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STRUCTURE OF THE BIBLE: PAUL’S CHURCH EPISTLES

The Structure of the Bible:  Paul’s Church Epistles

by Philip Tomlinson

Introduction

Before the death of the Saviour the status of the Jews was particularly distinctive. They were God’s specially chosen ‘test-case’ people. The Lord, while on earth identified and confirmed Jewish importance. Matthew records, “These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” ( Matthew 10:5-7).

After His sacrificial death, Israel was offered this same priority: in spite of slaying the Prince of Life, the Saviour while on the cross said,“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke23:34). Israel’s continuing priority is accordingly recorded by Luke in Acts: “Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only” (Acts 11:19). Well on into the book of Acts, Luke further records, that Paul while on his Gentile outreach, alluded to this Jewish priority saying that he was “testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). In the apostle Paul’s six early epistles, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Corinthaians, Galatians and Romans, written in the time period covered by the history given in the book of Acts, this distinction between Jew and Gentile is clearly retained.

Peter, following John the Baptist, preached a gospel calling for water baptism and Israel’s national repentance. He came to understand that this gospel, offering the promised kingdom directly to Israel, could be extended to Gentiles. While ministering to the house of Cornelius, he spoke of “The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: (he is Lord of all:) That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached” (Acts 10:36,37). Later, Paul explained how, “the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter” (Galatians 2:7). Although Paul preached the gospel of the uncircumcision on his Gentile mission, he offered salvation to all individuals, whether Jews or Gentiles. Luke records further, how Paul recognised the Jewish priority and “reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks” (Acts 18:4).

 The Jews retained an advantaged place until as late as about 57 – 58 AD, when Paul wrote, “Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law” (Romans 2:17,18). Paul explained that their advantage lay in their guardianship of the scriptures. He wrote, “What profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1,2). Paul was not writing philosophically about a Jewish advantage but stating a fact. In Acts and in Paul’s early epistles, although Jewish believers now had uncircumcised Gentile believers equally ranked with them, the two distinct classes, the Jews and the Gentiles, remained firmly in place.

The Continued Distinction between Jews and Gentiles

 Historically, Gentiles seeking earthly blessing became Jewish proselytes, necessarily under the curse of the law. By human energy referred to in scripture “after the flesh” they followed the law. At Calvary, such human energy was finally proved a failure and God “condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). Thus Paul writes, Henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more” (II Corinthians 5:16). Paul taught, for example in Romans, chapter 6, the truth that his later ‘Prison Epistles’ echo today, that we reckon ourselves co-dead, co-buried and co-raised with Christ, free from the curse of the law and under grace but throughout the Acts period this condemnation of the flesh did not remove the distinction between Jews and Gentiles.

Paul’s Six Early Epistles were Based on Old Testament Scripture

Although it is generally understood that those addressed in Paul’s six early epistles were largely Gentiles, Paul constantly quoted the relevance to them, in their association with Israel, of the Jewish scriptures. Paul’s testimony in the Acts runs in parallel with this. Even at the end of Acts Paul said, “I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets, and Moses did say should come: That Christ should suffer, and that He should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people (i.e. Israel), and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22).

The Gentiles Participated in Israel’s Spiritual Things

The early Gentile believers depended on Israel for their blessings. Noah had said, “God shall enlarge Japheth, (i.e. Gentiles) and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem (Israel’s line)” (Genesis 9:27). Accordingly Paul taught them that they took part, not in a ‘Gentile-oriented’ religion but in Israel’s spiritual place on earth. John the Baptist with water baptism, had ‘earthly’ truth. The Lord teachings also related to Israel’s place on earth. When He “shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), He was referring to physical things on earth. Further teachings in Israel are also detailed in the book of Hebrews.

The early Gentile believers were equally ranked with Israel but to acknowledge Israel as the source of their blessings, these Gentiles had a duty to support the believers in Israel’s leading city, Jerusalem. It is said in Romans, “For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their (i.e. Israel’s) spiritual things, their (i.e. the Gentiles’) duty is also to minister unto them (i.e. Israel) in carnal things” (Romans 15:27). In Corinth too, as Paul had ordered in Galatia, Sunday church collections were taken up. Paul writes, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem” (I Corinthians16:1-3). Paul may have explained how, in the Old Testament, “Jehoiada the priest took a chest, and bored a hole in the lid of it, and set it beside the altar … and the priests that kept the door put therein all the money that was brought into the house of the Lord” (II Kings 12:9). What is important about these collections was that the Gentiles were to acknowledge Israel as the source of their spiritual heritage. This does not discount their compassion for those in poverty but compassion in itself, does not fully explain the reason for these collections.

