THE gradual introduction of the truth for
this present administration of God's grace is brought before us in a
variety of ways in the Word. The apostle through whom it came describes
his ministry as a continual change from glory to glory (2 Cor.3:18). Not
only that, but his associates were also changing. There are five
characters which give us a biographical outline of the transition from
Pentecost to the present. Barnabas, Paul, Timothy, Titus, and Onesimus
give us a moving picture of the introduction of this dispensation.
These men were public characters.
Undoubtedly, the record we have of their lives is limited to those
features which illustrate the trend of the truth. The last three are
specially chosen, in the order given, to be the subjects of Paul's
personal epistles. Barnabas was twice instrumental in bringing forward
Saul, and was separated with him for his first missionary journey.
In this series we see a constant descent in
physical standing. Barnabas, the Levite, held almost the highest place the
flesh could have in relation to God. He was not only of the seed of
Israel, but belonged to the one tribe which monopolized nearness to
Jehovah in the divine service. Paul was a Benjamite, not so high in the
physical scale, yet far above the despised nations. Timothy occupies a
middle place. His mother was a Jewess, but his father was a Greek. Paul
circumcised him. Titus was the standing example that circumcision in flesh
was not for the nations. Onesimus was not only uncircumcised and an alien,
but a slave, the lowest in the social scale.
But for two things Barnabas might have been
the logical channel to make known the truth for the present. He had a high
standing in flesh, for he was a Levite. He was not a great sinner, like
Saul, hence could not be the chief example of grace. These two advantages
disqualified him. If the present grace flowed through Israel, as was to be
expected in the early chapters of Acts, Barnabas would be an ideal
channel. The Levites were teachers. Good men like him will be missionaries
to the nations when the kingdom is set up. His name means "Son of
Prophecy," which took on the sense "Son of Consolation" in Aramaic. He was
a regular spokesman for God so long as blessing was through the chosen
nation. He was a consolation in the midst of the prevailing apostasy.
Those who read the opening chapters of Acts
with discernment will notice one great lack. In the kingdom of God to be
set up on this earth blessing will not be confined to Jews and proselytes.
They are to have the more blessed place of being a blessing to the other
nations. Yet in Pentecostal days the nations were never reached. They
preached the word to none but the Jews only. Peter and Stephen went to
proselytes, The question is, while they were so intent on their own
blessing, was God preparing a suitable channel for carrying the message to
the aliens in these early days? We believe that those who look beneath the
surface can see plain indications that He was. Barnabas was the one
qualified for this service.
There was one thing against him so far as his
standing in Israel was concerned. Like Saul of Tarsus, he was born in a
foreign land. He was a native of Cyprus (Acts 4:36). He was a living
evidence of Israel's disobedience and dispersion. His parents should not
have left the land which Jehovah gave them. Yet he himself evidently
returned to Jerusalem, and we find him first under his personal name,
Joseph, evidencing his faith in God's promised kingdom by selling some
property of his own and bringing the money to the apostles at Jerusalem.
Others also did this, but he is the only one mentioned by name. His act is
in contrast with that of Judas, who bought a freehold, and also with that
of Ananias and Sapphire, who dissembled and were judged.
His foreign birth, however, favored a foreign
ministry. He would be at home among the Greeks, and have perfect command
of the language which was understood in foreign fields. His name, Joseph,
is another intimation. Joseph was a type of Messiah blessing the world. Of
old, Joseph not only saved his own family from the famine, but also was
the saviour of Egypt. The action of the apostles in surnaming him
"Barnabas" (Acts 4:36), is indicative of their lack of interest in the
welfare of the nations, and the ministry for which he was fitted. Like the
one hundred forty-four thousand who will carry out this ministry in the
millennium, Barnabas was a celibate (1 Cor.9:6). In all things he was
suited to this service. The mention of the name Joseph is, perhaps, the
earliest hint in the book of Acts indicating God's intention of
evangelizing the nations.
It will be noted that Barnabas becomes the
means of Saul's temporary association with the disciples in Jerusalem.
This is significant, for it was counter to the trend of the truth. It is
evident that neither Saul nor Barnabas understood that they were to be
severed from the Circumcision. Saul tried to join the disciples. But their
ignorant fear was symptomatic and indicative of God's plan to divorce Saul
and his message from the holy city. Barnabas' intentions were the best,
but Paul's boldness soon made his residence in Jerusalem dangerous. The
Hellenists, by their opposition and threats, accomplish God's end, and
frustrate Barnabas' plan to unite Saul with the rest of the Circumcision.
