Paul's Ministry in Acts
What is unique about the Church in the written ministry of the NT comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul. He alone reveals the mystery, the Church as one body on earth, consisting of Gentile and Jew on equal terms, and whose Head is the glorified Christ in heaven (see Eph. 2: 11–16; 3: 1–7; 4: 15, 16). Again, he alone writes of the new man “wherein there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision … but Christ [is] everything, and in all” (Col. 3: 11). Yet of all that is recorded in Acts concerning Paul, there is not a word about any of this. Throughout the book the Jew remains a Jew and the Gentile a Gentile. This surely raises the question: Why?
Again, how strange it is to find one who wrote “For I, through law, have died to law, that I may live to God” (Gal. 2: 19), yet, circumcising Timothy, making a vow, desiring not to miss a Jewish feast and subjecting himself to the law of the Nazarite (see Acts 16: 3; 18: 18, 21; 21: 26)! Again, the question is forced upon the reader: Why?
Biblical Interpretation and the Book of Acts
Any interpretation of the Bible must take account of time, and a major mistake made by many is to read the present into the past. A relevant example of this is found in the meaning imposed upon the Lord’s words when He spoke to His disciples of “my assembly” (Matt. 16: 18). We now know that the Assembly (the Church) is Gentile and Jew in one body, but to read this present truth into the past by assuming that that is what the Lord was conveying to His disciples when He uttered those words is wrong. We must interpret His words as those who heard them would understand them. At that time no Jewish disciple would conceive of Gentiles on an equal par with Israel. They would understand the words to mean a called–out company from Israel and nothing more. We need to appreciate the perfection of the inspired Word which, when spoken did not involve the idea of the one body, yet equally, did not exclude the thought in the future.
While the Scriptures are one whole, God has seen fit to divide them into books. We must therefore observe these divisions and note the unique place that each book occupies in the sacred canon. Acts is marked by transition and forms the bridge by which we pass from the Gospels to the Epistles. It is an historical book—in fact, the last historical book in the Bible. Now the common assumption is that the only purpose of Acts is to present the early history of the Church, and how it began. It does this, but its real object is to show the close of Israel’s history for the present. The answers to the questions that I have posed really find their answer in a single word—Israel. However, let us have confirmation from Paul himself that the mystery—Jew and Gentile together and equal in one body—did not form part of his ministry in the Acts.
When Paul’s public oral ministry, as recorded in Acts, has ended, and he stands a prisoner before Agrippa, he sums up his service as: “witnessing both to small and great, saying nothing else than those things which both the prophets and Moses have said should happen, [namely,] whether Christ should suffer; whether he first, through resurrection of [the] dead, should announce light both to the people and to the nations” (Acts 26: 22, 23, my emphasis). As the mystery was not revealed in the OT (see Rom. 16: 25–27; Eph. 3: 1–7; Col. 1: 24–27), this is a clear, unequivocal confirmation that his ministry in Acts did not involve the truth of the one body. However, while proving the point, it does not provide an answer to the question of why this should be so. To do this we must see the position of Israel in the Acts, for, as already mentioned, Israel is the key.
God said of Israel “And ye shall be holy unto me; for I Jehovah am holy, and have separated you from the peoples to be mine” (Lev. 20: 26). Circumcision was the sign of this separation from the nations, so much so that they were called “the circumcision” (see Acts 10: 45 etc.). Hence while Israel was still regarded as a nation, there could be no thought of the present truth of Jew and Gentile, equal in one body. Throughout the period of the Acts, Israel still existed as a nation, and consistent with this fact, Paul’s oral ministry did not teach the truth of the one body, and preserved the distinctions between Jew and Gentile.
Of course it may be argued that as Paul was distinctly called to go to the nations (see Acts 26: 17) and as Paul alone gives us the truth of the one body, then Gentile blessing surely implies the truth of the one body. Gentile blessing was certainly prophesied in the OT (see Ps. 72: 11; Is. 11: 10; Mic. 4: 1, 2 etc.). In the last words of Moses we have “Shout for joy, ye nations, with his people” (Deut. 32: 43), and Paul’s own summing up of his ministry in Acts 26: 22, 23 contains an illusion to Is. 49: 6: “for a light of the nations”. However, this blessing of the Gentiles was to be in association with Israel (see Is. 60: 3; Zech. 14: 16), not Israel and the Gentiles equally blessed together as “joint heirs” (Eph. 3: 6). Israel was to be prominent, the nations subservient (see Zech. 8: 23). Despite this prophetic testimony, the Jew tended to ignore Gentile blessing and when Paul addressed the Jewish multitude, they heard him until he told them God’s word to him “Go, for I will send thee to the nations afar off” (Acts 22: 21). Had they never read that their own prophet Jeremiah was appointed “a prophet unto the nations” (Jer. 1: 5)?
