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Jewish Particularity and Paul’s Mission to the Gentiles

Jewish Particularity and Paul’s Mission to the Gentiles

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The chronicles of Paul’s missionary journeys are marked by numerous discernable patterns. His conviction that he had been called as an apostle to the ethnos (Ro. 1:5, Ro. 11:13, I Ti. 2:7) is indisputably central in the formation of his approach. However, he also presupposes that the Gospel with which he has been entrusted must in some way maintain a Jewish priority. This Gospel is God’s power for the salvation of all who believe – however it is such to the Jew first (Ro. 1:16). In this brief article I want to explore the way in which Paul’s missionary method sheds light on his conviction of a Jewish precedence in the proclamation of the Gospel.

Acts 13:45-48 presents what some have regarded as the first missional conflict between Paul’s consciousness of his calling to the ethnos and his conviction of Jewish precedence. Following a warm initial reception to Paul’s (and Barnabas’) message in Pisidian Antioch in which ‘almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord’, the Jewish leaders, becoming ‘jealous’, attempted to contradict and to discredit them before the people. Paul’s response indicates that he was under compulsion to come to the diaspora Jewish community first (Gk. protos), but in light of their rejection of his message the time had come for him to go to the Gentiles. A hasty reading of the passage might find here evidence of a supersessionist mission – that is, a new universal/inclusive Gospel mission replacing the old ethnocentric/exclusive mission. However, two misguided (yet common!) assumptions are required for such a conclusion in this passage.

First, it presupposes that both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were ethnocentric and exclusive. However, is this a valid reading of the Torah or of 1st century Judaism? The covenant with Abraham presents the election of his family as an ethnic particularity for the sake of universal blessing (cf. Gn. 12:1-3). God’s purpose in taking Abraham from his family and homeland is expressed explicitly in terms of the universal blessing of ‘all the families of the earth’ (cf. v. 3). Though Abraham’s faith will be rewarded, the blessing promised to him was for the sake of the recently scattered ‘ethnos’ (cf. Gn. 10:5 LXX). The latter prophets, likewise, spoke of the final restoration of Abraham’s offspring in terms of their perpetual calling as the supplier of blessing to the nations. Isaiah references the election of the nation as a ‘light to the Gentiles’ so that ‘salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ (cf. Is. 49:3-6). Zechariah also speaks of the eschatological deliverance of Israel in terms of their calling, ‘that they might become a blessing’ (cf. Ze. 8:13). The story of Jonah also appears to be expressed within the national calling to bless the Gentiles.[1]

Secondly, it also assumes the apostolic commission to take the Gospel to the ‘ends of the earth’ (cf. Acts 1:8, Matt. 28:19) was at the same time a cessation of Abrahamic/covenantal distinctiveness. Yet, this likewise ignores the context of the passage in question and the book of Acts as a whole. Implicit to the storyline of Luke-Acts is the calling of Jewish men to do the Jewish work of blessing the nations with a very Jewish message – the Gospel. Luke’s Gospel account concludes with an exposition of the ‘Law, the prophets and the Psalms’ which indicate that following the death and resurrection of the Christ ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sin’ would be proclaimed to ‘all the nations’ (Lk. 24:46f) – although it would commence ‘in Jerusalem’. Fittingly, then, Acts begins with the sending of Jewish men as witnesses of the things which occurred in Jerusalem. This passage also emphasizes the beginning of the movement in ‘Jerusalem’, its conclusion with ‘the ends of the earth’ – the ethnos. (Ac. 1:8) Following the narrative logically makes it very awkward to impose a view of the very Jewish witnesses in their very Jewish context being sent on a very Jewish mission in a way which disregards the blatant ethnic particularity as insignificant.

Honoring the Covenant through Jewish Primacy

In addition to an ethnic particularity, the pericope in Acts 13 also appears to present an additional obstacle to the view of a universalized mission – Jewish primacy in the receiving of the Gospel. Paul was not only functioning as a Jewish witness, but maintained a Jewish priority in his proclamation of the Gospel. His invariant regard for the diaspora synagogue was not due to his familiarity with the format of the Jewish gatherings nor was it merely due to their familiarity with the God of Israel and the Scriptures, but due to the covenant. Paul’s use of Isaiah 49:6 in response to the Pharisaic persecution is very divulging of his view of the mission that he had received from God. Through his synagogue priority in Pisidian Antioch and elsewhere, Paul is honoring God’s covenant to appoint the Jewish people as proxy of blessing to the ethnos.

