Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Acts 15 study Q&A

While I was on vacation (and trying to do as little thinking and studying as possible!), a thoughtful reader left the following thought-provoking comment in response to my study on Acts 15 (here are the links to part one and part two of the study to which she was responding):

Hi Aaron!

Thank you very much for your clear presentation of Peter's position. It makes sense. I had been struggling with the question of how much of the law was still applicable to the Circumcision gospel. I still have some questions, though... 

(1) Why did Paul say that Peter was "living as the nations" (Gal. 2:14), if he was keeping the law? 

(2) Did the "sheet vision"'s meaning include that eating "unclean" animals was fine from now on? I know the main meaning of the vision was to say that the Gentiles that were cleansed by God (Cornelius etc) were not to be considered unclean, but did that vision also include changes to food laws? 

(3) What is your comment on AEK's commentary on Acts 15:19? This is what got me thinking that not all the law was still to be followed (such as food laws), together with the fact that there is (coming to be) a transference of the Law mentioned in Heb. 7:12 (necessitated by "the priesthood being transferred", while it was on the basis of priesthood that "the people have been placed under law" Heb. 7:11). 

AEK writes: "A Jew, even if a believer, could not eat at the same table with a gentile if he should serve an idol sacrifice, or strangled meat, or blood. Had Peter's advice been followed, they would have cast off the yoke of the law, which they never were able to bear, and so could have had free and joyful fellowship with the Uncircumcision. James' plan keeps the Jews under the divine law and puts the nations under a human law. Instead of loosing all from bondage, he binds both."

Now I'm thinking that this is one of the rare times where AEK got things wrong. Thanks for clearing up that the "yoke of the law" actually means the so-called "oral law" of rabbinical tradition. With this understanding, AEK's comment about getting rid of the yoke would make more sense. But on the other hand, James' decree comes from the Mosaic, not oral law (as far as I remember), so though James ought not to have put these laws on the Gentiles, the Jews could not have "cast off the yoke" of those rules without violating their covenant obligation.

(4) When Paul tells the Galatians that the law was Israel's guardian until the time of maturity (which happened when God sent His Son), it sounds like he is speaking of the Circumcision, not just about Jewish Uncircumcision believers like himself. Or not? Perhaps you have already written on these things. I would very much appreciate an answer directly or by way of pointing me to a page you already have written. 

Many blessings,

In addition to being encouraging (which is always much appreciated, and helps keep me going even when I'd prefer doing other things), Ruth's comment contains some great questions as well. As much as I try to "leave no stone unturned" when writing my articles, this is, unfortunately, an ideal that is never fully reached. And in the case of my study on Acts 15, Ruth has helpfully brought to my attention a few stones that I neglected to turn over. Thus, I’ve decided to devote this blog article to answering Ruth's great questions. 

My original plan was to answer Ruth's questions in the exact order in which they appear in her comment, but I eventually had to give up on that plan (in fact, I’m actually going to be responding to her last question first).

Is Israel “no longer under an escort?”

The verses from Galatians to which Ruth was referring in her last question are found in Gal. 3:19-29:

19 What, then, is the law? On behalf of transgressions was it added, until the Seed should come to Whom He has promised, being prescribed through messengers in the hand of a mediator.
20 Now there is no Mediator of one. Yet God is One.
21 Is the law, then, against the promises of God? May it not be coming to that! For if a law were given that is able to vivify, really, righteousness were out of law.
22 But the scripture locks up all together under sin, that the promise out of Jesus Christ's faith may be given to those who are believing.
23 Now before the coming of faith we were garrisoned under law, being locked up together for the faith about to be revealed.
24 So that the law has become our escort to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.
25 Now, at the coming of faith, we are no longer under an escort,
26 for you are all sons of God, through faith in Christ Jesus.
27 For whoever are baptized into Christ, put on Christ,
28 in Whom there is no Jew nor yet Greek, there is no slave nor yet free, there is no male and female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.
29 Now if you are Christ's, consequently you are of Abraham's seed, enjoyers of the allotment according to the promise.

As with other passages in Paul’s letters that make reference to the law, this passage (especially verses 23-25) has been understood by most Christians as revealing that the law given by God to Israel had been abrogated. However, Paul is not talking about the relationship that all Israel had (or has) to the law. Rather, he’s referring specifically to the relationship that Israelites such as himself (i.e., Israelites who’d been called through the evangel of the Uncircumcision to an expectation distinct from Israel’s covenant-based expectation) have to the law. That is, what Paul had in mind in this passage is the status of the law in relation to Israelites who’d become members of the body of Christ. When we keep this fact in mind, we find that there is no contradiction between what Paul wrote in this passage and other verses that indicate that God’s covenant people, Israel, still had a covenant-based obligation to keep the precepts of the law given to Israel.

This is not the only time that Paul addressed the relationship that those in the body of Christ who were formerly under the law now have to the law. The entire seventh chapter of Romans addresses this subject as well. Here’s how Paul begins this section of his letter (notice how he’s addressing those saints within the ecclesia “who know law” – i.e., those who, like himself, were formerly under the law and thus acquainted with it):

1 Or are you ignorant, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know law), that the law is lording it over a man for as much time as he is living?
2 For a woman in wedlock is bound to a living man by law. Yet if the man should be dying, she is exempt from the law of the man.
3 Consequently, then, while the man is living, she will be styled an adulteress if she should be becoming another man's, yet, if the man should be dying, she is free from the law, being no adulteress on becoming another man's.
4 So that, my brethren, you also were put to death to the law through the body of Christ, for you to become Another's, Who is roused from among the dead, that we should be bearing fruit to God.
5 For, when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins, which were through the law, operated in our members to be bearing fruit to Death.
6 Yet now we were exempted from the law, dying in that in which we were retained, so that it is for us to be slaving in newness of spirit and not in oldness of letter.

According to this passage, it is those who have become members of the body of Christ who have been “put to death to the law” and “exempted from law.” Keeping this important fact in mind, let’s now return to Paul’s words in Galatians 3:19-29. It must be emphasized that much of what Paul wrote in Galatians was written in response to the following problem: Some of the saints in Galatia - as a result of the influence of Judaizers in their midst - were desiring to be “under law” (Gal. 4:21), which would’ve involved getting circumcised and becoming “a debtor to do the whole law” (5:1-4). It was because Paul was writing to combat this problem that, in the verses under consideration, he put the focus on the relationship that Jewish believers in the body of Christ had to the law. If, through faith in Paul’s evangel, those who were formerly under the law had become exempt from the law, why would those who were never under law place themselves under it?