The matter of Gentile blessing came up at the council of Jerusalem when some would have the Gentile converts circumcised to make them Jewish proselytes. The concluding word of James in Acts 15: 15–21, based on Amos 9: 11, confirmed that Gentiles were to be blessed in association with Israel. However, association is not identity! Throughout Acts, the Jews and the Gentiles retained their national identities. On the one hand, there were many myriads of Jews who believed and were “zealous of the law”, while on the other, there were Gentile believers who were to “observe no such thing” (see Acts 21: 20, 25). Paul’s call from God to go to the Gentiles did not exclude Israel: “Go … bear my name before both nations and kings and [the] sons of Israel” (see Acts 9: 15, my emphasis). Nor did his commission, in itself, imply the “casting away” of Israel (Rom. 11: 15) and Gentile and Jew in one body. However, what it did do was to lay the basis for the time when Israel would be set aside in judgement. Gentile blessing is thus independent of the thought of the Church as the body of Christ. Hence, as Israel persisted as a nation throughout the book of Acts, the truth of Gentile and Jew in one body is not ministered there.
Paul and the Law
In the context of the Gospel and to gain the most souls possible, Paul says “And I became to the Jews as a Jew, in order that I might gain the Jews: to those under law, as under law, not being myself under law, in order that I might gain those under law: to those without law, as without law, (not as without law to God, but as legitimately subject to Christ,) in order that I might gain [those] without law” (1 Cor. 9: 20, 21). At a great distance in time today we may apply this as a general principle to ourselves, but we must not forget that the literal interpretation is to Paul alone. During the time recorded in the Acts, Paul carried out this way of acting to the letter. He further tells us that while he was not sent to baptise (see 1 Cor. 1: 14—17), he did in fact baptise. Baptism belongs to the kingdom, and although the kingdom was not part of his distinctive ministry, he did preach it throughout the period of the Acts (see Acts 19: 8; 20: 25; 28: 23, 31). What Paul did was for the sake of the Gospel. We know from his epistles that personally he was no longer under law for himself, but while Israel was still a nation, Paul became a Jew to the Jews. By contrast, in Galatia and elsewhere, he was a Gentile to the Gentiles, without negating the claim he made in Acts 26: 22, 23.
Hence in Acts 16: 3 when Paul takes Timothy as a companion he has him circumcised “on account of the Jews who were in those places”. While the old covenant was still in force, circumcision was obligatory for a Jew. Only later did Paul clearly spell out the truth that the old covenant had been superseded, and was “near disappearing” (Heb. 8: 13), and as such, was no longer binding. The vow that Paul had taken in Cenchrea was that of the temporary Nazarite as detailed in Num. 6: 1–21. This explains the Apostle’s desire “I must by all means keep the coming feast at Jerusalem” (Acts 18: 21) for the hair of the one who had consecrated himself in that way had to be burnt in the temple of God (see Num. 6: 18). As to why Paul thought it needful to take this vow, Scripture is silent. It is the same vow as that in Acts 21. There, the language of James in vs 23, 24 implies a conviction, based on past experience, that Paul would willingly connect himself with those who had made such a vow. In all this we must remember that Israel had not been publicly set aside, the offerings were still being made, and that the priesthood was still functioning. Hence Paul was acting publicly under the old covenant as a Jew. He went into the temple to prove to the Jews that the report concerning him was false. In Acts 23 when he was before the council he spoke hastily to the high priest not knowing who he was. On being enlightened, Paul confessed his fault and quoted the law that he had transgressed (see v5). This conduct was in accord with the fact that, as yet, there was no public evidence that the Aaronic priesthood had been superseded according to the truth of Heb. 7.
Throughout the period covered by the Acts, Israel was still a nation. She occupied the land. Jerusalem stood with its walls intact. The temple was still there. The priesthood functioned, the sacrifices were still offered and the feasts observed. The law was still enforced. Outwardly, the situation was the same as that before the Lord was crucified. In keeping with this Paul acted, throughout the time of the Acts, as a Jew to the Jews, and as under law.
Throughout the period covered by the book of Acts judgement had not fallen on Israel and Peter’s offer of the return of the Christ (see Acts 3: 19–21) had not been withdrawn. Paul was accordingly restricted in his public ministry, both as regards the mystery and as regards the believer’s relationship to the law. There were no inconsistencies in that ministry as many have thought. While Jew and Gentile were blessed with the same Gospel (see Acts 11: 17) they were nonetheless two separate companies in association with one another. Thus in the feast of weeks (which answers to Pentecost and the book of Acts), there were not one, but “two wave-loaves” (Lev. 23: 17) answering to Jew and Gentile. Once it was clear that there would be no national repentance with Israel and the dark clouds of God’s judgment on that nation were forming, the way was opened up for the public revelation of the mystery. The believing remnant of Israel was prepared for this in the epistle to the Hebrews in which the exhortation was to “go forth to him without the camp” (Heb. 13: 13)—to abandon Judaism forever. Paul could now “complete the word of God” (Col. 1: 25) with the truth of the mystery—Gentile and Jew in one body with Christ as the glorified Head in heaven—national distinctions no longer having any place. With the intermediate state of the Acts having passed, this is the position of all believers now.