Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Response to Charles Welch

In this article I will be responding to Charles H. Welch's article "Hope," which appeared in a three-part installment of Bible Student's Notebook, published by Clyde Pilkington ( As will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the "dispensational" views promoted by Charles Welch, the article by Welch is a defense of the "Acts 28:28" theory. According to Welch's position, the believing Gentiles to whom Paul wrote before his imprisonment were not in the body of Christ referred to by Paul in Ephesians and Colossians (Welch believed that the body of Christ that exists today did not come into existence until after Paul was imprisoned, which is when Welch believes that "the Jewish people were set aside" by God). Rather, those Gentiles who believed Paul's evangel of the uncircumcision were part of the "bride of the Lambkin," which consists of righteous, faithful Israelites who will be reigning on the earth during the eons to come (Rev. 19:7;  21:2, 9-10; 22:17; cf. John 3:29; Mark 2:10).

Although (significantly) Clyde Pilkington
 disagrees with Welch on when the body of Christ referred to in Ephesians and Colossians came into existence (Clyde and I are in agreement that it came into existence when Paul's evangel began to be believed), both men seem to be in agreement on one important point - that those to whom Paul wrote before his imprisonment had a different eonian destiny (or "eternal" destiny, in the case of Welch) than those to whom Paul wrote after he was imprisoned. I believe this view to be mistaken. As I hope to show in this article, the passages to which Welch refers in support of his position are just as apposite and applicable to believers in Paul's evangel today as they were to believers in Paul's evangel before his imprisonment.

"Jerusalem Above"

Welch: "We must pause for a moment here to remind the reader that Abraham stands at the head of two companies: an earthly people, the great nation of Israel; and a heavenly people, associated with the heavenly phase of God’s promise to Abraham, and made up of the believing remnant of Israel and believing Gentiles. This heavenly side of the Abrahamic promise is referred to by the Apostle in Hebrews and Galatians..."

After quoting Hebrews 11:10, 14, 16 and Galatians 3:29, 4:26, Welch goes on to say: "This heavenly calling of the Abrahamic promise constitutes the Bride of the Lamb, as distinct from the restored Wife which refers to Israel as a nation."

According to Welch's position, the eonian expectation of those to whom Paul wrote during the "Acts period" of his ministry involves new Jerusalem - i.e., the city that we're told in Revelation is going to descend from heaven after the creation of the "new heaven and new earth," and in which faithful Israelites will be reigning as kings (Rev. 21:9-14; 22:3-5). But is this what Paul was in fact saying or implying in the verses referred to by Welch? Let's look at Galatians 4:26 first.

In Galatians 4:26, Paul introduced the “Jerusalem above” as a contrast to the then-present Jerusalem of which the Judaizers were, figuratively, “children” (because of their being in slavery to the law). Paul need not be understood as suggesting that the eonian expectation of the body of Christ was, at the time he wrote, tied to the new Jerusalem (which would make the expectation of the body of Christ inseparable from Israel’s covenant-based expectation).  The imagery Paul used in v. 26 is simply a natural extension of his allegorical argument against the Judaizers, which begins in v. 21. And it must be emphasized that the reason Paul used an allegorical argument from the law in the first place is because it was under the law that, due to a Judaizing influence, some of saints in Galatia wanted to be under. Paul would’ve had no reason to even make mention of the “Jerusalem above” in this letter were it not for the fact that it was a fitting contrast to the present Jerusalem, which corresponded to mount Sinai/Hagar.

In Paul’s allegorical argument, Hagar (the “slave woman”) represents the old covenant and Mount Sinai, and corresponds to the “present Jerusalem,” who was “in slavery [to the law] with her children” (vv. 24-25). In contrast, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, corresponds to “the Jerusalem above,” who, we’re told, “is free.” Notice that, in verses 26 and 31, both the “Jerusalem above” and Sarah (the “free woman”) are spoken of as if they are the mother of the believers to whom Paul wrote. Obviously, Paul was using figurative, metaphorical language in both instances; neither Sarah nor the “Jerusalem above” are literally the mothers of those to whom Paul wrote. So what is this metaphorical language intended to convey?

In the case of Sarah, believers are (figuratively) her “children” in the sense that we are like her son, Isaac. Isaac represents those who are “children of promise,” and, being free rather than slaves, are consequently “enjoyers of an allotment” (see Gal.  3:29; 4:7; cf. Rom. 8:17). Just as Sarah is figuratively described as our mother (and we her children) because we are like her son Isaac (we resemble him in some important sense), so the “Jerusalem above” is metaphorically said to be “mother of us all” because we are like her future citizens (we resemble them in some important sense). Notice that Paul said the “children” of the earthly Jerusalem were “in slavery.” That is, the earthly Jerusalem that was then present was, figuratively speaking, the “mother” of those who were in slavery (i.e., her law-enslaved citizens).

