From Acts to the Epistles
Arlen L. Chitwood
Acceptance by Many
Then the Word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)
By the time of the events in the sixth chapter of the book of Acts there were multiple thousands of Jews who had believed the message being proclaimed (2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1). And Acts 6:7 reveals that “a great many of the priests” in Israel were numbered among these believers.
The fact that numerous priests had received the message and were being “obedient to the faith” was undoubtedly a major cause for concern among those in Israel. After all, in the Mosaic economy, the priests were the ones standing between and representing man to God and God to man, which was done on the basis of shed blood. And, though the sacrificial system within the Mosaic economy had been fulfilled at the time of Christ’s death and the rending of the veil separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, the unbelieving nation still looked at the matter exactly as the Israelites had viewed it for over fourteen centuries.
However, the believing priests would have seen and understood the truth of the matter — an understanding that, because of their previous involvement in the temple worship, would undoubtedly have come quite naturally to them. They would have known and understood that the whole sacrificial system surrounding the temple worship had been fulfilled in Christ.
And having understood the true nature of Christ’s sacrifice and offering, they would also have understood the true nature of animal sacrifices that the Jews continued to offer following the events of Calvary. They would have understood that God, following the offering of His Son, no longer recognized such sacrifices.
The shed blood of Christ answered to all the sacrifices within the Mosaic economy — the blood of the paschal lambs that had been placed on the doorposts and lintel of the homes each year, the blood from multiple thousands of animals that the priests had slain at the brazen altar at various times throughout each year, and the blood placed on the mercy seat by the high priest on the Day of Atonement each year. And an increasing number of priests understanding and accepting the true nature of sacrifices within the Mosaic economy following Calvary could only have created a major cause for concern in the camp of Israel.
Jewish life revolved around the temple with its Levitical priests and sacrificial system. But many of the priests — who would be the ones to offer sacrifices at the brazen altar for the people — had repented. That is, they had changed their minds about Christ, His sacrifice, and the message being proclaimed. And being “obedient to the faith,” they would no longer be offering sacrifices for the people at the temple. They would know that the One True Sacrifice, in fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrifices, had been offered.
And, in this respect, the statement that many priests were being “obedient to the faith” sets the stage for the climactic turning point in the book of Acts. Immediately following is the long discourse concerning Stephen (6:8ff). And this discourse leads to a climactic rejection by Israel (7:54-57), to the corresponding death of Stephen (7:58-60), to the subsequent introduction of Paul (7:58; 8:1, 3), to the beginning of a great persecution against the Church in Jerusalem (8:1), to the scattering of believers throughout the land and beyond (8:1), and to the beginning of the proclamation of the message beyond Jerusalem and Judea (8:4, 5).
The fact that many priests were being “obedient to the faith” probably provides a (if not “the”) major reason for the “great persecution” arising against the Church in Jerusalem at this particular time (8:1). Believers were scattered “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” as a result of this persecution, and those scattered “went everywhere preaching the word” (8:1-4).
Then Paul, a Pharisee who had been taught by Gamaliel (5:34; 22:3), appears in Scripture as the central person going throughout the land seeking to put a stop to that which was happening. And Paul, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” was following this course of action with the blessing of the high priest in Jerusalem (8:3; 9:1, 2; 22:5; 23:6).
The priests of that day were mainly Sadducees, individuals who didn’t believe in a resurrection, in angels, or in spirit realities (apart from God Himself). From a theological standpoint, they would be looked upon as the more liberal branch of Judaism, as opposed to the Pharisees, who would be looked upon as the fundamental legalists (cf. Matthew 23:1-4; Acts 23:7, 8). And the Pharisees and Sadducees comprised the two main religious parties in Israel at this time, with the Pharisees being, by far, the larger of the two.
The statement that a great number of the priests (who would, undoubtedly, have been mainly from the Sadducee party) “were obedient to the faith” is not another way of saying that they had believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and, as a result, had been saved. Rather, these priests were part of the nation to which the kingdom of the heavens had been offered preceding Calvary and reoffered following Calvary. They were part of the nation that had been sacrificing the paschal lambs year after year.