Ordinances

In the early epistles, Corinth was praised for keeping ordinances. Paul writes, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you” (I Corinthians 11:2). From the context of Paul’s praise, he had in mind their regulating ordinances, their collective order, in particular the way they kept the Lord’s supper. He may have had in mind too, other rituals mentioned in Hebrews, such as “baptisms and of laying on of hands” (Hebrews 6:2).

He wrote similarly to Thessalonica about ordinances, saying, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (II Thessalonians 2:15). This word “traditions” is the same Greek word “paradosis”, translated “ordinances” in I Corinthians 11:2.

The word “ordinances” is of course a general word and has different meanings in different contexts. Obviously Paul was not talking about keeping the pedantry of Israel’s old religion, described as the “handwriting of ordinances” (Colossians 2:14) now blotted out at the cross! Paul also talked about individual everyday living and gave many guidelines or ‘ordinances’, such as, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (II Thessalonians 3:6). This word “tradition” is this same Greek word ‘paradosis’ but here it refers to a well defined everyday individual way of life, not to the ordinances related to collective order.

The Gifts of the Spirit

In the period of the Acts, mentioned for example in Acts 2 and I Corinthians 12, are the gifts of the Spirit, tongues, miracle working, healing, prophesying, discerning spirits, the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, etc. These charismatic gifts were a feature of the work of the Spirit on earth. The Jewish kingdom-seeking early church at that time is not the same church that is His body, “hid from ages and from generations” (Colossians 1:26). Churches differ. “The church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38), for example, was Israelites ‘called out’ from Egypt and also “a mixed multitude went up also with them” (Exodus 12:38).  Charismatic activity designates a connection the early Gentile believers had with Israel.

Israel’s New Covenant

The future new covenant is defined in the book of Hebrews, “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Hebrews 8:8), and again another link with Israel is confirmed by Paul. The new covenant (testament) is to replace the old covenant. It is a covenant secured by blood, as the Lord mentions at His last supper in three of the Gospels and as Paul mentioned in his first letter to Corinth, having received confirmatory explanation in an early revelation. The Lord’s supper is inexorably linked to Israel’s new covenant.

Paul explains in his second letter to Corinth that he is a minister of the blessedness of this future new covenant, identifying himself with “able ministers of the new testament” (II Corinthians 3:6). The Gentiles in Paul’s early epistles, in participating in Israel’s spiritual things, were taught the blessings in what was to be their future new covenant.

What was Israel’s Position During this Early Period?

In Paul’s perhaps final early epistle, the olive tree, Israel, was damaged but the emblematic stock could take a Gentile graft: “some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree …” (Romans 11:17). The Gentile acquisition of Israel’s spiritual things – their “root and fatness” – in the time Paul wrote his early epistles clearly shows that Israel was not yet divorced as a nation. The book of Acts can be misread. When it is said, “Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts13:46), it does not mean that the nation was rejected. Similarly, when Paul was told that Jews in Jerusalem, “will not receive thy testimony … I will send thee far from here unto the Gentiles” (Acts 22:18-21), it does not mean the nation was rejected. Some Jews were unworthy but God had not yet rejected the nation. In the early epistles we read, “For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:15) but this “casting away” was Israel’s “blindness in part” (Romans 11:25).

Paul’s epistles unfold doctrine. We could seek the point in the history in Acts, when Israel was rejected and ‘the church of today’ began but I find a better research rationale is to trace the doctrines Paul taught in his epistles to see what he taught and when. The history in the Acts must, of course, be in harmony with Paul’s early epistles but above all, doctrine must explain history, not history explain doctrine.

Abraham The Father of Many Nations

Abraham was appointed the father of many nations: “Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee”, (Genesis 17:5). Paul taught us that Abraham’s faith made him the father of us all: “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all” (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations … ) (Romans 4:16-17). His fatherhood was established for more than our personal salvation, for Abraham, “believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations; according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be” (Romans 11:18).

The Millennial Reign of Christ

The millennial reign of Christ, is often described in Matthew as “the kingdom of heaven” and elsewhere it is described as “the kingdom of God”, a term also used for the simplicity of the divine reign over the human heart. This millennial reign is repeatedly alluded to in the Gospels, the Acts and Paul’s early epistles. It is an earthly kingdom, the future calling of Israel and in turn the Gentiles who share Israel’s blessings. The fullness of this future kingdom looks ahead to its focal point in the new Jerusalem, “the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26), implying that the believers then were the children of that kingdom. Such references to the kingdom and the new Jerusalem, reflect the Gentiles in association with Israel. The new Jerusalem is also mentioned in the Revelation, relocated in the new heaven and new earth: “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2), the “coming down” implying coming down to earth.

