but that they are far less" Jewish" in their vocabulary than the Prison Epistles themselves, as already pointed out. In 1. Thess. 2:14, the sufferings of the Thessalonians by their own fellow-tribesmen are likened to those of the churches of God in Judea in Christ Jesus by the Jews. This shows beyond any possible doubt that the Thessalonians were not Jews.
From these facts the utter worthlessness of Mr. Welch's argument from the distribution of words is quite obvious. If the occurrence of Jewish words in them proves that certain epistles are" Jewish," and the absence of these words that others are not; then Mr. Welch has proved far too much. If the Prison Epistles are not" Jewish," then neither is 1. and 2. Thessalonians. Even if we take into account the relative bulk of the various epistles, this disproportion remains.
Moreover, Paul's Epistles are not the only epistles. In James, 1. and 2. Peter, 1., 2. and 3. John and Jude, the total number of occurrences of this set of words is only five altogether—they are relatively considerably rarer than in the Prison Epistles. And yet some people have the audacity to call these epistles "The Circumcision Epistles"; though the words "circumcision" and "circumcise" do not occur in them even once.
There remains one other epistle, that to Hebrews. In this epistle the set of words occurs a total of 45 times against five in the epistles just mentioned and fifteen in Paul's Epistles written after Acts 28:28. I do not know what Mr. Welch would have deduced from these facts if he had troubled to extend his table, and I do not propose to make any deduction myself, except one: that, as a criterion of date or of so-called dispensational position, this method is utterly worthless.
We must not overlook the point that by Mr. Welch's word-test there is an even greater contrast between Hebrews and these other seven so-called Circumcision epistles than there is between Paul's early and Prison epistles respectively. And Hebrews does not mention "circumcise" or "circumcision" either, though they occur a total of eight times in Paul's epistles after Acts 28:28. Are we, then, in spite of this last point, expected, as before, to see "the prominent position which the Jew occupied" when Hebrews was written compared with when the other seven "Circumcision epistles" were written? Plainly we are not, for the sufficient reason that no such contrast exists. Mr. Welch's bright idea is one of those arguments which look very pretty on the surface, but on closer examination turn out to be dangerous in the extreme. Mice often find this with traps.
On the assumption that a "dispensation" or "economy" covers a period of time (which assumption we have already shown to be baseless, though it is the very keystone of so-called dispensational truth) the "Circumcision epistles" raise formidable questions. To what "dispensation" do they belong? Were they written before or after Acts 28:28? Why is Hebrews so different in content from the others?
On the other hand, if we forget all "dispensationalism" and take these epistles for what they are—part of the Evangel as applied to those who were Jews by nature—these awkward problems do not arise. We do not know when they were written, and it simply does not matter in the very least.
Mr. Welch's use of his table is based on confusion of thought, the well-known fallacy of argument in a circle:(1) because the Prison Epistles are "Epistles of the Mystery," as he calls them, they are not concerned with Israel's affairs; (2) because they are not concerned with Israel's affairs (i.e. in using this set of words) they are "Epistles of the Mystery." The fact of the matter is that one argument may be accepted, or the other, but not both. If (1) be accepted, his table becomes simply a truism as regards the Prison Epistles. If (2) be accepted, it "proves" that not only the Pauline Epistles after Acts 28:28 are "Epistles of the Mystery," but the Thessalonian Epistles and those of James, Peter, John and Jude. It proves far, far, too much; and reduces Mr. Welch's system to the absurdity it is.
As noted elsewhere, there is some slight room for doubt that the Thessalonian Epistles were written so early as is generally believed; but it cannot be over-emphasized that these chronological questions are outside and beyond what is specifically revealed in the Scriptures, and therefore must on no account be used as a basis for doctrine. But, for the sake of argument, suppose we were to accept the validity of Mr. Welch's table as evidence, and place these other epistles "dispensationally" among the Prison Epistles. We will still have gained nothing from his point of view, but just exploded his central theory. They immediately become linked to the stewardship of the Secret (as, indeed, we maintain they really are linked); and, in spite of all Dr. Bullinger's arguments about it, 1. Thess. 4:13-17 cannot possibly belong to Israel instead of us.
Why have the words specifically connected with Israel in Mr. Welch's list so relatively great a frequency in some of the earlier Pauline Epistles and in Hebrews? The answer is simple, so simple that one can only marvel at any expositor failing to see it. The Secret of Ephesians 3 comes through the Evangel of which the Apostle Paul became minister. Before anyone can receive the Secret, it is necessary that he believes Paul's Evangel. This involves a personal settlement of the great question of sin which, for the individual, means the attainment of righteousness by faith alone. This points back to Abraham, so its statement and exposition involves discussion of Abraham, Israel, the Jew, circumcision and covenant. Thus, the epistles which expound the subject use those words. How else, in fact, could they manage to consider the subject at all? The only mystery is that Mr. Welch's table was not exploded long ago.
The reason why Paul's earliest epistles are his earliest epistles is that they happen to be the first ones he wrote. The point is trite to the verge of absurdity; yet it seems to have escaped our clever dispensationalists. Yet the fact ought to be obvious, and would be except to people with a theory to be supported at all costs, that even Paul had to begin somewhere. He had a new and original body of teaching to proclaim; and he had to proclaim it to two completely different classes of people, to Jews under covenant and all it implied, to pagan Gentiles ignorant of everything else except perhaps this. Yet his task did not entail proclaiming two different evangels. Why, then, assume that the differences between his elementary and his advanced teachings involved two different callings and" dispensations"? If these differences did in fact exist, they amounted to two different evangels.
Being an eminently sane man, Paul naturally began his teaching at the beginning; and so it is that his first epistles are concerned with first principles. This does not mean that they are necessarily concerned with simple. things or with matters which appear to us to be simple. Indeed, the reverse is often the case. For example, during the last three years I have been practically forced to devote much of my labour to the study of the two earliest, 1. Thessalonians and Galatians; and the truth about the former, simple though it is on the surface, is by no means clear to everyone. Yet I would not declare that anyone epistle is simpler or easier to grasp than any other. They are parts of a set, and they interlock with one another. Consequently, to understand properly anyone of them, it is necessary to understand to some extent all the others. Certainly, we can study each one by itself. Equally certainly, we can by so doing get only part of the way to full understanding of that epistle or of the others.
Failure to comprehend and to reckon with this is the great weakness of the "dispensational" system which divides Paul's earlier epistles from his later ones. When one splits into two an entity which is complete in itself, one gets two incomplete entities—another glimpse of the obvious which is nevertheless not apparent to everybody, and plainly not apparent to Mr. Welch and his followers. It is not that they fail to see that the earlier epistles of Paul are not complete in themselves as a system of doctrine, or that the Prison Epistles need something from Romans to support them as foundation; but simply that they view the deficiencies of each set when cut off from the other as nevertheless something altogether detached from the other set. This is altogether irrational, but it is forced on them by their Acts 28:28 boundary theory. To cover both hands one needs a pair of gloves; a left hand glove on the right hand is a poor substitute for a right hand glove.
The fact is—and the "full dispensationalists" ought to try honestly to face it—that if the earlier Pauline epistles were to vanish from the world and be blotted out of the memory of mankind, the Prison Epistles would be incomprehensible. The earlier Pauline epistles themselves are necessarily in a better case. They do give an answer to the problems they pose; they fail only in the face of the question; "What do they lead up to?" For instance, the last verses of Galatians are very fine in and by themselves. Only when we read them as leading up to Ephesians, however, do we savour their full splendour. The difference is something like that between a line drawing and a painting in full colour. There is, as a matter of cold fact, very little point in them if they are themselves the summit, if they lead no further; they obviously take us to the verge of further truths, yet then break off, leaving us with neither one thing nor the other, neither full realization of celestial glories nor the previous assurance for Israel with their terrestrial glories. Any interpretation which involves such a consequence as this rules itself out.
There seems to be some sort of idea that the people who are supposed to come under the earlier epistles, but go no further, have a special calling and destiny of their own. I have yet to find stated plainly what this calling and destiny is supposed to be. Those who believe in it, or say they do, seem suspiciously cautious about defining their beliefs. Some talk about being blessed with faithful Abraham and about the celestial Jerusalem; but it never comes to anything like a carefully set out proof from the Scriptures.
My remark about "our clever dispensationalists," further back, was not meant sarcastically. The Acts 28:28 boundary line idea is clever; so clever that it has misled many of the more intelligent Bible students for a couple of generations past; but not clever enough to stand up to Scriptural examination. Where its supporters have gone wrong is in substituting a clever guess for patient examination of the facts. Guessing may seem to yield quick dividends in new understanding, but too often that is but a mirage. We are then left worse off than when we started, for we have that much more to unlearn.
Paul's epistles are a whole, an entity complete in itself, a self-contained statement of one aspect of God's revelation. Accept them as a whole, and they are clear and luminous. Attempt to edit them, and they hide their secrets instantly as a snail withdraws within its shell when touched with the finger. The great difficulty of understanding them comes from our inveterate human weakness of attempting to improve on everything which is presented to us. Few people are ever content to accept anything as it is. They must add to it, or alter it, or improve it; and therefore they manage to spoil it. To treat God's gifts as if they were unsatisfactory as given, is to insult the gift and affront the Giver.
Truth is apprehended and tested by reason. Where there is no reason, there can be no apprehension of truth.
The outstanding characteristic of most of what Paul wrote is its appeal to reason. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening chapters of Romans. There was never anything like it before. The Apostle Paul's epistles are truly timeless; for they were appropriate to the age in which he lived and they so remain with every succeeding age, as calm, almost ruthlessly calm, appeals to reason and intelligence as well as to feeling and conscience. Their outlook is completely "modern" in the best sense of that word. They stood alone among human achievements until modern physical science was born. All the Sacred Scriptures are unique and incomparable, because they alone are God's revelation of Himself in human words through human minds; but for the hard core of doctrine, so to speak, we must go to Paul. That is why those who turn away from him also turn away from all solid teaching and firm ground of thought apart from the fundamental historical basis of faith, for which we must go to the historical books. Thus, those who base their Theology on the Gospels alone, have laid the foundation well enough, yet lack the superstructure without which much of the glory and beauty and wonder of Christianity is unattainable. Such folk forget that a roofless house is apt to be a comfortless residence, especially in time of storm.
