By Dr. W. Edward Bedore
The positional beginning of the Body of Christ took place in the mind of God before time began (Eph. 3:9; II Tim. 1:9). The Body of Christ itself remained a secret hidden from man until, in His own time, God initiated the Dispensation of Grace and revealed its message to the Apostle Paul. This was the practical beginning of the Church, which is Christ's Body.
In order to "rightly divide the word of Truth" (II Tim. 2:15), we must know when the Dispensation of Grace began in order to determine which part of the Bible directly applies to the present dispensation, the Body of Christ, and which pertains to Israel and God's covenant promises. Here, we will be looking at evidence from Scripture that indicates when God interrupted the prophesied Kingdom program and began the Dispensation of Grace.
Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul the Apostle, was a self-righteous, hard-hearted, Christ-rejecting Pharisee when the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him as he traveled to Damascus to arrest those who believed that Jesus was Israel's long-awaited Messiah. He had been involved in the murder of Stephen and in the persecution of the Church at Jerusalem (Acts 7:54-58). Now, with letters of authority from the High Priest, he was headed to Damascus to arrest any believers found there (Acts 22:4-5). As he came near Damascus, the Lord Jesus Christ suddenly appeared to him in a bright light and spoke to him (Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-10; 26:12-18).
The how and when of Christ's appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus is important. According to prophecy, Jesus Christ left the twelve apostles on earth as His official spokesmen, first to Israel and then to the nations (Lk. 24:45-48). He was not scheduled to return to earth until coming in power and glory to defeat anti-Christ and take over the rule of Israel and the world (Ps. 110:1-3; Matt. 24:29-31; 25:31-32 ff.). Israel's King was to stay in self-imposed exile in heaven until the appointed time (Acts 3:18-21). His appearing to Saul the blasphemer on the road to Damascus was an interruption of the prophetic program. This is where and when God first dispensed grace under a new and unprophesied program, thus marking the beginning of the Dispensation of the Grace.
Israel's leaders had rejected the testimony of the Holy Spirit concerning Jesus Christ and stoned Stephen when he confronted them with their sin. While Israel's leaders of old had persecuted and slain God's prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah, these leaders were guilty of betraying and murdering the Messiah Himself when He did come, and they had failed to keep the Law as well (Acts 7:51-59).
The stoning of Stephen took place about one year after Peter's Pentecostal message (c. AD 31). Peter had charged Israel's leaders with unjustly putting Jesus Christ to death and called on the people of Israel to "repent and be baptized? for the remission of sins" in order to be saved "from this untoward (crooked) generation" (see Acts 2:12-40). The meaning was clear. Those who did not repent of Israel's national sin of murdering the Messiah would be held personally responsible for the crime. They would be accountable before God for His death just as if they were there that day clamoring for Him to be crucified, agreeing that His blood would be on their shoulders (Matt. 22:25). To follow the leaders of the nation would be to follow them into perdition.
The leaders of Israel had rejected God's Son during His earthly ministry to the nation and rejected the testimony of the Holy Spirit through His apostles after His ascension into heaven. When Stephen confronted them with their sin, they refused to listen (Acts 7:57) proving that, just as he had said, they were also guilty of resisting the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). They committed the unpardonable sin that the Lord Jesus had warned the nation against (Matt. 12:31-32; Mk. 3:28-29; Lk. 12:8-10). By holding their clothes and consenting to his death, Paul joined the council in killing Stephen (Acts 6:12; 7:54,58; 8:1), thus identifying himself with their sin of murdering the Messiah. His conduct following Stephen's death shows that he joined them not just in principle but also in attitude, thought and deed (Acts 8:3-4; 9:1-2).
Was there room for repentance? Could Paul have turned to the Lord and been forgiven of his sin? Yes, even though Paul was under the same condemnation as the leaders of Israel because he had identified himself with them, he still had the opportunity to find forgiveness by confessing Israel's national sin of not keeping the Law of Moses (resisting the Father), murdering the Just One (resisting the Son), and renouncing the miracles and preaching of God's Spirit-filled messengers as untrue (resisting the Holy Spirit) that Stephen had charged her leaders with (Acts 7:51-53; cf. Acts 5:27-33). He had an opportunity, but chose to trust in his self-righteousness.
Israel's leaders had been presented with overwhelming evidence that Jesus Christ was alive and was both Lord and Christ. With the stoning of Stephen, they sealed their fate. But Paul, who did not have the kind of first-hand knowledge of Christ's earthly ministry that those leaders did, was following them in ignorance (I Tim. 1:12-13). He could have known, and should have known, but chose to follow the way of unbelief.