Verse 19 needs to be understood in light of verses 23-25. And these verses, in turn, need to be understood in light of verse 22 and verses 26-29. Consider verse 22: “But the scripture locks up all together under sin, that the promise out of Jesus Christ's faith may be given to those who are believing.” Notice that Paul’s focus is on those to whom “the promise out of Jesus Christ’s faith” had been (or would be) given. In other words, he had in mind believers.

Thus, when Paul wrote that “we were garrisoned under law” in v. 23, we can conclude that he had in mind those Jews to whom “the promise out of Jesus Christ’s faith” would be given (and not every Jew on the earth at that time). That is, Paul had in view only those Israelites who, through faith in his evangel of the Uncircumcision, had become members of the body of Christ (such as himself and Barnabas; see Gal. 2:9 as well as Paul’s use of the word “we” in Gal. 1:8-9). It was these alone who were “no longer under an escort” (i.e., the law), for they’d been “justified through the faith of Christ,” “baptized into Christ” and become part of that company of saints in which there is neither “Jew nor yet Greek” (vv. 26-28).

When we keep in mind the specific problem that Paul was addressing in this letter (i.e., that certain Gentile believers were desiring to place themselves under the law), it becomes much less perplexing why Paul would put the focus on a relatively small category of believers within the body of Christ (i.e., those believers who had formerly been ”garrisoned under law,” and for whom the law had been their “escort to Christ” until his coming).

How was Peter “living as the nations?”

In regard to what it meant for Peter to have been “living as the nations,” I think it would be helpful to first consider what this most likely didn’t mean. Some have suggested that the food Peter was eating while fellowshipping with certain believing Gentiles wasn’t kosher. According to this view, Peter and the other Jewish believers with him had been disregarding the basic dietary laws given by God to Israel (e.g., by eating meat with blood in it, or eating pork and shellfish). But it seems unlikely that such a flagrant violation of God’s law (as well as Jewish norms) would’ve been practiced by the believing Jews at Antioch. The Gentile converts with whom Peter had been eating most likely had come from the ranks of the “God-fearers” (who presumably would’ve already been very familiar with, and sensitive to, Jewish dietary practices).

Moreover - and in connection with Ruth’s second question - we find no indication that the dietary laws given by God to Israel had been annulled or modified. We’re not told anywhere in Acts that, as a result of the “sheet vision,” Peter came to believe that the things which God’s law explicitly forbade Israelites from eating had become “clean.” The sheet vision was clearly symbolic and was intended to convey to Peter the following idea (as expressed in the words of Peter to Cornelius): “…God shows me not to say that any man is contaminating or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Based on the only explicitly-stated meaning that Peter is said to have gotten out of the “sheet vision” experience, we should conclude that Peter had learned only that “God is not partial, but in every nation he who is fearing Him and acting righteously is acceptable to Him (Acts 10:34-35). So I wouldn’t say that this was merely the “main meaning” of Peter’s “sheet vision,” but the only valid meaning.

So how had Peter been “living as the nations” if he was keeping the law of God (including Israel’s dietary laws)? I think the answer is pretty simple and straight-forward, and is stated by Paul himself in Gal. 2:12: Peter had been sharing a meal (or perhaps meals) with those from among the nations. This, it must be kept in mind, was not something that Jews normally did in that day. It should also be noted that the law of Moses didn’t prohibit an Israelite from eating with people from among the nations; as long as certain fundamental dietary precautions were observed, there was no reason why even strictly Torah-observant Jews could not eat with Gentiles. However, the cultural norm in Peter’s day was that Jews ate and fellowshipped at the table only with other Jews.

Sharing a meal around a table with someone was a big deal in that day, and to eat alongside uncircumcised “Gentile sinners” was a taboo among the Jewish people (eating together with those of the nations was something that only those of the nations did, and was thus characteristic of how the Gentiles lived). And given this deeply-entrenched social norm, Peter would’ve been considered as “living as the nations” simply by virtue of his “eating together with those of the nations” (Gal. 2:12). It was this taboo practice that I believe Paul had in mind when, in his public rebuke of Peter, he referred to Peter has “living as the nations.” Thus, it was not what Peter was eating that allowed Paul to say that Peter had been “living as the nations,” but rather the “mere” fact that Peter had been eating with them at the same table.

Christ, Israel’s Chief Priest

What about the “transference” of “the priesthood” and the corresponding “transference of law” and “repudiation of the preceding precept” referred to in Hebrews 7:12, 18? Many Christians seem to understand these verses (among others) as affirming that the law of Moses had been abrogated when the letter to the Hebrews was written (or, at the very least, that the Levitical priesthood had been abolished and superseded by the priesthood of Christ). However, I’m not convinced that this interpretation is sound.[1]

As I argued in part three of “God’s covenant people,” I believe that the law of Moses is going to continue – and that God’s covenant people are going to continue to be under the law - until the passing away of the present heaven and earth (Matt. 5:17-20). Only on the new earth will Israel, I believe, enjoy the same freedom from the law that those in the body of Christ presently enjoy (for more on this subject, see my remarks on Galatians 4:26). But what, then, does it mean for “the priesthood” to have been “transferred?” In the next chapter of this letter, the author made it clear that, if Christ were on earth at that time, he would not even be a priest (Heb. 8:4), since there was, at the time the letter was written, a Levitical priesthood on the earth operating in accord with the law. And according to what we know from prophecy (see, for example, Jer. 33:20-22 and especially all the reference to the Levitical priests in Ezekiel 40-48), we know that the Levitical priesthood will, in fact, be present and operative on the earth during the next eon, after the kingdom has been restored to Israel. So what did the author of Hebrews mean by the words, “the priesthood being transferred?”

By “the priesthood” the author seems to have been referring specifically to the chief (or “high”) priesthood. If that’s the case (and, again, the context seems to support this view), then the author was simply saying that the office of chief priest had been transferred to Christ (who, we’re told, had become “Chief Priest…according to the order of Melchizedek”). In other words, when Christ ascended to heaven, he assumed the office of chief priest over Israel. Does this mean that there ceased to be lawfully appointed Levitical priests on earth, who were of the order of Aaron? No; Hebrews 8:4 presupposes the existence of Levitical priests appointed by law. Thus, the “priesthood” being transferred to Christ simply means that the chief priestly office was transferred to him, and that Christ’s priesthood is, therefore, superior to that of every priest of Israel on earth.

