Thursday, May 14, 2015

Proof of Paul's Progression

Recently, I wrote a rather controversial article on the importance of rightly dividing Paul's epistles. In the article, I described Paul's progressive revelation and the fact that his focus transitioned from Israel to the nations. This transition is abundantly apparent when we compare Paul's earlier (pre-prison) epistles with his later prison, or "perfection," epistles. In this supplementary article, I will attempt to prove this truth in greater detail so that you, the reader, may have a clear understanding.

Some argue that Paul's letters should not be divided at all. They insist that while Paul's message progressed in minor ways over the course of his ministry and letters (a fact they cannot deny), all of his letters are equal in terms of the relevant truth they hold, today, for the Body of Christ. Those same folks argue that all of Paul's letters are entirely to and for the Body of Christ since Paul was commissioned from day one as the apostle to the nations. 

Interestingly, though, these same teachers do not practice or condone much of what Paul instructed his early readers--especially the Corinthians--to seek and do. These include: the Lord's Dinner, speaking in tongues, performing miracles, healing, prophesying, and ordinances in keeping with the Israeli program. If, in fact, Paul's earlier letters are equally relevant for the Body of Christ today, then we would be obligated to practice everything Paul instructed in his early ministry. It simply is not possible to uphold Paul's earlier letters as equal in every way with his later letters while, at the same time, dismissing much of what Paul instructs in his early letters. If Paul's pre-prison epistles are as relevant today for the Body of Christ as his prison epistles, we should do what Paul instructs in them! Ironically, it is evident that the teachers who oppose right division of Paul's letters are, themselves, dividing them. They have no choice but to divide them, because what Paul teaches the Body of Christ in his last epistles often contradicts what he first taught in his early epistles. 

In the Concordant Commentary on the New Testament, page 33, A. E. Knoch writes:

"... it was not until the end of the Acts era that the salvation of God is sent directly to the nations (Ac. 28:29). The latter half of the second chapter of Ephesians (2:11-22), is an elaborate statement showing that, in the present administration of God's grace, the nations are no longer in the inferior position accorded them in Paul's earlier ministry."

And, farther down: 

"... it was not until Paul's imprisonment that we were brought nigh and enter the family of God (Eph. 2:18, 19). Until then we were still guests at Israel's table, if not puppies under it."

No doubt, many of those opposed to, or ignorant of, this truth are staunch followers of A. E. Knoch and will likely be shocked to know he penned these statements. I wish they would read these words from his commentary every day for a month, or until they really sunk in. Knoch clearly distinguished between Paul's "pre-prison" and "perfection" epistles. As Knoch rightly points out, the end of the Acts era (which encompassed Paul's pre-prison epistles) marks the time when the salvation of God was finally sent directly to the nations; and prior to that point, we (the nations) were still Israel's "guests," or--even less--puppies, inferior to them. Our place of inferiority, as Knoch makes clear, remained unchanged during Paul's "earlier ministry." As he correctly puts it, we were "brought nigh and enter[ed] the family of God" after Paul's imprisonment. 

This fact (which is a fact because it is scriptural, not just because Mr. Knoch said it) proves some rather shocking truths. First, any message of salvation or instruction taught by Paul prior to his imprisonment could not have been directed solely to the nations, despite the fact that he was commissioned by Christ from the moment of his conversion to be the apostle to the nations. Second, only Paul's post-Acts epistles contain truth that is solely applicable, today, for the Body of Christ. That is not to say that Paul's earlier letters contain no truth for the Body; but it is Paul's later letters which contain complete truth for the Body of Christ, now. Not surprisingly, Romans--Paul's last pre-prison epistle--contains more regarding the mystery of Paul's evangel than any of his other pre-prison letters. Paul revealed more and more as he progressed through his ministry and transitioned his focus from Israel to the nations.

Now, some insist that since Paul was commissioned to be the apostle to the nations from day one, he must have dealt only with the nations from the beginning. This assumption is illogical and is simply not true, as proven by the text. Paul frequented the Jewish synagogues in his early ministry, even to the point that Luke called it his "custom" (Acts 9:20, 13:5,14,15,42; 14:1, 17:2,10,17; 18:4,19,26; 19:8, 28:23). Immediately after his conversion, Paul went where? Not to the nations, but to the synagogues (9:20), heralding Jesus as the Son of God. 

Of course, the fact that Paul was commissioned to be the apostle to the nations is no less true because he focused first on his Jewish brethren. Paul retained his title all along, but he could not enact all that his title entailed until God permitted him to, after the full setting aside of Israel. Furthermore, the Body of Christ is composed not only of Gentile believers, but also a remnant of believing Israel; so while Paul's primary task was evangelizing the nations, his ultimate goal was the up-building of the Body, which included his brethren, the believing Israelites. We must not ignore Paul's overwhelmingly Jewish qualifications as we examine the totality of his God-given role.

