Paul’s Mission Field
As Paul went out to preach the gospel, he experienced the wide range of beliefs present in the world. Among the Jewish people, there were various sects to contend with. Although we often split Judaism of that day down into simply Pharisees and Sadducees, even these groups were divided within themselves.
Different schools of thought arose on interpretation and application of Torah. These groups would often debate their thoughts on a topic in order to fully flesh out the true meaning of a passage of Scripture. When we see the apostles arguing with the other Jewish groups, they were using this same method of discussion common to that time and place.
Naturally, Paul, being a devout Jew, believed in the Hebrew scriptures. He learned them as a child and he lived them out in his adult life. He was familiar with the process of argumentation common among the rabbis. But Paul also lived in a culture that was very much Hellenistic. Many Jews were Jewish in name only. They were not devoted Hebrews, but lived like Gentiles, especially in their business dealings, such as we see with the tax collectors in the Gospels (Mark 2:15, Luke 15:1).
But as we have seen, Paul said that he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee zealous for God. Paul was true to himself. He knew who he was and he knew the Scriptures, and the Scriptures told him that the Gentiles would one day come to salvation along with the Jews. So as Paul headed for the Gentiles, he came with the message that was for the Gentiles and not the Jews. That message was that Gentiles did not have to become Jewish in order to be saved. From our perspective this seems obvious, but in those days it was not understood that way.
Before we go any further, it is important to understand the perspectives on salvation within Judaism. Our understanding of salvation is different from what has been asserted by Judaism throughout the ages. Today we understand salvation, in the context of Christianity, to mean that when we die, we will not be subject to eternal punishment in hell, but will spend eternity in heaven. This opportunity is afforded to anyone who accepts Yeshua and His atoning sacrifice as a free gift. But what would the term “salvation” mean to a Jew?
Examining the Old Testament, we see that there are no explicit descriptions of an afterlife. Since the Sadducees held only a literal understanding of the Bible, they did not believe in an afterlife, so they saw no reason to be saved from anything. The Pharisees, however, saw hints and glimpses in the Scriptures, and understood that death was not the end of individual existence (Proverbs 15:24, Isaiah 26:19, Daniel 12:2). Because of the lack of explanation in the Old Testament, the exact understanding of this afterlife was hazy and open to interpretation. Due to the myriad explanations which have arisen from this vacuum, we will cover only the opinions which are most broadly accepted.
The afterlife is called Olam HaBa, meaning “the World to Come.” This name is used both in reference to the Messianic Age, which we call the Millennium or the Millennial Reign of Christ, and the eternal afterlife. Some interpret that these times are one and the same, while others separate them, distinguishing between a time after the resurrection of the body with the soul and an eternity where only the soul exists without the physical body.
We often misunderstand the relationship that exists in Judaism between keeping the commandments and entering eternal life. Jews do not believe that eternal life is earned by keeping the commands perfectly. The majority opinion is summed up in the words of the Talmud: “All Israel have a share in the World to Come.” The merit of salvation is not keeping the commands, but it is because of the covenant God made with Israel, and His grace which He has revealed in the promises He made (Isaiah 45:17, 60:21). Paul himself echoes this fact, expanding Israel to include Gentiles who believe in Yeshua (Romans 11:25-26). Although the belief is that all Israel has a share in the World to Come, the individual’s continued status within the covenant and the greatness of the share they will receive in the World to Come depends on their adherence to the commandments. Those who were more righteous will receive a better reward, and those who were less righteous may have to go through a time of purification similar to Purgatory in Catholicism.
Just because someone was born into Israel does not mean that they will enter the World to Come, however. Some sins explicitly merit the punishment of being “cut off from Israel,” which is understood as being separated from the blessings of God (Leviticus 18:29, 20:6, Numbers 15:30), including those of the World to Come.
In Judaism, the motivation for keeping the commands is not supposed to be to gain merit in the eyes of God, but to do the things that He has said are good for His people to do, and they are to be done not because of a desire for eternal reward, but simply because it is their covenant duty and how they show love for God. This is echoed in the Chapters of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot): “Be not like servants who minister unto their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not upon the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven [God] be upon you.” Yeshua teaches His disciples in a similar fashion in Luke 17:7-9.
