Chapter 20: The Mission of Paul
More than a third of the New Testament consists of writings ascribed or related to the apostle Paul. It is evident that this ‘least of the apostles’, as he called himself (I Cor. 15.9), was actually more significant than any of the others, with the possible exception of Peter; as he said, he worked harder than the rest (I Cor. 15.10). It is impossible to understand early Christianity unless his labours are taken into account.
For interpreting his life and his work we possess two kinds of evidence; his own letters, ten in number, written principally to the communities he himself had established, and the account of his conversion and mission provided in about two-thirds of the Acts of the Apostles. Both kinds of evidence need to be considered, for while the letters provide invaluable insights into his mind and the way in which he viewed his ministry they do not set forth so clearly what it was that he did or the ways in which others viewed him. For historical study, both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ approaches are necessary.
Several statements in Acts shed some light on his early life. He was a member of the Jewish dispersion, born in Tarsus of Cilicia (south-eastern Asia Minor). His family belonged to the upper classes of Tarsian society, for Paul was a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22.27-~-8) as well as a citizen of Tarsus (21.39). His youth, however, was spent not in Tarsus but in Jerusalem, where he received religious instruction from a famous Pharisaic teacher, Gamaliel (22:3). His sister’s son was later in Jerusalem (23:16), but this fact does not show that his sister also lived there. As a rabbinic student, Paul was taught a trade; according to Acts 18:3 it was tent-making or, perhaps, leather-working.
Paul’s name was originally Saul; he had been named after the ancient king of Israel who was the most famous member of Paul’s tribe (I Sam. 9:1-2). He may well have borne the Roman name Paulus as well (Acts 13:9), perhaps with an etymological allusion to the ‘smallness’ of the tribe of Benjamin (I Sam. 9:21).
In Acts, Paul first comes on the scene at the death of Stephen; those who were stoning the first martyr laid their garments at Paul’s feet (7:58). The martyr’s death may well have impressed Paul, though he never mentions it; later converts to Christianity mention the constancy of martyrs as leading them to consider the new faith. For the moment, however, Paul became a persecutor, arresting Christians in Jerusalem and imprisoning them (8:3). Fairly soon he asked the high priest for authority to become an ‘apostle’ to the synagogues at Damascus, in order to continue his inquisitorial work there. But on the road to Damascus he experienced an encounter with the risen Jesus, and he became a Christian himself.
In his own view this experience was the last of the resurrection appearances which had begun with appearances to the other apostles (I Cor. 15:5-8). In Acts, however, the resurrection appearances are given only to the earliest apostles; both Stephen (7:55) and Paul (26:16) see Jesus, but they see him glorified and at God’s right hand. Acts also sets forth two conceptions of the relation of Paul’s mission to his conversion: (1) his mission was interpreted to him by a Damascus Christian (9:10-19; 22:10-16) or (2) it was laid upon him by Jesus himself (26:16-18). The latter conception, presented in a speech before King Agrippa, may be no more than an abbreviation of the former; or Luke may intend to show that Christ’s work can be described either in relation to human intermediaries or apart from them.
Both Paul’s own view and that of Acts represent attempts to understand the meaning of an event which in its actuality and in its effects transcended ordinary categories of explanation. As far as Paul himself was concerned, the crucial moment of his life was his conversion, and he speaks of the event three times. In Galatians 1:13-16 he tells of his former life in Judaism, his progress beyond that of many of his contemporaries, his zeal for his ancestral traditions, and his devastation of the Church of God; this situation was transformed when God revealed his Son ‘in’ him so that he might proclaim the gospel among the gentiles. In I Corinthians 15:9-10 he says that he is unworthy to be called an apostle because he persecuted the Church of God, but by God’s grace he became an apostle and worked harder than any of the others. In Philippians 3:5-7 he states that he was ‘circumcized on the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribes of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrew parents, as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal persecuting the Church, as to legal righteousness blameless.’ But what had been gain for him he counted as loss because of Christ.