Many teachers regard John's Gospel and Epistles as the highest teaching in the Scriptures. In declaring that this is untrue I am not underrating these writings. The same would be untrue if said of Paul's Epistles or any other Scripture books. They cannot be compared in this manner; and we would not attempt such a comparison if our minds were broadened. Both direct us to the Truth. John warms our hearts with the glow of Divine Love. In the bulk of Paul's Epistles we see the pure flame of reason burning. Feeling there is, because love such as Paul had for his Lord cannot be hidden; but it is light rather than heat which gets the emphasis; and when feeling does gush out, as in most of the second Corinthian epistle, the contrast comes almost as a shock.
Thus, it is essential to emphasize two things: that Theology is a Science, and that Mr. Welch's use of his table of words is pseudo-science. Such tabulation carried out scientifically, which this is not, is part of scientific method, but it must also be scientifically used if its effect is not to prove entirely misleading.
The remark has often been made that no record exists of the fixing of the canon of the Greek Scriptures. No Council discussed it, no account is extant of its formation. Yet we cannot assert that it made itself in any sense. The only rational conclusion is that it was formed in the days of the apostles, and that its authority and its limits were approved and accepted not only by the Twelve but by Paul and the other Gentiles' apostles. By the time they passed off the scene, the canon must have been established beyond any possibility of cavil. This will partly explain, too, why none of the apocryphal Greek writings ever seriously competed for a place in the canon; though actually a glance at any of them will show the complete unfitness of even the best of them. That the canon was accepted by all the apostles is indicated by Peter's reference to Paul in his second epistle, referred to later.
If the foregoing is the truth, and I am convinced that it is, then there arises a very important corollary: that the four Gospels were written and universally accepted at a very early date, certainly within the lifetime of Paul and most of the Twelve. That the epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude were written in their lifetime goes without saying; unless, that is, they are forgeries, as the destructive critics assert or imply, though they generally take care to avoid the unpleasant word itself.
For my part, I have always contended that the Gospels were written within the first decade after Pentecost. It seems to me altogether against human nature to suppose that people waited for years and years, perhaps a whole life time, before committing these precious accounts to writing. I know well that the Holy Spirit promised to bring these things to the apostles' remembrance; but that does not affect the issue. Anyone who keeps a diary and has inadvertently missed out an entry; or anyone who has had to give evidence about something of which he has been eyewitness; knows only too well how difficult it is to recollect in detail even events which are quite recent. Even if the accounts had been written at once, the writers would have needed supernatural help to be factually absolutely accurate. However, so natural would it be to write down accounts of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus immediately after His ascension and Pentecost that the really odd phenomenon would be that none had done so, if the critics' view is the true one. I lack the simple faith to believe anything so unlikely. In the preface of his Gospel, Luke actually says that many had done this very thing. Why, then, should anyone suppose that they did not do it promptly? Can anyone imagine himself living through such stirring events (without newspapers, remember) and yet keeping no sort of record of them at the time but waiting many decades instead, till memory had eventually become dim?
Of tangible evidence there is very little. The best is the Muratorian Fragment, recorded in a MS of about the 8th Century, which, if genuine, dates from somewhere about A.D. 170. This confirms the canonical order of the four Gospels, but beyond indicating that they were written at a very early date, help us little. The testimony of Papias is more copious, but less reliable. According to Eusebius, he stated that Matthew wrote "the oracles" in Hebrew; but this is exceedingly improbable if by it is meant his Gospel.
Here, as always where no sufficient direct evidence exists, each must judge for himself. To me, the most suggestive pointer is the statement of Paul's Evangel in 1. Cor. 15:3-5. As a summary of the four Gospels it always appears to me utterly inadequate, unless Paul is taking for granted that his readers are fully familiar with them. On that assumption, but no other, the three short verses make an admirable and completely sufficient opening for the summary of the evidence for the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the wonderful treatise on its consequences, which is plainly Paul's purpose in writing them. If anyone can think out a better introduction to the remainder of the chapter, I would very much like to. know what it is, for I can imagine none.
Nothing is known of the dates of the epistles other than Paul's. The salutation from Babylon in 1. Peter 5:13 places the date of its composition some time after the last appearance of Peter in Acts and the narrative in Galatians. It would appear that Peter eventually left Jerusalem and settled with the Jews who dwelt on the Euphrates. Why, we know not but there are traditions that the remnant of the Twelve did actually disperse eventually to Jewish assemblies in the East. There is a superficial resemblance between Peter's first epistle and Ephesians which suggests that he might have been well acquainted with it, as, indeed, his remark in 2. Peter 3:15, 16 indicates. From this it seems reasonable to date both epistles somewhere in the decade following the end of Acts. Anything beyond that can only be a guess.
From the comparative scarcity in Paul's later epistles Of the words of Mr. Welch's table, it has been argued that the issues which involved so much contention in Acts and the earlier epistles were no longer live issues when the later epistles were written. Examination of the contexts where these words do occur in the later epistles strongly supports this contention, which we may accept as the truth; but with the proviso that if controversy were to have broken out again anywhere, the earlier epistles would have still stood to establish right doctrine. The contention is therefore no more than highly probable; but if it is true it carries with it a further conclusion which, so far as I know, all dispensationalists have ignored: if the contention be true of Paul's later epistles, it must be even more certainly true of James, Peter, John and Jude, in which, as already pointed out, this set of words is even more scarce, their occurrences being only five in number altogether. Therefore, if the argument has any validity at all, the inescapable conclusion from it is that all these epistles date from after Paul's arrival at Rome. So, on the time dispensation idea, they must all be "epistles of the Secret"!
Moreover, there is a further point to be made. The circumstances of those to whom James, Peter and Jude wrote are quite dissimilar to what we are told of any Jewish community in the Acts narrative. Disillusionment and even persecution seem to have been the lot of those to whom Peter wrote, and even more so in Jude, but less so in James, where the worst trouble seems to have lain in the then future (James 5:1-11). All this suggests that the chronological order of these epistles is the same as their canonical order. On the other hand, John's epistles seem quite detached from any historical situation, and for all we can tell might have been written almost any time after Pentecost.
I am not going into all these complex chronological points because I think them of much importance to us, but because others do and have made a special feature of them. Since these others have raised the issue, it may as well be dealt with rather more thoroughly than they have done; for they seem to have considered it only as it concerned their theories. On the much broader view which I have tried to take, the verdict comes definitely against their theories. What has happened here is quite a common experience. In searching for evidence to support some particular case, an item is hit upon which seems most attractive and convincing. So it is adopted, and the matter is left at that. Only when someone takes the trouble to go deeper into the subject does the real truth of it emerge and the hasty expedient lose its charm.
Dispensationalism has tended to distort our understanding of the non-Pauline epistles. The Introduction to them in the 1930 Concordant Version shows this. It is not true that "in every detail, they differ from Paul's epistles and do not apply at all to the present interval of God's gracious dealings with. the nations during Israel's temporary defection." There i& not a word in Scripture to show that they did not and do not apply during the whole of this time to those who belong to, what were the Covenant People. No time limit to their operation is specified anywhere, and certainly not the announcement to the Roman Jews in Acts 28:28. That being so, we, of all people, have no right to fix one. On the contrary, the natural and the only reasonable presumption must be that the address to the Twelve Tribes in dispersion is, valid so long as dispersion lasts. The Twelve Apostles never abandoned their circumcision, and we have no reason to' presume that any more than a minority of their followers did so either; and indeed, in an admirable paragraph, the C.V. rightly speaks of "those Pentecostal believers who remained faithful to the end."
Although these epistles differ in outlook from Paul's there are points of contact. Hebrews could well have been written by Paul as a Jew to the Jews; and indeed it is hard to believe that he had no hand in it, indirectly at least. Peter's first epistle contains many echoes of Paul; for example, in its opening words. There can be no doubt that he was, after the Jerusalem meeting, familiar with Paul's epistles, even though he never swerved one hair's breadth from his proper calling and expectation as one of the Twelve. Surely our eyes are opened enough to read the lesson from this? If Peter could profit from Paul, we in our turn can profit from Peter; and we ought to, without surrendering anything of our special standing either. If we did not need them, we would not have been given them. It is strange that those who insist on basing doctrine on the chronological order of the Greek Scriptures, which we do not know, should refuse almost contemptuously to learn any doctrine from these epistles, which we do know. In calling them "Catholic" or universal, Church tradition is manifestly wrong, but not quite so mistaken as we have tended to think. We all have much to learn from all of them.
One last, and most important point. The epistles of the Apostle Paul will not become altogether a dead letter on our departure from earth. Why, then, must we assume that Peter's did? Peter's advice in 2. Peter 3:15, 16 will still stand; and in their light Israel and Judah will behold their own coming blessings all the more brightly.
Meanwhile, an attack has been made on the understanding of the secrets which we have reached. This comes from those who hold the more extreme" dispensational" views and, as it is connected with the theme of this series, we have no choice but to consider it now.
Until this attack developed, all really believing students of Scripture took for granted that what the Apostle Paul called secrets in his earlier epistles were secrets revealed to and by him; and only sceptical theologians cared to contradict him on this point; but, unfortunately, the exponents of the "Acts 28:28 frontier" theory found the earlier secrets to be a fatal obstruction in their path. So, instead of questioning their theories, .they began to doubt Paul.