So if entrance into the World to Come is understood as being based on the covenant relationship with God and attachment to the blessings which rest upon Israel, then how did Gentiles fit into this? One idea which has been somewhat accepted in Judaism is that those who are Gentiles can not enter eternal life, period. This doesn’t mean they inherit eternal torture, but merely cease to exist after death. As we have brought up earlier, this belief about Gentiles was because there was often a distinct line drawn between Judaism and the rest of the world, who practiced idolatry. In their opinion, the only option for the nations is to go through the ritual conversion process and become Jews.
The process of conversion was similar to what it is today. The convert-to-be begins by finding a rabbi or teacher to learn the basics of the faith from. They spend time with this spiritual adviser, learning more about practicing Judaism to see if they really want to convert. After a sufficient period of learning, usually at least a year, the next step is to meet with what is called a beit din, which is a group of at least three well-respected members of the community. They will talk with the one who wants to convert to see if they are still willing to go through with the conversion and what their motives and expectations are. It is not something to be taken lightly, as after the conversion the full responsibilities of the covenant will rest upon them. If the meeting goes well, the next step is circumcision. This is the sign of the covenant which God decreed for the people of Israel, so it is necessary for one who wishes to become a Jew. After the circumcision, the only thing left to do is immerse in a mikveh. A mikveh is a ritual immersion pool which contains natural, flowing water. The convert will be completely submerged underwater and rise, as a sign of rebirth and commitment. This is where the concept of Christian baptism originated. To finalize the conversion, the new convert would offer up sacrifices in the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, sacrifices could no longer be offered up, and so instead the new convert would give to charity or do a particular good deed. After this immersion and sacrifice, the convert is no longer considered a Gentile, but they are now considered a proselyte Jew.
While the idea that no Gentiles can be saved has seen acceptance through the years (most likely including during the time of Yeshua), the majority view today is that those of the nations who act in accordance with righteousness will enter the World to Come. Righteousness for Gentiles in this context means fulfilling the covenant relationship which God established with Noah. Noah existed before the Jewish people, and so the writers of the Talmud say that the covenant God made with Noah is for all of mankind (Genesis 9:9, 18-19). They developed a list of seven rules which go along with this covenant: 1. Do not worship false gods, 2. Do not curse God, 3. Do not murder, 4. Do not commit sexual immorality, 5. Do not steal, 6. Do not eat a live animal, and
7. Establish courts of justice. The first six laws were derived from various passages in Scripture where God shows certain expectations of mankind in general, and the last is established to uphold the other six.
Why would a Gentile want to become Jewish? If they recognized that the God of Israel was the one true God, the only way to be accepted by the Jewish community was to become a proselyte. Although the Torah does not teach that this needs to happen, the Jewish people at that time were leery of Gentiles in general and wanted to be sure their desires were genuine. Another motivation may be that under Roman law, Jews were protected from having to participate in the worship of false gods, but Gentiles were not. If they didn’t participate in the pagan rituals of society, they could be punished for atheism.
So what we have seen is that the concept of salvation in Judaism was somewhat vague: it is more focused on what to do in this life, and leaves the judgment up to God. However, those who have accepted belief in eternal reward and punishment believe it is contingent upon the covenant and the promises that God made with Israel, and therefore in order to share in the blessings of the covenant, a Gentile must convert and become an Israelite. This idea was popular in Yeshua’s day, but afterward Jews became more open and posited that Gentiles could also receive the blessings of the covenant by maintaining the covenant which God made with Noah.
The Jerusalem Council
The debate over how people were saved affected all of the varied sects and denominations of Judaism, especially the Way. In Acts 15, we find a debate which we have lost perspective on through the years. Unless we understand the worldviews of those who are debating, we cannot truly grasp the meaning of this decision and the implications it had on the early community of believers.
