Saturday, March 26, 2016

Acts 28 Dispensationalism Revisited: A Response to “Proof of Paul’s Progression” (Part Four)

Miscellaneous Subjects

As evidence for his position, Stephen claims that there are things said by Paul in his “pre-prison” letters that are not as relevant or applicable to the body of Christ today as they were when Paul wrote to the saints at that time. The examples he gives are repentance, the Lord's Dinner and the spiritual gifts (e.g., speaking in tongues, performing miracles, healing and prophesying). Stephen writes: “Consider this: if we neglect to rightly divide Paul's epistles, we have no choice but to partake in the Lord's Dinner, seek the spiritual gifts, attempt to heal others, and so forth. Paul instructed his early readers (especially the Corinthians) to do all these things, declaring that Christ had passed them along to him. If Paul's letters are all equally relevant for us today, then either those ordinances are still valid, or Paul contradicts himself.”

The Spiritual Gifts

According to Stephen, partaking in the Lord's Dinner, seeking the spiritual gifts, attempting to heal and prophesying are all “ordinances in keeping with the Israeli program.” In “The Status of the Body of Christ Prior to Acts 28:28,” I argued that the presence and exercise of spiritual gifts (e.g., speaking in tongues, healing, prophesying) at the time when Paul wrote to the Corinthians need not be understood as suggesting that Paul’s ministry at this time was in accord with an “Israeli program.” There is simply no need to divide up Paul’s letters into two distinct “dispensational” categories in order to understand why the spiritual gifts were in operation at that time, but aren’t today. It was because of the unique circumstances in that day that the spiritual gifts were present within the body of Christ when Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

One of the reasons for their manifestation had to do with the validation of Paul’s apostleship as the apostle of the nations (see 2 Cor. 12:11-13; cf. 13:1-3). In Romans 15:18-19, Paul referred to the “signs and wonders” he performed in validation of his apostleship as being “for the obedience of the nations” (not “of Israel” or even “of Greek proselytes”), and - as noted earlier - these signs and wonders had been manifested from the beginning of his ministry to the nations (Acts 15:12). They were never meant to have a permanent place in the administration of the grace of God, but continued to be manifested only for as long as God deemed it necessary. When their manifestation ceased (or began to cease), Paul’s instructions to the saints regarding them ceased to be directly applicable. But again, their ceasing had nothing to do with Israel, or with the ending of one administration and the beginning of a new one.

With regards to the issue of applicability and relevance, something that needs to be kept in mind is that none of Paul’s letters – whether they were written during the “Acts era” or afterwards – were written directly to anyone alive today. No one alive today was among the original recipients of Paul’s letters. This is not to deny that what Paul wrote to the saints in the body of Christ in the first century is more relevant, applicable and useful to believers today than (for example) James’ letter to the twelve tribes scattered abroad. But it does mean that there are some things said by Paul that are less relevant and applicable to the saints today than they were to the saints that Paul had in mind when he wrote his letters – and this, again, is true regardless of when the letters were written.

Paul’s instructions regarding the use of the spiritual gifts that were present within the body of Christ when Paul wrote to the Corinthians isn't the only example of Paul exhorting or entreating the original recipients of his letters to do things which a subsequent change in circumstances (circumstances which had nothing to do with a change in administrations) rendered inapplicable and no longer directly relevant to those reading his letters. Consider, for example, Paul’s request in Ephesians 6:18-20, as well as his subsequent remarks in verses 21-22. It would be absurd to argue that, because what Paul wrote in these verses is not directly applicable or relevant to those reading today, it must be because we live in a different administration or dispensation! The fact is simply that a change in circumstances which had nothing to do with the administration we’re under caused this part of Paul’s letter to lose its direct relevance and applicability to those reading. I’m not, of course, saying that these words of Paul are entirely without applicability, or that they have no benefit for us; I’m simply pointing out what should be obvious: not everything that Paul wrote (whether in his “pre-prison letters” or “prison letters”) directly pertains to us, or to every possible saint whom Paul believed may read his letters. Even for those saints who were among the first to read or hear what Paul wrote in Ephesians, the last few verses ceased to have the same relevance and applicability that they originally had when the circumstances that made it necessary for Paul to write what he did changed.

Consider also Phil. 2:25-30, noting especially Paul’s appeal to the recipients of his letter to “receive him [Epaphroditus].” Can Stephen or any other saints besides those to whom Paul wrote this letter do what Paul requested? No. What about Paul’s further entreatment in Phil. 4:2-3? Again, the answer is no. Or how about what Paul wrote in Colossians 4:2-4, 7-10 and 15-17? Can the saints today do what Paul exhorted the original recipients of this letter to do in these verses? If not, does it mean we exist in a different administration? Or does it simply mean that the circumstances of those to whom Paul originally wrote and our own circumstances are such that what Paul wrote in these verses simply doesn’t directly pertain to us? Obviously, it’s the latter. These are not, of course, the only examples of things that Paul wrote in his letters which, although not directly applicable to us today, Paul nonetheless included in his letters because of the circumstances at that time. But these examples should, hopefully, suffice.

