Part 1 is here.
Reading through the Gospels, we find that Jesus sent his disciples out on exploratory mission on at least two occasions (Matthew 10:1-42; Luke 10:1-20). Both times their task was to preach the good news of the Kingdom, and demonstrate its reality by performing the same miracles Jesus himself had carried out. Later, following his death and resurrection, the Great Commission mandate given to them by his words in Matthew 28:16-20 and parallels elsewhere, would clearly have been understood in the context of those earlier missions. They were to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19). They were to do this beginning in Jerusalem, and then in all Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). When the day of Pentecost arrives, we see Peter being given the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to people from all of these categories as the Spirit’s power came upon him (Acts 2:1-22).
Right from the beginning then, it was communicated to the disciples that the message of Jesus was not simply for themselves, but for those from every corner of the earth. However, at this stage in their response to Christ’s calling, the context for all that had occurred had remained almost exclusively Jewish. Jesus was a Jew. He came and revealed himself as the Jewish Messiah. The disciples were Jews. Those present on the day of Pentecost from around the world were almost all Jews. Apart from a few encounters with a “god-fearing” Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia, a Roman Centurion, and some contact with Samaritans, all that Jesus had done had been directed towards the Jewish people, and even these “exceptions” could have been seen as with those sympathetic to Judaism (John 4, Luke 7:1-10). There was little indication yet that anyone, least of all the disciples, was in the process of beginning anything other than a new Jewish sect or Jewish reform movement. Even the persecution that broke out in Jerusalem did not alter this essential Jewish nature of what was taking place, as those dispersed as a result of it went and shared their new faith with other Jews in the towns and places where they sought refuge. In Acts 9:1-2, we read that when Saul was sent to the city of Damascus to uncover and deal with any Christians there, his plan was not to attack any new Christian churches that had been established, but rather to persecute any “followers of the way” whom he would find amongst the Jewish community.
Even the expansion of the early church into Samaria, Judea, and to far off parts of the Roman Empire could easily have been viewed as nothing more than continued outreach to Jews. Martin Robinson suggests that the inclusion of the “godfearers” (Acts 14) would not have altered this perception in any significant way as “godfearers” played a significant part in the Jewish community. “In some cases,” he writes, “the degree of their involvement was such that they were practically indistinguishable from the fully Jewish participants in the synagogue” (Martin Robinson, Planting Tomorrow’s Churches Today, 17).
Only when the early church was forced to face the issue of Gentiles who had not previously been godfearers but who were now becoming followers of Jesus did this strongly Jewish nature of the Christian church come to be questioned. The reversal of conventional thinking that followed within the Christian community is well illustrated by Peter’s response to his startling vision in Acts chapter ten. Its dramatic message and impact upon Peter led him first to a breakthrough ministry with Cornelius, and then to one of the most crucial realisations in the church’s history. “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). Following his encounter with Cornelius and the ministry of the Holy Spirit amongst those gathered with him to hear the message of Jesus, it was not surprising that Peter felt it necessary to relate and explain his actions to the leaders in the Jerusalem church. His report is recorded in the first part of Acts chapter eleven, and whilst the initial response of the leaders was positive, the full significance of what was taking place did not emerge until the events related at the end of that chapter.
Lessons from Antioch
Here, some of those dispersed as a result of the persecution in connection with Stephen, went to the city of Antioch and, as well as sharing their faith with Jews, “began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.” The scriptures tell us that “the Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11.20, 21). Here, for the first time, was a growing community of Christians many of whom who had no previous connection with Judaism. It would prove to be enormously significant for the future development of the church throughout the world. Two contributions in particular would be highly influential in the emerging self-understanding of the early Christians.
First of all, when Paul and Barnabas were later sent out on missionary journeys from Antioch to preach the Gospel and establish new Christian communities around the eastern Mediterranean area, the church at Antioch would act as a model for the type of new church they would seek to start. This meant that their mission and their new churches consisted of both Jews and Gentiles. Their early strategy seems to have been to go to the local Synagogue to address both Jews and “God-fearers” (Cf. Acts 13.14). Churches that were entirely Gentile would come later, but the seeds for them were planted through the example of Antioch.
Secondly, it was the challenge concerning the new believers at Antioch that forced the early church to face the issue of whether or not a Gentile needed to become a ritual Jew in order to be a Christian. In Acts 15:1, we are told that some men came to Antioch from Judea and began to teach those assembled there that, “unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” It is not surprising that this brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with those from Judea. Not only were they questioning the validity of the spiritual experience of those from Gentile background in Antioch, they were likewise bringing into question the whole missionary vision and activity that had flowed out from Antioch during the previous few years. In response, it was decided to send Paul, Barnabas, and other believers to resolve the matter with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. That they managed to do, with considerable support from Peter, and whether or not it was entirely clear at that time to those in the Jerusalem Council, a radical new understanding of what it meant to be in the people of God was set in place.
This issue of circumcision and observance of Jewish ritual as a prerequisite to salvation continued, of course, to be a flash point with certain parties throughout the early church. The book of Galatians, in particular, was written to address it and indicates that even Peter needed more time to fully comprehend the ramifications of what had taken place in his encounter with Cornelius and Paul’s encounter with the Gentiles in Antioch. Nevertheless, the decision of the Council of Jerusalem to request only of the Gentiles that they “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” was pivotal in shaping the future nature and mission of the church (Acts 15:29). It also has significant implication for us.
