Saturday, March 26, 2016

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


From the beginning of Paul's being “severed” to God for the work to which God called him (Acts 13:1-3), the object and goal of Paul’s ministry was, I believe, distinct from that of the twelve apostles. Rather than involving the salvation of those who have been called to share in Israel’s earthly allotment in the eons to come, the object and goal of Paul’s apostolic ministry was the formation of the body of Christ – a corporate entity which consists of all who have been justified by faith apart from works, and who have been chosen to enjoy eonian life “in the heavens” (for more on the eonian allotment of those in the body of Christ, see my article, 1 Corinthians 6:2 and the Location and Role of the Body of Christ during the Oncoming Eons). And since the body of Christ was always destined to consist of people from all nations, Paul’s ministry (from “Acts 13” on) involved heralding the truth to not just Jews/Israelites but those from “among all the nations” (Rom. 1:5), irrespective of their ethnic, cultural and religious background. From the beginning of Paul’s dispensation as the apostle of the nations (Rom. 11:13), his ministry was, and remained, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural in scope. From the time at which he was severed for the work to which he had been called, there was no time in Paul’s ministry during which he focused exclusively or primarily on Jews and Gentile proselytes, or avoided heralding the truth and ministering to those of other backgrounds. Instead, Paul saw himself as a “debtor” to Gentiles of every background (Rom. 1:14).

In contrast with the position briefly articulated above is the “Acts 28” dispensational view (which was originally defended and popularized by E.W. Bullinger and Charles H. Welch). According to this position, Paul’s ministry was in accord with at least two distinct administrations and dispensations, with Paul’s final words to the local leaders of the Jews in Rome (as recorded in Acts 28:25-28) marking the end of one administration/dispensation and the beginning of another. According to the Acts 28 position, it was at this time that God “set Israel aside” and placed the Jewish nation (and her prophetic program) “in abeyance.” Prior to this change in Israel’s status, it is believed that Paul’s ministry was, essentially, an offshoot of the Israel-focused ministry of the twelve apostles. As such, Paul’s ministry prior to his imprisonment in Rome (as described in Acts 28:30-31) is believed to have had, as its focus and goal, the bringing of Jews and Gentile proselytes into the company of those who will share in Israel’s allotment in the eons to come.

Beginning around issue 485,[1] Bible Student’s Notebook (BSN) has been promoting a variation of this position, with the only difference being that the body of Christ is viewed as having existed (at least, in name) before Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. According to this slightly modified and "softened" Acts 28 position, Paul’s imprisonment in Rome marked a change in both his dispensation/administration and the status and destiny of the body of Christ. Before Paul’s imprisonment, the eonian allotment of those who composed the body of Christ is viewed as having been inseparable from, and dependent on, Israel’s eonian (and earthly) expectation. However, after Paul was imprisoned (and Israel was “set aside”), those in the body of Christ received (or were then able to receive) a new eonian allotment that was/is distinct from Israel’s – i.e., eonian life in the heavens.

Proponents of this position sometimes speak of Paul’s ministry as having been “transitional” and “progressive.” This would hardly be controversial if, by this, they simply meant that Paul didn’t reveal everything to the body of Christ all at once, but rather revealed (or recorded in written form) certain truths to the saints at different points during his ministry until everything that was necessary for the body of Christ to know during this present administration had been made known, and the scriptures that God wanted us to have were completed. I’m not sure of anyone who would deny (or has denied) this aspect of Paul’s ministry, regardless of their “dispensational” position. The position being promoted in BSN is, however, much more controversial (and, I believe, problematic) than this, and has huge implications concerning how relevant and applicable Paul’s “pre-prison” letters are to the body of Christ today.  

One of the most alarming features of this position – at least, as it has been articulated by proponents such as Clyde Pilkington and Stephen Hill - is that what Paul revealed concerning the snatching away of believers to meet Christ in the air (along with the resurrection and “change” which is to immediately precede this event) has nothing directly to do with anyone in the body of Christ today. Rather, these things are believed to pertain exclusively to believing Jews and Gentile proselytes who are destined for Israel’s eonian allotment. Significantly, A.E. Knoch (who is often appealed to and quoted in support of this position) did not even go this far, but consistently maintained that Paul’s words concerning this event are just as applicable to the saints in the body of Christ today as they were when Paul first wrote them. According to Knoch, the truth made known by Paul in 1 Thess. 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-55 (for example) belongs just as much to the present administration as does anything written in his “prison epistles.” But according to the dispensational position being promoted in BSN, what Paul made known in these passages is no more relevant or applicable to the body of Christ today than John’s words in Revelation 19:11-21.

