|ACTS CONSIDERED DISPENSATIONALLY|
|A Bible Study
Looking at the Beginnings of Christ's Church
And its Blessings During the Book of Acts, and its Blessings Today
The biggest mistake in understanding the book of Acts
From a dispensational standpoint the Acts may be outlined as follows:
- Acts 1 - Preparation for the prophecied millennial kingdom
- Acts 2 - 9: The millennial kingdom offered to Israel
- Acts 2 - 3: The offer made exclusively to the Jews
Acts 4 - 9: The offer rejected by Israel at Jerusalem Acts 10 - 28:28: The Kingdom in mystery form
- Acts 10: Gentiles included as a mystery, "outside of" prophecy
- Acts 13 - 28:28: God provokes Israel to jealousy by removing individual Jews from their New Covenant blessing, and substituting individual Gentiles into Israel's blessing. But God's message is still to the Jew first with a valid offer of the millennial kingdom.
Acts 28:16-28: Kingdom rejected in finality by the last outpost of the Jewish dispersion Acts 28:29-31: The earthly kingdom in abeyance (see Eph. & Col)
But here is a simpler outline showing the three phases the church (Christ's "gathering") has thus far experienced.
1. The kingdom gathering - Israel offered the prophesied kingdom - For the ears of Israel alone (Acts 1 through 7)
2. The kingdom gathering - Gentiles admitted as a mystery to cause Israel to become jealous - Acts 8 through 28
3. The offer of Israel's kingdom withdrawn - Jews and Gentiles placed on an equal basis. The Jew is no longer first - Acts 28
The theme of the book of Acts
One distinct theme flows through the entire book of Acts. If this outstanding theme is not grasped, the significance of the whole book will be misunderstood, and this failure to rightly divide the word of truth will necessarily lead to confusing what is and what is not "truth for today." It will result in importing an incompatible mixture of "earthly kingdom practices" and "heavenly themes," into the environment of our Christian gatherings, thus distorting God's purposes for us in the present dispensation. This theme is:
What the book of Acts is not
The historical record in the Acts is not a 'pattern' or 'blueprint' for Christian gatherings on earth (local churches) in the present dispensation. Although this statement may appear shocking, please consider the following study in the same spirit as did the "more noble" Bereans, who "received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." (Acts 17:11)
With this in mind let us briefly explore this 'history of the decline and fall of Israel' as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
Preparation for the offer of the prophesied millennial kingdom
1. The Acts of the Apostles begins with the statement that the book is a continuation of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus to the nation Israel. Luke's gospel records what the Lord Jesus began to do until he ascended into heaven (Acts 1:1). The Acts, also penned by Luke, records what the Lord continued to do through his apostles on earth, through the power of the Holy Spirit, while the Lord was in heaven. In the book of Acts the Lord's message is the New Covenant promised to the "House" of Israel and to the "House" of Judah. But its promises depend on whether the Jewish nation, (not just individual Jews), accept His Messianic claims.
2. The Lord Jesus taught the disciples for 40 days. What did He teach them? He taught them "...the things which concern the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). "They THEREFORE" (i.e., as a result of what the Lord taught them), "being come together, asked him saying, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6).
Let us not criticize the disciples for asking this very pertinent question. The Lord's answer was NOT 'the kingdom will never be restored to the Jewish nation Israel' (as is erroneously taught by so-called 'replacement theology'). Nor was his answer 'NOT AT THIS TIME.' Some expositors fail to understand that the earthly millennial "kingdom to Israel" was, in fact, the EXACT THING that WAS offered to Israel by the apostles in Acts chapters two and three. What Peter and John presented was not a "church" comprised of Jews and Gentiles in one body, whose hope and blessing is "in the heavenlies" as per Ephesians 1:3. The Lord's answer was "It is not for your to know times or seasons" (Acts 1:7). The offering of the kingdom to Israel was to be a bona fide offer. Whether Israel would receive or reject that offer was known only to God, and, consequently, what God knew about Israel's fateful decision was not revealed to the apostles at that time.
