Monday, March 16, 2015

A Case Against the "Acts 28:28" Dispensational Position (Part 1)

The so-called "Acts 28:28" dispensational position was of little interest to me until a fellow member of the body of Christ began promoting this view through his online teaching ministry about 7 months ago. Until then, I was only vaguely aware that such a position even existed. In brief, the position I will be arguing against in this paper is that the "body of Christ" that exists today - the corporate entity which consists of individuals who are destined for life and blessing among the celestials (rather than on earth) during the eons/ages to come - did not exist prior to Paul's imprisonment in Rome, and that Paul's ministry prior to this time was simply an extension of the Israel-centered, earthly kingdom ministry of Christ's twelve apostles.  

According to the Acts 28:28 position, Paul's ministry prior to his imprisonment concerned the coming reign of Christ on the earth, and a terrestrial allotment in this kingdom for those who believed the "gospel of the uncircumcision" he proclaimed. The only real difference between the ministry of Peter and the ministry of Paul before his imprisonment (according to the Acts 28:28 position) is that, rather than opening the door of the terrestrial kingdom of God to those who were circumcised (i.e., Jews/Israelites), Paul's evangelistic efforts were (primarily) focused on those who were uncircumcised (i.e., the nations, or Gentiles). It was not until after he was imprisoned in Rome that the eonian destiny of Paul and those to whom he ministered and wrote changed from life and blessings on earth during the eons to come to life and blessings among the celestials during the eons to come.  

A "Dispensational Change?" 

Central to Acts 28:28 dispensationalism is the claim that the events recorded at the end of Acts mark a "dispensational change" or "dividing line" for Israel, at which time Israel was set aside as a nation, and a new body of people distinct from Israel began to be formed (i.e., the body of Christ which exists today). Many further hold that Israel became "Lo-Ammi" ("Not My People") at this time.  

Paul's quotation from Isaiah in Acts 28:26-27 is one of the key texts to which Acts 28:28 proponents typically appeal in support of this position. If the prophecy from Isaiah which Paul quotes was, in fact, fulfilled at the time he quoted it, then I believe Acts 28:28 proponents would have some support for their position. However, contrary to the beliefs of Acts 28:28 dispensationalists, I believe that these prophetic words were already fulfilled with regards to the nation of Israel years earlier (i.e., during Christ's earthly ministry), and that Paul was simply quoting this prophecy as confirmation of what had already taken place (I believe Paul quotes it for another important reason as well, and will explain what that reason is shortly). 

In Matthew 13:14-15, we read that Christ told his disciples, 

"Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: "You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them." (Compare with John 12:37-40) 

In whose case was Isaiah's prophecy fulfilled when Christ spoke these words? Evidently, in the case of every Israelite except those few to whom Christ was making known the "secrets of the kingdom" (v. 11). It applied especially to the religious and political leaders of the nation, whose blindness and deafness led to their orchestrating the death of their own Messiah.  

Christ's pronouncement of this "Isaiah 6 judgment" made known the following inevitability: Israel, as a nation, was going to reject her Messiah. Only a minority of Israelites - a chosen remnant, beginning with Christ's twelve disciples - would, during this time, embrace Jesus as the Messiah and continue the program that he began (under what may be called the "kingdom administration"). It was this remnant of Jews from whom Christ did not hide his teaching with parables. The rest of Israel (as Paul says) were being "hardened" or "calloused," and would not "turn and be healed" until sometime after their nation was judged, in fulfillment of the prophecies Christ gave concerning the nation. 

R. B. Withers observes: 

Too readily and too long have many of us been bewitched by the theory that the fate of Israel was actually an open question right up to Acts 28:28. The sentence in Matt. 13:14, 15 and the prophecy in Luke 21:12-28 were never withdrawn. What follows them was, for Israel, simply a confirmation of this fact. Apart from that, there remained for Israel nothing except the destruction of Jerusalem and ultimately the judgments of Hebrew Prophecy, until their promised blessings could ultimately come about. Spiritually, Israel is not even asleep at present, but dead. That stage, however, did not begin at any time during the Acts narrative (http://majorwithers.blogspot.com/2009/06/dispensational-truth.html) 

Christ speaks of the terrible judgment that was coming upon Israel as a result of her apostasy as a nation in Luke 19:41-44, right after his "triumphal entry": 

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation." 

