Saturday, March 26, 2016

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

Acts 28:28 and the Salvation Dispatched to the Nations

As argued in part one, Ephesians 2:11-22 need not be understood as having anything to do with the time before and after the beginning of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Instead, Paul had in view the status of the nations before and after they were saved through faith in his evangel. But when did the nations – i.e., those of whom Paul declared himself the apostle in Rom. 11:13 - begin hearing and believing “the word of truth, the evangel of their salvation?” This question brings us to Stephen’s second quote from Knoch’s commentary. According to Knoch, “... it was not until the end of the Acts era that the salvation of God is sent directly to the nations” (Ac. 28:29).

Ironically, the Concordant Version itself (of which Knoch was the compiler) doesn’t even support what Knoch wrote here. In Acts 28:28 (CLNT), Paul declared to the local Jewish leaders in Rome, “Let it be known to you, that to the nations was dispatched this salvation of God, and they will hear.” Notice the past tense that Paul used here. As André Piet notes, the same grammatical form used in this verse is found in Luke 1:26 (where we read that “the messenger Gabriel was dispatched from God to a city of Galilee…”).[1] 

Salvation (or “saving”) being dispatched to the nations was not something that took place afterPaul spoke to these Jewish leaders in Rome. By the time of Paul’s imprisonment, salvation had already been dispatched to the nations. Paul’s use of the future tense at the end of the verse (“they will hear”) simply emphasizes the continuation of his ministry to the nations, and refers to those among the nations who had yet to hear the message of salvation that had already been dispatched (and which had been bearing fruit since Paul’s evangel first began to be believed among the nations). In other words, Acts 28:28 points us to both the beginning of Paul’s ministry to the nations, as well as to its continuation. And there is simply no indication in this chapter that the continuation of Paul’s ministry to the nations would involve any change in the identity of the nations of which Paul was made an apostle (and as I’ll be arguing in the next section, neither is there any indication that the nation of Israel underwent any change of status at this time).

But when was this salvation to the nations dispatched? Stephen and I are in agreement that this salvation was not dispatched during Christ’s earthly ministry, or through the ministry of any of the twelve apostles. I also think Stephen and I would agree that the salvation which Paul had in view in Acts 28:28 was dispatched through the instrumentality and ministry of Paul. However, whereas Stephen would say that it was dispatched while Paul was a prisoner in Rome, I think scripture reveals otherwise. Stephen seems to acknowledge that the dispatching of this salvation through Paul’s ministry was in accordance with Paul’s original commission from Christ to be the apostle of the nations (Acts 22:21; 26:16-18; Rom. 11:13). If this is the case, then it is in Acts 13 - not Acts 28 - that we find recorded the point in Paul’s ministry when salvation began to be dispatched to the nations (later on in this article I’ll be providing evidence that the “nations” referred to at the end of this chapter did not consist exclusively - or even primarily - of proselytized Gentiles, as Stephen claims).

It is in this remarkable chapter that we first read of Paul and Barnabas “turning to the nations” (after boldly declaring to the Jews that they were “thrusting away” the word of life and “judging [themselves] not worthy of eonian life”). It is at this time in Paul’s ministry – not during his Roman imprisonment – that the evangel Paul heralded first began to be believed by those among the nations who were “set for life eonian” (vv. 44-48), and the nations began to be justified by faith alone, apart from works (in contrast with the believing Israelites to whom Peter, James and John wrote, concerning whom “faith only” was insufficient for salvation; see James 2:14-26). It is also in Acts 13 that we find Paul and his companion Barnabas “severed” to God for the work to which they had been called (Acts 13:1-3). It is in this chapter that we find recorded that intriguing incident involving Sergius Paulus (a Roman proconsul and Gentile) becoming a believer in Christ after Bar-Jesus (a Jewish false prophet) is miraculously blinded and unable to see the sun “until the appointed time” (a miracle which, as a number of students of scripture have noted, seems to point to the state of affairs involving unbelieving Israel that Paul describes in Romans 11:7-10 and 25-32). And it is in this chapter that Luke ceases to refer to Paul as “Saul” (his Hebrew name), and begins referring to him exclusively as “Paul” (his Roman name).[2]

