THE GREEK SCRIPTURES ON THE BRIDE
(Matthew Through Acts)
As God in times past had spoken unto the Hebrew fathers by the prophets, pleading with them to return to His bosom, so, again, He sent forth His own Son, speaking through Him to His divorced people Israel. The record of that speaking we have in the four Gospels, or accounts of Christ’s words and works on earth.
So thoroughly has the “spiritual Israel” theory a hold on the thinking of Christendom that the plainest of statements about the limitations of our Lord’s earthly ministry are overlooked or ignored. Thus wisdom is shut out quite at one of her gates, even when she really would enter.
The “spiritual Israel” idea was first prominently foisted upon the Christian church by Origenes, a brilliant Greek writer and teacher of the third century. Had not this theory, to the effect that the church of this dispensation supplants the Jewish nation and becomes inheritor of all its old covenant promises and prophecies; had not this theory been current in public thinking for more than seventy-five years the Christian church could have been of no use whatever to Constantine. But given the fact that the church now supplants Israel, instead of being something altogether different and distinct, then you have considerable basis for the church-state, for making war in the name of and with the aid of religion, for ritual, pomp, splendor, and ecclesiastical show. Constantine saw all these possibilities, grasped at them, and made large use of them. Few have unlearned the trick.
Only a careful perusal of the actual text of the Greek writings of the Bible, commonly though erroneously called the New Testament, can help us to arrive at the facts; and to them we repair.
Matthew practically opens with the announcement: “Repent, for the heavenly sovereignty is at hand” (Matt.3:2). Living as we do nearly two thousand years from that time, and under Western conditions, it is difficult for us to appreciate the force of these words. But to the Jew in that day they were pregnant. The sovereignty that held sway over Israel at the time of John the Baptist’s official proclamation was an earthly sovereignty, exercised by a Gentile empire, in marked contrast to the heavenly sovereignty which had ruled Israel before their national divorce, before their Sovereign, their Husband, ceased to hold tribunal between the cherubim in the Most Holy of the temple. John’s message was given to encourage the Jewish people to repent, to turn away from trust in earthly power and turn to repose in that kingdom and dominion under the whole heaven which had been promised them as the “people of the saints of the Most High” (Dan.7:27).
The message which John had was exclusively for Jews. They were encouraged to confess the sins peculiar to their situation, the sins of national adultery and of failure to desire the approval of none but their Lord (Matt.3:6). His hearers were already familiar with the “wrath to come” (Matt.3:7; Mal.4:1), with the judgment-sitting which would effect a vindication of the believing remnant of Israel and a punishment of the apostate mass, together with the nations for their treatment of the Jew.
Jews were the “children of the bridechamber” (Matt.9:15); our Lord was the “bridegroom” (Mark 2:19,20; Luke 5:34,35). His ministry and that of the twelve was definitely excluded from the Gentiles (Matt.10:5; 15:24).
Jewry is denominated “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matt.12:39; 16:4; Mark 8:38). And surely no people could be adulterous unless they had had marriage relations; and who but Israel had ever had such relations with Yahweh (Amos 3:1,2)? Christ’s church of Matthew 16:18 was the Jewish church, as “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38) had been Jewish; and as the “congregation” of Psalm 22:22,25 was Jewish and remained such.
Repentance and baptism were the keys of the kingdom; and they were held for use by our Lord during His earthly ministry. But afterward He gave them to Peter, a Jew, and Peter exercised this power to open in Acts 2 toward Israel and in Acts 10 toward believing or proselyte Gentiles. It was “in the regeneration,” not in the new creation, that the twelve apostles were and are to sit over and judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt.19:28). That is their destiny, as far as it touches the Millennial kingdom of the Messiah.
The parable of the marriage of the King’s son (Matt.22:1-14) teaches how that the principal ones in Israel were invited to the marriage, but they made light of it. The believing remnant was to be the bride: our Lord was the Bridegroom. The rest of the nation, beginning with the Pharisees and rulers, were invited to the marriage, as further elaborated in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt.25:1-13).
Let it be noted, in passing, that neither the wise nor the foolish virgins were the bride, and were never expected to be. They were merely worshipers who might all have had the privilege of accompanying both bridegroom and bride to the marriage feast. The wise ones enter into the privilege, but they do not thereby become the bride. Only the most willful disregard of facts and the most woeful ignorance of right division of Scripture could make a reception committee the bride.
