When we come to understand the importance of the Acts 28 dividing line and the dispensation of grace, we soon become aware that this affects how we view various books of the Bible, particularly of the New Testament. When we realize that some of the books of the New Testament were written before Acts 28, when God was still dealing with Israel in the beginning stages of the Kingdom, and that some of the books of the Bible were written after Acts 28, when God had moved on to His purpose to show forth His grace to all beings everywhere; then we will understand that which books belong on which side of the line is an important question to be answered.
Now if a book was written before Acts 28, we would expect that to affect its content, and similarly with books written after Acts 28. With history books this might not be as true, as history records what happened in the past and not necessarily what is happening now. Thus, the history books of the New Testament take on the character of the time period they were written about, not the time period in which they were written. This can be demonstrated to be true by the example of the book of Acts, which from beginning to end carries the character of the Acts period, and yet was written two years after that period came to an end at Acts 28:28. Yet knowing when the history books of the New Testament were written can help us to figure out why they were written. Thus, placing all the books of the New Testament either before or after this Acts 28 dividing line becomes very important.
Thus it becomes necessary to examine each and every one of the books of the New Testament to see where they fit in time and especially in relationship to Acts 28:28. Some of these books are more complicated, and deserve a more in depth treatment. Yet here I will just state my current convictions, and leave more detailed discussion of certain individual books and why I believe they belong on one side of the line or the other to future studies.
The Gospels and Acts
Were the gospels written before or after the end of Acts? Many Acts 28 dispensationalists would argue that they all were written before that important dividing line. Yet is this correct? We know for a fact that they record events which took place in neither the Acts period nor the dispensation of grace, but rather while Christ was on the earth. Yet in which time period were they written down, during the Acts period or in the dispensation of grace? Let us examine each of the gospels in turn, beginning with the book of John.
I believe that the question of whether the book of John was written before or after Acts 28 can be established based on John 4:23. There Jesus is speaking to the woman at the well.
“But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.”
We know that Jesus is here referring to the present dispensation, when worship cannot be done using physical rituals and in temples made with hands, but rather must be done in the heart. The Acts period does not fit this description, as God was still worshipped through physical acts at that time, such as water baptism and the Passover. This can only be a prophecy of the present dispensation.
Now notice the phrase “and now is.” This would seem to indicate that that time was already present when Jesus was speaking. Yet He had just said that the hour was coming. An hour cannot be coming and be present at the same time. Why would Jesus speak like this? I believe the answer lies for us in the fact that the original Greek Bibles had no punctuation at all. All punctuation, such as quotation marks and periods and commas, are all things that have been added by the translators. In this case it would appear that the punctuation is not correct. For if we examine the verse closely, it would seem clear that the phrase “and now is” is a parenthetical statement added by the writer of the gospel. What Jesus Himself said was that the time was coming. The author, however, injects for us the fact that that time “now is.” Thus the verse would be better punctuated, “But the hour is coming,” (and now is!) “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
Yet if that hour had already come when this book was written, that would mean that the book was written after Acts 28:28, when salvation passed to the Gentiles and all the physical manifestations of worship were done away with. Thus John would have to have been written after Acts 28:28.
Luke and Acts
Let us move on to the books of Luke. Can we likewise establish that these books were written after Acts 28:28? I believe that we can. First of all, consider Acts 28:30-31,
Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.
This places the publishing of the book of Acts at two years after Acts 28:28. So certainly this book was written after the dividing line. Yet, of course, the book is actually the history book of the Acts period, and gives us, as verse 1 tells us, the continuation of what “Jesus began both to do and teach.” This book records for us the completion of that work in the Acts of the Apostles. Yet this is actually the second book in the series, for Luke addresses it to “Theophilus,” as he did the book of Luke in Luke 1:3. If these books are really companions and written to the same man, it would seem unlikely that a period of more than two years would have separated their writing. Certainly if the book of Acts could be written after Acts 28:28, then the book of Luke could be as well. We have no reason to think that both weren’t written while Luke was ministering to Paul in his rented house. They are intimately connected, and probably were both written in a relatively short period of time. There is no reason to think that the self-titled book of Luke was written during the Acts period any more than Luke’s second book of Acts was.
