This is the third of three lessons devoted to the consideration of the disciple’s relationship to the world. In lesson 13, we looked at Israel’s relationship to the world. We found that God set apart Abraham and his “seed” for blessings, so that he and his seed could thereby be a blessing to the nations. This was first revealed in Genesis 12:
1 Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
2 And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
3 And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NASB 95, emphasis mine).2
The Old Testament law promoted this in a couple of ways. On the one hand, the people of God could only be blessed as they obeyed God’s commandments. These commandments, if obeyed, would facilitate God’s people remaining separate from the sinful practices of the nations. Furthermore, the law also had provisions that, if obeyed, would attract Gentiles to God’s place (Palestine) and God’s people. The law of Moses required that the Israelites generously provide for the needs of the poor, which included foreigners. The law also provided the same legal rights and protections, making Israel a safe haven for immigrants. Most importantly, the law contained provisions for those Gentiles who embraced Israel’s faith to join in worshipping Him through the various religious holidays, sacrifices, and rituals.
The Old Testament contains a few examples of men and women who joined themselves with the Israelites in their faith and worship, but these are comparatively few and far between. And most of these “conversions” seemed to occur in spite of God’s chosen people, rather than because of them. Consequently, the Old Testament prophets began to speak about the coming Messiah, who would fulfill that which Israel failed to do. The Messiah would come to minister to the needs of the poor and the oppressed, including foreigners. The Messiah would come to draw Gentiles to faith in the God of Israel. The Messiah would not only come to Israel to bless the chosen people; He would come as a light to the Gentiles. As He was about to return to the Father in heaven, Jesus gave His disciples the “Great Commission,” which commanded them to make disciples of all nations. These things we saw in Lesson 14.
In this lesson, our goal is to discover the role of the New Testament believer – the disciple of Jesus – to the world. I would like to begin by calling your attention to two very fascinating texts, both of which are found in Peter’s First Epistle.
4 So as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God’s sight, 5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it says in scripture, “Look, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and priceless cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will never be put to shame.” 7 So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, 8 and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:4-10; emphasis in verse 9 is mine).
While the exact makeup of Peter’s audience may not be certain, it would appear that since this Epistle was written to believers, both Jewish and Gentile saints would be included. Verse 1 of chapter 1 might be understood as addressing dispersed Jews. First Peter 4:3, on the other hand, seems to be clearly addressing Gentiles. My point here is that Peter has cited (or alluded to) a number of Old Testament texts, originally addressed to the Jews, but now they are applied to Gentiles (as well as Jews).
Now take note of this text in 1 Peter 3:
8 Finally, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, affectionate, compassionate, and humble. 9 Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but instead bless others because you were called to inherit a blessing. 10 For the one who wants to love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from uttering deceit. 11 And he must turn away from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer. But the Lord’s face is against those who do evil. 13 For who is going to harm you if you are devoted to what is good? 14 But in fact, if you happen to suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. But do not be terrified of them or be shaken. 15 But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. 16 Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you (1 Peter 3:8-16; emphasis in verse 9 is mine).
In particular, I want you to look at verse 9, which I have emphasized above. Peter is instructing the saints to conduct themselves in a way that is affectionate, compassionate, and humble. In other words, Christians should not be trouble-makers, but rather they should be peacemakers. They should not be a “pain in the neck” to others, but they should be a blessing. Is verse 9 not a paraphrase of Genesis 12:2-3? And so the church has now been chosen by God to be blessed, so that it (we) can be a blessing to the world.
My point is this: Peter is telling us that because Israel failed to fulfill its mission, that mission has been taken over by the Lord Jesus Christ and His body, the church.3 We now have the privilege of being both the recipients of God’s blessings and the channel through whom God will bless the world. This includes temporal and physical blessings, but the most important blessing is the free gift of salvation through the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord.