When Stephen said he saw a vision of the glory of God and Jesus Christ standing at His right hand is when the council members took their fury out on him. They knew that judgment was about to fall on the nation, but refused to admit it. They vainly thought that if they could do away with the messenger they would somehow escape the judgment he proclaimed. The hatred that led to the crucifixion of Christ was based on the response of unbelief. They claimed that they were doing God's will. Paul, in his misplaced zeal for the Law, joined them in persecuting the believers even to the point of leading the effort to destroy them (Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:4-6).
The members of the council responded to Stephen's charge against them by "gnashing at him with their teeth" because of his vision of Jesus "standing on the right hand of God" (Acts 7:54-55). Then "they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord" (Acts 7:54-57). Rejecting the truth, they carried him out and stoned him to death. Israel's persistence in unbelief had brought the world's rebellion against God to a head and His chosen nation was now leading it. On the prophetic clock, it was time to purge Israel and the world of unbelief through the events of the Tribulation. The time of Jacob's trouble was at hand (Jer. 30:7).
Israel was at a crisis point, and Paul was leading the rebellion against God by becoming its Field Marshal in the persecution of His saints. Unrepentant and on his way to Damascus to imprison believers, Paul was not in a position to be saved under the prophesied Kingdom program. But God, who is rich in mercy, sent His Son to apprehend Paul, His foremost enemy, through grace and initiate a new program through which salvation would be offered directly to all the nations. He took Paul as a prisoner of war, changed his heart, and sent him out as the Apostle to the Gentiles with a message of grace. Under the Kingdom program, the Gentiles would receive God's blessings through Israel. But now the Gentiles would receive God's blessings apart from Israel.
THE DISPENSING OF GOD'S GRACE
Did the Dispensation of Grace begin when Jesus Christ interrupted the prophecy program by leaving heaven to appear to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9ff.), or several years later? To answer this, we will look at the departures from the Kingdom program that took place, Paul's testimony about his commission as an Apostle, and how the transition from the prophesied Kingdom program into the mystery program (Grace) took place.
1. Paul's salvation was not in line with the Kingdom message. We believe that the following list shows that God initiated a new dispensational order at the time of his conversion.
a. Paul was actively persecuting believers (Acts 9:1-2). Under prophecy, those of Israel who scattered the flock were under condemnation (Jer. 23:1-3; Ezek. 34:1-10; cf. Matt. 23).
b. Jesus Christ's appearance to Paul was not in accord with the prophetic message of the Kingdom, which shows Him waiting in heaven until His return to earth in power and glory, when "every eye shall see Him" (Hos. 5:15; Acts 3:19-21; Rev. 1:7; Matt. 24:29-30; John 16:7-10; cf. Acts 9:17).
c. The prophesied appearing of Jesus Christ will mark Israel's turning back to the Lord and the people's return to the Promised Land, while His appearance to Paul initiated God's setting aside of Israel in unbelief (Zech. 12:10,14; cf. Acts 13:46; 18:6; 28:28).
d. That Paul was sent specifically to the Gentiles at that time, even though Israel was not yet converted (Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:17). Prophetically, Gentile salvation was to come through believing Israel's rise (Isa. 60:1-4; Zech. 8:20-23). In contrast, the fall of Israel brought salvation to the Gentiles through the mystery of Grace (Rom. 11:11,15; 16:25-27; Eph. 3:1-9).
e. That, following Paul's conversion, the persecution of the Church in all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria subsided (Acts 9:31). Under the Kingdom program, persecution of believers, especially in Jerusalem, was to steadily increase until Jesus Christ's return to deliver Israel from her enemies (Matt. 24:3-31; Isa. 59:19-21; Jer. 30:3-9).
f. That it was necessary to provide relief aid to the saints in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). Believing that it was imminent, the Kingdom believers had sold their property and pooled their resources (Acts 2:44-45) in order to get through the Tribulation that will precede Christ's return to establish His Kingdom on earth. During the Tribulation, believers will not be able to buy or sell on the open market (Rev. 13:16-17). But, by the time the collection had been taken, it had been fifteen years since Peter had first offered the Kingdom to Israel by announcing that the "the great and notable Day of the Lord" was at hand (Acts 2:14-21ff). What happened? The Tribulation did not come because the Lord had interrupted the prophetic Kingdom program when He appeared to Paul. Now, after many years, their resources were gone and a famine was coming. If the prophetic timetable had not been delayed, the Tribulation would have already taken place and Jesus Christ's Kingdom established on earth by this time.
