When it comes to the dispensational character of the books of the New Testament, we are probably more used to considering this question when it comes to the letters and epistles than we are the historical books. We all know that the important question for the letters and epistles is when they were written. This will affect the character of the books dramatically, and should provide for us a context in which to read and understand the meaning of the books. However, with the historical books of the New Testament, it is a different story. For these books, the question is not so much when they were written, as it is when they were written about.

The historical books of the New Testament are the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the book of Acts. Romans through Jude are epistles, and Revelation is prophecy. So these five books are the books in question when it comes to considering the dispensational place of the New Testament’s historical books. Yet we need to understand that, no matter when these books were written, they take their character much more from when they were written about.

For example, consider the gospels. Though Matthew and Luke record the birth of the Lord, the main focus of the four gospels is on the three or so years of the Lord’s earthly ministry, culminating in His arrest, trial, death, burial, and resurrection. It is clear from reading the books that they were written after the fact. Not a one of them was actually written while the Lord was performing His ministry. Matthew and John were both disciples, and so were present during many of the events they record as eyewitnesses. Yet we have no reason to believe they were acting as scribes during the performance of these events. Their gospels were written down after the fact.

Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses of the things recorded in their books. Mark is a very young man when we first meet him in Acts 12:12 when Peter goes to his mother’s house. He joins Paul and Barnabas on their first apostolic journey in Acts 13, yet he is young and unready to handle the pressure, and so abandons them, as we can see from Acts 13:5,13. In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas divide over whether he was ready to join them again or not. Yet in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 1:24, he is with Paul, and in II Timothy 4:11 Paul proclaims him “useful to me for ministry.” In I Peter 5:13, Mark is with Peter. So we see that he later matured and became a useful minister to the Lord. It would seem quite likely that he did not write his book until later, when he had matured and was ready for faithful service to the Lord. This clearly places Mark’s gospel long after the events that it records.

The same is true of the book of Luke. We first encounter Luke in Acts 16:10, when the author of Acts suddenly changes from talking about what “they” did in verse 8, to saying, “we sought to go to Macedonia” in verse 10. From this time on, Luke appears to have been a part of Paul’s party, being with him again in Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 1:24, and finally remaining with him to the end in II Timothy 4:11. So again we have no evidence that Luke was a disciple until later in the book of Acts. And this affects not only the gospel of Luke, but also the book of Acts written by him as well.

So we understand that the gospels were not written during the earthly ministry of the Lord. And yet that is what they record. It is clear from reading these gospels that the viewpoint they take and the character they display is based on the time of that earthly ministry. Whether they were written during the Acts period or afterwards in the dispensation of grace, the character of these books is derived from the historical period they record, and not so much the time in which they were written. Neither the Acts period nor the dispensation of grace is evident in the things they record, for they are recording the Lord’s earthly ministry. This is the most important consideration in how we view them dispensationally, not when they were written.

The Book of Acts

The truth that an historical book gets its character from the time about which it was written, not the time in which it was written, becomes even more obvious when we consider the book of Acts. As I have pointed out, the great dispensational dividing line is found in Acts 28:28, when Paul declares, “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!” At this point, the Acts period came to an end, and the dispensation of grace in which we live began. Yet the book of Acts takes us two years beyond this, as we read in verse 30, “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house.” Thus, we can be sure that the book of Acts was written in the dispensation of grace. Yet does that mean it gets its character from the dispensation of grace? Not at all! We know very well that the book of Acts displays in every part of it the character of a far different dispensation from the one in which we live. So which is more important in considering the book of Acts, the time in which it was written, or the time about which it was written? Clearly, the most important is the time about which it was written.

Yet why would a book recording the events of the past dispensation have been written in this dispensation? For we know that this book trips up many in the dispensation in which we live. The error comes from them assuming that the book of Acts records how believers ought to be today. Then, when they see none of the miracles, none of the inspired activities, none of the manifest communications by the Spirit of God that we see in the book of Acts, they become confused, and wonder what is wrong with us as believers of today? Many try to resurrect the miracles of the past. Others try to force the Spirit into speaking to them the way He did in the past. Others try to set up their churches or assemblies the way we seem to see the believers set themselves up in the Acts period. Yet all these are so busy trying to figure out how they could be like what we see in Acts that they never consider whether we should try to be like what we see in Acts. For this is a record of a different dispensation, and we cannot be like it, no matter how hard we try.