At the very outset, Dr. Bullinger unwittingly begged the whole question by stating that:—"From the time of our Lord's Ascension into heaven until the final rejection of Peter's repeated call to the nation to repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19-26) to Acts 28:25-28, God spoke 'by them that heard Him' (Heb. 2:3). These only 'confirmed' what the Son had spoken at 'the first' and did not go beyond what the Son Himself had said. No new revelation of truth was made. . . . . To these 'times' belong the Acts of the Apostles, the general epistles, and the Pauline epistles written during these same 'times,' i.e. before Acts 28:23-28." (The Foundations of Dispensational Truth, pp. 10, 11).
If this statement is true, there is nothing more to be said. The extraordinary thing about it is that a man with his knowledge of Scripture could ever have seriously advanced such a doctrine.
This classing of Paul's Epistles with the testimony "by them that heard Him" is evidently not made without some misgivings, which issue in unresolved contradictions; for on p. 88 of this book we are informed that Paul joined his testimony with that of the Twelve, and on p. 31 that he had a special commission to do so. It reads as if we were expected to visualize Paul and Peter speaking on the same platform. Who on reading these things could imagine that there is not even a hint of them in Scripture? Nowhere are we told that Paul confirmed the teaching of the Twelve. Just what was his ministry in the synagogues can be seen by simply reading Acts. I am not trying to suggest that it contradicted, or even differed widely from, that of the Twelve, but simply that it was an independent ministry carried out independently. This is by no means an artificial distinction. To confirm something declared by another is to accept a subsidiary position, to be prepared to fol1ow and to support the testimony of someone else, namely, the Twelve. Where does Paul do such a thing? Nowhere.
The second part of the statement, that Paul did not go beyond the teaching of the Twelve, is as false as the first. This is admitted in the remark on p. 91 about Paul's earlier epistles:—". . . while recognizing the similarity of his testimony to that of the Twelve, we must be prepared for seeing some advance and development in his teaching in view of his special can as a minister of the Gentiles." How anybody can make some advance on something and yet not go beyond it is a puzzle. Indeed, in connection with 1. Thess. 4:13-17, Dr. Bullinger speaks on p. 97 of "a further revelation of truth as to this hope—a truth which the Twelve could not reveal." Such contradictions are impossible to resolve.
Those who support such teaching are wilful1y shutting their eyes to plain facts. Nearly fifty years have rolled by since the "Acts 28:28 frontier" theory was first put forward in "Things to Come." At one time some thought that it would fall to the ground through sheer lack of Scriptural support, but this was contrary to the experience of the ages; for, to date, the only effect of criticism on the bulk of the exponents of the theory has been to drive them to develop some of its features on even more extravagant lines; the most extraordinary being that the visit of the Lord recorded in Acts 26:13-18 is not that of Acts 9, but a subsequent one with a subsequent commission. At first sight the theory seemed a simple and attractive solution of many problems. We now perceive that it was an over-simplification which, as always, brought into being fresh complications. What saved the situation for many of us was the realization that Ephesians was built upon the foundation laid in Romans and Galatians, and that the Apostle Paul revealed several secrets besides that of Eph. 3:6-12.
The secrets in the earlier epistles constituted a fatal objection to the theory. This difficulty was the theme of two papers in The Berea:q Expositor, Vol. 29, pp. 64 and 105, which attempted to prove that these secrets were real1y nothing new or novel, that they were in agreement with the Hebrew Scriptures and that they did not go beyond them. Mr. Welch also adopted an interpretation of Acts 26:22 which compelled him to take this view. This he discusses in The Berean Expositor, Vol. 28, p. 65, which we must first examine.
After some quotations from the wider contexts of Acts 26:22, he comes to the conclusion that: "On the surface it appears that the Apostle intended to convey quite literal1y that up to the time of his imprisonment in Caesarea his ministry had been but the legitimate expansion of Old Testament prophecy. . ."
"Up to the time of his imprisonment in Caesarea." Everything depends on these words; for if they are true, the Apostle Paul's statement that certain disclosures made by him before this date were secrets must be untrue. Curiously enough, just over a year before, Mr. A. E. Knoch drew attention to this passage as one which he had used many years before on some what similar lines, until he discovered for himself that he had been in error in so doing. In this paper (Unsearchable Riches, Vol. 28, p. 3) he clears up the difficulty and, incidentally, throws some light on the origin of the "Acts 28:28 frontier" theory. He points out that in a dilemma of this sort "the only safe way is, not to abandon one passage for al1 the rest, not to make it fit our ideas, but to examine it more carefully"—words which deserve to be engraved in golden letters!
The reader must be referred to Mr. Knoch's excellent paper for full details. Here it is only necessary to take his advice and simply read Acts 26:21, 22 as they stand, without prejudice. There Paul's words are recounted by Luke plainly enough. As Mr. Knoch says:—"What time is brought before us here? From the time that the Jews tried to lay hands on him. Then it was that he had assistance from God. . ."
How, then, does Mr. Welch manage to extract from the narrative so different an impression? Quite simply. First he quotes v. 21. Then he discusses the charge brought against Paul by the Jews. Then, having allowed the reader time to switch his mind away from v. 21, he quotes v. 22 and then talks about the teaching of the earlier epistles. But Paul was not engaged in writing epistles in that emergency, but in a verbal defence (witnessing, saying). The two. clever "red herrings" are effective enough to mislead any reader of p. 66 of Mr. Welch's paper unless he is careful to keep in mind that v. 22 follows immediately on v. 21. It is all done by suggestion.
Mr. Knoch, also. initially misled, was teachable; and he perceived the facts as soon as he came to. examine the account more carefully. Another fine extract from his paper reads thus:—"In fact the deeper we get into Paul's early epistles the more we discover truth which is far beyond Moses and the prophets." In his paper he presents an outstanding example of true and sound Scripture study. Mr. Welch, however, was bound fast to his frontier theory, so he was not teachable, and therefore could not perceive the facts. The present disastrous condition of Christians as a whole results largely from the way the great majority follow the latter wholly bad example. There is nothing in Acts to hinder our belief that what Paul called "secrets" in his early epistles actually were secrets; and, indeed, why should there be? So we are free to examine the attempted proofs that these secrets are, "in agreement with the O.T. Scriptures" (The Berean Expositor, Vol. 29, p. 65), and do not go beyond them.
Suppose the Apostle Paul had not written Rom. 11:25, 26; Can anyone honestly claim that he would have been able to deduce it from the passages quoted above? Where is "until the complement of the Gentiles may be entering" to be found in them, either singly or taken together? Nowhere.
And suppose Paul had never written any of Romans 11. What mortal man would have been ingenious enough to assemble these four passages together on his own account in order to deduce Romans 11 from them?
"In Romans 16 we have 'graphOn prophEtikOn,' 'writings prophetic,' and in 2. Peter 1:19 'prophEtikon logon,' 'prophetic word.' In the latter passage we are not left in doubt as to whether this 'prophetic word' was uttered by O.T. or N.T. prophets, for the inspired comment reads:—For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost' (2. Peter 1:21). As this is the only other occurrence of 'prophEtikon,' we feel bound to accept the view that the word refers definitely to the O.T. writers." (The Berean Expositor, Vol. 29, pp. 67, 68).
Now the writer of this must have known perfectly well that prophets existed at the time both Paul and Peter wrote (1. Car. 12:28, Eph. 4:11-16); as he himself stated on his p 67. In Rom. 16:26 Paul says, "yet manifested now through scriptures prophetic." "Now" (nun) is a word of unambiguous meaning. Its first occurrence, Matt. 24:21, is surely plain enough to convince anyone. Are we to believe that "O.T. prophets" continued to exist up to the time Paul wrote Romans?
The argument—such as it is—rests on the words "in old time." The Greek for this is "pote," which the C.V. renders "Once, some time, at any time." I cannot find any version which supports the palpable mistranslation of the A.V. here. The Companion Bible corrects to "at any time," so Dr. Bullinger would not have supported this extraordinary teaching.
After this, it is hardly surprising to read that "the reconciliation of the Gentile was never a secret." The passages in the Hebrew Scriptures which Paul is supposed to be quoting or speaking of in Rom. 5:10; 11: 5 and 2. Cor. 5:18-21 are not listed, which is a pity.
Let us try to be realistic about all this. God did permit even the carnal Corinthians to have one of His most glorious secrets, that of the Resurrection. One would have thought that so captivating a prospect would have fired the imagination of all who heard and sharpened their appetite to learn more. Some were fit to receive more; and possibly, as they were mature, Paul had been permitted to disclose privately to them even the revelations of Ephesians. No doubt, many more took to heart the exhortations and sharp reproofs in the two epistles and went on to maturity; but in all probability the majority then were like the majority now, unable or unwilling to grow up from spiritual babyhood.
In this connection we would do well to examine 1. Cor.
2:9, which is an altered quotation from Isa. 64:4.
A tentative concordant rendering is:—
This is not in any sense a foreshadowing in the Hebrew Scriptures of Ephesians. The context of the passage quoted is the coming of the Lord in great power against His adversaries. The subject of the corresponding passage in the Structure of this section of Isaiah (Isa. 62:1-7) is His coming in blessing—the very culmination of the prophecy—yet the prophet's words fall far short of the glory of the reality; and so the Holy Spirit indicates that even greater glories await His people. That being so, how eminently suitable and to the point is Paul's expanded quotation of Isaiah's words! The glories he is about to disclose in the Prison Epistles exceed those to, which Isaiah refers as the celestial exceeds the terrestrial; yet both these unheard and unperceived heights of grandeur are above and beyond mere human words, and can be indicated only by a promise set out in this wondrous form.
This quotation gives an unexpected point of contact between the celestial glories which Paul was about to reveal and the Hebrew revelation of future terrestrial glories; a connection which is worked out still further in the fifteenth chapter, which we will consider next. While' the Prison Epistles of the Apostle Paul display something altogether new and altogether higher than any previous revelation; yet they are part of the totality of God's plan for the universe, a plan which includes all His creation in its scope. When we see the mountain peaks floating ethereally above the clouds in a dazzling glory of light, it is well that we should not forget their firm basis on, and their relation to, the lowlands around them.