The foregoing list of things that took place following Paul's conversion provides compelling evidence that there was a major departure from the prophecy program at that time. God dispensed grace instead of wrath. This unprophesied dispensing of grace initiated a new Church, the Body of Christ, which over the next several years would grow even as the existing Kingdom Church would wither and finally die out.
After Paul's conversion, Peter was sent to Caesarea by the Lord to share the gospel with Cornelius, a Roman centurion. This event confirms that a major program change was taking place. The events of Acts chapter ten are generally thought of as simply the opening of the door of salvation to the Gentiles and that God did this because Peter still didn't understand that the gospel was to go to all nations. This is true, but not for the reason generally assumed. We should note here that what took place was not according to the Kingdom Gospel that Peter and the eleven had been commissioned under. The Apostles knew that the Gospel was to go to all the world, but not in the manner it did because what took place was outside of the realm of prophecy.
Peter and the eleven were charged with making disciples of all nations (see Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16). The Bible is clear that the Gentiles were included in the Kingdom program (Isa. 49:5-6). It is equally clear that in the Kingdom the Gentiles will be under the spiritual and legal authority of Israel (Isa. 42:5-6; 49:22-23; 60:2-3; 61:5-6; 62:1-2; Zech. 8:20-23). That the Lord told Peter to eat unclean animals and to eat with uncircumcised Gentiles was the same as telling him that the Kingdom Commission he was laboring under was being rescinded. During the Millennial Kingdom, the terms of the Mosaic Law, with some modification, will be in effect. This includes the civil statutes, the religious rituals and the moral code contained in the Ten Commandments. Included will be circumcision and the prohibition of eating unclean animals.
It is assumed that because the Apostle Paul says that the believer is "not under the Law, but under Grace" (Rom. 6:14) that the Law has been completely abolished, but this is not true. It is true that the "handwriting of ordinances" contained in the Law have been taken out of our way in the Dispensation of Grace, but it is equally true that they will be in force during the Millennial Kingdom. The difference between the Dispensation of the Law (from Moses to Christ) and the Dispensation of Righteousness (the Millennial Kingdom era) is that Israel will be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and supernaturally enabled to keep the Law in the Kingdom (see Jer. 31:31-323; Ezek. 11:18-20; 36:24-28).
Under the Mosaic administration, the offerings looked forward to the cross. With Jesus Christ having fulfilled the Law and its types, in the Kingdom these offerings will be memorial in nature, looking back to the cross in honor of what took place there. The dietary laws will be enforced as they are part of the laws and statutes given to Israel by God (Ezek. 44:24). Before the Lord sent Peter to Cornelius, He repealed the dietary ban of the Law on eating the meat from certain animals (Acts 10:9-16). This was so difficult for Peter to accept that the Lord had to show him the vision of the clean and unclean animals three times to make it clear to him that now the meat of all animals was to be considered as clean.
That Cornelius and those with him were uncircumcised when Peter went and ate with them in Caesarea was another breech in the Kingdom program (Ezek. 44:9). Peter knew full well that under his commission he was not allowed "to keep company, or come unto one of another nation" (Acts 10:28a). His acknowledgment that he could no longer "call any man common or unclean" (Acts 10:28b) was not intended to imply that he was beginning to understand the scope of his God-given commission. Instead it was a statement to the fact that he recognized that God was doing something new and highly unusual. After receiving the vision of the clean and unclean animals and being instructed to eat of both, Peter wondered what the vision meant (Acts 10:17a). The answer was given almost immediately as men sent by Cornelius showed up at his door. (Acts 10:17b) and the Holy Spirit told him to go with them (Acts 10:18-23). There is nothing in the prophetic Kingdom program that places Gentiles on an equal footing with the seed of Abraham. In a very real way, Gentile blessings and acceptance into the Kingdom are based on them turning to the God of Israel and how they treat His chosen people (Gen. 12:1-3; Matt. 25:31-36). Prophetically, this is true on both the personal and national levels.
In obedience, Peter went to Caesarea and preached the gospel to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, and those with him (Acts 10:24-43). A strange thing happened during Peter's message. The Holy Spirit fell on these Gentiles, astonishing the Jews that had come with Peter (Acts 10:44-45). Peter then had them baptized and stayed with them for a time before returning to Jerusalem (Acts 10:46-48).
An important fact is that the Holy Spirit came upon these Gentile believers before Peter finished his message (Acts 10:44). It is significant that, up to this point, Peter had given a brief history of Jesus Christ's earthly ministry and preached the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ to them. When he said that "through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins", the Lord interrupted him by sending the Holy Spirit "on all them which heard the Word" (Acts 10:43-44). While he undoubtedly had a full Kingdom message in mind, he did not get to the part about repentance and baptism for the remission of sins as he had on Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:37-40).