Concerning the “transference of law” that the author understood as necessarily following from (or perhaps occurring in conjunction with) the transference of the priesthood, I believe this was simply the author’s way of saying that that the transfer of the chief priesthood to Christ was given legal validity by God (and that the transference of the priesthood could thus be recognized as legally valid by the recipients of this letter). In any case, it must be emphasized that a “transference of law” in no way equates to or suggests an abrogation of law (or even to a radical change in the law). However one understands the “transference of law” referred to in v. 13, this “transference” no more involved the abolishing of the law than the transference of the priesthood involved the abolishing of the office of chief priest.

But what about the “preceding precept” referred to in v. 18, which we’re told had to be repudiated? In the context, the “preceding precept” refers back to the “fleshly precept” referred to in Heb. 7:16. This precept concerns the requirement that the chief priest be from the family of Aaron (it’s called “fleshly” because it involves the fleshly lineage of priests). In Exodus 29:9 we read that “the priesthood shall be theirs [i.e., Aaron and his sons] for a perpetual statute.” This precept concerning the Aaronic priesthood requirement is said to be “weak and without benefit” insofar as it “appointed men chief priests who have infirmity” (v. 28), and who, consequently, couldn’t adequately deal with sin and bring Israel to perfection (and, it should be emphasized, this was never the job of the Levitical priesthood in the first place). In contrast with this precept, we read that the “word sworn in the oath which is after the law appoints the Son, perfected, for the eon” (v. 28; cf. vv 20-21). But what does it mean for this precept concerning the Aaronic priesthood to be “repudiated?” Answer: The repudiation of this precept should not be understood as involving the abolishing of the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood (for, again, it’s prophesied that this priesthood - as well as its associated sacrificial system - will be present and active during the next eon). Rather, the precept has been repudiated only in regard to Jesus’ present, heavenly priesthood. It is only insofar as the precept does not apply to (or have any authority over) Christ in his present, heavenly location that it is to be understood as having been repudiated. The heavenly chief priesthood of Christ simply functions at a different level and in a different realm than the Levitical priesthood. The qualifying factor for priesthood in the heavenly realm is not fleshly lineage but rather “the power of an indissoluble life” (Heb. 7:16-17).

A.E. Knoch on Acts 15:9 (and James’ four essentials)

Regarding A.E. Knoch’s remarks on Acts 15:19, I completely disagree with Knoch that Peter was advising Jewish believers to disregard the law given by God to Israel. This understanding of what Peter said at the Jerusalem conference runs contrary to not only what the Lord himself taught Peter and the other disciples during his earthly ministry, but also to what we know will be the case during the eon to come, after the kingdom has been restored to Israel. Moreover, the idea that keeping “the Jews under the divine law” (as Knoch suggests was part of “James’ plan”) was somehow a bad thing is, I believe, inexplicable in light of the fact that keeping the precepts of the law was in accord with Christ’s own teaching as well as Israel’s covenant-based expectation. Keeping the Jews under the law that God gave to Israel is in accord with the plan of God himself (at least, until the new heaven and new earth), so if that was “James’ plan,” then James was 100% justified in advancing it.

Not only did Knoch (seemingly) have a low opinion of the apostle James, but we find him writing disparagingly of James' proposal (and the resulting epistle) in his remarks on Acts 15:19 (cf. Knoch’s comments on Ephesians 2:15). As with what Knoch wrote concerning what Peter said at the Jerusalem conference, I believe Knoch misunderstood the intent of James' decision and the epistle that was subsequently written at the Jerusalem conference. First, a little background on the epistle that resulted from James' proposal: the Jerusalem conference had to do, of course, with whether or not believers from among the nations had to become proselytes (which would’ve involved their being circumcised and keeping the law of Moses) in order to be saved. And the answer on which the leaders (including James) agreed was an emphatic “no.” Becoming proselytized was not required for the believing Gentiles to be saved. Moreover - and as I’ve argued elsewhere) - the things from which James thought it would be good for the nations to be abstaining presupposed that the nations who were “turning back to God”[2] were not proselytes to Israel. Rather, the four "essentials" of the letter presupposed that the Gentiles came from a non-law-keeping background. 

Now, some have argued that James was trying to put Gentile believers "under law," and that he may have even understood the salvation of believing Gentiles as depending (at least in part) on their abstaining from the four things contained in the epistle. However, nowhere in the epistle (which can be read in Acts 15:23-29) is there any mention of salvation. Nor do we read of any penalties/consequences for violating the "essentials" referred to in the epistle; the epistle simply ends by saying that if the nations abstained from the things referred to, they would “be well engaged” (CV), would “prosper” (Rotherham), or would “do well” (Young). 

But why were these particular “essentials” chosen, as opposed to others? If, as some believe, 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 while others were excluded. If these essentials are to be understood as a selection from the 613 laws given by God to Israel through Moses that the believing Gentiles were to keep in order to be saved, the selection would be completely arbitrary (making the purpose of the decrees pointless and absurd). To 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 be sufficient for their salvation as Gentiles, right?”

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

James: “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; he would’ve protested and likely rebuked James to his face. Paul wouldn’t have tolerated - even for a second – any supposed “plan” by James to “bind” believers from among the nations and place them “under a human law” (to use the words of Knoch in his commentary). But Paul clearly had no problem with anything James said. James’ four decrees had Paul’s apostolic approval and consent! This fact completely undermines Knoch’s view of what James’ “plan” involved (and the idea that there was any nefarious intent behind it).

But if the four “essentials” proposed by James aren’t a random selection from the Mosaic Law (and weren’t intended by James or the other Jewish leaders to be “laws” that the nations had to keep in order to be saved) 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 best explain why Paul had no problem with them; as Paul made clear in 1 Cor. 10:14-22 and elsewhere, 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).

Thus, while the content of the epistle could certainly be understood as an exhortation to avoid certain things, there is no indication that James (or anyone else) understood the avoidance of the four essentials as being “requirements for salvation,” or an example of law-keeping/Torah observance. Insofar as the epistle had Paul's apostolic approval, the four essentials of the epistle simply make known certain standards that reveal how believers among the nations 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 weren’t (and aren’t) 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 among the Circumcision and those among the Uncircumcision. 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).

