ISSUE: 2020, Volume 17, Issue 2
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‘And so we went toward Rome’, Acts 28. 14.
In our studies of the dispensations we have considered ways in which God, at different stages in history, has placed certain requirements upon mankind. We have seen that God’s demands have never been unreasonable, and in every dispensation there have been people who pleased Him. Nevertheless, in general, whatever test God has set, mankind has failed it.
The various dispensations roughly align with periods of history. So, for example, we can say that the dispensation of conscience ran from the fall until the flood. However, a dispensation is more accurately described not as a time period, but as an administrative system, and, as we saw with promise and law, there can be a degree of overlap between two or more administrations.
There are two historical periods in particular which do not fit neatly into too simplistic a dispensational system. These are the Acts period, and the future tribulation. Therefore, in a study of the dispensations, these two periods warrant special consideration.
The closing chapters of Acts describe in some detail Paul’s journey from Jerusalem to Rome. In a sense, that is a good analogy to summarize the whole story of Acts, which describes a theological journey from Old Testament Judaism to New Testament Christianity, from law to grace, from the gospel of the kingdom, Matt. 4. 23, to the gospel of the grace of God, Acts 20. 24. Both geographically and spiritually, the action in Acts is moving inexorably from Jerusalem to Rome.
At the beginning of Acts, Peter and the apostles continue to preach a very similar message to that which John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus had preached in the Gospels, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’, Matt. 4. 17.
Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’, Acts 2. 38.
‘Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord’, Acts 3. 19.
Here, Peter is reiterating the national offer of the kingdom to Israel. Thus, he preaches that baptism is required for national salvation.
To authenticate this offer, just as in the Gospels, we see the signs of the kingdom – miracles – being manifested, as well as tongues and prophecy. These signs should have proved to the Jews beyond any doubt that the testimony of the apostles was of God, Isa. 28. 11; Joel 2. 28.
Israel had rejected the offer of the kingdom once; in Acts the nation is given a second chance. Some Jews repent, and recognize Jesus as Messiah. Most do not.
In Acts, the Jews were still under the law, and many Christian Jews still observed the law, even performing sacrifices, Acts 21. 26. We see elements of the fading dispensation of law, and glimpses of the future dispensation of the kingdom, side by side.
But as Israel persistently refuses to repent, we also see elements of the dispensation of grace being introduced in Acts. God raises up Paul, giving him a special commission to both Jews and Gentiles with the message of grace.
‘And the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God’, Acts 20. 24 NKJV.
Paul always goes to the Jew first, but three times he warns that he will turn to the Gentiles if the Jews remain intransigent, Acts 13. 46; 18. 6; 28. 28.
At the end of Acts, Paul is in Gentile Rome, and it is no accident that the next book of the Bible is Romans, the fullest exposition of the gospel of grace.
Therefore, when studying Acts, we need to be especially careful to distinguish between dispensations. There are elements of law and kingdom which are not directly applicable to us today. But there are also features of grace which certainly are.
Not all of Acts is normative 1 for the church today. Many events were exceptional – unique stepping stones on the journey from the old to the new, from Jerusalem to Rome.
1 normative, definition, ‘attempting to establish or prescribe a norm’, Wiktionary.