Up to this point, this message was compatible with Peter's Kingdom gospel and the Grace gospel preached by Paul (I Cor. 15:3-4). We believe that at this point God intervened by saving Cornelius and those with him who believed and placed them into the Church, which is Christ's Body. Because the Kingdom program was already being superseded by the Dispensation of Grace, God's purpose in saving these Gentiles was to prepare Peter and the other Kingdom leaders to accept both Paul and his message as being from the Lord. When confronted by those in Jerusalem because he had gone "into men uncircumcised and didst eat with them" (Acts 11:1-3), he explained why he did what he did by telling how God had specifically sent him there and what took place, saying "what was I, that I should withstand God" (Acts 10:17). We know that Peter only came to an understanding of "why" this took place when he later learned about the purpose of the Dispensation of Grace from Paul (Gal. 2:1-10; cf. II Pet. 2:15-16). The timing and the manner in which Peter was sent to Cornelius provides strong proof that the Dispensation of Grace began with Paul's conversion and that the fading away of Israel had already begun. A major dispensational change had to have taken place for Peter to have been sent to Cornelius in the manner and at the time that he was.
When a controversy over circumcision in the Gentile churches arose in Antioch, Paul, Barnabas, and other leaders went to Jerusalem for a hearing before the apostles and elders of the church there (Acts 15:1-2). After much disputing, Peter took the floor and reminded them how God had used him to bring salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 15:3-11). These leaders then listened to what Paul and Barnabas had to say about how the Lord was using them among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). James then stood up and defended their ministry to the Gentiles, insisting they not be put under the Law of Moses (Acts 15:13-21).
Our point here is that in referring back to the events in Acts chapter ten to defend Paul's ministry, Peter knew something new took place when the Lord sent him to Cornelius and that it related to Paul's message and ministry to the Gentiles. James, the apostles, the elders, and the whole church agreed and sent letters of acknowledgment to the believing Gentiles in Antioch and the regions of Syria and Cilicia asking only that they "abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication" (Acts 15:22-29).
That they specifically sent letters to the Gentile believers in the regions of Syria and Cilicia confirms that Paul's early ministry was the same then as it was at this time (Acts 15:23; cf. Gal. 1:18-21; Acts 9:26-30; Tarsus is in Cilicia).
When giving his testimony, Paul often connected his salvation experience to his call into the ministry and the message he preached. This shows that Paul received the call to his ministry as the Apostle to the Gentiles at the time of his conversion and began receiving special revelation of the doctrines of grace shortly thereafter.
Acts 21:37-22:22: Here Paul has been rescued from the Jews who were trying to kill him because he was falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple. When the Roman commander allowed him to speak, he began by recounting how he persecuted the Church and was saved by the Lord Jesus Christ while on his way to Damascus. As instructed by the Lord, he went on to Damascus and met Ananias, who gave him a message from the Lord. In this account, Paul adds some details not found in Acts nine. In chapter nine, we find the Lord Jesus telling Ananias through a vision that Paul was "a chosen vessel" who was to bear His name "before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel" and that he would suffer for His "name's sake" (Acts 9:15-16). But it does not tell us that Ananias told Paul this. However, in Acts twenty-two, Paul specifically tells us that Ananias did relay a message from the Lord to him. "And he (Ananias) said, the God of our fathers hath chosen thee (Saul), that thou shouldest know His will and see that Just One and shouldest hear the voice of His mouth. For thou shalt be His witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard" (Acts 22:14-15).
In chapter nine, Paul's commission is stated as being to "the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel", which is the opposite order of the Kingdom commission given to Peter and the eleven (see Acts 1:6-9). In his testimony, Paul simply says that he was sent to be "a witness unto all men" of what he had already seen and heard (Acts 22:15). That it is condensed to "all men" in this account infers that his commission made no distinction between the Jews and Gentiles. This could never be said of the Kingdom commission, which emphasizes Israel's covenant position as God's chosen people. The Kingdom message rests on the fact that God would send the Messiah to deliver Israel from her Gentile enemies and forgive her of her iniquity (Jer. 23:1-6; 31:31-34; etc.).
