We stated long ago that the Book of Acts is a transitional book between two dispensations — Israel’s Kingdom program and the Age of Grace, the present day of the church (what Paul refers to as the mystery). Since Acts is a history book, we can reasonably expect to find specific events that are like mileposts in this transition. We’ve already noted several of them — the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the establishment of the Jerusalem church, the martyrdom of Stephen as Israel’s official and final national rejection of Jesus as Messiah, and the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus.
Up to the beginning of the 13th chapter, the good news of Jesus Christ has gone out in the hands of Peter and the other eleven apostles under the Great Commission given to them. Their audience, up until Peter’s visit to Cornelius, has been almost exclusively Jews. The message has been one of repentance (for murdering their Messiah) in order to receive the promise of the restoration of David’s kingdom. This is the message that Christ prepared these twelve men to proclaim, in anticipation of the whole earth being blessed through Israel’s rule over the entire world.
However, several chapters ago we saw God making preparations for a different plan. Those preparations have not been put into public action yet. God “arrested” Paul personally in Chapter 9 and began a process of revealing this different plan to him over several years in another church (Antioch), far away from the influence of the Twelve. It is important to remember what Paul himself says about these mysterious revelations: He did not receive them from men (primarily meaning the Twelve), but from the Lord Himself. (Gal. 1:12) While the gospel of the Kingdom has been going out from Jerusalem into Judea and the surrounding areas in the hands of the Twelve, Paul has been ministering side-by-side with Barnabas in Antioch in preparation for direct ministry to gentiles and the setting aside of Israel’s promised Kingdom temporarily. It’s important to realize that if Paul’s message and ministry was identical to that of the Twelve, there would have been no need for all this special preparation. Paul could have learned all he needed to know by just joining in with the Twelve. But God not only didn’t do that, He actually gave Paul equal authoritative status with the Twelve. He made Paul an apostle too, but one which was exclusive from the Twelve.
Note also that we are long past Israel’s official rejection of Jesus as Messiah at the stoning of Stephen. God’s approach to Israel from that point on is to try to woo them by making them jealous. Offering to fulfill his promises to them didn’t work, and now he must use a different method.
As we shall see, the opening of Chapter 13 is of monumental importance. From this point on Luke shifts his focus from Jerusalem and the Twelve to Paul and his companions. Peter and the Jerusalem church reappear two chapters later, but only to certify that Paul is an apostle and that his audience is the gentile world. Chapter 13 is the point at which God begins to reveal the mystery publicly through Paul. In modern terms, this is “opening night” for what has previously been hidden in God through ages past.
Was God taken by surprise by Israel’s rejection? Did He have to raise up Paul and an alternative approach as a stop-gap measure, just making the best of a bad situation? No indeed! God knew in advance that Israel would reject Jesus as Messiah and that He would eventually have to make them jealous of the gentiles. How long has the mystery been part of God’s plans? God knew this in eternity past, but kept it a secret. He only told one person about it in detail, and only when the time was right. And then He charged that one person with telling the whole world about it. That person was Paul, and Paul is about to go public with God’s secret.
I hope you can grasp just how monumental an event this is. It’s on a par with the Noahic flood, God’s promises to Abraham, and the revealing of the Law at Mt. Sinai! Each of those events marked the revealing of a previously unknown part of God’s grand plan to men. And now, through Paul, God is revealing another earth-shaking change, just as He did through Noah, Abraham and Moses. Because of what Christ has done at Calvary, gentiles have direct access to God without going through Israel and her rituals!
It’s almost tempting to say that when men assembled the books of the Bible into their current form and order (the canon), they got the main dividing line between the Old and New Testaments in the wrong place. But as much as we magnify Paul and his message, we must remember that neither Israel’s Kingdom program nor the mystery would have been possible without our Lord coming into the world in the first place. While this is an artificial human-interjected division, and not inspired (just as are chapter and verse divisions), it does indeed mark the “new testament in [Christ's] blood.” Without this greatest turning point of all (when God became a man), Kingdom and mystery alike would be meaningless.