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Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15)
Established November 2008 Published weekly on Friday
This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men (and women) to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1Timothy 2:3-4)
Welcome to HBS. I want y’all to know, whether you are a Bible study group meeting regularly or an individual sitting there comfortably at home interested in knowing what this book says and what it does not say, my sincere prayer is you are growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord (2 Peter 3:18). Or, as I’ve been saying lately, you are learning at least one new thing every week.
Introduction to Chapter 3
The emphasis of chapter 3 is similar to that of the book of Hebrews. It is a comparison between the Old Testament (Covenant) and the New Testament (Covenant). Put another way, “How are sinful humans made right with a holy God in this dispensation?”
In times past, the first eleven chapters of Genesis reveal how the LORD God dealt with the whole human race. In chapter twelve, however, God began a revolutionary, new, divine program or plan. No longer would He deal with all of humanity directly. Instead, He would deal with a specific group of chosen people, separated from the human race. These people would eventually act as His intermediaries; they would be become salt and light to the Gentile world; a royal priesthood (Exodus 19:6). It began when God sought out a man named Abram. From this righteous man of faith came this new race of people who would be known as the Jews (Genesis 12, 15; Hebrews 11:8-10). Through the Jews, and them alone, God would reveal Himself to mankind and from this race of people would come the Messiah – the Savior of all mankind (Genesis 12:3; 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 2:1-12; Isaiah 7:14; 9:1-2, 9:6-7. 42:1-6).
Under the Old Testament program (The Dispensation of the Law) the only way a Jew could find favor with God was based on obeying each and every one of the 613 commandments contained within the Law (Deuteronomy 6:5-17). We know on this side of the Cross it was impossible for anyone to keep the Law because it was impossible to do so. It would be like trying to empty a basin of water with a fork! The LORD God set up a religious system requiring animal sacrifices to provide a temporary covering of sins in the O.T. and to foreshadow the perfect and complete (once and done) future sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Leviticus 4:35, 5:10) for without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (of sin) (Hebrews 9:22).
However, Scripture says: it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He (Jesus Christ) comes into the world, He says, “SACRIFICE AND OFFERING YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, BUT A BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME; In WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN YOU HAVE TAKEN NO PLEASURE. “THEN I SAID, ‘BEHOLD I HAVE COME (IN THE SCROLL OF THE BOOK IT IS WRITTEN OF ME) TO DO YOUR WILL, O GOD.’” (Hebrews 10:4-7).
But now, after the conversion of Saul/Paul, the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:12-17), salvation is by faith (alone) in the gospel of Jesus Christ or trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord for the remission of your sins. Our Apostle Paul was the first person saved under this new, divine program, thus making him the first member baptized into the Body of Christ and the first member of God’s one Church. So, Paul’s salvation marks the beginning of the Church Age or the Dispensation of God’s Grace.
I want to spend some time on this, since Paul opened the door on the topic with these words but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant (Romans 2:16, 16:25; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 15:1-4; Ephesians 3:3-9; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 1:24-27).
Please open your Bible at 2 Corinthians, chapter 3:1-6
Ministers of a New Covenant
2 Corinthians 3:1-6
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You (Corinthians) are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter (of the Law) but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (eternal).
The defiant members of the Corinthian Church were denying Paul’s apostleship. Yet the Scriptural facts are these: Jesus Christ hand-picked twelve men from the land of Israel to be His apostles – these were the only twelve. Later, in their humanness, they asked Jesus what they would receive for serving Him. Jesus promised these same men they would sit on twelve thrones in the coming kingdom and would rule with Christ over the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). After Judas betrayed Jesus Christ and then later committed suicide, only eleven remained. Matthias was scripturally appointed to take his place in order to bring the number back up to the required twelve. We know God didn’t object to Matthias; in fact it was in keeping with God’s plan because in Acts 2:4 this book says: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost (KJV).
Therefore, it’s a mistake to teach the eleven erred when they chose Matthias as Judas’ replacement or that they should have waited for God’s man, Paul, to fill Judas’ place.
According to this book, at this point in time Saul was intent on persecuting those Jews who believed in Jesus Christ as the Messiah! He also failed to meet the conditions to be an apostle as mentioned in Acts 1:21-22: “Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us (apostles) all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us - beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us – one of these (men) must become a witness with us of His resurrection.
