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Acts by Robert Dean
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:58 mins 17 secs

Introduction Part 3, Acts in the Flow of Biblical Thought


All of these different main points are not normally gone through in some Bible studies that are taken on Acts and where the introductory material is gone through pretty quickly, but Acts is one of those battleground books, not in the same sense that Hebrews, 1 John and James are battlegrounds, and there are other battlegrounds that are fought in terms of the book of Acts. And it is because the book has the unique nature to it being a history book, the only book of its type in the New Testament, and because of the way it straddles two dispensations and we see this transitional flow. So it is important to go into a number of different aspects that are related to the interpretation of Acts—the background, the history, the theology—so that as we go through it these ideas will be expanded a little more.

Acts in the flow of Biblical thought

If we look at the map we see the area around the Mediterranean Sea. To the south is North Africa, to the east is the area we refer to as Syria-Palestine, to the north is modern Turkey, Greece and then the boot of Italy. Looking at the map we see that where the focal point of the expansion of the gospel from Jerusalem is north and west. The book of Acts does not focus on what goes on south other than a very brief hint related to the Ethiopian eunuch whose salvation occurs and, of course, he is going to go back to Ethiopia taking the gospel with him. We don't see Peter going east to Babylon, although based on 1 Peter that is exactly what he did because Babylon had the second largest population of Jews in the ancient world and he is the apostle to the Jews. We don't hear anything about that in Acts, Acts goes north and west. Why did God ignore these other areas? Why is it so important that the gospel went north and west? Why is it that God's sovereign, directive will through the apostle Paul took the gospel north and west into Europe and not into these other places?

Some people might say it was more logical because of the Roman empire and because of the existence of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome that existed for about 300 years and made it possible for the gospel to expand throughout the Roman empire because everyone in the empire spoke Latin, because of the highways, the roads, transportation and it was easy for the gospel to expand. But why couldn't God have raised up a different empire? Why did He have this empire raise up in western Europe? Previous empires expanded throughout the Middle East, for example, under Alexander the expansion of the Greek empire there was not only Greece in the west but also the empire moving across into Persia and all the way to the Hindu Kush. Why didn't God send the Lord Jesus Christ during that particular era?

To understand this we have to go back into the Old Testament to Genesis chapter Nine. In Genesis 9 we have the interesting episode between the drunk Noah and his sons. As a result of that Noah gives a prophetic announcement that is basically a structure of the history of the world in terms of his descendants. We have to look at the Bible, all 66 books, as being what they claim to be and that is a revelation from God to us, and that they all fit together and complement each other and intersect so that we can't really understand one part without fitting it into the other parts that make up the whole. And at the every beginning of history in the book of Genesis we have two or three events that come one right after another in the unfolding of revelation in Genesis that set the stage for the rest of human history. Without these three events we really can't make sense of human history, it just becomes a lot of details. Without having that overview it is easy for people to misunderstand and misinterpret the details and also many people will come in and take those details and reconstruct them and fit them into different frameworks.

In this episode with Noah the first picture we see is of Ham. Ham is the father of Canaan. The text makes an important point to emphasize who Ham is in relation to his son. To understand why the text says "the father of Canaan" we have to remember that Genesis through Deuteronomy was written by Moses to give the Jews in the wilderness so that they have an understanding of who they are, why they are, and what God's purpose is for them before they go into the land. They are standing there in 1406 BC ready to go into the land and God tells them to go in and completely annihilate man, woman and child and in some cases all of their animals, and it would be very common for the Jews to say, why do we need to kill everybody? It goes back to this episode, it gives us a foreshadowing of that, and so Moses says "Ham the father of Canaan." The important part of that isn't Ham, it is Canaan because in Ham we see the foreshadowing of the sexual deviancy and perversion of the Canaanites. Genesis 9:22 NASB "Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside." Rather than treating his father with respect what he does is he laughs about it and makes his father the brunt of his jokes. In contrast to Ham Shem and Japheth take a garment and pay it on both of their shoulders and walk backward into the tent so that they are not looking at the shameful behavior of their father and then they cover up his nakedness. They are showing respect and deference for their father. Genesis 9:24, 25 NASB "When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. So he said, 'Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brothers.'" So this is this little prophecy.