These considerations are confirmed by the
fact that Barnabas was the one chosen to go to the first gentile converts
at Antioch. The apostles had no hesitancy in choosing him to help the
Greeks there who had believed (Acts 11:22). He did not take anyone from
Jerusalem to aid him. Perhaps he remembered how powerful had been Saul's
witness to the Hellenists in Jerusalem, and that Saul was especially
commissioned to preach to the nations, for he soon went to Tarsus to hunt
him and he brought him to Antioch. They evidently became the local
leaders, for both are sent to Jerusalem to relieve Judea in the great
famine (Acts 11:27-30). Let us note here that it is always "Barnabas and
Saul," for the former was the leader and Saul always took a secondary
place until his name was changed to Paul. Note how gradual is the trend to
present truth. The nations, indeed, have been reached, but there has been
no break with the Circumcision. All seems still in harmony with the
blessing through Israel, under the twelve apostles.
It is worthy of notice that it was during
their journey to Judea that they take up Mark (Acts 12:25). Undoubtedly he
was chosen to wait on them partly because he was a cousin of Barnabas
(Col.4:10). Such a fleshly relationship is no basis for fellowship in
service in this economy. It was quite the thing in the kingdom service of
Barnabas. This mistake was made in order to teach us how unfitted is the
flesh for the spiritual dispensation toward which all was tending. Mark
soon left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). This is exceedingly
suggestive of the failure of Israel to go to the nations. Barnabas,
because he was a relative, was minded to give him another chance, when
they were about to revisit the places where they had been (Acts 15:37).
But Paul would not have it. It may be that he looked beneath the surface
and saw that a spiritual ministry should not be based on a fleshly tie.
Let us look beyond the personal in Mark's defection and Barnabas'
contention with Paul. These things must needs be in order to exhibit the
conflict between flesh and spirit which characterizes the incoming of this
Mark never did embrace the truth given to
Paul. He retained his physical standing as one of the Circumcision
(Col.4:10,11). Himself a signal failure in service, he was a fit medium
for chronicling the acts of the perfect Servant. He wrote the account of
our Lord's life which bears his name. In the evangel of the kingdom he
became a success. But the equipment for that ministry was entirely
inadequate for the higher realm of Paul's new revelations. Mark's failure
is a divine indication that flesh is unfitted for it. The clash between
Barnabas and Paul was God's means of further separating the latter from
the Levite and his cousin, who were hindering the spiritual trend of the
evangel. Henceforth Paul takes the place which Barnabas had held.
In Antioch, while Barnabas was still the
leader in the current toward present truth, both he and Saul were severed
to this special ministry by the holy spirit (Acts 13:2). The full force of
this is seen more clearly if we remember that, at about the same time,
James, the brother of our Lord, usurped control of the Circumcision
saints. He was not accorded the supremacy by any spiritual fitness or
right, but principally because he was near of kin to Christ. At the same
time that Paul's ministry is becoming more spiritual the Circumcision are
becoming more carnal.
The change of leadership from Barnabas to
Paul takes place at a crisis which is in fullest accord with it. Sergius
Paul called for "Barnabas and Saul." As the latter had been specially
commissioned for the nations, he takes the lead. The crisis is clearly
marked, for the record runs: "Now Saul, who is also Paul..." He is no
longer Saul, the aid of Barnabas, but Paul, the apostle of the
Uncircumcision. Barnabas is not given a single word of recognition in this
Paul begins this ministry by performing his
one destructive miracle, the blinding of Elymas, the Jew, Bar Jesus. This
is manifestly a sign of the blinding of the nation of Israel, for they had
become false prophets and they were withstanding Paul's evangel. In a very
real sense Paul's subsequent ministry is based on this blindness.
Henceforth, Paul goes to the nations despite the opposition of Israel.
Blessing comes to the nations notwithstanding their attitude. Mark soon
goes back to Jerusalem. Barnabas takes a secondary place. Henceforth it is
"Paul and Barnabas," unless they are among the Circumcision (Acts
At this time Barnabas still stood for the
blessing of the nations through Israel. Bar Jesus, the false prophet who
sought to turn Sergius Paul from the faith, represented Israel in an
entirely different attitude. They were antagonistic. The subsequent
experience of Paul and Barnabas in the synagogues amply confirms this.
This is doubtless the reason why Barnabas has nothing to say to Sergius
Paul. Israel is becoming a curse, rather than a blessing. This completely
nullifies the ministry which Barnabas was to have carried on. It prepares
for the introduction of the present grace, which comes to us, not on the
ground of Israel's blessing, but because of their temporary repudiation.