MARK AND LUKE
Matthew is the gospel which testifies particularly of the King and the kingdom; Mark of the suffering Servant of Yahweh. Accordingly, we would not expect to find much about the kingdom or of bridal or marital relationships in Mark. And there is next to nothing there.
Luke testifies of the Lord Jesus as the Son of Man, and, in harmony, carries the genealogy back to Adam, thus demonstrating His right to rule the earth. But that ruling was promised to be with and through Israel. So when the offer of the kingdom, when the renewed wooing began, we find the Bridegroom’s promises of tender husbanding of his wife-to-be (Luke 12:22-31). Their thought was to be for Him; He would provide for them if they would only repent. Everywhere it was a call to repentance (Luke 13:1-5). The nation was granted an extension of opportunity to repent. They were not to go through some outward motions merely, but were to “bring forth fruits meet for repentance” (Luke 13:6-9). They were to quit their trifling formalism and turn in sincerity of heart, with deep consciousness and conviction of sin, to their rightful Lord and Master.
But there was no repentance of the nation as such, as shown by the indignation of the ruler of the synagogue (Luke 13:14). The ruler thought in terms of ceremonial law; the Lord in terms of divine love. Repentance would have involved a change of viewpoint. But the nation’s rulers would have none of it, because such repentance would place them in the same poor-and-needy category with the avowed sinners of the nation.
Just because these scribes, Pharisees, and rulers of the nation generally, had no place for repentance, therefore the Lord turned from them to the poor, as He showed by a parable (Luke 14:16-24). But through all this Israel remains Israel, never becomes Gentile; “for the gifts and calling of God are without regret” (Rom.11:28,29).
JOHN’S PLAIN SPEECH
John bears testimony of Jesus as the Son of God (John 20:31). He identifies the royal claimant in Israel with His previous celestial glory and with His previous husbanding of Israel in the name of Yahweh; for whatever was done, either in Israel or out of it, was done through Him and by Him. He came unto His own possessions (His throne, as David’s heir; His land, as Abraham’s heir; and His earth, as Adam’s supplanter), and His own subjects received Him not (John 1:11). There is a difference in the gender between the first “his own” and the following “his own” which is difficult to show without the addition of words in English. The first is neuter; the other masculine. But some of His subjects received Him. Among these was Nathanael, whose double confession established our Lord’s divine origin and rightful kingship: “Thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel” (John 1:49).
It was not by accident that the beginning of Jesus’ miracles was at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11). Upholding the universe by the word of His power, He turned water into wine; thus making a tiny picture of the great feast which He will make to all people in His kingdom, “a feast of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined” (Isa.25:6). And that great feast will be His own nuptial feast.
From the statement of John the Baptist, “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom,” etc. (John 3:29), we have three points established:
(1) The bride was then present;
(2) Jesus was the Bridegroom, and present;
(3) John was the friend of the Bridegroom.
Probably none of these points will be challenged by any Bible student, or even reader. The question of importance is whether the bridal nucleus, which was then present and consisted of the believing remnant of Israel, ‘Israelites indeed, in whom was no guile,’ ever has expanded in God’s purpose and working to include Gentile believers such as we are now. In other words, is the bride Jewish, as the wife certainly was in Old Covenant times, or has the church, the body of Christ, as subsequently revealed by Paul and as gathered out during this period of Israel’s blindness, supplanted or taken the place of the Jewish bride, as well as being the body of Christ? The long-time and general prevalence of a theory is no proof of its Scripturalness. Only the Scriptures can establish the Scripturalness of a thing.
Our Lord’s talk with the woman at the well near Sychar illustrates the situation somewhat. The woman said: “I have no husband.” Jesus said unto her, “Thou hast well said, I have no husband: for thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly” (John.4:17, 18).
The Samaritan woman was apostate from the divinely established worship in Jerusalem, even as the Jewish nation has long been, even woefully been, apostate. She had had five husbands and, apparently, one more at the time of our Lord’s utterance. So, when the Lord comes again to His own nation, that nation will have bartered its love and confidence in turn to Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Medo-Persia, and Grecia, and will then be philandering most shamelessly with the last worldly might, the nondescript monster of Daniel and Revelation. Israel can well and in confusion confess, “I have no husband.”
Indeed, the gospel of John, written as it was, after the destruction of Jerusalem, is for the express purpose of leading the Jews in the end of this age (but not of this dispensation) to a realization of the fact that Jesus is in truth the Son of God, and as such the Messiah of the prophets.