Repentance: It’s Not Just For Jews

According to Stephen, “Repentance is another important distinguisher between Paul’s earlier and later epistles.” Stephen then adds, “Paul’s message in his earlier epistles contained a call to repentance, whereas his latter epistles stressed justification through faith.” The sentence I underlined is perhaps the most perplexing and head-scratching statement Stephen makes in his entire article. So off-base is this statement that I actually thought I’d misread what Stephen wrote immediately after reading it. The most glaring problem with this assertion is the idea that Paul’s “latter epistles stressed justification through faith,” whereas his earlier epistles didn’t. Stephen must have been sleep-deprived when he wrote that. Even a cursory reading of Paul’s letters makes it clear that Paul spoke of justification by faith far more frequently in his “earlier letters” than in any of the letters he wrote while in prison (or after he was imprisoned). In fact, by my count the words “justification,” “justify” or “justified” appear in Paul’s “earlier epistles” (Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Romans) at least 15 times. Contrast this with the number of times that any of these words appear in his “latter epistles”: the word “justified” appears only once, in Titus 3:7. To this fact Stephen may reply, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean the truth of justification isn’t implied in Paul’s other ‘prison epistles’; just because a certain term isn’t explicitly used by Paul doesn’t mean the idea or concept isn’t present.” Agreed, but as we’ll see below, the same could be said concerning the truth of repentance.

Stephen seems to think that repenting and being justified by faith are somehow mutually exclusive – as if one cannot be justified and also be in need of “repenting” of something. But when we understand what “repentance” is, it should be obvious that this is simply not the case. The Greek noun metanoia (usually translated “repentance”) simply means “a change of mind about something or someone”; similarly, its cognate verb metanoeo (“repent”) simply means “to change one’s mind about something or someone.” There is ample evidence in the New Testament, the Septuagint (LXX) and in extra-biblical Greek literature that supports this understanding of the words.[1] The words, by themselves, are completely neutral with regards to that about which one is changing one’s mind (or not), or about which one is being called to change one’s mind (and that includes the action that is expected to follow from the change of mind). Only the context in which the words are found can inform us of this. 

Although metanoia and metanoeo were certainly used in reference to the need of an Israelite to think (and then act) differently with regards to both their individual sins as well as their national unbelief/rejection of Christ, the words have nothing inherently to do with Israel, the Mosaic Law or an Israelite’s view of Christ. For example, Paul declared to the pagan (non-proselytized) Gentiles in Athens that “God is now charging mankind that all everywhere are to repent (metanoeo), forasmuch as He assigns a day in which He is about to be judging the inhabited earth in righteousness by the Man Whom He specifies, tendering faith to all, raising Him from among the dead-” (Acts 17:30-31). In the context, the “repentance” (or change of mind) in view involves turning away from the worship of false gods/idols and worshipping the one true God (as he has revealed himself in “the man whom he specifies,” Christ Jesus).

Again, to repent is simply to change one’s mind about something or someone (which, depending on what one is changing one’s mind about, will result in changed behavior). Our being justified – i.e., our being declared (or reckoned) righteous by God – does not put us beyond the need to change our mind with regards to some erroneous belief(s) we may have, or concerning some unloving, sinful behavior(s) we may be engaged in. It does not put us beyond the need to think differently about something and then to begin to act differently. The saints in Corinth to whom Paul wrote had been “justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11) and thus become “God’s righteousness in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:21). As such, they were “new creations” (v. 17). And yet, Paul did not hesitate to rebuke them for certain sinful and immature behavior they were engaged in, and to exhort them to think and act differently. We find this throughout his first letter to them. Interestingly, however, Paul never explicitly tells the Corinthian believers to “repent” of what they were doing in his first letter. And yet, whenever he rebuked them or exhorted them to think or act differently, their need for repentance (to change their mind) was implied. That this is the case is evident from the fact that Paul spoke of their response to his first letter as appropriately involving repentance (2 Cor. 7:9-10). Although Paul seemed satisfied with how some of the saints had responded to the rebukes and exhortations of his first letter, there were still others within the ecclesia who remained in need of “repenting of the uncleanness and prostitution and wantonness” which they were committing (2 Cor. 12:21). Did this mean that, while they were in need of repentance, they weren’t justified by faith? No; of course not. Their eonian life “in the heavens” was just as secure as when they first believed and received the “earnest of the spirit” (2 Cor. 5:1-5). But their justification (and eonian expectation) notwithstanding, they were still “minors in Christ,” and greatly lacking in maturity (1 Cor. 3:1-4).

Because a need for repentance was implied whenever Paul exhorted the Corinthian saints to think and behave differently than how they were behaving (again, Paul never explicitly mentioned repentance in his first letter to them), it can be reasonably concluded that a need for repentance was equally implied elsewhere in his letters whenever he exhorted the saints of other ecclesias to not behave in a certain way or do certain things. For example, Paul’s exhortations in Ephesians 4:17-32 (such as, “Let him who steals by no means still be stealing; yet rather let him be toiling, working with his hands at what is good, that he may have to share with one who has need”) imply a need for repentance for any of the saints who may have been engaged in such sinful behavior, rather than walking worthily of the calling with which they had been called (Eph. 4:1). If someone was stealing or engaged in prostitution (for example), then such behavior was something of which they were in need of repenting (i.e., changing their mind about). But again, a need for a believer to repent (to think and act differently than how they’re thinking and acting) does not imply that one isn’t justified, or that one is in any danger of losing one’s eonian life.

The Lord’s Dinner

Concerning the “Lord’s dinner” referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:20-34 (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17), there is no indication that Paul considered this an ordinance that had to be kept, a “sacrament” that had to be “administered,” or a ceremonial ritual that had to periodically observed by the saints to whom he wrote. There is no evidence that it was considered something that had to be done in order for one to be saved, or in order for one to comply with some standard of righteousness (such as the Mosaic Law). There is, consequently, no contradiction between what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11 on this subject, and what he wrote in Colossians 2:16-23 concerning our freedom from having to comply with religious dietary laws, observe religious holy days, etc. 