It is Acts 13, then, that should be understood as describing the point in Paul’s ministry when salvation began to be dispatched to those of whom Paul was made an apostle. And despite the claims of Stephen and other Acts 28 proponents, the evidence found in this chapter points to Paul’s apostolic ministry as having undergone a transition at this time that is of far greater “dispensational” consequence than anything said to have occurred subsequent to this time.[3]Consequently, when we read the closing words spoken by Paul to the Jewish leaders in Rome, we shouldn’t see them as referring to an entirely new ministry that Paul would now be involved in. Rather, what we read in Acts 28:28 should remind the reader of a ministry that had been ongoing ever since “Saul” began to be referred to as “Paul.”

The “Setting Aside of Israel”

In his article, Stephen refers several times to Israel being “set aside” (four times, to be exact). Referring to Israel as having been “set aside” or “placed in abeyance” at the end of the “Acts era” is fairly common among those promoting the Acts 28 theory. Interestingly, neither of these expressions actually appear anywhere in the Greek scriptures. This doesn’t, of course, necessarily mean the meaning or concept that these expressions are meant to convey isn’t present in scripture. But with regards to words and expressions which are intended to convey something of theological/doctrinal import, we should avoid adopting them unless that which the word or expression is intended to convey has been demonstrated to be clearly taught or revealed in scripture. However, not only does Stephen not demonstrate that Israel was “set aside” (or explain what, exactly, he means by this), he takes for granted that this took place at the end of the “Acts era.” We’ll assume that by the “setting aside of Israel” Stephen means that God ceased regarding Israel as an ethnic people and nation having certain covenant privileges or preeminence over all other nations. Assuming this is what Stephen has in mind when he refers to the “setting aside of Israel,” there is simply no evidence that this took place at the end of the period covered by Acts. The Acts 28 theory is based entirely on inference and assumption rather than on a careful consideration of what is actually being said (and not said) in the text.

Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Acts 28:25-27 is commonly assumed by proponents of the Acts 28 position as having “dispensational significance,” and as marking the crisis point when Israel was “set aside” by God. However, there is nothing in the immediate or larger context of the book of Acts that supports this assumption. Paul did not say that anything new was taking place (or had taken place) with regards to Israel as a nation – or with regards to the unbelieving Israelites within the nation - when he quoted from Isaiah. Rather, Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 simply re-affirmed what had been true of most Israelites for the entirety of his ministry to the nations up to this point. As such, Paul’s words provided further validation of his past and ongoing ministry to the nations. Notice also that Paul declared the words of the prophecy to have been “ideally” spoken by the holy spirit through Isaiah the prophet to the “fathers” of those to whom Paul was speaking; only implicitly, or by extension, can the words be understood as even being applicable to the Jewish leaders in Rome. This being the case, the words of Isaiah could, in the same way, be appropriately applied to every unbelieving Israelite since the time it was spoken ideally to the “fathers.”

Moreover, this isn’t even the first time the prophecy had been quoted since first being spoken through Isaiah. Nearly thirty years before Paul arrived in Rome, Christ had quoted this exact prophecy during his earthly ministry, and declared it to have been “filled up” in all except those few Israelites to whom the “secrets of the kingdom of the heavens” were being given (Matthew 13:10-16). When Christ declared these words as having been “filled up” in his day, the callousness of Israel had, apparently, already reached a crisis point beyond which there would be no national recovery until sometime after the “complement of the nations” had entered (see Rom. 11:25; I will have more to say about this verse below).