The frequent picturing of Israel as sheep and the Lord as their Shepherd features a point similar to the figure of the bride and Bridegroom. In the one case the nation is shepherded and in the other husbanded. Both figures are used freely in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Greek Jewish portions of the apostolic writings. Neither figure is used as illustrative of the church of the present dispensation in any epistle written by Paul and addressed to churches of this period. More than that: the word sheep is not even used by Paul in any letter bearing his name, except in Romans 8:36, which quotes Isaiah in describing our Lord as a Sheep for the slaughter. The same is true of the word shepherd. It is used only once by Paul in his church epistles, and then in the sense of pastors (Eph.4:11). But the usage of both words in the Gospels is very frequent.
“All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers....By me if any man enter in he shall be saved” (John 10:8,9).
Moses and the prophets were not thieves and robbers; but they did not claim to be the great King, to be He who had sat enthroned between the cherubim, whose kingly, shepherdly, and husbandly withdrawal from His people had marked the beginning of Gentile domination in the earth, and whose parousia, or kingly presence, was and is to mark the termination of Gentile empire, the reenthronement of Himself as King, the taking up again of His place as Shepherd, and the reentering into the close and happy bonds of wedlock with His people.
This is the peculiar kind of salvation offered to the Jews, which depended to some extent on their own works. They needed to repent in deed and in truth of their national sin of adultery before He would save or deliver them from their oppressors. This is both distinct and different from the general salvation founded on Christ’s death, which affects all men (1 Tim.4:10), and which is not out of deference to works but is of God’s sovereign grace (Eph.2:8).
In John 10:26-29 and 17:2,6,9,11,12,24, is stressed the fact that our Lord took, yea, took pleasure in having, only those whom the Father gave Him, as was the case with Isaac and his beloved Rebecca. Rebecca was a daughter of Isaac’s own people. No other would do.
So the larger bride both was and is to be of the same earthly family as her Lord.
If we wish to believe God’s Word at all we must believe that the Gospels are not to, nor concerning us, though they are for us, for our instruction in God’s ways, the same as the Hebrew books of the Bible. The ethical instructions of Jesus’ earthly ministry were given exclusively to Jews and are no more for Gentiles, either believing or unbelieving, than were the rituals of the old covenant. The fun poked at the Sermon on the Mount by unbelievers has had much of its basis in a misconception of its application. The Sermon on the Mount was an epitome of the laws of the Messianic Kingdom, which will not fit, were never intended to fit the times of Gentile supremacy. There is no “nucleus” of the church as we know it in the prison epistles of Paul anywhere to be found in the Gospels. It simply is not there. The stage is Jewish: the actors are Jewish: the message is Jewish. They gather up the thread of drama right where it was dropped by the last Hebrew prophet.
AN EXAMINATION OF ACTS
And when we come to Acts, what? The stage is still crowded with Jewish actors, at the first exclusively so.
Our Lord had come to His own once-wedded people as their Husband-King. They had scorned His advances in His humiliation. They saw not the beauty there that they desired to see in a national caretaker. Will they now spurn Him when He speaks from heaven? The book of Acts is the answer to that question.
First it is well to note what the book of Acts does not do, and does not claim to do. It does not give an account of the ‘founding of the church.’ That is a figment of human imaginings. Its own subject matter is briefly alluded to in chapter 1, verse 3:
1. Infallible proofs of Jesus’ resurrection;
2. Instructions pertaining to the kingdom of God.
These were the things which constituted the subject matter of our Lord’s talks with them after His resurrection and before His ascension. Details of some of these instructions are given us, some of His “Commandments unto the apostles whom He had chosen,” but not all of them. They were to remain in Jerusalem until they should be baptized, not begotten, with the holy spirit; which had already been referred to as “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Further, they were to be witnesses of their Lord’s resurrection in (1) Jerusalem, (2) the rest of Judea, (3) Samaria, and (4) the rest of the land—Greek, “limits of the land,” which may be understood of the promised land or of the whole earth. In light of the actual activities of the Jewish apostles during the Acts period the land of Palestine is the thought; but in light of God’s purpose in the future, after the present dispensation has ceased, the larger thought is also contained, as elsewhere expressed in Matthew 28:19,20, and 24:14.
One of the “commandments unto the apostles” was evidently for them to proceed with the selecting of a successor to Judas Iscariot. But, it may be objected, are we to put Matthias in and leave Paul out? The answer is: it is not for any of us to do the putting. It is for us to give close heed to what has been already done. And that Matthias was chosen to the vacant place among the twelve is most plainly set forth.
