The Intermediate Character Of
Paul's Earlier Epistles

by A.E. Knoch

IT IS heartening to note that there is a growing interest in "dispensational," or what some call "mystery" truth. It seems however that a great deal of mystery still clings to it, judging by the extraordinary variety of views, and the many divergent opinions which are seeking to gain recognition. Like almost all newly found truth, it is not well digested. Instead of the facts as a whole being calmly considered, a few striking features are given undue prominence and made the basis of startling deductions which a full survey of the field would show to be unwarranted and untenable.

The main question seems to be to settle just how much Scripture is "Jewish." Further, it usually gets down to the question whether the early Pauline epistles are "Jewish," or whether they relate to us. Stated differently, some try to force Paul's early epistles into Acts and others try to make them entirely for the present. Is it not clear at a glance that both are wrong, and that Romans is neither a part of Acts nor entirely Ephesian? Instead of debating whether Corinthians is "Jewish" or not, would it not be far wiser to examine the details and see just how much harmonizes with the kingdom and what is preparatory for the later revelation?

The usual method, seeking to make Thessalonians "Jewish" and then rejecting everything therein, would seem fantastic if it were not so tragic. Being the earliest epistles, we must not expect to find the secret set forth in them. But anyone who will compare them with the book of Acts will find that they break with the kingdom, while they lay the foundation for the secret. When they deal with the time of the end (which is Jewish), they bring in an entirely new departure which was never made known by or to the Circumcision who look for the kingdom, yet which is later incorporated into the secret.

Everything in these early epistles of Paul either belonged to the kingdom economy and has now been left behind, or is a new revelation which was later incorporated into this administration. But we cannot jumble all together and throw it overboard. First Corinthians distinctly states that a part of it will be abrogated. Most of the gifts are gone. But that does not prove that other parts of the epistle, which just as distinctly insist that they will continue until our Lord comes, are obsolete.

I have sometimes thought that a good-natured insistence on strict adherence to the "mystery" would help much in this matter. Few of those who have much to say about "the mystery" are really clear as to what it actually is. As a consequence they deny the very provisions of the mystery itself. Especially the third item of the secret is ignored, in which the nations are made joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the evangel of which Paul became the dispenser (Eph.3:6,7). By these clauses the secret incorporates Paul's previous evangel as well as promises, and thus includes Thessalonians, instead of rejecting it.

I have been accused of being the originator of the "division" which is made at Acts 28:28. I acknowledge that, latterly, I may have been the first to point out this great crisis. But I have never arbitrarily made it a Chinese wall to keep out everything from the time before, contrary to the terms of the secret itself. All such efforts show only too clearly how little attention has been paid to the one vital matter as to what the mystery really is. If someone should insist that before Acts 28:28 the nations were not joint enjoyers with Israel, or a joint body or joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the evangel which Paul had dispensed, I would say, Amen! But to go right against the third item, and say that the promise and the evangel no longer are in force--I would protest most vigorously.

As this third item of the secret definitely takes over the promises and the evangel which Paul had dispensed we cannot make a time boundary, such as Acts 28:28, for anything except the secret itself, that is, what is included in the word joint. The body and promise and evangel go back before Acts 28. The celestial allotment indeed, was not clearly revealed before, but, in the perfection epistles, Paul freely refers to the expectation (Col.1:5; Eph.1:12) and the evangel which he had heralded in the past, as still valid.

There is nothing in Acts 28:28 to warrant this crisis being taken as the time when all of our blessings were first made known. It is not faith to do so. Acts 28:28 marks the administrational boundary of the kingdom economy which is the subject of the book. At the close of Acts we are warranted in looking for some definite word as to the kingdom, and here it is. Corresponding to this we have the revelation of the secret in Ephesians, at about the same time or soon thereafter. This commences the new administration. But during the latter part of the book of Acts God has been dispensing grace among the nations quite beyond that which belongs to the kingdom. There was an administration between the two, leading from one to the other. This is not made known in Acts but in Paul's epistles written at the time.

Should we try to understand the "mystery" without Paul's previous epistles, it would be utterly unintelligible. The allotment in Acts is on earth, and the nations never will be joint enjoyers in it. But in Romans the nations are children and enjoyers of God's allotment (8:17). In Israel they may become proselytes but never a joint body. In Corinthians we learn of the body of Christ which is quite unknown to Acts, and it is this body which is changed to a joint body. The promise in Christ Jesus to the nations is in Thessalonians, not in Acts, and Paul's evangel is set forth in his epistles, and is absent from Acts.

