September 30: Revelation 7:9-17

Revelation 7:9-17

Rev 7:9-10

Verse 9 begins with words similar to the opening of verse 1, indicating that these are two halves of a single visionary scene:

With [i.e. after] these (thing)s, I saw, and see! a throng (of) many (people), which no one is able to number, out of every nation—and (all) offshoots [i.e. tribes] and peoples and tongues—having taken (their) stand in the sight of the ruling-seat and in the sight of the Lamb, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress and (with) palm branches in their hands, and they cried (out) with a great voice, saying: ‘The salvation (is) to our God, the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and to the Lamb!'” (vv. 9-10)

The image of believers—those who are “able to stand” in the great Judgment (6:17)—begins with those sealed out of the twelve tribes of Israel (vv. 4-8, cf. the previous note), and concludes with a throng of people out of every nation, language, and ethnic group, etc. The relationship between these two will be discussed further below. First it is necessary to examine how this second “group” of believers is described here in vv. 9ff.

    • “cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress”—this corresponds with the traditional description of heavenly/angelic beings (4:4; 19:14), as well as the heavenly reward/status promised to believers in 3:4-5, 18.
    • “(with) palm-branches in their hands”—the palm branch symbolized victory in Greco-Roman tradition (Virgil Aeneid 5:112; Livy Roman History 10.47.3; Plutarch Moralia 723-4; Pliny Natural History 17.244; Caesar Civil War 3.105, etc; cf. Koester, p. 420), and was recognized by Jews as well (1 Macc 13:37, 51; 2 Macc 10:7; 14:4; Philo On the Unchangableness of God §137). In John’s version of the Triumphal Entry scene, palm branches are used (Jn 12:13), presumably to greet Jesus as the (conquering) Messiah.
    • The song they sing is similar to that of the heavenly beings in chaps. 4-5, and reflects the same dual emphasis of the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) standing alongside God on His throne. It also indicates the same position of homage and adoration, in which the salvation believers have experienced is “given back” to God (and Christ), recognizing Him as its source. Ascribing salvation to God (that is, as coming from Him, or belonging to Him) is part of the Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:18; 1 Sam 2:1; Psalm 3:8; 27:1; 38:22, etc).
Rev 7:11-12

The song by the believers effectively joins that of the heavenly throng (chaps. 4-5), and the heavenly beings around the throne of God answer in return, with a new refrain. On the language used here, cf. 4:9-10f; 5:9-14; in particular, the wording of the song in v. 12 echoes 4:11 and 5:12-13. Significantly, seven words are strung together, symbolizing the praise that is worthy of Deity.

Rev 7:13-14

The identity of the great throng clothed in white (vv. 9-10) is addressed here, by way of a leading question from one of the heavenly “Elders”. Such an exchange reflects similar episodes in Old Testament and Apocalyptic tradition—cf. Ezek 37:3; 40:3-4; Zech 1:8; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3-4ff, etc; Koester, p. 420.

Elder: “These the (one)s cast about [i.e. clothed] with white dress—who are they and (from) where did they come?”
John: “My lord, you have seen [i.e. you know].” (cf. Ezek 37:3)
Elder: “These are the (one)s coming out of the great distress/oppression [qli/yi$], and they washed their dress and made the (garment)s white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Here the emphasis is on their white garments. The word stolh/ is often translated “robe”, but fundamentally it refers to any sort of (special) clothing or dress, used to indicate position, honor, etc. The white garments reflect the dress of heavenly/divine beings (cf. above), which believers receive as a sign of honor and victory (i.e. heavenly reward). Now, however, the color is given a particular significance, which is two-fold:

    • they have come out of “the great distress/oppression”
    • they have washed (i.e. rinsed under flowing water) their garments “in the blood of the Lamb”

Previously, the blood of the Lamb was tied to sacrifice—i.e. Jesus’ death in terms of (a) Passover, (b) the offering at the establishment of the covenant, and (c) a sin/guilt offering. Only the last of these is really in view here, with the distinctive idea of cleansing (i.e. from sin). Obviously, blood is antithetical or paradoxical as a symbol for cleansing, but it may relate to concepts of atonement (wiping out/off) through blood in ancient religious traditions—cf. Gen 9:6, etc. There was a sacred quality associated with blood, it could be used in religious ritual to consecrate people or objects (Exod 24:6, 8; 29:12ff; Levit 8, etc). The connection with washing is perhaps drawn more directly from Gen 49:11, as a Messianic prophecy (cf. Rev 5:5). Since these believers have come out of the time of great distress, which includes persecution and killing of believers (6:9-11), it is possible that here blood specifically refers to believers who are put to death for their faith. While this allusion is likely, the reference here should not be limited to that interpretation. According to basic early Christian teaching, all believers are cleansed through Jesus’ blood (Rom 3:25; 5:9; 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:13-14ff; 10:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5, etc). Moreover, the obvious parallel with baptism likewise would apply to believers generally.