3. The missing apostle (Judas Iscariot) is replaced, restoring the required twelfth apostle to their number (Acts 1:15-26). It is necessary (Acts 1:21) to have twelve apostles because the Lord promised that in the Messianic kingdom on earth there would be twelve apostles who would sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Mat. 19:28). Some Bible teachers erroneously claim Peter and the other remaining apostles were mistaken when they chose Matthias; that Paul was the true twelfth apostle. But the Lord Jesus had specifically given the apostle Peter Divine authority to perform tasks such as this:
"And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mat. 16:18)
This authority given to Peter proves that he had the God-given authority to choose the twelfth apostle. Matthias, not Paul, is the twelfth apostle, and the Holy Spirit confirms this fact in Acts 6:2 and in 1 Corinthians 15:5. Paul is not the twelfth apostle and will not sit on one of these twelve thrones. He is a very special apostle, born out of due time (1 Cor. 15:8), with God's commission to go to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13). Although some erroneously teach that the apostles sinned by using "the lot" to choose Matthias, scripture says,
"The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole decision is of Yahweh." (Prov. 16:33)
If Saul of Tarsus had been God's choice to sit on one of the twelve apostolic thrones, it would have been necessary to delay the proclamation of the kingdom gospel on the day of Pentecost (the Jewish Feast of Weeks) for several years until the conversion of Paul and his spiritual instruction in Arabia.
4. The Lord Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:9), and the Holy Spirit is poured out upon believers (Acts 1:8 & 2:1-4), thus "gathering" them into a very special spiritual body of believers known as the ekklesia. This ekklesia simply means a "gathering of people," a word commonly translated "church" or "assembly." This church is not a religious denomination or a building, but a special gathering of believers chosen by God, a distinctive spiritual people marked by the Holy Spirit for His Divine purposes. The Lord Jesus had promised to build such a "church" in Matthew 16:18.
"And I also, I say unto you that you are a stone, and on this rock I will build my ekklesia, and hades' gates shall not prevail against it." (Mat. 16:18)
What is the nature of this "church" that the Lord Jesus prophesied He would build? In the writings of the Hebrew prophets the Lord God had promised to "gather" His covenant people Israel in the last days (Jer. 32:37-42; Ezek. 11:17-20; 36:24-28, etc.). From ancient times, the prophets of Jehovah had promised to gather His people Israel, and to put his Spirit upon them, so they might worship Him in holiness (Isa. 44:3; Ezek. 36:27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28, etc.). In Acts 2 and 3 this prophesied physical and spiritual 'restoration' (Acts 1:6) is exactly what was about to happen to Israel, provided they would willingly submit to His Divine will. They would be part of God's prophesied "gathering." In other words God's prophesied gathering was the same ekklesia (gathering) promised by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 16:18-19, and by the Hebrew prophets. This "gathering", or "church", did not have its terminus in heavenly places (see Ephesians), but was earthly in its character.
Some believe it is necessary to distinguish between "Israel and the church." This, however, wrongly presupposes that the descriptive nature of the church in Acts 2 and 3 are identical to those characteristics of the church described in Ephesians and Colossians, and that they are totally unlike those characteristics seen in the Hebrew prophetic writings. When the apostles preached the gospel to the "house of Israel" (Acts 2:36) the intent was that if that nation (Israel) would turn to the Lord, they would comprise both the "gathering" (ekklesia) and the "kingdom" promised by the Lord in Matthew 16. As it turned out, only individual Jews, (not the corporate Nation consisting of officials who sit in "Moses' seat"), would believe the gospel. Because of this, Christ's ekklesia became composed of a remnant of individual Jewish believers who had ceremonially purified themselves by water baptism from the evil religious system maintained by the unbelieving Jewish clergy.
What is a "church" (ekklesia)? In New Testament language Local churches are simply local gatherings of people who have been sovereignly drawn to the Lord Jesus Christ by the Father (John 6:44). We ought not to 'officialize' the word "church" or attach specific doctrinal terms to it. An ekklesia is simply a "gathering." For example, Acts 7:38 speaks of the "ekklesia in the wilderness," referring to the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai. (See Hebrews 2:12). The Old Testament looks forward to the day when God's covenant people will be sovereignly drawn or "gathered" from their various scattered locations This gathering is certainly an ekklesia.
(We must not confuse the characteristics of the "church" as defined in the epistles of Paul, particularly his later epistles, with the character of the "church" which existed on the Feast of Weeks [Firstfruits or Pentecost]. In other words we must not force Ephesian truth into the message of the book of Acts).
Some remarks as to when Christ's "gathering" began
Although some may disagree, it seems apparent that the ekklesia (gathering) that the Lord promised to 'build' in Matthew 16 had its beginning on the Jewish feast of weeks (the day of Pentecost) when the Lord Jesus poured out [the] Holy Spirit upon believers. This same ekklesia continued intact throughout the entire book of Acts, and we believe it continues today. However, when Israel rejected God's offer to 'regenerate' and to 'restore' Israel, God changed his revealed plan. The offer of the earthly kingdom was withdrawn, Israel was temporarily set aside as a covenant nation, and God's grace was presented to sinners without regard to previous covenant promises. Under God's new plan, no longer would "gathered" believers expect millennial (earthly) blessings; instead they would be promised "all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3). Thus, Israel's unfortunate response to God's offer of earthly blessing became "we will not have this man to rule over us." When their rejection was final and complete (Acts 28:28) the earthly promises made to Christ's gathering (ekklesia) were withdrawn, and new heavenly hopes, promises, and expectations were given by grace to this same gathering (church). These expectations far exceeded those prophesied kingdom blessings previously promised to His earthly covenant people.