Now we move on to Mark. Was this book also written after Acts 28:28? I believe that the answer is again “yes.” Look at Mark 16:15. Jesus here commands, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” But then in verse 20 Mark tells us, “And they went out and preached everywhere.” This would seem to indicate that the fulfillment of verse 15 had already taken place before Mark wrote his gospel. In fact, this statement is very similar to Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:23, where he says of the gospel, “which was preached to every creature under heaven.” We know that Colossians was written during that two year period mentioned in Acts 28:30-31, and thus was a book written during the dispensation of grace. Therefore it would seem most likely that Mark was written during that same time period, perhaps even at the same time that Paul was writing Colossians. Certainly the completion of that great commission would have been big news to believers of the time and would have been large on everyone’s minds. It should not surprise us that writers of the time should speak of it. Yet that Mark would speak of it years before Paul does not seem likely. No, the book of Mark must have been written contemporary with Colossians after Acts 28:28.
At last we come to Matthew. I cannot find any internal evidence for when this book was written, before or after Acts 28:28. Yet let us now try to establish a principle about the gospels. If the three other gospels were really written after Acts 28:28, why was that so? Is there any reason why they were not written earlier while the apostles were still preaching? Why would they all have been written so soon after the end of the Acts period?
I believe the answer lies in the very nature of the Acts period versus the current dispensation of grace. As you’ll remember, in my message on “Why Acts 28?” I pointed out the four impossibilities Paul lists in Romans 10:14&15. There, he asks “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” I listed the four impossibilities given here as follows:
1.) It is impossible call on someone in whom you have not believed.
2.) It is impossible to believe in someone when you haven’t heard of Him.
3.) It is impossible to hear of someone without someone to tell you of Him.
4.) It is impossible for anyone to tell you of Him unless he was sent to do so.
I acknowledged that the last statement seems very radical to us, as we are used to being able to preach to whomever we want whenever we want. Yet I explained that the reason we can do this is because of what occurred in Acts 28:28, that “the salvation (-bringing message) of God has been sent (apostled) to the nations, and they will hear it.” Since the gospel itself has been apostled now, we do not have to be individually apostled to speak it. Anyone can teach the gospel anytime anywhere to anyone using any words one wishes. This is because the gospel itself has been apostled to anyone who will listen. Yet that was not the case in the Acts period when the book of Romans was written. Salvation now is like a club with open membership, and anyone who wants to can join. Yet salvation then was like an exclusive club, and you could only join upon receiving an invitation from someone authorized to give it. At that time, since the gospel had not yet been apostled, individuals had to be apostled before they could preach it. Thus no one could be told the gospel unless God had apostled someone to preach to him.
When we consider this fact we begin to realize that a written gospel would be entirely in harmony with the gospel being apostled to the nations, but would be entirely out of harmony with the four impossibilities listed in Romans. If it was impossible to believe when you hadn’t heard of someone and impossible to hear unless someone told you and impossible for anyone to tell you unless he had been sent, then what good would a written gospel be? Although I might pick up a book and read the gospel, I would not have had anyone tell it to me. Since no one told it to me I would not have heard it and would therefore not be able to believe it and therefore would not be able to call on the Lord. The written gospel would be entirely useless to me…why? Because it had not been apostled to me!
The gospel could not have been written down during the Acts period. It would have flown in the face of the basic principles of the Acts period that Paul lays out for us in Romans 10. No one could hear the gospel unless God had personally apostled someone to speak to him. Therefore no written gospel that could not be kept to such strict boundaries would have been written.
Yet consider that the advent of the dispensation of grace made a written gospel essential. Since God was no longer sending people directly to speak the gospel but rather was sending the gospel itself, it was therefore necessary for the gospel to be written down. After all, if God commissioned you to speak, He would also inspire you so that what you said was correct. If God just made the gospel freely available to anyone who wished to speak it to anyone who would hear it, however, it would be necessary for it to be available in a form where it could be spread without the help of divine inspiration every time it was preached. Thus it had to be written down so that it could never be completely forgotten or changed by fallen men. The gospel is so big that He wrote it down in four different forms rather than one, but this was nevertheless the gospel that was authorized to the nations. It was not a different gospel than the one preached during Acts, just one that was written down for all men rather than freshly inspired every time a God-commissioned apostle spoke.
Thus we see that all the four gospels must have been written after Acts 28:28. A written gospel before that time would have been pointless and useless, as the gospel always had to be preached, never read, during the Acts period. Thus, even though we cannot find any direct internal evidence that Matthew was written after Acts 28:28, we can be certain that it was, as no place can be found for a written gospel under the conditions of the Acts period.
So we have established all the history books of the New Testament as having been written during our time period, the dispensation of grace. Yet these are history books, and all record events that take place before our dispensation began. Where things get even more crucial is when we get into the epistles, where the doctrines of both the Acts period and the dispensation of grace are recorded.