There are a lot of people who say this happened or that happened between Ham and his father but there is no mention of that in the text. There is just the nuance there that this is disrespect, and there is something going on here that foreshadows the sexual perversion of the Canaanites. So there is going to be a curse or a judgment statement made about Canaan, not Ham; because it is not related to all the descendants of Ham, it is just related to Canaan as a precursor to the contemporary Canaanites of Moses' day.

In contrast there is a blessing statement made to Shem and to Japheth. Notice there is no blessing or curse related to the rest of the Hamites. So low man on the totem pole is the descendants of Canaan. One step up is the Hamites who are neither blessed nor cursed. Next level up is the Shemites,  Genesis 9:26 NASB "He also said, 'Blessed be the LORD, The God of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant. [27] May God enlarge [make prosperous] Japheth, And let him dwell in the tents of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant.'" The focal point here, the one who gets the lion's share of the blessing, is Japheth. He and his descendants are going to be the focal point of God's blessing in history. Japheth is the father of all of the western European peoples, and it is why western Europe is what it is. Dwelling in then tents of Shem is a reference to the religion of the Old Testament and that Japheth is going to be blessed by association with the Judeo-Christian religion. So where God is putting the emphasis from the very beginning is on Japheth because it is through Japheth that the world is going to be enlarged via their missionary endeavors in taking the gospel throughout the world. That is why the focal point in Acts drives us to western Europe and the Japhetic peoples. That prophecy becomes a framework for understanding all of history and this division between the Japhetic, Hamitic and Semite peoples.

The next event is in Genesis chapter eleven with the tower of Babel and the division of languages, and as a result of that division and the failure of humanity as a whole to be the vehicle through whom God would communicate His Word to mankind God calls out Abram in Genesis chapter twelve. This is the next significant event.

Gen 12:2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing…" "You shall be a blessing" is a command to Israel. [3] "And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse…" The first word for "curse" is different from the second word for "curse." The first "curse" means to show disrespect to someone, it is a light kind of disrespect, to treat someone lightly, to not esteem them very highly.  So the ones who treat Israel lightly and with disrespect are the ones God will judge harshly. "… And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." Abram becomes the fountain of blessing to the entire world. He is a descendant of Shem, so that fulfills that Shemitic blessing aspect that comes out of the Noahic prophecy. Japheth will dwell within that tent, within that covering of the religion of Abraham.

The next key passage that we have to address to see how Acts fits in the flow of biblical thought is in Deuteronomy chapter thirty.

  Deuteronomy 30:1 NASB "So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call {them} to mind in all nations where the LORD your God has banished you, [2] and you return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons." The key phrase there is to "return" back to God, and this is going the be the message that we hear in the first part of Acts to the Jews. It is to repent and it is based on this word, to turn back to God. So in terms of how Acts fits in biblical thought, first of all in terms of the Noahic prophecy, the prophecy is that eventually it will be the descendants of Japheth, those European nations, that are going to be the focal point of the blessing that takes the gospel throughout the world. That is why Acts focuses on Europe. The Abrahamic promise of blessing is still significant because even though Israel as a nation formally rejects the gospel there are still hundreds of thousands of Jews who accept Jesus as Mess9iah in the first century, and there is no reason for anti-Semitism. There is a distinction in the Scripture between Israel and the church, and that distinction was lost by the end of the second and into the third century AD, then there were the seeds developed for what has been called on modern times "replacement theology." It is the idea that God just got Israel and wiped them away and replaced them in His plan with the church. But that would negate the promises of both the Abrahamic promise of blessing and the Mosaic covenant promises of a future return and future blessing by God.

So when we look at the book of Acts we see how it fits within this flow history that God has a plan and a purpose to bring about a world-wide blessing through the descendants of Abraham. Paul is going to pick up on this in both Romans and in Galatians, and we see elements of this in some of his messages in the book of Acts: that through Israel, through the rejection of the gospel by Israel God then takes the gospel and blessing to all the nations of the world.