That transition from God working primarily through the descendants of Abraham to His working in and through the church doesn’t seem too traumatic to Christians today. It was something that happened “long ago and far away.” But I must tell you that it was a very difficult and painful process, with some missteps along the way. Our New Testament does not gloss over these struggles and failures. So, based upon the Scriptures, I’d like to briefly retrace the painful process through which our Lord led His disciples to make the transition from Jewish, home-bound Christians to World Christians.4
Christianity’s roots are Jewish. It all began with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12.5 From there on, it was pretty much Judaism all the way to Jesus. That’s no surprise to us Gentiles. What was the surprise for the Jews was the church, but that was a mystery back then,6 and besides I’m getting ahead of my story. The Old Testament is about the birth of the nation Israel at the exodus, and the giving of the law through Moses. Those involved were mostly Jews, with a few foreigners who attached themselves to the nation Israel (some of whom did so by faith in the God of Israel, but not all7). The Old Testament prophets were Jews, and the Old Testament Scriptures were Jewish (the human authors were Jewish). Paul sums up the privileges of the Jews in Romans 9:
1 I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit – 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed – cut off from Christ – for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, 4 who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises (Romans 9:1-4, emphasis mine).
Jesus was born of a Jewish mother and was a descendant of David, thus fulfilling prophecy. He was introduced to the nation by John the Baptist, also a Jew. Jesus presented Himself to the nation Israel, and when He sent out His disciples, He instructed them not to go to the Gentiles, but to proclaim the coming of Messiah to the Jews.8
Of course, Jesus and the Gospel writers made it clear that He had come to bring salvation to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jews.9 But the fact is that the disciples failed to comprehend what our Lord was saying. John the Baptist had some doubts because Jesus did not seem to be fulfilling all his expectations.10 Peter made his “great confession” that Jesus was the Messiah, but when Jesus then began to speak to His disciples about His suffering and death in Jerusalem, Peter would not hear of it. He sought to correct our Lord, so as to prevent any suffering on His part.11 Our Lord’s references to the church12 were hardly noticed, because they were still a mystery.13 I would suppose that our Lord’s ministry to Gentiles was considered an exception to the rule, and that any comments about Gentiles entering into the Kingdom of Heaven were viewed in terms of Gentiles becoming Jewish proselytes, which was current practice in their times. The disciples’ attitude toward Gentiles is probably better reflected in the incident where two of the disciples volunteered to call down fire from heaven upon an uncooperative Samaritan town.14
One can hardly imagine the dismay of the disciples as Jesus was being arrested, tried, and crucified. No doubt Peter drew his sword against impossible opposition, expecting Jesus to commence His kingdom rule by overthrowing His enemies at that moment, thereby saving His life and the lives of His disciples.15 How the hopes of the disciples were dashed when Jesus’ body was buried, and all hope seemed lost.
17 Then he said to them, “What are these matters you are discussing so intently as you walk along?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 He said to them, “What things?” “The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied, “a man who, with his powerful deeds and words, proved to be a prophet before God and all the people; 20 and how our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. Not only this, but it is now the third day since these things happened” (Luke 24:17-21).
We can hardly imagine the joy of the disciples when they saw Jesus and were convinced that He had truly risen from the dead, just as He had told them.
The disciples’ hopes of a Jewish kingdom were strengthened by the events which followed the Saviors’ ascension to heaven. They, of course, continued to press Jesus regarding when the restoring of the kingdom would take place:
6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8, emphasis mine).
Note the word “restoring,” because it is very informative. If I said I was going to “restore” a classic 1965 Mustang, it would mean something very different than if I had said I was going to purchase a new Porsche. The disciples were still thinking in very Jewish terms. The kingdom would, of course, be restored to Israel,16 but something entirely new was about to come, something they never imagined – the church.
Just before His return to the Father, Jesus gave His disciples the “Great Commission,”17 but they were in absolutely no hurry to carry it out. After all, it looked as though the Kingdom of God was at hand. Many Jews were coming to faith. On the Day of Pentecost,18 3,000 souls were saved. A total of 5,000 men were said to have become believers in Jesus in Acts 4:4 (which may imply that there were thousands more, when the women and children were added to this number). In Acts 5:14, we are told that multitudes were continuing to come to faith, and in Acts 6:7, we read that the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.
