From Christ’s ascension into heaven, the Divine stopwatch started ticking. This partly accounts for the extreme urgency noticeable in many of the New Testament writings.
In a real sense, the kingdom was “at hand” from the time of John the Baptist’s ministry to the final days of Jewish commonwealth. But we see it start to recede from view in the Book of Acts.
In the Old Testament, it was God the Father who had offered Israel the Kingdom. In the Gospels, the same offer was made by God the Son. In the Book of Acts, a third and final offer of the Kingdom was made to nation by the Holy Spirit. It was how Israel received this last offer that determined the flow of events recorded therein.
They were preaching repentance to Israel first, since the prophecies of Christ’s suffering were now fulfilled, and the “glory that would follow” was ready to be manifested (1 Peter 1: 11).
On the Day of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit from on high set into motion the beginning of those “last days” spoken of by the prophet Joel (Acts 2: 16-21; Joel 2: 28-32).
Peter’s Pentecostal sermon announced that when David spake in Psalm 16 of his soul not being left in hell, nor the Lord’s Holy One seeing corruption, he was not speaking of himself. He was speaking of Christ. The fact that Jesus the persecuted Nazarene had risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, and shed forth the promised Spirit upon the nation, was proof that He was the Messiah looked for in the Davidic Covenant.
It is needless to remind the reader that this promise of the Father to send the Holy Spirit involves Israel nationally, and is closely allied to prophecies regarding Israel’s ultimate deliverance from the Gentile enemies of God (see Joel 3).
What Peter was saying, in effect, was that Jesus had been manifested to the nation as Christ, and was ready to come back to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies of the Kingdom. Things were being set in motion even as he spoke.
In his second sermon which followed the healing of the lame man in the temple, Peter repeated his statement that the prophecies of Christ’s suffering were fulfilled, and now only the promises of glory remained. “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, for the blotting out of your sins, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Him who was before proclaimed to you, Jesus Christ, whom the heavens must contain till the times of restoration of all things, of which spake God by the mouth of all the holy prophets from of old” (Acts 3: 19-21).
The phrase rendered “from of old” has been translated “since the world began” in the Authorized Version. It literally means “from the age” (ap aionos). It takes us back as far as the fall of Adam, and perhaps farther. These times of restoration which Peter is talking about are not figurative or allegorical, but involve the renewal of the physical earth. As the Second Adam, Christ was ready to come back and reign over earth from city of Jerusalem, just like the Hebrew prophets had predicted.
What was unknown to the prophets was the length of time between the sufferings of Christ and the promised glories of the kingdom. The prophets saw these as twin mountain peaks that appeared close together, but were in fact separated by the wide valley of the present Dispensation. Their prophecies deal with things prepared “from the foundation of the world;” while the things hidden from BEFORE the foundation of the world had yet to be revealed. We will see Israel’s “Kingdom Program” start ramping down once Paul begins to reveal the hidden part of God’s agenda.
Israel could have fast-tracked the kingdom by accepting Christ as the “Bridge” from the Peak of Suffering to the Peak of Glory. Instead of taking His hand, however, they chose to make the descent into the Valley of The Church Age. This sad “descent” took forty years to accomplish. It would rob them of the glories of the Kingdom for a time; though the valley itself is filled with beauties of its own, and is still overshadowed by the heaven-lit peak of the Millennial Age.
In the early chapters of the Book of Acts, the national rejection of the apostolic message had not yet made itself known. The slate had been wiped clean, and it was a new day for the House of Israel and House of Judah. Had the nation continued in the vein of Acts 2, and accepted the “Good News” that was being offered, all the remaining prophecies which Peter quoted from Joel would have been fulfilled. That would have included the cosmic signs as well. But as we will see, none of this happened. The coming of the Spirit would not change the national character of Israel. For the leaders were still set against Christ.
As Christ is rejected in the land, the Gospel extends outward, until ultimately it overflows the land of Jerusalem into Samaria, Joppa, Caesarea, Antioch, and beyond. The Gospel of The Kingdom was being preached first. Only when that message was rejected was the Gospel of the Grace of God sent out.
