“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.”
These are the opening words of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, words that are often taken for granted, but words that are of great importance if we are to understand the Scriptures and properly discern God’s plan and purpose for believers in this present dispensation of grace.
Most believers make no distinction between Paul’s ministry and that of the Twelve. They lump Paul’s writings in with Peter’s, John’s, and even Jesus’ earthly teaching, assuming they all teach basically the same thing and are all written to us for our obedience. While some might think this would encourage unity among believers, it has resulted, instead, in unanswered questions, confusion, and disunity.
Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ, and while his ministry and apostleship were not the same as that of the Twelve, he was sent out in accordance with the will of God. Believers who stress the importance of studying the writings and ministry of Paul are often criticized as being “Paulites,” sometimes even accused of placing Paul above Christ. What these critics fail to see is: the unique nature of Paul’s ministry and apostleship, the special revelation given to Paul by the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, and the vital importance of Paul’s writings for believers today. In order to understand the nature of Paul’s apostleship, three key questions need to be answered: (1) How did Paul come to be an apostle? (2) What was Paul called to do? and (3) What was the nature of Paul’s ministry?
Paul’s Dramatic Conversion
Paul was originally known as Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:11, 21:39). His father was a Pharisee, one of Israel’s religious leaders (Acts 23:6). Saul was, therefore, raised according to the strictest sect of the Jews’ religion (Acts 26:5). He was trained in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the most respected teachers of the law (Acts 22:3). As a student, Saul advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries, being exceedingly zealous for the traditions of the fathers (Gal. 1:14). While Saul had a tremendous zeal for God (Acts 22:3), it was misplaced, for what he did, he did ignorantly in unbelief (1 Tim. 1:13).
We are introduced to Saul of Tarsus at the stoning of Stephen. Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, was falsely accused by the Jews of speaking against the temple and the law of Moses. Stephen was brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin and given an opportunity to defend himself against the charges. He used the time to witness to these Jewish leaders. At the close of his testimony, Stephen brought an indictment against the Jews, accusing them of resisting the witness of the Holy Spirit. By betraying and murdering the Lord Jesus, they had followed in the footsteps of their fathers, who killed the prophets God sent to them. The Jewish leaders were indignant, stopping up their ears and dragging Stephen outside to be stoned. The witnesses laid their coats down at the feet of the young man, Saul of Tarsus (Acts 7:58), who was in complete agreement that Stephen should die (Acts 8:1).
Saul had a zeal for God, but, like the majority of the Jews of his day, it was not according to knowledge. Saul, in his religious zeal, believed he could establish his own righteousness by keeping the traditions of the fathers. He was ignorant of God’s righteousness and refused to believe in God’s righteous Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:1-4). After the stoning of Stephen, Saul became the chief persecutor of the church, actively pursuing all who believed in Jesus of Nazareth as both Lord and Christ. Paul would later describe his persecution of the church this way:
“Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” (Acts 26:9-11)
It was while on the road to Damascus, where he intended to continue his persecution of Jesus’ disciples, that the life of Saul of Tarsus was changed forever. As he neared the city, suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. As he fell to the ground, he heard a voice from heaven saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? Saul answered, Who are You, Lord? and the Lord said, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads. Saul, trembling and astonished, responded, Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:3-6)
What a tremendous conversion this was—a life completely turned around, and all because of God’s marvelous grace! Saul was not seeking to know God through Christ, he was persecuting Him. Yet, when brought face to face with the Lord Jesus Christ, Saul came to see and believe that Jesus of Nazareth was truly Israel’s Messiah, the very Lord of glory. Saul later wrote to Timothy and described it this way:
“And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” (1 Timothy 1:14-16)
Saul’s salvation serves as a pattern to all who will believe in the Lord Jesus as Savior. If God’s grace could save Saul of Tarsus, after all the terrible sins he committed, it can save anyone, for “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20). Saul was saved when He heard the word of truth, from the Lord Jesus Himself, and believed it. It was not because of any goodness within him or because of any works of righteousness on his part (Tit. 3:5), but by simple faith in God’s Son (Eph. 2:8-9, John 3:16).