Whereas formerly he had believed that righteousness was an achievement for which he could work, he now radically rejected this view and insisted on the universality of sin and the power of God alone to effect salvation. God’s grace alone could bring about forgiveness, reconciliation, and justification. This is, at any rate, the major emphasis of Paul’s thought. It is reflected not only in the definite statements he makes on the subject but also in his style of writing. Over and over we find Paul setting forth antitheses which he can resolve only by mentioning God or God’s work. At the same time, he found himself quite unable to abandon completely his previous emphasis on work.
Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing;
what counts is keeping God’s commandments (I Cor. 7:19).
But the keeping of commandments is to be achieved by divine power.
In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is effective, but faith working through love (Gal. 5:6).
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; what counts is the new creation (Gal. 6:15).
Other antitheses, real or apparent, are resolved in God -- especially those between Jews and Greeks (I Cor. 10:32, 12:1 -2; Rom. 2:9-10; 9:12; 11:30-2; Col. 3:11), but also those between men and women (I Cor. 11:11-12), good and evil (Rom. 7:15-25), and Paul and Apollos (I Cor. 3:6-8). In Romans 14:6-9 the tension between vegetarians and non-vegetarians is transposed into a tension between life and death and resolved in the Lord. The most complete statement of this resolution is to be found in Romans 8:38-9.
I am convinced that
neither death nor life,
nor angels nor principalities,
nor things present or future,
nor any created thing
will be able to separate us from
the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ (Rom. 8:31).
A similar idea can be presented not so much in terms of the resolution of antitheses as in pictures of hierarchical structure, in which the antitheses lose their force because of their subordinate rôle.
All things are yours:
Paul, Apollos, Cephas,
things present, things future;
all things are yours,
and you are Christ’s
and Christ is God’s (I Cor. 3:21-3).
The head of every man is Christ, and
the head of every woman is her husband, and
the head of Christ is God (I Cor. 11:3).
If we may venture to interpret such passages in relation to Paul’s own life, we should say that he had found that an intense personal conflict was resolved for him by his recognition of the supremacy of God over all divisions, personal and inter-personal alike. Paul had been proud, as some of the rabbis were proud, that he had been born a Jew and a male Jew. To Israelites belonged adoption by God, the glory of God, the covenants, the divine legislation, the true worship, the promises, and the patriarchs (Rom. 9:4-5). To male Israelites belonged the sign of dedication to God given in circumcision; Paul continued to believe that women were inferior to men (cf. I Cor. 14:34-5). Because of his conversion he recognized, or tried to recognize, the unity of mankind; but he could not turn his back on his nation’s history or his own. The gospel was ‘for the Jew first, and also for the Greek’ (Rom. 1:16; cf. 2:9-10); the Jew has ‘much advantage in every way’ (3:1). At the end ‘all Israel will be saved’ (11:26).
Again, Paul insists that if election comes from grace it Cannot be based upon works (Rom. 11:6; cf. Gal. 2:16). Even the antithesis between grace and works cannot fully be maintained, however. Paul instructs the Philippians to work out their own salvation, with fear and trembling, ‘for it is God who effects in you both the will and the energy to do what pleases him’ (Phil. 2:12-13). There is a ‘work of the Lord’ to which all Christians are called (I Cor. 15:58); it can be compared to a race (Phil. 2:17; Gal. 2:2) in which not all receive prizes (I Cor. 9:24-7). There are definite rewards not only for apostolic missionaries (I Cor. 3:8-15) but for all (Rom. 2:6-10); for ‘God will repay each in accordance with his works’ (Rom. 2:6). Paul himself has not reached his final goal, but he presses forward to the goal of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14).
The work of the Lord finds expression not only in personal devotion but, for Paul himself, above all in the work of an apostle. To be sure, it is Christ who has worked through him; but it is he who has proclaimed the gospel from Jerusalem as far as Illyricum (Rom. 15:18-19). It is the grace of God which has given him power, but he has worked harder than all the other apostles (I Cor. r~.io). The apostolic churches are his ‘work in the Lord’ (9.1). Why does he work? A divine necessity has been laid upon him, whether he wants to preach the gospel or not (9.16-17). He refuses to accept payments from some churches, such as that at Corinth, for he is determined to regard his preaching as independent of them.
