Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Status of the Body of Christ Prior to Acts 28:28

According to the position being promoted in recent issues of Bible Student's Notebook,[1] the status of the body of Christ radically changed after Acts 28:28. According to this view, Gentile believers in Paul's gospel were, prior to Paul's imprisonment in Rome, subservient to the nation of Israel. Not only did they not have a distinct eonian allotment of their own among the celestials during this time, but they were to have a subordinate place in the earthly kingdom of Israel (as had been prophesied concerning the nations in the Hebrew scriptures; see, for example, Isaiah 60:10-12; 61:5-6; Zechariah 8:20-23). In contrast to this position, I believe that Scripture affirms that the body of Christ has always been an entity completely distinct from Israel, with an eonian allotment in the heavens that is completely distinct from the terrestrial allotment of Israel.

In his article "The Readjustment Administration," Adlai Loudy references Ephesians 2:12 in support of the position that, during the time period prior to Acts 28:28, the nations were subservient to the nation of Israel. In this verse, Paul tells us that the nations to whom he wrote 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." But what "era" is Paul talking about here? Is it the time period from Acts 13:2 to Acts 28:28 (which Loudy refers to as the "readjustment administration")? I don't think so.

How could anyone who is "in Christ," "a new creation" and "conciliated to God" (2 Cor. 5:17-18) be, at the same time, "without Christ" and "without God in the world?" Would this not be a contradiction? It seems far more likely that the "era" Paul has in view in this verse is simply the time period which he describes at the beginning of chapter 2 - i.e., the time during which those to whom he wrote were walking in their offenses and sins, "in accord with the eon of this world, in accord with the chief of the jurisdiction of the air" (Eph. 2:1-2). The "era" Paul has in view can therefore be understood as the time period prior to when the evangel of peace came to them (Eph. 2:17) and they heard and believed the word of truth, the evangel of [their] salvation (Eph 1:13). If this is the case, then this verse has nothing to do with an inferior, pre-Acts 28:28 administration. Paul is simply referring to their life before they believed his gospel and became members of the body of Christ.

But what is the "citizenship of Israel," from which the nations were "alienated" during the era that Paul has in view in Eph 2:1-3? The word "citizenship" (politeia) is only meaningful if a particular political entity - i.e., a nation or city - is in view. But what political entity? When this article was first posted on my blog, I argued that the political entity to which this "citizenship" referred is the new Jerusalem. However, I now believe I was guilty of overthinking this a bit, and reading too much into what Paul was saying here. Paul was not, I don't think, referring to a political entity to which Israel belonged (or rather, will belong in the future). Rather, Israel
 itself - i.e., the nation comprised of Israelites - was the political entity he had in mind. Paul was simply saying that those among the nations as such (i.e., those "termed 'Uncircumcision'") were not - and could not be - citizens of Israel while uncircumcised. And being thus "alienated from the citizenship of Israel," the "promise covenants" that God made with Israel which pertain to the promised blessings that Israel will enjoy during the eons to come (such as the Abrahamic covenant, the Davidic covenant and the new covenant) were not made with them, and did not directly pertain to them. Any blessing that Gentiles will enjoy in the eons to come because of these covenants made with Israel will come only through Israel. 

It was because of their status as uncircumcised people of the nations (rather than Israelites) that Paul could thus refer to them as "guests" of these promise covenants. The Greek word translated “guest” here is xenos, and literally means “stranger” or “foreigner”; only by implication does it mean “guest” (in certain contexts). That the word could mean “stranger” as well as “guest” is clear from the fact that Knoch translated this word as “stranger” more often than “guest” (see, for example, Matt. 25:35, 38, 43, 44; 27:7; Acts 17:18; Heb. 11:13; 13:9; 3 John 1:5). However, whether translated “stranger” or “guest” in Eph. 2:12, the imagery Paul was using can simply be understood as conveying the idea that, because the nations were not "citizens of Israel" (those with whom the covenants had been made), they had no inherent privileges with regards to enjoying covenant-based blessings. Any blessings a Gentile will enjoy due to God's fulfilling his covenant promises to Israel will be received indirectly, through the mediation of those with whom the covenants had been made.  

