Jesus' Two Great Commissions
A Sad Truth
A sad but interesting truth has characterized God's people in almost every age. The people of a nation who follow God regard Him as being their private property. With nationalistic fervor, they are convinced either (a) God loves them exclusively, or (b) God loves and wants them more than He desires the peoples of other nations.
The nation of Israel in the Old Testament was convinced virtually in every age that God was concerned for them only, and no other nation. The Jewish Christians of the New Testament had extreme difficulty accepting the fact that God desired the salvation of the Gentile just as much as He desired the salvation of the Jew. American Christians have been convinced that God loves America and its people more than anyone else.
God's Love for Israel
While Israel was "God's chosen people," that fact did not prove that God's love and concern was restricted to Israel. Deuteronomy 7:7, 8 stated plainly that God did not love them or choose them because they were the largest nation. The key to God' love for Israel was (a) His love for Abraham, and (b) His covenant with Abraham which was renewed with Isaac and Jacob. God's faithfulness in keeping His promise to their forefathers occasioned their deliverance from Egyptian slavery.
There were early and late evidences of God's love and concern for non-Jews. Melchizedek<1> was not related to Abraham. Thus, he was in no way associated with the lineage of Israel. Yet, he was God's priest. Abraham, the father of Israel, paid tithes to Melchizedek, and Melchizedek blessed Abraham. The lesser pays tithes to the greater, and the greater blessed the lesser. A priest served as an intercessor between a people and God. For whom did this priest and king of Salem intercede?
God commissioned Jonah to fulfill a prophetic mission to Ninevah. The Assyrians were despised enemies of Israel. Jonah did everything humanly possible to evade his God-appointed task. Likely, he was the world's worst missionary. With all his heart, he wanted God to destroy those people.<2> When he unwillingly preached to them, his sole message was, Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown.<3> He did not even suggest repentance! When the people repented thereby averting God's destruction, Jonah was consumed with anger and resentment. God explained, Should not I have regard for Ninevah, that great city, wherein are more than six-score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand...?<4>
The Jew, The Gentile, and God's Love
While Judaism in the time of Jesus and the early church continued to be an exclusive religion, Gentiles attracted to Judaism were afforded the opportunity to learn about Jehovah and the law. While devout Jews refused to have any social association with Gentiles,<5> Gentiles were permitted to attend the synagogues to hear and study the law.<6>
In the first century, the level of Jewish religious interest in Gentiles was determined by the existence or absence of hostilities. In times and areas where Jewish people lived in peace and acceptance, commonly there was great Jewish interest in the Gentile population--and those circumstances occurred frequently. A Jewish community existed virtually everywhere in the world. The Assyrian and Babylonian captivities began the dispersion of the Jews throughout the ancient world. That dispersion was never reversed. From the time of the Babylonian captivity until today, more Jews lived outside of Palestine than within Palestine. Wherever Jews lived, they honored God, they studied the law, they preserved their traditions, and they built synagogues as centers for study and worship. From the mid-second century B.C. through much of the first century A.D. there is significant evidence documenting the fact that Jewish people received friendly treatment in many nations and in many levels of the societies.<7>
In this period, the Jews demonstrated an enormous zeal for proselytism--converting Gentiles.<8> Jesus was not exaggerating when he declared that the Pharisees traveled land and sea to make one proselyte.<9> Though the Jews belonged to the only religion of the period which excluded all other religions, though they belonged to the only monotheistic religion of the period, and though they commonly maintained socially exclusive communities, they maintained an amazing religious outreach to Gentiles. Gentiles were always welcome at synagogue assemblies. God-fearers, Gentiles who "believed" and were potentially full converts, were commonly a part of synagogue assemblies, and proselytes were commonly a part of all Jewish community and religious affairs.
Unquestionably, proselytes were an open, accepted part of the holy day observances in Jerusalem.<10> Palestinian Jews characteristically were stricter in religious traditions and religious expectations of others than were the Diaspora Jews (those living in countries outside of Palestine). The fact that they distinguished clearly between themselves and the Grecian (Diaspora) Jews<11> would certainly suggest that Palestinian Jews would use equal strictness in examining proselytes.
However, it would probably be a mistake to regard Jewish religious interest in Gentile converts to be a true parallel of aggressive Christian evangelism.<12> Available information concerning Judaism and Jewish life in the period from 2 B.C. to 1 A.D. reveals that their society and religious practices encompassed many diversities from region to region. There were also many different reasons for Jews reaching out religiously to Gentiles--the conviction that Gentiles needed to know the true and only God; the desire to create a better understanding and greater acceptance of the Jewish people; the desire to counter times of anti-Semitism; and the determination to move Israel toward her divine destiny are but a few of those motivations. Judaism was diverse and complex in its religious and nationalistic expressions.