So why write a book in the dispensation of grace that the Lord must have known would cause so much confusion to believers today? The reason for this is that a record of the Divine activities of that period needed to be written. That time is now over, and we will never return to the Acts period. It was the kingdom in part, and when the kingdom comes again, it will come in whole, not in part. It was the night period of the kingdom, and it will not be repeated, for next we will see the day. It was a time of great Divine activity, and it set up much of what we will yet see in the future. It would not be right for God to have done all these things, and yet not have recorded them in His Word for our learning and understanding.

Secondly, it was necessary for the book of Acts to bridge the gap between what the Lord did while He was on earth and all the promise of His earthly ministry and what we see today. How could we ever understand what the Lord did and where He was going with it if we did not see the sequel to all of it in the book of Acts? It would seem that the work the Lord did and the things He accomplished all disappeared into the ether without a trace. Yet the book of Acts shows us that this was not so. What the Lord did had a profound effect on the world, and we can see it in the book of Acts.

Yet, it is clear that that work also came to an end, and we do not see the continuation of the Lord’s earthly ministry anywhere in this world today, though we do certainly see the continuation of the work He did on the cross in the spread of the gospel to the many who believe it today. Yet what of all the things Christ began to do in His ministry, and that the apostles continued? Again, the book of Acts brings us to Acts 28:28 and the cessation of that work. Without it, we would not know of the bringing to a close of God’s work in that day, or have any idea of how and why that came about. We might be able to guess some from the epistles, but Acts gives us a framework in which to understand.

Moreover, how could we ever interpret the epistles written during the Acts period if we did not know what went on in the Acts period? We would know little of what was happening then, and the things we read of in the epistles would be a constant source of confusion. The book of Acts puts them in their place, and helps us to understand them and what it was that God was doing at the time in which they were written. The book of Acts gives us the context for these books that we would not have otherwise.

So why would this record be written in the dispensation of grace, then? Well, when the epistles of the Acts period were written, they were living in the Acts period, and experiencing it every day. There was no need for them to learn of the Acts period and how it worked, because they saw it around them on every side. Today, however, we have no such experience, and so for us such a record was necessary for our understanding. Therefore, we can see why such a record would be necessary for believers today. It makes sense that the book of Acts would be written in this dispensation.

Luke

Having determined the time period in which the book of Acts was written, let us move on to the first gospel we will examine, that of Luke. Luke is the same author who wrote the book of Acts, as can clearly be seen from comparing the introductions of both books.

Luke 1:1. Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, 2. just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, 3. it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, 4. that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.

Acts 1:1. The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, 2. until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, 3. to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.

We can see from Acts 1:1 that Luke addresses Acts to the same “Theophilus” to whom he addressed the book of Luke. He also speaks of Luke as being the “former account” he had written. Also, He summarizes Luke by saying that it was an account “of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up.” All this clearly points to the close relationship of the two books.

Now with these books clearly being companions, written to the same man, written by the same author, with the one continuing directly on from the other, it is not too much of a stretch to suppose that they were written back-to-back. The fact is that their scrolls were usually only made to a certain length, and for a book to get much bigger than Matthew or Acts (with their 28 chapters) it would have to have been on two scrolls. Therefore, it almost would seem like Luke and Acts are parts one and two of the same book, and Luke clearly seems to indicate that he views it as such.

So if Luke and Acts are this connected in content, then why would they not also be just as closely connected in time of writing? No doubt Luke began writing with the book of Luke during Paul’s two years in his own hired house in Acts 28:30, and continued writing with the book of Acts until he completed it after Paul had finished those two years. There is no reason to suppose that Luke did not write in this manner, and so we would suspect, though we cannot prove it to be so, that Luke, like Acts, was written after the Acts 28:28 dividing line.

There are a few things we can say along with this. First of all, remember what we insisted upon strongly above. The character of Luke is such that the most important thing about it dispensationally is the time about which it was written, not the time in which it was written. Its character is that of the earthly ministry of the Lord, not that of our dispensation today.

Secondly, much of what we said above about Acts can also be said about the gospels. During the Acts period, the believers had God-inspired apostles to tell the gospel to them. Some of these men were eyewitnesses to the events about which they were testifying, and they all had the Holy Spirit inspiring the words they spoke. There was little need in this environment to write the gospel down on paper. Once this dispensation began, however, the need for a record of that time increased greatly. No longer were there inspired apostles to tell the story. Soon, all the eyewitnesses would pass from the scene through death. What, then, would happen to the story of the gospel if it was not written down in the Word of God? We can only imagine how quickly it would have been lost. So we can see that the writing of a book like Luke would be very necessary in the dispensation of grace, though it is not a record of this dispensation, nor are the conditions it sets forth conditions which prevail today.