Who is it that we are seeking to reach? Who is it that God has called us to bring the gospel to? I’m part of a Christian denomination celebrating over three hundred years of ministry in Ireland, and given that you would expect the answer to this question to come relatively quickly and easily. By now surely we are in a place where we can ask such a thing without having to give it too much thought? Or are we? I think it could very well be argued that finding the answer to this question is no less challenging, difficult, and far reaching for those of us in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland as we journey into this new millennium than it was for those in the Jerusalem Church in Palestine two millennia ago. As James and the other Apostles and elders in Jerusalem penned their letter to the believers in Antioch, they were acknowledging that the Antioch mission to Gentiles as well as Jews was entirely in line with God’s new purposes through Christ. In other words, the apostolic ministry of proclamation, incorporation and discipleship was indeed to include all who would respond and not just those who were genetically or ritually Jewish. Furthermore, their mission was not to convert people to Jesus and to Judaism but solely to lead them to Jesus.
This may seem a very obvious conclusion to us, but it was far from so for those meeting in Jerusalem. For thousands of years, God had called to Himself a people, and those people were the Jews. With few exceptions, they alone were the beneficiaries of His calling and grace. Now in what must have seemed an incredible, if not almost unbelievable development to those in the early church, not only were Gentile “god-fearers” coming to faith in Christ as a by-product of the church’s witness to Jews; Gentiles outside the witness of Judaism were being reached in and of themselves as a direct outworking of the Great Commission. Before the leadership of the early church now lay the real possibility of Christian churches which were not just a mixture of Jews and converted Gentile “God-fearers”, but which were primarily or even entirely made up of previously unreached Gentiles with no understanding of God’s past involvement with the people of Israel.
Such was the radical nature of this departure from what had been before that we find Paul, in the light of these developments, having to grapple with such fundamental questions as “So what now is Israel?” “Who now is in Israel?” and “What place does the Jewish nation now hold since Gentiles are also included in the work of Christ?” This missionary background forms the canvass on which Paul paints the most amazing of his theological insights in the book of Romans.
The early church’s conclusion was that the message and work of Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament rather than its replacement. The church of Christ was now the new Israel instituted by Messiah himself, which embodied and fulfilled all that was present in the old. At first, this conclusion was relatively easy to hold since the early church was made of up primarily of Jewish believers who continued to keep the teaching and requirements of the Old Testament. However, how was this continuity possible now that churches could be envisaged that were made up entirely of Gentile believers with no blood ties whatsoever to the Jewish people and who had never practiced, and continued not to practice any of this Old Testament teaching? How was it possible for such gatherings to be regarded as the new Israel?
Paul’s startling answer to these questions (at least for his day) was that being culturally Jewish was entirely besides the point. Christian believers, Jewish and Gentile alike, were now joined together as children of Abraham not because of any physical nor cultural birthright, but because of their spiritual awakening and rebirth through Christ. Those who had embraced the message of Jesus with faith and who had been marked in Him by the Spirit of God were now the true inheritors of God’s promises to Abraham who himself had received them by faith (Romans 4:13,16). Thus it was now absolutely possible for Gentiles to be in God’s new Israel. With the announcement of the Kingdom from Jesus had come the announcement of an entirely new people in which having a particular culture or politic was no longer a prerequisite. This, of course, was not to say that God had now abandoned the Jewish nation. Far from it. Just as He had used Israel to bring the message of salvation to the Gentiles, so He would ultimately use this great harvest of Gentile believers to bring the rebellious people of Israel to repentance and to the fulfilment of His purposes for them. The church’s mission to the lost world, therefore, was not simply to lead Gentiles to faith in Christ. Paul’s ministry, and that of his fellow apostles, had tremendous eschatological significance as the gathering in of the Gentiles would play a part in God’s redemptive purposes for Israel and for the whole world.
Thinking about our own Tribes
As those of us in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (or whatever our tradition is) reflect upon this amazing development in the ministry of the early church, we are given enormous help in clarifying the focus and nature of our own ministry. As those engaged as co-workers in the missio Dei, as those not only with a denominational perspective, but with a Kingdom perspective, who is it that we are trying to reach? Speaking from my own tradition’s perspective, functionally at least, the historical emphasis of our church since its establishment in the 17th century has been to reach and to minister to those who are genetically and culturally Protestant. Historically, of course, there have been significant reasons for this emphasis, but as we survey the spiritual climate of modern day Ireland, we must face the fact that to be authentic witnesses to the Gospel of Christ, we too must revisit this emphasis, realize what errors lie there, and grasp again this all-inclusive nature of the early church’s witness.
As we look at the focus and nature of our denomination’s ministry what is our goal? What is it that we are seeking to lead people to be? Can we imagine Presbyterian churches that consist not just of those who come from a culturally Catholic and nationalist background but who remain largely catholic and nationalist in their culture? Could we embrace such communities as brothers and sisters in Christ? What requirements would we have to make for them to receive full recognition and blessing as members of our denomination?
Those looking on at our ministries from the outside might suppose the answers to these questions are obvious and easy to arrive at but those of us familiar with the history and contemporary realities of Ireland know that such answers are far from simple. Denominational entrenchment and cultural conflict course through the ecclesiastical structures of our land. “Systemic sectarianism” is a phrase increasingly being used by the media and other social commentators to articulate the ungodly reality of many of our Irish communities. With such spiritual and cultural uncertainty and anxiety present within our wider society, what does it mean for us as an historically Protestant and British denomination to be engaged in mission in a historically Roman Catholic and Irish nation? Stripped of our cultural and historical baggage, what is the heart, the core of our message? Are we seeking to help people become Christians or must they also become Protestants or Presbyterians or even Calvinists to be welcome in our midst? Such accommodation was far from easy in the early church and it will be far from easy for us, too. Yet, only if we are willing to honestly engage in such issues as these will we be able to develop into an effective, and Kingdom honouring agent of Christ in twenty-first century Ireland. Only then will we find the clarity in our mission that was present in those early followers of the Way.