Another significant scene, which is not found
in the book of Acts, shows us the weakness of the flesh which led to the
replacing of Barnabas by Paul. When Cephas came to Antioch he showed that
he was no longer Peter the brave apostle, but Cephas, the man of flesh,
because he sacrificed the truth in order to please the carnal James, our
Lord's brother. Barnabas should have stood firm against this weakness, but
he could not rid himself of his physical prejudices. He played the
hypocrite with the rest (Gal.2:13). Paul stands alone for the great
spiritual foundation truth that justification is by faith, not by law. So
far as the record of his ministry is concerned, this is practically
Barnabas' last appearance.
Barnabas is intentionally brought before us
as the most commendable character in the book of Acts. No other man is
called "good" (Acts 11:24). His championship of Saul at Jerusalem was
mistaken, but we cannot blame him for his ignorance. His journey to Tarsus
to bring Paul to Antioch must be regarded as an important step toward
present truth. It is difficult to understand his career unless we consider
him as the vessel tentatively chosen to reach the nations through
Israel, depending on their reception of the Messiah. As their defection
spreads, he gradually yields to his chosen friend, Paul, who was not
called until Israel had given very definite indications that they would
reject the evangel of the kingdom.
SAUL - PAUL
On so great a subject there is much to say,
but we will simply seek to point out those incidents in his career which
constitute the long ascent to present truth. Like Joseph, or Barnabas, his
connection with the nations is suggested by the place of his birth. Both
were born in foreign lands, near the sea, which is a type of the nations.
Possibly there is no more blameless character in the Hebrew Scriptures
than Joseph, and few worse than Saul, the first king of Israel. The same
is true of their namesakes. Barnabas was a good man and Saul was very bad.
We have no reason to believe that Barnabas ever opposed Messiah or His
people. But Saul distinguished himself as the most malignant of His
enemies, and the fiercest persecutor of His saints.
This is a most important point. Paul is not
only our apostle, but our pattern. If grace is to be the principle
ingredient of this economy, it must be manifested first of all in the call
of Saul. Grace could not be called into play in the case of Barnabas. His
sins were not great enough. His background was not black enough. Only a
religious, self-righteous, murderous fanatic like Saul could rank as chief
of sinners. Add to this the notable fact that he was allowed to persist in
his course until he went outside the land, and we have a perfect
premonition of God's present work transcendent grace outside the pale of
Israel. Saul had committed the "unpardonable" sin and was doomed to eonian
extermination. Nothing could save him in the land.
His commission to the nations is too obvious
to need more than a mere mention. But the fact that he did not immediately
align himself with the leaders in Jerusalem, but went off into the Arabian
desert, he himself deems a strong argument in favor of his special
ministry. It was three years before he met Cephas in Jerusalem (Gal.1:17).
He met very few of the saints in Judea. At first they were afraid of him.
Barnabas befriended him, so that he was acknowledged. But his encounters
with the Hellenists, or foreign Jews, soon made his stay in Jerusalem
impossible, and he went back to his native city, Tarsus. In the providence
of God, he could not labor in Jerusalem. Circumstances separated him from
His next field is a contrast to this.
Barnabas again befriends him, but takes him to Antioch this time, where
some Greeks have believed. This is in line with his commission, hence he
remains there a whole year, teaching. Then he goes up to Jerusalem again,
to relieve the famine. This is significant. Where Saul is there is plenty.
Jerusalem lacks sustenance. This is quite as true in spirit. Saul (or
Paul) always got into trouble when he went to the holy city. His visits
always served to sever him from it, instead of uniting him to the
Circumcision saints. And this notwithstanding the fact that he came with
presents for the poor. This time they called Mark to go with them. This
young man helped to further emphasize the failure of the Circumcision in
their attitude toward the nations.
Mark might have been a Timothy or a Titus if
he had not been a Jew of Jerusalem. His flesh and the influences
controlling him were all contrary to the trend of Paul's ministry. It
probably was not altogether the hardships of Asia Minor which induced him
to return to his home just as Paul was about to enunciate the first hint
of justification at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14,15), to be followed soon
after by the evangelization of Lystra, where Timothy heard and believed.
He could not be in full sympathy with the message which more and more was
leaving Jerusalem and the Circumcision to their unbelief and was being
received among the far-off aliens.