The Consistency in the Teachings of the Early Epistles

We pause to clarify that to Thessalonica, Corinth, Galatia and Rome, the apostle Paul provided the same teachings. He explained this to Corinth, saying, “I sent unto you Timotheus … who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church” (I Corinthians 4:17). In the early epistles, a teaching for one church was the same for all four churches.  Seeking to study the history of the individual geographic places, may seem a noble aspiration but it detracts from the consistency Paul sharply spotlights when he explains, “my ways which be in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church”. Secular history is not a part of the written Word. Scripture guides us to compare “spiritual things with spiritual” (I Corinthians 2:13), rather than spiritual things with secular.

The Bride of Christ

Paul says, “for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (II Corinthians 11:2). Because in the early epistles, Paul’s “ways in Christ” were taught consistently “everywhere in every church”, those referred to in Thessalonica, Corinth, Galatia and Rome, were this same chaste virgin. As the Gentiles of the early epistles were grafted into Israel, the chaste virgin of the second book of Corinthians is effectively identified with the believing part of Israel and thus in Paul’s similie, the future bride of Christ. This is consistent with the ‘Old Testament’ scriptures that with the same similie, describe Israel as the unfaithful wife of Jehovah, “Surely as a wife treacherously departeth from her husband, so have ye dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, saith the Lord“ (Jeremiah 3:20).

The Emerging Picture

Although many topics are still to be discussed, we pause at this point to observe the emerging picture. The Gentiles of the early epistles had spiritual blessings through their association with Israel. As a wild olive tree grafted into Israel they were an intrinsic part of Israel. They acknowledged the priority held by Israel. They supported Sunday church collections to help Israel. They learned from the scriptures that belonged to Israel. They learned about the meaning of a baptism peculiar to Israel. They kept the supper linked with Israel’s passover. They acknowledged Abraham’s fatherhood of many nations along with Israel. They recognised they were the children of promise, viewing the new Jerusalem as “the mother of us all” as Israel did. They were heirs to the world, an inherited right in Israel and identified with this heirship, as Israel did. They learned the kingdom truth of Israel and shared the hope for this future with Israel. They learned of the benefits found in the future new covenant promised Israel and they anticipated their bridal role as a part of believing Israel.

The Gentiles heard of Paul’s wish for Israel’s salvation. Their blessings as part of the expected kingdom on earth, depended on God’s recognition of Israel. They had the gifts of the Spirit heavily aligned with early manifestations in the kingdom church of the remnant of Israel. Through the “gospel of the uncircumcision”, they had become, not proselytes (who were circumcised) but ‘uncircumcised Gentiles’, grafted on an equal footing as a branch of Israel. In short, while awaiting Israel’s kingdom, they shared the same new earthly religion as believing Israel. Clearly, Israel was not rejected in the Acts period, when Paul’s early epistles were being written. The Gentiles were a “branch” engrafted into Israel.

The “Body” in The New Testament

Apart from metaphorical applications, there are over a dozen dictionary definitions for the word “body”. The word is used to describe believers collectively, at different times and in different ways. Some dispensationalists claim there are two physical “bodies” of believers, “one body” in the early epistles and “the church which is His body” in the later epistles. Is this the way the scripture is intended to be read?

In the early epistles the possession of different gifts caused considerable disunity. Paul wrote in Romans, “so we, being many, are one body in Christ …” (Romans 12:5) and in I Corinthians, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” (I Corinthians 12:12), describing the unity of equally ranked Jews and Gentiles. The metaphor here, using the word “body”, focuses on a principle of oneness rather than on a unit of people.

In the Prison Epistles, speaking of Christ, Paul says, “And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23), is a metaphor focusing on His Headship. In the early epistles is it not said that Christ is Head of “the one body”, so we cannot assume it. The metaphor here in the Prison Epistles, using the word “body”, is a description of unified believers in their relationship to Christ as their Head.

The word “body” is a general word. The word “church” is also a general word meaning simply ‘called out’. Earlier we contrasted “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38), with the New Testament churches. Just as the word “church” is used to describe different people, divinely ‘called out’ for different purposes at different times, in a similar way, the word “body” is used metaphorically to describe New Testament believers in different ways at different times. Timothy, for example, did not belong to two distinct physical ‘bodies’ of believers!