This whole attempt at "dividing" the truth is only another example of the difference between believing and reasoning. We believe that we are now joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through Paul's evangel (Eph.3:6), and refuse to reason that this promise (Thessalonians) and evangel (Romans, Corinthians, Galatians) is not for us, simply because it was revealed at a time when the kingdom was still heralded to Israel. A study of the epistles themselves will show that such reasoning is illogical, for it necessitates still more unbelief. They reveal an administration in which salvation comes to the nations during Israel's defection, not with the kingdom (Rom.11:11-15).

As an extreme example of this mutilation of the mystery, I have received a clever little pamphlet entitled "Before Acts 28:28 and After." It consists of fifteen contrasts, which, I sincerely hope, will be a help to many. But the whole idea, that nothing revealed before Acts 28:28 has any place in the "mystery", is false, and leads to artificial and misleading distinctions which have involved the subject in a mist of unsatisfactory uncertainty. No one, for instance, who has accepted the idea that Romans is "Jewish" can intelligently read the epistle without being disconcerted by the many things which contradict that view. And so with all of Paul's epistles, written before Acts 28. The difference between them and Acts is very great. They present an entirely different expectation and another evangel, despite a slight agreement on some points, such as the priority of Israel.

God has kept all these things clear and distinct by having Paul put his name at the commencement of every epistle and keeping this special ministry of his out of Acts. He has tied all of Paul's epistles together, especially Ephesians to Thessalonians and to Romans, by incorporating their message in the mystery and by distinct references to it. Every attempt to destroy this unity and to make the earlier letters "Jewish" leads only to confusion. Paul was the apostle of the Uncircumcision. He wrote to the ecclesias among the nations. He resisted Jewish influences, especially in Galatians. He was given a new expectation for them and another evangel, and these have been incorporated into the secret.

As a result of these misty ideas a mysterious "body" has appeared like a ghost, now and again, which can find no settled home. It is not "the" body, so we cannot allow it in this administration, and there is no place for it in the kingdom, so it seems doomed to wander endlessly. But this is quite unnecessary. It existed in the intermediate period between the kingdom and the present. It consisted, literally, of the same persons as the joint body of Ephesians when it was first made known. It should not be allowed to walk as a ghost any longer. When a body of people receive a new constitution in which all are given the same rank, there is no new body. It is the same body with a changed constitution.

The intelligent reader can trace an almost constant contrast between Paul's early epistles and the book of Acts and at the same time a continuous preparation for His latest revelations. Take the conciliation in Romans. There is nothing like it in Acts. But in Ephesians we have it, called the evangel of peace (6:15), and the secret of the evangel (6:19). Indeed, the terms used show that Paul, in spirit, went far beyond the Kingdom heralded in Acts, and entered the new creation. He severs the saints from the earth by snatching them up into the air, and provides them with celestial bodies, so that they are all equipped for the new revelation that their allotment is among the celestials.

The confusion and contradiction is clearly seen in the treatment we accord the apostle's words in the eleventh to the fourteenth chapters of first Corinthians. This part of the epistle is especially in point, because here we read beforehand of the change from minority to maturity (1 Cor.13: 11). Here we are distinctly told that languages (the gift of tongues) will cease (13:8), yet how many dear saints have been deluded into thinking that they are a sign of the highest attainment! On the other hand, we are just as clearly informed that the Lord's dinner remains, "until He should be coming" (11: 26). And yet some of us insist that it is a sign of minority! How much better to believe both, and not be wise above what is written. In our great ignorance about the "mystery" we are hardly in a position to reason that the apostle is in the wrong, and discredit God's Word.

The reasoning (for it is not faith) which takes for its premise that every book of the Bible was written in the administration with which it deals, and that only one administration is in force at a given time, is false. We are told that the Unveiling was written by John long after Paul's epistles. Is it therefore a part of "the mystery?" Epistles could be written during "the period of Acts," dealing with an entirely different administration, for the "Ephesian" epistle was probably written during the last two years. Long before, Paul wrote in his epistles many things which are not in the Pentecostal administration. Justification was no part of it. Conciliation was unknown. The secret of the resurrection was in contrast to it. The reasoning is contrary to the facts as well as to the mystery itself.

I once listened to an address on the gift of tongues. One sentence in it I have never forgotten. The speaker said, "There is nothing in the Scriptures to indicate that the gift of tongues would cease." He was a very estimable man and full of zeal, but surely his statement was sheer unbelief. So is it with the Lord's dinner. The period in which it is to be observed is not a matter of reasoning, but of faith. If we have difficulties with some of the details, that is not proof that Paul was wrong, or the Scriptures incorrect in describing its duration, but that we are astray in our reasoning. There is absolutely nothing in the Lord's dinner which conflicts with "the mystery." The change to a joint allotment, a joint body, and joint partakers (Eph.3:6) in no way affects its continuance. Quite the contrary. The bread is the communion of the body of Christ (1 Cor.10:16). The body of Christ is an important element in the mystery. It must be there before it can become a joint body. Paul knew of the "mystery" at the time when he wrote 1 Corinthians 2:6,7.