Since the “Jerusalem above is free,” it follows that her “children” are also free. Just as we are said to be “children” of Sarah because of what we have in common with Isaac (we are like Isaac in that we’re “children of promise”), so the Jerusalem above is metaphorically said to be our “mother” because of the distinguishing characteristic that we share with her future citizens (i.e., we’re free from the law of Moses, as will be the case for the future citizens of the new Jerusalem). But we have no reason to believe that Paul understood those to whom he wrote to actually be citizens of the “Jerusalem above.” Abiding in the new Jerusalem during the final eon is a blessing specifically for Abraham (as the circumcised father of the “Israel of God”) and his faithful, Israelite descendents among the twelve tribes (Heb. 11:8-10; Rev. 21:9-14; 22:3-5). Again, the only reason that Paul even made mention of the “Jerusalem above” in chapter four of Galatians is because it was a fitting contrast to the present Jerusalem, which corresponded to mount Sinai/Hagar.

In addition to the above remarks, the reader would do well to ponder the interesting fact that, in Rev. 21:14, we’re told that the foundations of the new Jerusalem are twelve in number, and that “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lambkin” are engraved on them. The conspicuous absence of Paul’s name from the foundation of the new Jerusalem is, I believe, inexplicable if he’s to be understood as part of the same company of saints to which the twelve apostles belonged, and as having the same calling and expectation as they have. But of course, the new Jerusalem – which is in accord with Israel’s covenant-based expectation – has no need or room for a “thirteenth apostle.” Paul does not belong there, and we should not try to force him into this expectation. And the same goes for every other member of the body of Christ (whether they lived before or after the events described in Acts 28).

"Abraham's Seed"

Welch: "During the time of the Acts of the Apostles, the churches founded by Paul were “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29)."

As even Welch would likely have conceded, Paul is not saying that the believing Gentiles to whom he wrote had somehow become literal descendents of Abraham, as Paul himself was (2 Cor. 11:22). They had not miraculously become Israelites. There is some sense in which those who believe Paul's evangel can be considered as being "of Abraham's seed," but it's not a literal sense. So in what sense did Paul consider those who believed his evangel to be "of Abraham's seed?" I think Paul explains what he means in the verse itself. Those to whom Paul wrote were considered "of Abraham's seed" in the sense that they had become "enjoyers of [an] allotment according to promise" (as James Coram notes, the definite article does not appear in the Greek; thus, it may read as, "AN allotment," rather than as "THE allotment").

We know that God promised an eonian allotment to both Abraham and his seed (i.e., the faithful Israelites among his literal, ethnic descendents). The promised eonian allotment they will be enjoying is life in the land which God repeatedly promised them (see Genesis 12:7; 13:15 15:18; 17:8; 24:7; Josh. 1:4; etc.). But Abraham's literal seed are not the only people who have an allotment according to promise. Those who believe Paul's evangel (and are thus "in Christ") have also become "enjoyers of an allotment according to promise." In Titus 1:2-3,  we read,

"Paul, a slave of God, yet an apostle of Jesus Christ, in accord with the faith of God's chosen, and a realization of the truth, which accords with devoutness, in expectation of life eonian, which God, Who does not lie, promises before times eonian, yet manifests His word in its own eras by heralding, with which I was entrusted, according to the injunction of God, our Savior..."

Being enjoyers of an allotment according to promise is something that members of the body of Christ have in common with Abraham's literal seed. Paul is thus able to figuratively speak of us (members of the body of Christ) as being "of Abraham's seed." But we are no more literally "of Abraham's seed" than we are literally the children of Sarah. And Paul gives no indication that, at the time he wrote Galatians, the allotment of Abraham's figurative "seed" (members of the body of Christ) was the same allotment as that promised to Abraham and his literal seed.

Although Welch doesn't refer to it specifically, another passage that is often appealed to by proponents of the Acts 28 position is Romans 4:10-17, where Paul told the uncircumcised believers in Rome that Abraham is "the father of all those who are believing through uncircumcision, for righteousness to be reckoned to them..." and then referred to Abraham as "the father of us all" - i.e., both those who were circumcised and those who weren't (see Rom. 4:10-17). However, it should be obvious that Paul was not saying that Abraham was literally the "father" of Gentile believers, or that Gentiles had literally become his "sons." Paul was using figurative, metaphorical language here. A person could be considered a "son" or "child" of someone or something if there was some resemblance or shared characteristic between them, or if they exemplified some particular characteristic or quality. For example, James and John were figuratively referred to by Christ as the "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17), Satan is said to have been the "father" of the unbelieving Jews (John 8:38, 44), Judas is referred to as the "son of destruction" (John 17:12), and Christ's disciples were commanded to love their enemies "so that [they] may become sons of [their] Father Who is in the heavens..." (Matt. 5:44-45). Peter - addressing those who literally were of the seed of Abraham - even told the female Jewish recipients of his letter that they "became" the children of Abraham's wife Sarah (1 Pet. 3:6). The sense in which they "became" her children is not the same sense in which they already were her descendents, by birth. This likely has to do with their becoming like her through their faith in God and their obedience to their husbands.