In Matthew's account, Christ tells the religious leaders of his day, "Truly, I say to you, all these things [i.e., the judgment he had just spoken of in the previous verses of this chapter] will come upon this generation" (Matt 23:36). He goes on to lament over Jerusalem in vv. 37-39:  

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'  

And then the very next words he speaks (Matt 24:2) are a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which took place in 70 AD. It's highly significant that Christ links the blindness of Israel as a nation - manifested most strikingly in their failure to "know the time of [their] visitation" (when Jesus presented himself to Israel as their Messiah on the last day of Daniel's 69th "week")[1] - with the overthrow of their nation by the Romans in 70 AD. When Christ uttered these words, he made it clear that there was no possibility whatsoever that Israel as a nation would repent and embrace her Messiah - at least, not until sometime AFTER this terrible judgment overtook them. Israel as a nation (including, crucially, those in positions of religious and political leadership) had fallen into a state of apostasy, and with Christ's pronouncement of the "blind" and "calloused" state of the nation, the divine sentence had been passed. Israel's fate was sealed, and her judgment as a nation was inevitable. Israel received no "second opportunity" to embrace her Messiah during the "Acts-period" ministry of Christ's twelve apostles.  

Thus, with regards to the nation of Israel as a nation, the door of the millennial kingdom (which will not be established on the earth until AFTER Israel repents as a nation) was slammed long before Paul's imprisonment, or even his conversion. Yet Scripture is clear that, in spite of the blindness of Israel as a nation, God was still calling out a remnant of Jews to believe the truth concerning Jesus and inherit eonian life in the millennial kingdom. And it was on behalf of this chosen remnant of Israelites who were being called OUT of the blind and hardened nation that the events of Pentecost (as described in Acts 2) took place, and the miraculous gifts were given. This remnant included, of course, Jesus' own disciples, as well as all the Israelites who responded in faith to their preaching (both before and after the new administration of grace that, I will argue, began with the calling of Paul). It was only with this chosen remnant of Israelites - those whose eyes and ears were being opened to believe the truth concerning Jesus' identity - that God was dealing during their ministry. And the message by which this chosen Jewish remnant was being drawn out from among the apostatized nation - those who constituted what Paul called the "Israel of God" (Gal 6:16) - was the "gospel of the circumcision" (Gal 2:7-8). 

What, then, of Paul's words to the Jewish leaders in Rome, as recorded in Acts 28:25-28? When Paul quotes Isaiah 6, he was not declaring that this prophecy was just being fulfilled at that time (why would he have done that, when Christ already did it nearly forty years earlier?). As noted earlier, Paul was simply quoting the passage to re-affirm what had already taken place. He also, I believe, quoted this prophecy to emphasize the fact that, unlike Israel, the nations (those among the "uncircumcised") were responding positively to his gospel (v. 28), and were thus enjoying the "healing" that the nation of Israel - aside from a small chosen remnant - had been missing out on since the beginning of Christ's ministry to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel." Notice also that Paul doesn't say that the salvation in view would be dispatched to the nations, but that it WAS dispatched to the nations. Paul's ministry to the Gentiles while in prison was simply a continuation of his prior ministry to the Gentiles. Certainly, more truth was revealed and elaborated on through his prison epistles, but Paul's prison ministry was not the absolute beginning of a new administration. It was the continuation of an administration that began when (or soon after) Paul was called an apostle, when the gospel of the uncircumcision began to be proclaimed and believed by those chosen beforehand (as Paul says, chosen "before the disruption of the world") to be members of the body of Christ.  

The repeated displays of unbelief and antagonism by the Jewish people in general (especially by the Jewish leaders) in response to the evangelistic efforts of both Paul and the apostles of the circumcision was not the cause of Israel's being "calloused" and "blinded" by God; rather it was simply mounting evidence that the nation had already been calloused and blinded, and that their repentance as a nation and embracing of Jesus as their Messiah and Savior - had been "put on hold." Every recorded rejection of the evangel by the Jewish people and every instance of hostility toward believers in Christ after Paul's commission to go to the Gentiles was simply indicative of this fact. Everything Paul witnessed during his ministry (both the largely negative response of the Jews and the more positive response of the Gentiles) simply made it increasingly more obvious that God had begun doing something new and unexpected. And Paul recognized this fact long before Acts 28. There is no reason to believe that Paul was at all surprised by the Jewish unbelief he is recorded as encountering in Acts 28; if anything, the response he got was exactly what he expected (although this fact likely did not make their unbelief any less painful to him). 