Finally, while we are saying that Luke likely wrote his gospel after Acts 28:28, this is not to say that he did not gather information he used in this gospel before this time. Assuming he joined Paul in traveling to Jerusalem between his second and third apostolic journeys, he could have talked to some of the people involved at that time. We know he was traveling to Jerusalem with Paul when he went there after his third apostolic journey, and he might have done quite a bit of research during the time when Paul was in prison in Caesarea, while Luke himself was free. That is not to deny the inspiration of his book, but just to say that he might have done quite a bit of background study of things he included in the book during this time. When Paul was in his own hired house in Rome, he would have had ample time to sit down and write these things out, as he says in the first few verses of Luke. Moreover, the dispensation of grace would have given him reason to do this, now that he knew the record needed to be written down to be maintained.

So far, we have examined two of the historical books, and determined that there is evidence that both were written after Acts 28:28, demonstrating the fact that I insisted on at the beginning of this article: that with historical books, it is more important the time about which an historical book is written, not the time in which it was written. But both the books we have examined so far have been books of Luke. Let us move on to examine the other gospels.

John

The book of John is believed by many to have been written very late, later than any other gospel, and some believe it to have been written by John even as late as 100 AD, and to be the last book of the Bible written. The higher critics take this even further, claiming this book was written in the second century AD, claiming that it could not have been written before a certain amount of time had passed for myths to have arisen about the Lord Jesus Christ. This, of course, is simply unbelief, and we will not take the time to deal with it here. There is internal evidence, however, for all who wish to believe it, that John was not written nearly so late as even most scholars who believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures would place it. This evidence is found in John 5:2.

2. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.

Notice the words that there “is” in Jerusalem a pool. We know that when Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, that they leveled the city so thoroughly that there was nothing left of it, save several towers that they left to be used as Roman guard towers. Therefore, if John had been writing at the end of the first century AD, as is commonly believed, there would have been no Sheep Gate, no pool, and even no Jerusalem that still existed. It is impossible to believe that John, himself an Israelite and loving that city where God had placed His name, as all good Israelites did, would have written about that city and the things in it as if they still existed decades after they were destroyed. John would have known they were demolished, and would have spoken of them as such. Therefore, John must have written before 70 AD, and before the destruction of the city of Jerusalem.

This does not completely solve the question for us, however, since 70 AD is after the dispensation of grace began, and so the writing of John could still be on either side of the dispensational boundary line. Yet more evidence presents itself as we consider passages when Christ speaks of the coming dispensation in the book of John. John 9:4 has reference to it, when the Lord speaks of healing the blind man, and says this:

4. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.

The night has now come, and we can no longer do works of miraculous healing, as the Lord did in John. Thus this book refers to the coming dispensational change, and this points to the fact that it was written after that change took place. Of course, Christ spoke these words before the change, yet John picks them out specifically as relating to the truth that would come to be, as it is today. Another such reference is in John 20:29, where the Lord speaks to Thomas and says,

29. Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Again, this is a clear reference to today, when we do not see, as the disciples did then, nor as the believers in the Acts period saw when they witnessed miracles. Instead, we believe without seeing, and we are blessed for it. Yet again, the Lord spoke these things before the dispensational change, so just because John quotes them does not prove he was writing after the change. Yet there is some evidence that would point us to this fact found in 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, in spirit and in truth. 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. Even works of the law, such as keeping Nazirite vows and performing burnt offerings, were still performed by good Jews like Paul in the Acts period, as we can see from passages like Acts 18:18 and Acts 21:26.

Acts 18:18. Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken.

Acts 21:26. The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.

Therefore, since Christ could not have been speaking of the Acts period in John 4:23, 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. So 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, or the revisers of the Greek text. 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.

Mark

Having examined Luke and John, let us go back to the gospel of Mark. Was this book also written after Acts 28:28, as Luke and John were? I believe that the answer is again “yes.” The key to help us understand this is found in the last chapter. Consider Mark 16:15, where the Lord is speaking.

15. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.

This was the Lord’s command to His eleven disciples. A better translation of it might be, “Go into all the world and proclaim the right message in every creation.” In Mark 16:20, we learn that they did as He commanded them.

20. And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.

Since Mark says they proclaimed everywhere, this would seem to indicate that they had fulfilled the Lord’s command in verse 15 before Mark ever wrote his gospel. But this is not the only statement we have confirming that this commission was fulfilled. Paul says the same thing in Colossians 1:23.