Saul, who was later called Paul, was saved by God for a purpose, but his calling was distinct from that of those who were apostles before him, particularly the Twelve.
Paul’s Distinct Calling
In the first chapter of the book of Acts, the apostle Peter directed the apostles to select a replacement for Judas Iscariot, who had betrayed Jesus. They narrowed the candidates to two and then cast lots to select Matthias. There are some Bible teachers who believe Peter and the other apostles were wrong for doing this. They insist that Paul was God’s choice to take Judas’ place. Those who hold to this idea fail to see that Paul was called by God for a different purpose than that of the Twelve. Peter understood the number of these apostles must be raised back up to twelve because their ministry was to the twelve tribes of Israel. They began this ministry by going to the Jews in the homeland, starting in Jerusalem and Judea, the capital city and central region of the nation.
Paul was not called by God to take part in the ministry of the Twelve. While he certainly was called to testify before the children of Israel (Acts 9:15), his primary ministry was to be “a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles” (2 Tim. 1:11). At the time he was saved, this was something new, for up to this point the ministry both of the Lord Jesus and of His apostles had been limited to the Jews only. The only way a Gentile could come to God was as a proselyte, one who had adopted the Jews’ religion through circumcision (Acts 2:10). Paul was separated by God for the express purpose of preaching Christ among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15-16).
Since Paul’s apostleship was something new, the message he was to preach did not originate with men. Paul wrote to the Galatians:
“But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11-12)
After Paul was saved, he “did not immediately confer with flesh and blood” nor did he “go up to Jerusalem to those who were apotsles” before him. Instead, he went to Arabia and later returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:17). While Paul was in Arabia, God began to reveal His plan and purpose for Paul’s ministry. God did not reveal everything to Paul at this time, for we know Paul received an abundance of revelations throughout his lifetime (2 Cor. 12:1-7). What is important to see is Paul did not receive his calling and instructions from men, specifically not from the Twelve. He received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ. It is significant that the twelve apostles, who were sent to God’s earthly people, Israel, received their calling and commission from the Lord Jesus while He was still here on earth. Whereas, Paul did not receive his calling and commission from the Lord Jesus until after He had ascended back into heaven.
Paul did not return to Jerusalem until three years after he was saved. While there, he met with Peter, but only remained with him for fifteen days. During this time, the only other apostle Paul saw was James, the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:18-19). While in Jerusalem, the Lord spoke to Paul as he was praying in the temple one day and told him, “Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning Me. … Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:18,21). While the Twelve remained in Jerusalem, even after the persecution and scattering of the Jerusalem church that occurred after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1), the Lord sent Paul away from Jerusalem to minister, instead, to the Gentiles.
Paul spent the next ten years in the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and was “unknown by face” to the believing Jews in Judea. All they knew of Paul was that “he who formerly persecuted them, now preached the faith which he once tried to destroy,” and for this, they glorified God (Gal. 1:21-24).
Paul and Barnabas, were then led to go to Antioch in Syria, which became their new home. After a year of ministry in Antioch, these two apostles were sent out by the Holy Spirit to preach the Word in Asia Minor (Acts 13). In each city they visited, they preached the Word first to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles. Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles was difficult for the Jews to understand and accept; not just for the unbelieving Jews, but for the believing Jews as well. When Paul and Barnabas returned from this first journey, certain Jews from Judea came to Antioch and insisted the Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law in order to be saved, something that Paul and Barnabas strongly disputed (Acts 15:1-2). It was determined that Paul and Barnabas should go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to settle the issue. Luke’s account in Acts chapter 15 seems to indicate that the church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (Acts 15:2-3), but when Paul related this same event to the Galatians, he said, “I went up by revelation.” This statement indicates the Lord Jesus revealed to Paul that he was to go to Jerusalem. In this same passage, Paul gave the reason why the Lord sent him to Jerusalem:
“And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain.” (Gal. 2:2)
This is another clear indication that Paul’s ministry and apostleship, even the gospel he preached, were distinct from that of the Twelve. Many people have trouble accepting the idea that Paul was preaching a different gospel than the Twelve were preaching, but why would Paul need to communicate to them the gospel he preached among the Gentiles if it was the same one being preached by the Twelve to the Jews? The fact is, it was not the same gospel. Paul goes on to say:
“But from those who seemed to be something—whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to no man—for those who seemed to be something added nothing to me. But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” (Gal. 2:6-9)
“Those who seemed to be something” refers to those who had long had the reputation of being apostles and elders, the ones who currently held the leadership roles in the Jerusalem church (specifically James, who was the Lord’s brother, Cephas or Peter, and John). Paul declared of these men: they “added nothing to me.” Paul was not saying they were of no use to him, or that he was, in any way, better than they were. He was simply indicating that, in regard to his own ministry, particularly the gospel he preached, these other apostles did not give him any revelation or direction.