[1] I should also add that I don’t think we’re being told in Heb. 7:11 that it was “on the basis of priesthood” that Israel was “placed under law.” The relevant words in the CLNT have been translated as follows: “…for the people have been placed under law with it [i.e., the Levitical priesthood].” This translation doesn’t necessarily express the idea of the priesthood being “the basis” on which Israel was placed under the law. Young’s Literal Translation renders the words as follows: “…for the people under it [the Levitical priesthood] had received law.” Regardless of which version better translates the Greek here, however, the main point that needs to be emphasized is that we’re not told that the entire law of Moses had been abrogated at the time during which the author of Hebrews wrote.

[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 was a distinction between Israel and the rest of humanity) 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 people from among the nations repent of their idolatry, they are returning, in a sense, to the primitive state of their ancestors.

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

Saturday, November 3, 2018

God’s Covenant People: A Response to Objections (Part Four)

Objection: Those in the body of Christ are part of “spiritual Israel” and are beneficiaries of the promise covenants because of what we read in Ephesians 2:11-18.

To better explain why I believe this objection is based on a misunderstanding of Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:11-18, I’ll be breaking up the passage into three sections (verses 11-13, 14-18 and 19-22), and commenting on each section.

11 Wherefore, remember that once you, the nations in flesh -- who are termed 'Uncircumcision' by those termed 'Circumcision,' in flesh, made by hands --
12 that you were, in that era, apart from Christ, being alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants, having no expectation, and without God in the world.
13 Yet now, in Christ Jesus, you, who once are far off, are become near by the blood of Christ.

In this passage there is a clear contrast being made between the previous state or status of those to whom Paul wrote, and their new status as members of the body of Christ. The words “once you” and “you were, in that era” (vv. 11-12) refer to the time of their prior status, and the words “yet now” (v. 13) refer to the time of their new status. Before hearing and believing “the word of truth, the evangel of [our] salvation” - and being consequently sealed with the holy spirit of promise (Eph. 1:13-14) – those to whom Paul wrote were “apart from Christ, being alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants, having no expectation, and without God in the world.” But does this mean that those in the body of Christ were no longer “alienated from the citizenship of Israel” or “guests of the promise covenants?”

Were this the case, it would mean that the believing Gentiles to whom Paul wrote will, in the eon to come, be dwelling on the earth and enjoying an allotment in the land promised to Israel, and will there be caused by God “to walk in God’s statutes” and “to keep God’s ordinances, and do them” (in accord with prophetic passages such as Ezekiel 36:24-31). Among those who believe that the saints in the body of Christ are among the recipients of the “covenants of promise” referred to by Paul in v. 12, I doubt that most would be comfortable with the logical conclusion to which their position leads, if they’re being consistent (which is why most of those who hold to this position are either inconsistent in what they affirm, or simply “spiritualize” all or most of the promises concerning Israel found in the Hebrew scriptures).

Notice, however, that Paul didn’t say that the believing Gentiles to whom he wrote were no longer ”alienated from the citizenship of Israel,” or that they had ceased to be “guests of the promise covenants” (and to assert that this must be the case is to read into the text more than is actually being said). In contrast with those who believe that the saints in the body of Christ belong to the “citizenship of Israel” and are the recipients of the “covenants of promise” belonging to Israel, Paul tells us exactly what the “yet now” status of those to whom he wrote involved: becoming “near by the blood of Christ.” But near to what, or to whom? Answer: near to God, for Paul went on to say that those to whom he wrote were given “access, in one spirit, to the Father” (v. 18).

Some think that the view expressed in the objection is implied by virtue of the contrast Paul was making. However, that this isn’t the case is evident from the following analogy: “Once, you had nowhere to live, being disowned by your father and alienated from your family, and forbidden from even stepping foot on your father’s property. Yet now you have a home and a family of your own.” Here is a contrast between two “eras” in a person’s life. In the previous era, the person was homeless; in the latter era, he had a home. Does this mean that the person in view was no longer disowned by his father, or that he lived with his parents again? No.

But if those to whom Paul wrote had not ceased to be ”alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants,” then why did Paul even refer to their prior status as involving this? The reason is, I believe, fairly simple: the words “being alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promise covenants” explain why the Gentiles to whom Paul wrote were “apart from Christ” in the earlier era that Paul had in view. Before Paul’s new administration began and the evangel of the Uncircumcision began to be heralded among the nations, the sort of people who had the greatest advantage and opportunity to be blessed in and through Christ were those who weren’t “alienated from the citizenship of Israel” and who weren’t “guests of the promise covenants” (hence Christ’s words in Matt. 15:24: “I was not commissioned except for the lost sheep of the house of Israel”). In other words, one had to be part of God’s covenant people, Israel (or one had to be a righteous, God-fearing gentile like Cornelius, who – by virtue of his righteous actions in relation to Israel - was worthy to be blessed through and with God’s covenant people). However, this requirement changed after Paul received his “administration of the grace of God” and “administration of the secret” (Eph. 3:2, 9). Those among the nations who heard and believed the evangel of the Uncircumcision that had been entrusted to Paul came to be “in Christ Jesus” (and thus received an expectation and access to God) apart from being members of God’s covenant people.

14 For He is our Peace, Who makes both one, and razes the central wall of the barrier
15 (the enmity in His flesh), nullifying the law of precepts in decrees, that He should be creating the two, in Himself, into one new humanity, making peace;
16 and should be reconciling both in one body to God through the cross, killing the enmity in it.
17 And, coming, He brings the evangel of peace to you, those afar, and peace to those near,
18 for through Him we both have had the access, in one spirit, to the Father.

In these verses Paul is addressing the Gentile members of the one body of Christ, and telling them that, in this one body, Jews and Gentiles are made one and created into “one new humanity.” From its earliest days the body of Christ has consisted of people who are from both a Jewish and a Gentile background. But there is nothing said in this passage (or anywhere else in Paul’s letters) which indicates that every Jewish believer on the earth at the time Paul wrote had been called through the evangel of the Uncircumcision to the one expectation of the body of Christ, and had been spiritually baptized into the one body of Christ (concerning the “razing” of the “central wall of the barrier” referred to in v. 14, click here to see my remarks on this subject in my 2015 article, “A Response to Charles Welch”).