Some comment is required regarding the expression “the great distress/oppression” (h( qli/yi$ h( mega/lh). Under the now-traditional designation “Great Tribulation”, this expression has very much taken on a life of its own, especially among Dispensationalist commentators. We must, however, be careful not to wrench it too quickly out of its context here, within the vision-cycle of the seven seals. Limiting it this way, at least for the moment, it must refer generally to the visions described for the first six seals, which we may summarize (again) as:

    • Seals 1-4, the four horses and riders—a period of intense warfare among the nations, resulting in disruption of the social order, culminating in hunger, disease and death.
    • Seal 5—persecution of believers, resulting in many being put to death
    • Seal 6—cosmic disruption of the natural order, marking the appearance of God to bring Judgment

As I noted previously, this sequence generally parallels that of Jesus’ sayings in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:7-8, 9-13, 24-25 par). There, too, it is described in terms of great distress and suffering (the word qli/yi$ being used in vv. 19, 24). Jesus also ties this period to the choosing/election of believers (vv. 19-20, 27), as here in Rev 7:4-9ff, though without the specific image of sealing. It is customary for many Christians today to view this period (the “Great Tribulation”) as a time which has not yet come—i.e. many centuries after the author’s time. While this is understandable, it is hard to find support for such an interpretation, and certainly not based on what we have seen thus far through the first six chapters of the book, where the language of imminence is used throughout (Rev 1:1, 3, 7, 19; 2:5, 16; 3:3, 10-11, 20). Indeed, 3:10 refers to “the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole inhabited (world)”. There is little, if any, indication that this “hour of testing” is anything other that the time of “great distress” mentioned in 7:14. The entire issue of imminent eschatology in the New Testament will be addressed in a special article, as part of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”

Rev 7:15-17

This answer by the Elder suddenly turns into a kind of poem, or hymn, which echoes that of v. 12 (also in chaps. 4-5), and serves as a fitting conclusion to the vision:

“Through this they are in the sight of the ruling-seat of God and do service for Him day and night in His shrine, and the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat will stretch (out His) tent upon them. They will not yet hunger (any more), and will not yet thirst (any more), and (certainly) the sun shall not fall upon them, and not (either) any burning (heat), (in) that [i.e. because] the Lamb (standing) up in the middle of the ruling-seat will herd them and will lead the way for them upon fountains of waters of life, and God will wipe out every tear out of their eyes.”

The language of verse 15 brings out two motifs drawn from Israelite religious tradition:

    • Believers serving as priests (cf. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6), day and night, in the sanctuary—both of the Temple, and, more particularly, of the older Tent-shrine (Tabernacle)
    • The Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) indicating God’s presence, and the protection which that brings

Verses 16-17 also allude to a number of key passages in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8. The motif of the Lamb serving as a shepherd for the people, is primarily Messianic, by way of Ezek 34:23-24, etc. Both the shepherd-image and the idea of God’s sanctuary/dwelling among his people, are combined in Ezek 37:24-28. The exalted Jesus (the Lamb) is recognized as the Messiah, but also, through his divine status/position at the right hand of God, he fulfills the same life-giving and protecting role as God Himself. Jesus identifies himself similarly as a shepherd at various points in the Gospel tradition (Mark 14:27 par; John 10:1-18; cf. also Matt 2:6; 10:6; 15:24; Mark 6:34 par; Luke 15:3ff; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Heb 13:20).

Concluding note on the two “groups” in vv. 4-17

The distinction in this passage—believers from the people of Israel and those from all the nations—would seem to reflect two themes in early Christian eschatology taken over from Jewish tradition, and which ultimately stem from the Old Testament Prophets (esp. the book of Isaiah):

    1. The Restoration of Israel. At the end time, the twelve tribes will be regathered from their dispersal among the nations, forming a new Israel, centered back at Judah/Jerusalem. Among the many passages note: Isa 11:12; 43:5-6; 49:5-6; Jer 29:14; 31:8-10; Ezek 11:17; 34:13; 36:24; 47-48; Zech 10:8-10; Sirach 36:11; 48:10; Tobit 13:5; 2 Macc 2:18; Jubilees 1:15-17; Psalms of Solomon 11; 17:28-31. Related to this theme is the idea that the restoration will involve a faithful remnant, or portion of the people—Amos 3:12; Zeph 3:11-13; Mic 2:12; Isa 10:19-22; 11:11ff; Jer 23:3, etc. Early Christians seem to have shared this latter idea with the Qumran Community—i.e., they represented the faithful remnant of Israel (Rom 9:27-29; 11:5ff).
    2. The Inclusion of the Gentiles. Along with the restoration of Israel, at the end time the nations (i.e. Gentiles) also would come to Jerusalem and be included among the people of God. This belief was fundamental to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, but was reflected already in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition—e.g., Mic 4:1-5 (par Isa 2:2-4); Isa 49:5-6; 56:3-8; 60:3-7ff; 66:18-24; Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Tobit 13:11; 14:6f.

As I noted above, it is possible that here the book of Revelation expresses and eschatological view similar to that of Paul in Rom 9-11, and that the portion sealed from the tribes of Israel, with its symbolic number of completeness (12 x 1000), is more or less equivalent to Paul’s statement regarding “all Israel” (Rom 11:26). As Paul describes this end-time conversion of Israelites (vv. 25-27), it suggests a sudden and miraculous event, which could be comparably expressed through God’s sealing of the 144,000 in Rev 7:4-8. Along with this large number of Jewish believers, there is an even larger number of believers from among the nations; Paul doubtless envisioned this as well (10:18; 11:11ff, 25). Both “groups” together—Jews and Gentiles as believers in Christ—make up the true, complete people of God.