Did this radical change in God's purposes mean that He abolished the first ekklesia (church) and created a new "gathering" when He withdrew the millennial blessings and substituted blessings "in the heavenlies in Christ?" We see no convincing scriptural evidence that any such new "church" began subsequent to Pentecost. In fact, we are convinced that several passages of Scripture indicate that the "church" at Pentecost continued unbroken throughout Acts, and continues today. Please refer to the links at the end of this article for more details on this important subject.
The millennial kingdom offered to Israel at Jerusalem
5. On the day of Pentecost Peter warned that the terrible "day of Yahweh" prophesied by Joel had actually begun (Acts 2:16-21). When the assembled Jews interpreted the gift of tongues poured out on the apostles as evidence of a drunken state, Peter corrected their mistake:
"For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.
"But this IS that which was spoken by the prophet Joel." (Acts 2:15-16)
In Acts 3:19 the Lord, through Peter, healed the lame man in a striking fulfillment of Isaiah 35:6 which previews the day when the lame man (a picture of unbelieving Israel) shall "leap as a hart," a prophecy that also promises that "The wilderness and the dry land shall be gladdened; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose" (Isa. 35:1). Peter's message was:
"Repent therefore and be converted, for the blotting out of your sins, so that times of refreshing may come from [the] presence of the Lord,
This was a direct, literal, promise of the return of the Lord Jesus to restore the physical kingdom on earth at the time of the millennium as foretold by God's holy prophets over and over throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. But, this promise was conditional on Israel's "repentance" (Acts 3:19) because they had denied "the holy and righteous one," and because they had slain "the originator of life" "in ignorance" (Acts 3:14,15,17). It was conditional on Israel's "conversion" (Acts 3:19). Again, no Gentiles are mentioned as being present either at Pentecost or at the healing of the lame man. In fact, Peter distinctly identifies his audience as being totally Jewish:
"Ye are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God appointed to our fathers...." (Acts 3:25).
6. But national Israel began to resist and to reject the gospel of the kingdom as soon as Peter finished his message in Acts 3. Acts 4 records this opposition, as does Acts 5:17 and Acts 6:9-15. And so, it is not surprising that a "great persecution" arose (Acts 8:1) immediately after the stoning of Stephen, "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5).
"And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." (Acts 8:1)
As a result of this scattering those who fled Jerusalem continued to preach the Word to "none but the Jews only" (Acts 11:19). Thus, from Acts 2 through Acts 7 God's message of the kingdom was presented to Israel alone (i.e., no Gentiles, no Samaritans). But as a result of the slaying of Stephen by Israel, God began a new phase, a new dispensation, a new administration, a new economy, in His relationship with His people Israel.
The kingdom in "mystery" form
One feature of this new dispensation was that God now began the process of breaking off the natural olive branches (Israel) from their rightful new covenant blessing, and grafting into their place "wild" (Gentile) branches (Rom. 11). This was done to provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom. 11:11). God's prophetic purposes were still in effect at that time (Rom. 11:25-29). Before Acts 28:28 Israel was still "first" in God's purposes (Rom. 1:16 & Rom. 2:9-10 as was also the case in Acts 3:26 and in Acts 13:46). According to Scripture, God's prophetic purpose will one day be fulfilled by saving a remnant out of Israel and making them His covenant missionary arm for the salvation of Gentile nations (see Zech. 8:23). But, at this point in the historical record of Acts, national Israel sadly embarked on their perilous voyage of unbelief.
Thus, as God began to blind Israel, believers would now preach Christ to the Samaritans, a people of mixed Israelite-Gentile race (Acts 8:1). Peter and John travel to Samaria to turn another of the "keys of the kingdom" mentioned in Matthew 16:19. These keys of the kingdom enabled the signs, wonders and works of power of the millennial kingdom to fall upon this new group of half-Jewish Samaritan believers (Acts 8:14-17). These signs and wonders were God's stamp of approval upon the message, upon the messengers, and upon the people themselves who received the message. They were the Divine credentials of the works of the Holy Spirit, particularly on display to unbelieving Israel, to provoke them to jealousy. These signs and wonders that were now displayed among the despised Samaritans warned Israel that God had begun to turn away from them because of their unbelief. At the same time it was God's merciful call to Israel to believe the glad tidings and partake of the prophesied blessings promised to them.