19 Consequently, then, no longer are you guests and sojourners, but are fellow-citizens of the saints and belong to God's family,
20 being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, the capstone of the corner being Christ Jesus Himself,
21 in Whom the entire building, being connected together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord:
22 in Whom you, also, are being built together for God's dwelling place, in spirit.

It is in this verse that Paul shifts his focus from the saints in the body of Christ alone and considers their relationship to all of the saints on earth at that time (i.e., their relationship to those who belonged to that company of saints which - as even Unknown would have to concede - predated the formation of the body of Christ). Whether belonging to the body of Christ or to that company of saints which predated the body of Christ, all of the saints in Paul’s day “belong to God’s family.”

Some who hold that the believing Gentiles to whom Paul wrote were no longer ”alienated from the citizenship of Israel” and had ceased to be “guests of the promise covenants” think this view is implied by what Paul wrote in verse 19. However, the contrast being made in this verse is not said by Paul to involve either “the citizenship of Israel” or “the promise covenants” referred to back in v. 12. Instead, the contrast being made in v. 19 involves the Gentiles to whom Paul wrote being no longer guests and sojourners in regard to being “fellow-citizens of the saints,” and to belonging “to God’s family.” Paul chose his words carefully in this verse, and avoided affirming that those to whom he wrote had come to belong to “the citizenship of Israel,” or had become recipients of “the covenants of promise” which belonged to Israel.

But what about the “apostles and prophets” referred to in v. 20? Must we understand this as a reference to the twelve apostles? Not at all. These are most likely the apostles and prophets to whom “the secret of Christ” (i.e., that which is in accord with the administration given to Paul) had been made known (Eph. 3:1-13). In fact, the larger context of this very letter (see Eph. 4:7-14) indicates that the “apostles and prophets” which Paul had in view here were given by Christ after he had already ascended to heaven (and would include men such as Paul himself, Barnabas, Apollos, Silas, Timothy, etc.). It was those who were given by the ascended Christ who were given “for the up-building of the body of Christ.” Understood as a reference to apostles and prophets who were given by Christ after his ascension, the twelve apostles cannot be in view here. For they, of course, were made apostles before Christ’s ascension into heaven (see Matt. 10:1-5; Mark 3:14; 6:7, 30; cf. Matt. 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:1-5). Insofar as this is the case, the twelve apostles are necessarily excluded from the category of “apostles and prophets” referred to by Paul in Eph. 4:11 (and, by implication, Eph. 2:20 and 3:5).

Objection: Based on what we read in Phil. 3:3, those constituting the body of Christ are “spiritual Israel,” and that there is no difference between the saints to whom Paul wrote and the saints to whom Peter (or James or John) wrote.

In Phil. 3:3 Paul warned believers against the Judaizers as follows: “Beware of the maimcision, for we are the circumcision who are offering divine service in the spirit of God, and are glorying in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in flesh.” And in Col. 2:11, Paul referred to those in the body of Christ as being “circumcised also with a circumcision not made of hands.” In these verses, Paul was not saying that those in the body of Christ constituted a “spiritual Israel.” In Phil. 3:3, Paul referred to those in the body of Christ as “the circumcision who are offering divine service in the spirit of God” to emphasize the fact that the “circumcision” which we’ve received is far superior to the circumcision of the flesh that the Judaizers (the “maimcision”) were trying to get believers among the nations to undergo.

But what was the nature of the “circumcision” that Paul had in mind? Some assume that what Paul had in view was the so-called “circumcision of the heart” that is required for Israel (Deut. 10:12-16), and which Israel will eventually receive from God in order that they can faithfully keep the law given by God to Israel (Deut. 30:6). This promised “circumcision of the heart” is equivalent to the promised “new heart” and “new spirit” that God will give Israel to enable his covenant people to keep the law during the eon to come (Ez. 11:17-20; 36:24-27; cf. Jer. 31:33). This is not the “circumcision” that Paul had in mind.

The “circumcision” which Paul had in view in Colossians 2:11 is said to consist in “the stripping off of the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ.” This “circumcision” has nothing to do with being supernaturally enabled by God to keep the law. Rather, it refers to the justified and reconciled status of all who are in the body of Christ, who - by virtue of our spiritual union with Christ - can be said to have been “entombed together with Christ through baptism into death,” and whose “old humanity was crucified together with Christ, that the body of Sin may be nullified” (Rom. 6:4-7). In other words, this “circumcision of Christ” refers to our inseparable, spiritual union with Christ in his death, entombment and resurrection (which is the basis of our being “justified through the faith of Christ,” and which is something that you won't find referred to anywhere outside of Paul’s letters to those in the body of Christ).

Objection: Based on what we read in Hebrews 3:1 and 1 Peter 1:3-5, the original recipients of this letter should be understood as sharing in the same celestial expectation/allotment as those who constitute the body of Christ.

In Hebrews 3:1, the author referred to the calling of the believing Israelites to whom he wrote as follows: “Whence, holy brethren, partners of a celestial calling, consider the Apostle and Chief Priest of our avowal, Jesus, Who is faithful to Him Who makes Him, as Moses also was in His whole house.” Does this mean that the eonian expectation of those to whom the author wrote is also “in the heavens” and “among the celestials?” Not at all. The author of the letter to the Hebrews expected the Jewish believers to whom he wrote to be among the beneficiaries of the new covenant that God promised to make with the house of Israel and house of Judah. And as beneficiaries of the new covenant, these Jewish believers will enjoy the blessings described in Ezekiel 36:24-31 and elsewhere (which will involve dwelling in the land promised to Israel, and walking in the statutes and keeping the ordinances given by God to Israel). Given that the expectation of those in the body of Christ is distinct from the new covenant-based blessings and expectation described in Ezekiel 36:24-31, it follows that the author of Hebrews did not write to members of the body of Christ.

Concerning the “celestial calling” referred to in Hebrews 3:1, A.E. Knoch remarked as follows in his commentary (emphasis mine):

“It is not easy, in English, to distinguish between the celestial calling, here referred to, and the “calling above” (Phil. 3:14) of Paul’s latest revelation. That which is celestial as to location is often spoken of in Ephesians as our blessing among the celestials (1:3), His seat (1:20), our seat (2:6), the sovereignties and authorities (3:16), our conflict (6:12). This is in the dative case, which gives us the place in which anything is found. It occurs once in Hebrews (12:22). The genitive denotes source or character…the celestial calling [of Hebrews 3:1] is from the ascended Christ, not to heaven, but from heaven. We [those in the body of Christ] are called to heaven, the Hebrews are addressed from heaven.”