The Birth of an Entirely New Era

More than a metaphoric description had changed! Paul, in his final seven books, completed the Bible. In Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians he established God’s final direct collective word to us [1]. He said, Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil [2] the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints” (Colossians 1:25-26). These three books are not built on and backed by the Old Testament. Hardly any scripture is quoted in them! Paul had new revelations from heaven. A totally different and massive change had occurred as God unfolded and completed His Word. An entirely new era was born. Unlike previous revelations, the new revelations were incongruent with what Paul had earlier taught about the position of Israel. He used a strange word to describe what he had written: The word he chose was “Mystery”! Peter later said that what Paul had taught was hard to be understood” (II Peter 3:16). Many today find the necessary unlearning of some of Paul’s early teachings creates this exact same difficulty! It is easier to learn by ‘adding on a bit more’, much harder to learn by ‘changing ground and unlearning’.

Mysteries Abound in Scripture!

The Lord privately unfolded to His disciples “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11) and Paul and John expounded many mysteries too. Paul wrote, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:1). Here are some examples:

* Paul called the development of evil “the mystery of iniquity” (II Thessalonians 2:7).

* John called one particular type of religious evil “Mystery, Babylon the Great” (Revelation 17:5).

* Paul told of “a mystery … hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world” (I Corinthians 2:7).

* Marriage in which two become one flesh, Paul described as “a great mystery” (Ephesians 5:32).

* Paul spoke of the death and resurrection of Christ as a mystery: “by revelation He made known … the mystery of Christ … in other ages … not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets (that is to say, those given to the church) by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:4-5).

* Paul called his own gospel a mystery. “Now to Him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets (i.e. of the Old Testament), according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:25-26), clarifying that his gospel was annexed to the Old Testament.

The Mystery Peculiar to the Prison Epistles, Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians

The mystery of Christ was uncovered to the apostles and prophets of the early church. Paul’s own gospel had a comparable level of secrecy. It too was accessible by assiduous Old Testament study. These two mysteries are often confused with another far more deeply hidden mystery. In Ephesians Paul wrote of this massively new mystery, not hidden in and not congruent with, Old Testament scriptures! This new mystery had a very deeply defined level of secrecy. It was not the Gentiles engrafted in an equal ranking into the olive tree but that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs” (Ephesians 3:6) in their own right. This was a totally unwritten hidden secret, hid in God” (Ephesians 3:9) and revealed only to Paul.

Having established that the Gentiles are now fellow-heirs in their own right, it is not surprising that in Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians, Paul does not mention Abraham at all. This silence on Abraham’s fatherhood of the nations, is not offered as a proof but as a consequence of Israel’s divorcement. It is significant that Abraham is mentioned nine times in Romans, nine times in Galatians, once in Paul’s second letter to Corinth and eight times in the Acts but not mentioned anywhere in Paul’s Prison Epistles.

Our place with God does not depend on a link with a covenant, as in Paul’s early epistles.  We are the subject of a new and deeply hidden mystery. God sees us, not under a covenant or looking forward to a new covenant but under the Headship of Christ, as “the church, which is His body” (Ephesians 1:22-23).

In the Prison Epistles, we are thus an organism with His unique life, holding the character of the physical flesh and bones of the risen Christ Himself. This is simply and succinctly said: “For we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones” (Ephesians 5:30). In the Prison Epistles we are not grafted into the olive tree as part of Israel but instead are said to be, metaphorically speaking, His own Body. The once good olive tree is no longer good, offering nothing from its dead stump!

The New Position of Israel

Effectively speaking, Jews today are Gentiles. The new place of testimony taken either by Israelites or Gentiles, is marked out solely by His preeminence. It is not which nations have an identified status on earth that matters but to Whom we all belong. Meanwhile, for two millennia, although God has carefully cared for Israel physically, he regards Israel as no more privileged before Him than any other nation.

This was a shock announcement! The Jewish advantage has disappeared! The advantaged Jew no longer exists. It was not just a release from the curse of the law. That had already been taught. It was not just the grace that enabled Gentile blessing. That had already been poured out. It is not just the equal ranking of Jews and Gentiles as in the early epistles but the total removal of any trace of any national distinction.

What is new in the Prison Epistles, is not the dispensing of grace to the Gentiles but the ground on which God dispenses it. The testimony has changed from Israel and the chaste virgin to the church which is His body.

 Is This New Testimony That of the “One New Man” of Ephesians 2?

