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.