Paul then tells his hearers about what took place when he returned to Jerusalem three years after his conversion (cf. Gal. 1:17-18). He went into the temple to pray, went into a trance, and had a vision of the Lord who said to him, "make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning Me" (Acts 22:17-18). Paul protested, thinking that hearing about how God had changed him from a "persecutor" into a "proclaimer" of Christ would cause the Jews to consider what he had to say. The Lord's response was to command Paul to leave Jerusalem as He was sending him to the Gentiles (Acts 22:19-21). When Paul mentioned the Gentiles, the Jews began calling for his death and the Roman soldiers took him into their barracks for safety (Acts 22:22-24).
Our point here is that Paul was defending his God-given ministry to the Gentiles by showing its relationship to what the Lord told him in Damascus through Ananias and three years later in the Temple at Jerusalem. Obviously, he intended that his audience understand his calling into the ministry by the Lord in the same context as the ministry that he was involved in at the time he was speaking to them. In other words, Paul was saying that his present work among the Gentiles was directly related to him having been sent as a witness to "all men" at the time of his conversion, and that the Lord re-asserted this to him the first time he returned to Jerusalem three years after his conversion.
Acts 26:1-32: In this passage we find Paul being held in Caesarea where the commander of the Roman garrison had sent him because of a plot against his life (Acts 23:12-35). He was in prison over two years (Acts 24:27).
Eventually Paul had an opportunity to give his testimony before King Agrippa II, a great-grandson of Herod the Great (Acts 25:1-26:32). First, he reviewed his past life as a Pharisee (Acts 26:2-5), then defended himself by stating that what he was being charged with was in line with God's promise to Israel concerning the resurrection of the dead (Acts 26:6-8). He used this same defense before the council in Jerusalem and before Felix (Acts 23:6-10; 24:10-21). The charges brought against Paul by the Jews evidently concerned his claim that Jesus, who had been put to death, was alive (Acts 25:18,19). Paul was preaching the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord for the forgiveness of sins for both Jews and Gentiles and showing that the Jesus he preached was the same Jesus who is the Messiah of Israel (cf. Acts 26:21-23).
He was not saying that he was preaching the exact same message as Peter and the eleven, but that the foundation of his message was foundational to the Kingdom message as well. All of God's redemptive purposes are dependent on the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ and the fact of His death, burial and resurrection. Apart from Christ and His "love work" of the cross there is no good news for man. Jesus Christ as Redeemer and the promise of a physical resurrection are essential to the hope of believers of every dispensation. This is true whether or not they had precise revelation as we do in the present Dispensation of Grace or if it was still veiled as in the types and shadow of the Law as it was in the time of the Old Testament. Peter and Paul preached about the same Jesus Christ but as representatives of different dispensations. Thus, there were differences in the details of their respective messages.
Paul then told how, in misplaced zeal, he had been engaged in persecuting believers (Acts 26:9-12; cf. Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:4-6) when the Lord Jesus Himself appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:12-15; cf. 9:1-5). Here he adds some information about his conversation with the Lord at that time that is not found in the other accounts of this history changing event.
In Acts nine and twenty-two, it is simply stated that the Lord told Paul to "arise, and go into the city (Damascus), and it shall be told thee what thou must do" (Acts 9:6; 22:10). But here, in his testimony before Agrippa, Paul gives us a fuller account of what Jesus said to him that day. "But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear (reveal) unto thee; delivering thee from the people (Israel), and from the Gentiles unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me" (Acts 26:16-18). We learn several important things from this account.
First, Jesus Christ appeared to Paul for the express purpose of making him a minister (v. 16a). As Paul's ministry was that of the Apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13), it seems evident that this is where he received his calling to that office (Acts 9:15; cf. Rom. 1:1; I Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1,15-16; II Tim. 1:10-11).
Second, the Lord appeared to Paul that he might be an eyewitness to the fact of His resurrection (v. 16b; cf. I Cor. 15:1-8). Paul not only saw the risen Christ but, like the twelve, he also received his commission as an Apostle directly from Him (Gal. 1:11-12; Tit. 1:3; cf. Lk. 6:12-16; cf. Matt. 10:1-2; Lk. 9:1-2).
Third, the Lord did not reveal everything He had for Paul all at one time but would progressively reveal the details of the message that He sent Paul to proclaim (v.16c).
Fourth, the Lord promised to deliver Paul from those who sought to harm him, both of the Jews and of the Gentiles (v.17a). Many instances of this being fulfilled are found in the Scriptures (II Tim. 3:11; cf. Acts 13:44-52; 14:1-20; etc.).
Fifth, the Lord commissioned Paul to go to the Gentiles at that time (v. 17b; cf. Acts 9:15; 22:12-15).
Sixth, Paul's mission was to offer salvation to the Gentiles through faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 18).