One might have easily concluded that the nation Israel was on the verge of a great revival, a revival that might inaugurate the return of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. In addition, the newly believing Christians were gathering for worship at the temple. It certainly appeared as though Christianity was going to be Jewish.
But the winds of change were beginning to blow. It was not some visionary missionary movement on the part of the apostles or the Jerusalem church which commenced the evangelization of the Gentiles. In the Book of Acts, there are at least five major elements in the expansion of the church beyond the Jews, Jerusalem, and the nation Israel.
The first of these elements was the miracle at Pentecost. There were many Hellenistic Jews, as well as Gentile proselytes, present in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and many of these came to faith:
6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” (Acts 2:6-11, emphasis mine)
These were visitors to Jerusalem who would return to their own countries. They could proclaim Jesus in the native tongue of the nations to which they returned.
The second element was the death of Stephen. When we read of the appointment of Stephen (along with six other godly men) as one of the leaders who would oversee the care of the widows in Jerusalem, we would never have expected him to become a great evangelist and the cause of a great missionary movement. His death at the hands of radical Hellenistic Jews commenced a shock wave of persecution against the church in Jerusalem, which forced the believers (except the apostles) to scatter abroad. The impact of this was the spreading of the gospel and the birth of a great missions-minded church in Antioch:
1 And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. 2 Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him (Acts 8:1-2, emphasis mine).
19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts (Acts 11:19-23, emphasis mine).
The third element in the advance of the gospel to the Gentiles was the conversion of Saul,19 who became the Apostle Paul.20 Paul was a man who God had uniquely equipped to become the “bridge” between the original native-born Hebrew apostles and the Gentiles. Paul was a Hellenistic Jew, who was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but who was trained in Jerusalem under Gamaliel.21 He was thus able to speak with great authority to the Jews and Gentile proselytes in the synagogues, but was also able to speak to Gentile unbelievers.22
The fourth element in the advance of the gospel to the Gentiles was the conversion of Cornelius and his household, as depicted in Acts 10 and 11. Jesus had already laid the foundation for this event in Mark 7 (but no one understood it at the time):
17 Now when Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” ( This means all foods are clean.) 20 He said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 23 All these evils come from within and defile a person” (Mark 7:17-23, emphasis mine).
The Old Testament food laws were designed to facilitate separation between the Jews and unbelieving Gentiles. But this had been distorted so that all contact was discouraged. This separation, if continued, would greatly hinder the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles. And thus, God repealed the Old Testament food laws. It took a rather dramatic sequence of revelations to get the message across to Peter, but it finally was sufficient to convince him that he should go to the home of Cornelius. When he arrived, Cornelius shared his revelation, and Peter proceeded to preach the gospel. Before Peter could (if he would have done so) give the invitation to believe, the Gentiles who had gathered did believe the good news of salvation in Jesus and the Spirit of God descended upon them, just as He had done to the Jewish believers and Proselytes at Pentecost.23 Peter had little choice but to baptize them.
But when word reached the Jewish church leaders in Jerusalem, they were greatly distressed and summoned Peter to give a defense for his gross misconduct as a Jew:
1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them” (Acts 11:1-3).
As Peter retold the events that led to the conversion of these Gentiles, Peter’s Jewish brethren could hardly persist in their opposition. They acknowledged that God was now in the business of saving Gentiles, as though it was something entirely new and unexpected – which, I guess it was; but it was certainly not without biblical basis:
When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:18).
I cannot help but smile at the verses Luke wrote next:
19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord (Acts 11:19-21).