This was the status of those among the nations before the start of Paul's administration, and before they heard and believed the "evangel of the uncircumcision." However, Paul's argument is not that the believing Gentiles to whom he wrote were now no longer "alienated from the citizenship of Israel" or had ceased to be "guests of the promise covenants" which God had made with Israel. Were that the case, it would mean that those among the nations to whom Paul wrote had become Israelites. And yet, they were no longer "apart from Christ," "without expectation" or "without God in the world." They had - like those believing Israelites who will enjoy the blessings of the "promise covenants" in the eons to come - become "fellow-citizens of the saints" and belonged "to God's family." But how could this be?

The answer to this question gets at the heart of the "secret" of this present administration. The nations to whom Paul wrote (along with some Jews, like Paul himself) had become members of "the ecclesia which is [Christ's] body" (Eph. 1:22-23), which is a new corporate entity distinct from Israel and her expectation. They had "in one spirit," all "been baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free," and all were made to "imbibe one spirit" (1 Cor. 12:12-13). Having become members of the body of Christ (v. 27), they had become part of a "new humanity" where there is "no Greek or Jew, Circumcision and Uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman" (Col. 3:11; see also Gal. 3:28). When those to whom Paul wrote believed his distinct "evangel of the uncircumcision" they (we!) received a new eonian expectation and allotment. This eonian allotment is "in the heavens" (2 Cor. 5:1-2) and "among the celestials" (Eph 2:6). It is not associated with the "citizenship of Israel," but is entirely distinct from it.

In addition to Ephesians 2:12, Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8-9 and Romans 15:25-32 are viewed by proponents of the Acts 28:28 dispensational theory as being in conflict with the position that the Gentiles who believed Paul's gospel before his imprisonment had, during this time, an eonian allotment distinct from Israel's. In these passages, Paul speaks of making financial contributions to, and taking up a collection for, the poor saints in Jerusalem. Can we account for this without appealing to the view that the Gentiles in the body of Christ were, before Paul's imprisonment, dependent on Israel for their eonian allotment, and were to have an inferior and subordinate place in the millennial kingdom? I think so.

In Galatians 2, Paul recounts the private meeting he had with Peter, James and John in Jerusalem, concerning his commission. In verses 9-10, Paul writes, "...knowing the grace which is being given to me, James and Cephas and John, who are supposed to be pillars, give to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we, indeed, are to be for the nations, yet they for the Circumcision-" only that we may be remembering the poor, which same thing I endeavor also to do." Concerning this agreement between the apostles, A.E. Knoch writes, "There was a mutual understanding arrived at among them that they [Peter, James and John] would confine themselves to the Circumcision, while Paul and Barnabas went to the nations. This agreement should have kept the judaizing disturbers of the Galatian believers from interfering with them. Paul kept his part of the compact, especially that which concerned the collection for the poor saints in Judea."

This agreement with Peter, James and John, then, is the original and primary reason why the body of Christ made financial contributions to the poor saints in Jerusalem. The fact that Paul honored the special request of Peter, James and John and "kept his part of the compact" in no way means that the Gentiles in the body of Christ were, at this time, "second class citizens" in relation to believing Israelites. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that my understanding of the status of the body of Christ prior to Acts 28:28 is correct, and that those who believed Paul's "evangel of the uncircumcision" had their own distinct eonian allotment even before Paul's imprisonment. Are we to imagine that Paul, in this case, would've flat-out refused to honor the request of Peter, James and John that they remember the poor saints in Jerusalem? Is it really reasonable to believe that Paul, in this case, would have said to these men of God, "Sorry, guys. The only poor saints with whom the body of Christ is concerned are those who are IN the body of Christ. You guys are on your own." That Paul would respond to their special request in this way seems highly unlikely (and out of character), to say the least. Not only was Paul's doing what he could to honor their special request the most loving and gracious thing to do, but it would've served to reduce the tension and growing hostility on the side of the circumcision saints, and helped to promote peace between the two groups of believers.