Those who believe Paul's evangel - whether Jew or Gentile - are figuratively "sons" of Abraham (and Abraham is figuratively our "father") in the sense that there is an important resemblance and connection between us. Just as Abraham believed God and was justified by faith, apart from works (and prior to his being circumcised), we, too, have been justified by faith, apart from works. When an uncircumcised member of the nations believes Paul's evangel, they are "observing the elements of the faith in the footprints of our father Abraham" (Rom. 4:12). Because believing Gentiles share with Abraham the distinguishing characteristic of believing in God apart from works or circumcision for their justification, Abraham can be figuratively referred to as our "father," and we as his "sons."

"A Chaste Virgin"

Welch: "The Apostle speaks of “espousing them to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (II Corinthians 11:2)."

In 2 Corinthians 11:1-3, Paul writes, "Would that you had borne with any little imprudence of mine! Nay, and be bearing with me, for I am jealous over you with a jealousy of God. For I betroth you to one Man, to present a chaste virgin to Christ. Yet I fear lest, somehow, as the serpent deludes Eve by its craftiness, your apprehensions should be corrupted from the singleness and pureness which is in Christ."

In contrast with what Clyde Pilkington believes, Welch sees Paul's words in verse 2 as supporting his view that the Gentiles who believed Paul's evangel prior to Acts 28 were not members of the body of Christ, but were rather the "bride of the Lambkin" referred to by the apostle John (Rev. 19:7;  21:2, 9-10; 22:17; cf. John 3:29; Mark 2:10). However, in Paul's previous letter to the Corinthians, he clearly referred to those who believed his evangel - including himself - as being "the body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27). Paul used this same figurative imagery again (and, to a degree, expanded upon it) in two of his prison epistles (i.e., Ephesians and Colossians). It seems evident that the body of Christ that existed before Paul's imprisonment is the same corporate entity which existed during (and has continued to exist after) his imprisonment from the fact that Paul anticipated the body of Christ undergoing a transition in which the "spiritual endowments" that certain believers then experienced would cease, leaving only "faith, expectation and love" to remain (1 Cor. 13:8-13). It is clear from Romans 12:3-8 that the body of Christ at the time Paul wrote was benefiting from the gifts of prophecy, dispensing, teaching, entreating, sharing, etc. And in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the body of Christ as being edified and brought to maturity as a result of its having been given the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11-14). It seems reasonable, then, to conclude that the same "body of Christ" is in view in all three passages. But if this is in fact the case, then Welch's view that 2 Corinthians 11:2 supports the Acts 28 dispensational position must be mistaken.

So what is the meaning of the figurative imagery Paul used in this passage? Concerning the meaning of the "chaste virgin" imagery, A.E. Knoch notes in his commentary:

"Paul did not wish the Corinthians to divide their allegiance among a number of men, nor indeed, to yield it to anyone but Christ. When a virgin is engaged, she is no longer free to follow other men, but should keep herself for her affianced. So with us. Let us not follow men, but be single toward Christ. The point in this figure is confined to the singleness and purity of the espoused virgin. It must not be overstretched into an allusion to the marriage state. The faithful in Israel are the bride of the Lambkin. Israel was Jehovah's wife, but was divorced for her unfaithfulness. John the Baptist introduced the bride to the Bridegroom. His disciples left him for his Lord. The new Jerusalem will be on earth, the home of the twelve tribes of Israel. Ours is a heavenly allotment."(

When correctly understood, the "chaste virgin" imagery of 2 Cor. 11:2 is just as applicable to believers after Paul's imprisonment as it was to believers before his imprisonment.  The figurative imagery is simply meant to convey the idea that Paul wanted those to whom he wrote to have a pure and single-minded devotion to Christ, and that this was his desire for them from the beginning, when he first made known to them his evangel (notice that Paul distinguishes himself from the "chaste virgin" that symbolizes the believers to whom he wrote; Paul was the one figuratively "betrothing" them to Christ). To go beyond this simple point is to misunderstand the reason for which Paul used the imagery.[1]

"To the Jew First"

Welch: "These statements from Romans 11 are sufficient to prevent us from assuming that, because there is evidently DOCTRINAL equality in the Acts period, there is also DISPENSATIONAL equality.  This is not so, for Romans declares that the Jew is still “first,” and the middle wall still stands, making membership of the One Body as revealed in Ephesians impossible."