In the first place, it had been said to Peter personally: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt.16:19). Again, to the Jewish disciples generally (Matt.18:1) and of the twelve in particular: “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt.18:18). And yet again: “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt.18:19). None of these promises can be appropriated by us; for we live in a different dispensation. Those were the days of miraculous testimony. Those were the days of the kingdom of the heavens. These are the days of neither. But any or all of these special promises cover the case in hand. Shall we, more deeply charged with rationalism than with reverence, say, without Scriptural foundation, that eleven noble hearted men acted rashly and on their own initiative?
But, some might say, had not the same Peter denied his Lord, and did not the same Peter in years to come deal doubly? Yes, but we are not left to guess at it. We are told by the sacred narrative itself. Furthermore, the situation is quite different. In both of the other cases the trouble was fear of man, under great stress. There was no such moving cause here. To say that the eleven acted unwarranted and out of order in this matter would be for us to show even less reverence for the Word than they would have shown in such a case.
We may quite reasonably assume that Peter had specific instructions from his Lord what to do and how to do it (Acts 1:2). But, dropping that assumption, there is any one of the three authorizations cited above.
Even if it were assumed that the eleven erred, there would be no occasion for Luke, writing many years afterward, and with Paul at his elbow, to perpetuate the supposed mistake by recording it without inspired comment indicating its erroneousness.
The whole effort to force Paul in where he does not belong is traceable to a failure to apportion the Scriptures aright (2 Tim. 2:15), to a failure to appreciate the distinctions between kingdom believers (before and after pentecost) and body believers.
The account itself is most explicit: when Matthias was “numbered with the eleven” (Acts 1:26) he became one of the twelve.
“Peter standing up with the eleven” (Acts 2:14).
“Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples” (Acts 6:2).
“He was seen of the twelve after that he was seen of all the apostles [i.e., of the twelve again]. And last of all He was seen of me also” (1 Cor.15:5,7,8)
And how could the twelve be witnesses of our Lord prior to His ascension when there were only eleven apostles at that time? The answer is simple: Matthias was there. So was Barsabas. Both of them were qualified, inasfar as they had both been with the Lord Jesus “beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:22), but both were not needed. First Corinthians was written many years after the choosing of Matthias; and all those who were the ultimate twelve saw and became witnesses of the risen Lord. Paul could not possibly have been one of the twelve; for he had not been with Jesus during His earthly ministry. The ministry of the twelve was to the twelve tribes. There was nothing done by them outside the favored nation except among proselytes, and only very gingerly with them. Furthermore, as Peter’s ministry declines, Paul’s increases.
The small group of believers in the Messiahship of Jesus did not have long to wait from the time of their Master’s ascension till they received “power” for witnessing by means of miraculous gifts. Pentecost came, and the near to one hundred twenty believers who had been meeting, regularly for prayer were all, men and women, filled with holy spirit, and began to speak with tongues as the spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4).
The witness which was to be borne, beginning at Jerusalem, was a message similar to that which Jesus and His apostles had preached, as far as it touched the kingdom—repentance, baptism, and the Messiahship of Jesus; but it was now to be augmented by testimony as to His resurrection and ascension to glory at God’s right hand. This resurrection and glorification was a proof of the righteousness at once of His claims and of His conduct (John 16:10); for if He had been an imposter He would have been neither raised nor exalted to God’s right hand.
The pentecostal message of Peter (starting the third-hour work of the parable of the vineyard laborers or of the penny—Acts 2:15) was to the ‘men of Judea and all that dwelt at Jerusalem’ (Acts 2:14). If we take it away from there and force it into or onto Gentiles, we do so with certain confusion of truth. Joel was quoted (Joel 2:28-32) to show that such signs and wonders could be expected as preceding the great and notable day of the Lord. Men and women of all sorts and conditions of life were to be endued with the spirit of prophecy and of visions and of dreams and of utterance; whereas these gifts had been rare before.
The fact that the earthly kingdom was prominent in the message, as well as in the minds of the believers (Acts 1:6), is shown by an early, almost immediate, reference to the throne covenant with David (Acts 2:30). There are three unconditional covenants, none of them fulfilled: that with David, regarding a descendant to sit upon his throne—the heir is apparent but not reigning—(Jer.33:17-21); that with Abraham, regarding the land of Canaan (Gen.17:8; 28:13); and that—impliedly at least—with Adam about filling the earth and having dominion over every living thing that is in the earth (Gen.1:28). All of these find fulfillment in Christ. He is the King over Israel, the Allottee of the Land, and the One who has been set over the works of God’s hands (Heb.2:7,8), the Lord of Earth. But here (Acts 2:30) the talk is of Israel.