Although some have claimed that the Lord’s dinner was the Passover feast, there are several considerations that show this position to be mistaken. We know, for example, that there were uncircumcised Gentiles in the Corinthian ecclesia, and that some of the Gentile saints (perhaps most) were even former idol-worshiping pagans (as has been argued in a previous section). However, we know from Exodus 12:43-48 that uncircumcised Gentiles were not allowed to participate in Israel’s Passover feast. In addition to this, it is implied that the meal which Paul had in view was not an annual event (as was Israel’s Passover feast); it was, rather, something that occurred (or, at least, was suppose to occur) whenever they came together to eat (1 Cor. 11:33-34). Not only does the Lord’s dinner not refer to the Passover, but the meal of which Christ and his twelve disciples partook on the last night of our Lord’s mortal life was not the Passover, either.[1] The so-called “last supper” occurred on the night before the Passover (John 13:1, 29; 18:28; 19:14, 31, 42). Although certain preparations were made for the Passover feast by Christ's disciples, Christ knew his intense yearning to celebrate it with his disciples before his suffering would not be fulfilled (Luke 22:15), and that he would not be eating of the Passover meal with his disciples until after the coming of the kingdom of God (v. 16).

If the Lord’s dinner referred to in 1 Corinthians 11 was neither the Passover feast nor some other type of religious ceremony, ritual or ordinance that the body of Christ had to observe, then what was it? It was (and is), I believe, simply this: a shared meal between members of the body of Christ when we come together “in the same place” to fellowship with one another. Whenever this occurs - and there is an endeavor to “keep the unity of the spirit” (Eph. 4:2-4) – our eating and drinking together is the Lord’s dinner (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17). Through the sharing of a meal in a way that displays this unity, the saints in the body of Christ “are announcing the Lord’s death until He should be coming” (1 Cor. 11:26). However, to the extent that disunity characterizes the gathering together of the saints in the body of Christ - and the ecclesia of God is “despised” through selfish, unloving behavior (vv. 21-22) - the Lord’s dinner is not being eaten.

The Jerusalem Council Decrees

Concerning the “essentials” decided upon at the gathering in Jerusalem (as described in Acts 15), Stephen writes:

"When Paul and Barnabas met with the apostles and elders of Jerusalem to discuss the requirements for salvation for the nations, they agreed that while circumcision was not a requirement, other observances of the Mosaic Law--items they deemed "essentials" (v. 28)--were still to be kept (namely: abstaining from ceremonial pollution with idols, and prostitution, and what is strangled, and blood). This decision, agreed upon by Paul in Acts 15, is a far cry from his later evangel of God's grace which requires no law keeping, whatsoever."

As noted in part three, the decrees presupposed that the nations in view were not proselytes. Rather, the decrees presupposed that they came from a pagan, idol-worshipping background. The meeting in Jerusalem had to do with whether or not those among the nations who were “turning back to God”[2] had to become proselytes (which would’ve involved their being circumcised and keeping the law of Moses) in order to be saved. As Stephen would agree, the answer on which everyone agreed was “no.” Becoming proselytized was not required for the believing Gentiles. This decision notwithstanding, Stephen believes that the four things that they decided the nations would be “well engaged” to be abstaining from were “observances of the Mosaic Law” that were “requirements for salvation.” However, nowhere in the letter in which the decrees are mentioned is there any mention of salvation. Nor do we read of any penalties/consequences for violating the decrees; the letter simply ends by saying that if the nations abstain from the things referred to, they “will be well engaged” (CV), “shall prosper” (Rotherham), or “shall do well” (Young). 

Thus, while the decrees were certainly exhortations to avoid certain things, that does not make them “requirements for salvation” or an example of “law keeping.” Being examples of apostolic exhortations, they should be understood as having the same status as the exhortations found throughout Paul’s letters. They are, in other words, standards that reveal how believers should be “walking” in order to “walk worthily of the calling with which [we] were called” (Eph. 4:1; cf. 4:17-19; 5:15-16). They are not a matter of eonian life or death, but of living in a way that honors God and Christ and promotes peace and harmony between believers. These decrees are no more Mosaic commandments than are Paul’s exhortations that believers not steal (Eph. 4:28), that they avoid prostitution and uncleanness (5:3), and that they abstain from getting drunk with wine (v. 18).

But why were these particular “essentials” chosen, as opposed to others? If, as Stephen believes, these four decrees were selected as requirements for salvation and law-keeping for believing Gentiles, then it would be inexplicable why these four were selected and others excluded. If these essentials are understood as a selection from the 613 laws of Moses that the believing Gentiles were to keep in order to be saved, the selection would be completely arbitrary. To help the reader better appreciate this point, consider the following imaginary dialogue between Peter and James:

James: “Okay, so I think we’re all agreed that the salvation of those among the nations who believe doesn’t depend on their being circumcised - which, as we all know, would make them debtors to the whole Mosaic Law [Gal. 5:3]. At the same time, we don’t want any non-proselytized Gentiles to be complete violators of the whole law, either.”

Peter: “Good point. What do you propose, James?”

James: “Let’s just come up with four commandments to make sure at least part of the law will be kept by them. That should suffice, right?”

Peter: “How about abstaining from idol sacrifices, and blood, and what is strangled, and prostitution?”

James: “Sure; sounds good. All those in favor, say ‘Aye!’”