As noted earlier, the expression “setting aside of Israel” appears nowhere in scripture. The only expression that comes close to this was used by Paul in Romans 11:15, where he referred to “their casting away.” Who exactly did Paul have in mind here? In Romans 11:7-8 Paul referred to the unbelieving Israelites of his day (who were in the majority) as simply “Israel,” and contrasted this collective group with a remnant of Israelites whom he referred to as “the chosen.” The “rest” (the majority of Israelites in Paul’s day) are said to have been “calloused” and given “a spirit of stupor, eyes not observing, and ears not to be hearing, till this very day.” From the context, it is evident that this calloused condition was one in which an Israelite had been made insensitive and unreceptive to the truth concerning Jesus’ identity as the Christ and the Son of God. Paul went on to refer to this calloused, “non-remnant” group of Israelites with the words “they” and “their” in the next verses, all the way to v. 15. Thus, when Paul wrote of “their casting away,” he had in view the “casting away” of the majority of Israelites that constituted the nation of Israel in his day (Paul went on to contrast the “casting away” of unbelieving Israel with what he called “the taking back” in the same verse). Thus, by the time Paul wrote to the Romans, the majority of Israelites (being “calloused” and in unbelief) had been “cast away” by God. And what could this mean except that, with regards to covenant privilege and preeminence, the status of an unbelieving Israelite was no better or different than that of an unbelieving, uncircumcised Gentile?

As prophesied in Romans 11:25-27, Paul did not foresee any change in this state of affairs involving the majority of Israelites “until the complement of the nations” had entered (and there is no indication that Paul had any idea of how long this interval would be). But when did this state of affairs – i.e., “their casting away” - begin? In Romans 11:11-12, Paul referred to their “offense” and “discomfiture.” In contrast to this state of affairs involving unbelieving Israel, Paul spoke of “salvation to the nations” (v. 11), “the world's riches” (v. 12) and “the nations' riches” (v. 12). And then, in verse 15, Paul referred to unbelieving Israel’s “casting away” and “the conciliation of the world.” When Paul spoke of the “world’s riches” and “the nations’ riches,” he clearly had in mind the same state of affairs. That is, “the world’s riches” is synonymous with “the nations’ riches.” Thus, based on the context, the “conciliation of the world” should best be understood as referring to the same state of affairs involving the world/nations enjoying “riches,” as referred to in verses 11 and 12. But what did Paul mean by the world's “conciliation?”

It's evident that conciliation to God is obtained through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18), and that it is because of Christ’s death that our conciliation to God is possible (Rom. 5:10-11). But when is it obtained for the individual? In Romans 5:1-2, Paul wrote: “Being, then, justified by faith, we may be having peace toward God, through our Lord, Jesus Christ, through Whom we have the access also, by faith, into this grace in which we stand, and we may be glorying in expectation of the glory of God.” It is our justification - our being “reckoned righteous” by God - that makes peace toward God. And to have peace toward God is to be (or implies being) conciliated to him. But how are we justified, or reckoned righteous? Ultimately, God’s being able to justify anyone is due to Christ’s faith. But at this time, only those who believe Paul’s evangel are presently benefiting from what Christ accomplished, and are being reckoned righteous by God. Thus, it is those believing Paul’s evangel who are being conciliated to God. And Paul’s evangel-heralding ministry involved bringing salvation and blessing to anyone who believed, regardless of their ethnic, national or religious background.

Since it is those who believe Paul’s evangel who are conciliated to God, the “conciliation of the world” to which Paul referred in Romans 11:15 is a state of affairs that began when Paul’s evangel began to go forth to the world/nations. Since this time, God has been entreating the world/nations through the heralding of Paul’s evangel to “Be conciliated to God!” (2 Cor. 5:20). Paul refers to this state of affairs that began when the evangel of peace began to be heralded as “a most acceptable era” and “a day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:1-2). Thus, we can understand the “conciliation of the world” of Romans 11:15 and the “most acceptable era”/“day of salvation” of 2 Cor. 6:1-2 to refer to the same state of affairs and period of time. And since Paul wrote that “their [unbelieving Israel’s] casting away is the conciliation of the world,” it follows that the casting away of unbelieving Israel and the conciliation of the world were (in Paul’s day) concurrent states of affairs.