As Paul shared with these leaders of the Jerusalem church how God was working through him and Barnabas to reach the Gentiles for Christ, they recognized that Paul’s ministry was genuinely of God. It became clear to them that the Lord had given Paul this gospel of grace to preach among the uncircumcised Gentiles, just as they had been given the gospel of the kingdom to preach among the Jews. From the testimony of Paul and Barnabas, it was evident that God was working through these new apostles, just as He was working through the Twelve, but clearly according to different callings. So, James, Peter, and John extended to Paul and Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship,” agreeing that each should continue in the ministry God had given them. It is vital that we see and understand what James, Peter, and John came to see at the Jerusalem Council that Paul was given a ministry and apostleship “by the will of God,” but one that was distinct from their own.
Paul’s Diverse Commission
As we look more closely at the overall purpose and nature of Paul’s ministry, we find that he had a diverse commission. While Paul had a distinct calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles, during the Acts period he was also commissioned by God to bear witness before the children of Israel. After the close of the book of Acts, Paul was commissioned by God to fully unveil His plan and purpose for a new body of believers, the Church, the Body of Christ, in which the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been removed. As we consider both of these aspects of Paul’s commission, it helps us to understand the nature of his apostleship and the meaning of his New Testament writings.
Paul’s Acts Period Ministry
The early chapters of the book of Acts record the ministry of Peter and the Twelve to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea, preaching the gospel of the kingdom. The majority of the Jews, led by their religious rulers, rejected the testimony of the Holy Spirit concerning Jesus Christ, “crucifying again for themselves the Son of God, and putting Him to an open shame” (Heb. 6:6).
Things came to a head when Stephen was falsely accused of blaspheming the temple and the law. During his defense before the Jewish Sanhedrin, Stephen gave a summary of Israel’s complete rejection of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, “who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
When they heard these words, the Jewish leaders were cut to the heart. They stopped their ears, cast Stephen out of the city and stoned him to death (Acts 7:54-60).
Stephen’s death signaled a change in God’s dealings with men. A great persecution arose against the church, and the church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. This persecution, initially, was headed up by Saul of Tarsus, however, God had other plans for Saul’s life. When Saul was saved on the road to Damascus, the Lord sent a Jew named Ananias to minister to Saul and restore his sight. Ananias was reluctant at first, knowing Saul’s reputation, but God instructed Ananias: “Go, for he (Saul) is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). The next twelve years of Saul’s life were spent in preparation for this special apostleship.
In Acts 13, we read of how Saul (who was also called Paul) and Barnabas were separated by the Holy Spirit for the work to which God had called them. While the first twelve chapters of Acts centers on the ministry of Peter and the Twelve, the remaining chapters are devoted to the ministry of the Apostle Paul and his fellow laborers.
Though Paul’s primary ministry was to the Gentiles (2 Tim. 1:11), during the Acts period he was sent to the Jews first. The ministry of Peter and the Twelve was limited to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea; Paul was sent to the Jews of the dispersion who were scattered unto “the uttermost parts of the earth.” The nature and purpose of Paul’s ministry to the Jews during this time is pictured in the first recorded miracle performed by Paul. Paul and Barnabas left Antioch and sailed to the island of Cyprus.
“Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Then Saul, who also is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? And now, indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time. And immediately a dark mist fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” (Acts 13:6-12)
In the city of Paphos, Paul encountered a Jew named Bar-Jesus who was a sorcerer and a false prophet. He was with the Gentile governor of that Roman province, a man named Sergius Paulus. Sergius Paulus was an intelligent and prudent man who desired to hear the Word of God. When Bar-Jesus withstood Paul and Barnabas and tried to turn this Gentile away from the faith, Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, pronounced blindness upon this Jew “for a time (season).” After seeing these things, Sergius Paulus believed, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
These events give us a pattern for Paul’s Acts period ministry to the Jew first, then to the Gentile. Every time Paul visited a new city, he went to the Jews first, most often ministering to them in their synagogue. When the majority of the Jews of that city rejected and opposed Paul’s ministry of the Word, Paul was used of God to pronounce spiritual blindness upon them. As was the case with Bar-Jesus, this blindness was to be temporary, as Paul described it in Romans 11:25:
“For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
Having pronounced blindness on the Jews, Paul would then turn from them to preach the Word of God to the Gentiles, who were often eager to receive it. This is why we find the qualification at the end of Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Gentile).” Though we see this same pattern in each city where Paul preached, there are three significant turning points recorded in the book of Acts.
The initial turning point took place at Antioch in Pisidia, which was in Asia Minor (what is modern day Turkey). Paul went first to the Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath day, where he was given an opportunity to share with them the Word of God. Afterward, the Gentiles begged to hear these same words preached to them. The next Sabbath, the whole city, including both Jews and Gentiles, came together to hear the Word of God. When the Jews saw the multitudes:
“… they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us: I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth. Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:45-48)
Paul’s later travels brought him further west to Corinth, a city of Greece, where the second turning point occurred. While there, Paul “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks (Gentiles).” When Silas and Timothy arrived in Corinth to join him:
“Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. But when they opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” (Acts 18:4-6)
The final turning point occurred in Rome, and is recorded in the final chapter of the book of Acts. Paul, being a prisoner, was confined to house arrest and chained to a Roman soldier. Being unable to go to the synagogue, he called for the Jewish leaders at Rome to come and visit him.
“So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved. So when they did not agree among themselves, they departed after Paul had said one word: The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, saying, Go to this people and say: Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand; And seeing you will see, and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them. Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!” (Acts 28:23-28)
This final turning point proved to have great significance. Having preached the Word to the Jews at Rome, Paul had now taken God’s message to the Jews throughout “the uttermost parts of the earth.” Everywhere he had gone, the majority of the Jews had rejected the truth. Paul’s quote from Isaiah 6 looms as a final pronouncement of blindness, not just upon the Jews at Rome, but upon the entire nation of Israel.
This pronouncement marked God’s setting aside of Israel as a nation and the postponement of His prophesied plans and purposes for them, particularly the promise of an earthly kingdom. While it is not directly stated in Scripture that Israel was set aside at this time, Paul’s writings after this point clearly indicate this was the case.
Paul’s Post-Acts Ministry
While God’s purpose for Israel was clearly the subject of prophecy, God had another plan and purpose, a purpose which was ordained before the foundation of the world, but which had been kept secret from men of other ages (Eph. 3:9). This purpose was made known to Paul by direct revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:3). There are mentions of this truth in Paul’s earlier epistles, written during the Acts period (Rom. 16:25-26, 1 Cor. 2:6-8), but with the setting aside of Israel in Acts 28, it was time to fully unveil this secret purpose of God. Paul, “the prisoner of the Lord,” was led by the Holy Spirit to write letters to the saints at Ephesus, Philippi, and Colosse, as well as a letter to his friend, Philemon. In these “prison epistles” Paul made known the truth of “the mystery of God’s will” (Eph. 1:9, 3:5).
The mystery is that God is now calling out a new body of believers known as the Church, the Body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23). This Church is primarily composed of Gentile believers (Eph. 3:1), because the majority of those in Israel had rejected the Lord Jesus Christ; a rejection that continues in the hearts of most Jews today. However, what is unique about this Church is that the difference between Jew and Gentile is completely done away with in God’s eyes.
