The Gospel’s Ethnic Crossover

The Gospel’s Ethnic Crossover.

Acts 9: 19 – 30; Acts 11:19 – 30; Acts 12:24 – 21:14.

Paul’s introduction to the Jerusalem leadership, after his conversion, elicited the ire of his former zealous Jewish compatriots, who were now bent on killing him for betraying their cause. When it became too dangerous for him to remain, the elders packed him off to his hometown, Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30), where he remained for the next 8 years. Subsequently, Barnabas tracked him down and brought him to Antioch, to assist him in ministry to a fledgling multi-ethnic group (Acts 11:22-26). As time passed, the elders of this group then set apart Barnabas and Paul for their first missionary journey. This trip formed an important cathartic experience in defining Paul’s future direction of making the gospel available to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-47). On hindsight, an interesting personal vignette endeared Paul to the newly planted multi-ethnic Galatian churches, where after his close shave with the Lycaonian (i.e., at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas were stoned and left for dead), and escaping to Derbe, the church’s love and hospitality overwhelmed him, as they ministered to their wounds (Acts 14:19; c.f., Gal 4:13-140). Despite the intransigent opposition of the diaspora Jewish community in Asia Minor to the gospel, God’s staging of His gospel towards the Gentiles from that point on was beginning to take form (Acts 9:15; c.f., 1 Peter 2:8-10). When God initiated a new thrust in His endeavours, it was not always so clear-cut to His people, unless they had been at the forefront of accomplishing His will and clued into the moving of His Holy Spirit.

At the time, converts to the Way were principally ethnic Jews, and their prejudice towards Gentiles, modelled by the Jerusalem leadership and church, was blatant. No doubt Paul’s own Pharisaic background reinforced those sensibilities, prior to his introduction to the Antioch church and his initial missionary venture. The Apostle Peter’s own biased encounter in Caesarea with Cornelius, and his subsequent confrontation with his Jerusalem compatriots, which caused him to withdraw his fellowship with non-Jews, further challenged how God was preparing His people to diversify universally the reach of the gospel. An incident chronicled the visit from a Judean group to the Antioch church, where Paul and Barnabas debated with those who insisted that the Gentiles in the congregation could only be saved through circumcision, further confused the non-Jews. Following this, the church at Antioch sent the two missioners to Jerusalem to clarify these potential doctrinal glitches (Acts 15:1-3).

Before the Council convened, Paul discovered that Jewish believers from Jerusalem had been attempting to influence the churches in Galatia. Agonising over their interference, he immediately shot off his Letter to the Galatian Church. In it, he was direct and vociferous in his instructions to the new believers, naming those teachings as ‘a contrary gospel.’ He emphasised that believing Jews were all crucified with Christ and no longer justified by the Law, hence they were able to receive the promise of the Spirit through faith together with Gentile believers (Gal 3:11-14); that salvation was never on the basis of one’s ethnicity; and God’s family is entirely inclusive of anyone who had believed (Gal 3:23-29; 4:6-7). He also brought to light his differences with Peter’s reactions in his Caesarea encounter with the Gentiles (Gal 2:11-21; c.f., Acts 9:32-11:18). Titus, a Greek, who had accompanied Paul to Jerusalem was even threatened with circumcision by the Jews when they arrived in the Holy City (Gal 2:1-3).

Prejudice is an acquired biased judgment that is pernicious in any community, and when it is paired with self-righteousness, its destructive malignancy inevitably gives way to arrogance and aggression. Paul himself was not unfamiliar with it, as he had been consumed by it in his earlier days in persecuting the followers of Jesus. Contesting the views of Pharisaic believers at the Council, who were adamant that Gentile believers ought to observe the Law of Moses, Barnabas and Paul, together with Peter, testified to the irrefutable distinctive work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles: as the Gentiles were unfamiliar with the Laws, they should not be burdened by it – after all, Jews and Gentiles were not justified by the Law, but had been saved through grace by faith. Thankfully, the Jerusalem Council, after some deliberation, through James, endorsed the right of the Gentiles to be free from certain Jewish religious traditions, and affirmed Paul’s continuing ministry to them (Acts 15:4-35). In retrospection, the leadership’s decision was one of the most critical in redemptive history, as it kept the door open for the spread of the gospel throughout the nations, in fulfilment of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20).