The Davidic covenant

Psalm 89 is a meditation on the Davidic covenant and 2 Samuel chapter seven is the precise passage that deals with the Davidic covenant. The reason this is important is because Jesus is identified as the son of David several times in the book of Acts. The Davidic covenant is an unconditional covenant just as the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional; it is a permanent covenant, it is not going to be taken away and it is a promise that God gave to the house of David.

2 Samuel 7:9 NASB "I have been with you wherever you have gone and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make you a great name, like the names of the great men who are on the earth. [10] "I will also appoint a place for My people Israel and will plant them, that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again, nor will the wicked afflict them any more as formerly…" That never has happened in history, so it refers to a future time. [11] "even from the day that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. The LORD also declares to you that the LORD will make a house for you. [12] When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. [13] "He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever." So through Solomon the kingdom is going to be developed and eventually the only one who can fulfill that in terms of eternality is going to be one who is eternal. [16] "Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever."

So the Davidic covenant is also a background. There are a couple of places in Acts where the message is to reflect back on to the promises of the Davidic covenant.

The New covenant


Then the new covenant, which is stated in Jeremiah 31-33 the only passage where the new covenant is specifically identified as the new covenant.  Jeremiah 31:31 NASB "Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. [33] "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people."

The new covenant is what gets instituted, goes into effect, when Jesus Christ returns and establishes the kingdom. The new covenant becomes the rule of the Messianic or Millennial kingdom. The reason it is important to understand these covenants is because when Jesus came He was proclaiming the kingdom. He was sending out His disciples as John the Baptist had before Him to announce the message, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Then when He is rejected, is crucified, put in the grave for three days, rises from the dead, then in the interim period when He is talking to His disciples and teaching them before the ascension the main topic of instruction is the kingdom. Acts 1:3 NASB "To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over {a period of} forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God." In Acts chapter two we hear Peter in the famous sermon on Pentecost quote from Joel chapter two which is related to the establishment of the kingdom and the new covenant.

Acts 2:17 NASB "AND IT SHALL BE IN THE LAST DAYS," God says, "THAT I WILL POUR FORTH OF MY SPIRIT ON ALL MANKIND; AND YOUR SONS AND YOUR DAUGHTERS SHALL PROPHESY…" He never mentions the new covenant in Acts 2 but the description of what happens at that time is identical to what is described in the new covenant. So understanding these covenants and their background in terms of God's message to Israel is critical to understand what is going to happen in the initial transition period, especially in the first nine or ten chapters in Acts. By the time we get to chapter ten the emphasis goes off of Israel and begins to shift to the Gentiles. But in the first nine chapters the message is still "Repent and the kingdom will come," the times of refreshing will come. A lot of these passages that we have been programmed to think of as justification passages in Acts 1-8 we will find out aren't really justification passages at all; they are passages that are addressed to Israel to turn back and accept Jesus as the Messiah. In a broad sense we can say that they are justification passages but in a strict interpretive framework they are not really talking about getting saved in terms of phase one, they are talking more in terms about Israel turning back to God to experience the fullness of blessing that God promised with the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of the kingdom.

The transition between Peter and Paul

We see this transition taking place in Acts as we see the transition between Peter and then Paul. There are similarities between Paul and Peter and what God the Holy Spirit is showing us is what authenticated Peter in his ministry as the representative of the disciples in the first part of the book of Acts are duplicated by the Holy Spirit in the apostle Paul in the second part of Acts, showing that Peter and Paul imitated each other in terms of the miracles that they performed, in terms of the various ministries that they performed, and in terms of the messages that they proclaimed. There is not a competition or a debate, as it were, between Peter and Paul. Peter is primarily the apostle to the Jews but in that ministry there is a rejection by most of the Jews of Jesus as Messiah and so there is a shift to the Gentiles and God brings out a new person to be the point man for the ministry to the Gentiles. That is the apostle Paul. So the book pretty much ignores all of the other apostles, the only two that are emphasized are Peter and Paul, even though there is slight mention of John and James.