Prior to his imprisonment in Rome, it was well-known to Paul that, with the exception of a small, chosen remnant, Israel had been "calloused" by God:

"What Israel is seeking for, this she did not encounter, yet the chosen encountered it. Now the rest were calloused, even as it is written, God gives them a spirit of stupor, eyes not to be observing, and ears not to be hearing, till this very day" (Rom 11:7-8).  

Although Paul knew this "calloused" and "blind" state would not be permanent, it was nonetheless true that Israel, as a nation, had been "cast away" by God (vv. 11-15). And Paul knew that this "hardening" of Israel (which he called a "partial" hardening, since a chosen remnant of Jews were graciously being given faith) would continue "until the complement of the nations" came in, and Israel's Rescuer (Christ) arrived to eliminate their sins (vv. 25-27). Paul's only hope before this time of national repentance and salvation took place (and Paul likely had no idea how soon or distant it would be) was that perhaps "some" of his Jewish brethren - those of the chosen remnant - would be saved (v. 14). 

Paul's Ministry to the Nations 

If Paul's expectation concerning the Gentiles to whom he ministered during his "Acts ministry" was that they would, in the coming eon, enjoy an allotment in the Israelite kingdom on earth (in which believing Israelites would be "a kingdom and priests to God"), then it would have been imperative that they be circumcised. Why? Well, circumcision originated as a token of the covenant that God made with Abraham (Gen.17:11). According to this covenant, God first required Abraham to be circumcised, along with all males in his household. Circumcision was not merely an option; it was a requirement. The uncircumcised man was to be cut off from his people (Gen. 17:13-14). Uncircumcised Gentiles, then, were never allowed to be partakers of God's covenants with Israel (and this includes the "new covenant" which God made with the house of Israel, and not with uncircumcised Gentiles). Each "stranger" (Gentile) who allied himself with Israel, and who wished to eat participate in the feasts of Israel, was required to first be circumcised (Ex.12:48-49). 

Prophecy, too, forbade uncircumcised Gentiles from ever becoming partakers of Israel's future inheritance in the age to come. For example, when Isaiah prophesied concerning the holy city of Jerusalem, he plainly stated that the uncircumcised and the unclean shall "no more come into" Zion (Isaiah 52:1). Similarly, Ezekiel also states that no uncircumcised stranger shall enter God's sanctuary (Ezek.44:9). Circumcision, then (being the token of the Abrahamic covenant - Gen.17:11), was to be strictly observed by Gentiles who were allied with Israel. The uncircumcised were never allowed to partake of the Passover; and both Isa. 52:1 and Ez. 44:9 prove that uncircumcised Gentiles will have no inheritance in the holy city of Jerusalem in the coming eon. For a Gentile to be allowed to share in Israel's blessing during the millennial reign, they would have to be circumcised. 

But not only did Paul not see it as imperative that the Gentiles to whom he ministered be circumcised, circumcision as a prerequisite for Gentile blessing was fiercely opposed by Paul! This can be seen most strikingly in his epistle to the Galatians. Although the Gentiles began sharing in what Paul called "the blessing of Abraham" (Gal. 3:14; cf. vv. 5-9), it was not Abraham as the circumcised father of the Jewish nation, but Abraham as the uncircumcised father of all who are justified by faith apart from works, whether Jew or Gentile (see Romans 4). The "blessing of Abraham" to which Paul refers in Galatians has nothing to do with a future inheritance in the Israelite kingdom during the next eon for Gentiles, but rather refers to their being justified by faith (as Abraham was when, as an uncircumcised Gentile, he believed God's promise to him). Paul's emphasis on Abraham's justification before he became circumcised indicates that he did not see his Gentile converts as a mere subcategory or extension of Israel that will be partaking in Israel's future inheritance. Rather, he saw those who were believing his gospel as constituting an entity that was (and is) wholly distinct from - and which is being blessed apart from - Israel. In contrast to what had been prophesied to take place in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was not the rise and fullness (or "filling") of national Israel, but rather their "callousness" and their being "cast away" that had become the unexpected means by which salvation was being brought to the nations. In Romans 11 Paul writes: 
 
"So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!" 

The context of the above passage is established in verse 7, where Paul states that "Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened." When Paul states just four verses later that through their "trespass" salvation is come unto the Gentiles, he is most likely referring to their failure as a nation (resulting from their blindness/unbelief) to recognize their own Messiah. It was this tragic failure, of course, which led to Christ's crucifixion. However, the nation of Israel didn't stumble "in order that" they might fall. Their trespass (and the consequent setting aside of the nation by God) was the means through which God began a new program - a program which involves the salvation of the nations apart from Israel. And even this new program would have, as an added benefit, the salvation of those Israelites who realized (as a result of Paul's ministry) that God was doing something new with the nations, and who consequently wanted to be a part of it and share in the blessings which the Gentiles were entering into through their faith in Paul's gospel (vv. 13-14). This remarkable state of affairs which began with Paul's commission was indicative of the fact that a new administration - what Paul later called the "administration of the secret" and "the administration of the grace of God" (Eph 3; cf. Rom 16:25-26) had commenced. 