These priests were part of a larger group of priests, previously responsible for carrying out a ministry on behalf of the people at the temple, which centered on sacrifices and offerings. They understood the sacrificial system and had to themselves follow prescribed cleansing rituals in order to be in a position to act on behalf of the people (which included washings, clean garments, and shed blood [Exodus 29:1-34]).
Their beliefs and practices surrounding the sacrificial system within the Mosaic economy could only have been in keeping with their ministry; and, in this respect, they would have been numbered among those experiencing a vicarious death of the firstborn preceding Calvary, resulting in God’s satisfaction.
These priests had not believed on the Lord Jesus Christ to bring about something that had already occurred, i.e., the vicarious death of the firstborn, resulting in God’s satisfaction. Such would have been impossible. Death, for them, had already occurred; and God, insofar as they were concerned, was already satisfied. Rather, they had done exactly what Peter, on the day of Pentecost, had stated that the entire nation had to do in order to bring about Christ’s return and the establishment of the kingdom (Acts 2:38). And Peter, at this time, viewed the entire nation in this same light (as having appropriated the blood of the paschal lambs), exactly as Christ and His disciples had previously viewed the nation.
1. The True Issue
Individuals often have a somewhat difficult time conceiving that either a Pharisee or a Sadducee could have already been saved at the time Christ was on earth with His offer of the kingdom of the heavens to Israel, or afterwards during the time covered by the book of Acts when the kingdom of the heavens was reoffered to Israel. But this is invariably done on the basis of either the actions or the various beliefs of the Pharisees or the Sadducees.
And to look upon the matter after this fashion presents a completely fallacious basis for any Scriptural teaching concerning salvation. The only proper basis for viewing the status of one’s salvation is to look at things the same way God looks at them. God looks at matters surrounding one’s salvation with respect to one thing. God looks at the death of the firstborn; and God, because of a sacrifice and shed blood, recognizes a vicarious death, through which He is satisfied.
God doesn’t look for what man seems to want to see in a person at all. Rather, God looks for shed blood, setting forth a substitutionary death. This is the only thing that will result in His satisfaction.
Note something, and note it well. At the institution of the Passover during Moses’ day, when the Lord passed through the land of Egypt, He looked for one thing. He looked for the blood of a slain lamb, which had been properly applied.
The Lord didn’t look inside the homes of the Israelites to see what the people had done, were doing, or planned to do (which He, in His omniscience, knew). Nor did He look inside those homes to see what the Jewish people individually believed about various things — such as what the Sadducees later believed about the resurrection, angels, or spirit realities (which He, in His omniscience, also knew). None of this had anything to do with the matter at hand.
The one and only criterion was what they believed, and had done, about the slaying and application of the blood of the paschal lambs. Nothing else entered into the picture. It was as stated in Exodus 12:13, “…when I see the blood, I will pass over you…”
And exactly the same situation existed when Christ was upon earth 2,000 years ago. The paschal lambs were still being slain, the blood was still being applied, God was still recognizing a vicarious death of the firstborn, and God was still just as satisfied as He had been at any other time in Jewish history, dating all the way back to the institution of the Passover during the days of Moses (or — pertaining to sacrifices and God’s satisfaction — at any other time in man’s history throughout the 2,500 years preceding Moses, going all the way back to the slaying of animals in Eden).
It is as equally out of line with Scripture to look upon a Pharisee or a Sadducee during the time Christ was upon earth (who had availed himself of the blood of a paschal lamb) as unsaved because of his actions or certain beliefs as it is to look upon an individual today (who has availed himself of the blood of the Passover Lamb) as unsaved because of his actions or certain beliefs.
And herein is the heart of where so much false teaching relative to salvation lies today. Man wants to add something to that which God has unchangeably established; man wants to see something beyond the appropriation of the blood.