If you’re familiar with the book of Acts, then you know there was an urgent need for the twelfth apostle, since the earthly establishment of the kingdom was to be offered at Pentecost (Acts 2:14, 3:19-21). Now you have to do some reading in the book of Acts to gather this information but it’s all there. When you reach Acts 7, you’ll find the religious leaders rejected Stephen’s (Jewish) testimony, but more to the point they rejected the Holy Spirit (v51). God could have stepped in at that time and judged both the nation of Israel and the God-hating gentile world. But God did something astonishing instead. In fact, God did something extraordinary. He saved Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, which was outside the land of Israel on gentile ground (Acts 9). Saul was the zealous leader of the rebellion against the Messianic movement, but God saved him and appointed him an apostle to preach to all men, Jew and Gentile, “the gospel of the grace of God,” ushering in a brand new program or administration.
It was through our Apostle Paul that the present, Dispensation of God’s Grace was ushered in (Ephesians 1:9-13) and the Church Age began. I mentioned earlier that I intended to go over this topic with y’all. The best place to start is with Paul’s own words, i.e. Scripture itself, so please turn with me in your Bible to 1Timothy 1:12-17.
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost (chief – KJV translation) of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
I continue to point out, for your benefit, that I use multiple Bible translations, in my own personal Bible study and while compiling these Bible lessons for y’all; and for good reason. The Bible passage above has been greatly misunderstood. Most teach the main point of the passage is Paul’s admission that he is “the chief of sinners,” or put another way, he is the greatest sinner that ever lived. In the translation above, The New American Standard Bible has added “of all” to ensure this point is driven home (v15). But even worse than that is the New English Translation which adds, “…and I am the worst of them!” These Bible translations (and others) do not help the serious Bible student understand what this passage is actually saying.
Saul/Paul was a great sinner; he admits it (1 Corinthians 15:9), but was he the worst sinner, ever - I think not. Caligula, Judas, and Nero lived during this time period and all three or any one of the three could arguably be rated a worse sinner than Saul of Tarsus. But leaving that argument aside, it’s a mistake to think Paul’s sinfulness is the main point of this passage.
The word foremost (chief) in the Greek language is Protos (pronounced: pro’-tos), Adjective, Strong’s Greek #4413, and its primary meaning is – first in time, place, in any succession of things or persons. It is found 156 times in the N.T. with our Apostle Paul using the term 29 times and each time it was used for this purpose.
If you read verse 15 of this passage straightforwardly it reads like this: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom “I am the first.” The reason translators have translated the word foremost to mean worst is they have no idea what Paul meant by his declaration that he was the “the first” of sinners. They linked this statement to his comment in verse 13 without carefully considering the entire passage.
Had they examined Paul’s statement in verse 16 carefully, it would have helped them discover their error. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the (what) foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as (what) an example (as a pattern) for those who would (thereafter) believe in Him for eternal life.
Paul declared he was “a pattern” for those who would believe in Jesus Christ for eternal life. Elsewhere Paul emphasized he was a “pattern” by his commands for Believers to imitate or copy him. No one else did this; and I’m referring to Peter, James, John, Jude, etc. It’s highly significant that Paul did. What is a pattern after all if not a “blueprint” for something brand new, i.e. a first of its kind? It’s quite clear the Bible translators didn’t understand what Paul meant by this, which is why they mis-quoted him. To answer the question requires that we understand God’s revealed plan prior to Paul. This is why we’re taking the time to “Dig Deeper” into this subject.
God’s Revealed Plan (a.k.a. The Abrahamic Covenant)
As I pointed out already in this chapter’s introduction, in times past, the first 2,000 years of mankind’s existence on this planet are accounted for in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and reveal how the LORD God dealt with the entire human race. In Genesis chapter twelve, however, God began a revolutionary, new, divine program or plan. No longer would He deal with all of humanity directly. Instead, He would deal with a specific group of chosen people, separate from the human race.
The plan God revealed to Abram began with his call (about 2000 BC). The LORD God made a covenant with Abram which basically consisted of these three things: if he would put his faith in Him: 1) out of him would come a nation of people 2) He would establish him in a specific geographical area of land 3) and it naturally goes without saying the people would then need a government, but here’s the thing, God Himself would be their King.
Through these chosen people, God would give His covenants and promises. The covenants revealed God would establish His kingdom on the earth and the Messiah would reign (Isaiah 2, 11; Zechariah 14:9). In this kingdom, Israel will rule the nations (Deuteronomy 28:1, 13). As for Gentiles, they would be blessed through Israel (Isaiah 49:5-7, 60:1-3; Zechariah 8:20-23). These blessings had a condition. God’s blessings to Gentiles required Israel to become a nation of priests (Exodus 19:4-6). To achieve this, the nation had to accept their Messiah. When Israel’s Messiah arrived and presented Himself as their King, instead of recognizing Him, the Jews instigated His crucifixion. In Acts, we read that while thousands of Jews believed Jesus was their Messiah, the overwhelming majority continued to reject Him–especially the nation’s religious rulers. This rejection climaxed with Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7). Saul of Tarsus was an eye-witness of his execution (Acts 7:58-60).