From the call of Abram in Genesis 12, God made a clear distinction between Israel, His chosen nation, and the rest of the nations (Gentiles). This distinction continued during the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 15:21-28) as well as throughout the Acts period. Even Paul’s ministry during this period was “to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Gentile)” (Rom. 1:16). When Israel, as a nation, was set aside at the close of the Acts period, Paul revealed that this distinction between Jew and Gentile has been done away with in the Church, the Body of Christ.
Paul described the Gentiles’ past condition this way:
“Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh — who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands — that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Eph. 2:11-12)
What a terrible condition Gentiles were in: without any promise of the Christ, separate from Israel and their covenant blessings, having no hope, and without God in the world. This would all change though, through the cross of Christ!
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.” (Eph. 2:13-16)
Through the shedding of His blood, Christ broke down the middle wall of separation between Jew and Gentile, a wall erected by God and set forth in the Mosaic Law. The enmity that existed between Jew and Gentile was put to death, and Christ Himself became their peace. He brought these two separate groups together and made them one—a new man, created in Christ Jesus —one body of believers reconciled to God through the cross. The preposition used here is “through” the cross, not “at” the cross. The cross made it possible for Jew and Gentile to be brought together in this way, but this truth was not made known at that time. The formation of this new Church is the essence of the mystery revealed to and through the Apostle Paul.
The mystery also revealed that God is dealing with the Church under an entirely new dispensation — “the dispensation of the grace of God” (Eph. 3:2). The word “dispensation” comes from the Greek word “oikonomia,” which literally means “household law.” It refers to the way in which a household is ordered and managed. Throughout history, God’s dealings with mankind have consisted of a series of different dispensations; God has dealt with different groups of people (households) under different arrangements (laws).
Most of God’s dealings with His earthly people Israel were under the dispensation of law. This law was given through Moses, God’s steward or administrator at that time. The law specified God’s requirements for His earthly people, the nation of Israel; it governed every aspect of their lives: their relationship with God, their worship, their walk, their purpose, and their hope
The dispensation of the grace of God was given to the Apostle Paul, who served as its steward or administrator, much as Moses did for Israel under the law. God’s orders for men living under the present dispensation of grace are vastly different from those who lived under the law. The law was given that men might know they were sinners and become guilty before God (Rom. 3:19-20). The law was a tutor or schoolmaster to bring men to Christ, that they might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24). All the requirements of the law: its commandments, its judgments, and its ordinances, were merely a shadow of things to come. The substance, the reality of what was only pictured by the law, is found only in Christ (Col. 2:14-17). In Christ, we are complete; nothing needs to be added to Him or His finished work. This truth is a key part of the mystery given to Paul, as he told the Colossians:
“For in Him (Christ) dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the Head of all principality and power.” (Col. 2:9-10)
No physical circumcision is needed today, because we are circumcised in Christ “with the circumcision made without hands”—a spiritual circumcision that is of Christ, not of the law (Col. 2:11). No water baptism is needed today, because we are “buried with Him in baptism” and “raised with Him through faith in the working of God,” (Col. 2:12)—a spiritual baptism performed by the Holy Spirit of God, not by some priest or preacher. Physical circumcision and water baptism were part of the law; but they were only a shadow of things to come. Why hold onto the shadow when we now have the reality in Christ?
Why is it so important to see the distinctive nature of Paul’s apostleship and ministry? Because he is God’s apostle to us today. Because he is God’s steward to the Church during the present dispensation of grace. If we truly desire to know God’s will for our lives today, we must realize it can only be found in the writings of the Apostle Paul. This does not mean that we discard the rest of the Scriptures. In his final letter to his son in the faith, Timothy, Paul emphasized the importance of studying all Scripture.
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Though all Scripture is written “for” us, “for our learning,” not all Scripture is written directly “to” us, for our obedience. This is why Paul also instructed Timothy:
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)
If we want to find approval in God’s eyes, and be workers who need not be ashamed before Him, we must “rightly divide the Word of truth.” This means we take note of the divisions God has placed in His Word; we recognize the different dispensations (or dispensings) of God’s will throughout the ages. We must acknowledge that during this present age of grace, God has dispensed His will for our lives through the writings of “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.”