"Spiritual Things"

But what about what Paul's words in Romans 15:25-33? What are the "spiritual things" of the poor saints in Jerusalem in which the nations participated? And in what sense could the nations be considered "debtors" to these Jewish saints? I see no good reason to understand these "spiritual things" as referring to, or including, the eonian destiny of the body of Christ. Although Paul doesn't elaborate on what he means here by "spiritual things," I believe it can be reasonably inferred that Paul is referring to the "spiritual endowments" (or spiritual gifts) described in 1 Cor. 12:1-11. We know that Paul (as well as certain others in the body of Christ) once possessed various spiritual endowments. But how did they receive these spiritual gifts, and what purpose did they serve at this time? I believe these supernatural gifts served the following purpose with regards to the body of Christ:

1. First, the miracles that were performed through Paul (including any spiritual gifts that were given to others through him) were the signs of his special apostleship and authority from the Lord (2 Cor. 12:12; Gal 2:7). These signs and gifts authenticated Paul's unique apostleship and apostolic authority (and thus legitimized his distinct ministry) in the sight of the nations to whom he was sent, as well as those among the Jewish remnant (i.e., the twelve apostles and those who believed their gospel of the circumcision). It was through these "signs, miracles and powerful deeds" that both the nations as well as Peter and the saints in Jerusalem were assured that Christ had in fact commissioned Paul to bring salvation to the nations (Acts 9:15; 15:12; 22:21). In connection with this, it was the assurance of Paul's apostleship that enabled his writings to be viewed and accepted as inspired Scripture - not just by the nations to whom Paul was commissioned, but by the apostles of the circumcision as well (see 2 Pet. 3:15-16). As the end of Paul's apostolic ministry drew nearer, the need for such authenticating signs began to diminish, and miraculous healings consequently became less frequent. Although Paul raised Eutychus from the dead (Acts 20:9-12), he didn't heal Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-27), Timothy (1 Tim 5:23) or Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20). Because the purpose of this supernatural gift was to authenticate his apostleship during the establishment of the ecclesias to which he would be writing (see the second point), a time inevitably came when further miracles became unnecessary.

2. Secondly, it is important to keep in mind that the written revelation to the body of Christ was, prior to Paul's imprisonment in Rome, incomplete. Paul understood his ministry as involving the completion of the word of God (Col. 1:25), and this took place after he was imprisoned. Therefore, the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, wisdom, etc. were necessary in order for the believers to know what God would have them believe and do in Paul's absence. These gifts enabled believers to communicate new truth and revelation from God. Now that God’s revelation to the body of Christ is complete, these revelatory gifts are no longer needed. Concerning the gift of prophecy, A.E. Knoch writes, "Paul's high regard for the gift of prophecy is founded on the fact that it was the chief means used to bring the saints to that maturity which he earnestly desired they should attain. The gift of teaching, the exposition of the Scriptures, now takes the place of prophecy, for God has fully revealed His will in His word."

As already noted, the closer we get to the end of Paul's apostolic ministry and to the completion of God's written revelation to the body of Christ, the less miraculous activity we find taking place (2 Tim 4:20). In view of the purpose the spiritual endowment served among the body of Christ, this decrease in miraculous activity makes perfect sense. There is no need to appeal to a supposed "administrational change" (let alone a change in the eonian destiny of the body of Christ) in order to account for it. Paul knew that the miraculous gifts would not be permanent among the body of Christ and, as early as his first epistle to the Corinthians, began preparing believers for the time when they would cease (1 Cor. 13:8). But even as late as Paul's first letter to Timothy, we read of the "laying on of hands" (1 Tim 5:22), which was the means through which people received their spiritual endowments (I'll have more to say about this later).

