The gradual unveiling of the church in the book of Acts
The book of Acts is a transitional book. By that we mean that Acts is the record of the transition from one dispensation (Law) to the next (Grace). Dispensationalists like to outline God’s program of the ages and to attempt to put time and history into neat little boxes. However, the events in the book of Acts indicate that the transition period in bringing about the church (a new dispensation) took some time and involved the progress of revelation. As helpful as dispensational charts are, some of the events in the book of Acts do not fit neatly in a chart.
Acts chapter two records the BIRTH of the church. The following chapters indicate however, that the historical events were unfolding faster than the divine unveiling of truth which explains the theological significance of what was happening. For example, Acts chapter two records the birth of the church, but not until Acts chapter nine do we see the conversion of the man chosen by God to REVEAL what the church is! Thus, the time during which the events in the book of Acts occur serves as a transition period.
On the one hand, God’s dealings with Israel were gradually winding down. Peter is the key figure in the first half of this book, as the apostle to the Jews. (Gal.2:8) Peter’s Pentecost message is addressed to “ye men of Israel” and has a distinctly Jewish flavor. The kingdom is still on their minds and hearts. (1:3,6; 2:14-21; 3:19-21) The disciples (first meeting in the Temple for worship – Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:25; etc.) gradually found themselves and their message less and less welcome in Jerusalem (ch.4-7). The kingdom is no longer offered. Soon the disciples take on a distinct name, Christians (Acts 11:26).
On the other hand, God’s dealings with the gentiles gradually increased in the book of Acts. Paul is the key figure in the second half of the book. The center of activity moves from Jerusalem to Antioch. Disciples are no longer confined to Jerusalem, but eventually move (chased even!) into Judea and the uttermost parts of the earth.
Thus, we see that as God’s dealings with Israel gradually diminish in Acts, His plan to call out of the gentiles a people for His name gradually increases. One dispensation comes to a close and another begins. Talk of an earthly kingdom gradually subsides, and is replaced by the gospel of God’s grace. All of this involves a gradual progress of revelation and some overlapping of events. The church was born the instant the first believers were baptized by the Spirit into the Body on the Day of Pentecost. BUT the unfolding of the revelation of this truth was gradual and took some time. Acts is a transitional book in every sense.
In the early portions of the book of Acts, the apostles continued to preach the gospel of the Kingdom. The gospel of the kingdom was the grand announcement that the kingdom was at hand. If the nation of Israel would repent, God’s Son would come and establish a glorious kingdom in fulfillment to all of Israel’s covenant promises made to them in the Old Testament. In his Pentecostal sermon, Peter preached to the men of Israel and once again offered them the kingdom. (Acts 3:19-21) [i] Those addressed are described as “Ye men of Israel” (3:12). The message was: repent and God will send the Messiah (3:19-20). The “times of restitution” would begin (3:21). But before the Kingdom age begins, God will send Jesus, which refers to His glorious Second Coming, not the rapture. (3:20) This was all according to the Old Testament prophecies (3:21-24). This is not a message of salvation for the individual only, but ALSO a message of repentance for the nation… a challenge for the nation to be converted. They were called to turn back to God (2:38-40). Peter’s message included the death and resurrection of Christ, which if believed by the individual would bring personal salvation. This message ALSO included a challenge to the nation to repent and receive the offer of the Kingdom. This portion of his message was purely Jewish, and was NOT the same message as the gospel of God’s grace!
The nature of the church was not understood by the apostles in the early chapters of the book of Acts. It was a mystery until revealed through the ministry of the apostle Paul. Even after the resurrection, the apostles were still expecting the Jewish kingdom to be established! “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) This was a natural and logical question for these men to ask in light of what they had been taught up to that point. These men had been with Jesus for 3 ½ years. They had heard Him preach and announce the Kingdom many times. The coming Kingdom was His theme… His message… His gospel. This is what Jesus taught the disciples to anticipate. The question in verse six is perfectly normal in light of the information they had. They had no concept of a church. The kingdom was still their blessed hope at this point.