23. if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.

The Greek for “to every creature” is the same in Mark 16:15 and Colossians 1:23, although Paul adds in Colossians the words “under heaven.” Yet this would seem to indicate that the gospel had been proclaimed “in every creation” by the time Paul wrote the book of Colossians.

We know that Colossians was written during that two year period mentioned in Acts 28:30-31, during which Paul was in his own hired house, receiving all who came to him, and proclaiming the kingdom of God and the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. This period was after his momentous declaration in Acts 28:28, and thus Colossians is a book that was written during the dispensation of grace.

Since both Mark and Colossians mention the fact that the gospel was proclaimed everywhere, that is, in every creation under heaven, this would seem to tie the two closely together in time. Since the fulfillment of this commission was one of the primary goals of the Acts period, we would suggest that the fulfillment of that commission was one of the things marking the dispensational change. Therefore it would seem most likely that Mark was written during the same time period as Colossians, perhaps even at the same time that Paul was writing Colossians. This would make sense, for certainly the completion of that great commission of Mark 16 would have been big news to believers of the time and would have been large on their 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 while the Acts period was still going on does not seem likely. No, the book of Mark must have been written contemporary with Colossians, and after Acts 28:28.

Matthew

At last we come to Matthew, the first of the gospels in our Bible. Which side of the dispensational dividing line of Acts 28:28 was this book written on? I cannot personally find any internal evidence for when this book was written, before or after Acts 28:28. Again, this is not too important, for the main issue in historical books, as I have said multiple times already, is when a book was written about, not when it was written. Yet we would still like to try to figure out when this book was actually written. In order to do this, let us now try to establish a principle about the gospels.

First of all, we have already established that Acts, John, Luke, and Mark were all written after the Acts 28:28 dividing line. Since the three other gospels were written after Acts 28:28, we might ask why was that so? Is there any reason why they were not written earlier while the apostles were still preaching in the Acts period? Why would they all have been written so soon after the end of the Acts period?

The answer to this question 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.

14. 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? 15. And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:
“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
Who bring glad tidings of good things!”

God mentions four impossibilities in this passage. The four impossibilities might be listed as follows:

1.) It is impossible to 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 commissioned with authority to do so.

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 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, commissioned with authority) 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 he 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 proclaim it. Thus no one could be told the gospel unless God had apostled someone else 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 because it had not been apostled to me.

So if the gospel could not have been written down during the Acts period, as this would have negated the principles of Romans 10, then the book of Matthew could not have been written during the Acts period, any more than any of the other gospels could have been written then. Yet when the dispensation of grace arrived and the gospel itself was apostled, not men, then it became very necessary for the gospel to be written down. Without God-commissioned men speaking God-inspired words to carry it, the message of the gospel could have quickly been lost, being muddled in the minds of the men who repeated it. Therefore, nothing was more necessary for the gospel to continue going forward in the dispensation of grace than for that gospel to be written down. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the gospel would have been written down in four different books during the dispensation of grace. This was necessary to preserve it.

So though we cannot point to any definite internal evidence in the book of Matthew to lead us to conclude that it must have been written after Acts 28:28 (though certainly we cannot point to evidence that it was written before that point either,) the facts of the Acts period would lead us to think that a gospel could not have been written during that time. If this is true, then Matthew, too, must have been written after Acts 28:28, and probably around the same time as the other three, which was during the first few years after the dispensational change.

So we have established all the history books of the New Testament as having been written during our time period, the dispensation of grace. This makes sense for the gospels because they contain the salvation-bringing message about Who the Lord Jesus Christ is and what He did on the cross, which no longer is carried by inspired men in our dispensation, and so needed to be written down in an inspired book instead. This also makes sense for the book of Acts, for during the Acts period, no one needed to record the history then for them to understand it, for they were living it. Yet for us, without the book of Acts, the transition from the work that Jesus Christ did to the secret work that God is doing today would be indecipherable, and we would not understand what happened in between and how we got from there to here. So it makes sense that all these historical books were written to our dispensation.

Yet we must remember that for history books, the most important question is not when they were written, but the time about which they were written. Since all these were written about a time before this dispensation, they all bear the stamp of God’s work in those previous times. They all five contain things that God did then, but He is not doing today. So when we read them, we must rightly divide, and distinguish between the things He was doing then and the work He is doing now, which is working secretly, and in grace. Only then will we be able to truly say that we rightly divide the gospels and Acts.

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