But what about the spiritual endowment of "tongues" or "languages" (i.e., the supernatural ability to speak in a foreign language)? It would seem that this particular spiritual gift was of a very limited use in the body of Christ, and was considered by Paul to be the least of all the spiritual gifts. Although those who possessed this gift may have enjoyed a "spiritual high" whenever they exercised their supernatural ability (who wouldn't?), the gift did not edify, console or comfort other members of the ecclesia, as did the exercise of the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1-5). Unless one was able to interpret that which was uttered in a foreign language, the exercise of this gift was just a vain display of supernatural ability and nothing more. As Knoch notes, "It may be imposing and spectacular but it fails utterly in edifying the saints." So for what purpose was this gift present within the ecclesia in Corinth?

In 1 Cor. 14:22, Paul writes that the exercise of this gift was "a sign, not to the believers, but to the unbelievers" (1 Cor. 14:22). In light of what Paul says here, it may be that the exercise of this gift was intended to be a sign to unbelieving Israelites (i.e., those who had believed neither Paul's gospel nor Peter's) that judgment was coming upon their nation. Support for this view is Paul's quotation of Isaiah 28:11-12. Right before Paul tells the Corinthians that "languages are a sign, not to the believers, but to the unbelievers," he says, "In the law it is written that, In different languages and by different lips shall I speak to this people, and neither thus will they be hearkening to Me, the Lord is saying" (1 Cor. 14:21). Knoch notes in his commentary that this sign was "not for believers, or even to reach unbelievers." Since the verses from Isaiah indicate that the foreign language of the Assyrians was a sign to unbelieving Israel that judgment was coming on them, Knoch is probably correct here.

We know that the majority of Israelites were in unbelief in Paul's day; except for a chosen remnant, Israel had been calloused by God and given a "spirit of stupor," with "eyes not to be observing, and ears not to be hearing, till this very day" (Rom. 11:7-8). Paul goes on to speak of Israel as having been "cast away" a few verses later (v. 15). We also know that there was, in fact, a severe judgment coming upon the Jewish nation because of their rejection of Christ. Right after his triumphal entry, Christ himself prophesied of the judgment that was coming upon Israel as a result of her apostasy (see Luke 19:41-44; Matt. 23:36-39; 24:2). It is reasonable to conclude, then, that the gift of tongues was intended to be a sign to the unbelieving Jews in Corinth (and wherever else this spiritual gift was present and being exercised) that God was soon going to be bringing judgment upon the Jewish nation.[2]

While it is common for proponents of the Acts 28:28 position to point out that the miraculous gift of tongues/languages is not mentioned in Paul's prison epistles (which is said to imply that this gift had, by this time, ceased, and that Acts 28:28 must've been the "dispensational dividing line" that resulted in its ceasing), the proponents of this position seem to overlook the fact that, when Paul describes the various spiritual gifts in the body of Christ in Romans 12:3-8, this gift is not mentioned, either. Thus, if the lack of mention of the gift of tongues in Ephesians should be understood to mean that the gift had ceased before Paul wrote this letter, then consistency demands that a similar lack of mention of this gift in his letter to the Romans (in the context of spiritual gifts) would mean that the gift ceased even before Paul's imprisonment. It is likely that, by this time, this particular gift had served its limited purpose and had either been removed by God, or was simply no longer being exercised by members of the body of Christ.

Debtors to the Saints in Jerusalem?

None of the reasons given above for why the body of Christ participated in certain "spiritual things" at this time in any way supports the position that believing Gentiles were, prior to Acts 28:28, dependent on Israel for their eonian allotment, or had a subordinate place in the earthly kingdom of Israel. The purpose that these gifts served at this time implies that the body of Christ was, even before Paul's imprisonment, an entity completely distinct from Israel. Unlike the Jews and Gentile proselytes who believed Peter's "evangel of the circumcision," members of the body of Christ (for whom racial and national distinctions were entirely irrelevant) had their own distinct apostle (Paul) and their own distinct scriptures (Paul's letters). And in these scriptures, Paul was making known secrets concerning them - secrets which were untraceable in the Hebrew scriptures, and which had nothing to do with Israel's eonian allotment on earth. Moreover, members of the body of Christ (many of whom were former idol-worshipping pagans) did not participate in these "spiritual things" because they had blessed the nation of Israel. Nor did their spiritual gifts exalt or glorify Israel (and with regards to the gift of languages, it can be argued that the exact opposite was the case). But in what sense, then, can it be said that the body of Christ participated in the spiritual things of the saints in Jerusalem, and were thus "debtors" to them?

