Saturday, September 29, 2012

Paul's Mission, Gentiles & The Holy Spirit

In verse two of chapter thirteen of Acts we read “While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” (13:2)  With this being presented as the direct command of the Holy Spirit, and with knowledge that it is the Gentile mission to which Paul has been called (as indicated by the directive by which the Lord Jesus, after speaking to Saul on the road to Damascus, instructs a man named Ananias in regards to Saul, saying “Go, because this man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel” – 9:15) and which will receive the great bulk of his attention, we should not be surprised to find mention of the Holy Spirit being quite frequent in the story of Paul’s ministry. 

It seems that Luke wants to make it abundantly clear that the Holy Spirit, which he has Jesus mentioning at the close of Luke and the opening of Acts, as that which Jesus has promised and which will be the means by which His followers will be able to function as His witnesses, is the one that is sending Paul out to the Gentiles.  Accordingly, in verse four of the same chapter we read “So Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit” (13:4a), with this quickly followed by mention of Selucia, Cyprus, Salamis, and Paphos (13:4-6).  Even though “they began to proclaim the word of God in the Jewish synagogues” (13:5b), the Gospel message would not be long restricted to this environment. 

A  few verses later, we again hear of the Holy Spirit in an encounter with a man first introduced as “Bar-Jesus,” who is later known as “Elymas,” when we read that “Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him” (13:9a) and spoke words of rebuke.  Shortly, we find Paul in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, speaking to the “Men of Israel and… Gentiles who fear God” (13:16b).  In his speech to these people, Paul tells them the story of Israel, which implies that this has value for a Gentile audience as well (as they are being included in the family of Abraham---God’s family of redemption).  The story of Israel begins with the Egyptian exodus, climaxes in the Resurrection of Jesus, and leads to talk of justification for all of his audience. 

Paul’s talk of justification, within his Holy Spirit directed mission, has him saying “by this one everyone who believes is justified from everything from which the law of Moses could not justify you” (13:39), which, when we take into consideration that his speech began with talk of Israel in bondage to Egypt (exile), seems to be an indicator that his audience is in an exile of their own, in need of the experience of exodus.  Their justification (covenant inclusion, salvation) will be their exodus, as Moses, most importantly, is linked to the event of exodus, God’s establishment of a covenant people to serve His purposes, and a symbol of that justification.  With Moses, that symbol was the law.  With the new Moses (Jesus), that symbol is trust in the Gospel (Jesus is Lord), which is a trust like that first demonstrated by Abraham. 

It is here that Paul meets with opposition to his message, presumably because it so freely incorporates Gentiles, without restriction or any need to undergo long-standing rites of qualification (no need to adopt the then current covenant markers of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, food laws).  Thus, the next time Paul has the opportunity to speak to the assembly, “the Jews… began to contradict what Paul was saying” (13:45), which eventually prompts the declaration of “turning to the Gentiles” (13:46b), with all of this occurring under the auspices of the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Paul even adds, quoting Isaiah, that “this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have appointed you to be a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” (13:47)  Paul grasps on to the words of the prophet to make the point that God’s covenant plan had always included Gentiles, and that it was His intention for His covenant people to take His salvation out to the peoples of the world, rather than forcing those peoples to come to them. 

Consequently, “When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed to eternal life believed” (13:48).  Listening to the forty-eighth verse in its immediate context and in its narrative context, as well as alongside the soteriological context provided by Paul’s thoughts about justification as expressed in Romans and elsewhere, we are not allowed to hear this as a selective statement about some that had been pre-destined to believe, while others were pre-destined not to believe.  Rather, we hear it as a reference to Gentiles, as it had always been God’s plan for Gentiles to believe, as they too, as divine image-bearers, had been appointed to participate in the life of the age to come, doing so right alongside Israel.  As this particular portion of the narrative is brought to a close, Luke reminds us of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, which first occurred at Pentecost and sparked a highly determinative message from Peter and set the stage for what would come in the story he would be telling in this book, by writing about the Gentiles who were hearing and rejoicing at the words of Paul concerning Jesus, that “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52).

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