Understood in this way, the decrees and the decision reached would've been completely contrary to everything Paul wrote concerning the nations being justified by faith apart from the works of the law (as revealed most clearly in Galatians and Romans). Had Paul understood this to be the purpose and nature of the decrees, there is no way he would’ve agreed to it. But if these four decrees aren’t a random selection from the Mosaic Law, how then should we understand them? Although several theories have been put forth (such as seeing the decrees as having their basis in the so-called “Noachide Laws”), I believe the best explanation is that all four essentials had to do with customs associated with pagan cults.[3] That is, the decrees did not comprise a random list of things that the nations were to avoid, but were all connected to certain activities/rituals that were performed in (and were seen as inseparable from) the worship of false gods. This understanding of the decrees would explain why Paul would have no problem approving of them; as Paul made clear in 1 Cor. 10:14-22, it was not appropriate for the saints to be participating in activities that were connected with the worship of demons (which Paul understood as being behind all idolatrous practices).

[1] See, for example, the article at the following link:

[2] When those from the nations repent of their idolatry and turn to the one true God, it can be spoken of as a “turning back to God.” At one point in history, all humanity (i.e., before there were Israelites) worshipped the one true God. Only later did the worship of the one true God degenerate into the worship of false gods/idols. Thus, when any Gentile repents of his idolatry, he is returning, in a sense, to the primitive state of his ancestors.

[3] For a more in-depth defense of this position, the reader is encouraged to check out the following articles: and

Acts 28 Dispensationalism Revisited: A Response to “Proof of Paul’s Progression” (Part Three)

The Nations for Whom Paul Labored during the “Acts Era”

Stephen makes clear his view of when Paul’s ministry began to involve non-proselytized Gentiles (rather than just Greek proselytes). According to Stephen, “The order of progression for Paul’s audience throughout his ministry, then, is as follows: The Jews first, then Greek proselytes, and, lastly, the nations who were previously alienated from Israel’s covenant promises.” Concerning the identity of the “nations” to whom Paul ministered prior to his imprisonment in Rome, Stephen writes, “By preaching to the Jews and Greek proselytes in the synagogues, then, Paul was indeed heralding Christ to the "nations" (as Greeks are non-Israelites by progeny), although those Greeks were clearly aligning themselves with Israel and were considered, for all intents and purposes, ‘Jewish.’” And concerning Paul’s being the “apostle to the nations” prior to his imprisonment, Stephen writes, “Paul retained his title all along, but he could not enact all that his title entailed until God permitted him to, after the full setting aside of Israel.” Thus, according to Stephen’s position, the nations to whom Paul heralded his “evangel of the uncircumcision” prior to his imprisonment in Rome were merely Greek proselytes, and the reason Paul’s imprisonment in Rome was such a pivotal moment in his ministry is because it was at this time that he was able to “enact all that his title entailed” by heralding his evangel to non-proselytized Gentiles – i.e., Gentiles who weren’t “for all intents and purposes, ‘Jewish.’”

In response to Stephen’s position concerning the “nations” to whom Paul heralded Christ before his imprisonment in Rome, I will first be looking at the internal evidence of those letters that Stephen would agree were written before his Roman imprisonment. However, as I argued earlier, proponents of the Acts 28 position could very well be mistaken about which (if any) of Paul’s “prison letters” were actually written while Paul was under house arrest in Rome. If (as I believe to be most likely) Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon - and perhaps others - were written while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, then no further argumentation from me on this subject would even be necessary. But I’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that the dating of Paul’s “prison letters” which is presupposed (and required) by the Acts 28 position is correct. After a consideration of the internal evidence found in some of Paul’s “pre-imprisonment” letters, I will then turn to scriptural territory that Stephen would probably consider more favorable to his position: the book of Acts. As we’ll see, however, Luke’s historical account of Paul’s ministry prior to his imprisonment in Rome is even less helpful to the Acts 28 position than are Paul’s letters.

The Nations in the Body of Christ before Paul’s Roman Imprisonment

A careful look at some of the things Paul says in the letters that Stephen would agree were written before his imprisonment in Rome indicates that the ecclesias to which Paul wrote consisted, at least partially, of Gentiles who had come from a pagan, idol-worshipping background (rather than consisting exclusively of Jews and Greek proselytes, as Stephen’s position requires). Before we look at this evidence, let’s first consider some things Paul wrote in his letter to the saints in Rome. In Romans 1:5-6, Paul wrote that he had obtained his apostleship “for faith-obedience among all the nations, for His name’s sake, among whom are you also…” It is evident from this verse that many of the saints in Rome to whom Paul wrote this letter – perhaps even the majority in the ecclesia – were not Jewish, but rather had a Gentile (uncircumcised) background. Paul went on to express his purpose to visit Rome, that he “should be having some fruit among [them] also, according as among the rest of the nations,” and then referred to himself as a debtor to “both Greeks and barbarians, to both wise and foolish” (vv. 13-14).

Now, did Paul have in view only proselytized Gentiles when he referred to “all the nations” and “the rest of the nations” in these verses? Are we to believe that Paul considered himself a debtor only to Greeks and barbarians who were proselytes of Israel – those who were (as Stephen says concerning proselytes) “for all intents and purposes, Jewish?” Or did Paul have in mind those among the nations, in general (whether proselytized or not)? I believe it is the latter, and that there are indicators in his other pre-prison letters which support this.

