Thursday, February 19, 2015

Right Division Includes Paul

Many of my readers have a firm grasp of Paul's exhortation to "rightly divide the Word of Truth" and to examine things that differ in the Scriptures. This practice is an absolute must for anyone seeking to make sense of God's Word. Among the many truths we discover through right division, one that becomes obvious is Paul's unique place as the apostle to the nations and the bearer of the mystery kept hidden by God from ages past.

Unfortunately, many believers stop here. After recognizing the distinct nature of Paul's epistles, they fail to rightly divide his epistles. In the case of Paul, right division does not end at separating Paul's letters from the rest of Scripture. Paul's own letters must be rightly divided in order to make sense of his teaching.

In this article, I will address several examples of how Paul's message changed and progressed over the course of his ministry, the reasons for that change, and the error of lending equal weight to all of Paul's letters. To begin, we must be aware of the true order of Paul's letters, as they are not ordered chronologically in our Bibles.

Generally, Paul's letters can be lumped into two groups: the pre-prison epistles and the prison epistles.  The pre-prison epistles, written before Paul's imprisonment, reflect the early period of his ministry and include (in no certain order): First and Second Thessalonians, Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, and Romans. The prison epistles, which reflect the latter part of Paul's ministry, include (again in no certain order): Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Titus, Philemon, and First and Second Timothy. Interestingly, the pre-prison period consists of six letters, which is the scriptural number for imperfect man, while the prison period consists of seven, which is the scriptural number of perfection. 

When we directly compare Paul's statements between different epistles, we notice some stark differences - especially between the pre-prison and prison epistles. Before I go over several of these differences, I will let Paul speak for himself in regards to his progression and changing message:

... I shall also be coming to apparitions and revelations of the Lord. I am acquainted with a man in Christ, fourteen years before this, (whether in a body I am not aware, or outside of the body, I am not aware - God is aware) such a one was snatched away to the third heaven... into paradise and hears ineffable declarations, which it is not allowed a man to speak.       -2 Corinthians 12:1-4 (CLNT)

Here, Paul describes himself years after an amazing experience receiving revelation. He begins by explaining that he shall be coming to revelations of the Lord and that the revelations he had already received were not yet permissible for him to teach. Paul wrote these words in 2 Corinthians, one of his earlier letters, well before the words he penned in his later letters. Thus, Paul himself made it clear to the Corinthians that 1) he would receive more revelation in the future, and 2) he was not allowed at the time of his writing to the Corinthians to teach all he had been shown by Christ to that point. Both of these facts are vital to understanding Paul's later writings. Acts 26:16 confirms Paul's progressive revelation by stating that he was made a minister and witness both of the things he had already seen and the things that would be shown to him. 

The book of Acts encompasses Paul's ministry from his conversion on the road to Damascus in chapter 9 to the complete setting aside of Israel and his imprisonment in chapter 28. In other words, Paul's pre-prison epistles exist on the timeline of Acts, and his prison epistles were written after the period accounted for in Acts. Reading through Acts, it is clear that following the death and resurrection of Christ, a great transitional period took place. This transition was from the exclusivity of Israel to the fullness of the nations. On a graph, this could be represented by Israel beginning at the top left with the nations on the bottom left, and ending exactly opposite with the nations on the top right and Israel on the bottom right. The downward moving Israel line and upward moving nations line would intersect in the middle forming an "X." Not surprisingly, Paul's letters perfectly mimic this transition. His earliest letters were written primarily to his fellow Jews and Gentile proselytes who attended the synagogues (see 1 Cor. 10:1-4 as an example), his mid-ministry letters were written to Jewish and Gentile believers, and his later letters were written to non-Jews who were previously "apart from Christ, having been alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope, and without God, in the world" (Eph. 2:12). Study Paul's letters chronologically, and you will discover that the pre-prison epistles are loaded with Old Testament references, while the prison epistles contain hardly any.      
As this great transitional shift was occurring and Paul's audience changing, it was vitally important that Paul only reveal what God permitted him to reveal at certain times. This is precisely why Paul's later letters are different in many ways from his early letters. In addition, God's entire program was changing. During the beginning of Paul's ministry when Israel was the focus, signs, gifts, healings and miracles were prevalent as God was dealing with the Jews who required a sign (1 Cor. 1:22). As Paul's ministry increasingly moved toward a focus on the nations who sought wisdom (also v. 22), the signs and gifts continually dwindled until they were non-existent.

