Paul’s Mission to the Gentiles

One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus says 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. The Temple in the first century was expanded to include a large “court of the Gentiles” providing a place for Gentiles to worship. 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 (see for example the story in Mark 7:24-30 or the parallel in Matthew 15:22-28)

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 Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general laws for them while they are living within Israel. These are similar to the commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29 for Gentiles. Although it seems odd to a modern reader, the two biggest factors for avoiding Gentiles were food laws and circumcision. Because Gentiles ate food the Jews considered unclean, for some Jews contact with Gentiles was to be avoid.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the courts at the temple? In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told 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 Jewish missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to teach them about the God of the Hebrew Bible (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 as described in the book of Acts, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!

Yet Paul is called to be the “light to the gentiles” and planned to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. He immediately goes to the Roman province of Arabia and begins to do evangelism among the Gentiles. On the island of Crete Paul intentionally approaches the Roman governor Sergius Paulus, and in both Lystra and Iconium he targets Gentiles outside of the Synagogue with the Gospel.

If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s Gentile mission strategy? Is the reaction of both Christian and non-Christian Jews to his interaction with Gentiles a hint at how radical Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was for Second Temple Jews?

17 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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    • Holly, I like your thoughts on Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. However, I noticed you claimed Paul’s mission was not “radical” to you. Although you did make points to make it seem like it was necessary and so forth. This was interesting to me just because my opinion is different from yours. To me, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was radical. I believe this because of three reasons: history, culture/norms, and Paul’s sufferings. First, I say history because history had shown the Jews and the Gentiles do not mix. For example, P Long gives us the verse Deut 5:14 showing how the Jews considered the Gentiles to be aliens. Therefore, I think since all of history the Jews and Gentiles did not get along, that makes it radical that Paul is making it his mission to reach them. Next, I think culture/norms proves it’s radical because during this time it was against the culture/norms to do what Paul was doing. We know it was against the culture/norms because Paul had to tell people he was called to the Gentiles. If it was normal during this time to preach to both the Jews and the Gentiles he never would have had to tell others that is what he was doing. However, Paul knew it going against the everyday culture/norm and needed people to know the new Christian faith called everyone, even Gentiles. 1 Timothy 2:7 “And for this purpose, I was appointed a herald and an apostle–I am telling the truth, I am not lying–and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.” Lastly, I think Paul’s sufferings prove it was radical. The fact that Paul was hated by so many other Christian Jews proves what he was doing was radical, otherwise, everyone would have praised Paul. Instead, Paul was beaten (2 Corinthians 11:25), put in prison (Acts 16:16-40), and almost killed several times (Acts 23:12-35, Acts 14:19-28). These extreme actions against Paul wouldn’t have been made if he wasn’t doing racial things. At least, in my opinion, they wouldn’t have been. I wonder what we can learn from this? Is everyone called to live out a radical mission? Or maybe just a handful? Something to think about.

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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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    • I really like how you pointed out that while Paul’s mission strategy was uncommon for the time, he was doing it because it was what God called him to do. Even though everyone may have thought that this was too “radical”, Paul didn’t care – he simply obeyed God to the best of his ability. Paul is truly a prime example of what a good Christian should be. I wonder how many times God calls us to do something that may be seen as “radical”, but we are too scared to do it because we are afraid of what people will think about us. We are far too focused on the world – we worry too much about fitting in. But Paul certainly was not afraid of sticking out, and I think that we should find encouragement in his story. Paul is often considered “the greatest missionary” of all time – he was able to reach so many people, even after spending part of his life hunting and killing Christians, and it was all because he obeyed God! This just makes me wonder, what could we be capable of doing, if we only listened to God and did what he wanted us to, instead of staying wrapped up in ourselves and trying to conform to the world?

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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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    • I love a lot of the aspects that you discussed within your post! I like how you talked about the relevancy of things in the Bible and the modern day world. The aspect of intervening for individuals who might be seen as different racially, culturally, or even religiously is something that we as a society need to do more. It is vital to understand this because we should want to treat others how we would want to be treated. Therefore, loving our neighbor as we may love ourselves (Mark 12:31). That’s why I believe that Paul’s actions in terms of ministering the Good News to the Gentiles were pivotal because it shows that aspect of loving everyone. He exemplifies the simple fact that we are all created in God’s image and deserve to be able to hear the teachings of Good News just as the Jews did (Genesis 1:27). Furthermore, we must be willing to help everyone as we are all trying to live a life pleasing God just as Paul did with the Gentiles and many more. Another element of your post that I liked was the facet in which you talked about Peter. This was a great example of how it may be hard for us to overcome our differences due to history or anything close to that matter but at the end of the day we all want the same thing, and that’s to please God. So we should put our differences to the side and help one another. Therefore, we should never neglect to do good and share what we have because those sacrifices are what pleases God (Hebrews 13:16).

