Paul’s Mission to the Gentiles

One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is that they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus said that Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247). Any Gentile who chooses to live according to the Law of Moses may be admitted, but otherwise there is no real fellowship with Gentiles.  

Josephus, Against Apion 2.210 Accordingly our legislator [Moses] admits all those that have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own stock, but to those that would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us.

But perhaps the situation was not as strict as Josephus would have us believe. Gentiles were not totally excluded from Jewish worship. There was a huge “court of the Gentiles” in the temple complex which gave Gentiles a place to worship in the Temple. On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” (Deut 5:14) define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel. These are the same commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple? In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told that “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him” (7:1). In fact, he refuses to even kiss the lovely Egyptian Asenath because her lips have touched unclean food.

Several Second Temple period texts indicate Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles:

Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, every one of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart . . .

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.” Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

In any case, it was certainly not normal for a missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to preach the gospel, as did Peter in Acts 10. If a Gentile was worshiping in the Temple or synagogue, such as Cornelius, then that Gentile would be welcome to hear the gospel. But for the Jewish mission in Judea, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!

Yet Paul plans to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. On the island of Crete he approaches a Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, and in Lystra and Iconium he tries to preach the Gospel to Gentiles outside of the Synagogue.

If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s Gentile mission strategy?

7 thoughts on “Paul’s Mission to the Gentiles

  1. It has been pretty consistently said that Paul’s mission strategy was unorthodox for his day. The idea of teaching Gentiles about God and the gospel was not very popular until Paul came around. I don’t know if I would go as far to say that it was radical in this context, but I don’t think people were very thrilled about it either. Paul wants the people to know that there is no one more righteous than the other in God’s eyes. He says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) He proved this point by teaching those Gentiles on the very steps of a Jewish synagogue. This would have probably thrown the Jews for a loop and it definitely ruffled some feathers, especially the Jews (and anyone) who saw Gentiles as an “abomination”. Paul was less concerned with the feelings and opinions of the Jews and he set out with a mission to save those who seemed to be un-savable. The Jews might have seen it as radical but Paul saw it as necessary.

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  2. It is well known that Paul’s strategy as a missionary was definitely not something common for that time frame. The Jews were very caught up in teaching themselves that it never crossed their minds to take the gospel to the Gentiles. However, Paul’s was meant to do this. God truly ordained and called him to be His instrument to take the Gospel to Gentiles. Acts 9:15 says, “‘Go!-said the Lord-This man man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.'” Paul was called by God to go to the Gentiles and take the gospel message to them which truly might have been considered radical, but this is what he was meant to do. While the Jewish believers of the day may have seen it as radical, Paul was honestly only doing what God told him to as many before him were called to take messages of God to places. The Jews of the first century most definitely would have been shocked and concerned about Paul’s mission, but Paul was truly only worried about doing the mission that he was called to do by God regardless.

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  3. As we where our American lens while reading the Bible, it is never a surprise to us when we read verses like Galatians 3:28, which discusses diversity and equality among believers, because they cater to our American “equality for all” lens. However, looking at the context of the passage, this equality was not the case while Paul was writing this. It was the culture of the time that separation was most common and Jews and gentiles were not equal. Passages like Luke 10 describe the severe differences and classes even amongst Jews. However, looking at scripture as a whole, you can see the divine redemptive plan of God since Genesis with Abraham. Abraham’s offspring was to be a light to all the nations. The plan from the beginning was for all, including gentiles, to be saved through Christ. The sacrifice Christ did on the cross was meant for all, despite class, race, sex, etc. Paul’s mission was to glorify God and highlight Christ’s work on the cross in showing that his saving power is for all, Jew and gentile. Before it was you were either a jew or gentile, but now you are either saved or not saved. We have to look at all people as a mission field, no matter who they are or where they come from. Recognizing these differences from our culture and theirs at that time, it was very radical for Paul to go to the gentiles because no one had ever done that willingly nor was it socially acceptable to mingle excessively with the gentiles. However, Paul recognized that the salvation of the gentiles was far more important than his own reputation. In this, we must imitate Paul and recognize the urgency of the gospel without our own reputations in mind.

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  4. It was extremely radical for Paul to reach out to the Gentiles, especially with his Jewish background. Paul was one of the most high social Jews, being educated by a Pharisee and knowing what tribe he was from. Being from the tribe of Benjamin was also one of the most respected tribes among the Jews. I am sure Paul lived his whole life abiding by the rules of the Jewish culture that was placed before him. Meaning that he his whole life before his encounter with God probably felt that the Gentiles were unclean and could never reach the status that Paul had. But once Paul met Jesus on the Road to Damascus all his old ways changed, and it was the mission placed before him to reach out to the Gentiles. Even though it was definitely against what he grew up with and the customs of the time. Paul mostly reached out to the Gentile community “On a macro level, Paul’s overall plan was apparently to traverse a significant swath of the Eastern Mediterranean, carrying the gospel primarily to Gentile city dwellers and forming converts into Christ-shaped communities” (TTP, 39-40). Paul got ridicule all the time for his preaching and teachings quite often, sometimes even to the point of death from Jewish believers. But Paul knew the mission that God set before him and he stayed true!

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  5. When people state that the Bible was written too many years ago for it to be relevant in today’s culture, I do not think that they are aware of questions and issues such as the ones stated above. Many people believe that culture has evolved to a point that the topics discussed in the Bible do not apply because it was written by shepherds and fishermen who would not know what they were discussing. However, I believe that the Scripture still contains relevant material for today. One of the most buzzed topics currently is racism, with people protesting and even dying because they feel like certain races and colors are discriminated against, and the same issue was happening in the time of Peter and Paul. Up until this point, Jews did not associate with the gentiles – they were unclean, and they could potentially make the Jews unclean as well. Even though they had a spot in the temple to worship, they were still kept on the outside, but this changed when Jesus began His earthly ministry. The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus engaging Gentiles and individuals who are of even lower social standing. This is because Jesus did not come to die only for the Jews – He died for all men, opening access to the Father for all mankind, which is why Paul writes in Galatians 3:28 that “there is neither Jew nor Greek… for you are all one in Christ.” For Peter, this was an incredible struggle, as we can see his inward battle leading up to his experience with Cornelius in Acts 10. He was told by God to associate himself with that which had always been unclean to him, which was difficult to do, but he learned that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34). In light of this text, I believe that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was definitely radical! He had been raised with Pharisaical training, and yet he was the apostle to the gentiles. This should also be our mindset as we seek to give the message of the gospel to unbelievers. It should not matter what color or background a person is. Jesus died for all men, and people from every tribe and tongue will be praising Him in heaven. May we have a radical mindset like Paul’s as we live our lives in His service.

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  6. It is crazy to think that witnessing to all was a new strategy at some point. I am so thankful that Peter and Paul did not stay in their comfort zone and preached the good news. Regardless, if you are Jew or Gentile you need to know the truth. “Based on remarks that Paul makes in his letters, it does not appear that he conducted his ministry according to a fixed itinerary,” (TTP, pg.39). I think that is vital that we acknowledge that Paul did not have a set in stone plan. He knew he needed to reach people and that is exactly what he did. He reached out to the lost and broken. He did not limit his ministry to a certain sex, race, or affiliation. He knew that Jesus’s name needed to be known and that was his plan. I think that is truly inspiring, to have such faith, to do something outside of the box. “We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul– men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Acts 15:24-25). It is odd to think that they had to go through others to get approval to spread the word, but I thought it was excellent that Paul and Barnabas were acknowledged for risking their lives. Their work was being noticed, even though it was hard. Their mission was working.

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