The chapter begins with an introduction to the council of Jerusalem. Some men have been going around saying that the Gentiles who are coming to belief in Yeshua can only be saved by undergoing the ritual conversion to Judaism:
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. (verses 1-2)
These men were of the opinion that Gentiles needed to renounce their nationality and become proselyte Jews in order to experience the blessings associated with the covenant. Previously, the Gentiles had not been a big factor, since all of the initial believers in Yeshua were Jewish (Matthew 10:5-6). After it was made clear that Gentiles were part of God’s plan, as evidenced through their reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10), and especially as Paul and Barnabas began preaching almost exclusively to the Gentiles, the issue of their place in the community of Israel was one that needed to be carefully thought and prayed about.
The conversion process, which we introduced earlier, is not found anywhere in the Torah. There is no set of rules for how a Gentile can become Jewish, except as laid out in the oral traditions. The Pharisees believed that the oral traditions which had been passed down from previous generations had originally been taught to Moses on Mt. Sinai by God Himself. This is why the phrase “according to the custom of Moses” is used here in Acts 15, since it was not an issue of the written Torah of Moses, but rather the oral custom of conversion attributed to Moses.
Instead of including instructions for conversion, the written Torah includes details about how a foreigner who wishes to reside among the Israelites and live among them is supposed to act and be treated (Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 9:14, Deuteronomy 31:11-12). Indeed, a mixed multitude came up out of Egypt among the people of Israel (Exodus 12:38). This group, containing both Jews and people from other nations, ceases to be known as a mixture of nations, but is continuously referred to solely as Israel. Those who had joined themselves to Israel in this way continued to reside among them, even partaking in the covenant at Mt. Sinai. Instead of a formal process of conversion, the Scriptures make it evident that faith in the God of Israel and submission to His will is what links a foreigner to the people of Israel, and that no conversion is required for this status to be achieved (Ruth 1:16, Isaiah 56:6-7). It is important to also note that the foreigner in this position does not become Jewish, but maintains his ethnic status as a “sojourner” even while participating in the covenant with Israel (Exodus 12:19, 20:10; Numbers 15:14-16, Deuteronomy 31:12).
Continuing on in Acts 15, we see that the council comes together to reach a conclusion about how the Gentiles are to be accepted into Israel and therefore receive the blessings associated with the covenant.
And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (verses 6-10)
Peter begins to speak, reminding the council that he had been sent to preach to some of the Gentiles. He tells them that God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentile believers, just as He had done to the Jewish believers previously. If God had shown His acceptance of the Gentiles without them having been converted, then why should they have to be converted to be saved? In giving them the Holy Spirit, God had revealed that the heart of the one receiving had been circumcised. Peter’s argument is that since God had already shown His acceptance of the Gentiles while they were still of the nations by circumcising their hearts and giving them the Holy Spirit, therefore they did not need to be physically converted in order to receive the other gifts of God, most notably salvation. Further basis for this belief lies in the fact that Scriptures speak of Jews and Gentiles worshiping God (Isaiah 2:2-3, Micah 4:2, Acts 15:16-17), therefore it is necessary for Gentiles to retain their national identity even while becoming part of Israel.
From Peter’s words in verse 10 has arisen a stumbling block in Christian interpretation. The traditional understanding is that since Gentile believers are saved and grafted in by faith, we therefore are no longer saved by works and have no need to be under the “yoke” and the “burden” of the Torah. But we have already seen that the predominant view held by the Jews was not that salvation was attained through keeping the Torah, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to be framing it that way. The issue, as is evident in the opening of chapter 15, is whether Gentiles are saved by undergoing ritual conversion to Judaism. Additionally, according to Scripture, the Torah is in fact not a burden (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, James 1:25, 1 John 5:2-3).
If this is so, then what is the burden that the council and their fathers were not able to bear? We find the answer in the words of Yeshua:
Then Yeshua spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. (Matthew 23:1-4)
These heavy burdens were the contrived oral commandments: not all of them, but the ones which missed the true purpose of the written command (Mark 7:9-12, Luke 11:42). Notice that even though He acknowledges that these oral traditions are burdensome, He does not tell the people to disobey the authority of the religious council, for this would have been against the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:9-11). He also makes reference to the yoke He brought, which is easy to bear (Matthew 11:29-30). If the Gentiles were going to be compelled to be circumcised, they would be placing themselves under the authority of the Sanhedrin, and would need to abide by all of the oral traditions as if they were written commandments except where these traditions contradicted the teachings of Yeshua.
