Acts 28 contains something of a provocative phenomenon that I see borne out elsewhere in the New Testament.
In 28:17, Paul, a believer, speaking to a generally neutral audience, begins his address with:
After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.
Note the phrase, “our fathers.” From Luke’s preface—“the Jews”—and Paul’s use of “our people” and “customs of our fathers,” it is obvious that the ethnic connection between Paul and his audience is in view here. Contrast this with Paul’s phrasing at the conclusion of his address:
And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: Go to this people, and say, ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive’” (Act 28:25-26).
When it becomes clear that the majority are rejecting the message of Jesus Christ, Paul suddenly separates himself from the audience by the use of “your fathers.” Paul did have a socio-ethnic connection with his audience, but he had discovered a far greater connection to be sought: the bond of the Spirit in uniting all believers to God through Christ. When it became apparent that his hearers were rejecting Christ, Paul disassociated himself with them by the provocative use of “your fathers.” “Your fathers” serves to identify Jews as unbelievers and also indicates it had been a common phenomenon throughout the nation’s existence. In the New Testament, when believers address unbelieving Jews, the phrase “your fathers” is a way of indicating separation from God’s grace.
In Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:47-48 Jesus condemns the Pharisees for following the example of “your fathers” in condemning the prophets. Just as the fathers of the Pharisees—Old Testament Jews—had persecuted the prophets, their sons—the Pharisees—persecuted Jesus. In addition to these passages and Acts 28:25, Hebrews 3:9 also uses “your fathers” to warn against following the example of Old Testament Jewish unbelief.
But Acts contains an even clearer example than Paul’s address in chapter 28. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 demonstrates the same pattern, but magnified. While he is seeking to persuade them, Stephen uses the term “our fathers” eight times (7:11, 12, 15, 19, 38, 39, 44, 45). But by the end of Stephen’s speech, when it is clear the Sanhedrin is opposed to the gospel, Stephen suddenly switches terms:
You stiff-necked people, 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 announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered… (Act 7:51-52)
Once again, “your fathers” is used to indicate Jewish unbelief. Not just Jewish unbelief in the gospel, but Jewish unbelief throughout the nation’s existence. There was always a portion of the Jewish population that resisted God.
The primary application of this bit of linguistic minutia is that God is no respecter of persons. King David has eternal life because he trusted in the Lord. King Ahab has eternal death because he forsook the Lord. The ethnicity of each man did nothing to determine their eternal state.
Why are these things important? Such teaching is important because of what I would call lazy dispensationalism. One of the rotten fruits of dispensational teaching has always been its fuzziness on Old Testament salvation. Its better representatives—Ryrie, Walvoord, MacArthur etc.—have done their best to correct this; but at the pew-level I would hazard the guess that most dispensation-taught Christians operate under the general impression that the vast majority of Old Testament characters were saved. In its worst forms, this has also led some to believe that Jews might also be saved today without trusting in Jesus Christ. In more moderate forms, it has led to the belief that Jews are “almost” saved, and might need just a little nudge to add Christ to their traditions.
Jesus and the apostles constantly battled similar forms of this aberrant theology. Many Jews thought they had God’s favor simply because of their race. To them the message was that every man enters the world with the devil as his father, not God (John 8:44) and that Abraham was justified before God as a Gentile, not a Jew (Rom. 4:10). Others thought that Gentiles had to become Jews to be saved, or act as a Jew to remain saved. The foolishness of such thinking was condemned by the church (Acts 15:10) and Paul (Gal. 3:3).
The use of “our fathers” and “your fathers” is not a strict Shibboleth; nevertheless it is a repeated pattern that serves to emphasize that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Jew and Gentile alike must enter the kingdom through him. There is no other way.