The church, from its inception, has faced the conundrum, "What do we do with those people?" We are studying Jesus in the Old Testament through His name, Yeshua. This ties in because if He came to bring us salvation, then who exactly is the "us"?
Yeah, I know, you're thinking, "The whole world, based on John 3:16--you should know that!" but in reality, we have always wrestled with what "the world" means and has meant throughout history.
Let's go to the book of Acts and see this early debate:
When they arrived in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported everything God had done through them. But then some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses.”
So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue. At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe. God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” (15:4-11)
Can you see it? All throughout the Old Testament, the Jews were promised salvation from their enemies, their sins and their captivity. God's love never would fail them: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lam. 3:22-23) Each generation longed for the day of Redemption, embodied by the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53.
Many Jews in that first century AD said, "It is Jesus! Yeshua is the promised Messiah!" Even though the Old Testament alluded to the universality of God's love, many Jews chose to stay focused on their own nation. Jonah, for example, a prophet called to preach to those other people, the Ninevites, disobeyed God by running away rather than to have fulfilled his calling.
In that first century, Jesus became the Great Divide.
Earlier, Jesus asks the disciples who they think He is:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." (Matt. 16:13-18)
Now, fast forward to the new church as chronicled in Acts. It's no surprise it is Peter who broke the stalemate. He declared the Messiah once before, and now here he is again, speaking to a wider audience. Peter, in his flesh, would have preferred to keep Jesus exclusive to his people (remember the sheet with all the food on it that he was commanded to eat?) but now, under the Holy Spirit's revelation, he gets it: Jesus is for all people, for all time.
Let's take a moment to go into the mind of a good, God-fearing Jew in this first century, sitting in at this council and debating the issue:
Those people. Those Gentiles. They eat food sacrificed to idols (which we know are demons); they engage in public nudity at the gymnasium; they enjoy pederasty; they enjoy prostitutes; they worship gods--gods under every rock and in every tree, and their worship is equally as scandalous.
Their orgies defy description, and their behavior, oh dear. Their women are not modest. They place unwanted babies outside to languish and die, all because some father doesn't want the child. I could go on, but I am feeling nauseated. They, in a word, make me sick.
Those people. But here is Peter saying that the Holy Spirit, the Almighty's precious Spirit, has been given to the Gentiles, cleansing their hearts because of their faith (is it even possible for such people to even have faith?) He is saying God is making no distinction. It is true that the Law is a heavy burden, and I have failed more times than I can count to obey it, but those Gentiles...they don't even try to be moral! They are steeped in sin. But here's Peter saying their faith has saved them. Our precious Messiah, Yeshua, has saved them. Oh, Lord, what am I to think? I feel as if the whole world is spiraling out of control...
Ponder this man's conundrum for awhile. Maybe you sympathize with his horror, or maybe you are aghast at his judgmental attitude.
Maybe you're thinking, Hey, lighten up, I am that Gentile. I am the descendant of those people, and without Peter and Paul's courage to take the message outside the walls of the synagogue, I wouldn't be here.
Now, fast forward to now. Who are THOSE people we are debating about? Think about this and pray. We are not alone in this and yet the answer is the same for every generation: Jesus.
To be continued...