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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Non-Prison Epistles - Part 1

I referenced the two epistles of Paul to Gentiles written post-Acts in my recent entry on women teaching men. It is in these epistles where we find instructions for the selection elders and deacons. I have proposed that these instructions were primarily for those transitioning from the Jew-centered church of the Acts Age to the post-Acts Body which knows no Jew or Gentile.

I would like to look at this approach from both sides. That is, I would like to briefly address both the idea that these two books are different from the other five Post-Acts epistles and also the idea that that they are still applicable in every way today. I don't believe either view does violence to the scripture.

This post will primarily be background material for those not yet familiar with the Dispensation of the Mystery.

Recall there are 21 epistles which fall into three groups of seven:

Acts Age (7)
Post-Acts (7)
Apostles to the Jews/Dispersion (7)
Romans Ephesians 1 Peter
Galatians Colossians 2 Peter
1 Corinthians Philippians 1 John
2 Corinthians 1 Timothy 2 John
1 Thessalonians 2 Timothy 3 John
2 Thessalonians Titus Jude
Hebrews Philemon James

For a flyover look at all the books of the bible, see our study HERE

We are dealing with that middle list, the final seven books which closed out the revelation of God and closed the canon of scripture. These are the only books written directly to Gentiles which reveal the Dispensation of the Mystery. This dispensation (administration) was hidden "from before the overthrow of the cosmos." We juxtapose this age from those things revealed "since the overthrow of the cosmos." It is separate from the Law and its blessings are all in Christ. He is the our all in all. Our blessings are independent of Israel, covenants, or earthly promises. We have our hope in the "far above the heavens." We have no earthly hope, as does Israel, and we thus have no earthly ordinances.

In the first epistle of this group, Ephesians, which contains the revelation of the Mystery, Paul informs us he is a prisoner for us Gentiles. He was in chains for the Mystery. 

For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery. -Eph 3:1-3 
praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints— and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I [singular] may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. -Eph 6:18-20
Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us [plural] a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. -Col 4:3-4

(The Dispensation of the Mystery is the final revelation of the Mystery of Christ)

In Ephesians Paul reveals that which was given to him alone and prays he would be bold to proclaim it knowing it would be rejected by many. Paul was persecuted and rejected not only by the Roman Government and the Jews, he was rejected by Christians ("all in Asia have abandoned me." etc.). In Colossians he prays in the plural (us). Some Christians even sought to make his chains worse. But Paul rejoiced that Christ was being preached.

Compare this with Paul's testimony during the Acts Age:

But when the Jews spake against it, I was constrained to appeal unto Cæsar; not that I had ought to accuse my nation of. For this cause therefore have I called for you [Jews of Rome], to see you, and to speak with you: because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain. -Acts 28:19-20

In the Acts, Paul spoke only those things which Moses and the Prophets said (Acts 26:22; 28:23). These were things revealed "since the overthrow of the cosmos."  In Ephesians, Paul speaks things to Gentiles that were unknown to the prophets.

whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory... -Col 1:25-27
Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ... -Eph 3:8-9

This is not merely Gentiles being blessed through Abraham. That truth was revealed, but simply not understood. It was a "mystery" in the sense that it was obscured. But it was clearly revealed. The mystery in Ephesians and Colossians was not known and not revealed until Paul alone revealed it. Compare the blessings for Gentiles in the Acts Age epistles:

Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. -Gal 3:7-8

Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people. And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust. -Rom 15:8-12

Gentile blessings, through Israel, was revealed by the Prophets. We also note that in a future age Gentiles will again come through Israel for blessings on the earth (where Israel's promises reside). There are countless prophesies dealing with Israel's future, but we will just look at one representative example of Gentile blessings through Israel in a coming, future age.

And it shall come to pass, that as ye were a curse among the heathen [Gentiles], O house of Judah, and house of Israel; so will I save you, and ye shall be a blessing... Thus saith the Lord of hosts; It shall yet come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities: and the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts: I will go also. Yea, many people and strong nations [Gentiles] shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations [Gentiles], even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you. 
-Zech 8:13; 20-23

Paul had a unique ministry in the Acts Age as well. For it was Paul who was to preach Christ to Gentiles. He defended this calling by pointing to the prophets who foretold of God's blessing of Gentiles. In Acts 15, Gentile believers are reminded of the restrictions on Gentile believers stated in the Law (Lev 17). James quotes scripture, "Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name." Gentile salvation was not understood, but it was not hidden in God as was the Dispensation of the Mystery..

We see that Paul's completion of the revelation of God is found in seven epistles addressed to a Body which is a new creation. It is the "one new man" of Ephesians wherein there is no distinction between Jew or Greek (Colossians). This was something new. This moved beyond Acts 15 and the Acts Age.

As an aside, since Paul there has been no new revelation. When a man today states that God told him something for the Body, do not believe it. God reveals and enlightens men unto the truths of scripture, but in Paul's final epistles, the revelation of God is fulfilled.

When we loot at these final seven books, we see that two are written when Paul was free (not a prisoner of the Lord). The other five we refer to as the "Prison Epistles." It is the two non-prison epistles (1 Timothy and Titus) which we are considering.

It is in these epistles that Paul speaks of the requirements of elders (bishops) and deacons. Don't confuse "bishop" with the the office created by the organized religions of the world. These were men raised up from among local believers. They were not an exalted clergy and they certainly had no power to bind men to earthly commands and dictates. To avoid this confusion, we will use the more precise term, "elders."

Elders are a form of pastor (shepherd) of God's people. Paul speaks of Christ giving gifts to the Body in the revelation of this dispensation in Ephesians.

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying [building up] of the body of Christ... -Eph 4:11

This is in a prison epistle, but it is in context of the change. The Acts Age church was led by Jews. All the Apostles were Jewish. Every local church was Jewish-led. Jewish believers still met in synagogues (James 2) and they still went to the temple to worship. Jews still circumcised their children and kept the feasts (Acts 21). So, along with the new revelation to Paul, God gave gifts of men to this new Body on light of the enormous change.

But note what these men were to do, "equip the saints [believers] for the work of the ministry, for the edification [building up] of the Body of Christ." That new creation had to be "built up" so the members could be equipped to carry out this new calling. They did not hold a position of authority over the lives of the saints. They were not infallible judges and declarers of doctrines outside of Pau's revelation. They were not capital letter clergy (Pastor, etc.).

Each individual member is called to teach the Mystery. We are all "ministers."

Obviously, for those who knew only the revelation of the Acts Age, there had to be training in this new, formerly hidden, Age. Paul references "elders" only in Titus and 1 Timothy, but he does greet "overseers and deacons" in Philippians just as he references "pastors [etc.]" in Ephesians.  It is important to note that these "overseers and deacons" are not listed among the gifts to the Body listed in Ephesians.

With that groundwork, we will look more closely at all these offices and their place then and now.

  • Teachers didáskalos
  • Apostles apóstolos
  • Prophets prophḗtēs
  • Evangelists euangelistḗs
  • Pastors poimḗn
  • Overseers epískopos
  • Elders presbýteros
  • Deacons diákonos

We will consider both possibilities. That is, that some of these offices are still active in the Body and that they all ceased with the end of the canon of scripture. And even if we hold them for this age, do we properly understand their function. The "appointing" and qualifications of elders and deacons are only seen in the two non-Prison epistles. We will start with those next time.