In this quote, Welch is making reference to Romans 1:16 (where we read of the Jew being "first") and Ephesians 2:14 (where Paul speaks of the "dividing wall" or "central wall" being "broken down" or "razed"). Let's first consider Paul's reference to the Jew being "first." Does this mean that the Gentiles in the body of Christ were subservient to Israelites in the body of Christ prior to Acts 28:28? Notice that in Romans 1:16, we aren't told that the evangel was commanded to go to the Jew first. Paul is not establishing a principle of evangelistic priority here; rather, he is more likely referring to the historic reality of those who first heard and believed the evangel entrusted to him. Paul was, of course, an Israelite (2 Cor. 11:22; Phil.3:4-6). And, being the first to receive his "evangel of the uncircumcision," he was the first to experience God's power for salvation to those who are believing it. Moreover, throughout Paul's ministry as recorded in Acts, it was Paul's manner to speak the word of God to Israelites first. On three separate occasions, Paul states that he was turning to the Gentiles after having already testified to the Jews of the Messianic identity of Jesus and the kingdom of God (and seen this truth largely rejected by them):

"It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eonian life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles." Acts 13:46

"And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”" Acts 18:6

"Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God was dispatched to the Gentiles; they will hear." Acts 28:28

This is consistent with the fact that Christ told Ananias that Paul would be carrying his name "before the nations and kings and the children of Israel" (Acts 9:15). However, Paul's commission from Christ was, from the beginning, one that would be primarily to the nations rather than to his own people (see Acts 22:21; 26:15-18; Rom. 11:13; 15:16). Paul's proclaiming Christ to the Jews was consistent with his commission, and his testifying to them first was most likely done out of his deep love for his brethren according to the flesh (Romans 9:1-5; 10:1). It was his love for the Jewish people that made it "necessary" to him to go to them first, not a command from God or Christ, or because Paul was laboring under a different dispensation than that under which he labored during the time of his Roman imprisonment.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Welch is correct. Let's assume that there was, in fact, a "dispensational inequality" between Jew and Gentile prior to Paul's imprisonment. Even if this "inequality" pertained to Jews and Gentiles in general, it wouldn't mean it pertained to those who were members of the body of Christ. When Paul said the Jew was "first," there is no indication that he had in view those who were now members of the body of Christ (as Paul was). In fact, during this time of Paul's ministry, Paul said that both those who were circumcised and those who were uncircumcised were "one" in Christ: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28; cf. Col. 3:11). According to Paul, if anyone is "in Christ" (i.e., in the body of Christ as a result of believing Paul's evangel of the uncircumcision) there is a "new creation" (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17). Although Paul considered circumcision an advantage for believing, law-abiding Israelites (Rom. 2:25; 3:1), for those who are a new creation in Christ (whether Jew or Gentile), neither circumcision nor uncircumcision was considered by Paul to be of any consequence (Gal. 6:15), and, consequently, of no advantage whatsoever. Within the body of Christ, all "fleshly" distinctions (whether ethnic, sexual or socio-economic) are irrelevant (2 Cor. 5:16).

Thus, what Paul said concerning Gentiles in the body of Christ in his epistle to the Ephesians (e.g., Eph. 3:6) was just as true of the believers to whom he wrote in Galatia, Rome and Corinth: whether Jew or Gentile (or slave or free, or male or female), all members of the body of Christ were (and are) "...joint enjoyers of an allotment, and a joint body, and joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus, through the evangel of which [Paul] became the dispenser..." Thus, even before Paul's imprisonment, the status of an Israelite prior to joining the body of Christ (where circumcision would be an advantage to him in the eons to come if he was faithful and maintained "the just requirements of the law") was not the same as their status within the body of Christ (where circumcision was not, and could not be, of any advantage whatsoever). So even if there was some sort of "dispensational inequality" during Paul's "Acts ministry" (as Welch believes), it doesn't follow that this inequality existed within the body of Christ.

"The Middle Wall of Division"

Welch: "...Romans declares that the Jew is still 'first,' and the middle wall still stands, making membership of the One Body as revealed in Ephesians impossible" (emphasis mine).

Paul nowhere states in Romans (or in any of his pre-prison epistles) that the "middle wall of division" (or "central wall of the barrier") referred to in Ephesians 2:14 was still "standing" during this earlier period of his ministry. It must be assumed (as it is by Welch and other Acts 28 proponents) that the "central wall of the barrier" was not "razed" until after Paul's imprisonment, as Paul does not actually say this anywhere. What Paul does say, however, is perfectly consistent with the position that this "wall" was "razed" sometime before he was imprisoned. In fact, there is good reason to believe that this "razing" took place when Paul's "evangel of peace" (spoken of in verse 17) began to be proclaimed to Jew and Gentile alike, and the body of Christ (the "one new humanity" of v. 15 and "one body" of v. 16) began to be formed.

As argued in my article, "The Status of the Body of Christ Prior to Acts 28:28," Paul has in view two different "eras" or time periods in this context, with regards to those to whom he wrote: (1) the era before they believed the "word of truth, the evangel of their salvation," and (2) the era after they believed. Before they believed his evangel, those to whom he wrote were "without Christ" and "without God in the world." They were walking in their offenses and sins, "in accord with the eon of this world, in accord with the chief of the jurisdiction of the air" (Eph. 2:1-2). After they believed, however, they were "in Christ," "brought near by the blood of Christ" and given "access, in one spirit, to the Father." They were "a new creation" and "conciliated to God" (2 Cor. 5:17-18). The context, then, has nothing at all to do with a so-called "dispensational dividing line" at Acts 28:28. Paul is simply referring to their life before and after they believed his gospel and became members of the body of Christ. The Gentiles to whom Paul wrote were "far off" and without access to the Father before they believed his evangel of the uncircumcision; afterwards, however, they (along with their believing Jewish brethren within the body of Christ) were "brought near" and given full access, in one spirit.