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (which Stephen would likely say was one of Paul’s earliest letters), we find that those to whom he wrote were Gentiles who had, after hearing and believing Paul’s evangel, turned from worshipping idols to the worship of the “living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). Similarly, in his letter to the Galatians, it would seem that many, if not most, of the members of this ecclesia were not only uncircumcised Gentiles, but converts from paganism (Gal. 4:8). With regards to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, we know that, although there was a small community in Corinth composed of Jews who had been exiled from Rome, the predominant religious culture in Corinth was Greek/pagan, and consisted of the worship of various gods and goddesses. Paul alluded to this pagan cultural aspect of Corinth in 1 Corinthians 8, which concerns idol sacrifices (v. 1). Why would Paul have to address this issue if the ecclesia was composed exclusively of those from a Jewish and proselyte background? In verse 7, Paul wrote: “Now some, used hitherto to the idol, are eating of it as an idol sacrifice, and their conscience, being weak, is being polluted.” The word translated “used” (or “accustomed”) here literally means “together-custom,” and indicates that eating idol sacrifices had been, for some in the ecclesia to which Paul wrote, a habitual cultural practice – something that would only makes sense if some or all of the Gentile members of this ecclesia were (like those in Thessalonica and likely Galatia) former idol-worshippers.

Moreover, what Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 10:1 presupposes that some of the members in this ecclesia were not even familiar with the basics of Israelite history. It would be absurd to think that any Jew (or even Gentile proselyte) could possibly be “ignorant” of the things of which Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 10:1-4, and yet Paul declared, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren...”[1] As with his words in chapter 8 concerning idol sacrifices, this would only make sense if Paul was addressing Gentiles within the ecclesia who, prior to believing his evangel and becoming members of the ecclesia in Corinth, were idol-worshipping pagans. Similarly, Paul’s words in the rest of this chapter (see especially verses 14-22) seem to presuppose that some in the ecclesia may have been tempted or pressured to return to their former idolatrous practices (which would involve “partaking of the table of demons”). Interestingly, the next time Paul used the words “I do not want you to be ignorant,” he immediately added, “You are aware that when you were of the nations, you were led away to the voiceless idols, as ever you were led” (1 Cor. 12:2; Young’s translates this verse as follows: “…ye have known that ye were nations, unto dumb idols—as ye were led—being carried away”).

As quoted earlier, Stephen has claimed that Paul “could not enact all that his title entailed until God permitted him to, after the full setting aside of Israel.” In other words, although Paul was commissioned to be the apostle to the nations, his ministry did not involve heralding Christ to non-proselytized Gentiles until after he was imprisoned in Rome; until this time, his ministry was focused on Jews and Greek proselytes (Gentiles who were, as Stephen says, “for all intents and purposes, Jewish”). However, the above evidence from Paul’s “early letters” is simply not consistent with Stephen’s claim. Instead, we see that Paul was, in fact, “enacting all that his title entailed” long before his imprisonment in Rome. Although it is undoubtedly true that there were some in the ecclesias that Paul helped establish prior to his Roman imprisonment who had a Jewish and/or proselyte background, it is equally true that there were others who did not have such a background before believing Paul’s evangel - and depending on the size and location of the ecclesia, those who were previously worshipping idols could’ve very well been in the majority. But regardless of the ratio of Jew/Greek proselyte to non-proselytized Gentiles in any given ecclesia, the inclusion of any non-proselytized Gentiles in these ecclesias undermines Stephen’s theory.

The Nations to Whom Paul Heralded the Evangel during the “Acts Era”

But what about what we read in the book of Acts concerning Paul’s ministry? According to Stephen, Paul did not enact “all that his title entailed” (his title being “apostle of the nations”) until after he was imprisoned in Rome – meaning that he did not herald Christ to non-proselytized Gentiles (i.e., pagans) until the end of the “Acts era.” But does Luke’s historical account support Stephen’s view that Paul’s ministry prior to his imprisonment in Rome did not involve evangelizing non-proselytized Gentiles? I submit that, when we examine the record without any “Acts 28” dispensational bias, it reveals that Stephen is quite mistaken on this point.

Before we look at the evidence, let’s consider Luke’s words in Acts 14:27. There, Luke tells us that, after having arrived in Antioch and gathered the ecclesia there, Paul and Barnabas “informed them of whatever God does with them, and that He opens to the nations a door of faith.” This gathering in Antioch took place approximately 14 years prior to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Thus, if Stephen’s position is correct, then the “nations” that Paul and Barnabas had in view here – those to whom God had opened the “door of faith” - were proselytized Greeks. Stephen’s view that Paul’s ministry was “progressive” with regards to the kinds of people to whom he heralded his evangel demands this; if the nations to whom God had opened the “door of faith” by means of Paul’s apostolic ministry consisted of not just proselytized Greeks but non-proselytized, idol-worshipping pagans, then Stephen’s position that Paul’s “focus transitioned from Israel to the nations” (and that Paul did not “enact all that his title entailed” until his imprisonment in Rome) is undermined. It would mean that whatever “progression” Stephen thinks occurred during the course of Paul’s ministry (from Acts 13 to Acts 28:28) is, in reality, something he is projecting onto the text rather than deriving from the text.

We’ve already noted that Paul is first said to “turn to the nations” in the 13th chapter of Acts (see verses 46-48). Stephen would likely respond that the “nations” in view in Acts 13:48 were simply synagogue-attending proselytes (i.e., those referred to as “fearing God” and as “reverent proselytes” in verses 26 and 43); his position, after all, pretty much demands that this be the case. However, this view ignores the fact that there are two categories of Gentiles in view in this passage. The first group consisted of the “reverent proselytes” from the synagogue who heard Paul’s message when proclaimed in the synagogue on the first Sabbath referred to in this chapter, and who (along with certain Jews) began following Paul and Barnabas (see verses 42-43). The second group consisted of those to whom Paul said he and Barnabas were “turning” in response to the antagonistic response of “the Jews” on the following Sabbath (who, we’re told, were “jealous” of the “throngs” who were gathered to hear the word of the Lord). That these “nations” were not just synagogue-attending proselytes is evident from the fact that we’re told by Luke that “almost the entire city was gathered to hear the word of the Lord” on the day when Paul and Barnabas declared that they were “turning to the nations” (as Paul states Christ had directed them to do). Unless the majority of the Gentiles in “almost the entire city” of Antioch of Pisidia were “reverent proselytes” (which is, quite frankly, an absurd position to take), then it is most reasonable to believe that, among the “nations” who are said to have heard the word of the Lord spoken by Paul and Barnabas at this time (and who are said to have believed it), many - perhaps most - were from a non-proselyte (i.e., idol-worshipping) background.