Perhaps one of the strongest proofs of Paul's transitioning focus lies in some key words. To many, the terms "Greek" and "Gentile" are synonymous and interchangeable. Yet, while all Greeks are Gentiles, not all Gentiles are Greeks. Please read that last sentence again, or until it is completely clear. This is no different than the fact that all Ohioans are Americans, but not all Americans are Ohioans. I trust this is a simple reality to comprehend.

Of course, many translations of Scripture render the Greek terms for these important words erroneously. The Greek terms often translated as "Greek" or "Gentile" are hellen and ethnos. Paul used the term hellen in his pre-prison epistles only, except in the one case of Colossians 3:11 where he reiterates the lack of distinctions in the Body. In his later letters, he uses only the term ethnos. Why would Paul draw this distinction? Is it even worth noting? I would argue that it most certainly is. Things that are different are not the same (another simple fact to comprehend); and whenever we come across God's inspired use of different terms, we should study to understand His reasons for doing so.

Paul makes it clear that his early ministry was directed to the "Jew first," then the Greek. Note, Paul does not say to the "Jew first, then the Gentile." So, who were these Greeks? Any and all Gentiles? No. They were God-fearing proselytes who sought God's wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22) and blessing through the seed of Abraham. By definition, they were hellens--natives of Greece, or ones who had adopted the Greek language and culture. They were not the non-Jewish heathen (ethnos). In Romans 1:14, the Concordant Version appropriately has the phrase, "To both Greeks and barbarians..." proving that Paul made a clear distinction between Greek believers and other Gentiles. In any case, it was believing Jews and Greeks Paul addressed in his early ministry. This is why when Paul identified certain individuals by name among the ecclesias he wrote to, several of the names were Greek as well as Jewish. By preaching to the Jews and Greek proselytes in the synagogues, then, Paul was indeed heralding Christ to the "nations" (as Greeks are non-Israelites by progeny), although those Greeks were clearly aligning themselves with Israel and were considered, for all intents and purposes, "Jewish."

When Paul and Barnabas met with the apostles and elders of Jerusalem to discuss the requirements for salvation for the nations, they agreed that while circumcision was not a requirement, other observances of the Mosaic Law--items they deemed "essentials" (v. 28)--were still to be kept (namely: abstaining from ceremonial pollution with idols, and prostitution, and what is strangled, and blood). This decision, agreed upon by Paul in Acts 15, is a far cry from his later evangel of God's grace which requires no law keeping, whatsoever.

When we arrive at the prison epistles, we see an entirely different focus than that of Paul's earlier ministry. Now, Paul's focus is entirely on non-Israelite, non-proselyte believers whom he addresses in Ephesians as having, prior to that point, been "apart from Christ, being alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and guests of the promised covenants, having no expectation, and without God in the world." This statement certainly doesn't pertain to the Jews and Greeks Paul had previously spent so much time teaching! Rather, these believers are ethnos--non-Jewish, non-Greek Gentiles.

The order of progression for Paul's audience throughout his ministry, then, is as follows: The Jews first, then Greek proselytes, and, lastly, the nations who were previously alienated from Israel's covenant promises. Amazingly, as Paul transitions from one group to the next, the balance dramatically shifts so that the nations, who were once separated from the commonwealth of Israel, end up with an even better allotment!

Paul begins his letter to the Romans--likely his last pre-prison epistle--with this revealing statement: "Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, a called apostle, severed for the evangel of God (which he promises before through his prophets in the holy scriptures)..."

Did you notice what is "revealing" about this opening line? In his greeting to the Romans, Paul defines his evangel to them as one promised through the prophets in the Scriptures. Unlike the evangel of the grace of God that Paul later preached exclusively to the nations, his evangel to the Romans was not a mystery that had been kept hidden by God, but was contained in prophecy and should have been identifiable to those who knew the Hebrew Scriptures. Who were such people? Israelites and proselytes. The nations were not given the Law (Rom. 2:14) and were not familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul does hint at the secrets of his evangel in Romans, as he does, at times, in his other pre-prison epistles; but he does not fully reveal the secrets of his evangel in their entirety until his later letters. Prior to the full setting aside of Israel, it was unlawful (that is, not permitted by God) for Paul to teach all that had been revealed to him (2 Cor. 12:4).

Likewise, it is important to realize that when we read of Paul's frequency in the synagogues throughout the Acts period (contained in nearly every chapter from Paul's conversion in chapter 9 on), we always read of him proving Jesus was the Son of God "according to the Scriptures." It was only those who had and were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures who could have been reasoned with by them. These, again, were Israelites and Greek proselytes. 

