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One Gentile’s Gratitude to the “Apostle to the Gentiles”


Acts 26:17-18     Romans 15: 7-21    Ephesians 4:17-19    Colossians 1:13



I: — Life is full of contradictions. One such contradiction is someone noble on trial before a scoundrel; a man of integrity on trial before a changeling; a person of truth on trial before a liar; someone willing to lay down his life for others on trial before someone who will kill without compunction in order to feed his “selfism”.

Paul was on trial before Agrippa II. Agrippa II was the great-grandson of Herod the Great. Herod the Great, known to us through the Christmas story as King Herod, was a Jew in name only whom Caesar installed in 47 B.C.E. Caesar knew he had a spineless puppet in Herod; Caesar knew that Herod would treacherously sell out on his own people and betray them into the hand of Rome again and again. Once installed as puppet king, Herod became nervous every time he thought of the real royal family. He had married a member of the real royal family, but not even marrying into the family allayed his anxiety. He decided he would have to have the entire royal family assassinated in order to eliminate any smouldering opposition that might flare up and consume him. And so he had the royal family assassinated, Stalin-like. To be sure, Herod did refurbish the temple in Jerusalem, but he also built shrines to pagan deities wherever he thought it politically expedient. When he heard that a king had been born in Bethlehem he slew every male infant who might just be the new king.

Twenty-five or thirty years later Herod’s son, Antipas, thought John the Baptist to be a nuisance after John had told Herodias, a member of the family, that she was both adulterous and incestuous. Whereupon Antipas, Herod’s son, had John beheaded. Jesus spoke of Herod Antipas as “that fox”. “Fox”, in first century Palestine, didn’t mean sly or cunning or devious. These latter meanings all came out of the 18th century British sport of fox-hunting. In first century Palestine “fox” was simply the worst thing you could call another person. When Herod Antipas was mentioned to Jesus, Jesus said, “That slimeball, that sleazebucket, that loathsome creep; don’t even breathe his name!”

A few years later still Herod’s grandson, Agrippa I, slew James the son of Zebedee.

And then came Herod’s great-grandson, Agrippa II. He hauled up Paul before him and insisted that Paul explain himself.

And Paul? Compared to the murderous, sleazy Herod family Paul resembled Martin Niemoeller before Hitler in Nazi Germany. After a pointed confrontation between Adolf and Martin, Else Niemoeller asked her husband what he had told Der Fuehrer. “I told him”, said Niemoeller, “that so far from being a great man he was a great coward.”

Paul? Compared to the Herod family Paul resembled Nicholas Ridley, one of the English Reformers, before his executioners on the eve of his death. “Do you know what’s going to happen to you tomorrow, Mr. Ridley?”, tormented those who hadn’t so much as a tenth of Ridley’s courage or brains. “Yes! I know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow”, replied Ridley; “Tomorrow I marry. Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb!”

Paul before Agrippa II? Paul came from Tarsus, which metropolis he proudly spoke of as “no mean city”. Tarsus was a university city, famous for its culture. Paul was anything but a cultural oaf. He was educated, multi-lingual. He was a Roman citizen. That means his father or grandfather had rendered outstanding service to Rome. (Very few Jews ever got to be citizens.) He belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. The most famous member of the tribe of Benjamin was King Saul, Israel’s first monarch. Paul spoke of himself as “a Hebrew of the Hebrews.” He spoke Hebrew fluently. (Most Jews in Paul’s day spoke Greek. As a matter of fact Jews didn’t return to speaking Hebrew widely until 1948.) To speak Hebrew in Paul’s day meant that he came from an old, historic family, like the Massey family in Canada, or the Robarts family or the Molson family. And needless to say, at one time Paul’s family would have lived in Rosedale or Forest Hill or Westmount.

This was the apostle to the Gentiles.


II: — It had taken Agrippa II ten years to catch up to Paul. Ten years earlier the apostle had been overwhelmed as the risen Lord accosted him, called him and commissioned him. Accosted, he was stopped in his tracks. Called, he entered the service of the crucified whom he now knew to be raised from the dead and vindicated as the Sovereign Saviour of the Cosmos. Commissioned, he knew himself appointed particularly to a ministry among the Gentiles.