The ongoing defense of this position by BSN continues in issue 529 with an article by Stephen Hill entitled “Proof of Paul’s Progression.” It seems to be a common practice among those subscribing to the Acts 28 dispensational position to view scriptural data that can be interpreted as being consistent with this position as evidence for the position, while failing to take into account data that does not fit with the theory (the theory basically becomes a filter through which those subscribing to it read scripture). Unfortunately, it seems as if Stephen has fallen into this trap. Like many proponents of the Acts 28 position, Stephen has a tendency to draw the reader’s attention to data that could be considered as being consistent with his position (e.g., Paul’s custom of visiting the synagogues on the Sabbath), as if this data constituted compelling evidence for the position. However, that which he has pointed to as supporting his position is, as we’ll see, equally consistent with non-Acts 28 positions (such as the one I’ll be defending in this article). But even more problematic for Stephen is that he has not taken into account data that outright contradicts his position (e.g., those passages which, as we’ll see later, make it clear that Paul’s ministry prior to his imprisonment in Rome involved heralding the truth to people indiscriminately – which included pagan, non-proselytized Gentiles).

Given that this is the second time I’ve felt a need to respond critically to something Stephen has written,[2] I hope that no one reading this article thinks that I have any antagonistic feelings toward Stephen. Not only do I see Stephen as a brother in Christ in the family of faith (albeit a brother whom I have, regrettably, not yet had the pleasure of meeting), I have much respect for him as one who clearly has a passion for studying the scriptures and seeking to understand the truth it reveals. Thus, despite the fact that Stephen and I presently disagree on the doctrinal subject under consideration in this article, I see Stephen as a “kindred spirit” and look forward to the opportunity to fellowship with him one day.

Dating Paul’s Letters: A Preliminary Problem for the “Acts 28” Position

According to the Acts 28 position, our understanding of which truths in Paul’s letters are most applicable - and which are least applicable - to the body of Christ today depends on our having an accurate knowledge of which of Paul’s letters were written before, and which were written during (or after), his first imprisonment in Rome, as referred to at the end of Acts. That is, Stephen’s position presupposes, and can’t even get off of the ground apart from, the following being true: (1) some of Paul’s letters were, in fact, written while (or after) Paul was under house-arrest in Rome, as described in Acts 28:30-31, and (2) we have accurate knowledge of which of Paul’s letters were written during this period, and which weren’t. Now, Stephen may feel confident regarding his knowledge of which of Paul’s letters were written during (or after) his two-year imprisonment in Rome. However, not only is there difference of opinion on this matter among students of scripture, but there is ample room for disagreement on this matter.

Consider, for example, the dates of Paul’s letters for which John A.T. Robinson carefully argues in chapter three of his groundbreaking book, Redating the New Testament (1976).[3] According to what Robinson believes to be the most probable dates, 1 Timothy was written in the autumn of 55, Titus was written in the late spring of 57, and the remainder of Paul’s “prison epistles” were written in AD 58, during the spring (Philippians), summer (Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians) and fall (2 Timothy). These dates – if correct – would not just be problematic for Stephen’s position. They would refute it altogether. Although Paul was indeed a prisoner circa A.D. 58-60, his imprisonment was not in the city of Rome, but rather in Caesarea (Acts 24:22-27). If Robinson’s dates are correct (and they may very well be, either in part or in whole), Stephen’s position concerning how Paul’s letters should be “divided” (with Acts 28:25-28 being the “dispensational dividing line,” so to speak) would be completely undermined.

The very foundation of Stephen’s dispensational position is only as firm as the correctness of the dates he believes should be assigned to Paul’s letters. But Stephen simply cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the dates he has assigned to Paul’s letters are correct. Nor can Stephen prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the letters Paul wrote while a prisoner were written while he was in Rome rather than in Caesarea. It’s also possible that only one of Paul’s prison letters – i.e., his letter to the Philippians - was written while he was a prisoner in Rome, while Philemon, Ephesians and Colossians were all written while he was imprisoned in Caesarea.[4] And there are undoubtedly other views that one could take, and for which one could argue. Insofar as Stephen has not proven (and, I believe, cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt) that the dates he thinks should be assigned to Paul’s prison letters are, in fact, the correct dates, his entire dispensational position rests entirely on assumptions with which no student of the scriptures need feel obligated to share.