We must not suppose that the apostle regarded his work as a means of attaining personal satisfaction. He regards it with no enthusiasm whatever. In I Corinthians 9.19 he obviously regards it as equivalent to slavery, and elsewhere he includes his labours, both physical and spiritual, among the sufferings which he has experienced for the sake of the gospel (I Cor. 4.12; II Cor. 6:5. 11:27; cf. Gal. 6:17). Governors of churches should be highly regarded because of their labours (I Thess. 5-13) -- as Paul himself, by implication, should be -- but there is no joy directly associated with what they do.
Especially to the Thessalonians, who seem to have thought that with the imminent coming of the reign of God they could rest from their labours, Paul insists upon the necessity of work in general. He may have had in mind the command to labour given to Adam in Genesis 3:17-19, but he never refers to it. Instead, he tells the Thessalonians to work with their own hands (I Thess. 4:11); indeed, anyone who does not work is not to eat (II Thess. 3:6-12). According to Colossians 3:22-3, slaves should work wholeheartedly, ‘as for the Lord and not for men’. These examples show that while for Paul an emphasis on work was expressed partly in his life as a Christian it was also set forth in relation simply to the daily lives of his converts. The Christian is one who works hard at everything he does (Col. 3:23). Such an attitude is characteristic of Judaism, in which the professional student of the law was expected to learn a trade and practise it. ‘Let him who stole steal no more; instead, let him labour, working with his hands what is good, so that he may have something to give him who has need’ (Eph. 4:28).
Paul himself worked ‘night and day’, partly in order not to burden his converts (I Thess. 2:9), partly as an example to them (II Thess. 3:8). Among his sufferings for the gospel he mentions ‘working with his own hands’ (I Cor. 4:12). These quotations suggest two inferences. (1) Work was not a good in itself in Paul’s view; perhaps, therefore, he did regard it as a consequence of Adam’s fall. (2) Sociologically considered, his status in the society of his time cannot have been low. His Roman citizenship from birth (Acts 22:28) involved a fairly high social status which is confirmed by his regarding ‘working with his own hands’ as extraordinary.
Both as a Jew and as a Roman, Paul laid great emphasis upon order in society. This order was to be reflected in orderly worship (I Cor. 11:17-34; 14:33, 40) and a hierarchical structure present in church order (12:28-31) and in married life (11:3-10). The empirical state is based upon the order given by God (Rom. 13:1-7). Indeed, had the rulers of this age recognized the hidden Wisdom of God they would not have crucified Christ (I Cor. 2:8). And the conditions of being a slave or being a free man are also due to God’s provision (I Cor. 7:17-24). This is to say that for Paul the new creation of the Christian is an inward and spiritual work; it involves no social changes. When Paul says that he himself is poor but makes many rich, and has nothing but possesses all things (II Cor. 6:10), he is speaking not sociologically but spiritually; he is comparing himself with ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ who ‘though he was rich became poor for your sake, so that through his poverty you might become rich’ (8:9). The only ‘equality’ of which Paul speaks is the equality which can result from the voluntary gifts of other churches to ‘the poor of the saints who are in Jerusalem’ (8:14; cf. Rom. 15: 26), and he explicitly states that this gift should not result in the ‘tribulation’ of the givers (II Cor. 8:13). It should come from the ‘prospering’ of those who give (I Cor. 16:2).
The points which we have been mentioning are intended to show that in consequence of his conversion Paul did not become someone completely different from the person he was before it. At the same time, he did experience a change. In his view, he had been crucified with Christ; he no longer lived but, instead, Christ lived in him (Gal. 2:19-20). He had come to recognize in the crucified Christ the power and the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24). It was this recognition, and the consequent change in Paul’s direction, which was the substance of his conversion. Through Christ, God had called him to proclaim the gospel -- not among his own kinsmen but among the gentiles whom he had formerly despised, and along with the Christians whom he had formerly persecuted.
