For the first time, as Paul addressed all those present at that synagogue in Antioch, he “hot wired” the connection between the Abrahamic covenant and the Jewish Messiah who he revealed was Yeshua of Nazareth, Son of David, who was born, died, and resurrected, and who carried the promise of salvation to the Jew, the Jewish convert, and yes, even to the Gentiles of the nations who feared God. We’ve already seen how the Jews and proselytes reacted with great joy, but what was the response of the Gentiles who heard this message?
That’s how Part 1 of this message ended. If you haven’t read it, please do so now before proceeding here.
And now for the conclusion of “Collison and Recoil.”
On the second Shabbat, just about the entire city was assembled to hear the word of HaShem. When the Yehudim saw the crowd of people, they were filled with jealousy and disowned the words of Polos, denying and insulting.
–Ma’asei HaShlichim 13:44-45
Luke can be excused for a small exaggeration. Perhaps the “whole city” had not assembled, but it seemed like it. The synagogue was packed out with Gentiles. They were not proselytes or converts; they were real Gentiles. For the most part, they were God-fearers, but the God-fearers may have invited members of their pagan families and friends to come hear the apostles as well. Everyone wanted to hear the story about the Jew who had come back from the dead.
More than that, the Gentile God-fearers and, as Lancaster suggests, perhaps a great number of Gentiles who had not been involved much or at all in the Jewish community, might have been intensely curious about the message from a Jewish sage (Lancaster states that as “a disciple of Rabban Gamaliel, Paul possessed the prestige of a talmid chakham, literally, a disciple of a sage,” pg 387) saying that even Gentiles could be offered salvation through the death and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah, something that had been unheard of in their previous experience. Naturally, they came in droves and here’s where the problem arises.
They were not “jealous” because they had never been able to raise such large crowd. The synagogues were not about the business of trying to bring in big numbers. They were not “evangelical” as we would understand the term.
When we read this in our English translations of the Bible and we filter the information through our modern “evangelical” Christian mindset, it’s easy to imagine that the Jews, and particularly the Jewish religious leadership of the synagogue, were jealous of Paul and Barnabas because they were more “popular” than the Jewish synagogue leaders were, and had a more attractive message that brought in big crowds.
But in the Judaisms of that day, just as in the Judaisms of our day, it’s never been about bringing in crowds of outsiders the way modern churches do or would like to do. It’s about gathering a group of the devout among the Jews and perhaps those few God-fearing Gentiles who are willing to worship alongside the Jewish population, offering devotion to God and performing the mitzvot. It’s not a game of “more is better.”
Suddenly, abruptly, the synagogue was flooded, not just the usual group of Gentile God-fearers, but a significant portion of the town’s Gentile population who probably had no idea of what to do or how to act in a synagogue setting. These were Gentiles who very likely worshipped in the temples of foreign idols a day ago or an hour ago. Given the hesitancy of most Jews of that day to mix with Gentiles, it must have seemed totally chaotic and invasive to the extreme.
But why jealousy?
The Jews of Antioch were not jealous that Paul and Barnabas has such appeal or that their message was so popular. They were jealous that the message of the apostles compromised theological ethnocentrism The message of the apostles seemed to throw the doors of Judaism wide open to the Gentile world.
This is the “jealousy” to which Paul referred in his epistle to the Romans.
-Lancaster 394, 395
So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?
–Romans 11:11-15 (ESV)
This explanation somewhat flies in the face of Jordan Levy’s commentary on Romans 11 that I reviewed in my recent blog post Provoking Zealousness (or were the Jewish leaders “zealous” to protect Jewish identity from a “power surge” of incoming Gentiles?), but that aside, it is nonetheless a compelling image. It seems likely that the Jewish leadership of the synagogue kind of “freaked out” at the sudden tidal wave of Gentiles crashing through their doors to hear Paul’s and Barnabas’ message. If that’s the case, then it’s understandable that their immediate response would be to get rid of the massive influx of Gentiles by getting rid of Paul and Barnabas. Or as Lancaster puts it (pg 395), “To the Galatian Jewish community of Pisidian Antioch, the offense of the cross was the inclusion of Gentiles.”
I’ve mentioned before that the inclusion of Gentiles into the community of the Way as a Jewish sect was always fraught with problems, and those problems were probably never quite resolved. Paul and Barnabas and their message of hope to the people of the nations of the world that the good news of the Jewish Messiah was for them too, was completely new and alien to more traditional ways of Jewish thinking and believing. Many anti-Gentile prejudices and assumptions were maintained in the Jewish communities in Israel and the diaspora, and this was a great barrier (think Ephesians 2:14) to disseminating the gospel to the pagan Gentiles within a Jewish synagogue context and also within a Jewish religious sect.
I suppose it’s small wonder that eventually such integration never took hold, but rather resulted in both Jewish and Gentile populations within the Way recoiling from each other, much in the way that two magnets fly apart when you try to press them together by their like poles.
But if this was the Jewish reaction to the enthusiastic Gentile response to the good news of the Messiah in ancient days, what hope do we have of joining together the Gentile Christian and Messianic Jewish populations of the twenty-first century…or is it even possible? Paul couldn’t do it and he spent every day of his life, from the events we see in Antioch until his death in Rome, advocating for the inclusion of Gentile disciples within the Way in whatever role we are supposed to occupy, and serving the Master he loved with his entire being.
I wish I had the answer. Boaz Michael’s book, Tent of David, Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile is an attempt to provide part of the answer, but only time will tell if the vision can be implemented as a lived reality. While a great many people have received the book just as enthusiastically as the Gentiles received the message of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, I know of one person who I respect who has not. I await the details on his perspectives and opinions in order to respond or at least understand what he is experiencing.
We all want our message of “good news” to be universally accepted by the entire audience we address, whatever that message is and whoever the audience may be, but that’s not always going to happen. Even if the majority is ecstatic, a few (and maybe more) will always reject what we have to say. Of those people who reject the message, many are malcontents and “arguers” who will reject anything except their own pre-programmed dogma, but there will always be just a few who, out of thoughtfulness and consideration, take a different point of view that we should try to hear. Maybe we’ll end up disagreeing and the opportunity for dialog will die, but maybe, just maybe, we should find out what those very few have to say first. You never know if God could have whispered a little something in their ear that could help fill in the blanks in what we have been given to say to the world.
I don’t have the next “chapter” to this message yet. Maybe I never will. If the answer continues to elude me in my life, I only pray that the Messiah brings it with him upon his return, and that I will be privileged to hear it, so that my own soul may be healed.