How does breaking down “the middle wall of enclosure” which made Jew and Gentile one, reconciling “both in one body to God by the cross” (Eph. 2: 14, 16) harmonise with the distinctions maintained between Jew and Gentile in Acts 15?
It doesn’t. We must rightly divide the word of truth (see 2 Tim. 2: 15 AV). The ministry peculiar to the Assembly was given in the Pauline epistles after the history of Acts had closed. If we read that ministry into Acts we will end up setting Scripture against Scripture. Acts is a transitional book. Thus there is nothing explicit in the book about the Assembly as the one body of Christ, a truth that forms a part of the mystery given to Paul to complete the Word of God (see Col. 1: 25). Nor, strictly speaking, can Scriptures about the one body be applied to the Assembly of Acts 2 because there were no Gentiles in the company then!
Even when the Gentiles came into blessing, they are presented as doing so on the basis of God’s promises for the nations in the OT. Thus James justifies the entrance of the Gentiles into blessing by quoting Amos 9: 11 (Acts 15: 15–19). However, the mere fact of the Gentiles being blessed is not in itself the truth of the one body. Hence while Peter says that the Holy Spirit “put no difference between us and them, having purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15: 9), so declaring that Jew and Gentile came into blessing by the same route, once in the Assembly the distinctions between Jew and Gentile were not removed. We see this throughout Acts (see Acts 15: 19–21, 28–30; 21: 25). This was not surprising if the Gentiles were blessed on the basis of the OT, since the truth of the one body (forming part of the mystery) is not revealed there, being “hidden throughout the ages in God” (Eph. 3: 9).
It is the truth of the mystery that gives the Assembly its unique composition. Now the mystery (which means secret) is not just Jew and Gentile in one body. It is the truth that in that one body all differences between them have been abolished, and that body on earth is united to Christ the head in heaven. As we have seen, this divine secret was not made known to previous generations, hence its absence from the OT. Furthermore, even though the mystery was known to Paul (and others) in the time span of the book of Acts, it did not becomes part of the public testimony then. Thus, Paul, to whom it was first revealed, said to Agrippa “I have stood firm unto this day, 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; see also 28: 17).
The fact of the mystery being hidden in Acts requires some explanation. Although Israel rejected the Kingdom in crucifying its King, the Lord prayed for their forgiveness (see Luke 23: 34) and that prayer was honoured by Peter when he said that they had sinned in ignorance, and that Christ would return and set up the Kingdom in power if they repented (see Acts 3: 17–21). Again, during the 40 days of resurrection, the Lord spoke, not of the Assembly, but “of the things which concern the kingdom of God” (Acts 1: 3). Accordingly, the apostles asked the Lord, “is it at this time that thou restorest the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1: 6). The very question proves that there was no doubt as to the Kingdom’s restoration. The only uncertainty was as to when. In the Kingdom the Jew is pre–eminent, and the Gentile subordinate, and while its restoration was still an active possibility, the doctrine of the one body was veiled and the distinction between Jew and Gentile maintained.
Initially, the testimony was restricted to Jerusalem, and was to the Jew only. When Jerusalem refused to repent after Stephen’s critical address in Acts 7, the testimony went out to Samaria, Paul was commissioned, and the Gentiles brought into blessing (see Acts 8, 9, 10). However, although the testimony had widened, it was still always to the Jew first. The Jew retained priority throughout Acts because the subject of the Kingdom was still dominant at that time (see Acts 8: 12; 14: 22; 19: 8; 20: 25; 28: 23, 31). Only at the end of the book, when the testimony was rejected by the leaders of the Jewish dispersion at Rome, did Paul pronounce Isaiah’s sentence of judicial blindness on the whole nation (see Acts 28: 27). The promise of the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel now slipped out of sight for the immediate future. Thereafter Israel lost her priority in blessing, and the testimony turned away to the nations (no longer just in a local sense as in Acts 13|: 46, 47; 18: 6), but now a formal setting aside of Israel as a whole). Thus while in Acts, Paul is bound for “the hope of Israel” (Acts 28: 20), by the time of the prison epistles he is bound you nations” (Eph. 3: 1).