These are really not separate Gospels, but opposite ends of one grand truth. The Gospel of the Kingdom is the earthward aspect of the “good news” of salvation. The Gospel of God’s Grace is its heavenward aspect. One stresses the coming of the King and the “soon” establishment of His kingdom. The other emphasizes the believer’s current exaltation with Christ in the heavenlies. As the one recedes from view, the other becomes more pronounced. The Gospel of the Kingdom was mostly proclaimed by the twelve. The Gospel of the Grace of God was mostly proclaimed by Paul. One was preached chiefly to the Jews. The other was preached chiefly because the Jews rejected it. We should rid ourselves of any notion that there is a crisply defined chronological marker between the preaching of the two “Gospels.” Dispensational changes are generally transitional in nature.
The Divine playbook for the preaching of the Gospel in its entirety is Christ’s parable of the wedding supper (Matthew 22: 1-14). During a forty year period, the Gospel went out to the Jew first. When national rejection and persecution of the King’s messengers issued in the destruction of Jerusalem, the same message would go out into highways. The highways give access to the “The world at large.” The process had already begun after the stoning of Stephen.
The history of Christendom from Pentecost onward, and especially after A.D. 70, has been a corroboration of this playbook. Prior to Jerusalem’s fall, Christianity is essentially Jewish. But this changes once the sub-apostolic period begins. In the writings of Clement, the Didache, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and others, we see Christian doctrine shorn of its Judaistic elements, and sense that we are on Gentile ground. Christianity was a Jewish faith, until the martyrdom of the apostles and destruction of Jerusalem caused it to go worldwide. It would have been an exclusively Jewish church had the nation accepted the apostolic message. Because they rejected it, the door of entrance was opened to the Gentiles.
Of course, it should not be thought that Israel was ever “replaced” by the church. The Jews may not be visible in most of church history, but they are always held in reserve by God. Gentiles can only have salvation through Israel’s covenants. The perpetuity of the covenants requires the perpetuity of the nation. Even the New Covenant is a covenant made with Israel. The coming of the Holy Spirit was a promise of the Father to Israel. Claim that Israel has been superseded, and the covenants become null and void.
The stoning of Stephen was a crisis in the history of that period. Stephen gave a blistering arraignment of Israel’s past history–especially as it related to their continually resisting the Holy Ghost. It was a message that might have had a different ending. Stephen saw the heavens opened and Christ standing (Acts 7: 55-56)–ready to return if only His people would accept Him.
The leaders’ acceptance of Stephen’s testimony would have augmented the influx of Israelites into the church on such a level that the parousia would have commenced. Of course, there were prophecies that needed to be fulfilled before the kingdom could be established: signs in the heavens, the rise of Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, and so forth. Most of these occupy the last week of Daniel’s 70. Incidentally, so does the parousia.
The parousia is vividly described in Revelation chapters 4 through 19, and also in Daniel 7. It involves the descent of the Lord Jesus Christ from the “third heaven” to the “first heaven” to set up His judicial court over the earth. It begins what we call “The Day of The Lord.” Once Christ makes His descent, Satan will be ejected from the his position as “prince of the power of the air,” and will fall to earth, triggering the rise of the Beast–that resurrected Nero who will occupy the last half of the week. The Great Tribulation will follow.
If the Jews had accepted Christ, the Gentiles would have initiated a massive persecution (John 11: 48-50), bringing the fulfillment of Joel’s, as well as related apocalyptic prophecies, to a completion. But the continued opposition of the nation’s leaders prevented this from happening. The parousia was as close as it could get to the nation when Stephen testified to the heavens being open and Christ standing. It was still “at hand” until the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.
