I’d like to follow a personal rabbit trail here for a moment, and share some thoughts with you that come from other Grace teachers that may help you understand how to study the entire Bible from a dispensational perspective. In conversation recently I was accused (in a friendly way, no offense was taken) of ignoring the bulk of Scripture and following Paul’s writings exclusively. I have repeatedly explained here that a knowledge of the entire Bible is not only important, but is a great blessing. But to try to live and act according to its entirety is not only unthinking, but is impossible. If we fail to rightly divide the Scriptures, we’ll find ourselves violating one principle of Scripture while doing our best to obey another. The Bible is God’s loveletter to mankind, but different portions of it are addressed to different groups under different circumstances. Trying to live according to God’s instructions to Israel is like reading and obeying someone else’s mail! Pastor Ken Lawson (http://www.bereanbiblesociety.org/MP3, I John Lesson 5) alluded to a statement made many years ago by a mutual acquaintance:
“If [a verse] is not found in Paul’s teaching, it belongs to the previous dispensation of the Law or to the future dispensation of the Kingdom.”
The serious student of the Bible, on the basis of this statement, understands that all books of the Bible not authored by the Apostle Paul are someone else’s mail! When, then, should we apply passages of Scripture in our own lives that come from the writings of others? Pastor Lawson went on to describe three litmus tests of his own for any given passage:
- Does the non-Pauline passage deal with one of several unchanging characteristics of God, characteristics that are the same in every dispensation, such as His deity, that He is Light, that He is Love, that He is Life, His omnicience, His omnipotence, the Creator, etc.?
- Does the non-Pauline passage deal with the unchanging sinfulness of man and his need of salvation?
- Is the principle consistent with Paul’s teaching?
If it passes all three tests, we should heed and apply it in our own lives. The Third Commandment, “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy,” stands in stark contrast to Paul’s statement in Romans 14:5 — “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” Who, then, should we obey, Moses or Paul? This is, in fact, the heart of Seventh Day Adventist doctrine! According to the above principles, first we need to realize that since it is not found in Paul’s letters, it probably belongs to either the Law or the Kingdom (obviously the Law in this case). Having recognized that, we should refine our understanding by asking if it is an unchanging characteristic of God (it is not — it’s not a “characteristic” at all), and if it has to do with the sinfulness of man and his need for salvation (it does not other than the fact that the purpose of the Law was always and only to point out sin), and if it is consistent with Paul’s teaching (as quoted above, it is not). Since it fails any of the litmus tests, we need to be careful what interpretations we draw and how we apply it, and we are not under strict command to obey it literally.
While God did demand Israel’s worship and rest on the seventh day of the week, in keeping with the pattern of creation, He does not demand it of men any longer. The Apostles themselves, in fact, led the way in changing the day of worship from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week because the resurrection was greater than the Third Commandment and the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. (See Mark 2:27.) Can we benefit from resting and worshipping one day out of seven? Certainly! But not all do so today, and God does not condemn us for it. To have failed to do so in Moses day would have brought swift judgement. It no longer does.
But in saying this we do not discard the Third Commandment or ignore it! We understand and appreciate its historical significance, and draw a profitable spiritual application, one certainly pleasing to God, that we must set aside time to honor Him and to make Him our source of rejuvenation and our focus. Although profitable, we cannot say that we are commanded to do so any longer by the Scriptures because it was part of a different dispensation — it was mail addressed to someone else. The strict Bible study rule of observation first leaves us lacking evidence that this command was unchanging through all dispensations as Lawson suggests in his first litmus test — it didn’t even exist in all the dispensations leading up to Moses day. Interestingly, Paul does repeat many of the other nine commandments in one form or another in his instructions to believers in the Age of Grace. However, he pleads with them, rather than commands them, and he recognizes that murder is wrong in any dispensation including the Age of Grace. Paul’s pleading rather than commanding is grace in action, and marks the way elders should behave today.
In this post and the next we’ll get a foretaste of what life in the Millennial Kingdom will be like. (Yes, that’s different from what life in the Age of Grace is like; this is not what your local church can be like if you only have enough faith!) Our story resumes immediately following the fresh falling of the Holy Spirit upon the believers in Jerusalem. Luke begins this portion by describing the circumstances and attitudes of the body of believers in his usual matter-of-fact way.
“And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,…” (Acts 4:32-33a)
This description follows naturally from the context of the great prayer in the previous section where they “lifted their voices with one accord.” For the second time we are told by Luke that these believers were living communally (see Acts 2:44-45), and the practice had not changed as their numbers had grown. I think there are three important points to note here. (1) They were doing this spontaneously. The apostles had not held a telethon in the Temple grounds to raise funds. It simply arose from their unity of mind and soul. (2) They did not give the proceeds to each other, but rather to the apostles to distribute. Would you sell your house and land tomorrow and give the entire proceeds to your church elder council — joyfully? This aspect of their daily existence is entirely foreign to us, as well it should be. It is what life will be like in the Kingdom, all over the world. It is part of the blessings that the world will enjoy through Israel. (3) Nor should we think it unusual or a lack of financial planning. They were, after all, expecting the Kingdom (and it’s wealth) to arrive at any moment. Who needs worldy savings or equity when dining for a thousand years at the King’s table is just around the corner? They realized that even the hardest-earned earthly scrimpings of the wealthiest among them couldn’t compare to the riches of the Kingdom that would fill their lives in a matter of days or weeks.
“…and abundant grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each as any had need. And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” (Acts 4:33b-37)
This passage opens with an interesting phrase, not used by Luke up to this point. He says, “abundant grace was upon them all.” “Abundant grace” is charis te megalay in Greek — undeserved mega-favor! So what is grace in the first place? You may have heard that grace is when someone gives you something good that you don’t deserve. This is what God did when He made salvation in Jesus Christ a free gift. The opposite is when someone doesn’t give you something bad that you do deserve, like a suspended sentence. This is what God did when He laid our sins on Jesus Christ and punished Him for them instead of us. That’s mercy. But in this passage Luke is not speaking so broadly. He is describing how the favor of God’s undeserved presence in their midst was affecting their attitudes and relationships to each other. As God will abide in Israel’s midst in the Person of the King, so the whole world will be affected in those days. This short phrase tells us that even this grace was a foretaste of the Kingdom.
Here we also find the first mention of an important person through much of the book of Acts — Barnabas, who would later accompany Paul on his first missionary journey and then part company with Paul in a heated disagreement over a young man, John Mark. Here his name’s meaning is recorded for us — paraklayseos, a form of the word parakaleo, which literally means “one called alongside”. Wherever the Holy Spirit is described as a comforter, this is the Greek word that is used. Barnabas was a man who delighted in playing second fiddle, lifting others up. We will see this characteristic used by God to bring the feared Pharisee Saul into the Antioch church — as Paul the Apostle. It is also of interest to note here that Barnabas was exactly the type of individual we identified as being “down-housed” in Jerusalem for the high holidays in Acts at Pentecost. He was born on the island of Cyprus, but was a Levite, of priestly lineage, an obvious example of a member of the Diaspora. Here he is portrayed as the prime example of what they all were doing, selling their property and bringing the proceeds to the Apostles to distribute to other believers as needed, and abundant grace was upon him. What follows in the next chapter is still demonstrative of the nature of the Kingdom, but is quite the opposite of the Age of Grace in which we live.