The Gospel and the Body of Christ 

As noted earlier, the Acts 28:28 dispensational position holds that the body of Christ referred to in Paul's prison epistles (and which exists today) did not come into existence until after Paul was imprisoned in Rome. It is further believed that this corporate entity has consisted only of those who believe certain truths found exclusively in Paul's prison epistles (e.g., Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, etc.), and that these truths constitute a new and different gospel than the "gospel of the uncircumcision" which Paul proclaimed prior to his imprisonment.  

For example, one Acts 28:28 proponent claims that, in Ephesians, Paul was essentially saying to his Gentile readers, "I have a new gospel for you Gentiles! You are no longer merely a wild olive branch grafted on to Israel and destined for a merely terrestrial blessing (as you were before my imprisonment). You are now a member of a joint body in the heavenly places! All you have to do is believe this good news, and this greater blessing of which I speak will be yours!" In other words, if the Gentiles just believe this new "gospel" that they have become members of a joint body in the heavenly places, it will be true for them! However, if they don't believe this new "gospel," it (apparently) won't be true.  

But this position is not just implausible; it's absurd. It's no different than telling someone, "Jesus Christ died for your sins and is your Savior, but only if you believe that he died for your sins and is your Savior. If you don't believe that he died for your sins and is your Savior, then he didn't and he's not." Or, "You have been justified by faith, but only if you believe that you've been justified by faith. Otherwise, it's not true that you've been justified by faith." This is just contradictory nonsense.  

The saints to whom Paul wrote during his imprisonment became members of this "joint body" by believing a certain gospel. But the gospel through which they became members of this body (when they believed it) can't be a message that tells them they already are members of the joint body! No, it had to have been already true that the saints to whom Paul wrote were "joint enjoyers of an allotment, a joint body, and joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus, through the evangel." No amount of faith in their already being members of this joint body and joint enjoyers of this allotment could result in them becoming what they (according to this "new gospel") already are. Even if this was new information to some or all of them, it had to have been already true of them in order for them to believe that it was true for them. It's complete nonsense to say that it only became true for them when they first believed it to be true for them. 

In Ephesians 1:13-14, we find that when the believers to whom Paul wrote heard "the word of truth, the evangel of [their] salvation" they became "sealed with the holy spirit of promise," and this holy spirit of promise is said by Paul to be "the earnest of the enjoyment of our allotment, to the deliverance of that which has been procured." By the "allotment," Paul undoubtedly had in view the celestial allotment that will be enjoyed by every member of the body of Christ. Paul wasn't writing in hopes that the recipients of his epistles would, as a result of reading and believing what he wrote to them, become sealed with the holy spirit of promise. Rather, his words presuppose that they already were sealed and that they already had an allotment. Thus, they were sealed before he began writing to them. He was simply affirming facts that were already true of them, and of which they were being either reminded or newly informed.  

Even as early as his second letter to the Corinthians, it is clear that Paul understood that the eonian destiny of the body of Christ would be in the heavens rather than on earth. In 2 Cor. 5:1 Paul says, "For we are aware that, if our terrestrial tabernacle house should be demolished, we have a building of God, a house not made by hands, eonian, in the heavens." Why would Paul specify our present mortal body as "terrestrial" if he believed his eonian destiny - and the eonian destiny of those to whom he wrote - would be just as earthly as their present realm? Is it not obvious that, by calling our present body "terrestrial," Paul is drawing a contrast between it and our future body? Not only would this be a valid inference, Paul goes on (as if to make sure his readers "get it") to speak of our future body as "eonian, in the heavens." Moreover, Paul writes that our future "home" is where the Lord is, presently (2 Cor. 5:8-9) - i.e., in heaven. Compare with Phil. 3:19-21 and Col 3:1-4, where Paul makes a similar contrast between that which is "terrestrial" and that which is "in the heavens." There can be no denying that the eonian destiny of the believers to whom Paul wrote before his imprisonment (during his "Acts ministry") is just as must "celestial" or "in the heavens" (rather than "terrestrial" and on the earth) as the eonian destiny of the believers whom Paul wrote during his imprisonment. Acts 28:28 dispensationalism wrongly divides Paul on this matter and ignores this continuity in Paul's teaching. 

