by Pastor Santiago Chua (Pastor Chua is President of the Open Bible Fellowship of The Philippines)
The greatest question for a serious student of the Scriptures is to determine from among the many prevailing views, the historical beginning of the Church for us today. There are those who hold that the Church for today began historically at Pentecost, Acts 2, while some, called Mid-Acts Dispensationalists, believe that the Church began when the Apostle Paul was called. They also believe that the teachings for the Church are to be found in all 14 of Paul’s epistles. In other words, all one has to do to know about God’s instructions for the Church today is to carefully study all the epistles of Paul. These are Galatians, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy.
Those who hold the view that the Church historically began at Pentecost, say that the Book of Acts is the story book of early Christianity, and God has given us the Book of Acts as the PATTERN of Christian testimony, missionary effort etc., a pattern which we do well to follow. So what message then shall we preach? Shall we call men ‘to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins’ and offer them Messiah’s return and the establishment of the Kingdom, as Peter did in Acts 2:8; 3:19–21? Or shall we proclaim the economic program presented in Acts 2 and 4 and have all things common? Again, if we should use Acts as a pattern, can we faithfully carry it out as to miracles and healings, and could we expect Divine intervention like the Apostles did? All of those who believe that Pentecost is the beginning of the Church, should claim to possess the signs and gifts, yet the evidence is not very convincing.
Coming to the Mid-Acts Dispensationalists, we must distinguish between two groups. One group believes that the Church for today historically began at Acts 9 when the Apostle Paul was converted, while the other group believes that the Church began at Acts 13, when Paul was sent on his first missionary journey. Before we can thoroughly refute all their claims, let us first consider some of the givens regarding the position of the Mid-Acts groups.
Both groups agree that the hope of the Church is the so-called Rapture, 1 Thessalonians 4; that all believers shall be in Heaven; that the Church is different from Israel, for Israel’s hope is an earthly Kingdom to be established during the second coming of the Lord; that Israel was set aside at either Acts 9 or 13; and that all the epistles of Paul are the true instructions for today. They also agree that Paul’s epistles are divided into the pre-prison epistles: Galatians, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans; and the prison epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy. If we carefully consider the relationship of the letters of Paul to the history of Acts, we can see that the pre-prison epistles were written during the Acts period, while the prison epistles were written after the close of the Book of Acts.
Let us now look at the validity of the claims of the Mid-Acts brethren. Firstly, the hope of the Church which is the so-called rapture, 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. They claim that when this particular event happens, members of the Church for today would then be taken to Heaven by the Lord. However, a key word occurs in verse 17. This word in the Greek is apantesis and is translated ‘to meet’, and it is used only four times in the whole Bible. These occurrences are Matthew 25:1,6, Acts 28:15, and 1 Thessalonians 4:17. In the three references apart from 1 Thessalonians 4, a clear direction is shown. The people who came out to meet someone are seen returning to wherever they came from. Applying this rule to 1 Thessalonians 4:17, we only have to ask ourselves, ‘who meets whom’, and we will be able to determine where these people went after the meeting in the air.
Mid-Acts people claim that after the meeting in the air, the Lord will take the believers who were raised, and those who remained, to Heaven. This can only be true if the one who meets the believers is the Lord. But by carefully reading the verse, we will see that it says ‘then we… shall be caught up… to meet the Lord’ in the air. In other words, it is the believers who will meet the Lord, and after the meeting, shall accompany the Lord to the earth, where He will establish the promised Kingdom here on earth at His second coming, also called the ‘the Day of the Lord’. Because the believers who meet the Lord came from the earth, their hope therefore is an earthly one, not heavenly.
This is also the idea of Galatians 3:7,9,29; 4:24–26. It is very clear that believers of Galatia, saved during the Acts period, were promised ‘that they will be blessed WITH FAITHFUL ABRAHAM (Galatians 3:9) and are heirs according to the promise, verse 29. These references are all saying that where Abraham will be, they will be there also, and will be heirs also of the same promise given to Abraham. We know that Abraham will not be in Heaven, but in the earthly Kingdom, thus the Galatian believers will be there with him, not in Heaven as claimed by the Mid-Acts brethren.