We are told that the original reads:—"MustErion humin legO, a mystery to you I speak," and the suggestion is made that this should be translated as a question corresponding to that in Luke 16:9:—"Am I telling you a secret?" The Greek in Luke 16:9 is rendered literally: "And I to you am saying"; but in 1. Cor. 15:51 it is:—"Be-perceiving secret to-you I-am-saying." The form of words is quite different and precludes this suggested translation. Evidently the word "idou," "behold" or "be perceiving" was overlooked.
We can safely lay down as a principle that such statements are not to be taken as questions unless the form of th,e Greek itself indicates that a question is intended.
The Secret of the Resurrection cannot be got rid of in this way. Even if there were a question, the answer would have to be " Yes"; for it is indeed a secret. If not, where is it to be found in earlier Scriptures? In 1. Thessalonians 4? Well, even then, that is an earlier Pauline epistle like 1. Corinthians; so this does not help. Where is the revelation of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures?
If the matters discussed in 1. Corinthians are not largely, and in some parts entirely, a new revelation, why does Paul set them out at such length? Why does he not refer his readers to the Hebrew Scriptures, as he does to a considerable extent in Romans 9 to 11? "But," it may be retorted, "you have been telling us that Rom. 11:25-32 is a secret; yet you are now admitting that these three chapters consist largely of quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures. Why is this so, if the end is actually the disclosure of a secret?"
The answer is quite simple. This particular secret is unique, in that it is chiefly concerned with Israel. It is the secret of the duration of Israel's insensitiveness. It is the point of contact of Israel's affairs with those of the complement of the Gentiles. In these three chapters, Israel's part is in connection with their failures, so what Paul says about these failures has to be supported by a string of quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures. Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that what we are told about the duration of Israel's insensitiveness is something NEW. And, as this is true of a secret which chiefly concerns Israel (even though it is of vital importance to us); how much more true must it be of the: secret of 1. Cor. 15:50-54 which chiefly concerns ourselves?
To be completely frank, the notion that the Apostle Paul's earlier epistles contain nothing beyond what the Prophets and Moses said is simply monstrous. Why anybody should want to tear the very heart out of these epistles is a complete mystery. We do not exalt Paul by disparaging Peter, nor the Prison Epistles by disparaging the rest of the Greek Scriptures. On the contrary, we undermine both.
We are asked:—"Is the 'Church' within the testimony of the Law and the Prophets?" The proviso is added:—"By the Church here we mean, of course, the church of the early Acts and Paul's earlier epistles, not the church of the One Body as revealed in Ephesians." It is correctly pointed out that "the inclusion of the saved Gentiles into the ekklesia was explained by James as being quite consistent with the testimony of the prophets (Acts 15:14-18)."
Where the fallacy appears is in the assumption that "the church" must be composed either of Jews or of Gentiles; in fact, that there is one single exclusive entity at any time which, at that particular moment, is either a Jewish or a Gentile church. This is all wrong. The Twelve and their adherents in Jerusalem when Paul went there existed at the same time as, and were just as much a church as, the Christians of Thessalonica or Galatia; but they were not (as the latter were) members of that particular assembly which is called in figure "the body"; for in that assembly there is neither Jew nor Gentile. THAT church is not within the testimony of the Law or the prophets.
No apology need be offered for discussing this remarkable chain of special pleading at such length. As an example of the excesses to which an earnest student and teacher may be driven, entirely through being hag-ridden by an unsound. preconceived theory, it must become a classic. Negatively, we get from it a most instructive lesson in how not to study the Scriptures. Positively, the refutation of error, as always, has thrown new light on the passages discussed. Whichever way we look on the matter, it is all pure gain.
Candour compels me to confess that I do not know nearly so much about the secrets as some of the writers I have quoted suppose they do. Yet against this must be set the fact that nobody is even within sight of mastering a subject until he has discovered how much there is about it which he does not know. Those who in actual fact know little about a subject invariably over-simplify part of it and over-complicate the rest. In existing studies of the secrets this tendency is very evident. The "dispensationalists" have practically telescoped all the secrets into Ephesians 3. This is over-simplification; and the result has been to over-complicate the Secret of Eph. 3:6-12 until in practise it overshadows everything else in the Prison Epistles. May I dare to suggest that there are other secrets in Paul's Epistles as well as those we have been discussing? Perhaps, even, these other secrets may be more important. Perhaps not. Until we know more, we simply must not try to prejudge the matter, as some in point of fact have done.
That we should want to find such an excuse is by no means. altogether an unhealthy sign. It is an implied admission that all is not well with our faith, our standard of Christian obedience, our love for our Lord and one another, in short, with ourselves. We are terribly far from being what we ought to be; yet, thank God, we have as yet not fallen so far as we might have done. Some of us, at least, are acutely conscious of our failings and deficiencies, and so long as such consciousness is not completely suppressed by the complacent majority there always remains the possibility that the Spirit of God may once again breathe on the Church and waken it to fresh life.
If this is to happen in our time we must do all we can to avoid falling into the trap of expecting more than we ought. That mistake has done more to spoil past revivals than any other single thing. Such over-optimism is as deadly as undue pessimism, perhaps more deadly. It wrecks our balance. No unbalanced person, or movement, can possibly produce anything good or useful in the long run. Once a leader or a movement is infected with unreasoning optimism, catastrophe is within sight, as with a man on a bolting horse or a canoe in a cataract. With loss of self-control goes loss of any control of events.
During the last century the general fashion has been to talk of "progress," the implication being that provided we keep on the move all will be well with us. This is a typical example of that most deadly of all errors, the half-truth. The value of progress depends solely on the direction in which we are progressing. In the decade before each of the two world-wars, strong and steady progress was made in the world. During each period most people thought that it was progress towards peace and prosperity. We know now, only too well, that it was progress towards disaster. Yet, somehow, we always feel that it will be different next time; and we go on clinging to our false optimism.
This fatal delusion permeates the churches. The majority of Christians, real or nominal, are dazzled by the notion of progress. Their numbers are falling, their influence waning, their standards declining; yet the complacent majority shut their eyes tight to realities. Like the sundial, they count only the sunny hours. "The Gospel has lost its appeal? No matter; we will find something else-a grand temperance movement, a crusade against the curse of gambling; or, positively, 'social justice' whatever that may be, or the United Nations, or what not." That is their cry. These are the will-o'-the-wisps which mislead them from the path set out by God in this era, and ensure that they will accomplish no real and effective service for Him.
Historical consideration of the Greek Scriptures. loses half its value if it fails to serve as a guide for present times; yet its full value is all the greater because our circumstances differ from those of the Pauline churches enormously, but only in outward appearance. On. the surface present conditions are widely different from those of the first century; but the surprising feature of it all is the unimportance, from the spiritual point of view, of the gulf which the vast scientific and technological advances of our age has produced. The only effective difference is the absence of apostles; this fact being established by the Apostle Paul's definite disclosure that he and his colleagues were the last apostles (1. Cor. 4:9). And, be it noted, not the last prophets. Even with our scanty knowledge of the history of the saints who have lived and died in this era leaving so little record on the pages of human archives, we can perceive a few who have stood out in this way. Their function has not been to reveal fresh disclosures of God's purposes. This was done, and completed, by the Apostle Paul. Their twofold mission has been to uncover and recover forgotten or neglected truth and to warn those who have unknowingly set their feet on the path of declension and apostasy. As so often in Israel's history, this latter prophetic duty has won bitter hatred and persecution. The warning has nearly always gone unheeded, and the prophet who has faithfully delivered it cast out as a reviler. Sin-stricken human nature has not changed through the centuries. Yet it is a fearful thing to stone the prophets of the living God, whose only offence is that they have set His truth first.
Yet we ought not to be surprised at the character of the train which emerged, for it had already been prophesied. The emerging Church of Ecclesiastical History has been set plainly before our eyes in the first seven of the eight parables of Matthew 13, which show stages in the development of what the Kingdom appears to be like in this age. Many have objected most strongly to the idea of the Kingdom of God being at any time so faulty a thing as Christendom; but that is not quite the point. These parables do not say anything about what the Kingdom IS, but what it is LIKE. Their theme is its outward appearance. If we bear in mind the following facts our repugnance to the idea ought to vanish. First, under present conditions there is nothing out of the way in permitting those who claim membership to appear outwardly to be members of the Kingdom. These may be darnel or they may be wheat. The settlement of which is not for us during the present time. The second is the fact that the bulk of true Christians are members of the apostate churches. Those who have a form of sound words which they hear from Paul constitute a small minority, so small that on the criterion of numbers it does not count in any degree worth speaking of. The third is that our title to all spiritual blessings among the celestials does not depend. on our knowledge and understanding of Paul's Epistles but on the fact that God chooses, us. If God had to make do with the miserably ineffective service of the few enlightened saints, His cause would indeed be in a bad way. It is an immense comfort to us that, like Elijah, we are not alone; but that many who know nothing of us and of what we could give them of light and joy are our brethren and fellow-servants. Yet it is also a standing reproach to us that this state of affairs should continue to exist and, still more, that we should seemingly be so well satisfied with it.
The train which disappeared, simply disappeared! That is all. The mystery is why we should be surprised; we who have been permitted to look into the marvellous revelations of the Apostle Paul. What else could we expect? The conspicuous figures of world-history have been those whose aim was to influence the world. Even for Israel the place of visible domination for which they are ultimately destined has been denied to them in this era. Why then should we, whose destiny is celestial, expect to be prominent in world-history? Ought we to be surprised that we are, in practice, a secret people as well? We have and can have no place, no standing, in a sphere which is so alien from our own. The church which is the body of Christ disappeared from history because it never was in history!
