One topic that every dispensationalist needs to consider carefully is the matter of the “transition period.” Many in dispensational circles believe in this time period, and most of them are those who call themselves either “mid-Acts dispensationalists” or “Pauline dispensationalists.” The idea has to do with the conclusion of the previous kingdom dispensation that came to an end when God ceased His dealings with Israel, and the beginning of the current grace dispensation that began when God began dealing with all the nations as joint-heirs, a joint-body, and joint-partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, as Ephesians 3:6 says. In the Greek of that verse, “heirs,” “body,” and “partakers” all have the same prefix. I have expressed this by using the word “joint.” Others have suggested “fellow,” “equal,” or something similar. But the point is, this is a list of three things in which all nations are now equal.

Those who believe in the transition period believe that the change from Israel to the nations, from kingdom (or government) to grace, from miraculous works to silence, and from prophesied things to things never before revealed, did not take place all at once, but rather occurred over a certain period of time. Such a great change, they say, did not take place instantaneously, but rather occurred over many years, and during this time the kingdom and Israel were slowly fading out and grace and the Gentiles were slowly coming to the fore. I have seen charts drawn that show this visually. A very simple version of this I have given below.

                                                                                 

The idea shown in this chart is that, first of all, the beginning of this transition is at some point during the Acts period, at Acts 9, Acts 13, or some other point in Acts (although 9 or 13 are the two most commonly set forth.) As we move between Acts 9 or 13 and Acts 28, God’s program with Israel and the Kingdom is still present but is decreasing, whereas God’s program with the Gentiles and Grace is still small but is increasing until it takes over the scene. The end of this transition period is Acts 28:28, where the Kingdom program is brought finally to a close, Israel is set aside, and the program with grace and the Gentiles is all that remains.

How does this work out practically in the way those who believe in this transition period view the Bible? How does this affect their teaching and their religious practice? Well, first of all, they do not consider anything before Acts 9 or 13 as being part of God’s program today. However, starting at one of these two places, they believe that God started, in part, His work today. Although there was still kingdom work going on (as is evidenced by such things as the miracles that were worked), there was also grace work going on, such as Gentiles being saved, and these are both seen in evidence in the later Acts period. They teach that, during this time, Peter and the twelve were in charge of the Kingdom work, and preached a Kingdom gospel, the gospel of the circumcision. Paul, on the other hand, was in charge of the Grace work, and taught a Grace gospel, the gospel of the uncircumcision. “But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter,” Galatians 2:7. Thus, during the Acts period, we can see both the old going out and the new coming in. Therefore, we must be careful during this period to distinguish between the two.

How do those who hold this view make a difference between the old program going out and the new program coming in? How do they do this in practice? In my observation, it is usually done by discounting what is done by the other apostles as being part of the kingdom program, and counting exclusively what is done by Paul as being part of the grace program. Paul calls himself the apostle of the Gentiles. “For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry.” (Romans 11:13. Ethnwn is genitive, and should more properly be translated “of.”) So they assume that what was done by him was entirely the new program coming in.

For this reason, those who believe in this transition period view all of Paul’s books, written during this later Acts period, as being totally and without reservation for believers of today. Although Paul clearly worked Kingdom program miracles, they dismiss this as evidence, saying that, although he did these kingdom things in practice, his doctrine was all grace. Peter and the other writers of the Jewish epistles written during the later Acts period, however, were all both practicing and writing under the Kingdom program, and their epistles are to be considered as for the previous dispensation.

As those who believe in the Acts 28 dispensational position, how should we generally view these ideas? First of all, we realize that the mid-Acts dispensationalists or Pauline dispensationalists are correct in rejecting Acts 2 as the beginning of the current work of God. Everything that happened between Acts 2 and Acts 9 is clearly to Jews and Jews only. Although some would argue with this, citing both the Samaritans as well as the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, those who look into the matter more fully will find that the Samaritans were half-Jewish and thus could be considered part of Israel’s blessings, whereas the Ethiopian eunuch had been worshipping at Jerusalem (Acts 8:27,) and therefore was a proselyte and could be considered as an Israelite. No, this part of their scheme is quite correct: everything before Acts 9 is clearly part of the Kingdom and not part of God’s workings today.

What about the difference between Paul and the twelve? I do not think we can argue that there was not a difference. Galatians 2:7 makes it clear that there was a difference. Yet what was the difference? Was it really that Paul was carrying out the grace program whereas Peter and the rest were working on the old and reducing kingdom program? I do not believe that this follows from this passage at all. They both might be working on the same program and yet have different gospels. Not only that, but is this passage even saying that the gospels that they preached were different, or just to different people? Galatians 2:9 finishes the thought begun in Galatians 2:7.

