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Previous article in this series: May 15, 2015, p. 368.

We concluded our last article with Paul’s assertion that to the Jews of the old dispensation the calling of the Gentiles was a mystery. And we noted that this was in spite of the fact that he knew very well that the Old Testament Scriptures were not silent concerning the fact that at the coming of the Messiah the grace of God would be proclaimed to the Gentile world. Think only of the prophecy of Isaiah: “I will also give thee [the Messiah] for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (Is. 49:6). And that this prophecy was not overlooked by the saints of the old dispensation is clear from Simeon’s reference to it when, pre-Pentecost, he held the baby Jesus in his arms: “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32).

Why, then, we might ask, does Paul declare concerning the calling of the Gentiles that “in other ages [it] was not made known unto the sons of men” (Eph. 3:5). Very likely the answer is to be found in the remainder of the sentence in question—simply this, that it was not made known in ages past “as [meaning as fully or as clearly as] it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Calvin elaborates on this matter in a way that is very instructive.

How then could that be [called] hidden which has been proclaimed by so many heralds? Why does Paul pronounce all without exception to have been in ignorance? Shall we say that the prophets spoke of what they did not know, and uttered sound without meaning?

I reply, the words of Paul must not be understood as if there had been no knowledge at all on these subjects…. The prophets themselves prophesied out of the certainty of revelation, but they left the time and manner undetermined. They knew that some communication of the grace of God would be made to the Gentiles, but when, how, or by what means was quite hidden from them. There was a remarkable instance of this sort of ignorance in the apostles. They had not only been taught about it by the predictions of the prophets, but had heard the distinct statement of their Master, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must gather in: and there shall be one fold and one shepherd” (John 10:16). And yet the novelty of the matter prevented them from understanding it fully. In fact, even after they had received the command, “Go preach to every creature” (Mark 16:15), and, “Ye shall be witnesses unto me from Samaria to the uttermost nations” (Acts. 1:8), they dreaded and recoiled from the calling of the Gentiles as a monstrosity, because its mode was still unknown to them. Before the actual event arrived, they had dark and confused apprehensions of Christ’s words; for the ceremonies were a kind of veil over their eyes. Therefore there is nothing absurd in Paul calling this a mystery, and saying that it had been hidden….

We should note, first of all, that when Calvin says that, with respect to the calling of the Gentiles, there was a “remarkable instance of this sort of ignorance in the apostles,” he does not mean to suggest that the ignorance was peculiar to them—that is, that it did not characterize also the church’s laity. It could be said of all of the earliest Jewish converts to Christianity that the “ceremonies were a kind of veil over their eyes,” so that they “recoiled from the calling of the Gentiles as a monstrosity.” And that was in spite of the fact that Peter had already preached this: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). They understood that the grace of God would somehow be extended also to the Gentile world, but “dark and confused” was their comprehension of that, because they knew not the “mode.” The “novelty of the matter kept them from understanding it further.” And clarity did not come before the “actual event arrived.”

Already the apostles had seen firsthand the ‘power’ of Pentecost. Three thousand converts the aftermath of a single sermon by one of them. Astounding! But that was a Jewish audience. Only part of the great commission: “… ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Can you imagine the progress they would have made in the Gentile world…if they preached proselytization? And that is to say nothing of the confusion there would have been in a proclamation of the gospel of free grace…plus circumcision. And yet, that was precisely what remained still to be resolved, namely, how to reach out to the Gentile world in obedience to the command of Christ.

And hardly is Calvin’s assertion an exaggeration, that the apostles at this point “recoiled from the calling of the Gentiles as a monstrosity.” Recall the reaction of Peter to the command of the Lord, in a vision, to rise and eat of the animals in a vessel like a sheet knit at the four corners and let down from heaven. Clean and unclean—a very much unholy mixture in the mind of Peter. Yet the command, “Rise and eat. Take your pick. No need any more to distinguish.” “Not so, Lord!” In Peter’s mind, monstrosity. He recoiled.

Shades of Jonah. “Go to Nineveh and preach? I can’t do it!” And then, after being intercepted on his way to Tarshish, and brought on his way to Nineveh by a large fish, his bitter disappointment when the fruit of his preaching in the capital city of the Assyrians was… repentance! To Jonah, a monstrosity. But why so?

It is not surprising. Consider that, for many of the centuries of the old dispensation, the church took the form of the existence of Israel as a nation. The line of separation between the people of God and the world was national.

The youthful nation of Israel, encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River (Deut. 1:1), had specific instructions for what to do when they crossed the river and entered the land promised to their fathers. Not: evangelize the nations, beginning with the inhabitants of Jericho. Quite the contrary: “When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites…thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them…. For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth…. And thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee; thine eye shall have no pity upon them…” (Deut. 7:1-16).

Jewish history, thus, helps explain Peter’s dilemma on the housetop of Simon the tanner in Joppa.

Then there were also the ceremonial barriers to which Calvin referred. Particularly, of course, the matter of circumcision. The ceremonial barriers had already been abolished by Christ in His death. Abolished, that is, in reality, not in the minds of the members of the early New Testament church. The command of Christ, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), and “Ye shall be witnesses unto me… unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8) had not yet resolved the issue. “The question that still waited for practical solution, was,” says Fairbairn, “Were those who might embrace the call from other nations to be received without circumcision? Could they find an entrance into the church of Christ without passing through the gate of Judaism?” Never, writes Calvin, would Peter “have dared to open the gates of heaven to the Gentiles unless God Himself had removed the wall.”

Indeed, there still was that question that “waited for practical solution,” namely, how does the Levitical system figure into the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentile world?

“Practical solution”? Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Peter was confronted by a practical problem that required a theological solution. It was a solution that could, conceivably, have been revealed to Peter at an earlier time, but it was reserved for the moment in which, in the providence of God, he had to grapple with its practical application. On that…next time.

… to be continued.