“The shortest and easiest route home for the two missionaries would have been to continue following the imperial highway through the mountain pass of the Cilician Gates east and then branch right southward to Syria. Surely they might have felt that they had done enough and suffered enough and could now take the easy way home! But Paul was not satisfied with doing a work ‘somehow.’ Always he was constrained to do God’s work ‘triumphantly’ – to finish God’s work with joy on each occasion.
“True shepherds know that it takes time to get a new convert rooted and built up in Christ. This involves sacrifice and hardship for the leader, but there is no eternal fruit without the Cross.”
-from the Sunday School Bible Study notes for Acts 14:21-28
“What Makes a Good Missionary?”
The Sunday School class I go to after church services directly addresses the topic of the Pastor’s sermon and gives the students the opportunity to dig deeper and to comment on the message for the day. Pastor Randy has been in California for the past several weeks but will be back next Sunday when he will be teaching on the aforementioned portion of Acts. My Sunday School teacher hands the study notes out a week early so we have time to review and answer the questions on its pages.
A number of Pastor’s messages about Paul and Acts are mapped to the modern concept and activities of Christian missionaries. This has always bothered me and I never understood why until I took a look at the title of next Sunday’s notes: “What Makes a Good Missionary?” Then it just hit me. Using Paul, beyond a certain point, as a model of the modern missionary is anachronistic. It doesn’t fit. The foundation is different.
Here’s what I mean.
In Paul’s day, he and other Jewish apostles and disciples were attempting to spread the good news of the Jewish Messiah to Jews in Israel, Samaria, and in the diaspora and also to give that news to the Gentiles. Jews had been waiting and waiting for the arrival of the Messiah for centuries, and the need for him to come was especially acute during periods of exile and occupation. Israel was a land occupied by a foreign army and desperate to realize its own liberation and redemption. The news of an arrived Messiah who would be King and who would redeem national Israel would be beyond good news…it would be immense in its impact among world Jewry.
From that point of view, explaining why news of the arrived Messiah would be good news to the Jewish people is a no brainer, but we have to work a little harder (which Paul does) to explain why it is also good news to the people of the nations.
Today, we’ve gotten it somewhat backwards. Not that modern Christian missionaries are doing it wrong. Missionary work is the source of great spiritual and material blessings all over the world. But they are missing a few things.
As I mentioned in my book review of Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, and as McKnight correctly points out, the plan of salvation is only part of the gospel message. Sadly, modern Christian missionaries believe the salvation plan is the only part of the gospel message.
The more complete message is contained in my review of the First Fruits of Zion television series episode The Good News. What teachers Toby Janicki and Aaron Eby make seem incredibly easy and obvious has actually eluded Gentile Christianity for nearly two thousand years.
What missionaries do today doesn’t map well to what Paul was doing. Paul was delivering the good news that the Messiah had come, had offered salvation from sins for both Jews and Gentiles (and this part was huge since the Jewish people had not anticipated salvation for Gentiles) and that he would return to liberate the captives among Israel, gather the scattered Jewish exiles to their Land, and he would bring peace to Israel and to the nations of the world. The nations would be blessed through Israel, particularly as Israel was made the head of the nations in God’s Kingdom.
I seriously doubt too many Christian missionaries are spreading around that kind of gospel message today. That’s why Paul is used anachronistically as a model for modern Christian missionary work. Most Gentile Christians lack Paul’s vision and emphasis. We don’t exactly preach a different gospel, but it certainly is a truncated one. It’s also kind of upside down.
Paul always visited the synagogues first and appealed to the local Jewish authorities in whatever place he was visiting. The good news of Messiah would make the most sense to the Jewish people. It would only make sense to Gentile God-fearers because they were spending time in synagogues being immersed in Torah and thus, in the knowledge of Messiah. It wouldn’t make sense at all to pagan Gentiles who had no knowledge of Jewish history or teachings about God (see Acts 14:8-20).
Ok, your counter-argument is that times have changed. Gentiles are largely “in charge” of the worship of the Jewish Messiah and disseminating the information about his birth, death, resurrection, ascendance, and ultimate return (as strange as it sounds for Gentiles to be “in charge” of the iconic Jewish message and King). But does it make sense to strip out what’s going to happen upon the Messiah’s return and why that’s good news for Jewish people and Israel?
Much of the history of the church has been based on the idea that Gentile Christianity has replaced Jewish Israel in all of the covenant promises of God. This is patiently untrue and I’ve discussed it in more blog posts and magazine articles than I can count. But it does make sense for the supersessionistic church to remove the good news of Jewish ascendency and Israel’s national supremacy since it reverses the roles upon which the Gentile church has historically been based. As I’m sure you realize at this point, I think that historical foundation is dead wrong.
…these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
I realize that Psalm 122 isn’t a Messianic prophesy and is addressing the tribes of Israel, but I believe it also speaks to the spirit of the Messianic age, when we will all be glad to hear the call to go up to Jerusalem and to the House of God, the Holy Temple.
Everything in the Jewish message of the gospel points to Messiah, to the Temple, to Jerusalem, to Israel, and to the Jewish people. The mystery of that message isn’t how the Jews will be saved but how everybody else will be saved. From a Jewish point of view, as much today as when Paul was on his “missionary journeys,” the good news of Messiah was a Jewish message aimed straight at the Jewish people and at Israel. It was a given. The big shocker and the mystery of the gospel was how the Gentiles could be saved and redeemed by God as well.
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God (emph. mine).
Given how the Gentile God-fearers and even the pagans (who were probably told what to expect by their God-fearing neighbors and relatives) reacted to Paul’s gospel message in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch (see Acts 13:48) we can see that they too were amazed at the graciousness of the God of Israel.
We’ve lost how amazing it is that Gentiles can be saved by the God of the Jews. We’ve lost how the message of the gospel is not just about a plan of salvation but about the return of the King and how his Kingdom will be established, restoring Israel to her rightful place, and elevating the people who were chosen by God at Sinai.
It’s time for us to remember and to teach all of the gospel message, as Paul once did. It shouldn’t be hard. Paul’s sermons, some of then anyway, are preserved in our Bibles. It’s all right there in front of us. We just need to take off our blinders and learn how to see and read the message again. Then we can spread the word, not of a truncated gospel, but of overflowing good news to all, good news first and foremost to Israel and yes, then to the rest of the nations.