When Barnabas and Saul were severed for their
special ministry, the indications were that Barnabas would continue to be
the leader. Yet this very severance by holy spirit seems to have
revolutionized the relationship. Barnabas normally stood for union, not
severance, and flesh, not spirit. The change put Paul, as his name now
becomes, into the place of prominence. Indeed, Barnabas, from this point
onward, is gradually ignored, and we are engaged with Paul's ministry
The new condition of affairs is vividly
presented in their contact with the gentile, Sergius Paul (Acts 13:6-12).
We have no record that Barnabas said a single word. The blinding of the
false Bar Jesus changes the whole aspect of affairs. It shows that Israel,
as a nation, could not channel blessing to the other nations, but was a
hindrance to their faith. This took away the ground from under Barnabas'
feet. It provided the proper conditions for the exercise of Paul's
message. The change of his name from Saul, suggestive of the apostate
king, to Paul, which means "interval," gives a strong hint of a
parenthetic period in which Israel is set aside, and the nations reached
apart from their intervention.
Soon after this Paul spoke at length to the
Jews in Pisidian Antioch. When many of them, like Bar Jesus, contradicted
and blasphemed, then Paul and Barnabas made a joint statement: "It was
necessary for the word of God to be spoken first to you. Yet, since, in
fact, you are thrusting it away, and are judging yourselves unworthy of
eonian life, lo! we are turning to the nations" (Acts 13:46). This was a
great advance toward the present. It is the enunciation of a principle
quite contrary to what had preceded. Then, if the Jews will not receive
the evangel, there was no hope for the gentile. Now, if the Jews will not
accept God's mercy, then the gentiles will receive God's grace. This, we
repeat, is a key to this economy, which is based on Israel's apostasy, not
on her blessing.
At Lystra, in all probability, Paul received
his highest revelations, while he was lying outside the city presumably
stoned to death. The utter grace of this should not escape our hearts. The
evangel is just beginning to be preached to the nations. Urged on by the
Jews, they stone the messenger of God, and leave him for dead. Under law,
in the kingdom, this would call for severest judgment. But, under grace,
it is the appropriate place to reveal the celestial destiny of those who
received Paul's evangel. This knowledge could not be made public at that
time, but it doubtless had a strong influence on Paul's subsequent career.
Henceforth he knew that, as soon as Israel's apostasy was ripe, God had a
celestial allotment for those who were temporarily connected with the
proclamation of the kingdom.
Strange as it may seem, God often uses His
opponents to perform His will. Now the radical Circumcisionists are used
to emphasize the graciousness of Paul's evangel. They come down to Antioch
and seek to fasten the rite on all the believers. In fact, they want to
make proselytes of them. Paul and others are sent to Jerusalem to get a
ruling on this question from the apostles. He does not trust his case to
the open convention, which could easily be stampeded by the Judaisers, but
had private previous conferences with the most influential. In this way he
won over Peter and influenced James, and won a temporary injunction
against the Jews who threatened to wreck his testimony.
It is most significant that Peter's last
recorded utterance brings him to the border line of present truth as at no
other time. "Through the grace of the Lord Jesus we are believing, to be
saved in a manner even as they" (Acts 15:11). He could never have come
this far if God had not prepared his heart by the call of Cornelius. He
cannot see that Paul is doing much more than what he was led to do. He
remembers his reluctance and the vision which corrected his prejudices.
And he recalled the opposition of his friends to his conduct. He now sees
Paul in the same difficulty and does his best to help him out. How
superficial and transient was his mood is evident soon after, when he goes
to Antioch. Afraid of James, he caters to the Jews. But the Acts account
is through with him when he opens the door of faith to the nations, or,
perhaps we should say, to the Jews.
The end of Peter's speech seems to be
distorted. We might expect him to say that the nations would be saved by
grace. But he turns to insist that, beneath all the outward ceremonials
which attend the salvation of the Circumcision there is the substratum of
grace. The divine intention of Peter's words, it seems to me, is to open a
passage by which some of the Circumcision, at least, could enter into the
grace which Paul was proclaiming. The same is true of his subsequent
commendation of Paul, in his epistle. We must remember that Paul's evangel
was for the Circumcision as well as the Uncircumcision. While Peter and
others could not enter into the present grace because they have their
destiny fixed on earth, there is no reason why some of those to whom Peter
spoke and wrote should not accept the greater grace. Peter's last words
prepare them, for this.
The decrees suggested by James were a
backward step in Paul's ministry. True, they definitely settled the
contention in his favor. Circumcision and law keeping were not to be
required of believers among the nations. Yet it put the nations under the
jurisdiction of James. Releasing them from a divine law it enslaved them
to human decrees. They were a sign of Israel's political superiority on
earth in the kingdom. They did not last long. Their principal use was to
furnish a background for the present grace, in which they are abolished
(Eph.2:15). Perhaps there is no more striking difference between Acts and
Ephesians. In one the decrees are formulated and enforced. In the other,
they are repealed. Paul still has a long way to go toward his goal.