From a study of the Apocalypse, we can gauge the mechanics of the parousia. That there needs to be a first-fruits offering of national repentance consisting of 144,000 Israelites before the Lord of the Harvest will send His Son, is a position we consider self-evident. This first-fruits sheaf was being gathered together in the first century (James 1: 18). It started at Pentecost, when three thousand souls were added to the church (Acts 2: 41), and continued with the accession of smaller numbers. However, we never find that there were 144,000 Jewish Christians alive at any given time from Pentecost to the destruction of the city. The number belongs to the period of Apocalyptic fulfillment.
It was the business of the Twelve to minister to Israel and gather up a national “first fruits offering” to offer to the great High Priest. This was so crucial because it would bring about a return of the Lord to Jerusalem, and national conversion and blessing. It would be a restoration of the kingdom to Israel.
An examination of the Acts period, as well as the writings of Peter and James, make this abundantly clear. Paul penned Hebrews to stress the dangers of falling away during this time, and to incite the Jews to perseverance. During the forty year period, the judge was still at the door, and the parousia could still be hastened. But a falling away of Jewish converts would be disastrous to the “Kingdom Program.” So the apostles did all they could to accommodate Jewish proprieties; Paul even circumcising Timothy (Acts 16: 3), and this right on the heels of the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15).
At Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem before his arrest, James told him that there were “many thousands” of Jews that believed, and that he should take pains not to offend their religious qualms (Acts 21: 20-24).
The Mosaic ordinances were nailed to the cross in A.D. 30 (Colossians 2: 14). This was signified by the rending of the veil that gave access into the holiest of all (Mark 15: 38). Why the fuss over maintaining Judaistic rites and practices when all these things had been done away? It was because the apostles knew that the kingdom can only come through Israel. Salvation of of the Jews (John 4: 22). To the Israelites pertain “the adoption, and the glory, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises” (Romans 9: 4).
A Jewish departure from the faith would ruin everything, preventing the first-fruits sheaf from being waved and postponing the coming of the Kingdom. Thus, they did what expediency required to confirm the Mosaic ordinances, even though aware that a great Dispensational change had taken place. It was not out of any fear of offending such as the “Pharisees who believed” that motivated them. For their decision at the Jerusalem Council made it clear that Gentiles were not bound to observe the law of Moses. It was their desire not to alienate their own countrymen in questions of mere religious conscience (see Romans 14). Peter lived as the Gentiles, and not as the Jews (Galatians 2: 14). But his ministry was still primarily to Israel, and like Paul, he desired to see them saved. To be “all things to all men” was probably the apostles’ default approach.
Peter and James, as well as Paul, were hoping to get the Jews saved “en masse” so that the kingdom-promises could finally be realized. A first fruits offering acceptable to the Lord, and the harvest would be inevitable. The twelve tribes were instantly serving God day and night hoping to attain the promise (Acts 26: 7). The resurrection of Christ had restored them to a lively hope (1 Peter 1: 3). It was the hope of the promise–the Hope Of Israel– for which Paul was bound in chains (Acts 28: 20). It was this hope that caused Paul to go to the Jew first whenever he entered any city.
The hope of Israel was front and center, and as real as it had ever been. But the fulfillment of the hope was uncertain during that forty year period. Would they enter into Kadesh-Barnea, or would they give an evil report? An evil report would cause that generation to pass away without realization of the promises.
We know now that the nation ended up rejecting the Gospel message. Israel was like a man out of whom the unclean spirit had been driven (Matthew 12: 43-45). For a time, they seemed to be willing to embrace the “good news.” But as the stopwatch ticked on, it became more evident that Israel had lost none of its national character.
The epistles are filled with indications that even within the churches, Jewish opposition was spreading its leaven. Paul’s constant need to defend himself from his detractors (e.g., 2 Corinthians 11: 22), Jude’s scathing polemic against the false teachers of that time (Jude 12), and John’s innuendos regarding many deceivers (2 John 7), all give indication that things were coming to a head. By A.D. 66, the last state of the nation was worse than the first. The destruction of Jerusalem a few years later would result in a postponement of the parousia, as well as of its promised blessings. But even at the eleventh hour it was not too late to repent.