Dr. Ted Miller, School of Religion Faculty
This is part two of a three-part series. Check out part one.
God’s intention to manifest his kingdom beyond the national and cultural boundaries of Israel became increasingly evident throughout the Gospels and Acts. In spite of Jesus’ focus on the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6, 15:24), He gives strong hints from the beginning of his ministry that God’s love and attention was not limited to the descendants of Abraham.
Jesus began his ministry by identifying himself as God’s anointed one, the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 4:16, cf. Is 61:1-2). In a striking change of tone, He prophesies that his own people will reject him (4:23), nonetheless explaining that God’s compassion had never been limited exclusively to Israel. He reminds them that a widow from Sidon and a leper from Syria were the special recipients of God’s provision and healing, even though there were certainly many widows and lepers during the days of Elijah and Elisha.
After his resurrection, Jesus gave his disciples clear instructions that they were to make disciples far outside of the boundaries of Israel (Matt 28:19-20, Acts 1:8). However, an implication regarding the cultural manifestation of the kingdom did not become explicit until the conversion of Cornelius, which Peter later recounts to end the debate whether the Gentiles needed to be circumcised (Acts 15:1-2). James concludes the argument by noting that God had promised before to build again the house of David, was for the purpose “that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles” (Acts 15:17).
The Judaizers did not merely misunderstand the basis of salvation, but also the nature of God’s Kingdom. Circumcision was more than merely a “good work” that they wished to impose on Gentiles; it was the divinely ordained means by which a Gentile could enter into the cultural and religious life of national Israel. Although Gentiles who lived among the Jews were forced to abide by the regulations regarding the Sabbath, without being circumcised, they could not enter fully into the various cultural celebrations that God had given Israel as a mark of his covenant with her.
When Peter pointed out that God had not imposed circumcision on the Gentiles, he was doing more than liberating them from the burden of earning their righteousness through the law. He was also “decentering” the divinely-given culture that the nation of Israel had practiced.
The impact of this decentering had a massive theological and practical impact on both the spread of the gospel and the cultural manifestations that the kingdom of God could take. God had not intended that His drawing of the Gentile to salvation be understood as His drawing them to identify with the cultural structure that He had created to define and protect Israel. This single group of Jews and Gentiles, united by having their hearts cleansed by faith—rather than by a shared biological heritage or even a divinely-ordained culture—was apparently God’s plan “from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18).
At the conclusion of the Jerusalem council, James issued a short list of ordinances regarding their lifestyles. Although the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to be saved, James believed that the Holy Spirit saw it as necessary to lay upon them a hand few of “necessary things: That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.” (Acts 15:28-29).
Although the issue of meat offered to idols is foreign to most believers in a modern secular society, later statements regarding the issue by Paul, John, and even the early church fathers, give us an indication of what liberties and boundaries we have in living out (and communicating) the gospel across cultural lines.
(to be continued)
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.