From Jerusalem To Rome: Reaching Out To Gentiles
By Julia Blum January 19, 2022 No comments
My dear readers, as we continue our journey through the book of Acts I would like to remind you that my goal here is not to write another series of comments – tons of books have already been written on Acts – but just to bring to your attention the details that can be understood only within the Jewish context of the first-century Jewish Messianic congregation. Like, for instance, this question:
CAN GENTILES BELIEVE IN JESUS?
Today, both Christians and Jews would be puzzled and surprised by this question: Christianity today is largely perceived as a completely Gentile religion and a very non-Jewish entity. However, this is exactly the question that the first community of believers in Jesus had to deal with. Jesus Himself said several times that He came “to the lost sheep of house of Israel”. How did it happen then, that His message also went out to the Gentiles?
The book we have been reading together – the book of Acts – shows us this transformation. During his earthly life, Jesus was very specific in instructing his disciples not to even “go among the gentiles”. However, here in Acts, we witness a drastic change: starting from chapter 10, we see not only inclusion of the Gentiles, but also the astonishment and amazement of the existing Jewish Messianic community.
How did it all begin? I’m sure you all know this story. In Acts 10, we read about the vision of Apostle Peter in which he saw a large sheet coming down from heaven filled with “all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air”. Then a voice said to him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
For centuries, traditional Christianity has interpreted Peter’s vision as God’s permission to abandon a division between clean and unclean animals. However, if we refer to the narrative right before and right after this vision, we would understand that actually, it was God showing him that he should not call the Gentiles unclean, because God calls them clean, therefore the Good News should also be brought to them. This is the way Peter himself understood this vision, because while he was still puzzling over its meaning, men sent by Cornelius, a God-fearing gentile, came to him. Only then did Peter understand the message. Later he would explain to Cornelius that, even though “it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile…. God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean”. Thus, the message of Jesus began to be preached also to the Gentiles.
We learn from these chapters that first the Jewish believers in Jesus were very surprised, even shocked by this inclusion of the Gentiles. Yet, when they heard Peter’s testimony, “they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” Or, in the words of the Complete Jewish Bible, “This means that God has enabled the Goyim as well to do t’shuvah and have life!”
PHARISEE, SON OF A PHARISEE
As we all know, Shaul (Paul), whose “straightening” on Straight street we discussed last time, would become the key figure in this reaching of the Gentiles. Unfortunately, traditional Christian reading of Paul turned him into the father and author of sanctioned Christian anti-Semitism. For two millennia, the Church has taught that when Apostle Paul “converted,” his eyes were opened and, preaching tirelessly against the Jewish law and against Israel, he “freed Christianity from Judaism”. But, is this true? Did this Jewish scholar really believe Torah to be irrelevant and his people to be rejected by God? Did Paul really teach that Jesus’ message contradicted the Torah, Christianity was the antithesis of Judaism, and the Church replaced Israel?
Of course, “Paul and Torah” or “Paul and Israel” are huge topics, and this discussion goes far beyond our comments on Acts. However, from the book of Acts, we do know that even after Paul became Jesus’ disciple, it was still his regular custom to attend synagogue every Shabbat. “Paul did not consider the synagogue his opponent. How could he? No other valid faith- community yet existed. … the synagogue and Jerusalem Temple marked the location of study and worship for all who believed in the God of Israel. All other temples and places of worship were pagan.”
Thus, in every new town where Paul arrived (even in predominately Gentile regions), he went to a synagogue. In synagogues, he met with Jews and Gentiles alike who were interested in the Word of God. Again and again we read about Paul attending synagogues – for instance, “…there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” We will discuss this later as well as we continue our commentaries, but for now we are in chapter 13, and we see Paul and his companions entering the synagogue in Antioch: “when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down”. We read that “after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue” invited them to speak – “then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said….” What did he say?
The traditional view of Paul suggests that there were two ways of salvation: the old way was through the deeds of the law (Torah), while the new one, the way of grace, was opened by Jesus. There is a famous verse of Paul’s from Romans which is traditionally used against Judaism: a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Based on this statement, the vast majority of Christian theologians somehow came to the wrong conclusion that 1st century Judaism believed in work-based salvation. It is a very unfortunate mistake and is simply not true: in Judaism, salvation doesn’t depend on works either – it’s a free gift of God, based on His eternal covenant with Israel. One of the most famous rabbinic tractates, Pirkei Avot, opens with the famous words: “All Israel has portion in the world to come”. This means that salvation – or “portion in the world to come” – is not gained through doing good works; it depends only on a person belonging to God’s family. In this sense, it is also by grace.
Thus, Paul did not have to change this part of his theology after he became a follower of Jesus: it was clear to him, as it was to every Jewish rabbi, that access into God’s family depended not on the works a person does, but on his or her belonging to the covenant. Paul saw salvation as God’s gift to His family, based on His covenant – again, as every Jewish rabbi would see. What did change radically for Paul was who belonged to this covenant. In Judaism, God’s family consists of the people of Israel only. For Paul, anyone who comes to God through Jesus belongs to His family – and therefore, Paul invites everyone to come to God, in order to belong to His family and to receive God’s gift of salvation. This is exactly what he is saying in the synagogue of Antioch:
“Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to you the word of this salvation has been sent”.
 Tim Hegg, The Letter Writer