This was the inward change, expressed in the outward action of mission. What did the change involve, as far as Paul’s relationship to Judaism was concerned? Before we can answer this question we must ask why he persecuted the Church. The contexts in which he mentions his activities as persecutor plainly suggest that he was opposed to Christianity because of his zeal for the Torah and for the traditions of his ancestors (Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6). It is not clear why this zeal would necessarily make him a persecutor. Perhaps the zeal was more defensive than Paul is willing to state. According to Acts 8:1 he was present when Stephen was stoned and approved of his condemnation; and Stephen had rejected the temple cultus, maintaining that the Jewish people had killed the prophets and ‘the righteous one’ (Acts 7:52). In I Thessalonians 2:15 Paul himself makes the same charge against the Jews. In the same verse he shows how far he has departed from Judaism, for he claims that the Jews have persecuted him and (picking up common Graeco-Roman complaints against them) states that they do not please God and are hostile towards all. Paul’s relation to Judaism lacks equilibrium, as one might expect. In Philippians 3:4-6 he describes his life as a Jew not without some pride but then says that he counts it all as loss. On the other hand, in II Corinthians 11:22 and Romans 11:1 he makes no apology for being, and remaining, a Hebrew and an Israelite. And the whole of Romans 9 --11 is devoted to trying to understand God’s plan for the salvation of Israel.
The clearest explanation of his ambivalent attitude seems to lie in I Corinthians 9:19-23.
Being free from all, I enslaved myself to all,
so that I might win more of them.
To the Jews I became like a Jew,
so that I might win Jews;
to those under the law, like one under the law
(though I am not under the law),
so that I might win those under the law;
to those without the law, like one without the law
(though not without the law, but under Christ’s law),
so that I might win those without the law;
to the weak I became weak,
so that I might win the weak;
I became everything to everyone,
so that I might be sure of winning some.
On the basis of this statement one might infer that ambivalence, at least externally, lies at the heart of Paul’s mission activity. Many of his difficulties with the Corinthian and Galatian churches seem to have arisen because his converts could not understand his attitude. Their confusion is not surprising when we find Paul stating to the Corinthians that he pleases all men in every respect (I Cor. 10:33) and to the Galatians that if he pleased men he would not be a slave of Christ (Gal. 1:10).
This is to say that the key to understanding Paul is not to be found by seeking for consistency in his life or in his thought. It is to be found only where he himself found it, in his new relationship to Christ. One must take seriously his words about his experiencing an extreme tension between willing the good and doing the good (Gal. 5:17; Rom. 7:13-25), whether or not he is explicitly referring to himself. The only solution for this tension (‘who will deliver me ?’, Rom. 7:24) he found in the work and the person of Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:25) and in the gift of the Spirit. Paul did everything on account of the gospel, in order to become a sharer in it’ (I Cor. 9:23); he was strong enough to do everything because of the one who gave him power (Phil. 4:13).
To put it very simply, Paul’s conversion gave his life a meaning and a direction it had not possessed before. In this sense it was a new life, a new creation. ‘What was gain for me I count as loss because of Christ. I count everything as loss because of the profit of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord, for whom I lost everything; and I count it as refuse so that I may gain Christ and be found in him not having a righteousness of my own based on the law but the righteousness which is through faith in Christ, righteousness which comes from God and is based on faith -- to know him and the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings . .’ (Phil. 3:7-10). This is Paul’s final statement about the meaning of his conversion.
After Paul’s conversion, he says, he did not take counsel with anyone; instead, he went away to Arabia, presumably south-west of the Dead Sea, and later returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:16-17). Presumably he spent this time in prayer and meditation, trying to determine what God’s plan for him was. Only after three years had passed did he go up to Jerusalem, where he stayed for a fortnight with Peter and also encountered James, the Lord’s brother (1:18-19). It is significant that these two men are the only ones whose names Paul mentions as witnesses to the resurrection in I Corinthians 15:5-7 (cf. also 9:5). They can hardly have failed to discuss the significance of this event. But they were undoubtedly aware of the difficulties which Paul would create in Judaea were he to preach the gospel there, and for this reason he remained apart from the local churches. They heard of his conversion and thanked God for it, but they did not see him in person (1:22-4). At that point he went away to ‘the regions of Syria and Cilicia’. According to Acts (9:27-30) he was introduced to the apostles by Barnabas; after disputations with the ‘Hellenists’ (presumably Greek-speaking Jews) he was taken to Cilicia so that he would not be put to death.