Peter is the major figure in the first twelve chapters. Paul is introduced at the end of chapter seven and then he has his conversion but Peter is still the major figure in the first twelve chapters. There is a major sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter two, there is a second event in chapter three when he, accompanied by John, commands a lame man to walk. Then there is another sermon. It is Peter who addresses the Sanhedrin in Acts chapter four, it is Peter who explains why Ananias and Saphira are disciplined with the immediate sin unto death by God the Holy Spirit in chapter five. He performs many miracles. People who needed to be healed, if they just got into his shadow expressing faith, were healed—chapter nine. It is through Peter and John that the Samaritan believers are initiated into the church, it is not a separate, distinct act. The Holy Spirit doesn't come upon the Samaritan believers until Peter and John are present to show a unity between that beginning and the events on the day of Pentecost. Peter heals paralyzed Aeneas in chapter nine and raises Dorcas from the dead in chapter nine, and then he is the one who initiates taking the gospel to Cornelius (the first to take the gospel to the Gentiles) in chapter ten. Then he goes back to Jerusalem, gives a report to the church there and that laid the ground work for taking the gospel to the Gentiles.

Paul in his miracles mirrors the events in the life of Peter. He also heals a cripple is chapter fourteen. Like Peter strange means happen, Peter through his shadow, Paul with his clothes—someone just touches his garment and is healed. Paul has an encounter with a sorcerer as Peter did with Simon the sorcerer. He is also involved in the restoration of the ministry to the Gentiles through his three missionary journeys, and he is miraculously released from prison in Philippi in chapter sixteen. All of these events demonstrate the credentials of Paul as an apostle and that he is the one who takes the ministry from Peter; so we see this transition again.

Understanding dispensations and the book of Acts

The first thing we have to address is the question: what is a dispensation? We may not realize, it but dispensationalists are sort of the whipping boys in the theological community out there, and even in the political community.

Dispensationalism is a theological system that derives from the specific, consistent, literal interpretation of Scripture. The word "dispensation" isn't used that much in the more modern translations—NIV, ESV, and so on. Usually they translate the Greek word oikodomeo [o)kodomew] or its equivalents with the word "administration" or "stewardship." They don't use the word "dispensation," which had these same ideas but it is more of an old English word. The root meaning of the Greek word is an economy or a period of administration. So it looks at history as God administering history, or the way in which God rules over history is through various administrations that are defined by Him.

A dispensation is a distinct and identifiable administration in the development of God's plan and purposes in history. In other words, there are certain characteristics of each period of time based on what God told man, how God told man to worship Him and various things that were a part of revelation. Even many covenantalists and those in replacement theology believe to some degree in dispensations. They realize that something is different between the Old Testament way in which people came to God and the way people come to God after Jesus Christ.

Dispensationalists, i.e. scholars within dispensationalism, have defined it in different ways. Dispensational theology didn't begin to get focused and clearly articulated until the early nineteenth century. We might say the father of modern dispensational theology was John Nelson Darby. He influenced a number of people via his writings, one of whom was C.I. Scofield who had been a highly decorated soldier in the Confederate Army, afterwards became a lawyer and a drunk, and then heard the gospel and was saved. He entered into the ministry and was finally influenced by a Presbyterian pastor in St. Louis by the name of Brookes, one of the early dispensationalists. Scofield was famous because he wrote a study Bible which was very popular, and through his study Bible people came to understand dispensationalism. He defined a dispensation as a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.

A dispensation is distinct and identifiable, there are certain characteristics, and things God says to do. For example, under the Mosaic law there are specific instructions on how to worship God, what kind of sacrifices to bring, dietary laws, things of that nature. Then after Jesus dies on the cross Peter then has a vision ion Acts 10 where God lowers a table cloth from heaven where all these unclean animals and food are laid out because all of that was forbidden under the Mosaic law as unclean. Peter got the message that what God declared to be clean was now clean. So there was obviously a shift in what could be done, what God mandated in the Old Testament and what was now legitimate and admissible in the New Testament. That is why these adm9inikstrations are distinct, but there are tests in terms of the revelation that God gives.

