Thursday, September 27, 2018

God’s covenant people: Why most believing Jews in Paul’s day weren’t in the body of Christ (Part One)


Introduction

According to popular Christian belief, everyone who could be considered a believer during the period of time covered by the book of Acts (i.e., the “apostolic era”) was a member of that company of saints that the apostle Paul referred to as “the church which is [Christ’s] body” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Even among those who hold to some form of “dispensationalism,” this seems to be the most commonly-held position. What I’m going to be arguing in this study is that this popular position is mistaken, and that, from the very beginning of the apostolic era, the majority of believing Jews (including the twelve apostles) belonged to a different company of believers than that to which those in the body of Christ belong.

Among those who hold to the position I’m going to be defending, some would say that the question of how many “evangels” (or “gospels”) there are is the key to determining whether or not this position is correct. Now, it is my conviction that there were, in fact, two evangels being heralded during the apostolic era (which is a position I’ve defended in greater depth elsewhere; see http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2016/10/a-study-on-two-evangels-part-1.html). I also believe that the question of how many evangels were being heralded during this time is an important one, and relevant to this subject. However, I also believe that, when seeking to determine whether or not every believer during the apostolic era was a member of the body of Christ, the question of how many evangels there are is secondary in importance to what I would consider to be a more fundamental issue.

As a way of introducing what I believe to be the more fundamental issue, let’s consider Galatians 2:7 (for, in addition to supporting the “two evangels” position, I believe this verse points us in the direction of the more fundamental issue that I have in mind): “But, on the contrary, perceiving that I have been entrusted with the evangel of the Uncircumcision, according as Peter of the Circumcision…” Despite the attempts by some to reconcile this verse with the position that there was only one evangel being heralded during the apostolic era, I’ve argued elsewhere that this verse really does contradict the more popular view. When Paul wrote of the “evangel of the Uncircumcision” and the evangel “of the Circumcision,” he did not have in view one evangel that was being heralded to two different categories of people. Rather, Paul clearly had in mind two distinct evangels which pertained to two different categories of human beings – i.e., those described as “the Circumcision” and those described as “the Uncircumcision.” The grammar itself bears this out; the same Greek construction found in Gal. 2:7 is also found in the expression, “evangel of the kingdom” (which, of course, does not refer to an evangel that was being heralded to the kingdom, but rather to an evangel that distinctly pertained to the kingdom). Thus, those who are inclined to deny that Paul had in mind two distinct evangels when he wrote this verse will have to wrestle with this fact.

Moreover, when we take into consideration the simple fact that the evangel entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations involves the truth that "Christ died for our sins" (1 Cor. 15:3), logic dictates that any message we find recorded in scripture in which this truth is absent cannot be the evangel that Christ entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations (or at the very least, it can’t be understood as a complete articulation or expression of this evangel).

Consider the following logical argument:

1. The evangel which was entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations essentially involves the truth that Christ died for our sins.
2. The evangel that was heralded by Peter and Paul among the Jews (of which we have three separate examples in the book of Acts) did not contain the truth that Christ died for our sins.
3. The evangel that Peter and Paul heralded among the Jews was not the same evangel entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations.

We could make a similar argument concerning the evangel heralded by Peter to Cornelius and his household:

1. The evangel which was entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations essentially involves the truth that Christ died for our sins.
2. The evangel that was heralded by Peter to Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:34-43) did not contain the truth that Christ died for our sins.
3. The evangel that Peter heralded to Cornelius and his household was not the same evangel entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations.

Despite the tendency of some on both sides of the debate to make the matter more complicated than it is (something of which I may very well have been guilty at times), I believe it really is as simple and straightforward as the arguments above. One has to ignore the truth that Christ died for our sins in order to maintain the position that only one evangel was heralded during the apostolic era. For as soon as one puts the focus on this particular truth, the “one evangel” position quickly begins to fall apart.

It may be objected that, if the truth that Christ died for our sins is essential to the evangel entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations, this would mean that there is not a single explicit presentation of Paul’s evangel recorded in the entire book of Acts (which is what I do, in fact, believe).  But rather than being inconsistent with the “two evangels” position, this is precisely what we’d expect to be the case if this position were true. The book of Acts is a continuation of Luke’s “gospel account,” and was never intended to reveal truth that pertains distinctly to “the administration of the secret” which was given to Paul for the sake of the nations (Eph. 3:2, 9). Consider the remarkable fact that the longest message we find recorded in Acts that involves Paul and the nations (Acts 17:18-33) doesn’t even include the fact that Christ died for our sins. However, rather than understanding this message as a complete presentation of Paul’s evangel, what we read in Acts 17:18-33 is actually the introduction to an evangelistic message which - due to the negative response Paul received from the philosophers when he introduced the subject of Christ’s resurrection - Paul was unable (or unwilling) to finish. This means that the longest message we find recorded in Acts involving Paul and the nations is not even a complete message.