Of these early years of Paul’s Christian work we know very little. There is no reason to suppose that when he mentioned Arabia he meant Qumran. A little information about Damascus does not tell us much, but it does show that there Paul was creating such a disturbance that the ‘ethnarch’ of Aretas, king of Nabataea, tried to arrest him; he escaped by being let down through the city wall in a basket (II Cor. 11:32-3; cf. Acts 9:23-5).
Apparently it was not until a gentile mission was under way at Antioch that Barnabas brought Paul from Tarsus to participate in it (Acts 11:19-26). The rather vague chronology of Acts suggests that this event occurred about the year 46, but it could be somewhat earlier. By the end of a year’s preaching, Paul had become one of five leading ‘prophets and teachers’ at Antioch (13:1). With Barnabas he was sent to visit Jerusalem; with Barnabas he was sent on a mission to the north-west.
The sermon which Luke records as coming from this mission (Acts 13:16-41) is presumably typical of the approach made by Christian to non-Christian Jews. Beginning with the Exodus, it briefly sketches Israel’s history through Judges and Kings and passes from David to the Saviour descended from David. After a brief summary of the work of Jesus, the preacher quotes Old Testament texts in proof of the truth of his message. In consequence, he arouses the interest of ‘many of the Jews and of the devout proselytes’.
Another encounter, however, resulted in bitter argument, and Paul and Barnabas concluded that, while the word of God had to be spoken first to Jews, they should now turn to the gentiles (13:44-7). This picture of the gradual development of a gentile mission may not seem to be in harmony with Paul’s picture of himself as called to be an apostle to gentiles. But it agrees with the view he presents in Romans; the gospel was for the Jew first, then to the Greek (1:16; 2:9-10). Moreover, in the theological statements he provides in his letters there is practically no mention of ‘secondary causes’ or occasional circumstances. There is no reason to assume that one must accept either Paul or Acts alone.
The correlation of Acts with Paul’s letters becomes especially important when we investigate the nature of his preaching to the gentiles. The book of Acts contains two samples of Paul’s preaching in the gentile world. The first is Paul’s address to the Lycaonians, just after his healing of a lame man resulted in the crowd’s acclamation of him and Barnabas as the gods Hermes and Zeus. Paul explains to these people that the apostles are men like them, but men with a mission. He calls upon them to turn from their ‘vain gods’ to the living God, the creator. In previous generations God has left the gentiles without revelation, only intimating his power by his gift of rain and of the seasons which produce food and consequent gladness for men (Acts 14:15-17). Unfortunately we do not know how this sermon would have ended; at this point it was interrupted by the arrival of Jews from neighbouring cities. The second sermon we have is Paul’s longer address to philosophers and others at Athens. Here too he stresses the work of God as creator and preserver of the world and of mankind, and attacks idolatry, but concludes with the proclamation of the coming judgement of the world by a man whom he has raised from the dead. Paul’s mention of resurrection divides his audience. Some ridicule the notion while others express the desire to hear about it some other time (Acts 17:22-32).
The general outline of these two sermons is confirmed by Paul’s own statement describing the conversion of the Christians at Thessalonica (I Thess. 1:9-10). Paul reminds his readers ‘how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and real God, and to wait for his Son from the heavens, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.’ This statement gives us a full and clear picture of early Christian mission preaching, or so it seems at first glance. As in Lycaonia and at Athens, the Christian missionary has first of all to convince his hearers of the meaninglessness and futility of idolatry, idolatry which meant not only the actual worship of images of the gods but also the whole range of pagan religion. Idolatry has been attacked by the Old Testament prophets, especially the Second Isaiah, and it was the chief target of Palestinian and Hellenistic Jewish criticism. For the gods of Greece and Rome and of the orient were essentially human. The myths about them had long been a source of scandal, especially to Greek philosophers, who devoted much time to explaining away their immorality and their weaknesses. The ordinary educated man of Paul’s time would be ready to hear that the gods as gods did not exist. He might be inclined to argue that they represented powers of nature, possibly the elements. But he would be unlikely to claim that the stories of mythology were literally true or that the images of the gods were actually in any way divine. Some people, of course, would uphold the old religions; but perhaps these people were not often converted to Christianity.