The covenants, both old and new, are for the people of Judah and Israel – Jeremiah 31:31–34; Hebrews 8:8–12. During the Acts period, the New Covenant, or Testament, is the program that is being implemented by God through the apostles, including Paul, 2 Corinthians 3:6, showing to us that the early ministry of Paul and the pre-prison epistles that he wrote, are related to the administration of the New Covenant made solely with the House of Judah and the House of Israel. This is not for the Church for today.
All the contents of the Book of Hebrews are definitely related to Israel, particularly to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood, the Law of Moses and the New Covenant, the animal sacrifices – which are contrasted to the One Sacrifice of Christ and the ministries of angels. All these things are saying that the Book of Hebrews is truly Jewish in purpose and teaching.
Romans is the last book written by Paul during the Acts period. The ministry presented here is Jew first, then the Greeks, which means that if the message presented to the Jewish synagogues was rejected, then Paul would go to the Gentiles. The reason for turning to the Gentiles was only to provoke Israel to jealousy, Romans 1:16; 11:11,14. This shows that during the Acts period, the Jewish nation had not yet been set aside, for the very reason that they are still being ‘provoked to jealousy’. You cannot provoke someone to jealousy, if that someone is already absent.
Consistently during the Acts period, the people of Israel, its miraculous endowments, Acts 2:1–4; 9:36–41; 19:11,12; 28:3–9, and its hope, Acts 1:6; 26:6,7; 28:20, were all still the object of the ministry of the twelve Apostles, and also that of the Apostle Paul. This is proof that during the whole period of Acts, from the opening of the book right up to the end, the hope of Israel is still there until finally God sets them aside at Acts 28:28. From that point on, the salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles apart from Israel.
It was then, after the pronouncement of Acts 28:28, that God saw fit to give unto the Apostle Paul a new set of revelations regarding ‘the Mystery’, Ephesians 3:3,9, which was kept secret since the beginning of the world. The Hope of this secret is in ‘heavenly places’, Ephesians 1:3, and its citizenship is in Heaven, Philippians 3:20. It must also be noted that this revelation was given ONLY to the Apostle Paul, Ephesians 3:1–9.
If we truly desire to know God’s instructions for the Church which is His Body, then we have to take and study diligently the prison epistles written by Paul, the epistles written after the close of the Book of Acts. Indeed, to be approved of God today, we must take heed of what 2 Timothy 2:15 is saying – ‘rightly divide the Word of Truth’ – in order that we may distinguish the things that differ and see clearly God’s Dispensation of the Mystery revealed to and through the Apostle Paul alone.
If we rightly divide the pre-prison epistles of Paul from his prison epistles, then and only then, can we truly appreciate the joy of understanding His gracious will for today. I know, because I was once a member of the Mid-Acts groups, not only as a believer, but as a pastor for eleven years. Throughout all those years, I thought our position was indeed the right one, until I was bothered by Galatians 3:7–9, where it is clearly stated that ‘they which be of faith, shall be blessed WITH FAITHFUL ABRAHAM’. Once again, if we only open our eyes, we shall see that this is saying that where Abraham will be, those believers of that time will be there with him. We know also that in Genesis 12, God promised Abraham a piece of land, commonly called ‘the Promised Land’ in theology. This is where the Kingdom promised to them, and also during David’s lifetime, is going to be established, II Samuel 7.
Indeed, if we can only forget all that we have been taught, and consider what the rightly-divided Word teaches about the contents of the pre-prison epistle of Paul as they relate to God’s program for His chosen nation, the people of Israel, then we will see the removal of seeming contradictions in the Scriptures, and allow the real purpose and teaching of God for today in Paul’s prison epistles to show through. It is in these epistles that we find the REAL PATTERN for the ministry of the Church which is His Body, Ephesians 1:22,23, whose sphere of blessing is in the Heavenlies, Ephesians 1:3, to the praise and glory of His grace.
The hope of Israel is now in abeyance, and it will stay that way until the end of the Dispensation of the Mystery, which end is the appearing or manifestation in glory of the members of the Body of Christ, the Church for today, Colossians 3:4.
This article is written with the prayer that those who are at present in the same condition as I was before, may be enlightened to see the beauty of the new revelation as given to the Apostle Paul and contained in the seven prison epistles. My prayers for you are like those of Paul in Ephesians 1:17– 19, and also that you will continue on to rejoice in the riches of His grace now and in the ages to come, Ephesians 2:7 and 1:7.
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This article was originally published in Spiritual Blessings Magazine as part of the ‘Dispensational Basics’ series.