If we have difficulty with the figures of speech used in connection with the Lord's dinner, let us examine them, rather than alter what is clear and unmistakable. Probably no one will be stumbled by the idea of drinking a cup, though this is literally impossible. It is the well-known figure Metonymy, which I call Association. The cup is put for that which it contains. Literally, this is wine. Yet, by another fine figure, it is called the cup of blessing (1 Cor.10:16). Actually, we receive blessing through Christ's sufferings. These are figured by His blood. This again is set forth by the wine and the cup.

There is one figure of speech which we use frequently, yet without realizing it. I have named it Retention. We speak of driving an automobile. As a matter of fact we have no good term for controlling an automobile in motion, so we use the word we were accustomed to using before the automobile came in. We retain the old term under new conditions. It is used of the lame (Matt.11:5), the dead (Luke 7:15; 1 Peter 4:5; Rev.20:12), and others, when these terms are no longer true of them, because they had been lame and dead. Paul speaks of being the dispenser of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the spirit, for the letter is killing, yet the spirit is vivifying (2 Cor.3:6). But Paul really had no covenant. He simply called it that because it replaced the old covenant, and there was no name which would so clearly express what he meant. It certainly was not "Jewish," for it was in contrast to the old covenant, and is different from the new, which cannot be in force until the Lord rescues Israel (Rom.11:26,27).

It is the same with the "new covenant" in the Lord's dinner. Our Lord had spoken of a new covenant, in which blessing will come through His blood alone. Even that was figurative, for it is not a real covenant. God will write His law on Israel's hearts. There will be no literal contract between them and God as with the old covenant. Our Lord used the phrase "new covenant" in this figurative sense about His disciples of the Circumcision. Why should He not have used it, by the same figure, for this new use to which the apostle Paul puts it? Blessing was promised to Israel under the old covenant. Blessing comes to us by that which replaces the old covenant. Hence it is called a new covenant.

Some will object that this is "Jewish." Quite so. But redemption, sacrifice, allotment, the Scriptures, even Christ Himself is Jewish, not excepting our own apostle Paul. This term "Jewish" is far too illusive to be sound and useful. It can only do harm in this discussion. If we discard everything even remotely connected with Israel we will not have much left. Let us remember that Christ is Messiah, a peculiarly "Jewish" title. Israel came first in time, and the divine vocabulary is based largely on God's dealings with them. Even if our blessing does not now come through them, it can often be best expressed by borrowing their terms. The kingdom, for instance, is future, yet Paul uses the term of the present (Col.1:13) in a figure.

Much of the wavering and confusion on this subject would be avoided if figures of speech were clearly understood. For instance, the "body" of Christ is not literal. It simply pictures a group of saints vitally united to Him. Yet these same saints can be seen in other relationships. The Corinthians certainly were members of Christ's body. Yet they were getting away from their singleness and purity. This is not figured by the body. The apostle brings in an entirely different figure to describe it. He says that he had betrothed them. He carefully avoids the figure of marriage, for that might bring in confusion with Israel, who were often figured as the bride or wife. An engagement is quite a different matter from a marriage. And, in a figure like this only the singleness and purity are in point. We must never stretch a figure beyond the particulars of application.


The two different opinions of Paul's earlier epistles are the result of two different methods of interpretation. In one case the principle is laid down (consciously or subconsciously), that what is written during a given period of time must refer to the prevailing administration, and two cannot be under way at the same time. It all flows from the false idea that a "dispensation" is a section of time. From this premise results are reasoned which definitely deny some plain passages. The method we prefer is to examine carefully the exact statements of the apostle, especially as to the secret. Then, without reasoning, we see that they are all in harmony and we can accept them as they stand, making only such modifications as the secret itself calls for. In the first view the early Pauline epistles are "Jewish," for the kingdom on earth, not for us. In the second, they are intermediate and preparatory for the present.

The first view tears Paul's epistles apart and draws the line between them. Just where, we prefer not to say, as the principle is so indefinite that there is great variety in its application. To us it appears as a human attempt to rupture what God has joined. Paul's epistles are eminently for the Uncircumcision during Israel's discomfiture. The fact that they were written before the kingdom was finally rejected at Acts 28:28 is not nearly so important as that they were written after the kingdom had been rejected in Jerusalem and Judea and the land. In fact, the whole administrational section of Romans (9-11) is based on Israel's repudiation, and is the very opposite of the kingdom message. The mystery does not separate Paul's earlier ministries from the new revelation, but is based upon them.