André Piet sums up the problem that is involved with dividing up Paul’s letters based on an Acts 28 “dispensational dividing line”: “How do we know what Paul has written before and after Acts 28:28? A number of letters of Paul are easily dated on the basis of Acts, but for most of them, this does not work. The well-known E. W. Bullinger (Companion Bible) said that seven letters were written by Paul, after Acts 28. But others believe that this is to be limited to four letters. Still others claim that it is only three. And yet again others assert it is two letters: Ephesians and Colossians. And even that is not 100% sure because these letters could have been written during the two years that Paul was a prisoner in Caesarea. Would the Acts 28:28 opinion be correct, it is essential to have a definitive answer on what is before and after Acts 28. The mere fact that this dating in Scripture is missing, is a clear indication that this view is irrelevant” (

My friend Travis Penner echoed this sentiment with the following remark: “It is ridiculous to think that God would become so esoteric as to require us to date each of Paul's letters in order to figure out which dispensation he is writing about.” The very fact that God did not see fit to reveal the dates at which Paul wrote his letters should be a red flag to all students of scripture as to the dubious nature of a dispensational position whose entire foundation rests on our ability to accurately date Paul’s letters.

The possibility of having erroneously assigned too late a date to one or more of Paul’s letters (due to our inability to know exact dates or even the exact circumstances in which he wrote some of them) is not the only thing about which proponents of the Acts 28 position should be concerned. There’s also the possibility that what one has assumed to be an “early letter” was actually written on the other side of the Acts 28:28 “dividing line.” Although Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are commonly accepted to have been written early (generally viewed as being Paul’s earliest letters), this traditional view has not gone unchallenged. R.B. Withers and Ted McDivitt, for example, have made what I believe to be a strong case for these letters having been written much later in Paul’s ministry than is generally believed (see and What if the position argued in these articles is correct, and the more traditional view is mistaken (it would certainly not be the first time the traditional view and/or the majority was wrong)? 

Although a later date for the Thessalonian letters would have little effect on my understanding of the truth revealed in Paul’s letters (since I don’t split the letters of Paul to the body of Christ into two different “dispensational” or “administrational” categories), the implications this would have for those holding to the Acts 28 position would be of much greater consequence. It would mean that two entire letters written by Paul are mistakenly being seen as belonging to a bygone, inferior dispensation/administration, and that some very precious truths with which God has provided the saints of today - such as the truth of the snatching away - are being misapplied (and undervalued) as “Israelite truth.”

A.E. Knoch on Ephesians 2:11-22

Toward the beginning of his article, Stephen Hill makes much of some things A.E. Knoch wrote in his commentary, and claims that “many of those opposed to, or ignorant of, this truth are staunch followers of A. E. Knoch and will likely be shocked to know he penned these statements. I wish they would read these words from his commentary every day for a month, or until they really sunk in.”

I have much admiration for A.E. Knoch, and have greatly benefited (and continue to benefit) from not only the Concordant Version translation of scripture (which was compiled by the Concordant Publishing Concern he founded), but from what he wrote in his various books, articles and commentary as well. At the same time, I do not consider myself a “staunch follower” of him. Knoch was, I believe, a man powerfully used by God to throw much light on a number of important and precious truths of scripture that had, over the years, been lost and distorted as a result of erroneous assumptions and beliefs (which were largely based on poor translations of scripture). But as intelligent, insightful and faithful as Knoch was, he was no more infallible than anyone else alive today, and I have never hesitated to express my disagreement with him on anything on which I believe he was mistaken. We all have our blind spots, and can all be guilty of reading certain assumptions and inferences into scripture that scripture doesn’t actually validate. If there are things that Knoch wrote in his commentary (or elsewhere) which the scriptures don’t substantiate – and I believe that the portion of Knoch’s commentary quoted by Stephen is, unfortunately, a good example of this - then we have an obligation to reject it in place of what scripture actually teaches.

In support of his position concerning the “transition” that he believes Paul’s ministry underwent after his imprisonment in Rome, Stephen quotes the following from Knoch’s commentary: “The latter half of the second chapter of Ephesians (2:11-22), is an elaborate statement showing that, in the present administration of God's grace, the nations are no longer in the inferior position accorded them in Paul's earlier ministry…it was not until Paul's imprisonment that we were brought nigh and enter the family of God (Eph. 2:18, 19). Until then we were still guests at Israel's table, if not puppies under it.”