It is easy to inadvertently read into the Prison Epistles that the One New Man of Ephesians 2 is the new vehicle of testimony. I did this until gaining a clear understanding of this second chapter of Ephesians.

In Ephesians 2, Paul refers back to our earlier life as unbelievers, our times past … in the lusts of our flesh” (Ephesians 2:2-3). In this chapter Paul also returns to a more recent “time past” (Ephesians 2:11), this time not to our old life as unbelievers but to the cross where salvation was wrought. In these sections of Ephesians 2 Paul is not writing about the dispensation heralded by the Prison Epistles but about our life before the cross and our salvation heralded by the cross. He is looking back on the Acts period when, “by the cross”, the Gentiles were grafted into the good olive tree and placed on an equal footing with the Jews. Paul says, “For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in Himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that He might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby (Ephesians 2:14-16). Using the wording “by the cross”, Paul is explaining the work of salvation. In reflecting on the truth of our collective salvation, he uses the metaphor of the oneness of the equally ranked Jews and Gentiles, the “one new man”. He speaks to us collectively using the same wording and the same gender that he uses when speaking to us individually when he said, “And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). There is a consistency in the way Paul writes.

After Christ died and rose again, the kingdom on earth was expected and in writing to the Corinthians Paul used an appropriate dispensational similie, that of the chaste virgin, the future bride of Christ. Again, there is consistency in the way Paul writes. Some say that one new man being also the chaste virgin creates gender confusion but similies and metaphors are not subject to the laws of grammar that require proper gender. When talking of future kingdom expectations, as we discussed earlier on, Paul chose in his similie in Corinthians, the appropriate gender for the future bride of Christ.

God’s Earthly Constructions

Abraham looked for “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10) and in Galatians we read of the outcome of this search, “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26), the free-dom being in Israel’s new covenant. Paul wrote to the chaste virgin, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise” (Galatians 4:28). No such thought appears in the Prison Epistles. We have no interest in big buildings or great cities, with or without foundations, built or not built by God.

The Fitly Framed Building

In his early epistles, Paul’s heart’s desire was that Israel, the olive tree, could be saved: the earthly  blessing poured on these early Gentiles was linked with and in fact depended upon Israel’s salvation. Paul said, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved” (Romans10:1). In Paul’s early epistles, the Gentiles provoked Israel to jealousy and salvation: we read, “through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy” (Romans 11:11).

In the Prison Epistles, we are no longer grafted into and especially ‘need’ this ‘olive tree’. No further ‘church collections for Israel[3] are ordered. Jews and Gentiles no longer have their background identified.

Now, the church which is His body is not linked to Israel because God no longer seeks to uphold His testimony through one particular nation. We no longer cherish the desire and hope that Paul once justifiably held to see His testimony upheld in a nationally restored Israel.

Whatever our background nationality, complete compatibly prevails in this divinely built collective testimony: “In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21). The picture of a fitly framed growing holy temple in the Lord is quite different from that painted in the early epistles where the uncircumcised Gentiles drew spiritual benefits from Israel.

Our benefits are drawn directly from Christ. Paul writes, “And He is the Head[4] of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the Firstborn from the dead; that in all things He might have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:18). Paul writes, saying of Christ, “And hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the church, Which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:22,23). Only in the Prison Epistles is Christ viewed as the Head of the body! Christ is not said to be the Head of the body in Paul’s six early epistles.

While it would be wonderful to see the nation of Israel rebuilt and restored, meantime, God extends the knowledge of His mystery to all men equally and individually.  Paul tells out his desire “to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men[5] see what is the fellowship of  the Mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God” (Ephesians 3:8-9). What was offered to the nation of Israel, through their blindness has been transferred to all men.

The Resurrection

It is said in the book of Matthew, referring to the future regathering of Israel, how their resurrection hope will be fulfilled.“Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:29-31).

Paul confirmed this identifying trumpet blast in his early epistles, writing to Thessalonica, “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:16-17). This hope was also explained in a similar way when Paul wrote to Corinth saying, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (I Corinthians 15:52).

In Paul’s early epistles, the Gentiles who shared Israel’s resurrection hope, were inexorably identified with and part of Israel itself. As Israel must pass through the seven years of immense trouble soon to be seen on this sad earth, the resurrection described here to the chaste virgin, can only logically fit in after the tribulation through which Israel must first pass and at the time of the regathering of Israel.

In the early epistles then, Christ meets His bride not in the heavens but in clouds above the earth,  showing a distinct connection with the earth and in turn in connection with Israel. The notion of resurrection however, in itself, is not peculiar to Israel. It runs throughout the entire course of scripture. We, the church of this age, will also be resurrected, as will Job, who in the very earliest of times said, “And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:26).