Paul was not content to attack the old without proclaiming the new. He did not destroy the false without mentioning the true. And in the religious vacuum produced by the demolition of idols, he urged his hearers to turn to ‘the living and real God’. Here, of course, he gives us only a summary. We must go on to ask what this ‘living and true God’ was, or rather who he was. In order to convince the Thessalonians of the livingness and reality of God he must have passed beyond philosophy, beyond general revelation, to tell them of the God of the Old Testament, the God who had created the world, who directed human history, who worked in human history. He may have told them something of God’s choice of the patriarchs, especially Abraham, and of his saving of the old Israel in the Exodus. He must have pointed to the miraculous breaking in of God’s power in human life, perhaps or even probably to God’s revelation made to Paul himself. And in dealing with God’s work in history he cannot have been silent about God’s moral demand. The prophets who speak of human history also denounce human disobedience, and Paul would have to tell his hearers what this disobedience was. We shall return to this point a little later. For the present it is enough to say that the first and primary point of Paul’s preaching, the point on which all else depends, is not the Messiahship of Jesus, or his resurrection, or his coming again, but the reality of the living God, the Lord of creation, the governor of history, the saviour of men.
But the second point is closely related to the first. The early gentile Christian is called not only to serve God but to await the coming of his Son. Here the gentile would at first feel that he was on familiar ground. There were many stories in antiquity about ‘divine men’ who had ascended into the heavens, even though there does not seem to have been any expectation that they would return. And the resurrection of an individual man was not absolutely unheard of, even though stories of resurrection were usually questioned by the educated. The real problem for the gentile convert arose not at this point but in relation to the statement that this particular ‘Son of God’ saves us from the wrath to come. Philosophical schools were nearly unanimous in holding that wrath was not a characteristic of the divine being. Because they were dealing with ancient myths which depicted the gods as angry in an excessively human way, they tried to interpret this anger away. The result was that educated men would actively resist the notion of divine wrath. It would have to be explained to them, and it would have to be shown that there was just cause for the coming of such wrath upon mankind.
In other words, Paul’s proclamation that ‘Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come’ would be largely meaningless to the audience he addressed unless he gave grounds for belief in such wrath, grounds which could move his hearers to the same belief. Where could he find such grounds? He could find them only in the moral demand, the ethical claim, made by the living God upon all mankind. He could not speak of the Jewish law delivered to Moses, for the apostolic church had already recognized that this law as such was not binding upon the gentiles. He would have to speak of universal moral law and of God’s unlimited demand upon all men. And this law, which is what he calls the ‘law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2), would have to be set before the gentiles in every possible way. Paul could express it in terms of the Decalogue, already regarded by Hellenistic Jews as the perfect presentation of the whole law of nature. He could use Jesus’ own summary of the second table of the Decalogue, the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:9). He could use lists of virtues and vices, invented by the Stoics but long utilized by Hellenistic Jews. He could use tables of household duties, duties of masters and slaves, husbands and wives, children and parents, already common in the Graeco-Roman world. He could use excerpts from the teaching of Jesus or of the prophets. In short, he would speak to the gentiles, as he says in I Thessalonians 4:1, of ‘how you must live and please God’. He would speak to them of ‘the will of God, your sanctification’ (I Thess. 4:3). For, as he goes on to say after speaking of sanctification, ‘the Lord is the judge concerning all these things.’
In other words, in order to make Paul’s gentile preaching comprehensible we must assume that it was not limited to the ‘apostolic preaching’. It must have included a proclamation about God and then about God’s moral demand. Paul’s gospel was not only ‘preaching’ but also what he calls ‘teaching’ (Rom. 16:17). This teaching was probably not very explicit at first. Paul might well have preached to gentiles a sermon in essence like what we find in Romans 1:18-2:16. This sermon deals with the goodness of creation and the revelation of the creator. All men worshipped the creation, however, instead of the creator, and the result was the universality of sin. Whether the teaching was fully worked out or not, such teaching must have been a central part of the proclamation of the gospel to the gentiles. Only if men were convicted of sin could they be convinced of salvation.