When we continue on to chapter 14, we read of Paul and Barnabas being forced to flee for refuge into the cities of Lycaonia (verses 4-6). We’re then told that “they were bringing the evangel” there (v. 7). But to whom were they bringing the evangel? Well, immediately after Paul miraculously healed a man in Lystra who had been “lame from his mother’s womb” (who we’re told had been listening to Paul speak) we read that “the throngs” who were present while Paul was speaking began worshipping and attempting to make sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas as if they were Greek gods! In view of the response of those whom Paul and Barnabas had been evangelizing (and before whom Paul had performed the aforementioned miracle), is it at all reasonable to believe that the “throngs” which were present consisted of Jews and proselytes? Of course not; these “throngs” consisted of full-blown, idol-worshipping pagans (i.e., non-proselytized Greeks). It was these to whom Paul and Barnabas had been speaking to, and to whom they continued bringing the evangel (see verses 15-18). We’re later told that, after coming to Pamphylia, Paul and Barnabas spoke “the word of the Lord in Perga.” As with Lystra, there is no mention of Paul visiting a synagogue in this city, or of one even being present in this particular location. However, we know for a fact that this city was saturated with idolatry, and (like the city of Ephesus) was renowned for the worship of the Greek goddess, Artemis. We can therefore conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty that those to whom Paul and Barnabas were heralding the evangel in this city were, once again, non-proselytized, idol-worshipping Greeks.

This, then, brings us to the verse that we quoted at the beginning of this section. Recall that, in Acts 14:27, Luke informs us of how Paul and Barnabas declared to the ecclesia in Antioch all that God had done with them, and how he had opened “to the nations a door of faith.” Given the evidence above, it is clear that “the nations” to whom God had opened a “door of faith” consisted of not only synagogue-attending proselytes, but idol-worshipping pagans. It is clear that, as early as Acts chapters 13 and 14, Paul viewed non-proselytized, pagan Gentiles as being included in the category of people of whom he had been made an apostle, and to whom he had been commissioned to herald the evangel.

That the “nations” in view included pagan Gentiles is further confirmed by what we read in Acts 15:12, where Paul and Barnabas are said to have unfolded before the “multitude” present at the meeting in Jerusalem “whatever signs and miracles God does among the nations through them.” We’ve already noted one of these miracles: the healing of the crippled man at Lystra (Acts 14:8-10). And we also saw what the response of the crowds was to this miracle (vv. 11-18), which tells us a great deal about the sort of people among whom this miracle had been performed: they were most definitely not Jews or “reverent proselytes.” In part four of this article, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on the four “essentials” that were decided upon during the Jerusalem council (which concern certain things from which it was expected that believers from among the nations would “abstain” and “guard themselves”). But what is most relevant to this section is the fact that, in Acts 15:19-20, James cannot be referring to synagogue-attending, proselytized Gentiles. Proselytized Gentiles had already changed their behavior to be acceptable to Jews; they had no need for any such decree as that which was formulated during this meeting. As Stephen himself says, those among the nations who were proselytes were “for all intents and purposes, Jewish.” No Jew or proselytized Gentile had to be told via a letter containing specific decrees that they would “do well” (or “be well engaged”) to abstain from ceremonial pollution with idols/idol sacrifices, prostitution, what is strangled, and blood (v. 20, 29)! Instead, these decrees presupposed that, rather than having a background in Judaism and weekly synagogue attendance, the nations that James had in view came from a pagan, idol-worshipping background. They came from a background, in other words, that involved the practice of certain activities that were considered highly offensive to those who attended synagogue, and who heard Moses read to them on every Sabbath.  

Moving on to chapter 16, we find an interesting incident that involves the salvation of a Roman jailer and his household, after Paul and Silas persuade the jailer from committing suicide, and then speak the word of the Lord to him (Acts 16:25-34). Nothing is said about the jailer having already been a worshipper of God, a “reverent proselyte” or a “God-fearer” (something of which Luke tends to inform the reader); thus, the odds are that this man and his family were pagan. But of this we cannot be absolutely certain, so let’s move on to the next chapter. It is in Acts 17 that we’re told it was Paul’s “custom” to enter the synagogues on the Sabbath wherever he went, in an attempt to convince the Jews and proselytes present that Jesus is the Christ and, in accord with the scriptures, had to die and was roused from among the dead (Acts 17:1-4) – truths which are, of course, basic, regardless of which evangel one is heralding (2 Tim. 2:8-9). But the reader must keep in mind that these Sabbath-day synagogue visits took place only one day out of the entire week. What did Paul’s ministry involve during the rest of the week?