III: — And who were the Gentiles? We! We were — and are — the Gentiles to whom Paul was sent. And what was our reputation? In Ephesians 4 (17-19) Paul tells us what the people of his era knew of the Gentiles: (i) “futile in their thinking” (i.e., futile in the sense that their thinking, apart from mundane matters, isn’t connected to reality and they are therefore spiritually deluded — which is to say, ultimately deluded about life); (ii) “darkened in their understanding” (i.e., they have no comprehension of the nature of God and the truth of God and the way of God); (iii) “hard-hearted” (POROSIS is the Greek word Paul uses, and it means harder than marble — i.e., the Gentiles are devoid of spiritual sensitivity, are ignorant of God, and therefore are alienated from the life of God). The result? The apostle doesn’t hesitate to say (i) Gentiles are spiritually callous (ii) they are licentious, indulging in sexual conduct that is abhorrent even as they think it to be fine; they even indulge in sexual conduct that is perverse while remaining unable to recognize its perverseness! (iii) Gentiles are so greedy that they don’t care whom they hurt or how they behave in their frenetic pursuit of all that they crave. To sum it all up: in the ancient world Gentiles gave every evidence that they were spiritually ignorant, mentally obtuse, and morally degenerate. If we modernites think Paul to be exaggerating we should (i) remember that no one in the ancient world disagreed with him (ii) read the daily newspaper.

Yet the little man from Tarsus knew that the risen Lord had appointed him apostle to the Gentiles. If he was going to be effective in his mission to us he would need to be possessed of resolute obedience to Christ that would remain resolute regardless of setbacks and hardships; he would need to be possessed too of boundless love for these people that would remain boundless in the face of Gentiles like the Christians in Corinth who behaved just like Gentiles and for whom immeasurable patience was needed. Resolute obedience to the Lord who had called him and commissioned him; boundless love for the people who had been placed on his heart; endless patience for spiritually challenged folk who put patience to the test every day: Paul needed all of this and had all of this.


IV: — Paul’s mission to the Gentiles took off like a rocket. He gladly told Agrippa II how God had honoured his obedience and love and patience.

(i) First of all he told Agrippa that the Gentiles who embraced the Gospel “had their eyes opened and were turned from darkness to light.” They had been in the dark. As they heard the gospel they were illumined and moved from darkness to light.

Many Gentiles in Paul’s era (and ours) thought all of this to be ridiculous. They insisted they couldn’t be in the dark. Why, they had in their ranks Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, plus so many other philosophers whose thought is studied to this day (as it should be). A student of philosophy myself, I am the last person to belittle the intellectual rigour of philosophy. The Gentiles of Paul’s day reminded him that not only could they claim the intellectual riches of the Greeks; they could also claim the practical genius of the Romans. Roman jurisprudence governed the inhabited world; Roman military science maintained order throughout the empire; Roman roads fostered trade and commerce and boosted the material prosperity of everyone; Roman architecture and Roman administration are models to this day.

The apostle belittled none of this. Roman roads hastened the spread of the gospel. He appealed to Roman justice as soon as he was victimized. He discussed Greek philosophy when he evangelized the Greeks in Athens.

Nevertheless, he insisted that Gentiles were in the dark with respect to the true and living God. After all, they knew nothing of the Holy One of Israel, nothing of God’s 1400-year struggle with that people he had chosen to bear his name, nothing of God’s holiness — completely foreign to the debauchery of the Greek and Roman deities — which rendered God wholly other than his creation in both its shame and its glory.

Similarly the Gentiles knew nothing of the Way that the God of Israel appoints his people to walk. After all, to look at one area of life only, Greek men knew that women were essential to reproduction even as they knew that ultimate sensual pleasure was to be found with a 12-year old boy.

Paul told the Gentiles that the only one who could illumine their darkness was the One who had humbled himself in a manger and humiliated himself on a cross. He told them that this one alone was God’s self-identification with them in their folly and sickness, suffering and sin. He told them that God loved them so much, despite their sin, that God had submitted himself in his Son to the contempt of Romans who reserved crucifixion for rapists and deserters and traitors.

When the Gentiles finally understood who God is and what he has done, they also understood who they were in the light of God’s truth and what they could become by his mercy. Their darkness was now light.

In scripture light is always associated with Truth. Truth (capital “T”) means reality. When Paul declared the gospel among the Gentiles he wasn’t offering them another philosophy, one more philosophy to be added to the curriculum of the University of Tarsus. When Paul declared the gospel he was exposing them to Reality. As they knew reality — the effectual presence of the living Lord Jesus Christ — they knew too that this reality transcended any and all philosophy. Their darkness had become light.