The Law in Luke-Acts, Part 2: The Mission to the Gentiles

The Mission to the Gentiles

In this part (cf. the earlier Pt 1), I will explore the Law in the book of Acts in terms of the early Christian Mission to the Gentiles, as presented in chapters 10-14, along with a specific discussion of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in chapter 15.

The Early Mission into the Gentile World

This will be treated, rather briefly, under several headings:

    • Missionary Themes and Motifs in the early chapters
    • Conflict with Judaism
    • The Cornelius episode in Acts 10-11
    • The (first) Missionary Journey of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-14)

Missionary Themes and Motifs (in Acts 1-9)

Acts 1:8—Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples (according to the narrative of Luke-Acts) emphasizes the worldwide character (i.e. into all the Greco-Roman world) of the eventual Christian mission; it fairly well serves as a summary of book of Acts itself:

“and you will receive power of the holy Spirit coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses—in Yerushalaim and [in] all Yehudah and Shomrôn, and until the end(s) of the earth

Cf. also the declaration in Luke 24:47 that the Gospel (repentence and forgivness of sins) “should be proclaimed in his [i.e. Jesus’] name unto all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.

Acts 1:15-26ff—As I have argued previously, the reconstitution of the Twelve, and the united presence of the believers together in one place in Jerusalem (2:1ff), are symbolic of the (end-time) restoration of Israel—an important theme in the early chapters of Acts. This idea of the (post-exilic) restoration of the twelve tribes, gathered from among the nations, was typically described in eschatological language, both in the Old Testament Prophets and subsequent Jewish tradition; often this involved, in some manner, the inclusion of Gentiles—see especially in the book of Isaiah (Deutero-Trito Isa 45:22; 49:5-6; 56:6-8; 60:3-7; 66:18-19ff), and cf. also Mic 4:1-2 (Isa 2:2-3); Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Tobit 14:6.

Acts 2:4ff—There are echoes of the ancient Babel tradition (confusion of tongues) in the Pentecost narrative (the confusion created by the disciples speaking in tongues), a point I have demonstrated as well in prior studies. The hearing of the Word of God in the languages of the nations also reflects Jewish traditions surrounding the Sinai revelation (trad. set at Pentecost, cf. Exod 19:1). The reversal of the division of language (representing fundamental division of the nations), is also an eschatological motif (e.g. Zeph 3:9) which admirably serves the theme of the mission to the Gentiles in Acts.

Acts 2:5-11—The list of nations (set in the mouth of the crowd, as a literary/dramatic device) covers much of the territory of the Roman empire and its environs (i.e. the known world at the time). Even though these are Jews dwelling or residing in Jerusalem, they still represent the nations. The symbolism is two-fold: (1) the Jews returning to Jerusalem/Judah from the nations, and (2) the nations coming to Jerusalem to hear the word of God—both are important eschatological themes (see above) and foreshadow the mission into the Gentile world. For additional references to the universality of the Christian mission in Peter’s subsequent sermon-speeches, see Acts 2:21, 39; 3:25; 4:12.

Acts 6:1-6—This brief traditional narrative (which sets the stage for the story of Stephen in 6:8-8:1) indicates the influence of “Hellenists” (Jewish believers who exclusively, or primarily, speak and read Greek) in the early congregation. Some of these believers may have come from the Diaspora (2:5-11, 14, 41; cf. 6:9ff), that is from among the nations; all of the Seven (6:5-6) have Greek names, and at least one (Nikolaos) is described as a proselyte (Gentile convert to Judaism). This socio-religious dynamic may have contributed to the opposition to Stephen, and the charges against him (6:11-14). The ‘anti-Temple’ elements in his speech (in 7:35-50, cf. below) especially seem to point toward the wider Gentile mission—note the similarity of language in Paul’s speech at Athens (17:22-29). Following Stephen’s execution, the onset of persecution causes the believers to be scattered (a new Dispersion) out of Judea (8:4ff; 11:19) and into the Gentile world.

Acts 8:26ff—It is not clear whether the Ethiopian official (‘eunuch’) is a Diaspora Jew, a proselyte, or simply an interested Gentile (a ‘God-fearer’). The ambiguity may be intentional; at any rate, he holds a place (in the narrative framework) between the Diaspora Jews of 2:5-11 and the Gentile God-fearer Cornelius (chs. 10-11), and, as such, his encounter with Philip is set at the threshold of the mission to the Gentiles.

Acts 9:15—The visionary words (of Jesus) to Paul specifically declare that he “is to take up (and carry) my name in the eyes of (the) nations…”, directly emphasizing (for the first time in Acts) a mission to the Gentiles.

Conflict with Judaism

Issues related to the Law (Torah) in Acts occur within the framework of these two historical and narrative themes: (1) the mission to the Gentiles, and (2) early Christian conflicts with Judaism. Interestingly, for the most part, the conflicts with Judaism are not specifically tied to the Gentile mission.