I don’t think the sequence here is exactly chronological. I think verses 19-21ff. chronologically follow Acts 8:1-3. But I believe that Luke chooses this sequence to show us how slow the Jewish believers (including the apostles) were to see the magnitude of the change that had occurred, so that God was commencing the “times of the Gentiles.” Paul will spell these matters out much more fully in Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 2-3. Let’s look, for example, at how Paul explains the mystery of the church in Ephesians:
1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – 2 if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that by revelation the divine secret was made known to me, as I wrote before briefly. 4 When reading this, you will be able to understand my insight into this secret of Christ. 5 Now this secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, 6 namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. 7 I became a servant of this gospel according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the exercise of his power. 8 To me – less than the least of all the saints – this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ 9 and to enlighten everyone about God’s secret plan – a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who has created all things. 10 The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and confident access to God because of Christ’s faithfulness (Ephesians 3:1-12).
It is little wonder that Paul encountered such violent opposition from the Jews wherever he went:
20 And when the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing nearby, approving, and guarding the cloaks of those who were killing him.’ 21 Then he said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” 22 The crowd was listening to him until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Away with this man from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live!” (Acts 22:20-22, emphasis mine)
The fifth element in the advance of the gospel beyond the borders of Israel to the whole world was the decision of the Jerusalem Council regarding Gentile Christians. With great difficulty, the Jewish apostles had come to grips with the reality of the church,24 and the fact that God intended to save Jews and Gentiles alike, “in one body25.” After the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, those Jews who professed faith in Jesus had to come to terms with the great numbers of Gentiles who had come to faith in Jesus as well. The solution posed by some was to persist in the effort to make Jewish Proselytes of them. In this way, they would be required to be circumcised and to keep the Jewish Old Testament laws. Now doing so was not wrong for a Jew, if they recognized that law keeping cannot save, and that the Jewish religious ceremonies and holidays are really a foreshadowing of the coming of Messiah.26 But some made more of the Old Testament law than this. Salvation for Gentiles, they insisted, was a matter of trusting in Jesus and keeping the Old Testament law. Paul and Barnabas strongly opposed this false teaching, and this precipitated the Jerusalem Council.
1 Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement (Acts 15:1-2).
The outcome of this council was a clear pronouncement that Gentiles need not become Jews in order to be saved. Peter put it this way, referring back to his experience in Acts 10 and 11:
7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are” (Acts 15:7-11).
And so the Gentiles were not required to become Jews, and indeed, Paul would teach that they must not undergo circumcision, because of what it implied.27
My point in all this review is to call your attention to the great difficulty the Jewish apostles and believers had in grasping the way in which the gospel was to be declared to the nations. It was a dramatic shift, one the Judaizers were not willing to make. It helps us to understand the struggles of men like Peter, and even Barnabas.28 It helps us to understand the amount of emphasis that the New Testament epistles places on unity and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church.
This has not been merely an academic exercise. I believe that a very dramatic change has taken place in recent years, one that significantly impacts evangelism and discipleship, and the way the church relates to the world. When my wife Jeannette and I first came to Dallas in the late 1960’s, there was a revival going on across our nation. It was a time when one could rather easily engage unbelievers in a conversation about Jesus. Many came to church, seeking to know the truth, and a number left having trusted Jesus as they sat in their seats (or in some other manner). The church I was attending was flooded with so many newcomers that we had to add more and more preaching services.
One danger with this kind of gospel success is that it was all too easy to conclude as a church that God was blessing us because of our methods. People were coming to faith so quickly and easily that it appeared that all that was necessary was to open the doors of the church and let the unbelievers come in and hear the gospel.
This phenomenon is something like my fishing trip with some friends to a remote location in the mountains of Idaho. We arrived after a long drive into the mountains, followed by a day of travel on horseback. The ice had just melted from the lake where we pitched camp, and we were the first ones to drop a fishing line into the water from the shore. We caught some very nice fish, but it was not really due to our choice of lures or our skill in using them. The fish would have seized almost anything we put in the water. This was not the time to pretend to be a skilled fisherman by writing a book on how to fish in Idaho (unless it was to advise people to be the first ones there after a long winter).