God’s revelation in the Old Testament through the covenants and His prophets consisted of the revelation of the Messiah, rejection of the Messiah, God’s judgment, and the establishment of His kingdom on earth. God summarized these events in Psalm 2. God’s judgment or wrath is known as the Day of the Lord (Zephaniah 1:14-18) and Peter expected it to occur soon (Acts 2:14-21; Joel 2:28-32). But God did an astonishing thing. He interrupted His revealed, prophetic program or plan for an unknown period of time. In mercy, He delayed His righteous judgment, the Day of the Lord, and instead, He did something entirely unforeseen and unprophesied. God initiated and revealed a new plan–a plan of grace. Saul of Tarsus became God’s steward of this new, previously unrevealed plan; a parenthetical period of time we know as the Church Age.
Paul the Chief of Sinners - “the first”
Saul of Tarsus was a religious fanatic. He thought he was serving God by arresting, persecuting, torturing, and killing Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah. From a perspective of divine justice, he deserved death. But God did not kill him; He saved him. And in saving him God commissioned him to be “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13) to preach the “gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4) in which one is saved by faith (alone) apart from the Law of Moses. In addition to revealing this gospel by faith (alone), God revealed several other Church Age doctrines to Paul, which had been kept hidden since the foundations of the earth by the Creator God (Deuteronomy 29:29). Paul called these doctrines “secrets;” or mysteries.
Paul’s salvation (which came about 6 years after Pentecost) and the revelations he received from the risen Lord were what Paul had reference to when he spoke of himself as “the first.” Paul was the “first of sinners” in the sense that God saved him to inaugurate a whole new program. As “the first,” Paul was God’s prototype. To Paul, God revealed the “gospel of the grace of God” in which one is saved by faith (alone), i.e. by simply believing that Christ died for one’s sins, was buried, and rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). This gospel was entirely different from “the gospel of the kingdom” introduced by John the Baptist and Jesus Christ (Matthew 3:1-2, 4:17, 9:35).
I always go by what this book says, and it says that the twelve were not saved by believing Jesus Christ died for their sins, was buried, and rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures. They knew nothing about Jesus going up to Jerusalem where He would be spitefully treated, spit upon, suffer, and then be put to death, even when Jesus explained this to them (Luke 18:31-34). This book says Peter was saved by believing Jesus was the promised Messiah (Matthew 16:16-17). Martha was saved the same way, believing Jesus was the promised Messiah (John 11:25-27). How is one saved today? Is it by believing Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (John 3:16; Acts 8:34-37)? No, a person is saved today by believing Paul’s gospel (Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
The gospel Peter proclaimed for salvation on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38) was not Paul’s gospel. Peter did not tell the Jews on the day of Pentecost to believe Christ died for their sins, was buried, and rose from the dead, in order to be saved. Peter had no knowledge of this gospel until much later when Paul revealed it to him (2 Peter 14-18). The gospel Peter proclaimed at Pentecost was “the gospel of the kingdom” which required repentance and water baptism. A vast difference exists between this gospel and Paul’s gospel.
To get a handle on the change God initiated with Paul consider Peter’s experience with the Roman centurion Cornelius. God, in a vision, commanded Peter to go to Cornelius’ house. Peter went, but he went there reluctantly. I picture him mumbling, grumbling, and stalling all the way there. Why? I’ll tell you why, Cornelius was a Gentile. According to the Mosaic Law, Jews did not associate with Gentiles; it was forbidden. Prophetically speaking, the Gentile’s salvation or blessing was to come after the nation of Israel had accepted her Messiah – this hadn’t happened yet! But despite his uneasiness and reluctance to complete this task, based on his need to observe the Law, Peter eventually obeyed God.
Read through Acts 10:34-48 and note how Cornelius was saved. Compare his salvation experience to what happened at Pentecost. At Pentecost, the order of salvation was: 1) Repentance 2) Baptism 3) Receipt of the Holy Spirit. With Cornelius it was 1) Belief –implied 2) Receipt of the Holy Spirit 3) Baptism.
Why the difference? Acts 10 comes after Acts 9. Cornelius was saved after God saved Paul. Cornelius, by the preaching of Peter, was saved in an entirely different way than what Peter had proclaimed at Pentecost. Peter had just begun to warm up in his message to Cornelius when suddenly, Cornelius was saved. Peter did not utter a single word about repentance or water baptism. Cornelius just believed and received the Holy Spirit immediately. Peter and the Jews with him were stunned. It had never happened that way before. What was going on? I’ll tell you what was “going on.” Paul was “the first;” Paul’s salvation and apostolic commission opened up a whole new plan of salvation. Did Peter understand this? Not at all; it would take many years for Peter to understand the significance of this event (Acts 15:11).