When Paul spoke of Christ as "razing" the "central wall of the barrier" and "nullifying the law of precepts in decrees" in verses 14-15, he was using figurative language. Christ had not, of course, literally "razed" a wall. What then does Paul mean by these words? He was likely alluding to the physical wall of partition at the Herodian temple (called the soreg) which prohibited Gentiles from entering into the temple courts, and to the man-made decrees that enforced such separations. We know from historical and archeological evidence that the Jewish leaders in Paul's day had decreed that Gentiles could not enter into God's sanctuary. As a visible expression and reminder of this law, a low wall made of stone surrounding the temple in Jerusalem had been erected.

We also know that this stone barrier featured various signs/inscriptions that warned unauthorized people - e.g., Gentiles - against entering the area of the temple (which the Jews thought would pollute the temple; see Acts 21:28). Concerning this wall, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote, "When you go through these [first] cloisters, unto the second [court of the] temple, there was a partition made of stone all round, whose height was three cubits: its construction was very elegant; upon it stood pillars, at equal distances from one another, declaring the law of purity, some in Greek, and some in Roman letters, that "no foreigner should go within that sanctuary" for that second [court of the] temple was called "the Sanctuary," and was ascended to by fourteen steps from the first court (The Wars of the Jews, Book 5, Chapter 5, Verse 2).

In his commentary, A.E. Knoch affirms this interpretation of the "central wall of the barrier," and even provides his readers with one of the decrees inscribed on an unearthed part of the wall: "No alien is to enter within the balustrade and embankment about the sacred place. Whoever is caught will be responsible for his death, which will ensue." Inexplicably, however, Knoch went on to assert that the "law of precepts in decrees" referred to in v. 15 (immediately after Paul's allusion to the soreg) are "the decrees issued from Jerusalem by the apostles (Ac.15:20;16:4)." However, a more consistent (and, I believe, less problematic) interpretation would see Paul's reference to a "law of precepts in decrees" in v. 15 as simply an extension of his "soreg" imagery in v. 14.

It is important to emphasize that the soreg was not a divinely-sanctioned part of the temple. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we read of such a structure intended to keep Gentiles from entering the temple precinct. As such, the soreg was a man-made barrier, with corresponding man-made decrees. By using the imagery of the razing of this wall and the nullifying of the decrees by Christ, Paul was simply saying that the sort of separation that the religious leaders of Israel had imposed on others was completely done away with for those who had believed his evangel. Notice that Paul closely associates the razing of the wall and the nullifying of the law of precepts in decrees with the "one new humanity" in v. 15 and the "one body" in v. 16. These were realities that those who believed Paul's evangel were a part of years before Paul's imprisonment in Rome (and even before the Jerusalem council described in Acts 15). Consequently, the razing of the "central wall of the barrier" can't be understood as having anything at all to do with the "setting aside of Israel as a nation" (which is something that would've had nothing to do with the "razing" of this wall, anyway).

For as long as the body of Christ and the "new humanity" has existed, the "central wall of the barrier" - and the "decrees" associated with it - have necessarily been "razed" and "nullified" by Christ. They were done away with by Christ when the "evangel of peace" began to be believed and the body of Christ began to be formed. Within the body of Christ peace had been made between Jew and Gentile, for all are "one in Christ" and have, "in one spirit," been "baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and all are made to imbibe one spirit" (1 Cor. 12:12-13). In the body of Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything (Gal. 6:15). Whether Jew or Gentile, all who believe Paul's evangel have been reconciled to God through the cross, and have equal access to the Father, in one spirit. There is simply no evidence from any of Paul's epistles that the body of Christ has ever been divided by the "central wall of the barrier" or the "law of precepts in decrees" referred to in Ephesians 2. No such division has ever characterized members of the body of Christ. We are, and always have been, a "new creation" that is entirely distinct from Israel.

[1] 2 Corinthians 11:2 may not be the only verse in which Paul used "feminine" imagery to emphasize something about the believer's relationship to Christ. As some commentators have noted, the imagery Paul uses in Ephesians 5:26-27 may be an allusion to the ancient practice of purifying women who were appointed to be consorts to kings, and to their being presented before the king (compare what Paul says in these verses with Esther 2:12-13, Psalm 45:13-14 and Ezekiel 16:7-14). 