To follow my fishing analogy, it is now late in the season (evangelistically speaking), and the fish are much less interested in what we have to offer. We now have to become more attuned to the fish, to where they are, and to what they are feeding on. The fish are no longer attracted to just anything that is put in the water. Non-believers are not nearly as inclined to darken the doors of our churches in search of the truth. They think they already have the truth, and they are not so sure that we do. Worse yet, they may conclude that they have found “their truth,” more than content to let us believe in the “truth” we think is right for us.29 While we have gotten used to inviting outsiders to “come” to church, we are going to have to take seriously our Lord’s command to “go” to the lost, where they are, aware of their beliefs and values. We must not change the gospel, but we should strive to present it in a way that addresses people where they are, yet in a thoughtful and gracious way.
A person has joy in giving an appropriate answer,
and a word at the right time – how good it is! (Proverbs 15:23)
Like apples of gold in settings of silver,
so is a word skillfully spoken (Proverbs 25:11).
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone (Colossians 4:6).
God did not instruct His church to wait for unbelievers to come to church to hear the gospel; He commanded us to evangelize by going to the lost.
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go30 and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
The day of the megachurch, which attracts thousands to come to church, may be drawing to a close. Going to church –especially an evangelical church – is not the “in” thing to do. This is hardly new. In apostolic times, unbelievers were reluctant to identify with the church, even though they held it in high regard:
12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor. 14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women (Acts 5:12-14, emphasis mine).
I would emphatically repeat that the message of the gospel does not change. Salvation comes only by acknowledging your sin, and by trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf, for the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of eternal life. But the way we present the gospel does change. We can see this dramatically demonstrated in Acts 17. In Thessalonica and Berea, Paul went to the synagogue, where he used the Old Testament Scriptures to prove that the Messiah must suffer and die for the sins of men, and then rise from the dead. He then showed how Jesus fulfilled these Old Testament messianic prophecies. The Jews already believed that Messiah was coming, and they waited anxiously for Him. One can see how quickly some Jews could come to faith, and even be appointed as leaders in the church. For such folks, it was a matter of revealing some new information and explaining a great deal of truth that had already been embraced as truth.
But when Paul preached to pagan Gentiles, it was a very different matter, as we can see in the last half of Acts 17. These people already had gods aplenty. In fact, they worshipped so many gods that they even had an idol for an unknown god, just in case they had overlooked one. In this case, as elsewhere when addressing a pagan audience,31 Paul had to begin at the very beginning. He could not assume that these pagan Gentiles knew anything about the one true God of the Bible. And thus, the way Paul presented the gospel was very different from his method of preaching Christ in the synagogues.
Our world has changed. More than that, my neighborhood has changed a great deal since we first moved here over 30 years ago. There is a significant Asian presence here, as evidenced by the restaurants and markets nearby. There has also been a sizeable increase in the Hispanic population, as seen by the students to whom we minister. One of the largest mosques in the country is located just a little more than a block from our house. While my next door neighbor could well be of foreign descent, even those who are classic “Texans” may embrace Postmodern views. This means that our evangelistic efforts will most often be cross-cultural, just as we would preach Christ if we were foreign missionaries.
What I have been attempting to show is the magnitude of the change that was required of the Jewish apostles when it came to evangelizing Gentiles. I have likened this change of mind to that which contemporary Christians need in order to effectively evangelize unbelievers today. Let me conclude by suggesting several areas of application.
First, we must acknowledge that things have changed and that we now need to evangelize in a cross-cultural way. It is possible that this change is not as dramatic in some parts of this country (or the world) as it is more generally, but change continues to occur. We should not expect to deal with our unsaved friends and neighbors in the same old way. We must strive to understand the mindset of those we are seeking to reach with the gospel and adjust our methods (not our message) accordingly.