Fortunately, Luke provides us with a tantalizing glimpse into what sort of activity Paul was involved in the rest of the week. While Paul was in Athens, we’re told that, in addition to arguing in the synagogue “with the Jews and with the reverent” (i.e., proselytized Gentiles), Paul also argued “in the market on every day with those happening along” (Acts 17:17). We're even told, in the previous verse, what Paul's motivation was in doing this: his spirit was incited in him at beholding the city being idol-ridden (v. 16)! Thus, once again we find Paul engaged in evangelical work that was completely non-discriminatory in nature, and which had, as its focus, whoever “happened along” on any given day (which would’ve undoubtedly included non-proselytized, idol-worshiping Gentiles). That those to whom Paul spoke in the market included pagan Gentiles is especially evident from what we read in the remainder of this chapter. At some point during Paul’s daily “market ministry,” we’re told that some non-proselytized Greeks (Epicurean and Stoic philosophers) were “parleying” with him (v. 18). They then “got hold” of Paul and proceeded to lead him to the Areopagus so that he could share his views there – something which Paul does without any hesitation (Acts 17:18-33).

The next stop in our survey of Paul’s ministry to the nations as recorded in Acts will be Paul’s first trip to Ephesus (Acts 19). There, we read that Paul travelled to Ephesus and lived there for a little more than 3 years. We read that, for three months, Paul spoke boldly in the synagogue (which, again, would’ve been on the Sabbath). After this period of time we read that Paul withdrew from them because of the stubbornness and unbelief of some (vv. 8-9). We then read that Paul took with him some disciples whom he’d found after arriving in Ephesus, and began “arguing day by day in the school (or “hall”) of Tyrannus.” Here we have yet another example of Paul using what was most likely a public forum to herald the truth to whoever was present and curious to hear what he had to say. And notice that we’re not told that Paul did this merely “on the Sabbath” (or on any particular day of the week); no, as with his ministry in the market in Athens, Paul argued in the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus “day by day.” And this, we’re told, “occurred for two years, so that all those dwelling in the province of Asia hear the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (vv. 10-11).

We’re also told of powerful deeds that God did through the hands of Paul during this two year period of time, including the casting out of wicked spirits from people. After an incident involving a failed exorcism by seven sons of a Jewish chief priest (in which the demon admits to knowing both Jesus and Paul, but not the seven sons of Sceva who attempted to exorcise him), we read that “this became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who are dwelling in Ephesus. And fear falls on them all, and magnified was the name of the Lord Jesus.” We then read about an idol-making silversmith by the name of Demetrius who decided that something had to be done about the apostle Paul. The income of Demetrius and others in his line of work had, apparently, dropped drastically due to Paul’s evangelistic work in that city among the nations. The silversmith therefore organized a meeting of tradesmen concerning the issue of lost idol business. This episode tells us a great deal about the sort of people Paul had been reaching with the evangel during his time in Ephesus. Paul had evidently been turning so many pagan Gentiles away from the worship of false gods and goddesses (of which the most popular in Ephesus was Artemis) that the idol-making business in the city of Ephesus was starting to suffer.

We thus see from Acts chapters 13 through 19 that, far from focusing on Jews and reverent proselytes exclusively, Paul’s ministry prior to his imprisonment in Rome was much more diverse than Stephen argues in his paper. With regards to those to whom Paul heralded the evangel (and contrary to Stephen’s claims), we find no “progression” in Paul’s ministry from Acts 13 to Acts 28. As long as he was able to do so (i.e., while not limited by imprisonment), Paul’s primary focus on Sabbath days was heralding the truth about Christ in the synagogues (which, as we’ve seen, was an attempt to seek out those among the chosen Jewish remnant, who were scattered among the calloused and “cast away” nation of Israel). But from what we’ve seen in the above survey of Acts 13-19, the majority of Paul’s time during his missionary journeys was spent not in the synagogues but rather in public areas, where he would herald the truth to (and perform miracles among) people irrespective of their ethnic or religious background.

It’s All Greek Proselytes to Stephen

Stephen makes much of the fact that the word hellen (“Greek”) appears primarily in Paul’s pre-prison letters and only “in one case” (Stephen’s words) in his prison letters. To this fact Stephen adds that, “in [Paul’s] later letters, he uses only the tern ethnos.” Stephen sees this as supporting his theory that Paul’s focus prior to Acts 28 was on “Jews and Greek proselytes in the synagogues” – i.e., Jews and those who were (as he says) “for all intents and purposes, ‘Jewish.’” According to Stephen’s theory, it was only after his imprisonment that Paul - the apostle of the nations (Rom. 11:13) in whom Christ was unveiled so that he may be evangelizing [Christ] among the nations (Gal. 1:16) - shifted his focus to those among the nations who were not proselytes (i.e., those who were not “for all intents and purposes, ‘Jewish’”). How should we respond to these assertions by Stephen?

First, if the term “Greek” appears even once in Paul’s “later letters” (as Stephen admits it does in Col. 3:11), then it’s not true that Paul “only” used the term “ethnos” in his “later letters.” Surely Stephen knows what the term “only” means, so one can only assume that, in his zeal to make the point he was trying to make, Stephen was just being careless here. But here are the facts: The word hellen (“Greek”) appears in Romans 6 times, in 1 Corinthians 5 times, in Galatians twice, and in Colossians once. It is completely absent from the rest of his letters (both “pre-prison” and “later”). Thus, the word “Greek” appears a total of 14 times in Paul’s letters. That the word would appear as many times as it does in Romans and 1 Corinthians is no surprise at all, given that these are Paul’s two longest letters; in the CLNT, the combined pages of these two letters alone is between 59-60 pages (compare this with the combined pages of ALL of his “prison letters,” which is between 41-42 pages).