But God has one statement concerning the matter, and that one statement concerns the blood of slain paschal lambs in the type and the blood of the slain Paschal Lamb in the antitype: “…when I see the blood [nothing else, nothing more, nothing less], I will pass over you.”
That’s the way it has been since God slew innocent animals in Eden, that’s the way it has remained for the past 6,000 years, that’s the way it continues to remain today, and that’s the way it will continue to remain throughout the endless ages that lie ahead.
(See chapter 3, “Restoration of All Things,” for supplementary material relative to salvation in both the Old and New Testaments.
Also note how going back to the Old Testament types helps, more than anything else, to clarify the issue at hand. And this is not only true in Scriptures dealing with salvation but in Scriptures dealing with any biblical doctrine. God gave the type to help explain the antitype; and man’s failure to properly understand the antitype can, invariably, be traced back to his failure to properly understand the type. Understand the former, and you can understand the latter. This is the way God has structured His Word; and to properly understand God’s Word, man must study this Word after the fashion in which it was written, beginning with the opening chapters of Genesis.)
2. Condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees
The Pharisees emanated from the ranks of the Scribes, which is why the two are spoken of together so often throughout the gospel accounts. The Sadducees, on the other hand, emanated from the ranks of the priests. And though the Sadducee priestly party was the more liberal of the two, no group in Israel heard condemnatory words from Christ even remotely close to those heard by the fundamental, legalistic Scribes and Pharisees.
But, in this condemnation, the fundamental, legalistic position of the Scribes and Pharisees was not in view; nor would the more liberal position of the Sadducees have been in view had they been the ones Christ condemned after this fashion.
And if the Sadducees, instead, had done what the Pharisees did, then they would have been the ones addressed. But they hadn’t. The position that they held in Israel prevented such. It was the more numerous and influential Scribes and Pharisees who controlled the religious life in Israel. They were the ones who followed Christ about the country, seeking to discredit the Messenger and His message, presenting a false report to the people.
And, controlling the religious life of the people after this fashion, in the words of Christ, they “shut up the kingdom of the heavens against [‘in the presence of’] men…” They had no interest in entering the kingdom themselves, and they did everything within their power to squelch the interest of others, making sure that the nation had nothing to do with the King and the proffered kingdom (Matthew 23:13). They were the ones directly responsible for the end result of Christ’s ministry — the rejection of the Messenger and His message, followed by the crucifixion of the Messenger.
Christ laid all of this to their charge in Matthew, chapter twenty-three. And is it any wonder that a whole chapter in Matthew’s gospel is given over to Christ’s condemnation of this ruling religious party? And is it any wonder that the Scribes and Pharisees suffered a condemnation without parallel in Christ’s ministry? They stood completely alone in this respect.
They were referred to as going about the country making proselytes but, in the process, because of their erroneous ways and what they taught, making a proselyte “twofold more the child of hell [Greek: Geenna, ‘Gehenna’]” than themselves. And, because of what they had done relative to Christ and His ministry, within Christ’s condemnation of them, He asked, “…how can you escape the damnation of hell [‘Gehenna’]?” (vv. 15, 33).
“Gehenna” was a place south of Jerusalem — a ravine called the Valley of Hinnom (Hebrew word for Gehenna) — where the refuse of the city was taken to be discarded. It was the trash dump for the city.
The word Gehenna is used in the New Testament only by Christ, with the exception of James 3:6, where it is used in a figurative sense relative to the tongue. And Christ used this word during His earthly ministry, also in a figurative sense, referring to the place that would be occupied by those denied entrance into the kingdom of the heavens.
This was the way Christ used the word in an early discourse to His disciples concerning the kingdom of the heavens (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30), this was the way Christ used the word at other times during His ministry (Matthew 10:28; 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5), and this was the way Christ used the word in His condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew, chapter twenty-three (vv. 15, 33), immediately preceding His crucifixion.
Christ’s use of Gehenna, contrary to popular teaching, has no reference to the lake of fire, the final abode of the unsaved. Rather, He used the word in the gospel accounts in one sense alone. He used the word in texts that deal with entrance into or exclusion from the kingdom of the heavens.