Appearances before the Sanhedrin—There are three episodes where believers are taken into custody and brought before the Jewish council (“Sanhedrin”) in Jerusalem, in Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-41; and 6:8-8:1. There is a similar narrative arc to each of these episodes, increasing in severity, leading ultimately to the mob-execution of Stephen. The reasons indicated for the believers being taken into custody are as follows:

    • The priests and Sadducees were worried/troubled because the believers were proclaiming resurrection from the dead in Jesus (4:1-2)
    • The High priest, and those with him (identified as Sadducees), were “filled up with hot (zeal/jealousy)”, presumably because of the popular effect and success of the early Christian preaching (5:17)
    • Hellenist Jews who disputed with Stephen secretly gathered supporters and stirred up the crowd against him with (slanderous) claims (6:11); this leads to an action by the Council, with charges (apparently brought by false witnesses), 6:12-14.

The Sanhedrin action is clearest in the case of Stephen, with a ‘trial’ setting that has a number of definite similarities with the ‘trial’ of Jesus. The charges are related to those against Jesus as well (cf. 6:14; Mark 14:58 par), but they also look forward to the claims brought against Paul at his arrest in Jerusalem (21:28). With regard to Stephen and Paul, the claim is that they speak against the Law and the Temple. There is no indication that Stephen spoke against the Law, but there are anti-Temple sentiments in his speech (7:35-50) (on this, see my discussion in the series on the Speeches of Acts). In the book of Acts, Paul says nothing opposing the Law or the Temple (the closest we find is in 13:39); in fact, the author takes care in the narrative to indicate that this is not true of Paul (cf. 21:20-24ff). Elsewhere, in Galatians (and parts of Romans), Paul’s line of argument certainly could be (and doubtless was) understood by many Jews (and Jewish Christians) as being “against the Law”.

Opposition to Paul’s Mission Work—This is described already in chapter 9, following his conversion, in response to his early preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem (9:22-25, 29-30). During the story of his missionary journeys in Acts, the Jewish opposition is a (stereo)typical element in the narrative, with little attempt to flesh it out in detail; a definite pattern emerges, which is doubtless both historical and literary:

Even though Jewish opposition gradually leads to Paul focusing more on outreach to Gentiles, this mission does not appear to be the basis of the opposition. As in 5:17, the reason typically given is jealousy (13:45; 17:5), apparently due to the success of his preaching with other Jews and Gentile proselytes/God-fearers (in the synagogue setting). However, there certainly were substantive religious objections as well, as we see described (in seminal form) in 9:22-23:

“but Saul [Paul] was much more empowered and threw together the Jews (in confusion) [i.e. confounded them]…bringing together (points to show) that this (one) [i.e. Jesus] is the Anointed.
And as [i.e. after] sufficient days were filled up, the Jews consulted/decided together to take him away [i.e. to kill him]…”

See also the charge brought against him in Corinth (18:12), which is similar in tone and substance (even if presented maliciously) in 21:28. Thus we find three sources of opposition:

    • Jealousy with regard to the success of Paul’s mission
    • Paul’s (effective) proclamation and demonstration that Jesus is the Anointed One (“Messiah”)
    • The view, whether or not accurate to any extent, that Paul teaches against the Law

The last of these relates more directly to the Gentile mission, as we see also in the core narratives of chapters 10-11 and 15; in these episodes, however, as in Galatians, the opposition comes from Jewish Christians.

The Cornelius Episode (Acts 10-11)

I have already discussed this in detail as part of the series on the Speeches of Acts; here I will only highlight the most salient points:

    • Cornelius is identified as a devout “God-fearer”—i.e. a Gentile who follows Jewish belief, ethics and tradition (at least in part), is sympathetic and supportive of Judaism, faithful in prayer and charitable giving, etc. This is important in that it sets the initial mission to the Gentiles within a Jewish context. Cf. also the central episode of 13:13-52.
    • Central to the narrative of chapter 10 is Peter’s vision (vv. 9-16), which effectively abolishes the dietary restrictions involving clean and unclean animals (cf. Lev 11; Deut 14:4-20). When Peter objects to the divine command to slay and eat from both clean and unclean animals (vv. 13-14), the heavenly voice declares bluntly: “that which God (has) made clean you must not treat as common” (v. 15). The importance of this scene (and the difficulty surrounding it) is indicated by the fact that Peter narrates it a second time in chapter 11:5-11.
    • There are two levels of meaning to Peter’s vision: (1) literal, abolishing the dietary restriction (involving clean and unclean animals), and (2) symbolic, abolishing the ethno-religious distinction between Jew and Gentile. It is the latter interpretation that is in view in 10:28; however, it is hard to see how the plain sense of verse 15 can be ignored or denied—if valid, then it is the first instance in Acts where regulations from the Torah are abolished (or re-interpreted) in a Christian context. While the consequences of this view are not dealt with specifically in Acts, they seem to underlie the episode in Galatians 2:11-14, and would clearly be a practical concern in Jewish-Gentile relations in the mission field.
    • Peter accepts the invitation and visits Cornelius, entering his house, despite the basic religious objection voiced in 10:28: “it is not proper/lawful [i.e. against custom] (for) a Jewish man to join (with) or come toward another tribe/clan [i.e. race/nation]”—note the same basic objection, stated in more certain terms in 11:3 (“you went in toward men having foreskin [i.e. uncircumcised] and ate with them”).
    • The objection (11:3), from Jewish believers in Jerusalem, with regard to Peter’s action emphasizes two points: (a) circumcision and (b) Jews eating with Gentiles, which are central to the two main portions of chapter 15 respectively (cf. below).
    • Acceptance of Gentiles believers is confirmed by the miraculous work of God (10:44-46; 11:15-16); the question is whether Jewish believers would accept this (indicated by formal admission to baptism), 10:47-48; 11:17.
    • The narrative concludes with a fundamental acceptance that God has given to Gentiles salvation (“repentance unto [eternal] life”), 11:18.

