Of all the churches to which the Apostle Paul wrote, that of the Corinthians was the most carnal and generally unsatisfactory, so far as the records left to us in the Greek Scriptures disclose. It would, in fact, be hard to imagine a very young church which showed more signs of decadence and lack of spirituality. Paul's first epistle to them discloses hardly one single thing about them which is commendable. By contrast, his first epistle to the Thessalonians discloses hardly a single thing which is blameworthy.
Yet to the Thessalonians Paul gives very little present teaching. In the first epistle there is the glorious revelation of being one day snatched away to meet the Lord in the air and being ever with Him; but even that concerns the end only of our course on earth. It is a present expectation, but not a fact of our actual present living, except as a stay for our endurance. The atmosphere of the second epistle is heavy with judgment on the wicked.
Contrariwise, it is to the carnal Corinthians that Paul out lines his Evangel in its historical setting (1. Cor. 15:1-8). Broad based on the Hebrew Scriptures and the fulfilment of part of their prophecies in the earthly life and death of the Lord Jesus recorded in the Gospels; in 1. Cor. 15:24 and 28 Paul's Evangel soars to the loftiest heights of all, where Christ will give up the Kingdom to God, even the Father, and the Son Himself will be subject to Him Who subjects the Universe to Him, that God may be All in all.
Even in the Prison Epistles there is nothing higher than this, so far as we ourselves are concerned; yet those who rate the Prison Epistles as in every way the highest revelation of all are correct in so doing. 1. Corinthians 15 is like a needle-point soaring into the highest. The Prison Epistles clear away the mists surrounding it, and disclose that the summit of the needle-point is the summit also of a vast mountain peak, as it were. Dropping figurative language, 1. Corinthians 15 shows one aspect of God's wonderful revelation to Paul; the Prison Epistles relate it, not only to Paul's Evangel as 1. Corinthians does, but to the vast cosmic scheme which accompanies it, involving God's plans for the whole Universe.
From these facts two things emerge, complementary to one another. First, we cannot even begin to understand the revelations of the Prison Epistles until we understand and believe Paul's Evangel. Second, if we begin by misunderstanding the Prison Epistles, we shall certainly misunderstand Paul's Evangel.
Hitherto in my published writings I have said little about the Prison Epistles because my primary concern has been to understand more fully what Paul's Evangel is and means, and to help others to understand. A writer recently stated that none of us fully understand Ephesians; but how can we, if we do not understand Romans, let alone the other foundation epistles? I do not fully understand it myself; but I want to, and that is the reason why I am striving to elucidate Paul's Evangel and the historical problems associated with it.
The need for this has recently been brought to my attention in a particularly striking way. A pamphlet, with the title "The Mystery" and a question mark, over the initials A.E.K., has been lent to me with highly adverse comments. Why the incorrect word "mystery" is employed in it instead of "secret" by its author, who certainly knows better, is itself a mystery.
While there is much in the pamphlet which is sound, there is more which is unsound and extremely misleading. Of understanding the Secret we are told that "perhaps the greatest hindrance is sectarianism." Yes; but such sectarianism is always based on unbelief, especially the sort of unbelief which crops up again and again in the pamphlet— deliberate additions to the plain words of Scripture. Wherein does the Secret lie? A.E.K. answers this question, in part, fairly correctly at the top of p. 4 of his pamphlet; but on the very next page he goes back on it by giving the following wholly unscriptural answer regarding the three blessings set out in Eph. 3:6:—
"It lies in the fact that the nations no longer enjoyed these three blessings subordinate to the Circumcision. It puts them On the same footing, in the same rank, with the favoured nation. It makes them the peers of that privileged people." This assertion is entirely untrue and, worse, a travesty of the truth. Here and now I challenge A.E.K. to prove this utterly unwarrantable statement.
The second and third sentences of the statement are not merely untrue, they are the very opposite of the truth. No other nation ever was or will be on the same footing with the favoured nation, Israel. This fact is the governing teaching of Romans 9 to 11; wherein Paul is most careful to point out that nothing which Israel had done, no condemnation which they had earned, could or would ever alter God's plans for them or promises to them. "For unregrettable are the gifts and the calling of God" (Rom. 11:29). These belong to Israel and to no other nation whatsoever. Moreover, in point of fact, the statement of the Secret in Eph. 3:6-12 does not even mention Israel, let alone their favours and privileges or their circumcision. It begins: "In spirit, the Gentiles are to be joint-heir people and joint-body people..." Yes: the Gentiles (twice), not Israel at all.
Nor is it true that the individual Israelite had come to be on the same footing as the Gentile, except in one thing: as a sinner, as One who had no covenant privileges nor rank at all. Only in that sense were any Israelites or Gentiles on the same footing, in the same rank; with anyone else; yet, even so, it is a travesty of the truth to declare that in this any Gentile had come to be in the same rank with any Israelite. The Israelite had come to be in the same rank with the Gentile. It was not the Gentiles whose position had changed, but Israel.