Imagery involved in Christ’s reference to the place of refuse south of Jerusalem reflects on exactly the same teaching seen in Genesis 19:30 where “righteous” but worldly-minded Lot ultimately ended up dwelling in a cave on the mountain to which he had previously been told to escape (Genesis 19:17; 2 Peter 2:7, 8), or the same teaching seen in Matthew 22:11-14 where the man appearing at the marriage festivities without a wedding garment was cast into the darkness outside.
These references, as well as the references to Gehenna, have to do with the same thing. They have to do with teachings surrounding the place that the unfaithful among the saved will occupy during the Messianic Era, not with teachings surrounding eternal verities as they pertain to the unsaved.
And, in the light of the preceding, Christ’s use of the word Gehenna in relation to the actions of the Scribes and Pharisees reveals something unmistakable. Christ, through using this word, made it very clear that those whom He so strongly condemned were in a position to not only enter the kingdom themselves but to also lead the entire nation in that direction. And, apart from being saved, they could not have occupied a position of this nature.
(Israel’s status in this respect is why Christ, at a previous time, could call attention to “children [‘sons’] of the kingdom” one day being cast “into outer darkness” [Matthew 8:11, 12]. The reference was to the destiny of individual Jews in relation to, not eternal life, but the kingdom of the heavens [the kingdom, at this point in Matthew’s gospel, had not yet been taken from Israel (cf. Matthew 21:43)]; and the expression, “children [‘sons’] of the kingdom,” is used elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel as a reference to the saved, not the unsaved [with a particular emphasis on sonship — referring specifically to the rights of firstborn sons — in the kingdom (cf. Matthew 13:24, 25, 38)].
And understanding this status of the Jewish people at Christ’s first coming will allow a correct interpretation of numerous other passages as well. Note, for example, the often misunderstood account of the rich young ruler [Luke 18:18-30]. This man, coming to Christ, asked what he must do “to inherit eternal life [lit., ‘life for the age’],” not what he must do to be saved. And Christ honored and answered his question exactly as it had been asked.)
The message surrounding the kingdom is for saved individuals, not unsaved individuals. The message for the unsaved centers on the blood of the Passover Lamb. Only after a person has settled this issue is he in a position to hear and understand a message concerning the kingdom. That would be to say, only after a person has been saved is he in a position to hear and understand the reason why he has been saved.
Obedience to the Faith
The priests in Acts 6:7 were saved “from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40). And, believing the message being proclaimed and coming out of that generation, they “were obedient to the faith.”
The structure of the verb in the Greek text (“were obedient,” an imperfect tense) points to something that these priests were continuously doing. That is, they were continuously giving heed to, they were continuously being “obedient to [following, subjecting themselves to] the faith.”
And ascertaining exactly what is meant by the expression, “the faith,” is quite simple if one remains within the context. The expression could only refer to one thing. The message being proclaimed throughout Israel had to do with the kingdom, and these priests had believed this message and were continuing to give heed to the things contained in the message.
These priests had been converted. They had repented (changed their minds), followed by baptism (Acts 2:38; 3:19); and they were now numbered among those anticipating the entire nation eventually doing the same, with the restoration of the kingdom to follow (3:20, 21).
The expression, “the faith,” had to do with the message surrounding the kingdom; and the expression is used in numerous portions of Scripture exactly the same way — both in Scriptures covering that period when the message was still open to Israel (lasting approx. 32 years) and that much longer period that followed (to last almost 2,000 years).
This was the expression that the Spirit of God used to refer to the message surrounding the kingdom when the infant Church was entirely Jewish and was in and around Jerusalem, and this was also the expression used for the same purpose when the Church began to spread out into the Gentile world.
1. Use through Acts into the Epistles
In Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey, going into Asia, three cities are singled out to reveal how they dealt with converts among the Gentiles. Retracing their route, Paul and Barnabas ministered to the Christians in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening these Christians by “exhorting them to continue in the faith…” (Acts 14:22a).