Second, we must recognize that God’s purposes are bigger than us; God’s purposes are global. In other words, God’s purpose in saving Gentiles today (as was His purpose in saving Jews) is that we might take the good news to the world. The Jews were wrong to assume that God wanted to bless them exclusively. The Jewish Christians of the early church were wrong to resist the evangelization of the Gentiles. The Judaizers were wrong to require Gentile Christians to submit to the Law of Moses, virtually making them Jews. We dare not become arrogant about the blessings God has showered upon us, as though we deserved them while others do not.32 God has blessed Christians, just as He blessed Abraham and his descendants – so that we may be a blessing to the world. And we bless the world most by sharing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Third, in order to reach the world we must go to it, rather than expect it to come to us. We know that “going” is a part of the Great Commission in the New Testament. We can see numerous examples of this “going” in the Book of Acts. We dare not expect or demand that unbelievers come to us or our church in order to hear the good news of salvation in Jesus. We must go into the world. We must infiltrate our world and influence it for Christ. But our identification with this world must have its limits and safeguards.
Fourth, although we are to go into the world, we must also remain separate from the world. We must be “in the world,” but not “of the world.”
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way. 13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people. 14 You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:10-16).
Christians should stand out in the world because they are not of this world:
But our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20).
11 Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul, 12 and maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears (1 Peter 2:11-12).
It is our distinctives that cause us to stand out in this world, and thus to serve as “salt.” As our Lord taught, when salt looses its saltiness, it looses its value. We must be distinct from the world in which we live and to which we seek to bear witness. Likewise, we are to be lights in a dark world. We are not to conceal the light, but let it shine so that all may see it and give glory to God.
This same truth is set forth in the Book of Hebrews:
4 Marriage must be honored among all and the marriage bed kept undefiled, for God will judge sexually immoral people and adulterers. 5 Your conduct must be free from the love of money and you must be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you and I will never abandon you” (Hebrews 13:4-5).
Christians are to reach out to strangers (Hebrews 13:1-2). Presumably, these strangers are brothers in Christ33 who have gone forth with the gospel. They are also to visit those in prison (Hebrews 13:3). My assumption once again is that those we are to identify with (“as though we were in prison with them and felt their torment,” verse 3) are fellow-believers, who are in prison for proclaiming Christ. But because we live in a fallen world, we must be on guard not to practice the sins which characterize the world. In particular, the author (I admit it; I think it was Paul) warns us about two great evils: the love of money and misdirected love (sexual immorality).
Only a few verses from this passage in Hebrews, we read this exhortation:
10 We have an altar that those who serve in the tabernacle have no right to eat from. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood the high priest brings into the sanctuary as an offering for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore, to sanctify the people by his own blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp. 13 We must go out to him, then, outside the camp, bearing the abuse he experienced (Hebrews 13:10-13).
“Going out” seems to mean several things. It means leaving the safety and security of “the camp.” Is it not reasonable to infer from this that Christians must set aside the “fortress mentality,” and the temptation to isolate ourselves within the walls of the church and the Christian community? It would also appear to mean that for Jewish saints, this meant separating themselves from legalistic Judaism, that false system whereby men sought to attain righteousness by law-keeping, rather than by faith in Jesus alone. To identify with Jesus exclusively meant that a Jew had to face the wrath and opposition of Jewish legalists.
You may remember that the Book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were facing persecution. And because of this, some were contemplating going back into Judaism to avoid the stigma and suffering associated with trusting in Jesus alone for salvation. For the original readers, going “outside the camp” seems to mean distancing oneself from legalistic Judaism (salvation by works), and identifying with the crucified Christ.
“Going out” often means persecution. It assumes that one will face opposition and persecution from those who reject Jesus, with whom we have chosen to identify. Notice that theme in Matthew 5:10-12, the verses which immediately precede (and, indeed, introduce) verses 13-16, where Jesus talks of the disciple as being “salt” and “light” in the world. The writer to the Hebrews (13:10-13) also makes this clear.
Fifth, if we are to effectively communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost world, we must distinguish between the heart of the gospel and cultural preferences and biases. Peter had to come to terms with the fact that God had set aside the Jewish food laws. The disciples and the early (Jerusalem) church had to acknowledge that God was indeed seeking to save Gentiles, as Gentiles. We dare not allow our culture to distort the gospel, as some sought to do by requiring Gentile believers to be circumcised.