Repentance is another important distinguisher between Paul's earlier and later epistles. Paul's message in his earlier epistles contained a call to repentance, whereas his latter epistles stressed justification through faith. Repentance recognizes one's guilt, while justification does not. This is a significant difference and one that is clearly evident in Paul's progression. Paul uses the term "repentance" (metanoia in Greek) in his pre-prison epistles, 2 Corinthians and Romans. The books Hebrews and 2 Peter (both addressed exclusively to Israel) are the other books, aside from the so-called "gospels," containing the term. The only exception to this rule is 2 Timothy 2:25 (Paul's last letter), where Paul instructs Timothy to be gentle and patient toward "those who are antagonizing," seeing that God may lead them to repentance. Who are those antagonizing? Contradicting Jews--the same men who had always plagued Paul's evangel by teaching a mixing of law and grace. Timothy knew these men well. Clearly, repentance was a necessity for Israel, not the nations, since Israel was given the Law and rejected their Messiah. Paul's insistence on repentance in his earlier epistles, then, is further proof of his initial focus on Israel.

When we understand that Paul's revelation was progressive and that his ministry was transitional, the reason for the sometimes drastic differences in his earlier and later letters becomes clear. Paul first taught the believing Jews and Greeks he addressed to observe the Lord's Dinner, to seek the spiritual gifts, to heal, and to believe his evangel which was promised "before through [God's] prophets in the holy scriptures." Paul initially operated this way because at that period in time the gospel of the kingdom was still being offered to Israel who always required a sign (1 Cor. 1:22). As such, Paul's primary focus was naturally on Israel at first, in spite of the fact that he would eventually fulfill his calling as God's chosen apostle to the nations. 

Keep in mind that the mere fact that Paul had to tell the Jews of his transitioning focus to the nations at Acts 28 is rock-solid proof of his focus on Israel to that point. Immediately prior to that point, we read of Paul "persuading [the Jews] concerning Jesus, both from the law of Moses and the prophets, from morning till dusk" (Acts 28:23). Interestingly, it was this same time period (the end of the Acts era) when Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans.

When we examine Paul's later epistles--those written after the Acts era--we see an evangel of grace, heralded to the non-Israelite nations, based on faith alone, with no active signs or gifts, which promises a celestial allotment, far superior to Israel's terrestrial expectation. After the setting aside of Israel at the close of Acts, Paul--in sharp contrast to his earlier letters--never promotes the signs that were previously given for Israel. On the contrary, he instructed the Colossians to let no one judge them for what they ate or drank, or whether they observed the Sabbath or religious feasts (Col. 2:16). Likewise, Paul advised Timothy to take some wine for his stomach, whereas before he would have just healed him. 

In short, an examination of Paul's epistles proves some undeniable facts. First, Paul's epistles must be rightly divided, as his message significantly changed according to whom he addressed over time. Second, as Paul's focus clearly transitioned from Israel to the nations, we must look to Paul's later epistles to find complete and current truth that pertains only to the Body of Christ. Third, while Paul was commissioned as the apostle to the nations at his conversion, he did not direct his efforts to the nations alone until after Israel had been fully set aside. Fourth, while the Body of Christ began with Paul (and, in reality, before the disruption of the world in an absolute sense (Eph. 1:4)), Paul did not fully disclose all truth for the Body until after his imprisonment. Fifth, the evangel that Paul preached early in his ministry did not include the fullness of the mystery he eventually revealed to the nations.

I have to assume that those who contradict the necessity of rightly dividing Paul's epistles do so out of mere ignorance. The whole concept is simply new and unfamiliar to them and, as such, challenges their firm, long-held beliefs. Many have likely never studied the chronological order of Paul's epistles or compared them to the account in Acts. Recognizing Paul's unique place as the apostle to the nations, they have taken for granted that Paul dealt only with the nations when he, in fact, dealt primarily with Israel at the beginning of his ministry. I encourage anyone who fits that mold to put the truth of God's Word above their pride--to value glorifying God above glorifying themselves.

Consider this: if we neglect to rightly divide Paul's epistles, we have no choice but to partake in the Lord's Dinner, seek the spiritual gifts, attempt to heal others, and so forth. Paul instructed his early readers (especially the Corinthians) to do all these things, declaring that Christ had passed them along to him. If Paul's letters are all equally relevant for us today, then either those ordinances are still valid, or Paul contradicts himself. I, for one, don't accept either of those possibilities, and I encourage you to rightly divide Paul's epistles to draw that same unavoidable conclusion.

© 2015 by Stephen Hill

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