The conciliation of the world is thus a state of affairs that is possible, and remains in effect, only insofar as the casting away of the majority of Israelites is in effect. It follows, then, that the “casting away” of the majority of Israelites is a state of affairs that began sometime before Paul’s evangel began to be believed by those among the nations “who were set for eonian life,” and the nations began to be conciliated to God. In other words, the “casting away” of unbelieving Israel is a state of affairs that went into effect before salvation was dispatched to the nations in Acts 13, and (as prophesied by Paul) is to remain in effect until the “complement of the nations” has entered. 

The Jewish Remnant and Paul’s Synagogue-Visiting Custom

Concerning Paul’s custom of visiting the synagogues and heralding the truth about Christ to his fellow Jews, Stephen writes:

“Now, some insist that since Paul was commissioned to be the apostle to the nations from day one, he must have dealt only with the nations from the beginning. This assumption is illogical and is simply not true, as proven by the text. Paul frequented the Jewish synagogues in his early ministry, even to the point that Luke called it his "custom" (Acts 9:20, 13:5,14,15,42; 14:1, 17:2,10,17; 18:4,19,26; 19:8, 28:23). Immediately after his conversion, Paul went where? Not to the nations, but to the synagogues (9:20), heralding Jesus as the Son of God.”

I’m not sure who the “some” are that Stephen claims “insist” that Paul “dealt only with the nations from the beginning.” I’ve not once heard anyone who disagrees with the Acts 28 position make such an assertion as this (I know I certainly haven’t). Towards the end of his article, Stephen even claims that “many…have taken for granted that Paul dealt only with the nations...” When reading these statements by Stephen, I can’t help but view them as a prime example of a “straw-man” argument. Again, I don’t know anyone (let alone “many”) who would deny that Paul’s ministry involved heralding the truth concerning Christ to his Jewish brethren in the synagogues. Obviously it did. But was this because Paul viewed the fulfillment of those promises concerning the restoration of the kingdom to Israel as hinging - even relatively speaking - on the evangelical efforts in which he was involved on the Sabbath? Even at the beginning of his ministry, it seems unlikely that Paul would’ve believed this.

Shortly after Paul returned to Jerusalem - and not long after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus - it was revealed to him in a vision that Jerusalem – Israel’s capital city - would not accept his testimony concerning Christ. Instead, his apostolic ministry would involve being sent “afar to the nations” (Acts 22:17-21). Although much more would later be revealed to Paul - and his being “severed” for his ministry to the nations would not take place until several years later - it seems evident that, from the very beginning of his apostolic ministry, Paul would’ve had reason to believe that the work to which he had been called would not be a mere extension of what the twelve apostles had been involved in. It is thus doubtful that, after he and Barnabas had been severed for the ministry to which they had been called, Paul’s Sabbath-day custom of heralding the truth in the synagogues was motivated by the belief that he might “turn the tide” for the nation of Israel. There was clearly some other dynamic at work.

Interestingly, Stephen goes on to provide what I believe to be the correct reason why, even after the events of Acts 13, Paul’s ministry involved heralding the truth about Christ in the synagogues on the Sabbath. In the paragraph following the one quoted above, Stephen writes: “Of course, the fact that Paul was commissioned to be the apostle to the nations is no less true because he focused first on his Jewish brethren. Paul retained his title all along, but he could not enact all that his title entailed until God permitted him to, after the full setting aside of Israel. Furthermore, the Body of Christ is composed not only of Gentile believers, but also a remnant of believing Israel; so while Paul's primary task was evangelizing the nations, his ultimate goal was the up-building of the Body, which included his brethren, the believing Israelites” (emphasis mine).