Yeshua grants His disciples with the power to make legal rulings. This system of ruling was not something new or recently devised. The rabbinic council would frequently meet together to determine a proper halakhah for a commandment. The word halakhah means “the way to walk,” and it is the instructions for how a particular commandment is supposed to be done. Yeshua gives His disciples the legal authority to make these types of rulings within the community of His followers in Matthew 18:18-20: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” This terminology, “binding and loosing,” was used by the Pharisees to describe the authority they had to make rulings about commandments. The Jewish Encyclopedia entry on “Binding and Loosing” puts it this way:
The power of binding and loosing was always claimed by the Pharisees… The various schools had the power “to bind and to loose”; that is, to forbid and to permit; and they could bind any day by declaring it a fast-day. This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice.
James, the head of the council, had a big decision to make. He makes his ruling on the issue of the Gentiles in Acts 15:19-20: “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain (1) from things contaminated by idols and (2) from fornication and (3) from what is strangled and (4) from blood.” He did not stop there, but goes on to explain in verse 21, “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” During the time of the Jerusalem council, Gentiles still went to the synagogue every Sabbath and worshiped alongside regular Jews who were not believers (Acts 14:1, 18:4). This was the way it was expected to be, and the council did not aim to change that. Their goal was a sustainable relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers.
We see an example of the different classifications of people within the synagogue in Acts 13. In verse 26 Paul says to those in the synagogue, “Brethren, sons of Abraham’s family, and those among you who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent.” These are three distinct groups of people. “Brethren” would refer to those who were Jewish by birth, like Saul (Romans 9:3). Sons of Abraham were those who had gone through the conversion process to Judaism. The last group is “those who fear God.” The term “God-fearer” in those days was a specific term which meant a Gentile who forsook other gods in order to worship the God of Israel. They would meet in the synagogues with the Jewish people and engaged in some level of Torah-observance, but they did this without converting to Judaism. In most cases, they did this in preparation for conversion, as we discussed previously in regard to the learning period prior to conversion. Then if they did choose to go through the formal conversion process, including circumcision, they were then termed “proselytes” or “sons of Abraham.”
Getting back to the ruling in Jerusalem, we see that this is a short list of rules, and it contains some interesting choices. Why these four in particular? Obviously these were not the only commands that Gentiles were supposed to follow, so what was their purpose? The answer is that James and the Jerusalem council basically advocated observance of the laws that had been given to mankind from the beginning, like what we saw with the Noahide commands. These four commands also had the problem of idolatry in mind: consuming food offered to idols, temple prostitution, and participation in sacrificial rituals that were all associated with paganism. Notice that none of these commands directly come out and forbid idolatry, since that was already a commandment in the Torah (Exodus 20:3). Since the Jews had laws against associating with idolaters, these four rules would prove to Jewish believers that the Gentile believers had indeed forsaken their past pagan lifestyle so that they would be able to come together in fellowship. These four commands established a basic level of Torah-observance that allowed the Gentile to assimilate into the community of believers where he would begin to learn more about his role as a Gentile now grafted into the body of Israel. This is also similar to the concept of “elementary teachings” spoken of in Hebrews 6:1-2, which were a baseline to be built off of rather than a stopping point.
So what bearing does the Jerusalem council have on us today? We generally do not have to worry about whether our markets are offering up their goods to idols, at least not here in America. But even the appearance of idolatry needs to be eliminated from our lives. Sexual immorality was forbidden, and today we should guard our hearts by not even watching programs or movies that promote such things. Eating meat which came from a strangled animal and blood are no longer associated with sacrifice, but have to do with a basic level of kosher observance, similar to that which we saw in the Noahide laws. Leviticus 17:13-14 explains the reason blood is not to be consumed:
So when any man from the sons of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, in hunting catches a beast or a bird which may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, “You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.”
God here gives a universal reason not to consume blood. The life of all flesh is its blood, therefore neither the native-born Israelite nor the sojourner are to eat meat with the blood remaining in it.
