God is so great He can use even human sinfulness to serve His purposes. During the time of the Exodus He used Pharaoh to spread His reputation throughout the ancient world (Ro 9:17), and here in Pauls day He was using Jewish hostility to spread the gospel to the Gentiles. The rejection of Jesus by so many in Judaism had forced believing Jews to cease preaching in synagogues, and in some cases to flee for their lives. The focus of their evangelistic efforts were now turned toward the Gentiles (Ac 18:4-11). This shift had already resulted in the ingathering of thousands of new believers, and as the presence of the Holy Spirit transformed their lifestyles their Jewish neighbors and friends could not help but observe the change. Paul passionately hoped that seeing the impact of salvation on the Gentiles would serve to provoke many Jews to jealousy. In time they too would long to have the same blessings. They too would long to possess the righteousness of faith.
Paul understood this shift of emphasis toward the Gentiles to be a strategic move on Gods part which would result in more Jews coming to Jesus in the long run. That does not mean Paul thought God wanted to save Jews more than Gentiles, hes showing us that God was at work, making something good out of a bad situation. He was directing Jewish hostility so that it would not end in defeat, but in the salvation of more Gentiles and Jews. This is what Moses had prophesied would take place. He had said someday God would use the Gentiles to make Israel jealous (Ro 10:19; Dt 32:21). When those who initially rejected the gospel saw the Holy Spirit resting mightily on their Gentile neighbors they would be forced to ask whether or not they had been mistaken in their rejection of Jesus. In other words, God had a plan to reach their hearts by another way. He hadnt given up, Hed merely changed tactics.
Driven, not led
Its easy to focus on Jewish hostility and see how God used it, but the real issue we need to look at is the cultural prejudice in the church. We need only ask, Why did God need to use violent persecution to drive evangelism out to the Gentiles? to recognize something was terribly wrong. After all, Jesus had left His followers with clear commands:
Go and make disciples of all nations
Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mk 16:15).
You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Ac 1:8).
But initially these commands were ignored. Even after all He had said to them there was much resistance to seeing Gentiles saved. Some of the leaders do not appear pleased to hear that Gentiles are saved. They needed to be convinced God even wanted such people in His kingdom. Lets listen:
Cornelius household (Ac 10:15, 16, 19, 20)
Peter in trouble (Ac 11:1-18)
Scattered by persecution (Ac 11:19-26)
God allowed, and even acted to produce, hostility because His church was so prejudiced it refused to go into all the world. The strategy He was forced to use here is a sad comment not only on the condition of Judaism, but of the early church. He was having to turn their hearts as He does the water courses (Pr 21:1) and lead them with a bridle as a horse or mule (Ps 32:9).
The human heart
Cultural prejudice is a universal human sin. It effects every heart. No one escapes its temptation. True, some cultures give it greater expression than others, but anywhere you go in the world people tend to care about people like themselves, and hate, or at least not care for those who are different. Its all an expression of our self-love. The more you are like me, the more human you are
. This problem takes two forms.
1) Cultural prejudice: I deeply dislike certain groups of people
2) Cultural blindness: I dont even notice certain groups of people. They may be there, but Im completely disinterested in them.
These attitudes become profound boundaries to the gospel. They set up walls where the gospel stops. We tend to tell people like ourselves about Jesus, but not those who are different. Somehow we dont consider them our responsibility.
Paul knew Judaism would need more than words, they would need to see life-transformation to convince them the gospel was true. What would move them to jealousy would be seeing the gifts of the Spirit at work, the joy of the Lord, a great love among believers for one another and a burning faith willing even to die for their Savior. Seeing Gentiles who had lived wild lives become morally pure and worship God would make a powerful statement about the validity of the gospel. How has that worked?
Our sad history
It may have worked at some level during Pauls years, but very quickly walls of prejudice went up (70 AD). One can find examples of fine Christians in every generation since the church was founded, but the sad truth is that so many terrible things have been done by people who called themselves Christians that we inherit a legacy of prejudice and violence.
Jews and Muslims (crusades, pogroms, holocaust
Native Americans (broken treaties, re-culturation schools, mass murder, trail of tears
African Americans (slavery, sermons supporting slavery and encouraging slaves to submit, segregated churches, unjust laws
Such history makes it hard to share Jesus today. The mere mention of His name raises horrible memories. This, of course, was Satans goal:
Discredit the gospel so people will reject the Savior because of His church.
Our reputation is damaged, but you and I must determine to repair that reputation. We have no control over anyone beyond ourselves and our own congregation, but our obedience, however small when compared to the big picture, will make a difference.
Whats needed now?
1) The church needs a gospel that actually changes the way people behave.
2) We need to serve, wash feet, demonstrate the love of God, we talk too much and do too little.
3) We need to open our eyes to see people like God sees people. We need to open our hearts and welcome everybody (that does not mean there isnt a moral standard which must be met by those who claim to be Christians).
Our personal response
You and I can decide to obey Jesus commands. We can be part of the answer, not part of the problem. For that to happen we need to ask God to free us from cultural prejudice and blindness, or at least to spot it when it rears its ugly head. We need to ask Him to open our spiritual eyes to see:
1) people, not categories (Col 3:11)
2) relatives, not races (Ac 17:26)
3) brothers and sisters in the Lord (1Co 12:13; Eph 2:19)
4) the multitude of heaven (Rev 5:9)
5) how deeply God loves them (him for whom Christ died, Ro 14:15).
6) those who God has chosen (not many wise
noble, 1Co 1:26-29)
And then we must live in such a way as to make them jealous to know the wonderful Savior that we know.
1) Has the Lord opened your eyes to see a person or a group of people you never noticed before? How did that happen?
2) Do you know someone whose life changed dramatically after becoming a Christian? Describe before and after.