Upon This Rock (18): Robbing Christ of His Honor (10)

Previous article in this series: February 15, 2014, p. 226.

In our last article we examined briefly the “veil,” as Calvin called it, that separated the Law from the Gospel such that the saints of old were not able to “see more closely the things that are now revealed to our eyes.” The object of their hope, we saw, was mystery—which by definition is something that is beyond the reach of the human mind, apart from revelation. Christ Himself demonstrated the truth of that when, after His resurrection, He breathed on His disciples, saying, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22), and then proceeded to show from the Old Testament Scriptures that what they had seen before their eyes in the past several days was not only exactly what He Himself had predicted beforetime but also what the prophets of old had foretold (Luke 24:44). Enlightened thus by the Spirit, the disciples at long last understood.

Understood, that is, the death and resurrection of their Lord. Other aspects of the ‘mystery of Christ’ could conceivably have been revealed at the same time. After all, if the disciples could be made to understand the death and the resurrection of Christ, they could also be made to understand His exaltation. But the Master Teacher chose not to do that. Though His reasons and methodology in this instance belong surely to those “ways” that are “past finding out” (Rom. 11:33), we can see and appreciate some of the wisdom of it. We do well to recall, first of all, that the things that Christ was making manifest to His disciples were not only mysteries but mind-boggling mysteries. If Christ were to have dispersed the shadows with, as it were, one sweep of His hand, so that all the treasures of heavenly wisdom were displayed at once, the disciples would have been simply overwhelmed, dazzled, by it. Jesus would help them, and give them time, to ‘process’ one glorious aspect of the mystery at a time.

Besides, pedagogically speaking, as we noted also last time, no better exposition of the prophecies of the Old Testament can be found than the event itself. The psalmists and the prophets had indeed spoken of the wonder of the incarnation, and of the death and resurrection of the Christ, and of His exaltation. But when was it that each of those prophecies was explained? Not till the angel Gabriel could speak of the supernatural conception in the womb of the virgin Mary. Not till the angel of the Lord could point the shepherds to a stable in Bethlehem. Not till Christ could direct the attention of His disciples to a cross on Calvary. Not till He could stand suddenly in their midst in the upper room without having gone through the door, and then show them His hands and His feet. Not till He ascended, bodily, before their very eyes. Prophecies explained…by the events.

With Jesus’ help, therefore, the Eleven had come a long way in their understanding of the mystery of Christ. Not yet, however, were they able to take up their role as “witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). “Wait,” Jesus told them, “for the promise of the Father…. Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and 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 1:4, 8).

The apostles learned the truth of that ten days later, when a fisherman by trade, Peter by name, faced unexpectedly a crowd of people numbering in the thousands and he…preached a sermon! Extemporaneously!

A difficult situation, by anyone’s estimation. And the confidence with which Peter simply became master of it must have surprised him fully as much as the sudden ability to speak in foreign languages surprised all the disciples who had discovered it in themselves moments before. “Ye shall receive power.” Ah, yes, the disciples were learning fast what Jesus had meant by that.

The sermon of Peter was a masterpiece. With unerring logic and well-reasoned argumentation he developed the theme of it, which was this, that salvation is in Jesus, who is the promised Messiah, and that the Holy Spirit is, in fact, the Spirit of the risen Lord. His conclusion: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). “The summing up,” says Lenski, “is so masterly that it could have been made only by inspiration from the Spirit even as the entire sermon bears the plainest marks of the Spirit.”

On reflection, especially in consideration of the amazing fruits of that sermon (no fewer than three thousand “gladly received his word” and were “added unto them,” Acts 2:41), Peter must have been astounded at how powerfully the Lord had used him that day.

“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Surely it would seem, would it not, that the apostles were equipped now with all they needed in order to carry out that commission of their resurrected and ascended Lord.

But they were not. Another great aspect of the mystery of Christ remained still to be revealed. And, in keeping with the methodology of the Master Teacher as we mentioned above, it would be revealed in close connection with its practical application to the church’s labors. We refer, of course, to the calling of the Gentiles.