These statements by Knoch (in support of which he provides no argumentation) are based on the following assumption: that Paul was contrasting the status of the nations since the beginning of his imprisonment in Rome with their status prior to this time (during his “earlier ministry”). To Knoch’s comments Stephen adds, “…we were ‘brought nigh and enter[ed] the family of God" after Paul's imprisonment.” But that which Stephen put in italics (“after Paul’s imprisonment”) is simply being read into the text. Paul nowhere says that the nations were brought near and entered the family of God after he became a prisoner in Rome. And (as noted earlier) although Stephen assumes that Paul’s “Ephesians” letter was written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (as his dispensational position absolutely requires that this be the case, and would completely collapse if it weren’t), it is far from certain that Rome (rather than Caesarea) was, in fact, the location from which Paul wrote this letter. And even if Paul did write this letter while under house arrest in Rome, it in no way means that what Paul wrote concerning the nations did not become true of them until this time. The conclusion which Knoch (and Stephen) draw here simply does not follow from anything Paul wrote. Nowhere in Ephesians 2:11-22 or in the surrounding context does Paul say anything that suggests the beginning of his imprisonment in Rome marked the beginning of the state of the affairs described in verses 13-22.

Now, in the verses from Ephesians referred to above, Paul declared that the nations were once, “in that era,” apart from Christ, etc. What “era” did Paul have in mind? Knoch assumes that this “era” was the time prior to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. However, Paul’s wording suggest that the “era” he had in view here had been previously referred to (“…wherefore, remember that once you, the nations in flesh – who are termed “Uncircumcision” by those termed “Circumcision,” in flesh, made by hands – that you were, in that era, apart from Christ…”). When we look back just a few verses, we find that Paul did, in fact, refer to a period of time involving those to whom he wrote that could appropriately be described as an era in which they were “apart from Christ, being alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests [or “strangers”][5] of the promise covenants, having no expectation, and without God in the world.” In verses 1-3, Paul spoke of those to whom he wrote as “once” walking in their “offenses and sins,” and “in accord with the eon of this world, in accord with the chief of the jurisdiction of the air, the spirit now operating in the sons of stubbornness…” During this era they were “doing the will of the flesh and of the comprehension, and were, in [their] nature, children of indignation.” This particular era had, indeed, ended for those to whom Paul wrote, but it wasn’t Paul’s imprisonment that ended this era. Rather, this “era” ended when those to whom Paul wrote first heard the “word of truth, the evangel of [their] salvation” and, believing Paul’s evangel (and being “sealed with the holy spirit of promise”), they were saved (Eph. 2:8-9). It is not, therefore, the status of the nations before and after his Roman imprisonment that Paul had in view in Ephesians 2:11-22, but rather their status before and after they heard and believed his evangel.

Paul’s Evangel Prior to His Roman Imprisonment

According to Stephen, the evangel that Paul referred to in his letter to the Romans was not the same evangel that Paul referred to in the letters that Stephen thinks were written during his imprisonment in Rome. The reason Stephen gives for this position is that the evangel referred to in Romans “was contained in prophecy,” whereas (according to Stephen) the evangel that Paul “later preached exclusively to the nations” was not. However, contrary to Stephen’s position, there is no reason to believe that the evangel to which Paul referred in his letter to the Romans was any more “prophetically promised” than the evangel Paul heralded during his imprisonment in Rome. In his letter to the Romans, Paul referred to his evangel as being “promised before through [God’s] prophets in the holy scriptures” simply because the Hebrew Scriptures prophesied of a Messiah and Savior who would be of the seed of David, who would die for sin, and who would be resurrected by God. That this is what Paul had in mind when he spoke of his evangel as being “promised…in the holy scriptures” is confirmed by what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. In these verses, the essentials of the evangel that Paul heralded (i.e., the historical facts of Christ’s death for our sins and his being roused from among the dead by God) are said to be “according to the scriptures.” To be consistent, then, Stephen must believe that the evangel Paul heralded during his imprisonment in Rome had nothing to do with Christ’s being of the seed of David, his dying for our sins, or his resurrection. An evangel heralded by Paul that was completely devoid of these truths is what Stephen’s argument entails.

I think this puts Stephen in a very awkward position. Even if it was Stephen’s belief that Paul’s evangel during his imprisonment involved more than “just” these historical facts, I doubt Stephen would be prepared to affirm that these facts ceased to be in any way essential to, or part of, Paul’s evangel. At least, I hope he wouldn’t be prepared to affirm this, since to argue for this position would be to argue against scripture. Christ’s death on the cross for our sins was just as much an essential truth of Paul’s evangel during his imprisonment as it was before it (Eph. 1:7; 2:13-18). And the same could be said concerning Christ’s resurrection. Consider, for example, the following words of Paul in the last letter he wrote before his death: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my evangel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal” (2 Tim. 2:8-9). This is essentially the same information as that found in Romans 1:1-4.  