Now, since only members of the body of Christ can be said to have the earnest of the enjoyment of this celestial allotment, it is evident that those to whom Paul wrote became members of Christ's body when they first heard and believed his gospel. But of what gospel is Paul speaking throughout this epistle? I submit that there is no other gospel by which people become members of the body of Christ except that which was being proclaimed by Paul before his imprisonment - i.e., the "gospel of the uncircumcision." But some Acts 28 proponents have argued that this is not the case. Consider the following argument: "The gospel in Romans was promised before in the Old Testament Scriptures. This is the gospel of the grace of God. It was first proclaimed to Abraham. It's testified to by the law and the prophets. But the gospel of Ephesians 3:6 was hidden in God. It's nowhere in the Old Testament. It was revealed to Paul the prisoner. It's a message to believers. It's new information." 

Is this true? Was the gospel referred to in Romans 1:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 "first proclaimed to Abraham?" No. Abraham heard a gospel (Gal 3:8), but he did not hear Paul's gospel concerning God's Son. At no time did Abraham hear about Jesus Christ, the son of David, dying for our sins and being roused from among the dead. It was simply foretold to Abraham that the nations would be blessed (justified) in the same way that Abraham was blessed (justified): by simply believing God, apart from works and apart from being in covenant with God (as was the case for Abraham's Israelite descendents). But this fact, while certainly connected with Paul's gospel, isn't itself Paul's gospel. That to which the law and the prophets bore witness (but which was manifested apart from the law) is not Paul's gospel of the uncircumcision/gospel of the grace of God, but rather the righteousness of God (Rom 3:21-22). This righteousness/justification is not itself the gospel of the grace of God. It's what we receive as a result of believing the gospel of the grace of God. Not only was Paul's gospel referred to in Romans and 1 Corinthians not "first proclaimed to Abraham," it was not even proclaimed during Christ's earthly ministry. How could it have been? Christ had neither died for the sins of the world yet nor been roused from among the dead.

It's true that the gospel of the uncircumcision first proclaimed by Paul was "promised beforehand through the prophets" (Rom 1:2), but in what sense was this the case? It certainly wasn't promised beforehand through the prophets that every descendent of Adam (not just Israel) would be justified (Rom 5:18-19), or that God was in Christ conciliating the world (not just Israel) to himself (2 Cor. 5:19) - and yet this is undoubtedly what the fact of Christ's death "for our sins" meant and entailed for Paul, even before his imprisonment. So in what sense was Paul's gospel of the uncircumcision "promised beforehand through the prophets?" I believe it was promised simply in the general sense that the prophets foretold of a Messiah/Savior who would be a descendent of David, who would die as an offering for sin, and who would be raised from the dead. And of course, these are essential elements of Paul's gospel - not just BEFORE his imprisonment, but also AFTER! Consider the following words of Paul in the last letter he wrote before his death: "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my evangel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal." Is not the "evangel" or gospel referred to in Ephesians the SAME gospel referred to here, in 2 Timothy? I don't see how anyone could (or would want to) deny this. But again, the gospel referred to in 2 Timothy concerns "Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David," which is essentially the same information as that found in Romans 1:1-4 (it's simply more summarized in 2 Timothy).  

The position that the gospel referred to in Ephesians is different from the gospel found in Paul's earlier epistles may be the result of confusing the gospel of which Paul said he was made a minister (Eph 3:7) with what Paul calls the mystery OF the gospel (Eph 6:19). The mystery OF the gospel is, of course, this: "...that the Gentiles are joint enjoyers of an allotment, a joint body, and joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus, through the evangel..." In other words, it refers to the state of affairs that God brought about for those who believed the gospel concerning his Son, Jesus Christ. Notice that this state of affairs involving the nations is said to be "through the evangel." Contrary to the objection above (in which the objector refers to the "gospel of Ephesians 3:6"), that which is "through the evangel" is not (and cannot possibly be) the evangel itself, no matter how closely connected it may be with the evangel. This bears repeating: the evangel of which Paul states he "became the dispenser" simply cannot be the "secret" revealed to Paul that "the nations are to be joint enjoyers of an allotment, and a joint body, and joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus," since this state of affairs involving the nations is said to be "through the evangel." And nor are we told by Paul that this "secret" was unknown to him before his imprisonment, or that God made this known to him during his imprisonment. This is simply assumed by Acts 28:28 dispensationalists. 