If this is the case, it wouldn't mean that the body of Christ referred to in Ephesians is actually identical to the body of believing, faithful Israelites who are figuratively described elsewhere as the "bride of the Lambkin." Just as the figurative imagery used by Paul in 2 Cor. 11:2 is meant to convey the idea that the believer is to have a single-minded devotion to Christ, so the figurative imagery simply emphasizes the treasured and beloved status of the body of Christ in the eyes of Christ, our Head.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

1 Corinthians 6:2 and the Location and Role of the Body of Christ During the Oncoming Eons

In 1 Corinthians 6:2, Paul writes that "the saints shall judge the world." In the context, the "saints" to whom Paul is referring are those who believed his evangel, and who are consequently members of the body of Christ. The word "judge" simply conveys the idea of reigning over, and making decisions concerning, those in a subordinate position. But to what does the "world" which the saints will be judging refer? 

We know that Israel's ministry during the eons to come will involve the nations on earth (Zech. 8:20-23). We're told that the faithful saints of Israel are going to be ruling over the nations as priests and kings, and "shepherding them with an iron club" (Rev. 2:26-27; 12:1-2, 5). Ever since God promised to bless "all the families of the earth" in Abraham's offspring (Gen. 12:1-3), and to give to Abraham and his offspring "all the land of Canaan for an eonian allotment," (Gen. 17:7-8; 48:4), the expectation of believing Israelites has been terrestrial in nature. With the only exception being certain prophecies concerning the Messiah in which an ascension to heaven is implied (Psalm  Psalm 16:10-11; 68:18; 110:1; Daniel 7:13), nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is heaven ever said to be the future home of any human being. It is on the earth - not in heaven - that believing Israelites expected to live and reign during the reign of the Messiah (Jer. 23:5-6;  Jer. 31:1-40; Isa. 61:1-62: 12; Isa. 65:17-24; Ezek. 36:24-38; Mic.2:12-13; Zech. 14:8-20; cf. Rev. 20:6). We further read that the reign of the Messiah and of the faithful within Israel will be characterized by peace and harmony on the earth (Isa. 2:1-4; 11:6-9; 14:3-7; Isa. 35:6-7, 32:15, 35:1; Isa. 51:3; Isa. 65:25; Amos 9:13). 

When we come to the Greek scriptures, we find that this "earthly" thread continues: it was "the land" (or "earth") - not heaven - which Christ promised the meek they would enjoy as an allotment (Matthew 5:5), and it was over the twelve tribes of Israel that Christ promised his disciples they would judge after he returned to earth to sit on the "throne of his glory" (Matt. 19:28). Even when Christ speaks of rewards in heaven (Matt. 5:12), he doesn't say anyone will be going there to receive their reward. Rather, it is after Christ has returned to earth and begun his reign that the faithful will be recompensed (Matt. 16:27; Rev. 22:12). In Revelation, John also speaks of the saints as reigning "on the earth" (Rev. 5:9-10). Even the "celestial Jerusalem" that we are told God has made ready for the men and women of faith referred to in Hebrews 11 (see Heb. 11:10, 16; 12:22) - and in which faithful Israelites will be reigning as kings (Rev. 21:9-14; 22:3-5) - is not going to be in heaven during the last and greatest eon, for John twice describes the city as "descending out of heaven from God" (Rev. 21:2, 10).

But what about the saints in the body of Christ, to whom Paul wrote? What will we be doing during these future eons, while Israel is ruling over the nations on the earth? Although Paul doesn't provide us with much detail, the little that he does say suggests that our role will, in some respects, resemble that of Israel's. At least part of our role will involve ruling and reigning with Christ in the kingdom (2 Tim. 2:12). Reigning with Christ is likely the special "allotment" that Paul had in mind when he warned that some believers wouldn't be "enjoying the allotment of the kingdom of God," because of how they lived (Gal. 5:21; 1 Cor. 6:10). So again, reigning certainly seems to be part of what (at least some) saints in the body of Christ will be doing during the eons to come. But where - and over whom - will we be reigning? 

The Greek word translated "world" in 1 Cor. 6:2 is kosmos, and means "system" or "something ordered." A.E. Knoch defines it as "an orderly arrangement." Strong's Concordance defines kosmos as "the world, universe; worldly affairs; the inhabitants of the world; adornment." Although kosmos is often used in reference to the inhabitants of the earth, or to the constitution of human society (especially considered in its present, "fallen" state), the word does not, in itself, necessarily refer to the earth, or to the human inhabitants of the earth. In the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), the word means the "host" (stars) of heaven (see Gen. 2:1; Deut. 4:19; 17:3; Isa. 24:21). In 1 Pet. 3:3, kosmos refers to a woman's adornment. Kosmos could also be used to refer to the entire cosmological created order (i.e., the universe), embracing both the heavens and the earth (see Isaiah 13:10 in the LXX, as well as Acts 17:24; Rom 1:20; Eph. 1:4; Heb. 4:3; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:5-7; Rev. 13:8). 