Another British man who was highly influential in the early 19th century was Graham Scroggie, and he defined "dispensation" in terms of the Greek word oikonomia – it "bears one significance and means an administration, whether of a house, or property, a state or a nation; or, as in the present study, the administration of the human race or any part of it at any given time." Notice "any part of it." There's a shift that occurs in Genesis 12 with Abraham. What if you were a believer like Job was living before Abraham and he is living somewhere else? Or what God is telling Abraham didn't get to Job? How do we factor that in? These are differences. For most of the population during the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob they don't have any idea what God is doing through these three guys. They are living off in Europe or down in Africa or over in India or China and have no idea God has called this wandering shepherd over in the Middle East to be the one through whom He is going to bless all the nations of the earth. It is really important to understand that aspect of the definition he provides, or any part of it at any given time. "Just as any parent would govern his household in different ways according to varying necessity, yet ever for one good end, so God has at different times dealt with men in different ways according to the necessity of the case, but throughout for one great, grand end."

Chares Ryrie wrote a book called "Dispensationalism" and it is probably the best single volume work in dispensational theology out there today. He identified a dispensation as "a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purposes."

A closely-connected but not interchangeable word is "age." Age picks up a time factor.

Dispensation itself doesn't mean time, it just means administration. God manages the entirety of human history as a household, moving humanity through sequential stages of His administration, determined by the level of revelation He has provided up to that time in history. That is important because we have to understand that there is a progress in revelation. Abraham knew more than Noah did; David knew more than Abraham; Paul knew more than David did; John knew more than Paul did, especially in the area of eschatology. So there is a progress in revelation down through time until the canon is closed. Especially each time there is a covenant shift or an additional covenant there is something new required and expected by God by a particular part of humanity.

In conclusion, each administering period is characterized by revelation that specifies responsibilities, a test in relation to those responsibilities, failure to pass the test (which happens in every dispensation) and God's gracious solution when failure occurs.

A dispensationalist is not simply someone who believes that God operates in different ways at different time periods in history. So what makes a dispensationalist a dispensationalist? What is the key element that makes a person a dispensationalist as opposed to replacement theology? That's really all there is.

What happens to day is that people want to create a boogey-monster out of the Roman Catholic Church and their extreme Christian anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages and say that is real replacement theology. But the guys down at the Reformed Baptist Church who are into covenant theology and the guys who are reconstructionists and preterists are just as just as much into replacement theology as anybody else, they just try to disavow the bad side. The issue is if you believe that God's promises to Israel in the Old Testament are not going to0 be fulfilled in the future to Israel then you have replaced Israel with the church and what the Jews are doing really doesn't matter; what is going on in Israel really doesn't matter. 

Ryrie asked the question: what makes a dispensationalist a dispensationalist? He came up with three things: a) a consistent, literal interpretation [the normal plain meaning of language] applied equally to all Scripture against spiritualizing or allegorizing portions of the text, especially in relation to prophecy, Israel and the church; b) there is a consistent distinction in the Scriptures between God's plan and purposes for Israel and the physical ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and God's plan and purposes for the church—which is something that is new, something which comes into existence in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost; that is the church, the body of Christ; it comes into effect only after the cross. It does not replace Israel, the church will be removed from history at some point in the future and God will finish out His plan for the nation Israel; c) the overriding purpose of history is to bring glory to God.

In covenantal theology God's purpose is salvation. The problem with that is, what do you do with the angels? That is why in Reformed theology, in Calvinistic theology, very little was said up until the 20th century, about spiritual warfare, about the angels or about demons. Because they don't get saved so they don't fit into God's plan and purpose for the earth. This is a big flaw in their theology. Another problem is that they don't really understand the ministry of God the Holy Spirit. Up until the 20th century and the pressure of the Pentecostal movement—which finally forced Reformed theologians to wake up and realize, Golly gee, there is a third person mentioned all throughout the New Testament and He does seem to have something to do with the spiritual life (and they still don't know what). For them the church existed from Adam, it didn't start in Acts 2.

The essence of dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the church which grows out of a consistent, plain interpretation, and reflects the basic purpose of God in His dealings with man in ultimate gory.