Resurrection in the Prison Epistles

In Paul’s Prison Epistles the word “resurrection” is seldom used: resurrection is instead typically described by the word “appearing”, the appearing of Christ. It presents resurrection not in connection with the earth from which those who have died will be resurrected but in heavenly language, speaking of the glory into which we will also appear! Paul said, “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). Paul also said, “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

Whether we are dead or alive makes no difference if we are to meet Him who Himself “is our life”! While it is said, “We shall also reign with Him” (II Timothy 2:12), we look forward to His appearing, being with Him whom we love – not to our importance amid His glory, reigning over the earth.

Paul writing a later letter to Titus, refers to His “appearing” as “blessed”. He writes, “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

The Testimony Today

It is sometimes said that from the early epistles through to his later epistles, Paul received a ‘progressive series’ of revelations gradually changing his viewpoint. I believe this is fundamentally incorrect. In his early epistles, as has been fully explained earlier, Paul ensured the same teachings were taught in every church. There are no indications of any gradual changes. In his early epistles, with consistency, Paul paints distinct pictures that connect with earthly blessing. He uses the similie of a chaste virgin, the bride of Christ. He uses a metaphor to describe the ‘one body’ of united and equally ranked Jews and Gentiles. In these early epistles there is not one mention of “the church which is His body”, the new and distinct metaphoric term used for the believers in the Prison Epistles. The time of this change is the rejection of the national testimony through Israel that occurred at the end of Acts.

In the Prison Epistles, the dispensing of truth today has been handed over to the church which is His body.  To this church Paul said of the risen Christ that, “He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12). Instead of being supported through the gifts of the Spirit, God has provided the church, His body, now, with the support of gifted men.

The focus has changed from the Spirit acting on earth, a characteristic of the gifts in the early epistles and the book of Acts, to the support of gifted men, seated with us in heavenly places with Christ. We are not ‘missing’ anything by not desiring the gifts of the Spirit because the focus has now moved to the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8) and if this is the level of knowledge that we have, with gifted men to support us, we have no further need. God does not accord any distinctive rank to the gifted men seated with us “in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” but He values their work “edifying the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). This phrase, “gifted men”, although gender specific and generally indicative of divine order, in these times of appalling rebellion and declension, does not discount the substitutionary good work women do. It was in such abysmal times, in an amazing testimony, that we read, “Then sang Deborah (i.e. a woman leader) and Barak the son of Abinoam” (Judges 5:1).

What is Our New Life Now?

The focus in the church which is His body, in which Christ is the Head, is on Christ Himself. God does not place emphasis on what we do in heavenly places but on the excellence of the place He has given us. We are shown collectively, here and now, our highest God-given place, above any administrative ranking, above all heaven’s glory, at His own right hand in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6), under the Headship of Christ Himself. Our new life is by faith seated (established) in heavenly places with Christ our Head. Our whole life is with Him there and all that we hope for is there. Christ serves and supports us there, our affections express themselves there, our inheritance is there, a crown belonging to Him whom we love is there and the kingdom of His dear Son is there. As His kingdom is there, it is His pleasure to have us with Him there. Even our sphere of warfare and our destination is there. Full details of our life are given to us in Paul’s Prison Epistles. Our life now is free from earthly-oriented religious direction and free from even concern as to who governs or who wants global control. We do not need to campaign or protest. Our core citizenship is not on earth. As the church which is His body, we relate to the heavenlies in which we are now seated.

All Scripture

Because Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians, specifically describe now the character of this major dispensation, it is not intended that we neglect other scripture! All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (II Timothy 3:16-17). All Paul’s epistles speak of the salvation that we so greatly value while his Prison Epistles fully show us our blessings, inheritance, hope, promises, riches, position and destination in this specific dispensation.

All scripture is profitable but not all scripture is applicable. We have no need to engage in water baptisms or seek baptismal experiences being “made to drink into one Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:13). Today, there is “one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) and it is divinely and silently accomplished. We do not need to cherish laying on of hands, as “when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). Such rituals ‘belong’ to an earlier dispensation, as does the celebration of the Lord’s supper. It is not needful to attend to such ordinances but for those who elect to do so, God looks on our hearts, not on how strongly we hold ‘right’ doctrines.