It is at this time that Timothy is called
into service. Superficially, his circumcision seems another backward step.
We must remember, however, that it was not done until the question of its
status had been settled. Perhaps there was more need, at this time, of
reminding the Jews that Paul's evangel was also for those of the
Circumcision who would receive it.
Saul was not called until he was outside the
land. It is probable that his greatest revelation was received at the
limits of his first missionary journey, at Lystra, as far from Jerusalem
as he had hitherto journeyed. Now he is called to Macedonia, and at
Thessalonica, the farthest point he reached, he makes known the prior
expectation and eclectic resurrection of those who receive his message. At
Corinth he makes known the conciliation. Later he goes to Rome, his
greatest distance from Jerusalem, before he writes the revelation of the
present secret administration. None of these later revelations are
mentioned in the book of Acts, for they are outside its scope. If the
Lord's presence in the air were a part of the kingdom message it would
have been made known to them in the land, and it would have found a place
in the Acts, which chronicles the fortunes of the kingdom.
The omissions in the historical record we
call the Acts of the Apostles are most significant. Far more of their acts
are overlooked than are recorded. Ever since its true subject was lost
there has been a tendency to inject these into the narrative. Some have
actually inserted Paul's epistles where they are supposed to belong! The
church's rule has been, "If it is in Acts it is for us." It should have
been, "If it is in Acts, it is not for us." On the other hand, we may be
quite sure that revelations coming through the apostle Paul at this time,
which are not in Acts, most certainly are preparatory for present truth.
Acts gives us quite an extended account of Paul's visit to Thessalonica.
It gives us a summary of his argument in dealing with the Jews (Acts
17:2-4). But there is not the slightest hint of the momentous revelation
which is contained in his epistle to them, nor of his writing that
The very fact that he did not reveal it to
them while with them in flesh, but later by letter, is indicative of its
spiritual contents and tendency. Such incidentals are not accidents. It
should assist us to grasp the intensely spiritual character of this
economy to note that Paul presented none of it to the saints in person.
There was no physical presence. How easy it would have been for Paul to
deliver his messages to each place in person, and give us a record of each
as it was spoken in Acts! But because these messages were spiritual they
were written while his flesh was absent. Because they are beyond the scope
of Acts they were not recorded in it. And each new advance in truth finds
him further from the holy city and the people of the covenant, in flesh as
well as in spirit.
This thought is more and more evident toward
the end of Acts. He warns the Ephesians that they would not see his face
again (Acts 20:25). He is arrested. His itinerant ministry ceases. He
finally is a prisoner in Rome. Scholars have labored hard to prove that he
was released, but the evidence is by no means conclusive. It is not in
harmony with the trend of the truth. The transcendent spiritual message of
the present comes to us from one whose flesh is infirm and confined in
prison and bound with a chain. It is proof positive of the failure of the
kingdom proclamation. It absolutely destroys all hope of present physical
Acts almost ignores Paul's Galatian campaign
and hurries him out of Asia to Macedonia. It emphasizes his testimony and
sufferings in Thessalonica, and the fact that the Jews were not as noble
as those in Berea. These eagerly received the word and tested it by the
Scriptures. Judging by the account in Acts, any new revelation at this
time should have been granted, first of all, to the Berean nobility, who
were worthy. Do we not see another intimation of God's grace, in
honoring the Thessalonians, rather than the Bereans, with two inspired
epistles, written not to obedient Israelites, but to those who had
recently turned to God from idols? Present truth does not follow Berean
faithfulness in Israel, but Jewish apostasy in Thessalonica. It is better
to be a Thessalonian gentile believer than a noble Berean Jew.
Not long after this we find him at Corinth.
The attitude of the Jews causes him to exclaim, "Your blood be on your
head! I am clear. From now on I shall go to the nations" (Acts 18:6).
The Lord gave him a vision, assuring him that he would not be illtreated.
The Jews tried their best to annoy him. The notable fact emerges that God
definitely engages Himself against the people of the covenant. Instead of
receiving and proclaiming the kingdom they oppose it and threaten the life
of its herald. There is little to show any advance in truth during Paul's
long stay in Corinth.