In view of the above evidence (and in contrast with what Stephen’s argument implies), we can safely conclude that Paul’s evangel never ceased to be one that could legitimately be spoken of as having been “promised before through [God’s] prophets in the holy scriptures,” since his evangel always had, at its core, the death and resurrection of Christ. At this point, Stephen might want to respond by modifying his view as follows: in addition to the “prophetically promised” aspect of the evangel Paul heralded during his imprisonment, his evangel at this time also contained or involved truth that had not been promised in the holy scriptures. However, this would in no way support Stephen’s position, as one could simply respond by arguing that the same was true regarding Paul’s evangel before his imprisonment as well. Just because Paul, in Romans 1:1-4, emphasized the fact that his evangel involved historical facts that had been prophesied in scripture doesn’t mean it didn’t also contain or involve truth that was previously a secret. Consider, for example, the following words with which Paul concluded his letter to the saints in Rome (which was, of course, written before he arrived in Rome as a prisoner): “Now to Him Who is able to establish you in accord with my evangel, and the heralding of Christ Jesus in accord with the revelation of a secret hushed in times eonian, yet manifested now and through prophetic scriptures, according to the injunction of the eonian God being made known to all nations for faith-obedience…” (Rom. 16:25-26)

Unlike what Peter declared in Acts 3:21-24 (which concerned “all the things which God speaks through the mouth of His holy prophets who are from the eon”), the “secret” of which Paul had in view in these verses had been “hushed in times eonian.” It was not manifested until after Paul had been called by Christ (Gal. 1:1, 11-16). But what about the “prophetic scriptures” to which Paul refers in v. 26? Answer: Paul is simply referring to his own writings! It is Paul’s epistles which are the “prophetic scriptures” through which the “revelation of the secret” was being “made known to all nations.” Although many do not typically think of Paul’s letters as being “prophetic scriptures,” they are just as much so as any other prophetic scriptures found in the Bible. Paul, of course, wrote concerning truths that are not found anywhere else in scripture, and arguably “saw” further into the future than any other inspired writer of scripture. We also know from 1 Cor. 14:37 that Paul understood that what he wrote was inspired and prophetic scripture.

Concerning this subject, A.E. Knoch notes: 

“The conciliation was not made known through the ancient prophets, but through prophetic writings, such as this epistle [to the Romans] and 2 Corinthians. It is of principle importance that we see the point the apostle makes here, for otherwise we shall not appreciate the unique, distinctive character of the conciliation, which is first set forth in this epistle. The teaching of the fifth to the eighth chapters and especially the eleventh chapter is absolutely unknown in the prophets. In the latter all blessing comes to the nations through Israel as the channel. This conciliation comes because Israel is thrust aside. The prophets would lead us to infer that Israel’s apostasy would bar all possibility of blessing to the nations. The conciliation was a secret they knew nothing of, for it makes Israel’s defection the ground of world-wide, unbounded blessing to the nations until Israel is again in God's reckoning.”

[1] Although there have certainly been articles in past issues of BSN in which this position has been presupposed and/or defended to some degree or another, I’m not sure if there has ever been such a relatively sustained focus on this position as there has been in the past year.

[2] My response to Stephen’s first article on this subject can be found here:

[3] Because of the conservative conclusion at which Robinson arrives concerning the dating of the letters in the New Testament (according to Robinson, every book in the NT was most likely written before 70 A.D.), his book was - and likely remains - controversial among liberal Bible scholars. Concerning the book, the Wikipedia article on Robinson notes the following: “Although Robinson was considered a liberal theologian, he challenged the work of like-minded colleagues in the field of exegetical criticism. Specifically, Robinson examined the reliability of the New Testament as he believed that it had been the subject of very little original research during the 20th century. He also wrote that past scholarship was based on a “tyranny of unexamined assumptions” and an “almost wilful blindness” (Robinson 2000, pp. 310, 307).

[4] This is the position I see as most probable. For a defense of this view, see Caesarea, Rome, and the Captivity Epistles, by Bo Reicke (

[5] The Greek word translated “guest” here in Eph 2 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 word is not to be understood literally here. The imagery Paul was using can simply be understood as conveying the idea that the nations were “outsiders” who didn’t belong to the community where the covenants of promise were enjoyed (for further thoughts on this verse, see my article, The Status of the Body of Christ Prior to Acts 28:28).

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