And there can be no room to question or to wonder exactly what is meant by this exhortation. The remainder of the verse provides that information: “…we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (v. 22b; cf. Acts 16:5).
Sufferings must precede glory (cf. Luke 24:26; I Peter 1:11; 2:21; 4:12, 13; 5:1-4). The two are inseparably related, linked; and continuing in “the faith” involves both. Continuing in “the faith” involves the overall scope of the Word of the Kingdom.
After appointing elders in these churches (who would have had to be men possessing a knowledge of things surrounding the Word of the Kingdom, men who could have continued to teach these things to the people), they “prayed with fasting” and committed the Christians in these churches “to the Lord.” And following this, Paul and Barnabas went forth to proclaim the same message to Gentile converts elsewhere in Asia (vv. 23ff).
Then note how Paul used the expression, “the faith,” in several of his epistles.
In Second Timothy Paul stated:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith: Finally there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7, 8)
Keeping “the faith” in these verses has to do with victory in the spiritual warfare throughout the pilgrim journey with a view to that which lies out ahead. It has to do with victoriously finishing the course, the race, with a view to being approved for the crown at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). It has to do with patiently enduring under the present trials, testing, and sufferings, with a view to the glory to be revealed (2 Timothy 2:10-12). It has to do with denying self, taking up one’s cross, and following Christ, with a view to ascending the throne with Him in that coming day (Matthew 16:24-17:5).
The word “fought” in verse seven is a translation of the Greek word, agonizomai, from which we derive our English word, “agonize.” And the word translated “fight” in this verse is from the noun form of agonizomai, from agon.
A better translation of this part of the verse would read, “I have strained every muscle of my being in the good contest [the race, the warfare]…” And Paul, having governed his life after this fashion to the end (“I have finished the race”), had “kept the faith.” Resultantly, a crown awaited Paul, which would be given to him “at that Day,” allowing him to ascend the throne and occupy a position with Christ in the kingdom.
(Note also 1 Timothy 6:12 where exactly the same expression found in 2 Timothy 4:7 [straining every muscle in the present race of the faith] can be seen in a different textual setting. Also seen in 1 Timothy 6:12, a successful completion of the race is to be for the purpose of laying “hold on eternal life [lit., ‘life for the age’ (life for the 1,000-year Messianic Era)], to which you were also called…”
That is, successfully completing the present race of “the faith [‘faith’ in this verse is articular in the Greek text — ‘the faith’]” and, as a consequence, subsequently occupying a position with Christ in His kingdom, is that to which a person has been called. It is realizing the very purpose for his salvation.)
Then note Jude 3 where an intensified form of the word agonizomai (epagonizomai) is used, translated “earnestly contend.” Jude wanted to write about salvation by grace through faith (v. 3a), but the Spirit of God led him to write about something entirely different.
The Spirit of God led Jude to write about the same thing Paul centered his epistles on, and the same thing the writers of Hebrews, James, Peter, and John also centered their epistles on. Jude was constrained to write to Christians about the importance of straining every muscle of their being with respect to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3b).
Jude — as Peter in his second epistle, and as Paul on numerous occasions in his ministry and epistles — centered his exhortation to earnestly contend “for the faith” around warnings against false teachers (cf. Acts 20:29-31; 1 Timothy 1:18-20; 2 Timothy 2:15-26; 3:1-8). And these false teachers were revealed to be individuals speaking perverse things against — not salvation by grace through faith — but “the Word of the Kingdom,” “the faith.”
In 2 Peter 2:19-21, men speaking perverse things against “the faith,” are seen (at least, in this text) to be individuals who were knowledgeable concerning the Word of the Kingdom (the word translated “knowledge” in v. 20 is from epignosis [“mature knowledge”] in the Greek text, a knowledge through which they had previously “escaped the pollutions of the world” [cf. 2 Peter 1:3, 4]). They understood the Word of the Kingdom and were, at one time, engaged in the race of the faith after a correct fashion; but they had turned against what they knew to be correct teaching concerning “the faith” and had begun promulgating error, misleading numerous Christians.