Paul's extended sojourn in Ephesus is most
suggestive in the light of our present inquiry. Perhaps no city in the
gentile world was as sacred as this. It was, for the nations, in some
degree, what Jerusalem was for the Jews. Artemis of the Ephesians had a
magnificent shrine and a world-wide worship. Here it was that Paul severed
the disciples from the synagogue and burned up a valuable collection of
books on magic. His message comes into conflict with Judaism on the one
hand, and demonism on the other. Here is the central crisis in his
ministry. From this, the leading religious city among the nations, Paul
makes known the great truth of the conciliation, which sets aside Israel's
religious supremacy. At the close of his stay in Ephesus he reveals all
that great body of truth which is contained in Romans and Corinthians.
In Acts the only plain declaration of the
great change in his ministry is contained in the enigmatic words "as these
things were fulfilled" (Acts 19:21). There is no hint of the fact that
Paul no longer would know Christ according to the flesh (2 Cor.5:16), that
those under his ministry were justified and reconciled, that they were the
"body" of Christ, that further light had been given concerning the secret
of the resurrection, of which he had spoken to the Thessalonians. We
should not expect to find these things in a treatise on the kingdom.
Paul's ministry to the dispersion must fail, even as did that of the
twelve in the land. His message for the nations must change, to accord
with the defection of the favored people.
He now faces his last visit to Jerusalem.
Every journey to the holy city is a going back in a figurative as well as
a literal sense. There is no blessing there. He brings the bounty of the
nations, and in return is made a prisoner. Israel's apostasy takes
tangible form in the chains which bind him. During all this period, until
he finds himself in Rome, there is no further progress in the truth. The
final revelation cannot come until Israel's political place is taken from
her, and this must be done in Rome, not in Jerusalem or in the land of
Israel. Therefore, he is certain that he shall see the city of the
Caesars. Nothing can hinder that. When he might have been released, he
appeals his case. The final act of the kingdom tragedy must be staged at
the imperial capital.
Paul's shipwreck is a graphic picture of the
collapse of his kingdom testimony among the nations. Many had embarked
with him, hoping for a happy voyage into the earthly kingdom. The ship
goes to pieces beneath them, the cargo is lost, yet all are saved because
they are with Paul. When the kingdom failed to materialize, many of the
Circumcision apostatized. Others died in faith, according to the
exhortations in Hebrews. But those who had received Paul's message were
saved through the catastrophe, and with him received the later, higher
unfolding of the prison epistles.
Paul, as God's ambassador to mankind, takes
up his residence in Rome. There he becomes the standing symbol of peace.
His bonds demand war. No earthly power would suffer its ambassador to be
loaded with chains. But the high court of heaven refuses to interfere on
his behalf, in order to show the world that God's attitude today is one of
settled, unchangeable peace. Mankind can offer Him no greater affront,
they can give Him no more flagrant cause for fighting, but He refuses to
be drawn into conflict with them during this day of conciliation.
In Acts his chain is on account of the
expectation of Israel (Acts 28:20). In Ephesians he is the prisoner of
Christ Jesus for the nations (Eph.3:1). In Acts he proclaims the kingdom
by word of mouth. No doubt he also spoke of the latest and greatest, the
final and finishing revelation which was made known soon after he came to
the city. In Acts we have only a hint that he taught "that which concerns
our Lord Jesus Christ." What a vague yet revealing word this is! If the
book of Acts contained the truth for the present, it would certainly not
dismiss the mystery of Christ and the secret economy, which embody the
truth for us, in such a summary fashion. To its very end Acts preserves
its character as a chronicle of the kingdom, and absolutely refuses to
step over the boundary into the present grace.