The next step in the process of breaking off the natural olive branches was the salvation of the household of Cornelius the previously "unclean" Gentile (Acts 10 & 11). Again, Peter was on hand to turn yet another of the "keys of the kingdom." And, again, the gift of the Holy Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius, fulfilling the signs and wonders promised by the great commission, (Mat. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18), and astonishing even the Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter:
"While Peter was yet speaking these words the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were hearing the word.
Even before Peter preached to the Gentiles, the dead, unbelieving heart of a great persecutor of Christ's gathering, Saul of Tarsus, was quickened (made alive) by the Lord (Acts 9:1-31), because he was elected and destined to become God's chosen vessel, a special apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13, 2 Tim. 1:11).
7. Yet, although Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, whenever he ministered, as recorded throughout the book of Acts, he always went to the Jew first (Acts 13:46; 18:5-6; Rom. 1:16; 2:9-10). But each time Paul preached to these Jews the majority of the Jews rejected the message. As a result, when a particular city rejected the glad tidings, Paul turned away from them, shaking the dust of that city or house from his feet (Acts 13:51 - see Mat. 10:14, etc.), and went to the Gentiles. Why? Because God was breaking off the natural branches of Israel's new covenant tree of blessing and grafting in wild branches. Throughout this book we observe the millennial miracles and signs of the "great commission" pertaining to the earthly kingdom (Mark 16:17-18), because God's message at that time still consisted of those prophetic promises made specifically to Israel. Once this message of prophecy was withdrawn from Israel there would no longer be a need for such signs. Some teachers hold that such signs only occurred the first time the gospel was presented to a new group of individuals, but one has only to read Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians to see that that theory is without merit. That epistle points to "gifts of healing...operations of miracles...prophecy...discerning of spirits...kinds of tongues...interpretation of tongues," (1 Cor. 12:8-10), multiple gifts so numerous and commonplace that they had become badly misused.
8. For the full period covered by the Acts of the Apostles, God's message continued to be the message of the millennial kingdom under the spiritual terms of the promised New Covenant. At this point in time, "the hope of Israel" was still the message the Holy Spirit was proclaiming (See Acts 26:6 and 28:20). As that dispensation drew to a close, and as all Israel, at Jerusalem and finally at Rome, willingly placed themselves outside of the Divine purpose, God's longsuffering toward Israel would wear thin and finally result in Israel's prophesied earthly blessings being withdrawn.
The kingdom rejected in finality
Acts 28:28, An Important Dispensational Boundary Line
9. We now reach Acts 28:28, the tremendously important dispensational boundary line that marks the temporary end of God's 'prophetic' program with Israel. Up until this point both Jews and Gentiles were partakers of Israel's promised New Covenant blessing, a blessing that would have taken place if Israel had accepted their Messiah. [This blessing that Israel forfeited will take place on earth during the future millennium after Israel shall look on Him whom they have pierced (Zech. 12:10)]. During the Acts period, Gentiles were blessed because of the "mystery" of Israel's blindness, rather than as part of prophecy in which a faithful, believing, Israel would be God's instrument for Gentile salvation. (This "mystery" of Israel's blindness was part of God's program 'hidden' from the foundation of the world, but is not the same "mystery" revealed in Ephesians, after national Israel was set aside).
At the end of the book of Acts, God completed the process of breaking off the "natural branches." Israel (temporarily) ceased to be God's potential vehicle for the salvation of the Gentile world, a commission announced in the prophetic writings. Earlier, corporate Israel at Jerusalem had rejected the works of the Holy Spirit, and demonstrated this by stoning Stephen. Now, at Acts 28:28 representatives of the Jewish dispersion also rejected Him. At Acts 28, with an air of finality, Paul quoted the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10 pronouncing final blindness upon the entire corporate nation Israel, thus officially ending their former covenant position that had previously required Paul to minister "to the Jew first." Not only so, in shutting up National Israel, Paul emphasized that it was the Holy Spirit who was doing this, bringing to mind the warning of the Lord Jesus as to the consequences of rejecting the Divine will of the Holy Spirit. This is the so-called 'unpardonable sin' against the Holy Spirit - "it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age nor in the coming one" Mat. 12:32. And it happened to National Israel at Acts 28:28.