If anyone should demur to this unexpected proposition, its correctness can easily be tested. Where in any historical record is the church which received Paul's Evangel to be' found? Not in the Gospels. Not in Acts. Not in the Revelation. And not in secular history. Acts could not possibly say less about the Pauline churches than it does, without defeating two of its main objects: the presentation of the history of the unlocking of the Kingdom by the Apostle Peter and the history of the witness to the Jews by the Apostle Paul. The latter wrote his epistles to these Gentile churches" but of their history he could not say less than he does. The epistles to Hebrews and by James, Peter, John and Jude throw no light at all on this matter. We have no history of the church which is Christ's body because no history of it exists on earth.
This was true at the start and it remains true to this day. Of the visible church we know an immense amount. Of the small groups which from time to time stood by Pauline doctrine practically all we know comes from their bitter enemies. A few great names stand out here and there, Wiclif and the other reformers, Bunyan, Wesley, and one or two more; but of the others we know almost nothing. A little of the history of the Brethren has been preserved, mainly of their high hopes at first and the schisms which later made them a byword. Little else remains. In no essential do our present circumstances differ from those in the Prison Epistles save one only, as already mentioned, that we have no apostles. The first Corinthian epistle was Pentecostal; so in that respect, but that only, it was very different. Of the other early epistles, not even that can be affirmed; and anyhow, we need the instruction in 1. Corinthians as much now as did those to whom it was written.
The model service of the Thessalonians comes under
We have no right to expect to carry out a service, to hold a position, which is not for us. Yet we, that is Christians in general, have expected it, and in general still do; and that is basically the cause of our schisms and sorrows.
Why do movements of revival fail, as they invariably do fail? The answer is that their leaders do not manage to establish a right objective and never maintain what objective they have for long. They may put first things first, at the start; but soon they go off after side issues and false trails. They have always lacked balance. What history there is of the true church follows the same monotonous pattern through the centuries. A gleam of light appears. At last it seems that a genuine forward movement is about to begin. Then the nominal, visible church captures the movement and its momentum is lost almost at once, or else the movement dissipates itself in relative trivialities or in personal rivalries.
We see the dominant importance of this balanced sense of proportion in the Apostle Paul. He never failed to make a clean, instantaneous cut between the essential and the unessential. To this day Paul's writings are as fresh and precise and truly scientific in form and content as the best scientific monographs and books ever written. So is Hebrews, but the other epistles are different. Their aim is devotional rather than doctrinal: to help, cheer, sustain and support in their trials the Hebrew Christians to whom they were primarily addressed. For this purpose the scientific Pauline mind was not needed; yet we must not on any account deduce from this that they are inferior. We do not expect a racehorse to draw the heavy loads which are usual for a carthorse, and it is always rather ludicrous when a carthorse decides to gallop. In other words, it is wrong and absurd to attempt to compare things which are not comparable, as when Luther rated James' Epistle inferior to Romans. We do no service to Science when we regard with contempt activities which are good or beautiful rather than learned and aimed at ascertaining truth. Yet it is no accident that the birth of Science at the Renaissance coincided with rediscovery of the Apostle Paul.
Our modern worship of Science is not in general actuated by love of knowledge and wisdom for their own sake so much as by a desire for the material benefits which Science is sup posed always to confer. Already there are signs of increasing difficulty in carrying out any research of no apparent immediate use rather than for some definite gain previously envisaged; and there never has been a time when the pursuit of some unorthodox line of research has been free from risk to reputation of the researcher. Thus, though the Apostle Paul ought to appeal with special force to the scientific mind, he is no more popular at present than he ever has been.
The moment we leave the Scriptures we plunge into the depths. There is not a single apocryphal gospel or epistle, not a single commentary by the so-called Fathers, which can bear even the most superficial comparison with any of the canonical Scriptures. Their writers had nothing new to say; and said nothing new except, too often, the most childish drivel. To the modern-minded they are simply unreadable. They are dated. They belong to a world which, to us, is as unreal as a ,dream. Yet in fairness it should be borne in mind that these foolish men were attempting the impossible. Modern efforts to improve on Scripture are no better. I have been shown a fabricated "Acts 29" which would deceive only those who want at all costs to be deceived; being obviously tendentious and hopelessly out of keeping with the style and spirit as well as the whole purpose of Acts. Leaving aside the exceeding difficulty of convincingly forging an ancient document, the materials and style of writing, a little reflection will show how impossible it is to add anything even plausible to the Scriptures.
Not till we come to the noted ecclesiastical philosophers such as Aquinas do we make any sort of progress in knowledge; and then it is not scientific, but purely philosophical, and theologically far from sound as a rule. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul's Epistles are wholly modern in outlook.
Because we have got accustomed to the many odd ideas and practises which masquerade as Christianity, we do not easily perceive their incompatibility with the truth of the Evangel. only when such books as Hislop's "The Two Babylons" or the works of G. H. Pember come into our hands, wherein these aberrations are assembled and exposed for what they are, do we come face to face with the facts; and the shock is always severe. Or, from the other side, we may meet with "Rationalist" books which expose the pagan and idolatrous character of what they (no doubt honestly) regard as Christian practises. The tragedy of it all is that the hostile books of this type turn many away from Christianity itself instead of from the perversion which passes for it. The blame rests on us in part, but mainly on our predecessors who failed in their duty. If only our leaders and our greatest students had applied themselves to their mission with the same good sense as most of them managed their worldly and business affairs, how different our position would be. But the sons of this eon are more prudent, for their own generation, than the sons of light (Luke 16:8).
Dispensationalism has been a fruitful concept, and it has led us to appreciation of truths which we might otherwise have missed; but because it was from the very start linked up with the notion of time-boundaries, it was never free from error. By eliminating this notion we have freed what is true in Dispensationalism from the admixture of error, and we are left secure with the clear-cut concepts of Covenant and Reigning grace, circumcision and uncircumcision.
On account of the time error which interpenetrated it, the development of Dispensationalism was by no means an unmixed good. It brought about a division or cutting of the Word of Truth which was neither right nor correct, a division on a basis of times and eras instead of the correct distinction between God's various callings. Right away, It threw Kingdom truth out of gear. Presently its exponents pursued their theory to its logical conclusion—and far beyond; so that they have presented us with the extraordinary spectacle of the majority of Paul's epistles for all practical purposes on the scrap heap as regards ourselves. Some even appear to have thrown out Philippians. These men have succeeded to a very large extent in blinding themselves to the disastrous con sequences of this progressive shedding of Paul's epistles. They have not, however, managed to blind Christians outside their very restricted circle; or all their own adherents. From time to time critics of such teachings have pointed out a tendency in them towards antinomianism—opposition or indifference to God's holy Law; yet as a general rule the critics themselves have been so evidently enslaved to legalism of the worst kind that they have only reinforced the self satisfaction of those whom they have criticised.
Recently God has raised up within our own ranks critics. of another serious failing which has appeared among us, a really terrifying fatalism. This is not necessarily the same as antinomianism, but it arises from the same causes; for if it does not matter whether we lead godly lives or no, it does not matter much what we do, anyhow.
Now is the time to come to our senses! We are at length delivered from what is erroneous in Dispensationalism; so we have got back what we have lost by it, and in particular we have got back the Thessalonian Epistles.
I dare to affirm that these Thessalonian Epistles are the very high-water mark of Scripture! The Prison Epistles take us up to our spiritual blessings among the celestials; but 1. Thessalonians takes us up to the only conduct of living becoming in those whose expectation is so exalted. The Prison Epistles disclose the glory awaiting us, but this discloses what ought to be our response. The Prison Epistles are filled with all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge, but this indicates the corresponding love and service which these should evoke. Not for nothing do the Thessalonian Epistles come immediately after Colossians in the canonical order of Scripture, any more than do the practical exhortations in Ephesians and Colossians. follow at random their splendid disclosures of celestial glory. That "knowledge puffs up, yet love builds up" (1. Cor. 8:1) is profoundly true. We have made tremendous advances in knowledge. That we have failed to make the corresponding advance in love and consequent service is all too plain. What has happened is that we have stopped short at Colossians and cut out Thessalonians from our spiritual curriculum. The result is that instead of being a power-house of spiritual activity and a force to reckon with, as the Thessalonian church was, even in a largely indifferent world; we are an insignificant sect, rent with schism and entirely without influence. And yet some of us have the sheer effrontery to affect to despise the Thessalonian Epistles as Jewish! May God forgive them!
"I am aware of thy works, that a name thou hast that thou art living—and thou art dead." These words to the church of Sardis are terribly true of us, except perhaps that we are hardly managing to preserve even the illusion of being alive. Fifty years ago, Dr. Bullinger was able to maintain "Things to Come" in Britain. Only recently could we make a start, and it is a severe struggle to keep going. There is no demand for what we seek to give; and even if our efforts were incomparably worthier, in present conditions they would be no more prosperous. Certain lowly organisms of the s:>a stay anchored to a rock awaiting any food which passing currents may wash within their reach. Most of us behave likewise. We may condescend to absorb what little of Christian literature, coming our way, which happens to suit our taste at the moment; and that is all. Most users of the Concordant Version care so little, one way or the other, that they cannot even be bothered to consider whether the carefully documented charges of inaccuracy against it are justified, even where this investigation involves no more than ability to understand simple English. This means, in plain words, that to most of them it does not matter one straw whether or not they really have the truth of God's holy Word.
Unless we can recover the Thessalonian spirit we are, so far as God's service in this world is concerned, dead and damned. We are in such a state of decline as to amount to almost complete failure; but let us not forget for one instant that it is OUR FAILURE, not God's, and that the special light which has been given to us makes our failure inexcusable. And let us not forget that our sin is spiritual failure, to be judged and condemned by our supremely glorious standing in spirit. We have to expect failure in earthly things, but we sin horribly in consenting to failure in spiritual things.