The Books of Paul
The books of Paul are fairly well established as to when they were written. Since the movements and activities of Paul are recorded with a fair amount of detail in the book of Acts, it is possible to establish when the books of Paul were written during that time to a fairly accurate degree. Therefore, it is relatively easy to establish which of his books were written before Acts 28:28 and which were written after. The books of Paul written before the end of Acts are, in pretty much this order:
Galatians, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Corinthians, and Romans
The books of Paul following Acts 28:28 are, in order:
Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Titus, and I & II Timothy
These books reveal the mystery, the dispensation of grace, the purpose of God for believers today, and the equality of the Gentiles. In these books only do we expect to find truth written directly to believers of today. Yet even of these books only Ephesians was written to generic believers of our day. Colossians was written to believers of our day, yet still in the context of those in a certain city at that time. Philippians was written to those who had believed in the Acts period and now found themselves in the dispensation of grace wondering what their place was now. Philemon was written to a certain man, as were Titus and I and II Timothy. All these books must be understood in these contexts.
The General Epistles
The general epistles are a little harder to establish. Again they were written by Jews, and tend therefore to be Jewish in character, which is something the believer today who reads them must keep in mind. Let us consider each briefly in order.
Hebrews is the one exception to our easily established timeline. Arguments go back and forth as to whether or not Paul wrote this book. Some argue that this was the latest book of Paul, while others place it in the Acts period. The Jewish character of the book points to it preceding the revelation of the dispensation of grace. Personally, I believe that the book was written by Paul’s close companion and coworker Silas, and was written to the Thessalonians. I have rather facetiously called it “Zeroth Thessalonians.” Whether or not this is the case, the book shows clear signs of being an Acts period book.
James appears to be perhaps the earliest written of all the books of the New Testament. It was written before Paul’s unique ministry to the Gentiles, and may even have been written before (or at least soon after) the persecution started in Jerusalem and the believers were scattered from there. It is therefore very much written to the Acts period believer and reflects many of the peculiarities of that time period.
I & II Peter
Many Acts 28 dispensationalists believe that these books must have been written during the Acts period, citing the fact that Peter was a Jew and these books are written to the Jews in the Dispersion. Yet I believe that this book was written after Acts 28:28 for the same reason that I believe the gospels were written after that time. Look with me at I Peter 1:6-8.
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, Whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.
During the Acts period the purpose of God was to reach all Jews everywhere with the news of Christ. Yet, as I mentioned above, when the gospel was preached it had to be done by someone sent by God to do so. But there is another important fact we need to realize about preaching during the Acts period, and that is that it was never done without some physical, visible manifestation to accompany it. Paul boasts about this, explaining why it was important, in I Corinthians 2:4-5. He speaks of his ministry to them, saying:
My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
This was a principle of the Acts period…that the message was never preached without some powerful sign to accompany it and give proof to it. This was all in accordance with the Great Commission of the Acts period, which proclaimed that “these signs will follow those who believe.” (Mark 16:17a) The signs did follow, as we read in verse 20 of the same chapter, and as we read through the book of Acts and the books Paul wrote during that time, we realize that the word was never preached without these signs being present. One result of these great signs was that a clear demonstration of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was made to those who heard. We learn this from Galatians 3:1.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?
We do not know for certain how this clear portrayal was carried out, yet we have the statement clearly made here, and we believe that it was even as Paul said. Yet how much different this is from today! In our day, we never see the slightest physical evidence of the truth of the salvation message before we believe. Not a shred of physical evidence do we have when we turn our hearts over to God, but only the witness of the Spirit in our hearts and the powerful words of the message in our ears. Paul speaks of this method of coming to God in Ephesians 1:13, where he says:
In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.
Up until this point Paul had been speaking of things that were true both of himself and of the believers of our day to whom this book is written, using “we” and “us” from verses 3 through 12. Yet in 13 he significantly excludes himself, and this for an obvious reason. This is not how he, Paul, believed. He believed upon receiving a powerful sign from heaven. He could not say that he believed only upon hearing the word of truth, but rather that a great sign was shown him to cause him to believe. This was consistent with the Acts period, as well as with the way God will save people in the future. However, in our dispensation of grace, this is not how things are done, and thus Paul had to switch from “us” to “you” in verse 13 of Ephesians.