Our Conversation

All scripture is profitable but not all scripture promotes our conversation. In Paul’s early epistles, many earthly issues were discussed, vegetarianism, eating flesh, liquor, holy days and so on, urging believers of that period to fully believe ‘one way or the other’ in the personal ‘rulings’[6] they made for themselves. They had to carry the weak. We do not focus on talking over earthly things. Instead, weseek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).

Appendix A: Check List for Paul’s Epistles 

 

Early

Prison

 

Early

Prison

There is none righteous, no not one

Yes

Yes

Invited to the supper linked to the passover

Yes

No

Co-died, co-buried and co-risen with Christ

Yes

Yes

The new Jerusalem is the mother of us all

Yes

No

Believers oneness in a well unified “body”

Yes

Yes

Aspiring to provoke Israel to salvation

Yes

No

A distinction cast between Jew and  Gentile

Yes

No

Given the charismatic gifts of the Spirit

Yes

No

Strongly supported by the Old Testament

Yes

No

In a church edified by the gift of gifted men

No

Yes

Abraham the father of all nations

Yes

No

All spiritual blessings in the heavenlies

No

Yes

Grafted into the good Olive Tree

Yes

No

Freedom from any reference to covenants

No

Yes

Historically under the curse of the law

Yes

No

Given the unsearchable riches of Christ

No

Yes

Partaking in Israel’s spiritual things

Yes

No

Related to the Headship of Christ

No

Yes

Church collections taken to support Israel

Yes

No

There is only one baptism

No

Yes

Especially desirous of Israel’s salvation

Yes

No

Membership to His own physical “body”

No

Yes

Linked to Israel, the future bride of Christ

Yes

No

Engaged in warfare in heavenly places

No

Yes

Repeated reference to His “kingdom” reign

Yes

No

Having a destination in heavenly places

No

Yes

Appendix B: The Books of the Bible as a Whole

Throughout the Bible – a coherent and single volume – God has at different times addressed many different people in many different ways.[7] God has now finished speaking. Every part is important:  Grouping the 63 books[8] of the Bible in a rational way has been a life-long puzzle. Although 63 is 7 x 9, the 7 indicating completeness and the 9 indicating finality, many other patterns can be formed in many other ways[9]. From long years of thought, these few comments are offered for what they may be worth.

My first maxim is to discard the uninspired and confusing headings, “Old Testament” and “New Testament”.

The first five books of the Bible are clearly a group of five and so are the so called ‘Experience Books’ a similar group of five, Psalms, Job, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.

For the early history of Israel, there are six books, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles and adding in the three later restorative books, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther, gives us a group of nine books. Israel’s ‘history’ continues in the four Gospels, bringing the history total thus far to 13 books. An unlikely count? Is there a fourteenth history book? Yes, the book of Acts. Although this book recounts Paul’s Gentile outreach, it is based on Peter’s hope to see Israel’s promised kingdom[10] restored on earth.

So far then, we have 24 books in two distinct patterns, the two fives and the 14 more or less historical books. These could begin a possible ‘Old’ section of the Bible but do we really need an ‘Old’ section?

The prophetic scriptures, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel with the 12 minor prophets, total 17 books, again an unlikely count. Is there another book to make 18 books? Yes, a totally Jewish and prophetic book, Revelation, completes the set and as 9 is the number of finality, the 9 x 2 pattern fits well.

So far, in the Bible as a whole, adding the 18 prophetic books to the 24 books above we have 42 books, a 6 x 7 pattern.  This could be an ‘Old’ section of the Bible but again, do we need ‘Old’ and ‘New’ sections?

Paul wrote 14 epistles. His early epistles total six, the number of man. They were written to four churches, the number of earth. These two indicators match up with these notes on the wider kingdom church. Hebrews, of unstated authorship, is generally accepted as Paul’s work. Hebrews together with Paul’s six early epistles make a group of seven books. Paul, of course, also wrote seven later epistles.

The final seven books of the Bible neatly form a third ‘complete’ subsection. They were written by Peter (two letters), John (three letters), James (one letter) and Jude (one letter). James and I Peter are distinctly ‘kingdom’ books. The others are more general. All seven being non-Pauline stand together as a group.

Appendix C: Physical Healing Today?

Feebleness, weakness and sickness, is a simply huge topic of morbid conversation today. It gained church attention in Paul’s early epistles. In spite of the God-given gift of healing available at that time, Paul wrote to Corinth, “ … many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep”. (I Corinthians 11:30)

 In writing to this same church, Paul said of his own affliction, “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me” (II Corinthians 12:8) but I sense his unhealed affliction may reflect his humble placement receiving such massively important revelations and unparalleled apostolic authority.