At last we have come fairly close to the essence of that concept known as "Dispensational Truth"; and there may now be opening before us another opportunity, perhaps our last. Are we, individually and collectively, big enough to sink our personal rivalries and grasp it? For we are potentially in a splendid position. We can now present a synthesis of truth and bridge the gap between those who have followed Dispensationalism and those who have shrunk from its novelty. After some fifty years it has at last become possible to reunite around the real fundamentals. It is not "Can we do it?" but "Will we?" Before us opens a vista of tremendous service if we go ahead, or of deep shame when we meet our Lord if we draw back.
With this agree all the Greek Scriptures. The accounts in the Gospels all look forward to the Cross and are consummated in the Resurrection and Ascension. Acts, the Epistles and the Revelation are all based on it and on the Resurrection. Yet they are not based only on an event of past history, over and done with. They would be meaningless apart from that event, they are meaningless if that event is a finished story. Acts begins by linking its narrative firmly to the past, to what had already been narrated in Luke's Gospel. Then it briefly summarizes the Lord's instruction for future action and His ascension on completing this instruction. Then, before the action of the history begins, comes the promise of His return; a specific intimation that in His own time He will once again personally, and on this occasion finally, intervene to resolve all problems and to settle all controversies during the coming eons.
In our first chapter, it was pointed out that Acts does not end, but tail off, leaving every question but one unanswered; but this is by no means peculiar to Acts. Suppose everything in the Greek Scriptures but the Gospels were to be blotted out of memory and from all written records. Could it possibly be claimed that our resultant state would be anything but unsatisfying and unsatisfactory? Israel's long-promised Messiah would indeed have come—and with every possible act of hatred, cruelty and contempt cast out of the world He created, to rise again from the dead and ascend to heaven of His own will. Matthew's Gospel would still end with a statement, an order and a promise; but in the absence of anything else these would have been a somewhat thin support for the 1900 years or more which were to ensue. In the time and place for its proper final working-out, towards the close of the eon and in the land of Israel, the closing words of Matthew will be a grand inspiration for the disciples of the Lord Jesus. So will the ending of Mark, the last words of which imply further events to come. Similarly, Luke implies Acts and John implies a subsequent shepherd ministry and the coming again of the Lord Jesus.
Hebrews and the epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude likewise are incomplete in themselves. They too look forward to the return of the Lord Jesus and the fulfilment of God's promises in Him, to the New Covenant in Hebrews, to the presence of the Lord in James (5:7), to eonian glory after brief suffering in 1. Peter (5:10) and a new heaven and earth in 2. Peter (3:13). The outlook of John's Epistles is beyond this eon. Likewise, Paul's Epistles have their only hope and find their only completion in the presence of the Lord and our putting on immortality and incorruptibility and celestiality when He shall rouse and change us. Finally, the Revelation is largely, if not wholly, of the future; and it directs us with emphasis in its last words to His coming. If that were a vain hope, this book would be what the hostile critics imply it is a mere will-o'-the-wisp leading only to disappointment and death.
Because of the sense of incompleteness which is inherent in this eon, expositors have sought to construct "dispensational" systems to relate it with the earlier history recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures and with the eon to come. As exhaustively demonstrated in Chapter 14, such systems are artificial (See Vol. 12, p. 219). In their one-sidedness they raise more difficulties than they overcome. . A concordant study of the word "oikonomia" would have shown dispensationalists that such a stretching of it is unscriptural, and therefore unnecessary as well as unsound. If only they had avoided this pitfall and held firmly to the natural division which, because it is natural, is the only possible right division of the Word of Truth; they would have avoided the blind alley which has diverted so much of their attention and wasted so much of the energies of us all. For we all have to some extent gone astray here.
There is nothing novel in the main idea put forward in these chapters. . As far back as 1901 Dr. Bullinger himself enunciated it, though in a less explicit way. Our clearer understanding has been achieved through the subsequent experiences of error. Regarding the Epistle to Hebrews he wrote (Things to Come, Vol. 7, p. 99):
"It is written 'for our learning,' but it is not addressed to us . . . Of course, with those who believe that the day of Pentecost was the birthday of the Church, we shall have another difficulty. . . No such statement is found in the Acts of the Apostles. On the contrary, we find Peter exercising his ministry to the Nation, and using 'the keys of the kingdom' to open it to his own People, and to the Gentiles."
Here we have, set out perfectly plainly, the truth about the keys of the Kingdom which has so long been lost to us. Unfortunately, its implications were not appreciated, and its working-out was clouded with misapprehensions. What held Dr. Bullinger back from the logical—and Scriptural—conclusions from what he was then teaching was the difficulty which has always confronted us, namely, how two incompatible evangels can exist together and be in force simultaneously, as it then appeared that they must have been during the period covered by Acts.
Hitherto, everyone who has had the honesty and courage to face the problem at all has attempted to solve it by chopping time in this eon into "dispensations" or economies. Unfortunately, nobody ever noticed that Dr. Bullinger had been indicating the solution, although he had been unaware of the fact. Instead, he had become more and more obsessed with time boundaries and more and more oblivious of the fresh set of problems—insoluble ones, too—which his obsession introduced. Yet the strange thing is that the "dispensational" solution of the original difficulty is an illusion. The simultaneous existence of two incompatible evangels is just as difficult to explain whether they co-exist for forty days or forty years. Unless the supposed dispensational break at Acts 28:28 was instantaneous, so that it inaugurated a sudden and complete fresh start, it could not in any circumstances provide a real solution of the problem. Also, arrangements would have had to be made for an instantaneous break at the future ending of the so-called "dispensation of the Secret." Such a break is, in fact, given by 1. Thess. 4:13-17; but the extreme dispensationalists oddly enough are not able to avail themselves, of it because their time boundary compels them to eliminate 1. Thessalonians from their "dispensation of the Secret."
We have seen in the foregoing chapters that it is not possible to date from Acts 28:28 the fresh start involved in the Evangel of the uncircumcision. This evangel is explicitly so called in Galatians, written well before Acts 28:28; and the Secret comes through Paul's Evangel, which is the same evangel, but with a different emphasis. No precise moment of time can be defined for its starting point either. Even the call of Paul cannot be so regarded, for it is an undated part of a series of events. All we can affirm is that the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah 6 in Matthew 13 inaugurated this train of events which made Paul's Evangel possible. Thus, wherever we may put the required dispensational time division, we cannot escape the problem of the two incompatible evangels.
Then why not abandon dispensationalism, as suggested in the foregoing chapters, and with it these artificial time boundaries and the highly complicated schemes which they engender? They appear necessary only because we insist on a time preconception. Is there no other way of getting over the apparent fact that the Evangels of the circumcision and of the uncircumcision overlapped in time?
Yes, there is, as we have already seen in earlier chapters. This appearance of an overlap is due solely to the way we insist on searching for time boundaries. Naturally, we find them, because we are determined to do so. Certainly, some sort of overlapping is apparent. Even in metropolitan Rome, some five years after Paul's epistle was written to the Romans, Jews existed there who were willing to listen to Paul while yet unaware of the very existence of his Evangel. And is it not perfectly well known to us that at this present moment the vast majority of Christians are equally unaware of it, for all practical purposes, at any rate? All the more, then, must the overwhelming majority of the Jews be unaware of it also! Yet these facts do not affect the ruling fact that Paul's Evangel is the one and only evangel for to-day and has been ever since Paul received it, and that the hour will come—we know not when, whether to-morrow or centuries hence—for it to be displaced by the Evangel of the circumcision, for reigning grace to be displaced by covenant.
We find God's righteousness, and therefore the righteousness of His Kingdom, in Paul's Evangel in Romans; but always wholly free from covenant. We do not find it in anything specifically of covenant until, in Hebrews 8, we teach the conclusion of the New Covenant. When and where God's Law is inscribed on His people's hearts, then and there is righteousness in covenant and in its sign circumcision. And it ought to be noted, too, that faith does not come into this covenant relationship at all; for faith vanishes in the fulness of that complete knowledge and open-eyed trust which results from such complete communion with God as the terms of the New Covenant imply.
On the other hand, we do not find the fulness of Paul's Evangel even in Romans. The foundation with much of the superstructure is there; but the crown and completion of it in the Secret has to await the revelation in Ephesians. Thus there is a considerable element of truth in the idea of a period of transition. The Event of all History, the Cross, must needs have made a profound change in everything. But it was not "dispensational" as we have hitherto understood the word. It was too far-reaching for that.
Once we put time-boundaries in their place, as secondary considerations, and concentrate our attention on the real dichotomy, Israel or Gentiles, covenant obligation or freedom from covenant, all real difficulties dissolve. We are then able to adjust matters according to their setting in circumstance, which need not be the same as their setting in time; and where a clear lead is absent, we must refrain from dogmatism. We possess all we really need to know; what is not disclosed to us already is no business of ours. This sway from covenant to noncovenant and back again is the true solution, not dispensations of clear-cut times. Does it really matter just when Ephesians conditions came into force? Has it ever really mattered? Surely, what does matter is that from Matt. 13:14, 15 on, conditions had changed fundamentally, even though no man till Paul knew fully how they had changed or was aware that the ascendency of covenant had ceased? If this means that the ascendency of uncircumcision had begun, why not? The circumstance that nobody was aware that a new calling had come into being makes no difference; and even now, though reigning-grace is in force, we cannot declare that its end is not very near, and that there are not children now living who are destined for salvation, not as members of the body, but in circumcision, to receive the New Covenant eventually.
For many minds where the difficulty arises is that God was still dealing with Israel after the declaration in Matt. 13:14, 15. But why not? We have to keep in mind that the whole drama of history disclosed in Scripture takes place on earth, When our earthly innings ends, we shall be called away. When Israel's temporarily ended there was no similar calling away, there could not be; so their transition time had to occur on earth. When we go, there must be a similar transition for Israel and the world for readjustment, for the drama of the end time to get started. At the instant of our departure the ascendency of uncircumcision will cease and that of covenant and circumcision re-start; but there need be no visible immediate difference on earth—that is to say, apart from what the world will see of our actual snatching-away. There was no spectacular happening when Abraham's blessing in uncircumcision changed over to blessing in circumcision.