Peter is speaking about the King and the kingdom as one in whom hope had been reborn by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3). The little group of believers had trusted that it had been He that would deliver Israel (Luke 24:21). But when their Lord died, in ignominy and shame, their hope died too. Now He was alive, and hope was reengendered. Would He on the day of firstfruits save them as the firstfruit of the nation, restore the kingdom again to Israel, give them the kingly powers promised? The answer depended on the conduct of the nation to its King, on the way the haughty divorcee received the reoffer of marriage.
The apostles and other disciples were visited with the “powers of the age to come” (Heb.6:5), the enduements of the Millennial age, shown in the healing of the lame man who ‘leaped as an hart,’ and in the destruction of Ananias and Sapphire, in line with the Psalm which promised:
“He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house:
He that speaketh falsehood shall not be established before
Morning by morning will I destroy all the wicked of the land,
To cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of
Where are the healing, the flawless discerning judgment, the summary punishment, which were wielded by Peter? Of the judgment and punishment there is certainly none; and such healing as there may be is no more like the grand witness of Christly powers there given than a baby’s rattle is like a kingly scepter.
The outcome of the pentecostal preaching was that three thousand more Jews were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, were baptized, and continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in breaking of bread and prayers. All the believers, looking for the establishment of the Messianic kingdom, were accustomed to meet for prayer in the temple. There was no disposition then or ever (Acts 21:20) to quit the Jewish method of worship or to cease being Jews.
The selling of their “possessions,” of better acquisitions, was not a “mistake.” So far from being a mistake, it was an evidence of the believers’ faith in the proximity of the kingdom. It was not their tribal and family allotments which were sold and which constituted the basis of their subsistence, their living; but it was their freeholds, their superfluous property, acquired over and above what had been given them according to the law. It was an evidence that they were seeking God and His righteousness, rather than the Mammon of the world. They knew that all such titles would be abrogated with the establishment of the kingdom and the reallotment of the land; so they were willing rather to use the price of their acquired holdings to the good of all.
We can neither throw the body of Christ back into those conditions on the one hand, nor drag those conditions forward into the present, on the other.
Some time after pentecost, we are not told just how long, Peter and John were going into the temple at the hour of afternoon prayers. On the way in Peter healed a man with congenital malformation of the feet and ankles. The marvel so attracted the crowd of other Jewish worshippers that Peter declaimed to them, under the guidance of the holy spirit. He laid at the door of the people the guilt for the murder of their King, the spurning of their espoused Lover, the Prince of Life; but assured them that He was raised out from among the dead and that it was He who had performed the miracle on the lame man.
Thus he brings home to them the message of repentance, urging them to acknowledge their faithlessness against their Husband-Lover, to reconsider, to confess their sin and to turn from it by letting the world know that He whom they had despised and rejected was their true King. If they did so, He would come and vindicate them before the nations, their sins having been blotted out, and send seasons of refreshing from God’s favoring face,* so long and justly averted. Jesus Christ would be sent to them again, as the most marked evidence of divine mercy and favor, the same One who had been preached before to them, not only during our Lord’s earthly ministry, but also through the prophets of old.
* The word which in the Common Version is rendered presence is not that which refers to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The reference is not to Christ, who is brought into the matter in the next clause, but to the Father. The word is not parousia, presence, but prosopon, countenance, as in Acts 6:15; 20:25; etc.
And why had this One not come before, if He loved the nation so ardently? The answer is: the times and seasons God kept in His own power, because some phases of the times had been made dependent on the conduct of Israel. Nothing they could do would ever affect His purposes or His success in them, but the time for things might be altered somewhat. In any case, it had been long before determined that the Kingly presence should be withdrawn during the times of the Gentiles, but when those times would end, when the holy city should cease to sense the sovereign tread of the stranger, that was not revealed. But this official proclamation by God’s official spokesman informs us that those times would have been terminated by the royal presence of the Anointed, if the people had reconsidered and reversed their attitude toward God’s providence.
