‘AS I WROTE AFORE IN FEW WORDS’
by John Aldworth
Published on Day of Christ Ministries 22-09-2012
You could never accuse the Apostle Paul of ‘saying it best when he says nothing at all’, as the pop song has it. To the contrary he sometimes ‘says it best’ in a God-given sentence that runs for half a chapter or more.
However, in Eph. 3:3 his phrase, ‘…as I wrote afore in few words’, holds the key to unravelling a puzzle that has perplexed dispensationalists and commentators alike. I propose to set out below just how these seven words unlock a near 2000-year-old mystery and hold vital understanding for those seeking to ‘...rightly divide the word of truth’, as we are instructed to do in 2 Tim. 2:15.
The puzzle, in a nutshell, is why we find Paul referring in Rom. 16:25 to the ‘preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the Mystery’ when it is widely held that he did not receive the revelation of the Mystery until after Acts 28 setting aside of Israel, that is during his later and second imprisonment at Rome.
Romans of course is deemed to be a pre-prison epistle written during the apostle’s Acts period ministry which was ‘…to the Jew first and also to the Greek’. Gentiles were then saved by being grafted into Israel’s olive tree and that only in order to provoke Israel to jealousy. Consequently, Romans is said to precede the Acts 28 cut off line at which blindness was judicially pronounced on the Jews and the apostle Paul announced that ‘…the salvation of God is now sent to the Gentiles’. Thus it is held by some that Rom. 16:25 cannot refer to the great Mystery for long hid in God but ‘…now made manifest’ in Ephesians and Colossians.
Indeed a dear brother, Tom L. Ballinger of the Plainer Words website, who has been greatly used of the Lord in recovering the truth of the ‘day of Christ’ and much else in present truth, believes this verse refers back to Romans 5:12-21 – the “mystery” of how Adam's sin death passed upon all men. But was that really the mystery “which was kept secret since the world began”?
The answer to that question, surely, must be found in Rom. 16:26, where we are told unmistakably that the Mystery (of Christ that is, not of death coming upon all men) is ‘…now made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.’
If now means now, and not then, there can be no argument but that in Rom. 16:25 the Mystery is ‘now made manifest’. However, just what ‘the scriptures of the prophets’ (Gk. graphe prophetikos) might be is a problem for many.
Some say they are the Old Testament writings of the prophets, others the pre-prison epistles, in which case, of course, they would refer to the Roman letter itself. A third possibility and the one I believe to be true, is that they refer to Paul’s prison epistles, i.e. the body of ‘present truth’ revealed by the glorified exalted Lord Jesus to Paul and ‘made manifest’ during his further imprisonment at Rome.
Now it is true that ‘…no prophecy of the scripture is of private interpretation’ (2 Pet. 1:20) but, as the Apostle Peter makes plain in verse 21, there is prophecy of ‘old time’ (i.e. Old Testament prophecy) and, quite differently the ‘more sure word of prophecy’ (verse 19) which was then ‘present. It was truth that was then being spoken by God (and written as scripture by Peter) for his intended Hebrew audience.
Similarly the ‘scriptures of the prophets’ in Rom. 16:25, are ‘present truth’ written for Gentiles by Paul. Thus when Paul says ‘now unto Him that is able’ at the start of Rom. 16:25 and that the mystery is ‘now made manifest and by the scriptures of the prophets’ in verse 26, the apostle, and God through him, it means now; that is at the time of writing. And, admittedly, this writing is brief, just a few words in fact, thus linking it to Paul's satement, "as I wrote afore in few words" in Ephesians. Though brief these two verses in Romans 16 comprise a nutshell description of the Mystery. Accordingly, I believe they are referred to in Eph. 3:3 where Paul writes:
‘How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the Mystery of Christ’).
Clearly there is no mention of the Mystery by name in chapters 1 and 2 of Ephesians, although the subject matter details the blessings of the Mystery. Therefore the ‘few words’ written afore must be found in Paul’s earlier writings. And I submit that they are indeed found, in Rom. 16:25-26. But why is this is so if, as we would believe, mystery truth was ‘hid in God’ and ‘hid from past ages’ until Israel was set aside (temporarily) in Acts 28?
The suggested answer is that Paul had copies made of his great treatise to the Romans and that he added further information to later versions circulated to other churches.