May we not see, in the closing days of the
aged apostle, a veiled intimation of the end of this administration? All
in the province of Asia turn from him (2 Tim.1:15). Only Luke was with
him. His kingdom ministries, as recorded by Luke, may be acknowledged by
some of the saints, but those celestial unfoldings which are the very
essence of his evangel for the present are almost unknown and
unacknowledged. The test of truth today may be made a very personal
matter. What place have we for Paul in our theology? Have we also
abandoned him in his Roman prison? If so, we are turning our backs on the
truth. If we abide with him there, by means of his epistles, we should
reach the very summit of divine revelation and possess the touchstone to
THE PLACE OF PETER
Though Peter is not one of those who received
the truth for the present, it is both interesting and important to
understand the relation he sustained to it. The chief of the Circumcision
apostles was prepared to acknowledge Paul's commission to the nations by
his own experience in the case of Cornelius. He was himself reluctant to
go to the house of the proselyte, and needed a special vision to break
down his prejudice. Notwithstanding his rank and influence, he was called
severely to task for entering the home of aliens and eating with them. He
defended himself on the ground that God had received them, giving them the
holy spirit without any ceremonial act, such as baptism or the laying on
While the council was called to decide
whether the gentiles who had believed should be compelled to be
circumcised and keep the law, Peter was Paul's principal protagonist
against the Pharisaic legalists. His speech at this time is exceedingly
significant, for it closes Peter's ministry in the book of Acts. Just as
the book itself leads us up to, but never into, present truth, so Peter,
speaking to his Circumcision brethren, leads them to the very edge of
Paul's ministry. He begins with a statement which would lead us far
astray, if taken from its context. There are many passages in Acts like
this. He claims that God chose him as the channel through whom the nations
were to hear the evangel, and believe (Acts 15:7). It would be easy to
deduce from this that Peter, not Paul, is the apostle of the nations. Yet
no one at the council would get this impression. Peter speaks of a single
experience in the past, Paul told them of a marvelous ministry in the
Peter then makes a notable statement, which
doubtless saved the day for Paul. Because God did not discriminate between
Cornelius and the Circumcision in the gift of the holy spirit, Peter
recognized the great truth that their hearts had been cleansed by faith.
Nothing else was needed. The spirit did not wait for baptism or the
imposition of hands. God accepted them on the basis of belief. This is
Peter's nearest approach to present truth. He cannot go further, so he
fades from view. The most prominent character in the first part of the
Acts disappears the moment that he comes to the border of the new economy
which was then only in its formative stage.
Then Peter takes up the salvation of the
Circumcision. He declares that the law is a yoke which neither their
they were able to bear (Acts 15:10). Then follows a most remarkable
statement, well worthy of being the last words of the great apostle in
this transitional account. The turn of thought is quite novel. We would
expect him to say that the nations would be saved in some way like the
Circumcision. But be reverses this. He recognizes that grace is the
underlying basis of all salvation. So he says "through the grace of the
Lord Jesus we are believing to be saved in a manner even as they"
This closing confession of the great apostle
seems to us to be especially intended to point the Circumcision to Paul's
evangel. Not that Peter intended it so, for he had no idea of the
tremendous width of the cleavage which was just beginning. James, at this
very conference, shows that he does not understand where Paul's ministry
is leading. They all
suppose it is but the blessing of the nations, through Israel, foretold in
the prophets. The whole book of Acts is like this. It begins with the
statement. "It is not for you to know the times or the eras." The whole
action recorded in the book is based on ignorance as to the time of the
kingdom's restoration. Only at its end is Israel set aside.
The fate of these Circumcision disciples
presents a serious problem. From the book of Hebrews we learn that many of
those who were once enlightened apostatized (Heb.6:4). They tasted the
powers of the Pentecostal era, but fell away when the promised kingdom did
not materialize. Others, however, died in faith, not being requited with
the promises, like the patriarchs of old (Heb.11:13). Peter was one of
these. In the former resurrection he will be roused to sit on a throne to
rule one of the tribes of Israel.
There was still another group among the
Circumcision, who consorted with Paul, who received his message, and who
were embraced in the celestial allotment. Paul himself was one of these.
Perhaps most of them were won by Paul from the synagogues among the
nations. The great burden of Ephesians is that, in the present grace, the
Circumcision and Uncircumcision are one. In presenting the truth, however,
Paul first takes this group of Circumcision believers, and changes their
allotment from earth to heaven (Eph.1:3-12) and then gives the same
allotment to the believers among the nations.
Not only are Peter's closing words in Acts
calculated to call the attention of the Circumcision to Paul's ministry,
but the same thing occurs in his epistles. At the close of his last letter
he calls attention to Paul's writings, in which there is an explanation of
God's "patience" (2 Peter 3:15,16). If any one of them cannot understand
why the kingdom does not come they are referred to Paul. Doubtless many of
them did this and entered into the present grace.
Thus we see that Peter points to the present,
without understanding it or entering it himself. These intimations are
strikingly placed at the very end of his public utterances in Acts, and
close his written record.
In Paul's epistles we have another view of
Peter's relation to the present. When he went to Antioch, soon after the
conference in Jerusalem, he fellowshiped with the gentiles at first, then
he shrank back and severed himself, for fear of James and his party
(Gal.2:12). This encouraged the rest of the Jews to do the same, so that
there was a split in Antioch between the Circumcision and the
Uncircumcision. Now this action is the exact opposite of the truth. As set
forth in Ephesians, Jew and gentile are to become one. The presence of
Cephas (Peter according to the flesh,
Gal.2:11) created division. No wonder Paul withstood him to the face!