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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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  7. According to our textbook, Paul’s long term missionary goal was to spread the gospel across the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily to Gentiles and form converts into Christian communities (pg. 39-40). As Christians, we also know Paul was called to the Gentiles from verses such as 1 Timothy 2:7 or Acts 13:14-47 “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Therefore, we can confidently say, and agree, that Paul was called to the Gentiles, however, the question we are dealing with is, would Paul’s mission be considered radical? In my opinion, Paul’s mission would have been extremely radical for the period. This is because he was doing something never done before. In the first century, Gentiles would keep away from the Jews unless they lived according to the law of Moses and then they could have real fellowship with one another (para. 1). Now, because of the new Christian faith, Paul is going around saying Gentiles do not have to live under the law of Moses. Rather, they must accept Jesus as their Lord and live under His grace. Food laws and circumcision could no longer condemn Gentiles because they were saved through grace rather than the law. Paul is throwing two curve balls at Second Temple Jews. First, that we are now saved through grace because of Jesus, no longer being condemned by the law. Second, that all are God’s people, even the Gentiles.

    It is clear to see that some Second Temple Jews agreed with Paul and believed he was called to reach the Gentiles, while others did not. For example, Timothy who was born from a Jewish mother and Greek father helped Paul in his mission to the Gentiles (Acts 16:4). While the Jews from Pisidian Antioch were filled with jealousy when large crowds gathered to hear Paul preach (Acts 13:14-45). There may have been more reasons to why the Jews were jealous at this time, such as because Paul drew large crowds and was preaching the new faith, however, I believe it also had to do with the idea of him trying to reach the Gentiles.

    In the end, from today’s Christian standpoint, Paul’s mission to the Gentile should not seem radical. We are told as young children to go out into the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15). We are even given examples of this by Jesus when he eats with all kinds of people such as women, tax collectors, etc. However, from the standpoint of a Second Temple Jew, you have to take into account the culture and history of the Jewish/Gentile relationships. Paul preaching to a group of individuals the Jews used to stay away from would have been hard to wrap their minds around. To them, Gentiles were people to not associate with “…because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable (para 6).” However, Paul continued to preach to them even when facing extreme suffering and persecution. I wonder if I would ever be able to do the same?

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  8. Throughout this post it had me reflecting on the impact that one individual can have on so many lives. Recently a young man passed away, Jarrid Wilson, from being overtaken by suicide. Although I did not know him personally, I have seen several encouraging and loving posts of the man he was. He had a powerful impact on those who heard him preach and he was an advocate for those battling mental diseases such as anxiety. God puts a special calling on our lives and he knows our first and last day. I believe God knew when Jarrid’s last day would be and He used him to be a light in the darkness, to serve and love others in the time span he was here.

    When I think about Paul’s journey, it makes me think about Jarrid. These men were both called by God to bring the word to His people. Paul boldly shows his commitment to Christ through the ministry He did to the Gentiles and Jews. Even though the Gentiles and Jews had different reactions to the word Paul brought to them, he was doing what he was called to do. Paul’s mission was to bless them and guide them to Jesus. From what I understand he was never forcing the word of God on others. Scripture should never be forced but used as a tool for those who do not have a relationship with Christ. Paul’s journey was radical, and he wanted to reach an abundant number of individuals, as we can see from where he traveled. God also brought him back to where and who He wanted him to minister to most.

    In Acts 15:24-29 Paul writes that he did not want to leave the Gentiles uneasy about the word of God. Judas and Silas came back to minister the same words so the Gentiles would understand. In verse 28 it says, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements”. When I see this, I see faithfulness and intentionality. Paul was not just doing ministry for his benefits, but to be a light in the darkness. He was speaking truth and life into the Gentiles. Paul reminds me of Jarrid and the ministry he has done in his time he had here on earth. To be a man of God who had such a special calling to minister to others and about mental diseases, being one who suffered from such darkness. He has left a legacy of being a man who persevered, served the Lord and committed to ministry even through his struggles, as did Paul.

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  9. Paul faced a lot of opposition during his mission to reach gentiles in regions where association with them was frowned upon. Most of these oppositions came from first-century Jews who were fully committed to the laws of the Torah. The Jews had concrete beliefs that they were the choosing people of God and placed themselves in much higher pedestal than everyone else. Much of the cities visited by Paul were disconnected and filled with norms in all sectors of society. Hence, Paul’s mission was indeed radical because he had to convince Jews to meet eye to eye with Gentiles. Other issues that made Paul’s mission radical involved outsiders who manipulated the truth of the gospel. Longenecker refers to these outsiders as “Agitators” who have no true identity but are out to contradict Paul. (Longenecker, 89). There was an ongoing battle in Paul’s mission that required him to defend the word of God and to spread it among gentiles. Not to mention, Paul was constantly being kicked out of cities and beaten severely for trying to take the gospel to gentiles (Acts 16:37). Overall, Paul had many obstacles and challenges that definitely can be summarized as a radical experience in keeping Gods promise.