The ‘restoration of all which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from the age’ must not be wrenched from its moorings by any high tide of sentiment or prejudice. In no case could the prophets referred to go back of the flood, where the present wicked age, or eon, began (Luke 1:70). We are not told that all the prophetic utterances from the flood on are recorded in holy writ. But the prophets who bear testimony along this line are specified; so there is no need or room for human guessing. Moses is first quoted, and here, as generally, he is separated from the main body of the prophets, because he had a more exalted office in addition to the prophetic one. At all events, Moses heads the list; then “all the prophets from Samuel” follow. They were the ones who spoke particularly about the restoration of kingly honors, privileges, and splendors, because nearly all of them followed the decline of the kingdom, and some of them its fall.
Moses (Deut.18:15) was brought into witness, as being the one upon whom the Jews prided themselves as building; and he condemned them outright. There was no escape from the meaning of the words. There was the Law about which they prated so much. But God was showing them mercy. Saul of Tarsus was also condemned by that pointed statement. Yet God not only showed him mercy, but much more, grace. He not only did not visit him with all the punishment which there was just reason to expect, but He heaped on him boons and bounties for which there was no ground for expectation in law.
Mind, the whole discourse was to and concerning Jews. The restoration does not hark back to Adam, but to the Jewish kingdom in and over the earth. To be sure, even waste places and wildernesses adjacent to Mount Zion will become like Eden, the garden of the Lord, and stupendous political and religious changes will take place after the time of Messiah’s inauguration, but we must not attribute to the Millennial reign of Christ any more than the Scriptures attribute to it. To do so would be to add to the Word of God.
The Jews only were the children of the prophets, and only Jews and proselytes are ever children of the covenant which God made with Abraham, saying, “And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed” (Acts 3:25).
What! Is not the body of Christ now blessed under the terms of that covenant? Absolutely not. Believers were blessed under it during the Acts period, but now, after Acts 28, they are in a still more basic and comprehensive relationship to God as His children. Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 2 Timothy know nothing of Abraham. The kind of blessing under the Abrahamic promise is specified as “turning every one of you from his iniquities.” The blessing of body believers goes far beyond that.
“The times of restoration” alludes to redemption under the law, but brought in real perfection and grandeur with Messiah’s reign, when He as the Kinsman Redeemer will redeem His enslaved and disinherited people. So, in talking to these Israelites about seasons of restoration it must be noted that not one word is said by Peter about the present dispensation of grace and the body of Christ, with its celestial destiny and setting. If pentecost marked the beginning of the church as we know it, is it not strange that there is not only nothing to identify such beginning, but everything to separate the activities of that time from the things which are promised us in the prison epistles of Paul?
But the official reoffer of the kingdom to the nation of Israel as such came the next day, as a sequel to the arrest of Peter and John by the “priests and officers of the sanctuary and the Sadducees” who were vexed by what Peter had said, and probably still more so because of the five thousand who believed his teaching. When the two apostles were brought before the governing body of Israel, would that group of functionaries, softened by a sense of their guilt in killing the Prince of Life, grasp eagerly at the opportunity for mercy, and cooperate in the great missionary activities of Matthew 24:14 and 28:19,20? This was one of the pathetic hours of Israel’s history. They stood on the threshold of the kingdom. Would they scorn the liberation from Rome and disdain the long-promised sovereignty to which their repentance would be the password? It seems impossible that they would; but they did: and brought upon the nation an age-long condemnation.
What was it that stood in the way of their acceptance? Religion.
Their heart shelves were all stocked up with an array of goods that looked pleasing and sufficient to them. Like the Inn, there was no room for the Son of Glory. The name which had healed the lame man, the only name by which they could be saved, was the very name in which the rulers charged the apostles not to speak (Acts 4:10,12,17).
Was there adultery in all this? Yes; for Peter and John were led to a quotation of the second Psalm, in which it is prophesied that the Gentile powers would be joined and supported by “the people,” the people of Israel. This oneness of purpose as between Gentile power and God’s previously divorced people, but now being wooed as a bride for remarriage, constituted conspiracy against the One to whom she rightly belonged. She had larger eyes for the stranger than for her true Lover.
Yet vast multitudes believed; and the rest were becoming affrighted. At least three times (Acts 4:9-12; 5:29-32; 6:12-7:60) did the Sanhedrin hear the message, preceded by two addresses to the people (Acts 2:14-36; 3:12-26). About the worst thing that could be said about the believers was that the things they taught had a tendency to ‘change the customs which Moses delivered them’ (Acts 6:14). Those Jews were fierce channelites, more interested in the channel than they were in the Source of blessings; more intent on the tools than on the Worker.
