An Examination of the Writings of Twelve Apostles
(© Jeffrey S. Bowman, all rights reserved, use by permission only)
This article is a discussion about the non-Pauline letters (Hebrews to Revelation) in the prospect of shedding light upon the question of the Twelve Apostles and the Body of Christ. It is also a plea to become as biblically consistent in a dispensational approach as possible. We are living in a time of inconsistency and many have no trouble espousing conflicting ideas. Yet as it has been said, "There is only one answer to a mathematical problem."
The subject of the Twelve Apostles and the Body of Christ has been studied and restudied by dispensationalists. Some have concluded that the Twelve are part of the Body of Christ while others say absolutely not. This continual debate has caused many to lose sight of the vast importance of the question even to the point of ridiculing the subject. Yet the subject is really of utmost importance in our understanding of the New Testament.
By no means do I think that I will (or even can) settle the question, however, I hope to present some ideas that will stimulate you to further study. This subject is far from being fully developed. If I can motivate you to think and re-think the issues, I will be satisfied.
It seems reasonable that an adequate dispensational interpretation seeks to keep Israel separate and distinct from the Body of Christ in all areas of theology that are distinguished within scripture. Hopefully we want to discriminate where God does, not going beyond or stopping short in our applications of God-given dispensational principles. If we do stop short we fall into an inconsistent dispensational position that could be termed "hypo-dispensationalism." Also if we force the text and go beyond what seems natural we might find ourselves in a "hyper-dispensationalist" state.
Dispensationalism is not a negative term. It is a very descriptive term which embodies the method of Bible study that pays close attention to the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the scripture text. This is in accord with a literal, grammatical, historical, and contextual approach to the Bible. Thus while some have made Dispensationalism into a theological system with predefined assumptions, I think it better fits as a form of Biblical hermeneutics.
Dispensationalists have noticed Biblically that Paul was the apostle to the Body of Christ (Col. 1:24-26). He was given the truth of the mystery (Eph. 3:1-10), which simply put is the equality between the Jews and the Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-19; 3:6). This equality goes beyond salvation. Gentile salvation was prophesied in the Old Testament (Zech. 8:23; Isa. 11:10; etc.), whereas the Body of Christ, which consists of Jews and Gentiles on equal standing, was not. It was in the words of Paul, "in other generations not made known unto the sons of men" because it was, "from the ages hidden in God" (Eph. 3:5,9). Coupled with this is the distinctive heavenly character of the Body of Christ (Phil. 3:20,21).
In complete contrast to this is the apostleship of the Twelve. They were apostles to the nation of Israel (Lk. 22:28-30; Gal. 2:7,8; Jas. 1:1; etc.). Their preaching concerned the kingdom of Christ that would be set up on earth in connection with Old Testament prophecy (Acts 3:19-26; 2 Pet. 1:11; 3:1-13; Revelation).
Up to this point most consistent dispensational Bible believers agree. The issue, therefore, really is what to do with the writings of the Twelve Apostles? (which are also called the "general epistles") If the primary recipients of their letters were members of the Body, then the authors are also of necessity in the Body, for they include themselves in the contents of their writings. As you read their writings this is clearly seen. Therefore, how we view the Twelve Apostles in relationship to the Body of Christ influences our interpretation of their writings. The reverse also holds true, how we interpret the general epistles influences our view of the Twelve.
Many say that Paul's writings reveal "Body truth" but the general epistles were written to members of the Body of Christ. This view does not satisfy the question, for if the readers of the general epistles belong to the Body of Christ, then surely the writings must contain "Body truth." If not, what kind of truth do they contain? How are we to understand their contents that have references to apparent theological differences from Paul? Many either interpret these letters in light of Paul's or else the reverse. But is this the only option? No. We can let them stand in their own historical and dispensational setting and acknowledge the differences. We must somehow deal with these issues and as we do let us strive to be dispensationally consistent. Either the Twelve are in the Body and write Body truth or as I propose they are not and do not.
Keeping the Twelve in their original calling of Israel provides dispensational consistency in many vital areas of New Testament study.
THE MAJOR AREA -- The Separation of Israel and the Church
Israel was God's chosen people (Ex. 19:3-5). They were promised the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8; Josh. 1:1-6). To go with this they were promised a King, a Messiah, who is the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 19:27,28; 26:64). God told Israel:
This is what the Old Testament said about Israel. Notice what Peter says to his readers:
You also, as lively stones are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood... You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people... (1 Pet. 2:5,9).
Thus Peter confirms what Israel was to be to God. Paul the Apostle never calls the Body of Christ "an holy priesthood" or "an holy nation." No one has the right to take these things away from Israel. Even John in Revelation writes to Israel telling them, "And has made us a kingdom, priests unto God..." (Rev. 1:6). I am amazed how that Christians today can talk about being "Spiritual Israel" or "the Priesthood of the Believer." Such terms are in used in an incorrect manner.
The contents of the general epistles concern Israel, her kingdom, and King. This fact is borne out by Paul. Notice what he says about the pillars in the kingdom church, James, Peter and John:
When they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter, (for he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles). And when James, Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship, that we should go unto the Gentiles and they unto the circumcision. (Gal. 2:7-9)
These "pillars" were to go to the Jews. And when we read their writings we find out they did!
And since John was a "pillar" in this Jerusalem "kingdom" church can we expect anything different from him? No. He didn't break the promise of Galatians 2:7-9.
From this major area of difference between Paul's writings and those of the Twelve spring resultant points of theological distinction: how each present the coming of Christ (i.e. the Rapture vs/ 2nd. Coming); the eternal destiny of the believer (Heavenly vs/ earthly hope); and soteriological issues (Lordship Salvation, eternal security, faith vs/ works). These must be investigated by a literal, grammatical, historical, and dispensational hermeneutic. May our God lead us in a fuller understanding of His Word.