To answer this question, let's ask: To whom were these spiritual endowments first given? They most certainly weren't originally given to members of the body of Christ (for when these spiritual gifts first appeared, there was no body of Christ). No, they were given to Jewish saints in Jerusalem, on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). It was the Jewish saints who were present at this time who were first "filled with holy spirit," and who were thus the original recipients of the "spiritual things" in which those in the body of Christ would later be participating. It is for this reason that Paul refers to the "spiritual things" in which the nations participated as "their [the Jerusalem saints'] spiritual things." It was to the Jewish saints in Jerusalem that the spiritual things were first given.

Now, by what means was this supernatural power/spiritual endowment transferred after its original bestowment on Jewish believers at Pentecost? As noted earlier, this supernatural power was transferred from person to person through the laying on of hands (Acts 8:17-19; 19:4-6; 2 Tim. 1:6-7). Not even Paul was an exception to this rule, for in Acts 9:17 we read, "Now Ananias [a Jewish saint in Damascus] came away and entered the house, and placing his hands on him, he said, 'Saul! Brother! The Lord has commissioned me (Jesus, Who was seen by you on the road by which you came), so that you should be receiving sight and be filled with holy spirit.'" Thus, it was by means of Ananias that Paul was "filled with holy spirit" and thereby given his supernatural power. And significantly, the first manifestation of the supernatural power that Paul received is recorded in Acts 13:8-12. There, we're told that Paul (Saul), "being filled with holy spirit," pronounced a curse on the Jewish false prophet, Bar-Jesus, which resulted in his immediately becoming blind.

But from whom did Ananias receive the supernatural power which he passed on to Paul? Because the holy spirit was transferred through the laying on of hands, it can be inferred that Ananias ultimately received it (either directly or indirectly) from one of the saints who was present in Jerusalem on Pentecost. So we see that it was because of the saints in Jerusalem that Paul - the first member of the body of Christ - was filled with holy spirit and received his spiritual endowment. And the same could be said for every other member of the body of Christ who possessed a spiritual endowment at this time (and who, whether directly or indirectly, likely received their spiritual endowments through Paul).

This, then, is why Paul could speak of the nations to whom he wrote as being "debtors" to the saints in Jerusalem. For, relatively speaking, the body of Christ would not have enjoyed the benefit of the spiritual endowments had it not been for the saints in Jerusalem (who were the original recipients of the holy spirit and supernatural power that was eventually given to Paul through Ananias). It would seem, then, that Paul saw their participation in the spiritual gifts as an additional, or secondary, reason for financially helping the poor saints in Jerusalem (as he had, years ago, agreed to do during the meeting with Peter, James and John). But their "debt" to the saints in Jerusalem had nothing to do with the eonian allotment of the body of Christ, or with their being "subservient to Israel" during this time. 

For the reasons given above, the "spiritual things" (spiritual endowments/gifts) in which the nations participated were for the blessing and edification of the body of Christ (not Israel) - and that, only for a temporary period of time. The "spiritual things" in which the body of Christ participated were simply a means to an end, and that end had nothing to do with the preeminence of Israel over the body of Christ (either at that time, or in the future), or with Israel's eonian allotment. Rather, they had to do with the formation of the body of Christ through the sign-accompanied apostolic ministry of Paul, and with the progressive completion of God's written revelation to the body of Christ, through Paul.

[1] See, for example, Adlai Loudy's article, "The Readjustment Administration," as featured in BSN #492 (http://www.biblestudentsnotebook.com/bsn492.pdf).

[2] Another possibility is that the gift of languages was meant to be a sign to those Jews who, although having been converted through the ministry of the twelve apostles, did not believe (or would not have believed) that God was working through Paul to form a new body of believers consisting primarily of Gentiles, and that God was among them. Understood in this way, this gift would've served a similar purpose as the other gifts which served to legitimize Paul's apostleship, ministry and message

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