Then, those who are seen in 2 Timothy 3:1-8 were individuals “ever learning,” but, in this ever learning process, they had never been “able to come to the knowledge [Greek: epignosis (also in 2:25)] of the truth.” They were men who resisted “the truth,” they were men of “corrupt minds,” and they were “reprobate [Gk., adokimos, ‘disapproved,’ ‘rejected’; (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:27, where adokimos is also used)] concerning the faith” (vv. 7, 8).
These were individuals who failed to understand “the faith”; and they taught, by example, contrary to that which they failed to understand, misleading many. And they, exactly like the false teachers in 2 Peter and Jude, were not only looked upon as disapproved and rejected now but they would also be disapproved and rejected before the judgment seat.
2. Futuristic Use by Christ
Then Christ, previously, during His earthly ministry — looking at the end result of all the apostasy and false teaching relative to “the faith” — had called attention to one sublime truth. The end result, caused by the working of the leaven which the woman placed in the three measures of meal very early in the dispensation (Matthew 13:33), will be a complete rejection of teachings surrounding the Word of the Kingdom by Christendom at the end of the dispensation. The leaven will work until it has corrupted the whole of Christendom, with this corruptive work centering on the Word of the Kingdom.
Christ asked the question, “Nevertheless when the Son of man comes, will He really find faith [‘the faith’] on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). And the way in which the question is worded in the Greek text necessitates a negative response. The Son of Man is not going to find “the faith” being taught in the churches throughout the land at the time of His return.
Though the central message which is supposed to be taught to Christians concerns “the faith,” though the central message throughout all the epistles concerns “the faith,” though men like Peter and Paul wanted to stir Christians up by keeping teachings concerning “the faith” ever before them (Colossians 1:25-28; 2 Peter 1:12-15; 3:1, 2), Christians at the end of the dispensation will be found thinking along completely different lines.
Erroneous interpretation of Scripture throughout the churches, as it relates to the Word of the Kingdom, will be rampant. The churches, in this respect, will be Laodicean in their theology. And, as a result, the knowledge of Christians surrounding the Word of the Kingdom at the end of the dispensation will be nil, with their interest lying in other realms.
And segments of Christendom, existing after this fashion, may outwardly appear to be very fundamental in their approach to Scripture. Though the “Word of the Kingdom” will form no part of their theology, their beliefs and practices may outwardly appear to line up perfectly with Scripture.
But bear two things in mind: 1) True fundamentalism portends an adherence to the fundamentals of the faith, which would necessitate an adherence to the correct central teaching of Scripture; and 2) the leaven corrupting one area of Biblical doctrine can only, to varying degrees, extend over into other areas of biblical doctrine as well
(E.g., note the widely promulgated and accepted Lordship Salvation teaching. This is a false teaching surrounding salvation by grace through faith which exists under the guise of a fundamental approach to the message — a teaching which, through destroying the gospel of the glory of Christ, has corrupted the gospel of the grace of God [by taking Scriptures having to do with the gospel of the glory of Christ and attempting to teach the simple gospel of the grace of God from these Scriptures, Scriptures which have nothing to do with this gospel].)
That which has happened in Christendom is simply what the Word of God had previously stated would happen. The leaven is presently completing its work. And there is nothing whatsoever that man can do to either stop or curtail the working of the leaven. The matter is completely out of his hands. Christ alone can, and will, put a stop to the corruption being produced, but in His time.
Thus, the central message directed to Christians in Scripture is not going to be taught in the Churches of the land at the end of the dispensation. This fact, along with the reason, was plainly revealed by Christ when He was on earth the first time.
At such a time — when the leaven will have completed its work, permeating and corrupting the whole of Christendom — Christ is going to return, remove Christians from the earth, and judge Christians before His judgment seat in the heavens. And to realize the nearness of the hour, all a person has to do is lift up his eyes and look around.