I received the following question:
I enjoyed reading your article on the Canaanite woman. I am an Acts 9 Pauline dispensationalist. What you seem to say is that for a while Paul was preaching the same Gospel as the 12 but only gradually began teaching something different.
My question is, why did God call out Paul if he were not specifically to preach a different Gospel? Was God positioning Paul as a contingency, and why couldn’t He have just used one of the twelve to transition into something new?
What you ask is a good question, and I will be happy to give you my answer.
Before we get too far into an explanation, we had better make clear what a gospel is. The Greek word is euangelion, and comes from eu, which means “good,” and angelion, which means a message (as you can see, it is related to “angel” or messenger). However, it is important to point out that a gospel is good because it is right, not because it is necessarily “good news” to the one hearing it, as I have often heard it said of the gospel. If you were to wake up in the middle of the night to hear someone shouting, “Fire! Get out!” that would not be good news, but if it was true, it would be the right news, and the news you needed to hear. I believe an examination of the word “gospel” will also reveal that a gospel is always spoken in view of a need. In the case of a house on fire, the need would be to stop sleeping and to realize the house is on fire so you can escape. A gospel must also contain an element of promise. In the case of the fire, the promise implied would be that if you do get out you will be saved from dying in the fire.
An examination and comparison of Paul’s message in Acts 13 versus Peter’s message in Acts 2 will reveal a great similarity. If we compare it all to Paul’s summarization of “his gospel” in I Corinthians 15:1-4.
I Cor. 15 Peter Paul
Gospel element in Acts 2 in Acts 13
Christ Acts 2:36 Acts 13:23
Died Acts 2:23 Acts 13:28-29
For our sins Acts 2:38 Acts 13:38
According to the Scriptures Acts 2:25-28 Acts 13:29
And that He was buried Acts 2:23,31 Acts 13:29
And He rose from the dead Acts 2:24,32 Acts 13:30,33,34,37
And that He was seen Acts 2:32 Acts 13:31
As you can see, the elements of Paul’s gospel are there in both Acts 2 and Acts 13. The shakiest ones perhaps in Acts 2 are the burial (only implied) and the “for our sins” part. This really is where the different element in Paul’s gospel shines out. It is not in the content of these things, but it is in verse 39 of Acts 13.
39. and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.
Nothing like this was proclaimed by the twelve. I believe the critical difference is to whom they were proclaiming the message. Peter was proclaiming in Jerusalem, in Israel, in the temple, where God’s people could and did follow the dictates of the law. Many people today like to make much of the idea that no one could keep the law, and that everyone failed. Yet the Scriptures would tell a different story, as Luke 1:6 says of Zecharias and Elizabeth, “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” This tells us that this Godly couple were both keeping the law. If two people did it, more people could have done it, and I am sure more people did do it. The law could be kept, but ONLY in the land. For example, consider Numbers 9:13.
13. But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and ceases to keep the Passover, that same person shall be cut off from among his people, because he did not bring the offering of the Lord at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin.
It is clear that living in your home in the land of your birth, as many of the Jews outside the land did, is NOT the same as taking a journey. If they were following the clean and unclean laws, as they should have been doing and as many of them were doing, then they had no allowable excuse for not attending the Passover in Jerusalem. The excuse they had, of course, is that they were living far outside the land. One could hardly make a six-month journey to Jerusalem every year and yet still hope to keep one’s livelihood. Yet the economy in Israel was very poor, they had few friends there, and often did not even know the local language. There were no jobs for them there, and the locals would resent them coming in and trying to take away the few jobs they had. So if they moved back to the land they could not work and support their families. Yet to continue to live where they were they could not keep the law, and the law made no provision for failing to keep it other than being cut out of God’s people altogether. Thus in reality every last one of the “Israelites” outside the land was cut off and was not truly an Israelite at all, since they did not truly keep the law. The same is true for every single Israelite or Jew living today, by the way.
So every Jew outside the land was really out of luck. They could not please God outside the land, and yet they could not realistically move back to the land. The few who did were often wealthy retirees, we might say. But your average Joe living hand to mouth couldn’t even think of it. Yet by staying where they were they broke God’s law, and there was no way of them attaining forgiveness for that in the law. Imagine the frustration that such a situation would cause!
Yet when Paul came to them and proclaimed the word he gave them in Acts 13:39, that they could now be forgiven for all breaches of the law (such as not keeping the Passover in Jerusalem) that formerly they could not be forgiven for, this was a watershed moment for them. Suddenly they could be freed from the curse of being a lawbreaker to have a restored, right relationship with God. This must have been huge for all those who truly wished to worship and serve God!
