Last week we were talking about being good citizens and I also referenced the fact that the church of Jesus Christ in the first century had the huge hurdle of racial and religious prejudice to overcome. I would like to look at two examples that clearly demonstrate this reality, that confronted the Jewish believers who Jesus was ultimately going to use to do something completely new and change the world and all future generations. The first example is found in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ when He returned to His hometown of Nazareth for a Sabbath message early in His ministry. We read these words in Luke’s gospel, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” They asked. Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me; Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.” “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time when the sky was shut for 3 ½ years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.” All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way”, (Luke 4:22-30 NIV).
What changed between v. 22 where “all spoke well of him” and v. 28 where they were furious with Him and ready to throw him off the hill? What changed was the two illustrations that Jesus used from Israel’s history. In those illustrations, God chose to bless two different Gentile people, the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper. Just His mentioning these two Gentile people results in His own hometown wanting to kill Him. This illustrates the strong hatred and prejudice that the Jews felt towards Gentile people who were blessed by God. There is no other reason that they turned so quickly on Jesus than their prejudice against Gentiles. It is the same worldview that Jesus confronted when he spoke, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life,” (John 3:16). I am sure that Jesus’ Jewish hearers would understand this statement in the context of the “world” being the Jewish world because they could not even imagine that God would care for the very people they hated so greatly. Some would teach today that the word “world” in this passage refers just to the world of the “elect”, but that is because of their theological predisposition. The same mindset would result in the early Jewish followers of Christ understanding the word “world” as referring to the Jewish world alone. But Jesus had a very different “world” in mind when He spoke those words.
The second illustration comes from the arrest of Paul in the temple for supposedly bringing a Gentile into the court of the Jews. In Acts 22 Paul is recounting his testimony before a very hostile audience. When Paul speaks to them in their native language (v.2), he very much gets their attention and the mob quiets down. Most who were gathered there had no idea why they had actually tried to tear Paul apart. Paul is sharing his testimony and we pick up the passage in verse 19 where he is describing a conversation with the Lord Jesus, “Lord”, I replied, “these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him”. “Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging them into the air,” (Acts 22:19-23 NIV). What was it that so infuriated the crowd that they went from listening attentively to Paul’s words to wanting to tear him to pieces? The word “Gentiles” and that the Lord Jesus would instruct Paul to go to the Gentiles. It’s very important to note here that God’s original intention for the nation of Israel was that they should be a lighthouse to the world, a kingdom of priests, to show the world their need for the living God of the universe by demonstrating His ability to work in hearts and lives. But they had renounced that mission centuries before by becoming completely separatist and exclusive in their interpretation of their religious beliefs. But God’s plan has never changed, God always intended to reach the world with His love and Jesus is the greatest example of that love and care (Romans 5:8).
God is really in the saving and transforming business. In the coming blogs, I hope to explore further how God changed the hearts of a small band of Jewish disciples who through God’s grace and mercy would see God do something totally unique and completely new. It is the power of the Lord Jesus Christ working in us and through us that can overcome our racial and religious pride and arrogance. We will explore examples from the New Testament that show us God’s desire for reconciliation of the nations. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul very much challenges us to be agents in God’s reconciliation. As I see so much hate and division being propagated in our world today, I am reminded of what Paul wrote when he stated, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf; Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2Cor.5:20-21 NIV). An ambassador is an official representative on behalf of one country to another. In the coming week lets, you and I look for opportunities to be agents of reconciliation and healing and utilize whatever format God gives us to declare His Majesty and His Splendor. Won’t you join me in serving Jesus as His ambassadors to bring the message of His love to a hurting and broken world?
All for Christ,
Pastor Rich Sivo