What about what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:3-5? In these verses we read that Peter and those to whom he wrote had been “regenerated…for the enjoyment of an allotment incorruptible and undefiled and unfading, kept in the heavens for you, who are garrisoned by the power of God, through faith, for salvation ready to be revealed in the last era…” What, exactly, is the “allotment” that Peter had in mind here, which he said was being “kept in the heavens” for the believing Israelites (i.e., the “chosen expatriates of the dispersion”) to whom he wrote? It should be noted that we’re not told that Peter and those to whom he wrote would enjoy this “allotment” in the heavens. Rather, it’s in the heavens that this allotment is being “kept.” The fact that it’s being “kept” there doesn’t mean it’s going to remain there.

Consider the fact that, during his earthly ministry, Christ was the “Servant of the Circumcision, for the sake of the truth of God, to confirm the patriarchal promises” (Rom. 15:8). In accord with this patriarchal promise-based administration, the eonian allotment of which Christ spoke during his earthly ministry - and which he promised those who followed him - is one that will be terrestrial in its location (see, for example, Matthew 5:5, as well as part two of my study, “God’s covenant people”). Keeping this fact in mind, Christ declared the following in Matthew 6:19-21: Do not hoard for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and corrosion are causing them to disappear, and where thieves are tunneling and stealing. Yet hoard for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor corrosion are causing them to disappear, and where thieves are not tunneling nor stealing; for wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Did Christ believe that those to whom he spoke would be enjoying their “hoarded-up treasure” in heaven? No; the “treasure” to which Christ was referring here has to do with the rewards that the faithful among Israel will receive from him after his return to earth. Later – in Matthew 19:28-30 – Christ declared the following to his disciples:

Yet Jesus said to them, “Verily, I am saying to you, that you who follow Me, in the renascence whenever the Son of Mankind should be seated on the throne of His glory, you also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who leaves houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or fields, on account of My name, a hundred-fold shall be getting, and shall be enjoying the allotment of life eonian. Yet many of the first shall be last, and the last first.”

The “hundred-fold” that Jesus promised his faithful followers would receive after his return to earth will be the “treasures in heaven” that these same followers were exhorted by Christ to “hoard” for themselves through their faithful conduct prior to his return to earth. In Rev. 22:12, Christ declared the following to those whose eonian expectation will involve reigning on the earth (Rev. 5:10): “Lo! I am coming swiftly, and my wage is with me, to pay each one as his work is.” Notice that Christ said that the “wage” with which he would pay the saints was “with [him].” It is after Christ has returned to earth that those whom he had in view will receive their “wages”; until then, this “wage” is being “kept in the heavens” for them.

Later in his letter – and in accord with what Christ himself declared in Rev. 22:12 and elsewhere - Peter explained what he had in mind by the “incorruptible” and “unfading” allotment referred to in 1 Pet. 1:3-5: “…when the Chief Shepherd is manifested, you shall be requited with an unfading wreath of glory (1 Pet. 5:4). Whether one understands this “unfading wreath of glory” to be a literal or figurative “wreath,” it’s clearly something with which the saints among Israel will be requited at the coming of Christ referred to in places such as Matthew 24:29-31, Acts 3:21 and Rev. 1:7 (which is undoubtedly the “manifestation” of the “Chief Shepherd” to which Peter was referring here). Until then, this allotment – like the “treasure” referred to by Christ in Matt. 6:19-21 - is being “kept in the heavens” for those who are called through the evangel of the Circumcision, and who endure to the end.

God’s Covenant People: A Response to Objections (Part Three)

Objection: Because of what we read in Galatians 3:29 and 4:21-29, those constituting the body of Christ should be understood as “spiritual Israel.”

Paul was not saying that the believing Gentiles to whom he wrote had somehow become literal descendents of Abraham. They had not miraculously become Israelites or Jews. There is a 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” (the definite article does not appear in the Greek; thus, the verse 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 that 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.

It’s assumed that being “children of promise” (and thus like Isaac in this regard) makes members of the body of Christ a part of the same company of believers to which the twelve apostles (and all who were converted through their ministry) belonged. However, there’s no reason why believers belonging to two different companies of saints (and who have two different callings and eonian expectations) can’t both be considered “children of promise.” The fact that those constituting the believing remnant of Israel are termed “children of promise” and are being reckoned by God “for the seed” (Rom. 9:6-8) doesn’t mean that everyone who could be termed a “child of promise” (and who could be referred to as being of the “seed of Abraham”) was a part of the believing remnant (or part of the same company of saints to which the remnant belonged). Consider the following unsound argument:

1. Every believing Jew in Paul’s day who will be enjoying eonian life it the kingdom that is going to be restored to Israel could be considered a “child of the promise,” and to be “of the seed of Abraham.”
2. Every member of the body of Christ could be considered a “child of the promise,” and to be “of the seed of Abraham.”
3. Therefore, those constituting the body of Christ are a part of redeemed Israel, and will be enjoying eonian life in the kingdom that is going to be restored to Israel.

The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. The fact that Peter and Paul could both be considered “children of the promise” and to have had Abraham as their “father”[1] doesn’t mean Peter was a member of the body of Christ, or that Paul shared in Israel’s covenant-based expectation.

In Romans 4:16, Paul actually presupposed the existence of two separate categories of believers who could both be considered as being “of the seed and faith of Abraham.” In this verse we read,Therefore it is of faith that it may accord with grace, for the promise to be confirmed to the entire seed, not to those of the law only, but to those also of the faith of Abraham, who is father of us all...’”

Notice how Paul had two categories of Abraham’s “seed” in view to which the “promise” would be confirmed: (1) those he referred to as “those of the law” and (2) those who he referred to as “those also of the faith of Abraham.” Who did Paul have in view as “those of the law?” It couldn’t have been unbelieving Jews, for the “promise” of which Paul wrote isn’t going to be confirmed to them. But nor could it have been a reference to those in the body of Christ (as demonstrated in part four of “God’s covenant people,” no one in the body of Christ - whether uncircumcised or circumcised - can be considered as being “of the law”). Rather, Paul was referring to those who comprised the believing Jewish remnant, which Paul elsewhere referred to as “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), and among whom we can include the “tens of thousands” of believing, law-keeping Jews referred to in Acts 21:20. It is these believers among God’s covenant people who are the true Israel, and who are being reckoned by God as Abraham’s seed (Rom. 9:6-8). Those in the body of Christ are referred to as Abraham’s seed as well (since we are “of the faith of Abraham,” making Abraham our figurative “father”), but we are not the seed of Abraham that is “of the law” (i.e., the “Israel of God”).