This problem can be approached in a different way. What little we know of early Christian baptism shows plainly enough that it involved the confession of sins, washing in water, and the remission of sins, as well as the acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord. But without some previous proclamation of God’s moral demand, how could the gentile convert have known what to confess? How could he have known what sins were being remitted? It seems obvious that moral teaching must have been a central part of the mission to the gentile world.
Baptism was never a rite which automatically ensured immortality or automatically produced perfection. The Christian missionary proclaimed God’s moral demand before baptism but he continued to proclaim the demand afterwards, since there was nothing automatic about baptism. And it is therefore quite likely that the moral teaching of the Pauline epistles, addressed to Christians, does not differ greatly from what these converts were told before baptism or even before conversion.
On the basis of these sermons in Acts and of Paul’s descriptions of the apostolic gospel, we conclude that the ‘apostolic preaching’ about Jesus does not give an adequate picture of the Christian gospel. And we must add that the four gospels and the epistles, taken together, still leave the gospel imperfectly and inadequately described. If we remind ourselves that the Old Testament was essentially the Bible of the early Church, we still fail to understand how the Old Testament was used. It is a very big book. The Christian preacher must have provided his hearers with excerpts from it or, more probably, summaries of what he considered central. And what he considered central was not simply texts about the Messiah. It must have been teaching about the work of the living and real God and the moral demand which this God made upon all men without exception.
The preaching to gentiles, then, was not precisely identical with that addressed to Jews or to sympathizers with Judaism. To gentiles it was necessary to set forth the oneness and the power -- in short, the reality -- of God, and the nature of his moral demand, laid upon Jews and gentiles alike. This is not to say that the apostles to gentiles were concerned with philosophical proofs of God’s existence, any more than the second-century apologists were. They were proclaiming the gospel, not conducting a philosophical discussion. In so far as their proclamation about God involved novelty, this aspect was to be found in their insistence upon an absolute monotheism. Philosophers might regard the many so-called gods and so-called lords (I Cor. 8:5) of paganism as imperfect symbols of the one god; Paul may even have known the saying of Antisthenes that ‘by convention there are many gods, by nature, one’ (cf. Gal. 4:8), but for him and for other Christians pagan worship was worship of ‘mute idols’ (I Cor. 12:2) or demons (10:20).
In making this proclamation, apostles to the gentiles followed lines already laid down in Hellenistic Judaism, as we can see from the works of Philo, Josephus and others. They proclaimed the unity and the power of the one God who was known by his self-revelation in the creation (Rom. 1:20). They reminded the gentiles of God’s moral demand ‘written in their hearts’ (2:15). Philo had already said that the gentiles worshipped the creation instead of the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25) and had militantly attacked gentile immorality (cf. 1:24-8). What was new in the apostles’ message was the proclamation of the crucified Christ (I Cor. 1:18-25); some converts, as at Corinth, could not grasp its meaning.
Jews and Greeks
From the book of Acts it is fairly evident that the admission of gentiles to the early Christian community involved a considerable time and a lengthy discussion. Acts depicts the mission in Samaria as the result of the scattering of Christians because of persecution after the death of Stephen; but no gentiles became converts. Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch who was already at least a sympathizer with Judaism. For Luke the crucial encounter was one which took place between Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius -- though Cornelius too was a sympathizer with Judaism who gave alms and observed regular hours of prayer. Because of a vision, Peter stayed and ate with him and, after recognizing that he had received the Holy Spirit, ordered him to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
At the same time some Jerusalem Christians who were by origin from Cyprus and Cyrene went to Antioch and made converts among the gentiles. Barnabas and other prophets from Jerusalem later joined the mission; but, still later, Christians from Judaea came to Antioch and stated that there was no salvation without circumcision. Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to state the gentile case, and there they met Christian Pharisees who argued not only for circumcision but also for observance of the law of Moses.