The (first) Missionary Journey of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-14)

The missionary work of Paul and Barnabas was centered primarily within the Synagogue setting, preaching to Jews and Gentile proselytes or ‘God-fearers’ (13:5, 14ff, 44; 14:1); see especially the central sermon by Paul at Pisidian Antioch (13:13-52), discussed as part of the series on the Speeches of Acts. Note the following important details of the sermon:

    • The addresses in vv. 16, 26, 38 unite Jews and (Gentile) God-fearers under the label “brothers”
    • The promise to the Fathers (of Israel) is fulfilled to their children (Jews and Gentiles both) in Christ (v. 32-33)
    • Salvation and forgiveness are connected with freedom, and contrasted with the Law of Moses (vv. 38-39) (a theme developed more substantially by Paul in Galatians and Romans)
    • Paul emphasizes his (and Barnabas’) role as chosen missionaries to the Gentiles (vv. 46-48); note, in particular, the citation of Isaiah 49:6 in v. 47 (cf. also Luke 2:32).

This episode represents a shift in focus—both historically (of Paul’s) mission, and in terms of the narrative of Acts—toward the Gentiles. Even though Paul would continue to preach in the Synagogues, he and his co-workers would increasingly address Gentiles outside of a Jewish context. This is clearly narrated (for the first time) in 14:8-18 (cf. also 17:17b ff).

The “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15

Many critical questions and difficulties surround the narrative of Acts 15:1-35 (the so-called “Jerusalem Council”), which I am addressing (at least in part) in a supplemental article. Here, I wish to focus on the main issues involved, both from the standpoint of historical tradition, and the way this tradition has been understood and shaped within the narrative framework by the author of Acts (trad. Luke). The narrative can be divided into two main portions, which I treat here under the following headings:

    • What is not required of Gentile converts (15:1-21)
    • What is required of Gentile converts (15:22-35)

What is not required of Gentile converts (15:1-21)

The first half of the narrative can be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-5), which establishes the conflict and the primary issue involved
    • Speeches of Peter (vv. 6-11) and James (vv. 13-21), with a joining transition in verse 12—the speeches of these leading apostles provide an authoritative determination of the issue.

Both of these sections have been analyzed in considerable detail in the series on the Speeches of Acts. The narrative introduction is framed by statements in vv. 1 and 5 which set the conflict:

V. 1: Believers (“certain [ones]”) from Judea (to those in Antioch): “If you are not circumcised in the custom/practice of Moses, you are not able to be saved”
Western MSS add “and walk in the custom/practice of Moses”
V. 5: Certain believers from the Pharisees (to the rest of the [Jewish] believers in Jerusalem): “It is necessary to circumcise them [i.e. Gentile converts] and to give along the message (that they are) to keep the Law of Moses

Clearly observance of the (entire) Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) was at issue, but the main concern involved circumcision (also the principal question in Galatians). Interestingly, there is no record of the considerable debate, dispute and other discussion which must have taken place (summarized generally in vv. 6-7a, 12); rather, space is devoted entirely to the (positive) speeches of Peter and James:

  • Peter’s speech—Interpretation of recent events (conversion of Cornelius) as the work of God, confirmed by the miraculous gift of the Spirit, with no distinction between Jew and Gentile (vv. 7-9)
    • Determination: Observing the Law is referred to as a “yoke” which even Jews are not able to bear (thus it should not be forced upon Gentiles); rather we trust/believe that we all (Jew and Gentile alike) are saved by the favor/Grace of the Lord Jesus (v. 10-11) (there is a curious ‘Pauline’ ring to this which many commentators have noted)
  • James’ speech—Interpretation of Scripture (Amos 9:11-12), with its message of the (eschatological and ‘Messianic’) restoration of Israel (see above), applied to the Christian mission to the Gentiles (vv. 13-18)
    • Determination: His (authoritative) judgment is that Jewish believers should not “crowd in alongside” the Gentile converts, i.e. should not pressure or require them to observe the Law (v. 19)

What is required of Gentile converts (vv. 22-35)

The second half of the narrative follows an outline parallel to the first half:

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-5)
      • Speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21)
      • The Letter (from the Council) (vv. 22-29)
    • Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

Just as verses 1 and 5 frame the conflict in the Introduction, so verses 30 and 35 frame the resolution (with its setting in Antioch). The believers rejoice at the letter (v. 31), they are strengthened and encouraged (v. 32), and peace is restored (v. 33). There are interesting details in the letter itself (discussed in the supplemental article), but the basic thrust of it follows James’ own determination in verses 19-21, and indeed, the narrative as a whole:

    • Verse 24—in the narrative context this would refer to verse 1-2, though many critical scholars hold that it refers to a separate (later) conflict (such as in Gal 2:12ff).
    • Verses 25-27 repeat what is narrated in v. 22; though it is just as likely that v. 22 derives from the letter.
    • Verse 28 follows the judgment of Peter and James in vv. 10, 19.
    • Verse 29 follows James’ statement in vv. 20-21.