Now it seems as if we no longer have regard for the decision of the council at Jerusalem. But Paul did, and so did the early Gentile believers who took this decision to heart. We read the letter that was sent to the Gentiles in verses 23-29 which tells us that the Holy Spirit led James in his decision. In verse 31, we read that the letter was read and received with great encouragement and rejoicing.
The Gentiles were now accepted and they could fellowship with the Jewish congregation because of the rules set in place to do so. We also see that Paul and the rest of the council did not start a new religion here. What he had previously believed about Gentiles, that they did not have to be circumcised to become a part of Israel, was now a part of the standard halakhah. It was still a given that the Gentiles would be in the synagogue every Sabbath, listening to the words of Moses within the framework of Judaism, supplementing the teaching they would receive there with the words of Yeshua as preached via the apostles and other believers.
So what we see here is that James and the Jerusalem council basically advocated observance of the laws that had been given to mankind from the beginning, and were frequently violated in the cultural and religious customs which surrounded them. This ruling solidified the fact that Gentiles do not need to become Jewish to be grafted into Israel, but certain commandments should be placed on their shoulders initially to aid their acceptance into the Jewish community. The four commands for Gentiles do not explicitly include Sabbath observance, but it was implicitly understood that they would be honoring the seventh day, instituted at the time of creation, at least in part alongside the Jews in the synagogue.
We have seen who Paul was, how he would have viewed the world, and what his mission field looked like. Now we want to look at Paul’s doctrine, especially some passages in the epistles which, as traditionally interpreted, might seem to contradict some important truths contained in Scripture.
As Paul has been misunderstood, so has his doctrine. Even in his own day this was the case, as we will see later on in his trials, and as Peter tells us in 2 Peter 3:15-16:
Just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.
So we must come with an open mind and heart to look deep into the Scriptures to see the truth of God’s word, for often if something is found in Scripture in one place, it is affirmed by other scriptures as well.
Paul wrote the book of Romans to believers while in Corinth. We see in the first verse of chapter 1, Paul tells us that he is “a bondservant of Messiah Yeshua, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” Here Paul is telling us, as he did in most of his writings, that he was an apostle called by God. In Paul’s day, an apostle was like an ambassador who represented another party. They were sent out to act in the name of the party who sent them, and in all respects had the authority of that party. As we saw earlier going back to Philippians, Paul was distinguishing himself from any false apostles who were bringing teachings contrary to the truth, apostles who had not truly been sent out by God to preach the gospel of Yeshua.
Paul tells us that he has been called for the sake of the gospel of God. Paul’s mission has some interesting parallels with the Teacher of Righteousness in the Qumran community. This figure is mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls as one who “announces good tidings… preaching the gospel to the humble… And all the nations shall know Thy truth and all the peoples, Thy glory.” He claims to have been entrusted with the mysteries contained in the Scriptures, and his message is preached to those who will pay attention to his words and thus return to God. This idea is similar to the calling of Paul to preach the gospel to the humble so that all of the nations who are willing might turn to God. This gospel is what Paul calls the “Mystery of the Messiah” (Ephesians 3:1-7), because the full depth of the message had not been recognized until His coming, although it had been present throughout Scripture all along.
The Greek word for “gospel” or “good news” is euangelion. In the prophets, we see the concept of good news is brought up in Isaiah 52:7, which aligns this term with salvation and restoration for the people of Israel. Isaiah 61:1-3 continues this alignment of good news and the restoration of Israel, bringing promise of the favorable year of the Lord, or the year of goodwill, in which Israel will dwell and prosper in the land. This period of time is spoken of throughout the prophets, and it all has to do with the Messiah in the Messianic age. The Messianic Age is the time when Yeshua will rule for one thousand years in the city of David, which is Jerusalem, and fulfill all of the prophecies which He didn’t fulfill during His first coming (Isaiah 62:8-9, Revelation 20:6).
With these prophecies in mind, it is important to understand the correct gospel message. In Romans 1:16, Paul tells us, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek [the nations].” So what was this gospel that was to the Jews first and then to the nations that Paul was not ashamed of?