The second view leaves the line where God has put it--between Acts and Paul's epistles as a whole. Acts is a book by itself and its subject is the kingdom for Israel. Paul's epistles are all joined by his name, and no outward distinction is made between them. In Acts even Paul's ministry is "Jewish," that is, all is viewed in relation to the kingdom, though that was constantly receding. In Paul's epistles this is not the viewpoint, even if some words and ways still seem to be "Jewish." The opposite is the case. In Acts the "hope" is that the kingdom of Israel will come. In Paul's epistles it is not coming until after the fullness of the nations has come in.

As to time, we are not told of the final setting aside of Israel, until the end of Acts. But in the early epistles this is anticipated. Long before the apostle arrived in Rome the fact of Israel's casting away was made known to the saints in Rome. From this it will be seen how unwise it is to reason about Acts and Paul's epistles from the standpoint of time. And this is the mistake we so easily fall into. In spirit, in time, these epistles are largely beyond Acts, though written before it. They take Acts 28:28 for granted. Otherwise we would have to conclude that Paul's letter to the Romans was not written until after he had left Rome, which cannot be. The whole doctrine of conciliation anticipates the end of Acts. Let us not reason about the time.

It seems almost superfluous to insist that the early Pauline epistles were written to the nations, not to the Jews, even though there probably always were some Jews among them. To begin with, Paul was especially commissioned to be the minister of Christ Jesus for the nations (Rom.15:16). He was entrusted with the evangel of the Uncircumcision (Gal.2:7), in contrast to Peter for the Circumcision. In Romans he says, "I am saying to you, the nations, inasmuch as, indeed, then, I am the apostle of the nations" (Rom.11:13). Nationally, Romans is for the nations only. Individually, it also addresses the Jew (2:17). But the Romans are, as a whole, from among the other nations (1:13).

The Corinthian epistles are equally plain. The apostle says, "You are aware that, when you were of the nations, you were led away to the voiceless idols" (1 Cor.12:2). Those in the nations are led away from God and served idols. But Israel was not guilty of this sin in those days. Israel is spoken of, not to. "Observe Israel according to the flesh" (10:18). The pronoun "our" often causes confusion of thought, because it may or may not include the one addressed. Paul speaks (4:8) of the Corinthians "apart from us" (heemon, the same word). He mentions our affliction, our consolation (2 Cor.1:4,5), and "our fathers" (belonging to him and his fellow Israelites, 1 Cor.10:1), as distinct from the Corinthians. Usually our includes them, but not necessarily.

The argument that, when the nations are referred to in the third person, this is a proof that those addressed are Jews (1 Cor.5:1; Rom.2:14, etc.) falls before the fact that, in the same epistles, the Jews are addressed in the third person also (Rom.1:16; 1 Cor.1:22), so that they must be addressed to neither! This comes out clearly when both are mentioned at once. Paul charges Jews as well as Greeks (Rom.3:9). Such inferences are highly misleading and vain. Let us shun them.

Surely we need not give "proof" that Galatians is for the nations! Ephesians is clearly "Jewish" through verse twelve of the first chapter. But from then on the nations are included, and both are made one in spirit.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:14,15 the Thessalonians are in contrast with the Jews. We submit that Paul's epistles were addressed to a mixed company, but predominantly belonging to the Uncircumcision. Either class may be addressed separately, or referred to in the third person, as occasion arises. They contain much fresh truth and several secrets unknown before. They do not contain the mystery of Ephesians, but they prepare for it and are largely incorporated into it.

We repeat our suggestion that, in any discussion of this matter, the actual terms of the secret be kept before all, especially the third item, which incorporates the promise and the evangel. In a meeting I would suggest that it be put upon the blackboard, or on a permanent placard. Indeed, it might find a permanent place on the wall where this is practicable, for, more and more, there will be a striving for clarity on this theme. So far, strange to say, one hardly ever hears or sees the secret itself set forth in plain terms, and those who speak or write of it show plainly that they are not acquainted with its details. Perhaps we should interpose in such cases, and call for a definition of the secret, and see that the third part is not omitted. This alone would correct much that has been written about it.

The grave feature of this method of handling God's Word is this: It definitely denies (quite unconsciously, no doubt), what God has said and then actually reasons away vital elements of the mystery by illogical deductions. It is the old story of God's Word against man's, but in a most alluring guise, for it appears to champion the highest and maturest truth, even while it mutilates and discards much of it. May God give us grace to cling closely to His own disclosures, to distrust our own deductions. Only then may we have the unspeakable privilege of being initiated into His secret administration, and of enjoying the fullness of its wisdom, grace and love.

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