Moses had told them that a time would come when they should hearken not to him, but to the great Prophet who should be raised up like unto him; and that if then they listened to Moses rather than to the Messiah there would be dire consequences. The truth was, they listened to Moses when it was flattering to themselves or convenient to do so; otherwise they sidestepped the issue. Rather than change their “customs” they were willing to add murder to murder. The same class had before accused our Lord that His disciples ‘transgressed the traditions of the elders’ (Matt.15:2), but did not mind at all when they themselves made void the commandments of God by their traditions.
Time passed and Stephen was arrested.
The glory of God that had once shone in the most holy of the temple, that had shone in the face of Jesus Christ (Matt.17:2; 2 Cor.4:6), now shone in some measure in the face of Stephen as he was filled with wisdom and with the spirit before his accusers. But Stephen, the seeming defendant--like Peter before--turned prosecuting attorney and grand jury, and indicted the judges. Those judges were always clashing with the holy spirit. Their self-consciousness was vastly stronger than their God-consciousness.
The conduct of Peter and John and Stephen in these matters is no model for us. It was the right thing then. It would be the wrong thing now, for we live in a different dispensation. These had miraculous powers, the powers of the age to come. We have no such powers whatever, and are strictly commanded to be subject to the powers that be. As long as the powers “be” we are to be subject to them. When the hour comes for the termination of Gentile times the Messiah will end them without the least trouble or doubt, regardless of our theories, assumptions, deductions, or inductions.
Chapter eight tells us of the reaching of a son of Ham with the Messianic message. This Ethiopian was a proselyte, probably ‘of righteousness,’ but, if not, then certainly ‘of the gate,’*
* Some understanding of the distinctions and differences between the various classes involved in the Acts history is almost necessary to a correct following of the text. First, it must be borne in mind that the stage is Jewish and the chief actors such. But others frequently pass across the boards. The factors in the drama, or dramatis personas, are about as follows:
Israelites and proselytes of
righteousness, ritualists, “orthodox” (1) Non-believers in the Messiahship of Jesus (2) Believers (b) Hellenists, native Israelites, somewhat “reformed” (1) Non-believers (2) Believers (2) PROSELYTES OF THE GATE Uncircumcised Gentile worshipers of God (1) Believers (2) Non-believers (3) GREEKS Often meaning that for which
the Greeks as a people stood,
human logic (1) Non-believers (2) Believers (4) GENTILES
The nations generally,
rarely in Acts referring
directly to Greeks (1) Non-believers (2) Believers
The Hebraists, called Hebrews as a rule in all versions, were no more Israelite than the Hellenists, who are rather confusingly called Grecians in the Common Version. The Hebraists were those Israelites who, for the most part, had continued to live in the land and who without exception were very punctilious about ritual and who conducted their synagogue services in the Hebrew tongue, or, at least, had the Scriptures read in that language. It is this last fact that gives rise to the term Hebrews, or Hebraists. Being more zealous in these matters they were, naturally, the more zealous in missionary work; so that such Gentiles as were brought into Judaism by circumcision were pretty sure to be aligned with the more strait-laced group. The book of Hebrews was written to and concerning such part of this class as believed in Jesus as the nation’s Messiah.
The Hellenists were Israelites who lived, for the most part, outside the land of Israel, whose observance of the traditional ritual was more lax (necessitated in some degree by their absence from the temple and the city of worship) and whose synagogue readings were in Greek. Mark, all the Jews spoke Greek in daily converse, as did nearly everyone else, but the distinction was in the matter of worship (Acts 9:29; 11:20). There were also Hellenists in Jerusalem, made up of those who had been removed from the land by military force and later allowed to return and of those who had lived in Gentile countries on commercial ventures and then returned to the land. There were believers in the Messiahship of Jesus in both of these groups, as shown by Acts 6:1. And the non-believers in both groups persecuted the believers (Acts 6:9), but the believers in no case ceased to be Jews because of their belief. As well claim that a youth has ceased to be a human being because he has arrived at manhood as to claim that a Jew ceased to be such because he had accepted that which centuries of prophecy had taught him was coming.
Proselytes who were circumcised came fully into the Jewish fold and religiously and socially had equal standing with the bloodborn Israelite. But there was a considerable fringe of believers in Yahweh as the true God and worshipers of Him by prayer and alms, who never took the step of identifying themselves with the chosen nation, possibly because they saw so much hypocrisy in it. These were called by the Jews “proselytes of the gate;” that is, they could stand outside and worship God but could not come into the inner circle of the congregation. In Gentile countries the synagogues sometimes, even usually, had galleries or side compartments where these devout people could sit without defiling the ecclesiastical blue-bloods. In Acts such people are mentioned as “devout and God-fearing” (Acts 10:2), worshipful, not toward the creature but toward the Creator (Acts 13:43,50; 16:14; 17:4,17; 18:4,7); and as respects God-fearing Gentiles see Acts 10:2,22,35; 13:16,26.