Lest all this should sound to some rather unconvincing, it is as well to consider the case of the one who was the pattern Christian for this present era: the Apostle Paul. To what "dispensation" did he belong? According to his own statement in Philippians he was a model Israelite. Those like him who (a) died before his call and others who (b) lived after that date but who never heard his Evangel—to what calling did they severally belong? The dispensationalists would tell us that all under (a) belonged to Israel, shared Israel's expectation and promises, and looked for Messiah and the conclusion of the New Covenant. There may perhaps be some difference of opinion about those under (b). Some may class all of them with those under (a), others may claim that they all became members of the one body. Neither is correct; at any rate, for the reasons for which its exponents think it is correct. Both answers are fallacious; because some, at least, of the Twelve continued to live after the call of Paul, and even perhaps after the end of the Acts history, yet did not (for they could not, see Matt. 19:28, Luke 22:30) change their calling to come into line with the supposed "dispensational" change. The mistake comes from viewing the problem in terms of time boundaries. Time does indeed come into the matter; it must, because any event has, in the nature of things, to occur at a point of time and furthermore because two incompatible sets of conditions cannot exist together at the same point of time. The error of "dispensational" systems lies in supposing that the point of time is what matters, not the event and conditions. The important thing is the event itself, not the time when it took place. The event has the priority of importance, not its date. What people thought they knew about their calling then made no more difference than it does now.
The plain truth is that Israel's hopes and promises fell into eclipse when it became clear that nationally they had rejected Messiah, that is, when the pronouncement of Matt. 13:14, 15, was made. Thereafter, there was no more salvation under covenant, for the Covenant People had repudiated covenant. Therefore, except for the Twelve, whose call was not subject to change (because they were the Twelve, see above), and whether they ever became aware of their position or not, those who, received the Evangel received it in uncircumcision, for the simple reason that circumcision was no longer anything. And we do not know the hour or the day or even the year when Matt. 13:14, 15 was pronounced, and this ignorance does not matter a jot.
What we do know is that the pronouncement comprising the so-called "dispensational frontier" placed at Acts 28:28 actually occurred at Matt. 13:14, 15. What happened thereafter was determined by that pronouncement.
But suppose Paul had died before that vision could occur on the Damascus road? Apart from the fact that he could not have died, because God had a determined plan for him, the question is meaningless. We mayor may not know what God's calling is for us; but that is His affair, and there is no "but" about it.
Galatians contains the one explicit reference to these two evangels and to their being entrusted to Paul and Peter; but it never even hints that Peter ever proclaimed his Evangel. This epistle's teaching is entirely incompatible with an evangel of covenant and circumcision; concerning which no reference in Acts and Paul's epistles even hints that covenant was in force or that circumcision was obligatory on anyone at all, as it formerly had been. Acts contains a number of speeches, but not one word about covenant or its sign being in force. Hebrews refers to the New Covenant as something still wholly future, 2. Corinthians to the Old Covenant as vanishing. The epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude make no reference to either—surely a most significant fact! Acts stresses the error of those who insisted on circumcision.
There is no evidence whatsoever that from the call of Paul till now the Evangel of the uncircumcision has not been all long the true evangel, or that the Evangel of the circumcision has ever been the true evangel, for anyone.
Furthermore, we know from Prophecy that the present state of affairs will, some day, be reversed, and that the saving-work of God will return to His People Israel. There is no evidence whatever that when this happens it will remain with Gentiles as such and that the Evangel of the uncircumcision will remain the true evangel. On the contrary, the return of covenant promises is inconceivable in the absence of the covenant evangel.
These swings from uncovenanted to covenanted blessings and back again must necessarily occur within time; but they are not governed by time and events in time. On the contrary time and events in time are characterized by and dependent on them. It is not that when the clock stops, so to speak, something will happen; but that when God's change of conditions occurs, then the clock will strike for the events of earthly Prophecy to start again. This is plain from such statements as Acts 3:21 and Rom. 11:25-28. God's purposes are the determining force, not some instant of time settled, as it were, by the mechanism of a time-fuse. Even if God is working to a time-table He certainly has not disclosed one to us, and it is therefore futile for us to attempt to work to it. Far too many people concern themselves with speculations about matters which God has not revealed. That sort of unbelief might be excusable if we had mastered what He has revealed; but we are very far indeed from that goal; and the more we learn the further off we know ourselves to be.
Not only has this preoccupation with dispensationalism been a detaining error in itself, it has unbalanced us with every other matter. Because it has opened up to them a vista of neglected truth students have clung to their dispensationalism with such tenacity that they have overdone even what is unquestionably true in it. For many the Secret of Ephesians 3:6-12 has swallowed up all the other secrets. For many more their exultation in Romans 1-5 and Galatians has led them perilously near to antinomianism. Yet others have acquired so strong a taste for novelty that they have no use for any doctrine that is not novel, and have become completely unstable.
Truth does not disturb our balance. The true basic correct cutting between circumcision and uncircumcision, covenant and reigning-grace, is in itself correctly balanced; so it does not permit us to go to extremes. Being free from the uneasy suspicion that there may be something to be said for the other side which is always so noticeable among those who have got hold of a half truth, though they always imagine they have concealed it; we are not tempted to extremism as they are apt to be. The secrets hold their proper place in relation to one another, and we are under no constraint to make out that the final verses of Romans are an afterthought. No longer need we be afraid of Romans 6 and 7, nor, for that matter, of James' Epistle; and we can exult in God's holy Law without fear of being enslaved to it. Best of all, the attainment of correct balance integrates our thinking and our study so that we are able to enjoy from God's treasury things new and old without giving a thought to whether they be novel or traditional, since it is enough that they are true.
As it has never been authoritatively set out, we can only deduce its terms in part from what we know from Scripture of God's promises to Israel. For them, covenant and its sign have always been inseparable. The Greek Scriptures speak of one or the other separately almost always; because there is, or should be, no need to specify both. There would be no need now but for the blindness of most Christians of Gentile origin in the matter. One implies the other, when God's Covenant People are in view. The teaching in Acts of the Circumcisionist Party (Acts 10:45, 11:2) implied the hegemony of covenant and of its sign. It was wrong then; but, for Israel under covenant, there is no reason to suppose that it was wrong in any way. Where it was mistaken was in its assumption that covenant still held sway. These men, no doubt, had true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Their zeal was not in accord with full knowledge and understanding; but when conditions become right for it their doctrine will be correct, at least as an approximation to the Evangel of the circumcision. Their error was not in what they believed, but in the circumstances under which they believed it. The time will come when those who elect to follow Paul will be the erroneous party, that is, if any do; because our present conditions will have been pushed aside by the resumption of God's dealings with His Covenant People as such.
If it be true that God will, some day, begin to bring His Covenant People to a state where He can conclude the New Covenant with them; it is inevitable that God's Evangel shall be so proclaimed to them as to lead up to this end. If it is not then "the Evangel of the circumcision," what will it be; indeed, what can it be? To deny that the Evangel will, some day, be "of the circumcision" is to deny that God's graces and calling are not subject to change of mind (Rom. 11 : 29).
The foundation facts about the church which is Christ's body are absolute freedom in reigning-grace from covenant, circumcision and bondage to the Law, and a wholly celestial standing and destiny.
The foundation facts about all the redeemed of Israel, the Jewish "church," are inseparability from covenant, circumcision and the Law, and a wholly terrestrial standing and destiny. The assumption that these two callings can exist concurrently and side by side, by God's will, is not only actually unthinkable, but without a scrap of Scripture support. Where the idea was tried, locally and temporarily, in Acts, it produced chaos and disorder. It was never in force generally. When the fullness of the Gentiles has entered (i.e. when 1. Thess. 4 is fulfilled) no more Gentile Christians will exist on earth, for there will be no more to exist. The "Church" on earth will be wholly Jewish. Salvation will again be of the Jews. The Evangel will be inseparably linked to covenant: it will be the Evangel of the circumcision.
The point is that, some day, covenant is to take the place of reigning-grace; the Evangel will be characterized by covenant instead of freedom from covenant, and Israel, the Covenant People will once again hold the centre of the stage. The idea of the polarity of the two basic evangels, of the circumcision and of the uncircumcision, has been challenged on the ground that Scripture refers to them only once. This is extraordinarily shallow. A moment's thought should show anyone that if we were to cut out of Scriptures everything which is only once mentioned explicitly, little more than a skeleton would remain.
These two evangels are named as such only once; but this is in a setting which compels special attention, in that it is the longest and most important personal narrative made by Paul, not even excepting his defence before Agrippa (Acts 26:2-23); and moreover, it is not in a historical record like Acts, but in the crucial section of an epistle (Gal. 1:11—2:21). Furthermore, the concept of this polarity is inherent in, and gives its whole point to, Paul's detailed exposition of the Evangel in Romans 1-4. To hold Gal. 2:7, 8 in low esteem is merely to indicate complete lack of insight into Paul's mind.
We usually recognize that extremism is error. In other people it always is. What we need to recognize is that it is unnecessary and that its manifestation is a sure sign that we have somehow got on to the wrong track and that we ought to retrace our steps and make a fresh start. Years ago, when I first met the writings of Dr. Bullinger's last days, I realized that so extreme a doctrine must be erroneous. That was not difficult to perceive; but the real problem was to discover the source of the error, the lack of balance of teaching which gave rise to it. Those who perceived the essential unity of Paul's epistles had in their hands the key to the truth. The one thing amiss was their failure to see into the nature of that essential unity and to shake free from chronological bonds. This having been done, we have reached our goal.
Obsession with chronological schemes is itself the result of extreme preoccupation with the all-pervading sense of in.completeness in this present eon. The polarity of covenant and reigning-grace necessitates this incompleteness; for until both have done their work on earth no final integration is possible. Yet their final integration is implicit in Him Who alone gives meaning to anything and everything. His life and work, sufferings, death, entombment, resurrection and ascension are the unifying principle behind and beneath. every blessing given whether in covenant or in reigning-grace and will bring each to perfection.