“And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”

Paul here clarifies his statement about the “gospel of the circumcision” and the “gospel of the uncircumcision,” and makes it clear that it is about to whom the gospel is to be preached, not about what the gospel is. In Galatians 1:8-9, Paul curses anyone who preaches a gospel different than the one he preached.

8. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

Are we to understand this to mean merely that no one should preach to the Galatians any other gospel than that which Paul had preached to them, and yet back in the land of Israel, it was quite permissible to preach another gospel? While one could make such an argument, it seems to me quite shaky. In fact, Peter would speak against it, as he says in Acts 15:11.

11. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”

What is our option if we disagree with the idea of a transition period? If we do not believe in it, our only option is to believe that the change between the kingdom program and the grace program, between Israel and the Gentiles, was not over a transitional period of years, but rather took place more-or-less instantaneously at a certain point in time. This is the view held by most Acts 28 dispensationalists. They believe that there was no transition between grace and government, but that the change was announced all at once in one major, sweeping statement in Acts 28:28. All that comes before this point is to be reckoned as part of the past dispensation, and all that comes after is to be reckoned as part of God’s present work. This line is sharp, and there is no transitory nature in any book. Either the book is for the present dispensation, or it is not. There is no transitional period, and there are no transitional books.

The difficulty with trying to argue the transition period in Acts is that there is no evidence of it happening in the book of Acts itself. Much is made of references to Gentiles believing, but Paul defines these in Romans 11 in a very different way from how he defines them in Ephesians 3. Compare these two passages carefully. First, Romans 11:

13. For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14. if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. 15. For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
16. For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17. And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, 18. do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
19. You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” 20. Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. 21. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. 22. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. 23. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?

The view Paul sets forth of the Gentiles here, and there can be little doubt that this is a reference to what we think of as “Gentiles,” is that they are subservient to Israel, grafted as wild branches into an olive tree that is not theirs. The blessings they receive are Israel’s blessings. The hope they have is Israel’s hope. The place they have been given is Israel’s place. They are supported by Israel. Their every blessing and the basis of their position is all based upon them being grafted into Israel. The company they are a part of is Israel’s company, and they are included in it as outsiders welcomed in and given a part. Yet their position is based on their faith. They are warned that if they do not believe, they could be cut out, and the olive tree could have its natural branches restored, and be made back into a purely Israelite plant once again. Is this the place of the Gentile believer of today? Are we precariously put in place based on our faith, and if we cease to believe, God could replace us with Israelites?

Now, consider Ephesians 3:1-7.

1. For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles— 2. if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, 3. how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, 4. by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), 5. which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: 6. that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, 7. of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power.

In this passage, as discussed above, the Gentiles are called “joint” heirs, a “joint” body, and “joint” partakers of the Spirit’s promise in Christ through the gospel. There is no hint here of them being subservient. They are not graciously grafted into what is primarily an Israelite olive tree. They are not given a place as guests, and warned that they could lose that place if they cease to believe. Rather, they are placed as fellow, as equal, as joint in all things. They are on the same level as any Israelite. They are dependent upon no Israelite for the fact that they are heirs, that they are a body, and that they are partakers. They have received all these things jointly with every other believer, regardless of what nation they may be from.

There is nothing equal, joint, or fellow about Romans 11. The Jews are clearly in the superior place, and the Gentiles are clearly subservient and dependent upon Israel. And there is nothing subservient or dependent about Ephesians 3. All nations, whether they be Jews or Gentiles alike, are all joint, equal, and fellow. The contrast between these two statements cannot be denied. These two passages present two very different realities. So different, in fact, that we can say with confidence that these two facts could not be true of the same people at the same time.

So, though there were Gentile believers during the Acts period, when Romans was written, they were in a very different position and had a very different place compared to the Gentile believers after Acts 28:28, when Ephesians was written. Though in both cases the believers were Gentiles, the similarities really end there. So the mere presence of Gentile believers in the book of Acts does not prove that the work that was going on then was the same as what is happening today.

Those who believe in the transition period in the later half of Acts also make much of placing the second half of Acts in a transitional period wherein Paul is acting one way in doing his Kingdom work as he goes out and preaches to the nations, and yet is writing in a far different way when he writes his epistles. In fact, it might be said that the transition period was probably first suggested in order to keep Acts 28:28 as a dividing line, and yet still retain all of Paul’s books as being valuable for believers today. And yet this puts Paul in the very questionable light of having said one thing and done another. Did he really talk dispensation of grace in his writings, and act kingdom in his actions? If so, why didn’t his actions match up with his words? We have little respect for one whose precept seems to be, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Is this really what Paul was doing in the later Acts period?

This desire the mid-Acts dispensationalists have to retain all the books of Paul for themselves has caused them to ignore obvious kingdom conditions in the books of Paul written during the book of Acts. These are too numerous to list them all, and we are out of space for this article, but we will give some samples of Kingdom truth in Paul’s Acts period letters in our next message.

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