What about the word ethnos (“nations”)? It appears in Romans 24 times, in 1 and 2 Corinthians 4 times, in Galatians 10 times, in Ephesians 5 times, in Colossians 1 time (the same number of times as the word “Greek!”), in 1 Thessalonians 2 times, and in 1 and 2 Timothy 4 times. That’s a total of 40 times in Paul’s “pre-prison letters” and a total of 10 times in his “prison letters.” And what does this mean? Does it have any “dispensational significance?” I doubt Stephen could answer this question in the affirmative – and I would be inclined to respond in kind. As far as I can tell, the number of times ethnos appears in any given epistle or grouping of epistles – or whether it even appears at all - is entirely irrelevant. This sort of data is simply not something on which I would try to base (or strengthen) any of my doctrinal positions, as Stephen seems to be trying to do. How many times a word appears in Paul’s “pre-prison letters” vs. his “prison letters” (or whether a word appears at all) is dubious ground on which to draw the sort of conclusion for which Stephen is trying to argue in his article.

Now, according to Stephen, the word translated “Greek” referred to “the natives of Greece, or ones who had adopted the Greek language and culture.” I agree with this completely. Prior to the Roman Empire, Alexander the Great created a Greek empire that stretched across the known world at that time, and Greek became the language of trade between the various nations. And in the days of the Roman Empire, Koine Greek was the common lingua franca of much of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Roman culture (including religious beliefs and practices) was also heavily influenced by the culture of the Greek empire that preceded it. Had Stephen stuck with this sound understanding of the word “Greek,” I would have little to say here. But this definition doesn’t suit or strengthen Stephen’s position. It’s too broad to help him. Thus, Stephen has to narrow the definition of “Greek” down quite a bit. Rather than referring to “the natives of Greece, or ones who had adopted the Greek language and culture” (which, as I believe Stephen himself would likely admit, would describe most of the uncircumcised, non-Jewish people living in cities such as Rome or Corinth in Paul’s day), Stephen’s position requires that, in Paul’s letters, the word “Greek” referred exclusively to “God-fearing proselytes who sought God’s wisdom and blessing through the seed of Abraham.” Unfortunately for Stephen’s position, this position is simply without merit.

Whether used in the book of Acts or in Paul’s letters, the word “Greek” was by no means limited to Greek proselytes; the majority of those living in Paul’s day who could be appropriately referred to as “Greek” (in contrast with “Jew”) were from a non-proselytized (i.e., pagan) background. Thus, when contrasted with “Jew,” the term “Greek” referred to the majority of people living in cities such as Corinth and Rome who weren’t Jewish. Did this describe every non-Jew in the world at that time? No, of course not; hence, in Romans 1:14, Paul referred to “barbarians” as well (thereby “covering all the bases,” so to speak). But the fact remains that most of the non-Jewish people living in the metropolises of Paul’s day spoke Greek and came from a cultural/religious background that could appropriately be described as “Greek.” In cities such as Rome and Corinth, “Jew” and “Greek” were simply the two main groups into which people could be categorized at that time. Again,  Acts 19:9-10 makes this especially evident: after referring to Paul’s daily reasoning in the hall of Tyrannus for two years while he was in Ephesus, Luke tells us that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”

Obviously “all the residents of Asia” did not consist of Jews and proselytized Gentiles. In comparison with the largely pagan population of Asia at that time, the Jews were a minority (meaning that proselytized Gentiles would’ve been a minority within a minority). As noted previously, most people within the Roman Empire (and beyond) who could’ve been categorized as “Greek” rather than “Jew” came from a pagan background. Luke simply had in view the two primary cultural/religious groups into which people could, broadly speaking, be categorized at that time. That Paul had this meaning in mind when he contrasted “Jew” and “Greek” is also evident from Romans 2:9-16, where Paul clearly had in view those who sin under the law (the Jew) and those who sin without the law (the Greek). Because most non-Jews in Rome could be categorized as “Greek,” this label was appropriately used to represent those among humanity who were uncircumcised and “without law.” Further confirmation of this understanding of Paul’s use of “Greek” can be found in Romans 3:9-10, where Paul wrote that he had previously charged “both Jews and Greeks to be all under sin, according as it is written, that ‘Not one is just’ – not even one.” It is in Romans 2 that Jews are “charged” to be “all under sin.” But when did Paul “previously charge” Greeks in this way? Answer: in Romans 1:18-32, where idol-worshipping Gentiles are clearly in view.

In view of these facts, it’s simply not the case that, when referring to the people categorized as “Greek” in Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul had in view Greek proselytes to Judaism. Is it possible that at least some in this category within the Roman ecclesia came from a proselytized background? Absolutely! But it’s equally possible that this was the case for only a few, or even none at all (again, proselytized Gentiles were a minority within a minority). We just don’t know for sure. But it remains the case that these uncircumcised “Greeks” and “nations” (and recall that Paul used the word “nations” much more frequently in his pre-prison letters than the word “Greek”) were just as possibly non-Jews with a pagan, idolatrous background as those spoken of in Acts 17 or Acts 20. Moreover, the fact that the focus in Paul’s “Ephesians” letter is on the saints who were from a non-Jewish background – and that Paul is primarily addressing Gentiles in this letter - does not mean that there were no believers from a Jewish background in the ecclesia(s) among which Paul expected his “Ephesians” letter to be circulated. At most, it can be reasonably concluded that the majority of believers within the ecclesias at that time were from a non-Jewish background. But as we’ve seen, the same could be said for many, if not most, of the ecclesias before Paul’s Roman imprisonment as well. This would especially be the case if the majority of the ecclesias to which Paul wrote, and among which his letters were originally circulated, were established before Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (which is likely).

[1] But what about when Paul says “our fathers” in verse 1? The answer is simply that Paul’s “our” does not include those whom he’s specifically addressing here (i.e., those whom he did not want to be ignorant). “Our fathers” simply means, “the fathers of we who are Jews/Israelites.” Paul was not implying that those whom he was addressing in v. 1 were in this category.