We want to take a closer look into the good news and we want to start with the announcement of Yeshua’s birth:
And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:10‐14)
So what was this good news that was to bring joy to these shepherds? It was the long awaited Savior, the Messiah, whom Israel had been waiting for. For Israel, this was surely good news. Luke tells us what the angel told Mary when he reveals God’s plan to her: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His Kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Isaiah 9:1-7 speaks about the Messiah and the victory He will achieve over His enemies.
What we have seen from Isaiah and the angels is that this child that was to come will be a mighty warrior and He will defeat His enemies and He will establish His Kingdom on the throne of David in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 23:5-6, Ezekiel 37:24-25). But what about the gospel message? When we read these passages, we do not see anything about Messiah dying for our sins and rising again on the third day.
When we see the words “good news,” we must understand where we get that translation from. The words “good news” were translated into the Old English as “godspell,” which we interpret today as “gospel.” The gospel message is the good news, and it was this good news or gospel message that the people of Israel were waiting for. “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'” (Isaiah 52:7, Romans 10:15).
If Israel was waiting for their Messiah, then let’s look at what Yeshua Himself has to say about the good news:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to bring good news to the afflicted; He sent Me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord. Then they will rebuild the ancient ruins, they will raise up the former devastations, and they will repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:1-4, Luke 4:18-19, 21)
When John the Baptist sent his disciples to Yeshua to find out if He was truly the Messiah, Yeshua quoted part of this verse to them, and He added, “Blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me” (Luke 7:23).
We will continue to look at the Messiah’s message, but first let’s see what John preached, for he was the one crying out in the wilderness to prepare for the Messiah. We see in Matthew 3:2 that John says, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Yeshua Himself called John the greatest prophet of His day, and this was his message. Matthew 4:17 tells us that Yeshua’s message was also, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” When Yeshua sent out His disciples in Matthew 10:17, He told them to go out and preach saying, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Now if John the Baptist was going to teach the people the way of salvation, we see that the message of salvation, which is the gospel message (or the good news), starts with repentance. Yeshua’s name means “Salvation,” so we know that He was going to teach the people the way of salvation, and He preached the same message. Yeshua even tells the churches in Revelation to repent (Revelation 2:5, 16, 21; 3:3). So this is not just a Jewish matter, but a Gentile or Christian issue, and that issue is that the way of salvation comes through repentance, a coming back to the Word of God as a way of living. We also see in Acts 17:30 and 26:20 that Paul’s message was for those who had not yet believed. This message has to be important, because it is about Yeshua and the fulfillment of His job as the Messiah. Of course repentance has to be the first and foremost important issue. John writes in 1 John 1:5-10, “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” To enter into the Kingdom, one must repent. That word, “repent,” means to make a complete turn around. It means to come back to the truth of God’s word.
So if the angels and John, Yeshua, and His disciples preached the main message of the Kingdom, what happened to the message of the cross? We tend to confuse the Gospel message (Good News), which tells us about the fulfillment of Yeshua’s role as the Messiah, with the Salvation message. To receive the work of Messiah on the cross, we must come to the cross and be washed by the blood, but we must come in repentance of our sins, for God tells us that He will never turn away one who is contrite and humble, but He will resist the proud (James 4:6). Today we can live in newness of life. We can begin to live in the Kingdom and to taste and see that God is good.
But repentance is only the first part of the message. The second half is “for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” So what did John and Yeshua and the Apostles all mean by this phrase, “the Kingdom of God (or sometimes ‘of heaven’) is at hand”?
The people of Yeshua’s day knew exactly what this phrase meant. You see, the people had been waiting for their Messiah to come and deliver them. They had been waiting for their King. All of this was promised through the prophets. So now they hear the words, “It is here, the Kingdom is here, it is at hand!” We see the Apostles ask Yeshua, “When will you set up Your Kingdom?” (Acts 1:6). John also sends his disciples to ask Yeshua, “Are you the One we have been expecting?” (Matthew 11:2-3), meaning, “Are you the one who will set up God’s Kingdom here on earth?” Yeshua asks His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13). Yeshua tells the people to believe in Him, or at least believe in the works that He did (John 14:11). You see, if we do not truly believe in Yeshua as the Messiah and as the coming King who will sit one day on the throne of David in Jerusalem, we will not believe that His Kingdom is here, right here, next to us. We will not take hold of it and become part of it, right now, today. We will not operate in Kingdom principles, nor will we live in the full victory of our King and the work He did on the cross for us.
