In what is known as the Great Commission that Yeshua delivered to his disciples as recorded in Matthew 28, Yeshua called his disciples to make disciples of His in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world. With the missionary journey’s of Paul, the command to take the Gospel to the uttermost part of the world began to see fruit. Paul was commissioned to bring the Gospel to the Gentile world, and he had to deal with the difficulties of his day including the multiplicities of religions and cultural values that had to be dealt with in his presentation of his message about Messiah. As the Gentiles became believers in Messiah, they also had to deal with obstacles in their new life of faith. There were also obstacles relating to the Jewish believers and their own issues with coming to faith in Yeshua. This post will look at the beginnings of the Gentile mission and seek to bring to light the many issues of the beginnings of the work to bring the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the world.
Timeline of Paul’s Missionary Journeys
First Journey (Acts 13, 14), a.d. 45–46. Starting from Antioch in Syria.
Antioch in Pisidia,
Lystra and Derbe,
Return to Iconium,
Antioch in Pisidia,
Second Journey (Acts 15:36–18:22), a.d. 53–56. Starting from Antioch in Syria.
Churches of Syria and Cilicia,
Derbe and Lystra,
Phrygia and Galatia,
Corinth (writes 1 and 2 Thessalonians),
Third Journey (Acts 18:22–21:15), a.d. 56–60. Starting from Jerusalem.
Ephesus (writes First Corinthians, and, according to some, Galatians),
Macedonia (writes Second Corinthians, place uncertain),
Corinth (writes Epistle to the Romans),
Jerusalem. (Vincent, 1887, Volume 3, p. xxxviii).
Difficulties Faced by Paul in the Mission to the Gentiles
As Paul began his mission to bring the Gospel, he faced the diverse religious world of his time that included the syncretistic religions of Egypt, Greece, and Rome; The Emperor cult of the Romans; and various Greek philosophies including Epicureanism and Stoicism (Robertson, 1921, p.26).
Paul’s message of Messiah and that there was one true and living God, the God of Israel came in conflict with the syncretistic religions of the world of his time that saw their gods as multiple and interchangeable and new gods that were discovered could be added to the current gods. Paul had to make clear that Yeshua was not just another god to be added to the pantheon but the revelation of the only God to be worshiped. We can see in Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17:23, that the Athenians were willing to worship an “unknown god,” so as not to miss out on one.
Part of the syncretic understanding of religion was the Emperor cult and worship of the Emperor as a god. In Roman thought, people were allowed to worship the gods of their choosing as long as the Emperor was included, even if just one act of worship of the Emperor was made each year. Paul’s insistence on there being only one God and He was made known in Yeshua allowed for no room for Emperor worship, as there could be no other God in addition to the God of Israel. The refusal to add worship of the Emperor to worship of Messiah by the early believers led many to their deaths as they knew that there could be no room for Emperor worship, even a token act for appearances.
The influence of Greek philosophies like Epicureanism and Stoicism posed difficulty for Paul in that these philosophies focused more on questions and argumentation for the sake of argument (Robertson, 1921, p.26). This can also be seen in Paul’s encounter in Athens where the people were interested in debate but not in considering Paul’s message.
Obstacles to Gentiles Coming to Faith in Messiah
One of the major obstacles to Gentiles coming to faith in Messiah and living the Yeshua following life was the adopting of restrictions on their sexual lives (Faw, 1993, Council Decisions More Than Mere Compromise), given their past lives in pagan worship that had a strong focus on sexuality in worship with temple prostitutes and fertility rites, coming to the Yeshua following life would forbid these practices. Outside of sexual worship, the life of a Yeshua follower would also prohibit other sexual practices outside of marriage including pre-marital sex, adultery, and homosexuality, which was common in the Hellenized cultures.
The abandoning of idol worship and the syncretic mindset of adding new gods as they became known also had to be abandoned as the new Gentile converts had to understand that their faith in Messiah was a belief in only one God and a rejection of all others. This also included the abandoning of “family gods” that also implied a break with their family and their past which in the culture of the first-century world was a major step.
Obstacles to Jews Coming to Faith in Messiah
One of the major obstacles to Jews coming to faith in Messiah lies in the crucifixion and the seeming failure of Yeshua to meet the Messianic expectations of the Jewish People (Hawthorne, Martin & Reed (Eds.), 1993, p. 33). Being a people under the oppressive control of Rome, the Messiah as the great Davidic figure that would come to overthrow the Romans and establish Jerusalem as his capitol in line with the prophetic visions of Ezekiel and others was what was needed at the time and was the Messianic hope. A Messiah that would die to bring atonement though also part of the Messianic vision of the Prophets as in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, was as it is today of lesser focus with hope for the Davidic Messiah to come and bring to fulfillment Israel’s eschatological hopes. That Yeshua did not fulfill, the role of the Davidic King caused many to question his qualifications as Messiah and even with His promise of the return to complete all things Yeshua did not fit the current needs for a Messiah and was very hard for the Jews to accept.
Another significant later issue for Jews coming to faith was that the Church was accepting Gentiles and what began as a Jewish faith was becoming a Gentile dominated faith. This led to clarifying the requirements of Gentile acceptance into the Church at what is known as the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 where guidelines for Gentiles to enter the Church and also not pose an obstacle to Jews in the Church and those Jews considering belief in Yeshua that include:
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to lay any heavier burden on you than the following requirements: to abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will be doing the right thing” (vv. 28-29, CJB).
These guidelines allowed for Gentiles to enter the faith and also acknowledge their entrance into a Jewish faith movement where respect for their older brethren in the faith, the Jewish believers and also allow for Jews looking in Yeshua faith to see respect for Jewish values by both the Jews and Gentiles in the Church.
In this post, we have seen the beginning of the Gentile mission as Paul began the broadest outreach of the Gospel from Jerusalem to “the uttermost parts of the world.” Paul had to bring the message of the One True and Living God to a world of multiple gods and syncretic worship that allowed for new gods to be added but the belief in one universal god was foreign. Paul also had to deal with Gentile cultures steeped in sexual, religious rites and acceptance of sexual immorality as a norm and preached the Gospel that rejected the common sexual mores of his time. Along with reaching out to the Gentiles, the mission to the Jews continued too, and Paul had to deal with preaching a crucified Messiah whose mission was one of making man right with God in contrast to the Messianic hope for the Davidic King held as common to the Jews of his day under Roman rule. In all Paul’s work to bring the Gospel to the world of his day, he saw great fruit and was a great act of seeking to do as Yeshua commanded to make disciples of all the nations.
Faw, C. E. (1993). Acts. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.
Hawthorne, G. F., Martin, R. P., & Reid, D. G. (Eds.). (1993). In Dictionary of Paul and his letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Robertson, A. T. (1921). Paul the interpreter of Messiah. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.