That was huge. Paul, in fact, in his letter to the Ephesians, calls it the mystery: “…by revelation he made known unto me the mysterywhich in other ages [that is, in all the centuries of the old dispensation] was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Eph. 3:3-6).

But why do we concern ourselves with that in this series of articles? Because, as it seems to me, this history demonstrates the beauty, and the obscurity, of the shadows; the difficulty involved in making the transition from the old to the new covenant; and the wisdom of the Spirit’s method of instruction. I would like, therefore, in this and the next article or two, to look at the bringing of Christ’s “other sheep” into the fold (John 10:16), or, as Paul put it in Ephesians 2, the breaking down of the “middle wall of partition,” making both Jew and Gentile one.

At the time of the writing of his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul was imprisoned in Rome. Fascinating history forms the backdrop of that imprisonment. We draw attention here only to its occasion, that is, what it was that brought Paul into the Roman judicial system. It happened at the conclusion of his third missionary journey. Paul, you will remember, had come to Jerusalem, where he was recognized by some Asian Jews as the apostle to the Gentiles. They recognized also Paul’s companion at the time, an Ephesian by the name of Trophimus. On seeing Paul later in the temple, they simply assumed that Paul had taken Trophimus into this sacred place (Acts 21:29). Infuriated by the very thought of it, they stirred up the people by hurling two charges against the apostle. The second, and the more inflammatory of the two, was that Paul had “brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath [by so doing] polluted this holy place” (v. 28).

Paul was set upon forthwith by a mob of Jews who, having seized him and dragged him out of the temple, “went about to kill him” (Acts 21:31)—only to have him rescued from their hands by Roman “soldiers and centurions” (v. 32).

In stark contrast to the spirit of his assailants, who were bent on killing him, Paul thought to use the occasion to try to win over his countrymen to the cause of Christ. “I beseech thee,” said Paul to the chief captain, “suffer me to speak unto the people” (v. 39).

Perhaps awed by this unexpected development, the people actually quieted down, for we read that, when there “was made a great silence” (Acts 21:40), Paul gave his defense. He explained to them how it happened that one who had once himself been consumed by a murderous zeal against the followers of Christ had been subdued by nothing less than an oracle from heaven.

And the Jews actually listened quietly—until he got to this point: “And he [the ascended Lord] said unto me, Depart [from Jerusalem], for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). “They gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live” (Acts 22:22).

Making mention of his mission to the Gentiles was like touching a raw nerve in this gathering. Throwing off their outer robes, as if in preparation for a stoning, they scooped up dust, which was all they could get their hands on here, and threw it in the direction of Paul (v. 23). Such was their pride, writes Calvin, that “not only did they despise the whole world in comparison with themselves, but they fought more passionately for their own dignity than for the Law itself, as if the whole of religion turned on this point, that the descendants of Abraham excelled over all other mortals.”

Not that the Jews believed that no Gentile could be saved. Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said, would “compass sea and land to make one proselyte” (Matt. 23:15). Conversion of Gentiles—yes. But by way of proselytization. For a Gentile to have any hope of heaven, he would have to buy into the entire Levitical and traditional system of Jewry. No wonder is it that Christ pronounced His woe on the Pharisees for making such a convert “twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.” No wonder, either, is it, then, that the Jews in Jerusalem would anathematize Paul. They knew full well what Paul was doing in the provinces. Gentiles were being welcomed into the church as “fellowheirs” of the promise of God to Abraham. Gentiles, that is, as Gentiles. Paul made proselytes of…none of them.

That was the mystery to which Paul was referring in the first verses of the third chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians—“the mystery…that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs….” The mystery, further, that “in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men….”

Paul may very well have been able to quote Isaiah 11:10 from memory: “And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek….” What, then, could he have meant by declaring here, concerning the calling of the Gentiles, that it was “not made known in other ages”? More on that…next time.

…to be continued.