Yet here in I Peter we read of believers who came to Christ without having seen Him. This is not consistent with the Acts period, when all believers had seen evidence of Christ through the miracles of the apostles. No one at this time could boast of loving Christ though never having seen evidence of Him. Yet this is the way that people believe in our dispensation!
So who were these people to whom Peter was writing this book? It would appear that they were Jews who had been saved during our dispensation of grace. They were only children during the Acts period and hadn’t had a chance to believe then when the message was preached. Now, however, the message had come to them again, only this time in word only and not with the power of the Acts period. But these Jews, upon hearing this word, had believed in their Messiah. God had a great concern for them, and wanted to see to it that His people knew how to behave in the dispensation of grace when all their special privileges of the past have been wiped out and all their promised blessings are relegated to the future. Now they are blessed equally with the other nations, and those who believe in Christ are blessed equally with believers of any other nation. Yet God knew that they are still His chosen people, and that lot would be a hard one to bear when no special protection of God could rest upon them apart from that which He would graciously give to any other nation. Therefore, He had Peter write these two books to them, the Jewish believers of our day. That is the place of I & II Peter, squarely in our current dispensation.
I, II, & III John
These books are written by John, the apostle who wrote the book of John, which no one can doubt who has read both John and I John and noted the similarity in language between the two of them. It seems clear from I John and its similarity to the book of James that they are written to Jews of the Acts period, perhaps early on during that time. The first book seems to be written to Jews of the dispersion, the second to John’s wife (or his sister-in-law,) and the third to his friend Gaius.
Jude, James’ brother, wrote this book to his fellow Jews, as is evidenced by the reference to “the people” in verse 5. He speaks of the people he wrote to as “called” in verse 1. This is the Greek word kletos, and is used of believers elsewhere in the epistles only in Romans and I Corinthians. I believe this points to the fact that Jude was written during the Acts period, in spite of its similarity to the book of II Peter, which I contended above was written during the current dispensation of grace. There is also the significant reference to the faith being “once for all” delivered to the saints in verse 3. The Greek word for “once for all,” hapax, is the same word for those who were “once” enlightened in Hebrews 6:4, and would seem to also indicate the kind of salvation offer I believe was made in the Acts period when, with the word proved by signs and spoken by inspiration directly to those who heard it, the salvation offer was made once for all to those who heard it, and they were not allowed to change their minds later, as people can do today. With the reference to James in verse 1, I would suggest that this book may have actually been written around the same time as James, which would place it sometime in the early Acts period.
The Book of Revelation
In a way, the time of the writing of this book is not as important as its content. This book is entirely prophetical, and speaks of the future of Israel during the time period yet to come called “the Day of the Lord.” When it was written seems to be somewhat insignificant compared to the realization that its subject matter is squarely fixed on the people whom God chose, the Israelites. Many, missing this, have come up with wild interpretations of the book that are far off the mark from the truth.
Nevertheless we may say that the book was more than likely written during the Acts period because of its strictly Jewish focus. Many argue for a later date due to the traditions about the long life of John, yet these traditions can be shown to be false since the John who supposedly died in Ephesus at a very old age was said to have died of natural causes, whereas John the apostle was told by Christ in Mark 10:39 that he would die a martyr’s death. The likelihood is that John was exiled to Patmos during the reign of Nero in 54-68 A.D., not during the reign of Domitian in 81-96 as many scholars like to believe. Yet, it is possible that John was not exiled to Patmos at all, since in Revelation 1:9 he proclaims, “I, John, both your brother and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Since Patmos was a penal colony, it is always assumed that John meant that he was imprisoned there for these things. Yet it just as well may be that John purposely went to Patmos in order to preach there, and this is what he meant by these words.
So the period when John was on Patmos may not even have been during a time of persecution at all. Yet if it was, it is more likely that it was during Nero’s persecutions than Domitian’s. As Michael Penny argues in the Appendix to his book Approaching the Bible, it is likely that John was martyred sometime in A.D. 61 or 62, which would be shortly after Acts 28:28. This would leave very little time for him to have written Revelation after this time, especially if he was already writing his gospel at that time. No, more than likely Revelation was written relatively early, probably well before Acts 28:28.
In our studies of the New Testament, it is important that we always note the dispensational context of the books we are reading. Because there is no real dividing line between books written during our dispensation and books written before it, we need to know and memorize which are which. In the case of history books the distinction is less important since the history revolves around the past dispensations rather than this one whether or not it was written during our dispensation. Yet especially in the case of the books of Paul and the general epistles it is important for us to know when they were written and to whom. Only then can we hope to understand their contents and to rightly divide the New Testament.