Peter cannot come into actual contact with the grace of today without
causing conflict and confusion. The same is true in spirit. Peter's
message mars and unmakes Paul's ministry.
On the one occasion when Peter enters into
Paul's epistles (aside from mere references) we are given his
attitude, as well as our proper attitude toward him. The passage between
Peter and Paul in Antioch is no mere personal quarrel or entertaining
historical incident. It is a vivid and graphic picture of a great truth.
If we must have sacred paintings, let us have one in which Paul is
withstanding Peter to his face. If this scene had not been forgotten the
history of the church would have been far different. In its theology the
church has blotted out Paul with Peter. Instead, with Paul, we should
censure Cephas and send him back to the Circumcision where he belongs.
Peter's place, then, is a double one.
Unwittingly, he is used by God to open the door to the Circumcision, so
may enter into the transcendent grace of this economy. But among the
nations themselves, though at first he seems to come with the unifying,
gracious conduct which befits us, he soon shows where his sympathies are,
for he makes havoc of the very fundamentals of the present grace. Great is
Peter, the prince of the apostles of the Circumcision, in his own place.
But when he enters that which approaches the present he is rejected before
all by the apostle through whom the secret administration is about to be
Timothy is a living exposition of a great
truth that pervades Ephesians. In him the two, Circumcision and
Uncircumcision, were made one. His mother was a Jewess, but his father was
a Greek. He embodied both. He sets forth their vital union.
The time of his call is most significant.
Paul had gone out to the nations, as far as Lystra. There, when he was
stoned and left for dead, we suppose he received the abundance of the
revelations which he afterwards made known in Ephesians. It was a great
spiritual crisis, a vast advance toward present truth. Then it was that
Timothy heard Paul and became a believer. But he did not immediately
become his companion. Timothy does not enter the service until the kingdom
proclamation in the land had practically ended, after the conference in
Jerusalem. He accompanies Paul among the dispersion and is his messenger
to the nations.
Paul has often been criticized for
circumcising him. But it must be remembered that the question of
circumcision had been settled. It was a concession to Jewish prejudice,
not a rejection of the truth. Besides, to be a representative character,
as we are supposing, in whom both parties unite, he should not only be
Jewish, but circumcised. He should be as much of a Jew as a gentile.
If the two classes had not been made one in
Christ Jesus, Timothy would present quite a problem. What would be his
standing, Jew or Greek? In him we see a physical expression of the new
humanity, in which such distinctions vanish. Let us remember that the
present is not an exclusively gentile dispensation. It includes Israelites
as well. Though Israel as a nation is apostate, the evangel goes to them
as individuals just the same as to the other nations. The result is a
vital union between those who are called out of Israel and the nations,
which is pictured for us in Timothy.
In Titus we have the representative gentile
of the transitional era. He was especially chosen to accompany Paul to
Jerusalem to provide a living example and witness to the truth that
circumcision is not necessary to salvation. Perhaps we may view him as
the embodiment of Galatians, or of all of Paul's preprison epistles,
especially when he went to Jerusalem. Then he was a guest, a partaker of
Israel's physical sustenance, just as the nations were still dependent on
Israel's spiritual bounties.
Here we have a picture of ourselves! Onesimus
has no place in Acts. He has no experience of that economy. He was the
fruit of Paul's bonds. A runaway slave, he is caught by a prisoner in
Rome, and returned to his master in the glorious freedom and grace of
Christ. Such should be our experience. We escaped from the service of God
and fled from His presence. We were most unprofitable. Through Paul, the
prisoner, we have returned to God, not only loaded with love and all
spiritual blessings, but with the power to please and profit Him. Onesimus
means "profitable." I have little doubt that God's dealings with the
nations in this era of His grace will be the most profitable of all His
vast adventures, It will bring Him an untold return of loyal love and
heartfelt adoration, not only from ourselves, but from the hearts of an
These three only - Timothy, Titus, and
Onesimus - are especially named as Paul's children in the faith (1 Tim.1:2;
Titus 1:4; Philemon 10). They present us with the threefold results of his
ministry for the nations. In the wisdom of God, the brief record of their
lives gives us a graphic glimpse of His gradual introduction of the truth
which is ours in this era of His transcendent grace. For many this
transitional period is difficult to understand. May our meditation on the
lives of these men of God help us to trace His hand. As we leave the
Levite and descend to the slave, may our hearts burn within us as we grasp
the accumulating grace which culminates in the faith which is ours today
in Christ Jesus.