Objection: Those constituting the body of Christ should be understood as sharing the same eonian expectation as the twelve apostles because of what we read in Galatians 4:26.

Based on Paul’s statement concerning the “Jerusalem above” being “mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26), some understand Paul to have been affirming that members of the body of Christ share the same eonian destiny as the twelve apostles (whose names, we’re told in Rev. 21:14, are engraved on the twelve foundations of the city - the new Jerusalem - that will be descending from heaven to earth after the creation of the new heaven and new earth).

It must be kept in mind that 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). The imagery is simply a natural extension of his allegorical argument against the Judaizers, which begins in v. 21. And the reason Paul used an allegorical argument from the law in the first place is because it was under the law that some of saints in Galatia wanted to be under (due to the Judaizing influence there). Thus, Paul’s reason for mentioning the “Jerusalem above” in this letter was the fact that it was a fitting contrast to the present Jerusalem, which corresponded to mount Sinai/Hagar. But why would he refer to this future home of the saints of Israel during the final eon as “mother of us all?”

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. 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 conspicuous absence of Paul’s name from the foundation of the new Jerusalem (in contrast with the twelve apostles) 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 has no need or room for a “thirteenth apostle.” Paul does not belong there, and we should not try to force him or the rest of the saints in the body of Christ into this expectation. Nor should we try to force Peter, James and John into the expectation that belongs to those in the body of Christ. 

Objection: Based on Galatians 6:15-16, circumcision should be understood as irrelevant to anyone’s salvation. 

In Gal. 6:15-16, Paul – writing to members of the body of Christ – wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation. And whoever shall observe the elements of this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, also on the Israel of God.”

In order to better appreciate the radical nature of what Paul wrote here, it would be helpful to consider what circumcision meant to Israel. Circumcision is, of course, the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendents through the line of Isaac and Jacob (Israel):

Then Elohim spoke to Abraham: As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you, throughout their generations. This is My covenant that you shall keep between Me and yourselves and your seed after you: Every male among you is to be circumcised. Namely you will be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and this will be the covenant sign between Me and yourselves. Throughout your generations, every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, anyone born in the household or acquired with money from any foreigner’s son who is not of your seed. He shall be circumcised, yea circumcised, the manservant born in your household or acquired with your money. Thus will My covenant be marked in your flesh as an eonian covenant. As for the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, this soul will be cut off from his people; he has annulled My covenant. (Genesis 17:9-14, Concordant Literal Old Testament)

In the ordinary course of things, circumcision was to be performed on eight-day-old male descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There were, of course, exceptions to the more regular practice of circumcising male infants; God himself declared that newly-acquired male servants had to be circumcised as well. And any male Gentile who chose to become a member of God’s covenant people (i.e., a proselyte) would’ve had to undergo circumcision in order to do so. Moreover – and as is evident from the above passage - circumcision was (and, I believe, continues to be) no trivial or inconsequential matter to God. He himself instituted circumcision as the covenant sign between himself and Israel, and the covenant of circumcision is said to be “throughout [their] generations” (i.e., Israel’s) and “an eonian covenant.” And those who think that Paul was teaching that circumcision had, at some point, become irrelevant to God’s covenant people, Israel, are, I believe, very much mistaken.

Concerning the subject of the relevance of circumcision during the apostolic era, one believer who rejects the “two gospels” doctrinal position asked the following question on Facebook: “Did Peter or James and John require that new Israel (scattered Israelites) believers be circumcised in order for their salvation to be complete?” I’m honestly not sure who, exactly, this individual thought constituted the “new Israel” to which he referred, as I’m not aware of any reference in scripture to uncircumcised, scattered Israelites constituting something called “new Israel.” If the scattered Israelites to which this believer referred are to be understood as members of God’s covenant people, Israel, then why were they uncircumcised (for as noted earlier, even male proselytes were circumcised)? In Acts 2:5-11 we read of Jews (as well as proselytes) who were dwelling in Jerusalem for Pentecost, and are told that they were from “every nation under heaven.” As I have little doubt that these Jews and proselytes would’ve all been circumcised, I’m really not sure who, exactly, the believer had in mind when he referred to a scattered company of uncircumcised Israelites constituting “new Israel.” His question - and the unusual scenario it presupposes - simply raises more questions: Did these scattered, uncircumcised Israelites not realize they were Israelites? Were these scattered, uncircumcised Israelites not circumcised because they didn’t want to be circumcised, despite understanding its covenantal importance? Or, did they simply not understand the covenantal importance of circumcision? Although the person who asked the question concerning uncircumcised scattered Israelites may not consider these important questions, I think they’re extremely relevant to the subject of the covenant sign between God and Israel, and the connection between it and the salvation of God’s covenant people.

Perhaps what the questioner was “getting at” was whether or not Peter, James or John would’ve told an uncircumcised believer from among the nations that their salvation was “incomplete” apart from their getting circumcised. And in response to this question, I think the clear answer would be “No.” Through the events described in Acts 10, Peter - the chief apostle of the Circumcision - had learned that those among the nations who feared God and acted righteously could be saved apart from becoming proselytes (which involved getting circumcised and keeping the law of Moses), and thus learned that circumcision and law-keeping was not a requirement for salvation for the uncircumcised. Peter learned, in other words, that it was wrong for anyone to compel someone who wasn’t already a member of God’s covenant people (such as the uncircumcised Greek believer, Titus) to be circumcised, and would’ve sided with Paul on this issue. Circumcision was all about becoming a member of God’s covenant people, and this took place either involuntarily (as was the case for eight-day-old Hebrew babies), or voluntarily (as was the case for certain adult Gentiles who chose to become members of God’s covenant people). But to tell a believer from among the nations that they had to become a member of God’s covenant people in order to be saved was wrong.