So Paul proclaimed this, and the twelve did not. Yet the reality is that the difference was not so much in the gospel itself as in the needs of the people hearing it. It is not that believing the gospel in the land would not have forgiven those people there of breaches of the law. Yet in the land, there was no reason why the people could not keep the law. They had access to the temple, and they could attend the feasts and perform the rituals. They not only could keep the law, but many of them did keep the law, like Zecharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6). Therefore, what Paul proclaimed in Pisidian Antioch, which was a crucial element and would have been an amazing truth for them, was largely unnecessary in the land since they were able to keep the law, and many of them were doing just that. So it is not so much that Peter and John and the others proclaimed a different gospel than Paul did, as that they proclaimed it to a different people with different needs. This is just what Paul says in Galatians 2:7-9.
7. 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 8. (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), 9. 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 was proclaiming the gospel to the uncircumcised, that is, those who were not keeping the law. James, Cephas, and John were proclaiming the gospel to the circumcised, that is, those who were keeping the law. This difference was reflected in the messages they proclaimed only because the needs of the people were different, not because the gospel itself was different.
Now to get to your questions. I do not think I meant to say that Paul only gradually proclaimed something different. His message was more or less the same in the Acts period, though he did tailor it to fit his audience. Then, after Acts 28:28, he proclaimed a new message to a new dispensation. As far as the gospel of salvation was concerned, I think it remained more or less the same throughout the two dispensations. It was something that carried through from one dispensation to the next, as Philippians 1:10 tells us to approve the things that carry through (not “are excellent”).
As far as God calling Paul in the Acts period, I do not know that we can fully explore the mind of God to understand fully His thinking on this. Yet I can say this as I examine the book of Acts. First of all, this word of command from Christ in Acts 1:8.
8. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Christ sent out His disciples, including His twelve, to Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. An “end” of the earth is not an edge of a square planet, but is a most remote place, the very furthest reaches, we might say. Yet the word “earth” deserves consideration. Does this mean really that they were to go to the furthest reaches of the world? If they had the opportunity to cross the oceans to America, should they have done this?
The fact is that the Greek word for “earth” is ge (long “e,” pronounced gay), and this is the word not only for earth, but also for land. There are places where the word clearly means the earth, and others where it just as clearly means the land. Thus it is only the context of the word that tells us which is meant. (By the way, Hebrew is the same way with its word ‘erets.) The context of this case is a progression from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria, and then to the uttermost parts of the…earth or land? I do not think the context here really tells us. In some ways, the remotest parts of the land (of Israel) would fit better with the context than would the remotest parts of the earth. Yet the best way to tell would be to try to discover how the disciples themselves, to whom the command was given, took it. Did they seem to think that they were to leave the land behind and to go out to all the earth? Or did they seem to think that their ministry was meant to be focused on the land of Israel? I think from both their actions and from other passages in the New Testament we can confirm that their understanding of it was the latter.
First of all, we can easily see that the apostles made Jerusalem their center of activity. We read in Acts 8:1, “Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” If the apostles viewed it that they were to go progressively outward, finally going to the most remote parts of the earth, why would they have stayed in Jerusalem and made it the capital of their activities? We further see it as the center in Acts 8:14. “Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.” In other words, they went out from their center of activities to back up the work in a new place in the land. Yet when that was finished, they went back to the center, as we read in Acts 8:25. “So when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.” They finished their work elsewhere in the land and then returned to the center of their activities. Later in Acts 11, when the word reached outside the land to Antioch in Syria, did one or two of the twelve go to back up the work there? No, in fact. When the word reached outside the land, they actually sent someone else. Acts 11:22. “Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch.” If we take this as a pattern of the activities of the twelve in Acts, then we have every reason to think they took Christ’s command to them to be that they should center their activities on the land.
Moreover, that this was their understanding of their commission is made clear by Paul’s testimony about them in Galatians 2:7-9. “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 8. (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), 9. 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.” This tells us that the twelve considered their commitment to be to the circumcised, that is, the law-keeping Jews in the land. They did not consider it that Christ has sent them to the end of the earth. They considered it that Christ had sent them to the end of the land. They understood upon meeting Paul that he had been sent outside the land, and they gave him the right hands of fellowship to do so.
As far as using one of the twelve to transition into something new, again we cannot know the mind of God for certain. Yet when Paul was first sent to the nations, to the uncircumcision, he was not sent to do something new, but to carry the gospel to a new place. The twelve were to carry it throughout the land, and Paul was to carry it outside the land. That is why his home base was in Antioch in Syria, not in Jerusalem, and that is where he returned in verses like Acts 14:26-28. Yet as such, once the dispensational change did come, it would make more sense that Paul, the one who had been commissioned to carry the gospel to nations other than Israel, would have been the one to set forth the secret that all nations were now to receive the gospel equally, rather than the twelve setting it forth who had been commissioned to carry the gospel inside the land of Israel. It makes more sense that Paul would have been the one used to transition into something new involving all nations rather than the twelve.
Yet that calling of Paul was only after the fact. His initial calling was to carry out a very similar work to the twelve, just in a different setting: among the nations, rather than in the land.
I pray this answers your question. Keep studying the Word!