Even during Jesus’ 40 days of post-resurrection ministry, He taught them concerning the Kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3) Note also, in Acts 1:7, when asked if He was going to establish the kingdom at this time, Jesus never told them they were wrong to expect a future Kingdom on earth. They were RIGHT to still expect a literal, earthly, Messianic Kingdom. Reformed theology tells us that we are wrong to expect such a “carnal” concept of the kingdom. However, Jesus didn’t tell them that their concept of the kingdom was wrong. Their concept was correct. It was their timing of it that was off. They did not yet realize that the Kingdom was being postponed and the church age would intervene. Note also, that they were expecting the kingdom to be restored to Israel. It was the same Kingdom the Jewish prophets predicted would be established in Israel. The fact that they expected a kingdom to be “restored” indicated that the kind of kingdom they expected was a continuation of the Old Testament Theocratic Kingdom in Israel.
Even after Pentecost (when the church age began), the apostles did not fully realize what had happened. [ii] The new dispensation (the church) had begun on the Day of Pentecost, however, God reserved the full disclosure of His plan until the ministry of Paul. The church was BORN long before the theological significance of it was revealed.
The apostles were preaching to the Jews and encouraging them to repent and prepare for the Second Coming and the establishment of the Kingdom age. (Acts 3:19-21) Peter did not fully understand all the wonderful things that began on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:16-17) He knew God was doing something new and wonderful! The closest thing he could relate it to was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit described by Joel. What happened on Pentecost was LIKE that which will take place in the future Kingdom age as described by Joel. This is that means that this (Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit) was “that” same sort of thing (an outpouring of the Spirit) that Joel predicted, however, NOT a fulfillment of the prophecy. Nor was it a partial fulfillment. Rather, it was a similar event. Peter was reminding his fellow Jews from their own Scriptures that an outpouring of the Spirit was in harmony with revealed truth. [iii]
Even in Acts chapter ten, Peter did not understand that the dispensation of Law was really over! In Acts 10:28c, it is revealed that Peter was beginning to learn that the gentiles were no longer considered unclean, but he had no idea that they were now accepted in a new Body on the same footing as the Jew! (Eph. 3:6) In Acts 10:13, it is revealed that Peter was learning that the Levitical dietary laws were no longer in effect, but he had no idea concerning the DEPTH of the changes. He did not know that the entire Law was no longer the rule of the life for the believer – that the Mosiac Law system was now defunct. (Heb.8:13; Rom.10:4) Out of an ignorant sincerity, Peter even seemed to oppose the Lord (“Not so, Lord!”) when confronted with the possibility of no longer living under the Mosaic Law! (Acts 11:13-14) Slowly, Peter began to realize that things were changing. But he did NOT realize exactly how and to what degree. He did not yet understand the mystery of the Body of Christ and the change in the rule of life God had ordained – from law to grace.
Even after the church began in Acts chapter two, the disciples did not fully understand that God’s new program, the church, the Body of Christ had begun, nor did they understand the nature of the church. The church began with the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit, placing believers in Jesus Christ into the Body of Christ on the Day of Pentecost. It would take some time and the new revelation given to Paul before the apostles would fully grasp and appreciate what God had done on Pentecost, the birthday of the church. Paul did not meet Christ as Savior until Acts chapter nine. It would be some time before this new revelation would be given and preached to the other apostles by Paul. Peter still had a hard time learning to practice this truth (Gal.2:11-15). Make no mistake about it: the church did not BEGIN at the time God gave Paul the revelation of the mystery. (That’s hyper-dispensationalism!) The church BEGAN in Acts two. God established the church BEFORE He revealed to the apostle Paul the theological significance of what He had already done. This might be illustrated by a believer today receives Christ as his Savior. At the moment of saving faith, he is totally saved and complete in Christ. However, he does not fully understand all the wonderful transactions that took place – UNTIL he learns of them by studying the revelation God has given in His Word. It takes time to understand and appreciate what really took place the moment we were saved! So too, it took time and a gradual progression of revelation before the apostles fully understood and began to appreciate what God began on the Day of Pentecost.
This is seen by the fact that the Kingdom was once again offered to Israel in Acts chapter three, after the church had begun! The continued offer of the Kingdom was an expression of the everlasting love that God has for His people, Israel, AND an expression of His concern for His own reputation and glory. In the gospels, the offer of the King and His Kingdom was given to the children of Israel repeatedly. However, they rejected both the offer and the King. Christ was crucified. They would have no king but Caesar!