In Acts 28:20 Paul had met with the official representatives of Israel and immediately set the record straight as to the purpose of his ministry thus far in the Acts. He clearly emphasized that his every endeavor had been to bring about Israel's blessing in the millennial kingdom under their Messiah, saying to the Jews, "For on account of the hope of Israel I have this chain about me." The "hope of Israel" was Israel's Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. This "hope" also included long-prophesied millennial blessings for a restored Israel under their Messiah. But Israel rejected the resurrection of the King who would rule that kingdom. The apostle Paul taught that the true hope of Israel was the Lord Jesus Christ, and the resurrection of believers from the dead that was made possible through Him (see Acts 23:6; 24:14-15, 21). In Acts 28:22-23 the Holy Spirit was careful to stress that this meeting in Rome was no inconsequential five minute dissertation to a small handful of unimportant Jews. His exposition of the Scriptures was to "those who were the chief of the Jews," it was to a "great number" of Jews, and his message lasted perhaps eight or more hours, "from morning till evening." This was Paul's final opportunity to present the claims of Israel's Messiah to the final outpost of the Jewish dispersion, and it was Israel's final opportunity to hear it.
"But we desire to hear of thee what you think: for as concerning this sect, it is known to us that everywhere it is spoken against.
'Go thou unto this people, and say, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive:
For this peoples heart is waxed gross,
And their ears are dull of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed;
Lest, haply they should perceive with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart,
And should turn again, And I should heal them.'
"Be it known therefore unto you, that this salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles: they will also hear.
10. The preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom as set out in the "great commission," (Mat. 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-18), had included the same signs of authentication which had convinced John the Baptist that the Lord Jesus was the Anointed One, the Messiah.
"But John, having heard in the prison the works of the Christ, sent by his disciples,
Just as the Lord was in effect telling John; 'Open your eyes John! What do you see? Do you not see the mighty works that I performed which are the physical signs meant to identify the Messiah?' So too, the Nation Israel should have recognized these mighty works as proving that the Lord Jesus was the Divine Messiah. They were the same signs promised in the "great commission" to the apostles and to all who would believe the Gospel of the Kingdom:
"And he said to them, Go into all the world, and preach the glad tidings to all the creation.
With the final blinding of Israel, however, all mention of the physical signs of the earthly kingdom would necessarily cease (tongues, healing, immunity to poison and snake bite, miraculous powers, etc.). All these signs and wonders once had to do with authenticating to Israel the messengers of the kingdom blessing which was now in abeyance. (Contrast 1 Cor. 12:28 with Eph. 4:11, particularly noting that in Ephesians there is a complete absence of the special sign gifts that pertain to Israel, the particular Nation that requires a sign).
But, now that Israel at Jerusalem and throughout the world has abdicated their spiritual birthright, and flatly rejected their Messiah (Acts 28:28), and now that the Divine judgment of blindness has fallen upon that Nation, we must now ask the following questions:
The kingdom in abeyance
11. After the blinding of Israel at Acts 28:28, individual Jews and individual Gentiles continued to be saved in spite of national Israel's unbelief. Israel's blinded eyes, deaf ears and hardened heart coincided with God's prophetic program being placed on hold and all features of the "mystery" previously hidden in God would now be revealed in all their fullness. As part of this new program, the Jew was no longer "first," as had been the case during their previous covenantal relationship with God. The Holy Spirit, through Paul, revealed new non-prophesied blessings for all believers (whether Gentile or Jew, without any national distinction or superiority. This new sphere of blessing was not a millennial blessing on earth, but spiritual blessings "in the heavenlies," plus blessings completely unknown in the prophetic writings, or in the gospels, or even in the entire book of Acts.
After the final blinding of Israel at Acts 28:28, Luke's historical record of the Acts closes without specifying a doctrinal basis for the message that would follow Israel's spiritual demise. The unfolding of this new revelation is left to the letters written from prison by the apostle Paul (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus). Therein are contained the doctrinal basis for our spiritual blessing following the suspension of Israel's New Covenant. It is thankfully true that many of the precious foundational truths of the New Covenant also appear in those prison epistles, such as the truth of redemption by the precious blood of Christ. But some features are missing, such as physical signs and wonders. These physical manifestations are replaced by spiritual blessings not previously revealed in that prophesied covenant. In summary, rather than lose blessings, believers previously saved under the New Covenant have moved upward, and have gained blessings beyond measure. To God be the glory!
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But, was there more than one Church?
For thoughts on this question please read the article
The Birthday of the Church, When was it?
And, of which 'church' are we members today?'
Also be sure to read our article entitled
Miracles, Signs and Wonders of the Great Commission
The above paper presents a graphical bar-chart display
of the 65 times the various miraculous signs and wonders
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