At its first impact the thought that even the Evangel of the uncircumcision should primarily have to be addressed to Israel is startling and even shocking, yet it is no more than the natural and inevitable consequence of their being Israel. They have earthly primacy, Paul's Evangel has to be proclaimed on earth; so they must have priority in its first proclamation. This, too, is a fact of history. The Jew Saul, who first received it, was Paul; and no one can dispute his primacy. Though Saul received it as Jew at the start, he changed to Gentile in receiving it; for it killed his circumcision; or, rather, brought home to him the fact that the Cross had killed it. At one stroke the change from Abram to Abraham was in a sense reversed; for what Saul received in circumcision Paul realized in uncircumcision, and glorified in the true circumcision of heart which is the foretaste of the new creation. There is no ground for thinking that he touched on the Evangel of the circumcision; even though, as he was first addressing those who had the circumcision, what he proclaimed had to concern them. But it concerned them, not as people who could boast of covenant, but as covenant breakers who by their own deed had forfeited covenant and become Gentiles. From the first he took his stand on the ground common to the two evangels, as. set out in 1. Cor. 15:1-10.
The Covenant People's rejection of Messiah was their repudiation of their covenant. Consequently the Old Covenant is being nullified (2. Cor. 3:14) and the New Covenant cannot yet be concluded. So, where there was no more than a fading shadow of covenant there could be no more than a fading shadow of Israel, and certainly no covenant evangel or the covenant standing which makes them to be Israel. This explains why Peter and the rest of the Twelve had nothing whatever to say in writing about covenant,. circumcision, Jew or Israel, and very little of positive doctrine. They could not write about the central theme of their Evangel when the theme itself was in eclipse. They could, and did, proclaim Christ crucified, but it is not that which separates uncircumcision from circumcision; for the New Covenant will still have as its ultimate basis the Cross and the Resurrection of the Crucified. What is distinctively Israel's so dominates all earthly issues that the temporary eclipse of Israel renders everything else of them pointless in relation to it. Pentecost was for the Twelve their great moment. Thereafter, little remained for them but to be the foil for the Apostle of the Gentiles. And so they must remain till the day when a greater Pentecost will mark the beginning of the fulfilment of their tremendous destiny.
After the Ascension of Christ came what has wrongly been called an "Economy of Readjustment." There is, however some truth in the idea; for the impact of so tremendous an event and the vast changes it involved could be appreciated only slowly by the human mind, even under the most favourable conditions. The minds of God's people had to readjust themselves. Even Paul's converts among the Gentiles, though they were free from Jewish preconceptions, could not assimilate all his revelations at once. Even the Thessalonians had something to learn.
The clearing away for the present of fleshly standing and its accompanying fleshly claims, blessings and obligations, left room for the purely spiritual standing embodied in Paul's Evangel and the Secrets, for transcendent spiritual blessings among the celestials. With the cessation of Paul's Evangel a vacuum will be created. So far as fleshly standing is concerned Romans l-3 will still hold; so judgment, now necessarily in abeyance, will be unleashed. For Israel there will be the Evangel of the circumcision; to the world the Evangel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed. The events of Daniel's prophecy will restart. The return of the Lord Jesus Christ, when His feet shall stand upon the Mount of Olives, will open up a new and glorious eon of blessing for the whole earth, when law and covenant will, at last, take and hold their rightful place.
This outlines the coming features of this present evil eon. Evil, for in it evil and sin do their worst; yet, it is glorified by the Cross, a marvel at which all the Universe will wonder and adore for ever. Nevertheless, the world which rejected and crucified its Creator and Redeemer and turned from His grace cannot know anything but eventual doom until the day of His vindication. Till then, gross darkness must needs cover it.
Yet in what is purely spiritual this present eon constitutes the high-water mark until the eons are consummated. What is solely Pauline truth must needs end on earth when the church which is Christ's body, the object of Paul's Evangel, ceases to exist on earth; for if it were to be permanent on earth the Evangel of the circumcision would be permanently invalid and God's promises to Israel incapable of fulfilment. Needless to say, such an idea is only another form of the "catholic" heresy that "the Church" has permanently displaced Israel in God's purposes. On earth, it is not Israel's supremacy which is abnormal, but Israel's insensitiveness and casting away. The very fact that our standing and blessings are wholly spiritual and purely celestial constitutes in itself full proof that, from the earthly point of view, conditions are wholly abnormal now.
From the earthly point of view, and that only, everything which is not opposed to God is, for the rest of this eon, fore doomed to failure from the start. First Israel was cast away. Christendom has misunderstood the history of this, recorded in Acts, and the implications of it, set out in the epistles. Even the title of the former is incorrectly translated: it is "Acts of Apostles," a very broad hint that only specially selected items of the whole history are to be found therein. And the fact that Acts is not the final close of Israel's history is generally wholly ignored. Few realize that Israel will be received back, and fewer still the implications of that fundamental truth, neglect of which throws the whole understanding of Scripture out of gear. Like a butterfly which has just emerged from its chrysalis, my understanding of these implications Was feeble at first; but gradually as these chapters have advanced the vital importance of those implications has become apparent and their realization has grown in strength, as the foregoing summary of them shows. It is now plain that most, if not all, of the errors regarding Paul's Epistles, and of our misunderstanding of Hebrew Prophecy, derive from failure to appreciate the full meaning of Romans 11 and particularly its secret. Even the secret of Eph. 3:6-12 is (from this standpoint only) of minor importance: it deals with our own expectation and celestial matters, not with our relation to Israel and the world.
To resume: Israel's casting away is world-conciliation; yet that truth in its turn was almost lost to sight within a few years of its proclamation; and with it went the truths of the Prison Epistles also. The Apostle Paul himself was soon almost forgotten, and except for the very few witnesses God has always raised up, Paul is virtually forgotten to this day. The further a church is from the Apostle Paul, the greater its earthly and fleshly power and its apparent splendour. Let us constantly bear in mind that all this is the logical consequence of the Cross. Neither Israel nor the world wanted Jesus; so neither really wanted, or could have, the Lord Jesus Christ, or with Him those who are truly His. They thought they were judging and condemning Jesus. Instead, the Lord Jesus was judging and condemning them and with them the flesh when not controlled by spirit. So from then on the flesh had or could have no real standing. For a while, in mercy and until Israel could be made to face the facts, the Jew was allowed to retain his visible priority; and the sending of the saving-work of God to the Gentiles Was not thrust upon his notice but disclosed gently and by stages. Yet these things were implicit in the Cross.
This is where the Supposed dispensational break at Acts 28:28 is so fallacious. The statement was admittedly, for the time being, the final recorded pronouncement to the Jews; and because of that it is an important landmark. Yet to the Gentiles and Christians of Gentile origin it meant just nothing at all beyond the final removal of all trace of obstacle, and even that was probably unknown to most of them at first. They already possessed all they needed to know about it in Romans 9-11; so the close of Acts had no surprises to offer them.
Critics of the earlier chapters of this series have accused me of failure to appreciate the logical conclusion of Acts 28:28; but this is the very thing I have NOT done, and the very thing which has given birth to all the errors of extreme dispensationalism. We do not require to look very far for the logical consequences of Acts 28:28, for they are stated concisely in its last sentence and in vv. 29 to 31. Those brief comments cover all the Roman Jews, and we ourselves, need to know; and to add anything to them is to go beyond all logic and reason.
Perhaps, but only "perhaps," we may regard the canonical order of the Greek Scriptures as deliberately arranged by God's Holy Spirit. It certainly seems most appropriate, for example in the transition from Galatians to Ephesians and from Colossians to 1. Thessalonians. If so, as we turn the page at the end of Acts, we may regard Romans as a remoter context of Acts 28:28; but consequence or conclusion it most emphatically is not. The change of scene, of general atmosphere and feeling, is as complete as anything that can, possibly be imagined.
No. To the Gentiles, whether heathen or Christian, the pronouncement to the Jews in Acts 28:28 meant nothing at all. It was to Jews, in Rome: Gentiles were not involved in it in any way whatever. For consider the point of view of the Christian in Rome on Paul's arrival recorded in Acts 28. His church had been for some five years in possession of the Epistle to the Romans and probably still longer in possession of copies of the even earlier epistles of the Apostle Paul. I t is not impossible, indeed I have given reasons for thinking it is even likely, that they possessed the first three Gospels, at least. He, or at any rate some of his fellow Christians, had received the Evangel of the uncircumcision years before Romans had been written; for it is quite clear from the epistle. itself that a flourishing church existed in Rome already when Paul wrote. In the face of these facts, imagine Paul announcing to such a reader that the saving-work of God was sent to the Gentiles! Why, his very existence as a Christian (and Paul's too) was a living proof of the fact, and had been. for years past! What would he have thought of Paul for uttering to him what would have been a thing so trite and obvious?
This consideration is itself so obvious that for long years I was quite blind to it. And I was not alone in such blindness: everyone I can discover who wrote in favour of dispensationalism was equally blind. There is nothing so hard to see as the dazzling flash of an obvious truth. History is full of instances of this fact. Our minds seem to be so constituted that we prefer the complex to the simple.
This series of studies was written in order to kill finally the errors which have gathered round the interpretation of Acts 28 : 28. Its length and complexity are due solely to the complications which others have woven into its theme during the last hundred years or so. Were it not for them, all that is essential in it for the purpose in view could have been kept within the bounds of this one chapter. The complications are, all of them, errors. Now we have fully considered the whole subject we can see in brilliant light that these are self-evident errors and self-destructive. Yet our pursuit of the truth about the matter has thrown a strong illumination on many other things; so our efforts have been justified on that account alone. Their aim is the glory of God. May His blessing rest on all who read them, and may His mercy for all their weaknesses and failings be granted to their author.