Jesus offered Himself as the King of Israel, and there were some who clearly understood what He was saying. (see Matt. 27:37-43, 54; John 19:19-22) Yet, the New Testament also tells us that our Lord was crucified out of ignorance. In Acts 3:17, Peter states that ignorance was involved on the part of some of the rulers in the crucifixion of Christ. In I Tim.1:13, Paul confesses that He blasphemed. Obviously as a Pharisee of Pharisees, he would never blaspheme the name of Jehovah God. He did however speak evil of the Lord Jesus Christ. He claims here that he did so out of ignorance. In I Cor. 2:8, Paul stated that the princes of the world crucified the Lord out of ignorance. Even the Lord Jesus on the cross, cried, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:43).
However, AFTER the resurrection – God’s ultimate sign to the nation – they could no longer claim ignorance! The resurrection had hundreds of eyewitnesses! (I Cor. 15:4-8) This thing was not done in a corner! There were to be no excuses of ignorance after the resurrection! (Acts 26:26) No one could accuse God of not giving Israel a chance to receive the kingdom. They received the ultimate sign and rejected it! Out of His infinite love and mercy, God offered the kingdom again. This time the offer was made after the church age had begun (after the resurrection and its fruit had been demonstrated) – but before God revealed to Paul what He had done! (Acts 3:19-21) This was a legitimate of offer of the kingdom, just as it was in the gospel period. God knew the offer would be rejected, but He made it anyway. Israel’s unbelief does not nullify the goodness of God in His offer. Thus, God demonstrated His love for Israel by once again offering them the opportunity to repent and receive Christ as Messiah. If they did repent and receive Christ, then He would establish the “times of restitution” in fulfillment of the covenants He made with them. Israel rejected this offer too.
Acts 7:51-57 records the martyrdom of Steven. Israel refused the offer of the Kingdom made by Peter in Acts three. In Acts 4:16-17, the miraculous nature of the ministry and message of the apostles was by now, undeniable! No longer could they claim ignorance! Yet the Jewish leaders rejected the message violently. By Acts chapter seven, with the stoning of Steven, it becomes obvious, that the nation was FULLY set in their rejection of Christ and the message of His apostles. None of them could claim ignorance any more. Here was a clear WITNESS from the Holy Spirit – and they stoned him to death. Now with full knowledge of the claims of Christ and the proofs of His resurrection, and the miraculous ministry of His apostles, the nation was violently rejecting this truth. They resorted to imprisonment and even death to demonstrate the level of their opposition!
Beginning in Acts chapter nine, God introduces a new character: Saul, later known as Paul, God’s chosen vessel. As a young Pharisee, he too was caught up in the frenzy and violence directed against “that way.” Acts 9:1-2 records Saul’s attempts to imprison those promoting the “blasphemous” notion that Jesus was the Messiah. At this point, Saul was given a vision of the glorified Christ in heaven. He was gloriously converted, forever awestruck by the Risen Savior. NOW, (for the first ever) God would reveal the wonderful truths concerning the church, truths which had been hidden in His mind and heart from before the foundation of the world. The mystery would be unveiled through the ministry of Paul.
Up to this point, the other apostles did not yet have the revelation from heaven concerning the nature of this New Man, the church. It had become perfectly clear, that the nation as a whole rejected the second offer of the kingdom (Acts 3:19-21), and this time, they could not claim ignorance. Now was God’s time to choose a man to whom the marvelous mystery of the church truth would be revealed: Paul. (Eph.3:3-6) No more would there be any offer of an earthly, Jewish kingdom. From now on the message would be a heavenly message from a glorified Savior. God would deliver to Paul truth that was hidden from ages and generations concerning the Body of Christ, the church.
[i] For a more detailed coverage of this truth see Harry Ironsides, Lectures on Acts, pages 91-95 and Arno C. Gabelein’s, The Acts of the Apostles, pages 78-82.
[ii] J. Sidlow Baxter, The Strategic Grasp of the Bible, 261-276
[iii] Charles Ryrie, Acts of the Apostles, (page 20-21); Harry Ironsides, Lectures on Acts, (page 46-48)