The fact that Paul’s message in Acts 17 was “cut short” on this occasion (which is in striking contrast with the lengthy message by Paul we find recorded in Acts 13:16-41) is, I believe, providential. This enabled Luke to include as much of Paul’s message as possible (thus giving his readers a glimpse into how Paul introduced the proclamation of his evangel on at least one occasion) without having to include those elements of Paul’s evangel that distinguished it from the evangel of the Circumcision, and which belonged to that body of truth which had been delivered to Paul to dispense among the nations. [1]

Now, the mere fact that there were two evangels being heralded during the apostolic era does not really explain or help us understand why there were two evangels being heralded. Nor does it really help us better understand why it would be the case that the majority of believing Jews weren’t in the body of Christ (as opposed to the body of Christ being comprised of every Jewish and Gentile believer on the earth). One could come to believe that there were, in fact, two evangels being heralded, and yet still be confused as to why the twelve apostles (for example) shouldn’t be understood as having been members of the body of Christ.

I think we begin to approach the more fundamental issue when we consider why Paul referred to one evangel as being “of the Uncircumcision” and to the other as being “of the Circumcision.” Circumcision is, of course, the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. Thus, in referring to the evangel entrusted to Peter as the evangel “of the Circumcision,” Paul was emphasizing the fact that this evangel was distinctly for God’s covenant people, and was the evangel through which God’s covenant people were being called to their covenant-based expectation (and, I believe, will be called in the future, after the body of Christ has been removed from the earth). Conversely, by referring to the evangel entrusted to him as “the evangel of the Uncircumcision,” Paul was emphasizing the fact that this evangel was distinctly for the nations, without any relation to Israel as a covenant people or to Israel’s covenant-based expectation. Those called through this distinct evangel did not need to be in a relationship with God based on God’s covenant with Israel (or in any positive relationship with God’s covenant people) in order to receive salvation.

Since the time that God began forming the nation of Israel, it has been possible to divide all of humanity up into two basic categories of people: (1) those who are in covenant with God and (2) those who aren’t. Both of these broad divisions could then, of course, be further divided into other important categories (i.e., believer and unbeliever, faithful and unfaithful, etc.). However, the fact that Israel is, and always has been, God’s covenant people is a truth with which every student of scripture should be familiar. A failure to realize or appreciate the covenant-based distinction that God has made between human beings will, I believe, inevitably lead to muddled, inconsistent doctrinal positions.

In Romans 11:1, Paul referred to Israel as “[God’s] people.” And in Romans 9:4 we read that the “covenants” belong to Israel (making Israel – and no other nation on earth - God’s covenant people). In Genesis 17:1-14, we discover how the formation of God’s covenant people began: God appeared to Abram and made a covenant - i.e., a contractual agreement - with him and his physical descendants. So important was this covenant with Abram that God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (“father of a multitude”). This so-called “Abrahamic covenant” - which can be understood as several related covenants - promised Abraham’s descendents a special and unique relationship with God. It also promised his descendents a land (Gen. 15:18), the boundaries of which would be specified in greater detail later (e.g., Numbers 34:1-15). After receiving the sign of the covenant – i.e., circumcision - Abraham became the first “father” or “patriarch” of the nation of Israel. The Abrahamic covenant was confirmed to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob (Genesis 17:19, 28:13-15), and the covenant sign of circumcision was later incorporated into the law given to Moses (Leviticus 12:3).

Other covenants between God and Israel followed the Abrahamic covenant, with each covenant building upon the one(s) preceding it (which means that an understanding and appreciation of each subsequent covenant with Israel requires an understanding of the covenant(s) that preceded it). However, for the purpose of this study, it need only be emphasized that each of Israel’s covenants can be said to deal with one (or both) of the following: Israel’s obligation and Israel’s expectation. As I hope to demonstrate, an understanding and appreciation of Israel’s covenant-based expectation and obligation will lead one to the logical conclusion that most believing Jews in Paul’s day were not in the body of Christ. In the next installment of this study, I’ll be focusing on Israel’s covenant-based expectation; and in part three, I’ll shift the focus to Israel’s covenant-based obligation. And in part four, I’ll argue that those in the body of Christ (whether they happen to be circumcised or uncircumcised) share in neither Israel’s covenant-based expectation nor Israel’s covenant-based obligation. 





[1] The conspicuous absence of a complete presentation of Paul’s evangel in the book of Acts (and the cutting short of Paul’s message in Acts 17) can thus be understood as confirming the following position articulated by A.E. Knoch on page 200 of his commentary:

“…it is of the utmost importance for us to note that the account in Acts never attains to the truth taught in [Paul’s] epistles. It leads us up to some of it, but never makes actual contact with it. It prepares for it but does not proclaim it. Not one single doctrine for the present secret economy is found in the book of Acts, though all was made known and committed to writing during this period. We are continually led up to, but never enter into the grace which is ours in Christ Jesus. Acts is not a record of the beginning of the present, but a treatise on the end of the previous dispensation. Most of the ecclesiastical confusion which prevails would vanish if this record of the kingdom apostasy were left where it belongs, and all truth for the present based on Paul's written revelation, which deals with the same period of time, but deals with it from an entirely distinct standpoint.”

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