Fact is that most of Paul’s epistles were not personal letters. Rather they were doctrinal treatises intended for wide circulation, and written with a view to publication. This is especially true of Romans and Ephesians. These two epistles were encyclical and thus were widely circulated among the many ‘churches of the Gentiles’ which existed (Rom. 16:4). That such copying and circulating really took place is evident from Col. 1:16. It is also clear from Romans and other epistles that Paul employed scribes to record letters at his dictation and probably to copy them both for distribution and to preserve a record for his own reading and his archive. At times he had at his disposal what you might describe as a first century scribal copy shop.
Let us now trace the scenario that underlies the ‘few words' referred to by Paul’, and for the likely sequence of events underlying this I am indebted to Companion Bible. We start, however, with the KJV 1611 footnote which says the Epistle to the Romans was written by Paul at Corinth and that delivery was entrusted to that faithful servant of the Cenchrean church, Phebe. Keep in mind, there was no postal service then; letters were delivered by personal messenger and risked loss in transit. Given that possibility, surely the apostle would keep at least one copy for safety and his own reading, from which other copies could be made later.
Evidence that he did so is that Rom. 16 has not one but two postscripts and also two benedictions rather than the one with which Paul normally ends his letters. It is therefore suggested the epistle originally ended in Rom. 15:33 with the first benediction, ‘Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen’. Then, when Phebe was selected as the means by which the letter could be sent to Rome, Paul added a postscript (Rom. 16:1-24), commending her to the Roman saints. The second benediction, ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen’, concludes this postscript in verse 24. Meanwhile in verse 22 the amanuensis (or copying scribe) Tertius, possibly a Roman writing to those he knew in Rome, announces in verse 22 that he is the one who wrote this copy of the epistle. Be that as it may, the apostle takes occasion in this first postscript to write doctrinally in verses 17-21.
The second postscript, comprising verses 25 to 27, features the Mystery as explained in ‘few words’ and concludes with a doxology to the Father.
It should be remembered that it is only because copies were made of Paul’s epistles we have them in our Bible at all. So it would be no surprise if, after first dispatching the original epistle to Rome, Paul later added to versions sent to other churches. Evidently God has seen to it that we received the epistle’s fuller “edition”. If further evidence of such editing and addition is required one need look no further than the Colossian epistle which itself is a shortened version of the Ephesian letter with some important additions, however.
In terms of right division all this means that the Mystery indeed was not ‘made manifest’ until after the setting aside of the ministry to the Jew at large in Acts 28. It is likely Paul did not “publish” this sublime secret until his second imprisonment (having been acquitted at his first trial) when it is clear from Eph. 3:1 that as the ‘prisoner of Jesus of Christ for you Gentiles’ he felt impelled (as he says in verse 9) to make the revelation known. Thus the date of the manifestation of the Mystery can be safely held to be after Acts 28.
However, the question of when the Mystery was first revealed by the Lord to Paul is another matter. Paul uses the past tense in Eph. 3:3, saying ‘…He made known unto me the Mystery’. It may be that Paul knew the sacred secret some years earlier but was bound not to make it known until ministry to Israel was set aside and salvation was sent to the Gentiles. To my mind, this is possibly suggested in 2 Cor. 12: 4 where the apostle says that ‘above fourteen years ago’ he had been caught up into paradise ‘…and heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter’.
It is here I believe that Paul first learned of the Mystery. After all what else could be so important to the Lord that it warranted have the apostle caught up in rapture to the heavens? The words he heard were arguably the most important truth ever revealed by God to man but possibly he was commanded not to speak them until the offer of the kingdom to earthly Israel and the ministry accompanied by signs and wonders was set aside at the end of the book of Acts.
Importantly, the Mystery was, and is, a message to all men and thus primarily to Gentiles, though individual Jews according to the flesh were not excluded, of course. That the ministry of salvation indeed was sent away from Jewry to the Gentiles under the Acts 28 pronouncement is underlined by the fact that Gentile preachers, such as Demas, Tychicus, Titus, Crescens, Timothy and others are never seen preaching in Acts or the pre-prison epistles but are only referred to as exercising their ministry in the prison epistles, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon.
The lesson for us today is firstly that now still means now and that God’s lines of dispensational demarcation remain intact and hugely important. The Mystery could not be made manifest until the Pentecostal period ministry to Israel ceased, notwithstanding the possibility Paul may have known about it earlier. We also realise more fully that God's word says what it means and means what it says: in this case: 'as I wrote afore in few words'.
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