As Stephen correctly notes, Paul’s ministry had to do with the “up-building of the Body of Christ.” But Paul knew that the body of Christ was not to be composed of Gentiles exclusively (after all, he himself was a Jew and a member of the body of Christ). Although the body of Christ was always destined to became primarily “Gentile” in composition (with those having a non-Jewish background being in the majority), Paul knew that there there were at least some among his Jewish brethren who (like Paul himself, as well as Barnabas and Apollos) had been chosen beforehand to believe the truth of his evangel. It is also clear that Paul viewed at least one aspect of his ministry as involving saving some of these Israelites. In Romans 11:11 we read that “in their [Israel's] offense (i.e., Israel’s collective unbelief as a nation) is salvation to the nations, to provoke them to jealousy.” And in v. 14, Paul wrote, “...I am glorifying my dispensation, if somehow I should be provoking those of my flesh to jealousy and should be saving some of them.” 

It’s evident that Paul saw some sort of connection between the jealousy to which Israel was being provoked in response to his ministry to the nations, and the salvation of “some” of his brethren according to the flesh. But what was the connection? Paul doesn’t tell us, and there are - not surprisingly - differences of opinion among students of scripture concerning this subject.[4] In any case, what needs to be emphasized here is that Paul did not anticipate the majority of Israelites coming to faith in Christ during the time of his “Acts era” ministry. As noted in the previous section, Paul knew that, in his day, the majority of Israelites had been “calloused” by God (Rom. 11:5-10), and referred to their condition as “their casting away” (v. 15). And even though it is necessary that this calloused condition be reversed before the kingdom can be restored to Israel, Paul knew that this state of affairs would not end until the “complement of the nations” had entered (Rom. 11:25-28). Until this time came, Paul evidently saw the un-calloused Jewish remnant as God’s pledge that He had not “thrust away His people” (11:1-2), and that the callousness which was (and remains) upon the nation of Israel would not be permanent.

Since Paul knew that, in his day, not all Israelites had been calloused (but had instead been graciously chosen by God to believe the evangel), he had reason to believe that at least “some” unbelieving Israelites would be receptive to his testimony concerning Christ, and may come to believe the truth and be saved. And given Paul’s own Jewish background and his deep love for his brethren according to the flesh (Romans 9:1-5; 10:1), it’s no surprise that, on the Sabbath, he and Barnabas made it a point to visit the local synagogue of whatever city they were in (assuming there was a synagogue present) and attempt to seek out those who had been "set for life eonian" (cf. Acts 13:48). But as we’ll see in the next section, Paul’s Sabbath-day custom was by no means the exclusive focus of his ministry prior to his imprisonment in Rome.

[2] Paul – a Jew – was also a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:28).

[3] On the other hand, Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus could arguably be said to have been the greatest transitional point in Paul’s life.

[4] Perhaps the jealousy to which Paul hoped some Israelites would be provoked was based on their realization that God was bringing salvation and blessing to the nations through his ministry. According to this view, the evidence that Paul’s Gentile-focused ministry was sanctioned and empowered by God would, for some Jews, produce the sort of “positive” jealousy that would lead them to become more receptive to the truth of his evangel.

Another possibility is that the jealousy of which Paul wrote was entirely “negative.” According to this view (which relies on Paul’s quotation of Deut. 32:21 in Romans 10:19), Paul knew that his ministry to the nations had the potential to provoke most Israelites to the sort of jealousy that involves anger and resentment. In the only two instances where we explicitly read of Paul’s ministry provoking Israelites to jealousy, the hostile reaction of the Jews makes it clear that their jealousy is entirely negative (Acts 13:45, 50; 17:5-7). From these examples it seems clear that their “jealousy” did not make them more receptive to what Paul was teaching. But perhaps Paul’s hope was that some Jews would come to understand the jealousy to which Israel was being provoked as being a fulfillment of Deut. 32:21, and would therefore come to see Israel as standing guilty before God, and in need of being brought to repentance. This would then lead those who came to this sobering realization to become more receptive to what Paul was proclaiming concerning Christ.

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