So it seems to be the case that, at least for some Acts 28 proponents, certain blessings that believers receive as a result of believing Paul's gospel (such as eonian life among the celestials, becoming a joint body, joint enjoyers of an allotment, etc.) are being confused with Paul's gospel itself. Although it's possible (though not necessarily the case) that certain blessings resulting from belief in Paul's gospel may have been unknown to (or not fully grasped by) some believers until after Paul wrote his "Ephesians" letter and it began to be circulated among the various ecclesias, there is simply no good reason to hold that the gospel referred to in this letter is in any way distinct from the gospel which Paul was commissioned by Christ to proclaim to the Gentiles - i.e., the "evangel of the uncircumcision" referred to in Galatians 1:7-8 (the content of which is given for us in 1 Cor. 15:1-4 and elsewhere). It is this gospel which the original recipients of his epistle to the Ephesians believed prior to his writing this epistle, and by which they became sealed with the holy spirit of promise. In Ephesians 1:15-16, it is evident that their faith in the gospel referred to in v. 13 was something of which he was already knowledgeable, and for which Paul says he did not cease to give thanks in his prayers. So again, it's obvious that the believers to whom he wrote had believed the gospel referred to in this letter before Paul even began writing to them, and had thus been sealed with the holy spirit of promise and become members of Christ's body before they received and read Paul's letter (or  heard it read to them). 

In addition to what Paul writes in his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul tells the Philippians that their "citizenship" (or "realm") was "in" (or "inherent in") "the heavens." But when did this become true of them? Once again, it couldn't have been after Paul wrote this epistle to them, since Paul was writing under the presupposition that it was already true of them. He's affirming a fact that became true of them at some point in the past. But when? As Paul says in his epistle to the Ephesians, it became true of them when they first believed Paul's gospel, and became sealed with the holy spirit of promise. But when did they believe Paul's gospel? In Phil. 1:5-6, Paul tells them that he was giving thanks to God for their "contribution to [or "partnership in"] the evangel from the first day until now." And when did they first hear the gospel of which Paul is speaking here? Answer: During the Acts period (Acts 16:12; 20:6).  

And the same thing can be said for the original recipients of the epistle to the Ephesians. They received the earnest of the enjoyment of their allotment when they heard "the evangel of [our] salvation," and they heard this distinct evangel during the Acts period of Paul's ministry, when Paul was with them in person. Consider, for example, the believers in Ephesus (who undoubtedly would've been among the original recipients of the circular epistle that has come to bear their name). When did the believers of this ecclesia first hear Paul's gospel? Answer: During the Acts period, when we're told that Paul was with them for three years (Acts 20:31). According to Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, when they first heard and believed Paul's gospel at this time, they became sealed with the holy spirit of promise (which is the earnest of their celestial allotment), and thus were members of Christ's body before Paul's imprisonment. 

Since one becomes sealed with the holy spirit of promise (and thus becomes a member of the body of Christ) when one believes Paul's distinct gospel, it follows that the body of Christ came into existence as soon as the first person believed Paul's gospel. It was at this point that the first member of Christ's body was sealed with the holy spirit of promise. And since Paul was most likely the first person to believe the gospel that was committed to him, it follows that Paul was the first member of the body of Christ. In 1 Timothy 1:16, Paul referred to himself as "a pattern of those who are about to be believing on Him for life eonian." And ever since the time of Paul's calling and inclusion into the body of Christ, people have been added to this body and received eonian life (following the pattern established by Paul's salvation) whenever his gospel is believed. If this is indeed the case, then the believers in Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, Rome (etc.) were all members of the body of Christ at the time Paul wrote to them, and the body of Christ therefore existed during Paul's "Acts ministry," prior to his imprisonment in Rome. Was it still in need of growing in maturity at this time, and did it continue to grow when believers began reading his first epistle from prison? Absolutely. But as we've seen, it didn't come into existence at this time. What was already in existence - what came into existence the moment Paul's gospel was first believed - simply grew more mature as more truth was revealed and assimilated by the members of the body (see Eph 4:11-16).


[1] For a brief defense of the view that Christ's triumphal entry took place at the end of the 69th "week of years" prophesied in Daniel 9, see http://www.khouse.org/articles/2004/552/.
 
For a more in-depth defense of this position, I highly recommend the following 11-part study found on EndTimePilgrim.org: http://endtimepilgrim.org/70wks1.htm.
 
Scroll down just a little ways for the table of contents (it appears on the left side of the page and provides links to all 11 pages of the study).

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