Though Paul never said this, it is highly likely that the revelation he had received and was initially not allowed to share was the mystery God had kept hidden of the salvation of the Gentile nations and their superior allotment. The fullness of this amazing truth is not revealed by Paul until his prison epistles, although due to the transitional nature of God's program, hints of it can be seen in Paul's later pre-prison epistles - particularly Romans (see chapter 15).

With this foundation of knowledge, we can examine some of the key differences between Paul's pre-prison and prison epistles and begin to understand which epistles bear greater weight for us today. The examples I am about to give are only a small sampling but will serve to prove the need to rightly divide Paul's epistles to uncover current, relevant truth.

Reading the pre-prison passage of 1 Corinthians 11, one would assume that we need to partake in the Lord's Supper. Paul clearly instructs the Corinthian believers to and even says that he received the practice from the Lord before passing it along to them. Yet, in Colossians 2, we read Paul's instruction to let no one judge us for what we eat or drink or for whether we observe religious festivals. Without rightly dividing Paul's prison period words in Colossians from his earlier, contradictory words in First Corinthians, it is impossible to know which to believe and follow today. When we realize that Paul's instructions to the Corinthians during the pre-prison period were written primarily to Jewish believers and proselytes who were still entrenched in Israel's works-based traditions while his opposing instructions to the Colossians were written to believers of the nations who were never given those traditions, the answer is clear. As believers today, we are to follow the Colossians passage and do not need to partake in the Lord's Supper.

Tongues, prophecy, and healing are other examples of Paul's evolving message and God's changing program. In 1 Corinthians, Paul instructed believers on the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit and the appropriate way to use them. He even told them to eagerly desire the gifts (1 Cor. 14:1). Reading passages like 1 Corinthians 14 without rightly dividing Paul's epistles, one would naturally assume that the gifts are still in operation today and that we should eagerly desire them. This is precisely why Pentecostal churches exist. Yet, Paul also told the Corinthians that the gifts would cease and vanish in the prior chapter (1 Cor. 13:8). When we read the prison epistles, we discover that there is no mention whatsoever of the gifts, even when we would expect Paul to stress them, and that rather than heal Timothy's stomach problems as he could have before, Paul simply instructs him to drink some wine (1 Tim. 5:23). This sharp contrast, of course, is due to the gradual transition during Paul's ministry and the ceasing of the gifts by the time Paul wrote to Timothy. Indeed, the gifts had ceased well before Paul's first letter to Timothy, which is why there is no mention of them in Paul's previous prison epistles. Rightly dividing these passages, we can easily see that the sign gifts are no longer in operation today, nor have they been for over two thousand years! Seeking them today is a complete waste of time based in ignorance, and claiming to possess them is a lie based in arrogance.

Water baptism is another major stumbling block when Paul's letters aren't rightly divided. Reading 1 Corinthians 1, one would be inclined to uphold the practice of water baptism in keeping with John the Baptist and the other Jewish apostles. Paul, himself, was water baptized, and states that he water baptized two individuals and one household (1 Cor. 1:14-16). Yet, in the following verse (17) he states that Christ did not send him to baptize, but to preach the evangel. Later, in Ephesians 4, Paul lists the elements of oneness that compose the unity of spirit and lists "one baptism" (that is, spirit baptism) rather than water. Through right division, we discover that water baptism was predominantly a Jewish work, performed at the beginning of Paul's ministry while Israel was still in focus. As God set Israel aside and drew the nations in, spirit baptism reigned supreme and water baptism was irrelevant for believers of the nations. Nearly all believers today uphold water baptism as a necessary act of faith or even a saving act in itself. If they rightly divided Paul's epistles, they would understand that their baptism in spirit renders water baptism meaningless and unnecessary. 