Seventh, that Paul obeyed this vision and took his message to the Jews and the Gentiles (vs. 19-20).
Eighth, that it was "for these causes", that is for preaching the message he received that day on the road to Damascus to Jew and Gentile alike, that the Jews had tried to kill him (v.21; cf Acts 21:27-28).
We recognize the fact that there is some difficulty in reconciling the order of events given in verse 20 with the record of Paul's activities that are found earlier in Acts and in his epistles. However, that does not change what is clearly stated in verses 12-18. Paul was commissioned to go to the Gentiles right there on the road to Damascus. Note that the message he preached in Damascus he also preached to the Jews and the Gentiles.
I Corinthians 15:9-10: In chapter fifteen of I Corinthians, the Apostle Paul forcefully presents the importance of Christ's resurrection to the Gospel of the Grace of God. First, he reminds the Corinthians that they were saved and have their standing before God through the Gospel that he preached to them (I Cor. 15:1-2). His concern was that they had been influenced by those who denied that Christ was raised from the dead and that believers would be resurrected. He points out that the gospel that they had believed and been saved through was based on the facts of Jesus Christ's death, burial, and resurrection (I Cor. 15:3-4). His point is that if they were saved through faith that Christ was raised from the dead, but it wasn't true, their faith in Christ was pointless, or "in vain" (I Cor. 15:2,12,18). The believer's assurance only comes from the fact that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead (I Cor. 15:19-22ff.).
Second, Paul explains that the twelve Kingdom Apostles were eyewitnesses to the fact of Christ's resurrection, as were more than five hundred other believers, including James, the Lord's half-brother (I Cor. 15:5-7). And last, Paul claims that he himself also saw the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor. 15:8-10). Even though Paul was not qualified in any way to be an apostle, the Lord graciously appeared to him on the road to Damascus and commissioned him as the Apostle of Grace (I Cor. 15:10; cf. Gal. 2:9; Acts 9:15-17; 22:11-15; 26:14-18). The grace which was bestowed upon Paul is shown to be directly tied to his having personally seen the risen Christ. Note the statements from the Acts record; "Jesus that appeared unto thee" (Acts 9:17); "that thou shouldest know His will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of His mouth. For thou shalt be His witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard" (Acts 22:14-15); "for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness..." (Acts 26:16ff.).
Galatians 1:6-2:10: In his letter to the churches of Galatia, Paul defended his grace apostleship and message against that of the Judaizers, who had come in preaching a corrupted gospel that mixed Law with Grace. He makes it clear that his message was not the same as the message committed to the Apostle Peter.
Establishing the fact that his apostleship was not conferred on him by any man or group of men, but by Jesus Christ Himself, whose authority comes through the Father (Gal. 1:1), Paul expressed his dismay that the saints in Galatia were so quickly turning away from the Gospel of Grace to a perverted message that was not good news at all (Gal. 1:6-7). He told them that anybody who came to them with a message that was different than the one he had preached to them should be considered as one who is under condemnation (Acts 1:8-9). His motivation was not to please men but to serve the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:10).
Paul then states that he received his message directly from the risen Christ as well (Gal. 1:11-12; cf. v. 1:1). That he specifically says that he received it "by the revelation of Jesus Christ" tells us that his message was not already known by men but directly revealed to him by the Lord Jesus. It is on this important point that the rest of the epistle is based.
Paul goes on to remind the Galatians of his former conduct as a zealous Jew (Gal. 1:13-14). He had tried to destroy the Church, but in God's time He had called him by His grace for the purpose of revealing his Son in him that he might preach Christ among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15-16a). After being called, Paul did not consult any man about the message he would preach and did not go immediately to Jerusalem, which was the seat of the apostles' authority. Instead he went to Arabia and then returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:16b-17). It was not until three years after his conversion that he went to Jerusalem to meet with Peter (Gal. 1:18). Some of the details of this visit are found in Acts 22:17-21. Paul met with Peter and James at this time (Gal. 1:19) and then went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia, remaining unknown to the churches that were in Judea (Gal. 1:19-22).
Paul qualified everything he was writing with the statement "Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not" (Gal. 1:20-22). He nailed down the fact that he received his message from the Lord Himself and was not preaching the Kingdom Gospel that Peter and the other apostles preached. That the churches in Judea only heard that this former persecutor was now preaching the faith that he attempted to destroy (Acts 1:23-24) does not mean that he was preaching the Kingdom Gospel, but that he was preaching Christ. Of course, they assumed that he was preaching Christ according to prophecy because that was the only message that they knew anything about at that time. Note that Paul does not give us any other information to go along with this series of events other than that the Gospel he preached was given to him by the Lord. What he is defending is this special revelation and the fact that he received it before he ever met with any of the Kingdom apostles.