Isaiah 49 begins with a calling of God’s servant – explicitly ‘Israel’ (v. 3) – who is chosen as a ‘select arrow’ (v. 2) (presumably to be launched out?) in whom God will show his glory (v. 3). This calling of Israel is curiously that they might ‘bring Jacob back to Him so that Israel might be gathered to Him’ (v. 5). The theme of Israel being gathered is echoed in the LXX of verse 6 where the ‘survivors’ from the MT become the ‘diaspora’ of Israel. Likewise, the Targum interprets the survivors as ‘the exiles’. Hence, the passage had come to be interpreted, especially in the 2nd temple view seen in the LXX and Targumic renderings, as a ministry of ‘Israel’ to another ‘Israel’. The latter of the two will be both distant from God (‘Jacob’ is brought back to God in v. 4) and distant from the land of Israel – that is in exile. The former, God’s ‘servant’, is called as one to be shot out like an arrow from God’s quiver to the rebellious exiles. However, as we note from Paul’s quote of v. 6, God’s servant will also be sent to the nations.

Paul’s likening of his own mission with that of the Servant was likely due to the unique nature of his own calling. Paul’s testimony before king Agrippa (Acts 26:15-18) of the event of his conversion relates the story of Jesus’ appointment of Paul as a ‘minister and a witness’. He will also rescue Paul from the ‘(Jewish) people and from the Gentiles’ to whom he is being sent.[2] Paul must ‘turn them from darkness to light’ (cf. Is. 42:6f; 49:4ff), following the ministry of Jesus who was the ‘first to proclaim light both to the (Jewish) people and to the Gentiles’ (v.23). Given his explanation of the events of Acts 9, it is difficult to separate Paul’s view of his own calling from that of the Servant from Isaiah. Not that Paul believes that he is the Servant, but that the Servant of Isaiah constitutes a remnant of the Jewish people – a remnant to which Paul belongs by virtue of his repentance and faith in the Messiah. As such, Paul is now commissioned by God – and thus under obligation – to proclaim light to the exiles of Israel, and also to the Gentiles.

Furthermore, Paul’s dramatic withdrawal from the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch coupled with his citation of Is. 49 both serve to underscore the reason for his conviction of Jewish primacy in the sharing of the Gospel, even amidst the mission to the ethnos. Paul must go to the synagogue first because the diaspora Jews, like Paul himself, have been called by God as a ‘light’ to Gentile ‘darkness’. Paul’s mission is covenant-honoring in that his visit to the synagogue as first priority upholds the covenantal hope (also sole hope!) for the blessing and restoration of the Gentiles.[3] Consequently, Paul now hopes that he ‘might save some’ (Ro. 11:14) of his countrymen specifically for the purpose of guiding the gentiles out of darkness – i.e. idolatry, leading to destruction – into light – i.e. allegiance to the God of Israel, leading to everlasting life.

That this is the primary objective for this to-the-Jew-first methodology is further illustrated in the narrative by his brief introductory comments on Isaiah 49. Paul appears to quote Isaiah since he assumes that the text would explain: 1) his prioritization of the synagogue and 2) his mission to the ethnos. However, the harmony of the passage is undermined with the misapplication of the pronoun in his introductory statement to the citation. (‘For so the Lord has commanded us:’) The pronoun ‘ἡμῖν’ (us), appropriated to Paul and Barnabas – as is most often the case, is a reiteration of the uniqueness of their calling to the Gentiles. As we have seen, however, it is very improbable that Paul or any other contemporary Jewish leader would have viewed the calling to be a light to the Gentiles as novel to the Apostle. Rather, the pronoun should be read as an inclusive ‘us’ – i.e. the Jewish people. They – all of them, the whole nation – were commanded by God to be a light to the ethnos, and Paul, for one, was not going to be ‘disobedient to the heavenly vision’ (Ac. 26:19). So, Paul explains his departure as one of separation amidst solidarity – separation from the Pisidian Antioch synagogue leaders, but solidarity with the national mission. In other words, he was not rejecting Jewish authority, they were!