(ii) Next the apostle told Agrippa II that the Gentiles had also turned from the power of Satan to God; i.e., from the power of Satan to the power of God. We who are cerebral types (Streetsville congregation is markedly cerebral, on account of the bias of the preacher) unconsciously assume that the primary purpose of the gospel is to correct misinformation, to replace incorrect ideas with correct ideas. But correct information is only a means to an end; the primary purpose of the gospel is to do something, do something with us, move us from one sphere of dominion to another, move us from one orbit to another, from one jurisdiction or domain to another. Experts in electromagnetism speak of “force-fields”. Force-fields are the area within which magnets attract particles and set up electrical charges. If the position or power of a magnet is changed, the electrical charge is changed and the entire force-field is changed. Imagine Jesus Christ and the evil one as either magnets or electrical charges. The advent of Jesus Christ introduced a new power, new force, new charge into the cosmos, with the result that the entire force-field changed. Now the Gentiles didn’t have to be drawn to one only; they could be drawn elsewhere. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was a huge magnification of his power, with the result that he now could draw magnetically those who earlier had known only the “pull” of a force that did them no good. The Gentiles who came to faith under Paul’s ministry rejoiced that they had been drawn magnetically to the One whose charge changed the force-field for all time and would continue to draw all manner of men and women to him.

In his letter to the Christians in Colosse Paul exults with the congregation there, exclaiming with them, “God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:13) The two key words are “dominion” and “transferred”. “Dominion ” has to do with jurisdiction or mastery. The question then is, “Under whose dominion do we live?”

Let’s approach the matter from a different angle. When the apostle says that the Gentiles had turned from the power of Satan to the power of God, we must remember that power is the capacity to achieve purpose. The question then is, “What purpose governs our life?” — not, “What purpose do we say governs it?” (we’re all going to say that the most noble purpose governs it); not, “What purpose would we like to govern it?” but simply, “What purpose governs our lives now?”

And if power is the capacity to achieve purpose, what renders us able to achieve the purpose that now governs us? What resources surround us so as to foster fulfillment of that purpose? What force-field suffuses us and invigorates us and renders us visible evidence of a force-field that is as invisible (yet as real) as electromagnetism?

The Gentiles who now knew themselves embraced by Jesus Christ knew they had moved from the power of Satan to God.


(iii) Finally, Paul told Agrippa II that the Gentiles had “received forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Christ.” At last the believing Gentiles had a place: they belonged to the people of God. It may seem obvious to us today that as soon as the Gentiles grasped our Lord they were added to the household and family of God. It may seem obvious to us now, after 2000 years of having Gentiles in the church. But it wasn’t obvious then, when Gentiles were thought to be forever barred from the household and family of God.

Let us always remember that while Israel of old distinguished between faithful Jews and unfaithful, Israel as a whole restricted the family of God to Jews, albeit faithful Jews. Let us never forget that the public ministry of Jesus unfolded within only a few miles of Jerusalem. Jesus never lingered in a Gentile city, darting in and out and that only rarely. He met very few Gentiles. When a Gentile woman pestered him until he helped her he told her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 15:24) The earliest church looked upon itself as a Messianic group within Israel. It took a sledgehammer blow on Peter’s head before he saw that Gentiles could be admitted to the people of God through faith in Christ. And it took a shattering collision with our Lord on the road to Damascus before Paul knew that his vocation was to take the gospel to you and me in order that we too might be added to the family of God.

I’m not suggesting that there were no Gentile Christians at all before Paul’s adventures on our behalf. Certainly there were. There were Gentile Christians in Rome before Paul ever got to Rome. But Gentile Christians were few and far between. They would have remained few and far between had the little man from Tarsus not known that he had been sent among the likes of you and me as surely as Jesus had known himself sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

I’m a Gentile. I’m one of those who are strangers to Israel, says Paul, and who are spiritually ignorant, mentally obtuse, and morally degenerate. I’m a Gentile. But thanks to the undiscourageable man who spoke Hebrew like Moses and Greek like Socrates, a Jew who was yet a citizen of the Roman Empire, I’ve been turned from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, with the result that I have received forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ.

If you are wondering what the point of this sermon is, the point is simple: it is one Gentile’s gratitude to a Jew who wanted only to tell all the Gentiles that they all could — and should — grasp the One Jew given to the world and thereafter enjoy the company of Abraham and Deborah and Jeremiah and Miriam. I’m a Gentile who will ever be grateful to that apostle through whose faithfulness the Holy One of Israel has become mine, and I his, for ever and ever.


                                                                      Victor Shepherd

January 1997