Perhaps the most confusing issue in Paul's letters - even for many who rightly divide them - is the so-called "rapture," or "snatching away." Paul describes this event briefly at the end of 1 Thessalonians 4. A careful reading of the passage shows that Paul believed this event was imminent at the time of his writing, for he states that he and the other living believers would not precede those who had "fallen asleep," or passed away, in being snatched away. As we know, this event still has not occurred, long after Paul wrote these words. Was he wrong, or lying, or was something else at work? 

1 Thessalonians 4 describes Christ coming down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God, resurrecting the dead in Christ first, followed by living believers, being snatched away into the clouds of the air to meet Christ. As we know, though, 1 Thessalonians is a pre-prison epistle, written early on in Paul's ministry. In fact, many scholars believe 1 Thessalonians is Paul's first letter. Our next step, then, is to search Paul's later epistles to see what, if anything, he has to say about this event.

When we do just that, we discover a surprising passage. In Colossians 3:4, Paul makes the new declaration that members of the Body of Christ will appear with Christ at the moment of His appearing in glory. While the 1 Thessalonians 4 event would take place with Christ coming down and a series of specific elements (command, trumpet, etc.), the Colossians 3 event is described as Christ remaining in His place of glory and occurring in an instant. Rather than the Body being snatched away and meeting Christ among the clouds, it will immediately appear with Him in His glory.

While it is easy to draw comparisons between these two events, they are, in fact, quite different. By rightly dividing the passages, we realize that Paul described the seemingly imminent event of 1 Thessalonians 4 as he did because at that point it was in line with God's program for Israel and the revelation God had given Paul to teach. At that point in time, Israel was still the dominant focus in God's program and the "snatching away" was the event that would soon precede Christ's second coming to a finally repentant Israel. As this was not God's actual, long-term plan, Israel as a whole remained hardened, the event never took place, and Paul later informed the Colossians of a previously unrevealed, future event - our appearing. 1 Thessalonians 4 remains the future expectation of believers of Israel, but the appearing Paul later revealed in Colossians 3 is now the future expectation of the Body of Christ. Thus, members of the Body of Christ who still look to the rapture look toward an event that is promised to Israel, not us. Rather, we should be living in expectation of our future appearing with Christ when He is made manifest. 

Much of what Paul wrote early in his ministry hinged on his belief that Christ's second coming was imminent and would occur in his lifetime. Without this understanding, many are misled and take all of Paul's words to heart to the extent that they endeavor to practice them in their own lives. When Paul instructed married believers to live as though they were not married and unmarried believers to remain single as he was, it was because he believed Christ would be returning very soon. Paul's advice was appropriate for the time, but two thousand years later, after the event did not take place, that advice is no longer relevant or applicable. This is why in Ephesians 5, Paul gave very different advice to husbands and wives. Rather than live as though they were single, he urged them to live in love with their focus firmly on one another. This is also why Paul instructed Timothy that those seeking eldership in the ecclesia must first demonstrate their leadership abilities as a husband and father (1 Tim. 3).

My hope is that this article has clearly demonstrated the great importance of not only rightly dividing Paul's letters from the rest of Scripture, but rightly dividing Paul's letters themselves. Not doing so creates inevitable confusion and causes us to adhere to advice and practices that do not pertain to us today. Those who fail to rightly divide Paul's epistles are bound to inappropriately teach these errors as they uphold Paul's earliest writings as equally applicable with his later writings. Let your focus be on Paul's last seven epistles as you strive to learn what pertains to you, today, as a member of Christ's Body.

© 2015 by Stephen Hill