This corporate consciousness of their unique relationship to the ethnos is stressed a few verses earlier when the synagogue leaders become ‘jealous’. It is odd in the narrative that there should be such a passionate negative reaction when the initial presentation of the Gospel was so well received. No resistance is cited when ‘many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas’ (v. 43). Only after ‘nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord’ do the Jewish leaders begin to contradict Paul and Barnabas. ‘Nearly the whole city’, while almost certainly a use of hyperbole, nevertheless most certainly communicates a sizeable Gentile audience. It was the crowd of Gentiles, coming to hear about the resurrection from the dead (vs. 32-37), the forgiveness of sin (vs. 38-39), and the wrath to come (vs. 40-41) which motivated them to jealousy. This must, at very least, allude to God’s covenantal exciting to jealousy mentioned in the song of Moses (Dt. 32:21) since by the time of the writing of the letter to Rome Paul has already interpreted their jealousy theologically along these lines. God’s dealings with a ‘no people’ would anger them just as their dealings with a ‘no god’ had angered him.

It is uncertain how intentional Paul was about this development in Pisidian Antioch. However, it is certain that Paul maintained this Jewish particularity within his mission to the ethnos for the remainder of his recorded ministry. His next destination (seemingly without any demand for clarification) likewise commences with the entrance to the diaspora synagogue of Iconium (Ac. 14:1). The Jews again become angry, not at the ‘large number’ of Jews who believed and followed the Apostles, but at the Gentiles who repented. (v. 2) That Paul’s methodology is maintained throughout the book of Acts is evident (cf. Acts 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 7, 19).[4] The to-the-Jew-first methodology is maintained even up to his imprisonment in Rome. Following his eventful journey to Roman house arrest, he immediately invites the Jewish leaders to meet with him, ‘testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus from both the law of Moses and the prophets’ (Ac. 28:23).

Although Paul’s citation of Isaiah 49 makes Acts 13 the most explicit example of Jewish particularity having a central role within Paul’s Gentile mission, the repetition of synagogue priority appears to identify this as a reliable biopsy of the remainder his ministry. While an explicit theological defense of Paul’s actions may be lacking in each of his synagogue visits, the pericope in Acts 13 likely indicates a common understanding of Israel’s calling to be a light to the Gentiles as the reason for its absence.




In conclusion, we have seen that discernable patterns within Paul’s missions methodology appear to highlight a conviction of Jewish priority in the reception of the Gospel. Paul’s mission, while admittedly to the Gentiles, prioritizes the diaspora synagogue with such noted consistency it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this plays a central role in his Gospel coming to the ethnos. Taken as a biopsy, the pericope of the apostolic visit to Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) has proven especially helpful in discerning the objective behind this practice.

Stated simply, Paul’s objective in his mission to the nations is to honor the covenant. It is covenant-honoring in that Paul maintains that it is the righteous remnant of Israel who ought to bring light to the Gentiles. Paul not only views his own calling to Gentiles in this light, but also calls the Jewish diaspora community to participate in it by means of repentance and faith in their crucified Messiah. His strategy for ‘discipling the nations’ (cf. Mt. 28:19) highlights a conviction that the gifts and calling of the Jewish people are irrevocable (Rm. 11:29). Often Paul’s theology of mission is derived primarily from the written correspondence with the various churches. However, his interactions with the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch appear to highlight a deeper level of conviction regarding the covenantal status of the nation of Israel and that role that this plays with the Gospel going to the Gentiles.

[1] While Diaspora Judaism of Paul’s day was notably diverse in its view of the relationship of Israel to the nations, the question of Gentile participation in the ‘world to come’ was a complex one precisely because the Jewish stewardship of blessing towards the ethnos was implicit.

[2] Translators generally view the phrase ‘to whom I am sending you’ as a reference to his calling only to the second of the two groups – the Gentiles. However, Paul explains his obedience to the heavenly vision by referencing his ministry to the synagogue in Damascus (cf. Acts 9:20), in Jerusalem, Judea, and ‘even to the Gentiles’. Thus, Paul seems to view this as a calling to both the (Jewish) people and to the Gentiles.

[3] It is restorative in reference to God’s disassociation of the ethnos after the Babel scattering, during which time he gave the ‘gods of the nations’ as cosmic overseers of the nations (cf. Gn. 11, Dt. 32:8 ESV, Ps. 82) while allotting himself the sole deity over the sons of Israel (cf. Dt. 32:9).

[4] Also noteworthy is the list of Paul’s apostolic suffering in II Cor. 11. ‘Five times I received from the Jews forty-minus-one lashes’ (a synagogue disciplinary measure Cf. Dt. 25:3), ‘once I was stoned’, and he regularly faced ‘dangers from my countrymen’. All of these imply an incessant interaction with the Jewish synagogue community throughout his ministry.

Bill Scofield (52 Posts)

Bill is husband to Charis, and father to their 6 children. He is a Bible teacher, elder, and missions trainer.

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