Fourteen years after his conversion, Paul went a second time to Jerusalem where he met privately with Peter, James, and John, the chief leaders in the Church there. We should note here that this was not the conference of Acts fifteen which was held during Paul's third trip to Jerusalem and was a public meeting with all the apostles and elders rather than a private one (Acts 15:1-6ff.). Also, if the Acts fifteen meeting had taken place before Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians, he would have referred to the official ruling by the Jerusalem council by all the apostles and elders concerning circumcision (Acts 15:23-24). During this visit, Paul explained the Gospel message that he was already preaching to these men so they would not undermine it because of a lack of understanding (Gal. 2:1-2). That he refused to have Titus circumcised and strongly withstood the false teachers (Gal. 2:3-4) at this time tells us that the Grace Gospel was already being proclaimed and that the Body of Christ was already in existence. Paul's refusal to allow the demands of the Law to be imposed on Gentile believers was to make sure that "the truth of the Gospel might continue" (Gal. 2:5). He was defending his Christ-revealed message of Grace to keep it from being corrupted by mixing it with the Law. We do not know when Titus became a believer, but we know that it was before the time of this meeting, which was sometime before Paul's first apostolic missionary journey (Acts 12:25-13:3).
Paul made it clear that James, Peter and John "added nothing" to his knowledge, that is they did not teach him anything concerning the Good News about Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:6). Instead, the opposite was true. They learned from him about how God had commissioned him with the Gospel of the Gentiles (the uncircumcision) just as Peter was with the Gospel of the Jews (the circumcision) (Gal. 2:6-8). Recognizing that the Gospel of Grace was particularly given to Paul, Peter, James and John agreed to limit their ministry to preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom to the Jews while Paul was to go to the Gentiles with the Gospel of Grace (Gal. 2:9-10).
The message that these men endorsed was the ministry and message the Lord had charged Paul with at the time of his conversion, and by then he had already been laboring under it for fourteen years. There is no doubt that in this passage of Scripture that Paul is defending his God-given message of Grace and Apostolic authority. It is important to note that he does not mention having received another commission or message between Galatians 1:16 and 2:1. His authority to rebuke Peter to his face (Gal. 2:11-14) and proclaim justification apart from the Law is found in Galatians 1:11-16.
Philippians 3:1-11: Paul warned the saints at Philippi against the Judaizers who would mingle Law and Grace by imposing the rite of circumcision on them if given a chance. He tells them to beware of these evil workers and points out that those who have trusted Christ alone and are not trusting in the works of the flesh are the true circumcision (Phil. 3:1-3; cf. Col. 2:13-14). If anyone ever thought they were right with God because of the fleshly works of the Law, it was Paul. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the Church (Phil. 3:4-6). He declared that his self-righteousness based on his ability to keep the Law of Moses simply was insufficient and so he rejected it all as rubbish and turned to Christ alone that he might gain the righteousness of God though faith (Phil. 3:7-9; cf. II Cor. 5:21). The result being to personally know Christ and experience His resurrection power in his life as he was being conformed into Christ-likeness through his new identity with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Phil. 3:10-11; cf. Rom. 6:1-11).
As we have seen, Paul makes it clear that he was saved and commissioned when Jesus Christ appeared on the road to Damascus. Here he tells us that he turned from every thing that he had thought made him in some way acceptable to God in favor of faith alone in Christ alone that he might be found righteous in God's sight. This obviously took place when the Lord Jesus appeared to him while he was involved in persecuting the Kingdom believers as he mistakenly thought that his zeal in doing so commended him to God (Phil. 3:6a).
If Paul had been saved into the Kingdom Church and then later transferred into the Body of Christ, he would not have made the claim that he renounced all of the things that we find listed in this passage. Under the Kingdom program, there is a distinction between the Jews who are of "the commonwealth of Israel" and therefore "children of the Covenants of Promise", and the Gentiles, who are not (cf. Eph. 2:11-12). As we have noted earlier, in the Kingdom circumcision will be required, and the Law, with some revisions, will be kept by believing Israel. It is true that in the Kingdom program salvation is still essentially through faith in Christ, but the Jews will have a place of authority over the Gentiles because of their covenant relationship with God. So, along with circumcision, Sabbath keeping, water baptism and many other elements of the Law will be kept to demonstrate the reality of their faith in Christ. None of this is true of the Dispensation of Grace. Paul's Hebrew identity in itself would not make him acceptable to God, but he could not renounce it as worthless under the terms of the Kingdom program. Again we see that Paul's message of Grace is directly related to the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus.