Did this fact make circumcision irrelevant for God’s covenant people? By no means. Circumcision was (and still is) the sign of God’s covenant with Israel, and everything that we’re told God said to Abraham in Genesis 17:9-14 remained just as true and authoritative during the apostolic era as it was when God first spoke these words to Abraham. Thus, the very fact that, in Gal. 6:15-16, Paul stated that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mattered for those “in Christ Jesus” should tell the reader that Paul wasn’t referring to believing members of God’s covenant people here. Rather, he had in mind a different company of believers altogether.

The key to understanding Paul’s words in Gal. 6:15-16 is, I believe, found in the words, “in Christ Jesus.” What did Paul mean by these words? Before we consider what Paul meant by these words, it would be helpful to consider what the apostles of the Circumcision (e.g., Peter and John) meant by being “in Christ.” In 1 John 2:24-25 and 28-29, we read, Let that which you hear from the beginning be remaining in you. If ever that which you hear from the beginning should be remaining in you, you, also, will be remaining in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise which He promises us: the life eonian…And now, little children, remain in Him, that, if He should be manifested, we should be having boldness and not be put to shame by Him in His presence. If you should be perceiving that He is just, you know that everyone also who is doing righteousness is begotten of Him.”

Notice that the promise of “life eonian” is only said to be for those who are remaining in the Son and the Father, and it is only those who remain in Christ who we’re told will not be “put to shame by him in his presence.” And – based on v. 29 – we know that those who remain in Christ are those who are “doing righteousness” and are “begotten of him.” Concerning what it meant to be “remaining in Christ,” John went on to say: “…everyone who is remaining in [Christ] is not sinning...let no one deceive you. He who is doing righteousness is just, according as he is just. Yet he who is doing sin is of the Adversary…everyone who is not doing righteousness is not of God, and who is not loving his brother” (1 John 3:6-7). John also stated that the way in which those to whom he wrote could know that they were “in [Christ’” was that they were walking according as He walks” (1 John 2:6).

What did John mean by “walking according as He walks?” John was, of course, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and had observed Jesus’ “walk” very closely for approximately 3 ½ years. And what did John observe? Did John observe Jesus breaking the precepts of God, and living a life of lawlessness? Or did John observe Jesus faithfully keeping God’s precepts? Obviously, John observed Jesus faithfully keeping the precepts of God as found in Scripture, and living by “every declaration going out through the mouth of God.” And it is according to the “walk” of the One of whom John had been a disciple for 3 ½ years that those to whom John wrote were exhorted to walk in order to “remain” in Christ. From these and other verses and considerations, it is clear that John understood being “in Christ” as a conditional state of affairs that involved both the faith and the obedient conduct of those whom John exhorted to “remain in him.”

Everything John wrote in these and other verses is in perfect accord with what John learned from Christ himself during Christ’s earthly ministry. In John 15, we read that Christ provided his disciples with a “grapevine” parable in order to help them better understand their relationship with him. Christ told his disciples that every branch in him not bringing forth fruit would be removed by God (v. 2). And if someone didn’t remain in Christ, we read that they’d be “cast out as a branch,” which would then wither and be cast into the fire (v. 6). Those “cast out” are undoubtedly the ones who, according to John, will be “put to shame” by Christ in his presence (and who, in the words of Hebrews 10:26-27, will have “a certain fearful waiting for judging and fiery jealousy”).

In contrast with what John wrote to the believing Jewish recipients of his letter (and with what Christ himself declared to John and the other apostles during his earthly ministry), when Paul referred to himself and those to whom he wrote as being “in Christ Jesus,” he did not have in mind a conditional state of affairs that depended on the faith and righteous conduct of those to whom he wrote. Rather, what Paul had in mind was an inseparable spiritual union with Christ that is distinctively characteristic of every person who, upon believing the evangel of the Uncircumcision, is spiritually baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27; Eph. 1:13; cf. Rom. 6:3-10). 

Those who believe that anyone and everyone who could’ve been considered a “believer” in Paul’s day was “in Christ Jesus” in the sense that Paul had in mind here are, therefore, actually presupposing that every believer in Paul’s day was, in fact, in the body of Christ. But that, of course, is to beg the question against the very position being defended in this series of articles. Although the idea that everyone who could’ve been called a “believer” in Paul’s day was in the body of Christ may be consistent with the “one gospel” position to which most Christians hold, it’s not consistent with scripture as a whole.

The understanding of Galatians 6:15 defended above is, I believe, confirmed by the verse that immediately follows: ”And whoever shall observe the elements of this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, also on the Israel of God(v. 16). Notice how Paul referred to the “Israel of God” as a distinct category of people on whom he desired God’s mercy in connection with what he’d just said concerning the observance of “the elements of this rule” (the “rule” being that which was expressed in v. 15). Who constitutes the “Israel of God” referred to here, and why would Paul specify “mercy” as being that which he desired would be “on” this distinct category of people (instead of simply “peace,” as he desired would be on everyone else referred to)? Although most Christians seem to want to understand the “Israel of God” to be another reference to the body of Christ, this interpretation is simply not tenable. In order to understand the “Israel of God” as another reference to the body of Christ, one must not only understand the word “Israel” in a way that Paul never used the word elsewhere in his letters (see, for example, Romans 11), but they must ignore or “explain away” Paul’s use of the word “also” (which indicates that Paul is now referring to a category of people distinct from those whom he had in view previously).

When we understand the expression “Israel of God” in a literal and straight-forward way, it becomes clear that Paul was simply referring to the believing remnant among God’s covenant people, Israel (i.e., those believing Israelites who, by virtue of their faith in Christ, share in Israel’s covenant-based expectation, and will be among the “all Israel” that will be saved when Christ returns). And while some within this category of believing Israelites correctly acknowledged and respected the fact that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mattered for those within the body of Christ (e.g., Peter), not all did. In fact, some within this company of believers were very much opposed to what Paul called the “elements of this rule.” Hence – for the sake of those who did “observe the elements of this rule” - Paul expressed his desire for God’s mercy on the entire category of Jewish believers constituting the “Israel of God.”

[1] 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.

Whether circumcised or uncircumcised, those who believe Paul’s evangel can be figuratively referred to as “sons” of Abraham (and Abraham may be figuratively referred to as our “father”) in virtue of the fact that there is an important resemblance and connection between us. Just as Abraham believed God and was declared righteous by God, 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 his “sons.”