The Greeks were the cultured among the nations and are usually separated from them because, while not bound so tightly with the ties of religion as the Jews, they were bound by human philosophies which quite as effectively closed their minds to the truth as it is in Christ Jesus (1 Cor.1:22,23). Considerable confusion is wrought in the common or King James version of the Bible by translating the Greek word sometimes by “Greeks” and sometimes by “Gentiles.”
Chapter ten describes the conversion of Cornelius. And there is probably no part of Acts, unless it be the third chapter, which is more pulled and hauled to fit theories than this chapter. It does not describe the conversion of the first Gentileborn (for that, as far as we are told, was the Ethiopian), but it does describe the opening of the kingdom witness and the bestowing of the kingdom signs on the first of the Japhetic branch of Noah’s progeny. Shem and Ham were already blessed.
Cornelius was a devout and God-fearing man; and from the foregoing footnote it will be seen that these expressions signify him to be a worshiper of Yahweh, a proselyte of the gate, but who had no social standing with the Jews. The Jew would not enter the house of such a proselyte any more than he would that of an unbelieving Gentile (Acts 10:28; 11:3).
To Peter praying on the housetop in Joppa at the sixth hour of the day came a vision, and to Cornelius, a habitual prayer, in harmony with 1 Kings 8:41-43, came another vision about the ninth hour. The sixth and ninth hour contingents in the parable of the penny are about to come in. It was a new work for both Peter and Cornelius. Peter, staunch ritualist that he was, demurred when he was told in his trance to kill and eat things previously forbidden by the Law. But the three dips of the sheet and then the three men at the gate convinced Peter that the time had come when something was to be done for the third son of Noah, the start of the third group of vineyard laborers.
The apostle hurried up from Joppa to Caesarea and preached to Cornelius and his household the kind of evangel which had been proclaimed by the Lord Jesus from the time of John’s baptism to the day of his ascension (Acts 10:34-43). There is no celestial destiny involved here, for either believing Jew or believing Gentile. The destiny remains exactly what it was in the Old Covenant days and in the Gospels of the Greek Scriptures, namely, on the earth. And while believing Gentiles, either before or after the present dispensation, are to have an entrance into the kingdom (Matt.25:34-36), they will always be subject to the Jews. On the earth the Gentile is always subject, feeding the flocks, plowing the fields, and tending the vineyards which will flourish on the Jewish allotments, that the Jewish people may be given wholly to the work of priesthood (Isa. 61:5,6).
Peter’s statement that “God is not a respecter of persons” must not be made to say more than it does say. There was no respect of persons in the matter of acceptability. There are distinctions in the matter of destiny. The very fact that Cornelius, godly man that he was, had to wait for a Jew to come and minister to him before he was given the special favors of the time is in itself a proof that he was subservient to Israel. Cornelius was already cleansed, as shown by the vision to Peter (Acts 10:15). His acceptance by God was on a basis of ‘fear and righteous works,’ like the sheep nations of Matthew 25:34. Our acceptance is not of works (Rom.11:6; Eph.2:8,9). But then fear of God and righteous acts took the place of Moses. They gave the devout Gentile the same standing before God as the devout Jew. But both needed Christ (Acts 11:14), and to both Peter preached, not mentioning repentance; for none was needed, any more than by the devout Jews on the day of pentecost. Cornelius’ blessing depend’s on the establishment of the heavenly sovereignty in the earth, Messiah’s kingdom. Our blessing comes in spite of and because of the failure of the nation of Israel to accept its King and His kingdom.
Peter, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, was not subject to the brethren at Jerusalem; yet when they heard that he had eaten with Gentiles they took him sorely to task (Acts 11:2,3). Thus they paved the way for their own apostasy and proceeded to tread it assiduously. Even the believers in Israel—most of them—became apostate. They called Jesus Lord, Lord; but did not the things which he said. They were unwilling to accept the divine leadings and become the channel of blessing to the Gentiles unless those Gentiles first became Mosaists and afterward Messiah-ites. They made void the commandments of God by their traditions; for there was no Mosaic law forbidding social intercourse between Jew and Gentile.
Fredrik Homer Robison
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