When understood in this broader, cosmological sense of the entire created order or "system," the earth is not the only part or aspect of the kosmosor world. It is only a relatively small part of it. So allowing the possibility that Paul had in mind  the "cosmological created order" (and, by implication, the beings who inhabit it) when he used kosmos in 1 Cor. 6:2 (as I think is reasonable), let's consider the following question: Did Paul have in mind the entire kosmos, or only a certain part or aspect of it? That is, did Paul have in view the terrestrial aspect of the kosmos, the heavenly/celestial, or perhaps both? To determine what exactly Paul had in mind here, we must consider both the immediate context of this passage as well as the larger context of Paul's letters. 

The Broader Context 

When we consider the larger context of Paul's letters, we find that the eonian expectation of those who believe his evangel and become members of the body of Christ is not terrestrial in nature. According to Paul, the eonian destiny of the saints in the body of Christ is "in the heavens" and "among the celestials," not on the earth. In 2 Cor. 5:1 Paul says to members of the body of Christ, "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 body as "terrestrial" if our future home will be just as earthly as our present home? It seems clear that, by calling our present body "terrestrial" (earthly), Paul is drawing a contrast between it and our future body. By specifying our present body as "terrestrial," Paul is distinguishing the realm for which it is suited from the realm for which our future body will be suited. As if to make sure his readers "get it," Paul goes on to speak of our future body - and consequently our future life - as "eonian, in the heavens." This earth is the realm for which our present, mortal body is suited. But as member of the body of Christ, the realm for which our future immortal body is suited - the realm in which we will enjoy "eonian life" - is "in the heavens." Moreover, Paul writes that our future "home" is where the Lord is, presently (2 Cor. 5:8-9) - i.e., heaven. 

Consider also Phil 3:19-21, where Paul speaks of the "enemies of the cross of Christ" as being disposed "to the terrestrial." Paul goes on to say, "For our realm is inherent in the heavens, out of which we are awaiting a Savior also, the Lord, Jesus Christ, Who will transfigure the body of our humiliation, to conform it to the body of His glory, in accord with the operation which enables Him even to subject all to Himself." The words "in the heavens" refer to an actual location, as is evident from the fact that it is the "realm" from which Christ will be descending when he comes to vivify us. The heavenly location in which Christ is now present - and from which we're told he will be descending (1 Thess. 4:16) - is the realm that the body of Christ is destined for, and will be brought to when Christ returns for us (and notice that nothing is said about us coming back down to earth in 1 Thess. 4:16-17; it is on the earth that God's indignation is going to be poured out during the "day of the Lord," and Paul tells us that the body of Christ is not appointed for this). We see a similar contrast between being disposed to the terrestrial vs. being disposed to the celestial (where our future home is) in Col 3:1-4. And earlier, Paul wrote that our expectation is "reserved for [us] in the heavens" (Col 1:5), since that's where our "realm" or "citizenship" is. 

We also read that members of the body of Christ are blessed "with every spiritual blessing among the celestials" (Eph. 1:3), and that we are to be seated "among the celestials, in Christ Jesus, that, in the oncoming eons, He [God] should be displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2:6-7). Being vivified, roused and seated together among the celestials is our eonian destiny as members of the body of Christ. [Note: Paul's use of the present tense here is, I believe, an example of the figure of speech known as "prolepsis." According to this figure of speech, something that is future is spoken of as though it has already taken place (or as if it were already present) in order to emphasize the certainty of its taking place. Other examples of this figure of speech can be found in Matt 18:17; John 14:16-17 (cf. 16:7); John 17:11 (cf. 16:28); John 17:24 (cf. v. 5); Rom 4:17; 2 Cor. 5:1; Eph. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:16 (cf. 2 Thess. 1:5-9); 2 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:6; and Heb. 2:8. In each of these verses, future realities are spoken of as if they had already taken place because of the certainty of their ultimately occurring]. Finally, Paul referred to the kingdom in which he expected to reign as being a "celestial kingdom" (2 Tim 4:18). Although this verse wouldn't, by itself, be conclusive evidence that Paul expected to be in the heavens rather than on earth during the eons to come, it does confirm what he clearly reveals elsewhere as being his expectation. Thus we see that, from the larger context of Paul's letters, our eonian life as saints in the body of Christ will be "in the heavens" and "among the celestials," rather than on the earth, and among terrestrial beings.

The Immediate Context

Having considered the larger context of Paul's letters, let's now return to Paul's words in 1 Cor. 6:2. Does the immediate context indicate that the "world" (kosmos) which the saints to whom Paul wrote will be judging (i.e., reigning over and making decisions concerning) is the heavenly/celestial aspect of the cosmological created order? I think what Paul says in verse 3 answers this question in the affirmative. There, Paul writes that the saints "shall be judging messengers" (or "angels"). What Paul says in this verse should, I believe, be understood as clarifying/specifying what he meant in the previous verse. Since Paul speaks of judging "messengers," it can be reasonably inferred that the aspect of the kosmos he had in view - and which is in need of being "judged" by the saints in the body of Christ - is the heavenly/celestial realm.