Later, in contrast, in Paul’s Prison letters, the gift of healing was no longer mentioned and neither was sickness an on-going major feature of church concern. Individuals only, were in Paul’s passing spotlight. Paul mentions in I Timothy, that a little wine would support Timothy’s stomach weakness and in II Timothy, that Trophimus was too sick to travel. In Philippians, where a major need prevailed, Paul mentioned, almost in passing, that Epaphroditus was divinely healed of a terminal illness.

Yet later again, long after Paul wrote his Prison letters, Peter taught the 12 tribes scattered abroad of His healing work. He wrote of His scourging, “by whose stripes ye were healed” (I Peter 2:24) and I know many have exercised genuine faith to fully draw life-saving healing virtue from this later instruction.

Years ago, seeking doctrinal precision and pondering these scriptures, along with this verse in Peter in particular, I wondered if physical healing was ‘for the Jews only’ and if divinely given relief was no longer a defined expectation. I came to later understand that healing is a part of the work of salvation and because salvation is not a different truth for different dispensations, faith, simply because it is faith, can find healing virtue in His scourged body as Peter explained. That he was writing to Jews is irrelevant. The Saviour Himself clarified this question by saying to the Syrophoenician woman that, in seeking healing she was “not meet”, that is to say doctrinally ‘wrong’ but He added, O woman, great is thy faith and her daughter was at once made whole from that very hour. (Matthew:15:28). Responsive faith has always been the benchmark for salvation and although in different dispensations God has worked in different ways, it has never altered His willingness to respond to faith. Burning faith based on real need, I believe, overrides any disproportionate dispensational concerns.

Earnestly but artificially setting restrictive boundaries to enhance doctrinal precision is not faith in action. David of old, ate the holy shewbread that it was forbidden to eat. “So the priest gave him hallowed bread: for there was no bread there but the shewbread, that was taken from before the LORD, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away” (1 Samuel 21:6). The Lord confirmed David’s well placed judgment. “And Jesus answering them said, Have ye not read so much as this, what David did, when himself was an hungred, and they which were with him (Luke 6:3). Faith is the key unlocking this question. As with salvation, of which it is a part, healing virtue does not belong to dispensations but to the faith that owns it.

I believe that we can have well defined healing expectations. We know Him personally, being seated with Him, in heavenly places. “We are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Ephesians 5:30). I believe that so identified with Him, we can directly participate in the healing virtue of His perfect body described in its physical perfection. Was it simply on this ground, that Epaphroditus, although terminally ill, was fully cured and without need for any further comment by Paul on how this healing transpired?

Some say that because the gift of healing is no longer with us today in the same way that it was in the Acts period, that therefore we have ‘lost’ healing itself but this is not rational deduction. Throughout all ages, God’s grace has ever been His response to our need.

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[1]     Philemon is also a final church letter albeit primarily addressed to an individual.

[2]     In the Berean and Darby translations of the Bible, “fulfil” is rendered “complete”. I know of no substantial evidence for the popular view that John finalised the Word.

[3]      ‘Giving’ is now an individual exercise. Paul writes, “Neither give place to the devil. Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Ephesians 4:27-28). “Him that needeth” is an individual and he can be of any nationality, including, of course, Jewish.

[4]      The major identifiable feature of a body is the head. No other part is normally more definitively quickly recognised.

[5]     All men includes Israel but no more than any other nation. Israel no longer has any priority or special recognition.

[6]      Some rules were issued for all believing Gentiles in that early period. The then kingdom church leader, James, decreed, “trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20).

[7]     As examples, in the beginning God addressed man in innocence. In Cain’s world, God addressed man under a restless conscience. To Abraham, God addressed promises. To Israel, delivered from Egypt, God gave Moses the commandments that Israel then volunteered to keep, In the Gospels, Christ ministered to Israel.

[8]     In the original canon, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles are single volumes. This reduces the count from 66 to 63 books. The compelling argument that Nehemiah and Ezra were originally one book, I have meanwhile not assimilated.

[9]     F W Grant’s analysis of the 63 books in his work, “The Numerical Bible” (published about 1890), is a monumental treatise in Bible Numerics, built almost entirely on patterns of five. Part of his work I found excellent, much was helpful but part I believe is quite muddled by a discrepancy in fully understanding the Biblical dispensations.

[10]    The early church sold up all they had, sure Christ would return to reign. The justification for putting Acts in Israel’s history is found in the outstanding book, “Restoring the Kingdom – Studies in the book of Acts” by Fred Bachand.