I Timothy 1:8-17: In this letter to Timothy, Paul gave this young pastor instructions and encouragement to stand strong in the faith. He explained that the proper use of the Law today is to convict the ungodly of sin (I Tim. 1:8-10) in accord with the Gospel message that had been committed to his trust (I Tim. 1:11). He then voiced his thankfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ, who enabled him to do the ministry He had called him to (I Tim. 1:12). Before being placed into the Gospel ministry, Paul says he had been "a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious" man, but through the "exceeding abundant" grace of the Lord he had obtained mercy (I Tim. 1:13-14). As we have already seen, this change in Paul's life took place at the time the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus.
Paul emphasizes what he says next by preceding it with the statement, "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation" (I Tim 1:15a). This tells us that what follows is significant and we should pay close attention to it. First, we read that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (I Tim. 1:15b). The incarnation of the Son of God was for the purpose of reconciling lost humanity to God. This is an inter-dispensational truth that we must always keep in mind as we study our Bibles and seek God's will for our lives.
Second, we read that Paul considered himself to be "chief", or the foremost, of sinners (I Tim. 1:15c.). Of course, he wasn't the first sinner, because that distinction belongs to Adam (Rom. 5:12; I Cor. 15:21-22) and there were many generations of sinful men and women that came and went between the time of Adam and the time of Paul. So what did Paul mean when he said that he was the "chief" sinner? I believe that the next verse explains it. "Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting" (I Tim. 1:16).
Paul is simply stating here that the reason God showed him mercy in saving him was for the express purpose of using him to demonstrate His patience by using Paul as the prototype, or pattern, of those who from that time on would believe on Christ and receive eternal life (cf. II Pet. 3:15). The patience demonstrated is that, instead of pouring out His wrath on a God-rejecting world in the Tribulation, the Lord interrupted the prophetic program by graciously showing mercy to His foremost persecutor and saving him in Gentile territory apart from the requirements of the Kingdom Gospel. Even though he wrote this letter over thirty years after his conversion, Paul was compelled to give praise to his Savior when he wrote about what He had done on his, and our, behalf. "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen" (I Tim. 1:17).
II Timothy 1:6-12: In his second letter to Timothy, Paul reminds him that God has not given believers "the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (II Tim. 1:6-7) and that because of this he had no reason to be "ashamed of the testimony" of Jesus Christ or of Paul, the Lord's "prisoner" (II Tim. 1:8). Instead of being silenced by those who reject the Grace Gospel and the distinctive nature of Paul's apostolic ministry and message, Timothy was admonished to be willing to suffer for the Gospel, trusting in the power of God to see him through. This is God's will for believers today just as it was for Timothy when Paul penned this letter almost two thousand years ago.
Paul then goes on to remind Timothy that when we become saved we are also called to holiness according to God's own purpose of grace. Although this was God's plan even before the time of Creation, it has only now been revealed through "the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel" (II Tim. 1:9-10). We believe that the "appearance" of Christ referred to here is his appearance to Paul when he was saved on the road to Damascus and "appointed a preacher and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles" (II Tim. 1:11; cf. Acts 9:15-17; 22:14-15; 26:16-18; I Cor. 15:8-10; I Tim. 2:5-7). Again we find Paul linking his Christ-given ministry and message directly to the Lord Jesus' appearance to him on the road to Damascus.
Because there is a clear break in the prophetic Kingdom program in the events of Acts chapters nine and ten, and the Apostle Paul consistently refers to the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus in the same context as his apostolic ministry and message of grace, we believe that the Dispensation of Grace began with Paul's conversion and that the Church, which is Christ's Body, began at the same time. Paul, being both a Roman citizen and a Jew was representative of the nature of the Body of Christ in which Jew and Gentile are seen as one body or "one new man" in their identity with Christ (see Eph. 2:14-16; cf. Gal. 3:27-28; Col. 3:11).
If it is important that we know when the Dispensation of Grace began, and we believe that it is, then there should be strong Scriptural indicators that direct us to that point in time. We believe that we have shown from the Bible that these indicators do exist and they point us to the record of the Apostle Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus as the benchmark that identifies the beginning of the Dispensation of Grace. The testimony of the inspired Word of God, both in the book of Acts and in Paul's letters, tells us that Jesus Christ's appearance to Paul at that crucial time in Israel's history is the turning point that marks both Israel's fall and the birth of the Church which is His Body.