After Cornelius and his household were saved, Peter went his way and continued to preach “the gospel of the kingdom.” In the meantime, God gave Paul the revelation to lay the foundation for an entirely new program in which sinners, both Jew and Gentile, were saved by faith (alone) apart from the Law of Moses. The ascended Lord revealed to Paul the Church, the Body of Christ, in which Jews and Gentiles were equal “in Christ.” But why had God commanded Peter to go to Cornelius’ house, a Gentile, if Peter did not understand what had happened? God always has a plan and He doesn’t always fill us in on the details (Deuteronomy 29:29). He would use this experience Peter had with Cornelius and his household 15 years later to help Paul at the Council of Jerusalem. But that’s another story.
Paul: the Founder of Christianity
Paul wrote this to the believers in Corinth: According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-11).
Paul wrote a similar message to Timothy: Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting (1 Timothy 1:16 - Authorized Version).
In both passages, Paul acknowledged God’s mercy and grace to him. As noted above, Paul, in his letter to Timothy, declared he was the “first” and a “pattern” for those who would soon be saved, if they believed. We find a similar, parallel text, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He wrote the Corinthians that he was the “architect” who laid the foundation. What does an architect do? He designs the building and lays its foundation. Is the foundation the first part of the building or the last? It is the first. One cannot start a structure without a foundation; it constitutes a new beginning.
What was that foundation? The foundation was Christ Himself and the truths He revealed to Paul (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). Paul called these truths “secrets.” The truths he received from the ascended Lord were just that–“secrets”– information God had kept hidden until He revealed them to Paul. These “secrets” form the content of the revelation the risen Lord gave to Paul as “the first.” After Paul learned these truths, he communicated them to others so “another” could build on the new foundation established by these truths. Paul issued a warning in the latter part of the verse: “But each man must be careful how he builds on it.” Since Paul’s teaching came directly from the Lord, those who build on Paul’s foundation (1 Corinthians 3.11), must be careful to follow his teaching.
Returning to the text, the Corinthians were wrong in their assumption that Paul was not an apostle, merely because he was not an original member of the twelve, or that he should have arrived in their city with a letter of commendation, or should have asked them for a letter a commendation (3:1) upon leaving them before ministering in other areas.
What greater letter of commendation could he have had than the Corinthian Church itself – the largest of all the churches he had planted - do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you (v1)? Furthermore, Paul said, “You (Corinthians) are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (v2-3).
In other words, there’s no substitute for a “living testimony;”these Believers had been saved to serve (Romans 12:1-2). They had been won over to Christ Jesus to tell others about Him and it’s in this way they were written on the apostle’s heart, not with ink, or on tablets of stone, but with “the Spirit of the living God.”
Paul goes on to say, “Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God (v4--5).” Paul understands what he just wrote may be misconstrued as bragging by some of the Corinthians, after all it is no small thing to say, “You are my letter of recommendation;” due to our efforts “you are known and read by all men.” No doubt a certain minority of Believers in Corinth would assume the worst of Paul but he was not a braggart and this isn’t what he was saying.
Paul was highly educated and an extremely intelligent man; He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees but he did not rely on his training in bringing people to Christ Jesus; he said, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God,” who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant (6a), meaning Paul and his co-workers didn’t consider themselves sufficient for the great task of changing lives for Jesus Christ only the Lord is sufficient for such a great undertaking (Acts 16:14).
Food For Thought
Too many people refuse to be used by God because they judge themselves to be “not yet ready” to be used by Him, but in a sense, we are never ready or worthy. If we were, the sufficiency would be in ourselves, in our abilities and talents, and not from God. Paul himself said, But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me (1 Corinthians 15:1). When things got tough, Paul relied on God’s grace to see him through. Paul knew that in himself he did not have what it took to be a competent apostle and spokesperson for the Lord but he did not rely on himself or his abilities; he relied on God: Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God (2 Corinthians 1:21). We all should thank God everyday that our Apostle Paul did not rely on his abilities or his strength but on God and the Holy Spirit to see him through each and every day to the next (Lamentations 3:22-24).
Permit me to close this lesson with these uplifting words from a spiritual leader of olde:
“Brethren, if Paul is not sufficient of himself, what are you and I? Do you indulge the dream of self-sufficiency? Be ashamed of your folly in the presence of a great man who knew what he said, and who spoke under the direction of the Spirit of God, and wrote deliberately, ‘Not that we are sufficient of ourselves…’” “Our sufficiency is of God; let us practically enjoy this truth. We are poor, leaking vessels, and the only way for us to keep full is to put our pitcher under the perpetual flow of boundless grace. Then, despite its leakage, the cup will always be full to the brim.” Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892)
(To be continued)
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