Scripture is clear that the heavenly realm  includes both good and evil celestial beings. We know that many of the celestial beings/messengers in heaven serve, obey and worship God (Heb. 1:14). And just as they are now subordinate to, and under the authority of, Christ (Heb. 1:4-6; 1 Pet. 3:22), so they will be under the authority of those who constitute his "body" during the eons to come (Eph. 1:20-23). But in Ephesians 6:12 we read of another class of celestial beings. There, Paul writes that "it is not ours to wrestle with blood and flesh, but with the sovereignties, with the authorities, with the world-mights of this darkness, with the spiritual forces of wickedness among the celestials." Thus, in addition to the holy celestial beings who presently serve and obey God, the "angels" or "messengers" that Paul had in mind in 1 Cor. 6:3 may also be understood as including those celestial beings who are, at present, hostile towards humanity, and aligned with Satan - i.e., the wicked, high-ranking celestial being whom Paul refers to as "the god of this eon" (2 Cor. 4:4). The apostle John even refers to the celestial beings who will be fighting alongside Satan ("the dragon") as his "messengers" or "angels" (Rev. 12:8). Thus, it would seem that one of the roles of the body of Christ during the eons to come will be judging this class of celestial beings. 

As noted earlier, Paul writes that, when we're seated among the celestials during the oncoming eons, God will be "displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:7). That is, God's kindness toward us during these future eons is going to be putting the transcendent riches of his grace on display. But for whose sake is God's grace going to be on display? Well, when Paul says "the celestials," he probably has in mind celestial beings here - i.e., the sort of beings mentioned in Eph 3:10 and 6:12. They're said to be "celestials" because of the realm for which they were created by God (i.e., the heavens, where Christ is now). These are likely the beings to whom God will be displaying his grace in his kindness to us during the eons to come. Paul also says that the body of Christ exists so that God can make known to "the sovereignties and authorities among the celestials the multifarious wisdom of God, in accord with the purpose of the eons" (Eph. 3:9-11). In other words, one of the primary reasons the body of Christ exists is so that the "celestials" may learn something about God's grace and wisdom that they (apparently) don't already know or fully understand.

Objection: After revealing that believers are going to be snatched away by Christ to meet Him in the air, Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, "And thus shall we always be together with the Lord." Since we know that Christ is going to be on the earth for at least some (perhaps much) of the time during the eons to come, wouldn't it follow that the saints in the body of Christ will be on the earth as well? Otherwise, how could it be said that we will "always be together with the Lord?"

Response: In response to this objection, let's first consider the word "thus" (houtōs). This word literally means "the-same-as." Strong's concordance defines it as meaning, "in this way." The word occurs frequently in the scriptures; one example is in Matthew 5:12, when Christ told his disciples, "For thus (houtōs) they persecute the prophets before you" - that is, in this way were the prophets before them persecuted. So Paul is saying, "And in this way shall we always be together with the Lord." So the question we need to ask ourselves is, "in what way shall we always be together with Christ?" Before we try to answer this question, let's look at the word translated "together with" (sun). Strong's defines sun as follows: "A primary preposition denoting union; with or together (but much closer than meta or para), that is, by association, companionship, process, resemblance, possession, instrumentality, addition, etc.: - beside, with." Similarly, A.E. Knoch says this word denotes "a more intimate association than that expressed by with." 

Now, let's assume that by "thus...together with" Paul is referring to our physical/spatial proximity to Christ when we meet him in the air. That this interpretation of Paul's words is untenable should be evident from the following consideration: if Paul had spatial proximity in view here, then he would be saying that, however physically close a person is to Christ when they meet him in the air, that person will remain in that same spatial proximity to Christ for the entirety of his or her existence! Given the absurdity of this conclusion, it's highly unlikely that Paul was talking about our spatial proximity to Christ here. It's more likely that by "together with" Paul has in mind our intimate, relational union with Christ, as members of his body.

Since it's unlikely that Paul is talking about our physical/spatial proximity to Christ, then in what way shall we always be "together with" - that is, in intimate, relational union with - the Lord? Well, we know Paul isn't talking about our remaining forever in the air/in the clouds after we're snatched away from the earth. This isn't our final destination, but simply where we're going to be meeting before continuing on to our eonian abode "in the heavens." Since we can rule out both spatial proximity and location, I think the most reasonable position is that Paul is referring to the event he just described involving the body of Christ. At the snatching away, members of the body of Christ are going to be changed into immortal, incorruptible beings, and will thus "wear the image of the Celestial" (1 Cor. 15:49-54). We can therefore understand Paul's meaning in v. 18 as follows: the vivified, immortal state into which we're going to be introduced when we're snatched away to meet Christ in the air is what will allow us to always be in intimate, relational union with Christ - a union which will never be broken by death. And this will be the case whether we happen to be in close physical proximity to Christ, or not.