Under the guidance of Peter and James, a council of apostles and elders reached a compromise solution. Neither circumcision nor observance of the whole law was to be required; instead, gentile converts were to abstain from ‘meats offered to idols, blood, things strangled, and fornication’ (Acts 15:29). These commandments are probably based on the holiness code in Leviticus and combine minimal dietary regulations with matrimonial injunctions (Lev. 15:19 -24; 18:19; 18:6-18). Gentile converts are regarded as equivalent to the ‘sojourning strangers’ mentioned in Leviticus.
In Galatians 2:1-10 we seem to have an account of the same conference from a rather different point of view. Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem chiefly for a private discussion with the ‘pillars’ of the church there -- James and Peter and John. Other ‘false brethren’ managed to slip in to the conference, but Paul did not yield to them for a moment. The pillars recognized Paul’s ministry to the gentiles as analogous to that of Peter to the Jews, and agreed that Paul and Barnabas were to go to the gentiles while the others continued the Jewish mission. In order to bind the churches together they insisted that Paul and Barnabas should ‘remember the poor’ or, in other words, take up a collection for the Jerusalem church (cf. I Cor. 16:1-3; II Cor. 8-9; Rom. 15:25-6).
The division of mission work into that to gentiles and that to Jews obviously implies some kind of jurisdictional decision, not mentioned in Acts and, in fact, contradicted in Acts 17:1-3, 18:4 -5, 19; and 19:8. Paul himself recognizes the existence of various jurisdictions (II Cor. 10:13-16; Rom. 15:20), and he insists that his mission is primarily to gentiles; but he does not believe that Jews can be segregated from gentiles.
In fact, empirical experience has shown how impossible segregation is. After the conference, Peter came to Antioch and at first ate with gentile Christians; then emissaries arrived from James, and Peter and other Jewish Christians (including even Barnabas) withdrew from table fellowship. The situation was intolerable. At a meeting of the whole church, Paul said to Peter, ‘If you, as a Jew, live in gentile fashion, not Jewish, how is it that you are forcing the gentiles to keep Jewish customs?’ Peter’s answer is not recorded (Gal. 2:11-14). The separation of jurisdictions made no sense when one of the primary proclamations of the gospel was that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, and when churches outside Judaea were made up of members who had accepted this doctrine.
If the separation of Jewish and gentile missions proved unworkable, we must also ask what happened to the decree of the apostolic council. According to Acts 15:30-3 the decree was delivered at Antioch not only by Paul and Barnabas but also by the Jerusalem prophets Judas and Silas; Silas accompanied Paul in Syria, into Cilicia, and even into Galatia, where they delivered the decree (15:40 –16:4). Delivery in Galatia was a work of supererogation, since the decree was addressed only to gentile brethren in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (15:23), but according to Acts 21:25 James regarded it as applying to gentiles in general.
Was the decree actually set forth in the Pauline churches? Certainly Paul never refers to it in his letters, but we must remember that they contain only a small part of his teaching. Perhaps we should expect to find it mentioned in Galatians, but the problem there has nothing to do with the decree; it is related to the advocacy of circumcision which the decree was supposed to prevent. Paul’s letters have to do with specific problems not always, or indeed often, related to the decree. However, it would appear that his discussion of sanctification as abstention from fornication and from unclean lust (I Thess. 4:3-7) is close to the matrimonial injunctions of the decree, and in I Corinthians 5:1-5 he condemns a man who has violated the regulation of Leviticus 18:8. The lengthy discussion of meats sacrificed to idols in I Corinthians 8--10 is in harmony with the apostolic decree, and Paul says that the Corinthians are to give no offence to Jews (10:32). The same view is expressed in Romans 14.
It looks, then, as if Paul actually continued to teach the commandments of the apostolic decree, though he did so on grounds different from those advocated at Jerusalem. Its injunctions remained effective in Jewish Christianity, as we can see in Revelation 2:14 and 20, as well as in the Clementine literature and elsewhere.
In the West, however, the decree was reinterpreted. By dropping the mention of ‘things strangled’ and by adding the Golden Rule, the decree assumed a form in which it could be understood as a more general moral command. In this form it is quoted by Irenaeus; without the addition of the Golden Rule it also appears in the writings of Tertullian, Cyprian and Jerome. This alteration reflects the gradual abandonment of the mediating position held by the council; it reflects the altered circumstances of the later Church.