While it is true that the Jews sought proselytes, it is also true that many Gentiles were attracted to Judaism. They were attracted by Jewish monotheism in the worship of one Creator God who would judge all men, and by Jewish forms of worship which were more easily understood and more interesting to the common person.<13>
The complexity of the situation is illustrated by Josephus in his account of King Izates' conversion to Judaism.<14> Ananias, a Jewish merchant (and Diaspora Jew?) studied with King Izates but discouraged him from being circumcised. He and the king's mother feared this step would alienate the king from his subjects and result in grave political consequences. Ananias told King Izates that he could be a devoted adherent to Judaism by worship without circumcision. Because dire consequences were probable with formal conversion, God would pardon him for not being circumcised. Later, Eleazar, a Jew from Galilee who had a reputation for being strict, insisted that King Izates obey the law and be circumcised. This incident occurred in the 40's or early 50s A.D.
The Pharisees regarded themselves as the "protectors and guarantors of orthodoxy." The fact that they scrutinized the Diaspora Jews would suggest that they would be no less careful in their examination of proselytes. They were extremely zealous in defending and protecting "the proper interpretation of the law" and in enforcing observance of the letter of the law.
Certainly, one of the most difficult truths for the Jewish Christians of the Jerusalem church to accept was the fact that God fully accepted and fully cleansed any Gentile who through faith entered Christ by baptism. Christian converts from strict Judaism were convicted that Gentiles could enter Christ and become a part of the church only if first they met the requirements expected of a proselyte.<15> This conviction was unshakable at least among Jerusalem Christians and Judaizing teachers.
To these Jewish Christians, the manner in which God obviously worked within and blessed Paul and Barnabas' mission efforts among the Gentiles<16> proved nothing. The fact that the apostles and elders of Jerusalem rejected their position<17> did not destroy their conviction.
Galatians was written to counter the aggressive effort of these Jewish Christians to indoctrinate Gentile converts in the Mosaical law. The central message of Galatians 3 and 4 was this: (a) It was God's plan from the beginning to save the Gentile through Christ; (b) the Gentile baptized believer is 100% child of God and in no consideration a second-class Christian; and (c) through Christ the Gentile baptized believer is fully an heir to God's promise to Abraham.
In the early beginnings of Christianity, one could be a member of the Jewish community and a Christian. The Jewish leadership faction which saw Christianity to be a threat to Judaism<18> and the temple<19> wanted physically to destroy the Christian movement. For at least a period of time, they made it extremely difficult to be a member of the Jewish community and a Christian in Palestine. When Gentiles were aggressively evangelized by Paul and Barnabas, it became increasingly difficult to be a Christian and a member of a Jewish community outside Palestine.
Up to and including the time of the Roman emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.), the Gentile world did not distinguish between the Jewish community and the Christian movement. Suetonius reported that Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome because of a disturbance created by one Chrestus ( a conflict between those devoted to Judaism and those devoted to Christ?).
As Gentile converts increased within the church, at some point Judaism ceased to regard it as a Jewish movement, and the Gentile world came to recognize the illegal Christian religion as being distinct from legal Judaism. It is quite possible that the Jewish Christians to whom the book of Hebrews was written were seriously considering apostasy because they were under Jewish edict to choose between the church and membership in the Jewish community.
This realization is striking: despite the resurrected Jesus' stated desire to evangelize the world, God's signs to Peter confirming divine approval to teach and baptize Gentiles, the apostles and elders' decision in Jerusalem, and the abundance of miracles confirming Paul and Barnabas' work among the Gentiles, many Jewish Christians still looked upon God as being their God who had a greater love for Jews than anyone else.
God's Love for the "Foreigner"
Most American Christians would look upon the Jewish Christian's attitude toward evangelizing Gentiles as a horrible, conceited, blind attitude. Yet, even as they are repulsed by this attitude, they unthinkingly perpetuate it. Many American Christians' attitudes toward the conversion of other nations is strikingly similar to the Jewish Christian's attitude toward the Gentile. People who will adopt American culture, accept American values, and respect American standards should be evangelized--provided it is economically feasible and convenient. People who are offended by and reject American culture, values, and standards are not worthy of concern. What is the difference between the Jew's wanting to "Judaize" non-Jews prior to conversion, and the American's wanting to "Amercianize" non-Americans prior to conversion?
In numerous ways, many American congregations document this too common attitude toward evangelizing foreign nations and variant ethnic regions of America. One obvious way is by their attitude regarding finances and mission work. The most difficult financing to obtain is funds for out-of-the-community evangelism. One of the major reasons there are too few preachers in or out of this country is inadequate funding.
Many congregations are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on buildings, furnishings, and decor. Careful attention will be given to heating, cooling, lighting, and acoustics. Every effort will be given to create an attractive, distraction-free environment of maximum convenience and comfort. Few consider such expenditures extravagant. However, funding for evangelism in regions where the church is non-existent is often viewed as extravagant. "Why do they need that?" is a common question; "They don't need that," is a common comment.