As it is verses 20-21, stating what is required for Gentiles to observe, relating to the Law (Torah) and Jewish religious custom, which provide the greatest interpretive difficulty for us today—and since they are vital to a proper understanding of the early Christian view of the Law (as recorded in Acts)—I am devoting a separate note specifically to discuss them.

Jews & Gentiles and the People of God

This is the first of several articles which will be posted periodically. The subject is so large, and the sensitivity surrounding it so great, that it must be approached with care (and some caution). I will be posting these articles to run parallel with another, related, exegetical study series on “The Law and the New Testament” (see the introduction). This initial article on “Jews & Gentiles and the People of God” follows several daily notes in which I examined the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2:1-13. I set forth as a fundamental theme of Acts 1-2 the Restoration of Israel (see the note for Pentecost Tuesday with a concluding follow-up note). Consider, especially, the parallel thematic structure of the narrative:

    • The disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel—the Twelve (reconstituted, Acts 1:15-26) and the wider group of around 120 (12 x 10) disciples—are united, coming together in one place (Acts 2:1)
      • where they experience the manifestation (power and presence) of the Spirit of God (parallel to the Sinai theophany)—esp. the tongues of fire, Acts 2:2-4
    • Jews from the surrounding nations, representing the dispersed twelve tribes of Israel, also come together in one place (Acts 2:5-6), eventually speaking together with a united voice (vv. 7-11)
      • where they too experience the manifestation of the Spirit (the “voice”, v. 6), as at Sinai, with the word (of God) heard being spoken in other tongues (i.e. their own languages), Acts 2:6-7ff

Note also a second parallel involving the nations (ta\ e&qnh):

    • Jews from the surrounding nations (where they had been dispersed) come together in Jerusalem
      • In the hearing of the separate languages of the nations they encounter and respond to the word of God (spoken by the disciples)—in so doing, they join with the 12/120 apostles/disciples to form a new, restored Israel
      • The disciples (who spoke the languages of the nations), are, in turn, dispersed out in to the surrounding nations (see esp. Acts 8:1-4; 11:19), where they proclaim the word of God (to Jews and Gentiles)
    • Jews and Gentiles in all the surrounding nations come together—as Israel and in Jerusalem (at the spiritual level)

To what extent can this second parallel be demonstrated as part of the original thought and purpose of the author of Acts (or his underlying tradition[s])? There are several passages where the mission to the Gentiles is clearly understood as fundamental to the “restoration of Israel”. Perhaps the most prominent is in the speech of James in Acts 15:13-21—there James cites Amos 9:11-12 in a most original and distinctive manner, tying the “rebuilt tent/booth of David” to the Gentile mission. I have discussed this passage in some detail in an earlier post.

Before proceeding to an introductory analysis of the basic idea of the “people of God”, it may be useful to survey some of the key eschatological references in the Old Testament prophets (and subsequent Jewish literature) where the role (and fate) of Gentiles in the end times is described. To begin with, let me reiterate two important aspects of the “restoration of Israel”, which I pointed out at the end of an earlier daily note (on the Pentecost narrative):

    1. The return of Israelites (Jews) from exile among the nations—this return is to the Promised Land, and, in particular, to Judah and Jerusalem.
    2. The Nations (Gentiles) come to Judah and Jerusalem, bringing tribute and/or worshiping the true God there.

The first aspect is an important and popular theme especially in the later Prophets (from the exilic/post-exilic periods), and, in particular, so-called deutero- and trito-Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66, generally regarded by critical scholars as stemming from this late period, though the matter remains much in dispute). Here is a sampling of some key Isaian passages: Isa 43:5ff; 44:21-28; 48:12-21; 49:5ff; 51:11; 52:2, 7-12; 54:2-8; 55:12-13; 56:1-8; and throughout chapters 60-66, esp. 66:18-24. The imagery and sentiment of these passages largely concurs with that found in exilic/post-exilic prophets such as Ezekiel (esp. chapters 34, 37 and 47-48) and Zechariah 9-14, though in those books the military side of the restoration (i.e. the defeat/conquest of the nations, cf. below) is already becoming more prominent. The motif of restoration/return appears frequently, of course, in subsequent Jewish writings—e.g., Tobit 14:5; 2 Maccabees 2:7; Jubilees, 1:15-17ff; Testament of Benjamin 9:2, etc (selection courtesy of Sanders, pp. 79-82, see below).

With regard to the second aspect, E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press [1985], p. 214) provides a convenient summary of select passages related to the role and fate of the Gentiles, which I present here in modified form (with expanded references):

“People of God”

In the Old Testament Scriptures, the precise phrase “people of God” (formally <yh!ýa$–h*— <u^, ±am (h¹)°§lœhîm) is actually quite rare (Judg 20:2; 2 Sam 14:13), with the similar expression “people of YHWH” (hw`hy+ <u^, ±am YHWH) a bit more common (Num 16:41; Deut 27:9; Judg 5:11, 13; 1 Sam 2:24; 2 Sam 1:12; 6:21; 2 Kings 9:6; Ezek 36:20; Zeph 2:10). However, Israel is referred to as God’s people many times, including numerous instances where the revelatory/prophetic voice of God refers to Israel as “my people”. These occur frequently in the context of the Exodus—Ex 3:7ff; 5:1; 7:4; 8:22-23; 9:17 (“let my people go”, 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20-21; 9:1, 13; 10:3-4); the status of Israel as God’s people is summarized in Ex 33:16. The emphasis of Israel as God’s people is often that of holiness, related to the idea of covenant obligation; this is particularly noteworthy in Deuteronomy—Deut 7:6f; 14:2; 28:9; 29:13, etc—and throughout the Deuteronomic history (e.g., 1 Sam 2:29; 9:16-17; 2 Sam 3:18; 5:2; 7:7-11; 1 Ki 6:13; 8:16; 16:20). For the theme of holiness, see especially Lev 11:45; 19:2; 26:12.