Moreover, no one ever enjoyed any blessings subordinate to the circumcision which was given to Moses, which is the seal of covenant. Indeed, nothing is "subordinate to the circumcision," for the phrase is meaningless. I am aware that A.E.K. means "subordinate to Israel"—at least, I do not see what else he can mean—but why on earth cannot he say so? While I was considering at length that section of God's Evangel which related to circumcision and uncircumcision, one of A.E.K.'s followers openly sneered at me for using those words and their Greek equivalents so frequently; but, at least, I did use them to some purpose and with a plain and clear aim and meaning: I explicitly rejected the ridiculous way A.E.K. uses the former word here.
Lastly, it is wholly untrue that until the revelation of the Secret any nation or any Gentiles enjoyed any blessings of Paul's Evangel at all in any sense subordinate to Israel. The whole point of Paul's Evangel is that in connection with it there is NO difference of that sort. Any individual receives the Evangel as a sinner, not as a covenant man or even as a Gentile in standing. If anyone presume to come to the Evangel in his own righteousness, whether of covenant standing or anything else, he denies the Evangel and stands self condemned as ineligible for it.
I regret the necessity for this extremely plain speaking, and I would refrain from it were it not that the integrity of God's Holy Word is involved in this deplorable quotation from A.E.K.'s pamphlet. What is at stake here is not merely an individual's reputation, but truth itself. Those lamentable words stand in cold print; and to make them worse, if that were possible, their author begins and ends his pamphlet with the implied claim that he understands the Secret, vide his third and final paragraphs. He even writes these words true if "secret" be substituted for "mystery":—
The paragraphs which follow that first quotation are permeated with the same fundamental error. That it is no oversight, but a deliberate pronouncement, comes out plainly on p. 6. We read:—
On his p. 7 the question is asked: "In this new sphere, are the Jews to keep their superior place?"; but it never seems to have occurred to A.E.K. that, long before the Secret was revealed, the Jews no longer had a superior place to keep.
So it goes on. The exposition is shot through and through with false assumptions which any real understanding of Paul's Evangel would have blown sky high.
Another error, less conspicuous but equally dangerous, is the unsupported statement: "The Jew was first (Rom. 1:16; 2:9)." Apparently its author failed to notice what Paul actually said; or if he did notice it, preferred to pervert Paul's words to suit his own peculiar theories. Neither text says this thing. In both the reference is to order of precedence, the historical order which obtained when Romans was written. In neither is there any superiority of the Jew, but, simply, acknowledgment of the circumstance that the Evangel did come to the Jew first, and had to come to the Jew first, because he knew of God first. And as he had come first in knowledge of God's revelation, so he came first in departing from it and therefore in judgment for so doing. . .If anyone think that Rom. 2:9 gives the Jew supenonty, he IS welcome to his notion.
In an attempt to show that before the revelation of the Secret the Gentiles had a lower standing in flesh than Israel, we are told of them (p. 9, line 3):
The last sentence of all is another wickedly misleading assertion. Does A.E.K. really mean to suggest by it that the Secret made Gentiles joint-partakers of the Temple services? If not, whatever does he mean? The suggestion is quite monstrous.
Further on (p. 10) we read:—"As the evangel Paul had preached was almost exclusively spiritual in its blessings it merely needed to drop a few physical phases to be the channel of the mystery." Indeed! Hitherto we have always supposed that Paul's Evangel as it stands is the channel of the Secret, but seemingly we are mistaken. Yet let us be careful! Just what are these phases, judged to be of such importance as to be worthy of emphasis? And what authority is there for dropping them?
On page 12 is promulgated a new Dogma to which we are evidently expected to bow:—"Romans records the great truth that God's attitude towards the nations has changed since Israel refuses to convey His blessing to them."
Most unfortunately, no reference to Romans (or any other Scripture) is tendered in support of this remarkable assertion. Can it be that none exists?
Then we are assured that "Peter and James and John show conclusively, by their epistles, that they never received the truth contained in Paul's writings (p. 13)." Unfortunately, once again, references are discreetly omitted, though further on (p. 17) we learn that" only Peter hints at it, but he found it 'hard to apprehend' (2. Peter 3:16)." Waiving the trifling circumstance that these assertions are hard to reconcile even as they stand, it must be pointed out that this quotation is a misrepresentation of what Peter actually wrote. He did not merely find some things in them hard to apprehend, but some things actually were hard. As worded, the statement is wide open to the interpretation that it was Peter who found the difficulties, not his readers necessarily. His actual words are:—
On p. 21 we are told of certain people that "their subsequent destiny also was to be changed," and on p. 22 the same notion is applied to Paul; but, as usual with such glaring errors, no evidence is submitted.
I do not propose to waste time over other exploded errors in this pamphlet. I have written enough, and for those who receive it blindly as Divine truth, more than enough; for my words must force them to the point of decision between "dispensational" theories and Scriptural facts. God grant that their eyes may be opened to the truth!
R. B. WITHERS. Last updated 4.2.2006