Preaching the gospel in other cultures is expensive, and becoming more so each passing year. Things taken for granted in the self-supporting American congregation are missing--Bibles, song books, study literature, resource books, a place to assemble, basic office equipment, transportation, postage, etc.
To compound the expense, often the people being taught earn too little to feed and clothe their own families adequately. When converts mature to the point of generous giving, their funds are insufficient to meet the basic expenses required to sustain their own congregation. The typical foreign field is a place of poverty, disease, high death rate, short life expectancy, and many neglected basic life needs.
A missionary who maximizes his effort and time on most mission fields is going to need the equipment and resources of an American work in a nation of poverty. Only the very wealthy have personal vehicles, offices, office equipment, printing equipment, telephones, etc. These are luxury items, and they carry luxury prices.
To American Christians accustomed to the world's highest standard of living purchased at the world's most economical prices, many expenses in overseeing and supporting a foreign work seem financially unreasonable. Due to a lack of understanding and experience, many congregations expect such works to demonstrate American efficiency, high productivity, and a significant visible success rate with a low price tag.
If the following survey were completed by all self-supporting American congregations, what would be the results?
1. A comparison of : (a) the percentage of its budget spent on utilities to (b) the percentage of its budget spent on sharing the gospel outside its community.
2. A comparison of: (a) the percentage of the budget spent on cleaning, maintaining, beautifying, and improving the physical facilities to (b) the percentage of the budget spent on sharing the gospel outside the community.
3. If the current rate of its annual expenditure on evangelism outside its community remained the same, how many years would it take to invest as much in preaching the gospel outside the community as it cost to build its current physical facilities?
The point certainly is not that "throwing money" at the need for evangelism will result in the gospel's being preached to the world. While significant, serious funding is needed, the need is not that simply met.
The point is not that it is wrong for American Christians to provide for valid needs in ways which increase effectiveness within their own culture. The church in America must deal with cultural reality in sharing the gospel as does the church in any other culture.
The point is that many American Christians place the responsibility to evangelize outside of their own communities near the bottom of the congregation's priorities. Do these statements sound familiar: "We need to evangelize America first!" "There is too much which needs to be done in our own community for us to be spending money in some place we have never seen!" "How can we know that those people are really interested? How do we know we can trust those missionaries?" "I believe that if anyone is truly hungry to hear the gospel, God will see that they hear it!" "It is just not possible for us to take responsibility for the whole world!" "This evangelism talk is just a phase the church is going through, and I sure will be glad when we get through it!"
Many American Christians are convinced that God would be thrilled beyond measure if only America were effectively evangelized. Some are convinced that it will take considerably less than that to thrill God. Why? Consciously or unconsciously they are convinced that God loves Americans more than anyone else.
Were the gospel preached only in America, and were every American to respond to Christ, it would mean that over 95% of the people living in today's world would never know of the Savior. Can any American Christian seriously believe that God would rejoice at the loss of 95 out of every 100 people if only the five saved were Americans? Is that not supreme arrogance?
Too many American Christians look at today's world as Jonah looked at Ninevah.
1. Read Deuteronomy 7:7, 8. What were NOT the reasons for God choosing Israel to be His people? What were God's reasons?
2. Discuss the evidences which reveal that God loved and was concerned about peoples other than Israel.
3. Define proselytism. Discuss Jewish interest in making proselytes in the first century A.D.
4. Discuss the fact that many Jewish Christians rejected the teaching that Gentiles became fully Christian, fully God's children through baptism.
5. Cite evidences which illustrate that evangelizing non-American people is a low priority in many congregations.
6. Discuss why it is that many American Christians do not understand the basic work and expenses of being a missionary.
7. Discuss this statement: Many American Christians are convinced that God would be thrilled beyond measure if only all Americans became Christians.
Read Acts 11:19-26 and 13:1-3. Did God lead Christians to totally evangelize one "productive area" before sending them into areas that had not heard the gospel? Discuss your answer.
<2>Jonah 3:10 - 4:2.
<5>Acts 11:2, 3.
<6>Acts 13:16, 44; 14:1, 5; etc. Gentiles who were not proselytes but who were serious students were often referred to as "those that feared God." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 9:212, 213.
<7>Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), pp. 22-24.
<8>Ibid., pp. 26, 27.
<11>Acts 6:1; Grecian Jews also maintained and attended their own synagogues in Jerusalem, see Acts 6:9.
<12>Everrett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, 1987), pp. 433, 434.
<13>Green, pp. 24, 25.
<14>Josephus, Antiquities, 20.2.3.
<19>Acts 6:12-14; 7:47-50, 57 - 8:3.
Table of Contents
Link to a summary of other books by David Chadwell
Link to David Chadwell Home Page