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    • Jgracia2019, Romans 2:15 mentions a contrast between Committed law Jews and the Gentiles. The Gentiles have the law written on their hearts which keeps them accountable and the Jews have the written law. In chapter 2 Paul makes statements to the Jews to get them to see that they are no better than the gentiles. It is sort of like you were saying in the first half of your paragraph.

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  10. I think that Paul’s missionary strategy to the gentiles is radical. Paul being Jewish himself and having Roman citizenship is kind of interesting is this particular situation. Paul says in Corinthians 9:19-23 that “he has become like a slave to all to win as many as possible all though he is free. To the Jews he became like a Jew to win the, he became like those under the law to win them, he became like those without the law to win them, and he became like the weak to win them also.” Paul did all that for the sake of the Gospel. I think it is radical for Paul to be flexible to all just to have the desire to share God’s word with them. Those people were different and had their views on one another. The Jews with the law like the ones in the bold passages that P. Long posted have a negative view on the gentiles specifically. Paul is somehow able to connect with both parties and radically shares the Gospel through proclaiming it and promoting it through the example he sets to be like Christ.

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  11. Throughout this blog post their is pivotal information concerning the Gentiles and Paul’s mission to them, and if it was radical. However, to understand his mission to the Gentiles and the radicalness of his approach is to actually understand what is radical and what is necessary. From my point of view, In this case of Paul and the Gentiles I believe that Paul’s approach wasn’t radical at all but necessary. It was necessary in the sense that God doesn’t discriminate in terms of individuals worthy of hearing the Gospel. Such as, Matthew 28:19-20 explains, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. Therefore, Paul ultimately wanted to follow the word of God in which he was being obedient in terms of going to tell the Good News of God. So, I don’t believe that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was radical because God commanded it as a necessity. Paul was destined by God before he ministered to the Gentiles that he was going to be used as an instrument to carry his name before the Gentiles and Kings and the children of Israel (Acts 9:15). By saying that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was necessary instead of radical is simply implying that it isn’t radical because it was destined to happen. Although, this was something that was never done before and may have been seen as obscene behavior according to some it was still bound to happen according to God and His word. Therefore, Paul just jumping out on a limb isn’t really jumping out there due to the fact that in the end everything will work out according to God. So in my mind the radical element is not truly gone but diminished in some way.

    However, I do believe that the reaction of both Christian and non-Christian Jews to Paul’s interaction with Gentiles was a hint at how radical Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was for Second Temple Jews. Although some individuals of the Second Temple Jews agreed with Paul and believed he was called to reach the Gentiles, while others did not. Such as, Timothy, who was half jewish assisted Paul in some of his missionary activities in spreading the Good News (Acts 16:4). Although the reaction to how Paul taught the Gentiles by some jews is the reason why I say that the radical element was not totally taken out because it tried exemplify that Paul was in the wrong.

    Lastly, from a more modern day perspective on the issue, I believe this is a great example of courage and fulfillment. As Paul’s long term missionary goal was to spread the gospel across the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily to Gentiles and form converts into Christian communities (Longenecker, pg. 39-40). This showed his great courage that Paul will go above and beyond to fulfill what God wanted him to do. Also, within this situation you see the idea of people stepping up to help other people be better. This type of gesture makes me think about American history and how African Americans were helped by some white Americans to help them do better in life. Although, some didn’t agree they went out and proceeded to help as part of their civic duty. For example, when Abraham Lincoln set free slaves there were numerous people of the white community who didn’t totally agree but Lincoln felt as if it was right.

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  12. Judging from the reactions of Jews in the cities Paul ministered, they thought his message was blasphemous and a danger to their way of life. The Jews in Thessalonica sought to silence his proclaiming Jesus as “another king” (TTP, 61). In Corinth, Paul was beaten by Jews for “persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13). When Paul is arrested in Jerusalem it is because the Jews thought he brought Gentiles into the temple and started a riot to kill Paul (Acts 21:27-29). From only three examples, it is clear that many Jews completely rejected Paul’s message. They rejected Christ as Messiah as well as Gentile inclusion. Even Christian Jews wanted to maintain separation from Gentiles. For example, in Galatians 2:11-13 Paul recounts a situation with Cephas, or Peter, in Antioch. Up to this point, Peter had been eating with Gentile Christians with no problem. But a group of men “from James” came into town and disapproved (Gal 2:12). Through their influence, Peter and other Jews stopped eating with the Gentiles (Gal 2:13). This example demonstrates that even Christian Jews had a hard time accepting Gentiles into the body of Christ with no strings attached.

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