The address of “my people” occurs regularly as a complaint or admonishment in the Psalms and Prophets (Ps 50:7; 78:1; 81:8-13; Isa 1:3; 3:12; 5:13; 10:24; 26:20; Jer 2:11ff; 4:22; 6:26; 7:23; 8:7ff; 18:15; Amos 7:8ff; Mic 6:3ff. In Hosea, there is particular emphasis upon the identity of Israel as God’s people, as the message fluctuates between one of condemnation and a promise of future restoration (Hos 1:9-10; 2:1, 23; 4:6, 8, 12; 6:11; 11:17). Indeed “my people” proves to be an important keynote, in Isaiah and the later (exilic/post-exilic) Prophets, when the theme of deliverance and restoration becomes more prominent; cf. for example in Isa 32:18; 40:1ff; 51:4ff; 52:4-12; 65:19ff; Jer 24:4-7; 30-31; 32:38ff; Ezek 11:19-20; 37:11-14; 39:7 (cf. also 38:16; 44:23).

I will explore similar language and imagery in the New Testament and contemporary Judaism in the next article.

The Circumcision of Jesus: Romans 15:8-9

In the ecclesiastical calendar of the Western Church, January 1 traditionally commemorates the circumcision of Jesus, as narrated in Luke 2:21 (see the earlier Christmas season article). This brief notice, which matches that of John the Baptist in Lk 1:59ff (part of a parallelism between John and Jesus that runs through the Infancy narrative), serves two purposes within the text: (a) to narrate the official naming of Jesus (cf. Lk 1:31), and (b) to demonstrate the faithfulness of Joseph and Mary in observing the Old Testament/Jewish Law. Within the narrative, it is connected with the Temple scene of Lk 2:22-38—one of three episodes set in the Temple (the others being Lk 1:5-25 and 2:41-50). There is a clear emphasis on the faithfulness and religious devotion of the main characters—Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:5), Joseph and Mary (2:22-24, 39, 41-42, cf. Matt 1:19), Simeon and Anna (2:25, 37-38), and the child Jesus (2:43-50, 51-52). The Old Testament and Jewish background of these episodes as been noted by many commentators, according to a number recurring motifs: (i) allusions to the Old Testament within the canticles, (ii) the annunciation scenes, (iii) parallels with the birth of Samuel (1 Sam 1:1-2:26), (iv) the Temple setting, (v) the idea of observing/fulfilling the Law, and (vi) an atmosphere of ‘Messianic’ expectation—on this last, cf. especially Lk 2:25, 38, but also 1:16-17, 32-33, 43, 54-55, 69ff, 76ff; 2:11, 30-32. Particularly noteworthy for Lk 2:21-38 are the allusions to various passages from (Deutero-)Isaiah, such as 40:1, 5; 46:13; 49:6, 9; 52:10; 61:2.

Romans 15:8-9 (also Luke 2:21, 29-32)

In the context of Jesus’ circumcision, it is worth exploring the interesting reference of Romans 15:8ff, where it is stated (by Paul) that Jesus “came to be [gegnh=sqai] a servant [dia/konon] of (the) circumcision [peritomh=$, lit. “cutting around”] under the truth of God”. This is another key use of the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), related to the birth and/or incarnation of Christ, such as we have been studying in recent notes. There is here a close parallel with Gal 4:4 (cf. the earlier article), specifically with regard to the birth of Jesus—”God sent forth his Son…”

  • “coming to be [geno/menon] out of a woman (i.e. spec. of his human birth)”
  • “coming to be [geno/menon] under the Law (i.e. his human life, esp. as a Jew)”

The expression “servant of (the) circumcision” is generally synonymous with “under the Law [u(po\ no/mon]”, though Paul also uses the latter phrase in a deeper theological sense. In coming under the religious and ethical authority of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (the Torah), it was necessary that he should be circumcised. Though circumcision (and comparable practices) are not unique to Israel, being attested as an ancient/traditional rite in cultures around the world, nevertheless it hold a special place for Israelites and Jews as a mark of the covenant with God—i.e. marking them as God’s chosen people—and as an essential sign of religious and cultural identity (cf. Gen 17:10ff; 21:4; 34:15ff; Exod 4:24-26; 12:44, 48; Lev 12:3; Josh 5:2-8, and many subsequent passages [in the NT, see Jn 7:22-23; Acts 7:8, etc]). Circumcision in Old Testament and Jewish tradition could also be symbolic of faithfulness and obedience in the wider ethical or spiritual sense (cf. Deut 10:16; 30:16; Jer 4:4; 9:25, etc).