I recently attended a church that has two services. The first service is a “traditional service.” Being there was like turning the clock back 40 years. Frankly, I enjoyed it (along with a lot of other gray-haired folks). The second service was a “contemporary service.” Let’s just say that the gray-haired folks were few, but the younger folks were many. The place “rocked” with the worship band and contemporary praise music. I would have to tell you that there were a good number of recently saved converts in the contemporary service. This is where they feel comfortable. If we were to insist that Christians must sing only hymns, accompanied by piano and organ (something I enjoy), we would not be seeing a congregation composed of new believers. It is not wrong to have preferences. We all do. But let us acknowledge them as preferences (and sometimes prejudices), rather than hard and fast principles. Let us, as Paul instructs, be willing to set aside our preferences for the sake of the gospel:
19 For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more people. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. 21 To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. 22 To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some. 23 I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Sixth, we need to understand the various cultures and world views that are now represented in the workplace and in our communities.34
5 Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone (Colossians 4:5-6).
We need to know people’s culture in order to avoid unnecessary offense (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). We also need to know people’s culture and religious beliefs in order to address them skillfully. We see this in Paul’s preaching to the Jews at Thessalonica, and then to the Gentiles in Athens.35 He spoke the same truth to both groups, but he presented the truth in very different ways, ways to which his audience could relate. In America, Christians are now cross-cultural missionaries, and thus we must know about the culture of those we seek to win to Christ.
Seventh, we need to seek to help new Christians be witnesses as “insiders.” I am borrowing the term “insider” from Jim Petersen, and probably others as well. It refers to those who have strong links to the unbelieving community out of which they have come to faith. One who has been born again and delivered from drug abuse still has friends and relationships within that community. We are often tempted to urge this new convert to avoid any future contact with his old associates. Some associations no doubt need to end, but we need to be careful not to draw new believers within the fortress walls of the church, never again to have contact with those who need to hear the gospel from one who was just like them. When the demoniac pled with Jesus to go with Him, Jesus told him to return to those with whom he was an “insider”:
18 As he was getting into the boat the man who had been demon-possessed asked if he could go with him. 19 But Jesus did not permit him to do so. Instead, he said to him, “Go to your home and to your people and tell them what the Lord has done for you, that he had mercy on you.” 20 So he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him, and all were amazed (Mark 5:18-20).
Eighth, we need to strive for diversity in our church. The governing principle in many of the megachurches has been to adapt themselves to a certain segment of society (seldom the poor and the outcasts) because “birds of a feather flock together.” Humanly speaking, this is good marketing. But this is not the way the church is to look or to operate. The unity of the Spirit is most dramatically apparent in the midst of diversity. And this diversity also is fruitful. A more diverse church will reach out to a more diverse group of unbelievers. When people of diverse backgrounds and cultures are saved, they will fit into a diverse body of believers. I am delighted to see the diversity that is evident in our church, and I would hope that even greater diversity will develop as we proclaim the gospel in a culturally diverse community.
Ninth, we need to be patient. In these days, evangelism takes time. Evangelism is more like making a stew than buying a “Big Mac” at McDonald’s. Instant or quick conversions are rare, and when we learn the whole story, we learn that conversion is often a long story. I am thinking of those who have spent many years on the mission field with few results, perhaps no conversions at all. And now, after years of apparently fruitless ministry, we find that more and more are coming to faith. We must patiently proclaim the faith, knowing that evangelism is a process.
35 Don’t you say, ‘There are four more months and then comes the harvest?’ I tell you, look up and see that the fields are already white for harvest! 36 The one who reaps receives pay and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that the one who sows and the one who reaps can rejoice together. 37 For in this instance the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap what you did not work for; others have labored and you have entered into their labor” (John 4:35-38).
5 What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. 7 So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work. 9 We are coworkers belonging to God. You are God’s field, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).