This is the full message of the gospel, the true good news of the Kingdom of God. Yet it is Yeshua’s final words to His apostles that set the tone for the rest of the Scriptures:
It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority [that is, when He will fulfill the prophecies and establish His Kingdom in Jerusalem]; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. (Acts 1:7-8)
Before anyone could have the hope of an earthly Kingdom of God, it was necessary for them to take hold of the King and the spiritual blessings which were presently available because of His work on the cross. The sole responsibility for bringing about the earthly Kingdom rests on God, but while we wait for that day, our present calling is to work in the power of the Kingdom as it is among us today, “testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Yeshua the Messiah” (Acts 20:21). This is where the emphasis is placed throughout the Apostolic Writings, and likewise such is the case here in Romans 1, where Paul is speaking about the good news of salvation. Verse 17 goes on to say, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous shall live by faith.’”
What else can we learn about the gospel of salvation? Paul tells us that it is the power of God (verse 16). The power of God is proclaimed throughout Scripture, especially His power in accomplishing His will through wisdom. Proverbs speaks of wisdom as righteousness (Proverbs 8:8, 22-23), and the wisdom of God is revealed to us through the Torah: His word, teachings, oracles, statutes, and commandments (Deuteronomy 4:5-6, Psalm 19:7-14, Proverbs 7:2-4). Isaiah tells us that His word does not return void, but accomplishes what it was sent out to do (Isaiah 55:10-11). Paul was eager to preach the message of salvation. This power, this wisdom, this righteousness was and is our hope. It is Yeshua Himself, the wisdom of God, the Torah made flesh, the righteousness of God.
God’s wisdom is His purpose to redeem the whole world through His people Israel (to the Jew first). From the beginning, the calling of Israel was to be a light to the nations (Deuteronomy 28:10, Isaiah 60:2-4, Micah 4:2). It is them to whom God revealed Himself in the past, and again will as the Messiah in the future:
To whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Torah and the Temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers and from whom is Messiah. (Romans 9:4-5)
This message of good news found its goal in Yeshua the Messiah. Preaching the gospel of salvation will bring hope to the nations and make them part of the commonwealth of Israel. We as the church do not, nor ever will we, replace Israel:
I say then, they (Israel) did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the nations, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression be riches for the nations, how much more will their fulfillment be… For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead. (Romans 11:11-12, 15)
Isaiah also prophesied about the relationship between God and His chosen people:
“For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting loving-kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer… “In righteousness you will be established.” (Isaiah 54:7-8, 14a)
Who is this righteousness but Yeshua the Messiah of Israel? Although they rejected Him for a time, God has not left His people to be abandoned. History has seemed cruel to the people of Israel, and some have misunderstood this to mean that God has rejected them completely, instead changing His graces to be upon the Christian church alone. But this ideology is directly addressed in Scripture:
The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Have you not noticed that these people are saying, ‘The Lord has rejected the two kingdoms he chose’? So they despise my people and no longer regard them as a nation. This is what the Lord says: ‘If I have not made my covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.’” (Jeremiah 33:23-26)
If all of these promises are for Israel, then what about the nations? How do we fit into the master plan? Well, Romans 11 continues:
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partakers with the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant; remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. (verses 17-18)
With the influx of Gentile believers, it would have been easy for the movement to become overwhelmed until few ethnic Jews remained. This is indeed what has happened, for as time progressed, some influential people have ignored Paul’s warning to not become arrogant toward Israel, who is still God’s chosen. These teachers have rejected the tree they were grafted into and attempted to plant one of their own, ignorant of the fact that God yet stands with His chosen ones (Deuteronomy 4:30-31, 32:43; Isaiah 8:9-10).
So now that we have looked at God’s plan of salvation and know the gospel (good news) that Paul preached, let’s take a closer look at it.