In the New Testament, “circumcision” and “circumcised” are often used as shorthand terms to refer to (observant) Jews—Acts 10:45; 11:2; Rom 3:30; 4:9, 12; Gal 2:7, 12; 6:13; 1 Cor 7:18; Col 3:11; 4:11; Eph 2:11; Tit 1:10. The early conflicts regarding the relationship between believers (especially Gentile believers) and the Law naturally involved circumcision—Acts 15:1ff (cf. 16:3; 21:21); Gal 2:3ff. It was out of these disputes and debates that Paul developed his particular (and controversial) teaching regarding circumcision and the Law for believers in Christ (Jews and Gentiles alike)—Rom 2:25-29ff; 4:10-12; 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:2ff; 6:12-15; Phil 3:3; Col 2:11; 3:11; and also Eph 2:11. Fundamental to this teaching is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ is a key theme of Romans, especially in this concluding section (Rom 15:7-13) to the body of the letter. Consider the message of unity inherent in the central citation of Deut 32:43 in verse 10:

“Be of good mind [i.e. be glad, rejoice], (you) nations [e&qnh, i.e. Gentiles], with his people [tou= laou= au)tou=, i.e. Israel]”

For this important theme elsewhere in Paul’s writings, see Romans 1:16-17; chapter 3; 9:24; 10:12; chapter 11; Gal 3:26-29; 1 Cor 9:20-21; 12:13; Col 3:11, and also Eph 2:11-22.

Note also the two infinitive clauses of verses 8-9, both governed by the preposition ei)$ (“into/unto”):

  • to confirm [bebaiw=sai, lit. make firm/fixed] the promises of [i.e. for/to] the Fathers
  • the nations to esteem [doca/sai, i.e. honor/glorify] God

The expression “promises [i.e. messages/announcements] for/to the Fathers” refers to Israelites and Jews, while “the nations” clearly refers to Gentiles.

In this regard, one is reminded of a similar two-fold reference embedded in the ‘Song of Simeon’ (the Nunc Dimittis), Luke 2:29-32, and connected specifically with the birth of Jesus:

  • “…(in) that my eyes saw your salvation” (v. 30)
    • “which you prepared according to the face of [i.e. before] all the peoples” (v. 31)

Verse 32 builds upon this and makes it more specific: “salvation” under the image of a light (fw=$). As in Rom 15:8-9, here we also find phrases governed by the preposition ei)$ (“into/unto”), indicating both purpose and result:

    • “(the) uncovering [a)poka/luyin] of the nations“—either from the standpoint of the nations (light shining on them in darkness) or that the light itself constitutes revelation
    • “(the) the esteem/glory [do/can] of your people Israel
      On the language and imagery of these phrases, cf. Isa 49:6, 9 and 46:13

Both Rom 15:8-9 and Luke 2:32 emphasize “esteem/honor/glory” (do/ca), which also indicates the overriding purpose: “unto [ei)$] the glory of God”. From God, this ‘glory’ extends (through Christ) to all the people. The citation from Psalm 117:1 in Rom 15:11 demonstrates a subtle shift toward the idea of unity—of including Gentiles among the People of God—

The parallel moves from
nations | people [sg. lao/$]
to
nations | peoples [pl. laoi/]

just as we see the plural laoi/ (“peoples”) used in Luke 2:31; sometimes “peoples” is synonymous with “nations [i.e. Gentiles]”, but here it certainly refers to Jews and Gentiles together. In the use of “peoples [laoi/]” there is implied the merging of the nations with the “people” (Israel), such as we see expressed so well in Rom 11:13-24ff and Eph 2:11-22.

Finally, the messianic context of Isaiah 11:10, cited in Rom 15:12, brings us back to the atmosphere of eschatological expectation in the Lukan Infancy narrative—Simeon, it is said, is one who was

“looking toward receiving the para/klhsi$ of Israel” (Lk 2:25)

The Greek word para/klhsi$ (parákl¢sis) literally means “calling (or being called) alongside”, usually in the context of offering help, aid, comfort, instruction, etc. Almost certainly, Isaiah 40:1-2ff is in mind, with the idea of God providing aid and comfort for his suffering People. That such an idea is connected with the concept of the restoration of Israel (by God) at the end-time (cf. Acts 1:6) is indicated both by the future/eschatological usage of the term in Jewish writings (2/4 Esdras, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and subsequently in Rabbinic literature), as well as by the parallel expression in Lk 2:38, where it is stated that Anna was

“looking toward receiving the ransom/redemption [lu/trwsi$] of Jerusalem”

The term para/klhto$ (i.e. “Paraclete”, lit. “one called alongside”, related to para/klhsi$) occurs 4 times in the Gospel of John—Jn 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7 (also 1 Jn 2:1), where it is identified specifically with the (Holy) Spirit (see esp. 14:26). It is noteworthy, in this regard, that, right after the mention of para/klhsi$ in Lk 2:25, we read:

“…and the Holy Spirit was upon him [i.e. Simeon]”

Paul, too, concludes Rom 15:7-13 with a climactic reference to the Holy Spirit (the final words of the verse). He ends with another purpose-clause governed by the preposition ei)$ (cf. above); his concluding prayer is for believers

“…to abound/overflow in the hope [i.e. of Christ/salvation], in (the) power of the Holy Spirit

This is a prayer we can, and should, offer during the current Christmas season as well.