The harvest that may be coming will be a reaping of many years of sowing on the part of those who have gone before us. I have a friend who is involved in missions in Japan. He tells me that the average time of exposure to the gospel for one who is converted to Christ in Japan is seven years. That’s a long time. We need to be patient and to be faithful to proclaim the gospel with perseverance.
Tenth (and finally), we need to keep in mind the warning of our Lord that if we fail to be a“light” to a lost world – as individuals and as a church – He will remove our lampstand:
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has a firm grasp on the seven stars in his right hand – the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 ‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false. 3 I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you: You have departed from your first love! 5 Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place – that is, if you do not repent (Revelation 2:1-5).
The church at Ephesus did many things well, but they had lost their first love. They ceased doing those acts of love which characterized these saints in the beginning. Among those “deeds,” I would expect was seeking to save the lost. This church seems to have developed a fortress mindset. When we fail to carry out our light-bearing mission, our lampstand may be removed. Which of these seven churches in Asia persists today with a vibrant witness? Let it not be said of us as well.
1 Copyright © 2007 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 15 in the Following Jesus in a Me-First World series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 11, 2007. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 I realize that some godly Christians believe that Israel has been permanently replaced by the church. I am not among them. Based upon Romans 11 and other texts, I believe that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah has resulted in the “times of the Gentiles,” a time when Gentiles receive the blessings promised to Abraham’s seed. But with this privilege comes the responsibility to be a “light to the Gentiles.” The “times of the Gentiles” will end, and when they do, God will turn His people back to Himself, albeit by some very hard times.
4 I am indebted to Jim Petersen, whose book, Church Without Walls (Navpress, 1992), challenged me to consider just how dramatic this transition was for the apostles and earth church. This is an excellent book, which I highly recommend.
5 Technically, we know that Abraham’s descendants were not all Jews, but Judaism proudly claimed Abraham as their forefather, the father of the Jewish faith.
6 See Ephesians 3:1ff.
7 See Exodus 12:38; Numbers 11:4.
8 Matthew 10:5-6.
9 See, for example, Matthew 8:4-13; Luke 2:32; 4:16-30.
10 See Matthew 11:2-6.
11 See Matthew 16.
12 Matthew 16:18; 18:17.
13 See Ephesians 3.
14 See Luke 9:51-54.
15 John 18:10-11.
16 Romans 11:25-32.
17 Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:6-8.
18 Acts 2:41.
19 Acts 9:1-31; 22:3-21; 26:1-23
20 See Acts 13:1-12; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-16.
21 Acts 22:3.
22 See, for example, Acts 17:1-15, where Paul spoke to those in the synagogues of Thessalonica and Berea, and Acts 17:16-34, where he spoke to the Gentile philosophers in Athens.
23 See Acts 11:15.
24 This realization was not without its lapses – see Galatians 2:11-21.
25 Ephesians 2:16.
26 See Colossians 2:17.
27 This is forcefully argued in the Book of Galatians.
28 See Acts 10-11; Galatians 2:11-14.
29 Let me suggest several resources which I have found useful in understanding Postmodernism and its impact on evangelism and discipleship. (1) A message given at a recent Piper conference by Tim Keller entitled, “The Supremacy of Christ and the Gospel in a Postmodern World:” http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/ EventMessages/ByDate/1832_The_Supremacy_of_Christ_and_the_Gospel_in_a_Postmodern_World/ . (2) Jim Petersen, Church Without Walls (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NAVPRESS, 1992). (3) Robert Lewis, The Church of Irresistible Influence (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001).
30 Much is sometimes made of the fact that this word “go” is actually a participle in the original text, while the command to “make disciples” is a verb in the imperative. Be that as it may, I believe it is clear that “go” still has imperatival force. The goal is “making disciples,” but the process requires going.
31 See Acts 14:8-18.
32 See Romans 11:19-24.
33 Note that verse 1 begins, “Brotherly love must continue.” Showing hospitality to strangers thus appears to be a manifestation of brotherly love.
35 See Acts 17.