Reflections on the Book of Acts #21: Gentiles

Here’s the link to Acts 21.

Paul is warned by a prophet named Agabus who, having bound himself symbolically with Paul’s belt, prophesies that when he gets to Jerusalem he will be bound and handed over to the Gentiles.

And we soon see what happens, because he insists on going to Jerusalem anyway, declaring his readiness to die for Christ.

Upon his arrival, he meets with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, including James. They hear of his ministry to the Gentiles of Asia Minor—and all that God is doing among them—and they let him know that there is a rumour going around that he’s telling Jews to ignore Moses and the law. This has gotten some people very upset.

Then they hatch a plan that will demonstrate that Paul is, as the leaders suggest, careful about observing the law. But while going through with the plan, which involved a purification ritual in the temple, Paul is seized by Jews who believed him to be a dangerous heretic. They drag him out into the street and start beating him.

Thankfully, the Gentile authorities get wind of what’s happening. They get to the scene, where Paul is bound and taken into custody.

So he was bound by and handed over to the Gentiles, but because his own fellow Jews were beating him. His being arrested ended up being the best thing that happened to him that day.

And after being detained by the authorities, he asks to speak to the crowd. In the next chapter he will recount his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Gentiles, of course, are simply non-Jews. And there were Jews who were violently opposed to Paul because of his ministry to the Gentiles, for the possibility that he had rejected the law, and because they believed he had taken Gentiles into the temple where they didn’t belong.

Now, Paul hadn’t rejected the law of Moses. Nor had he brought Gentiles into that place in the temple where they were not allowed. So he had not violated his Jewish faith nor shown disrespect to his Jewish brothers and sisters.

But he had been evangelizing and planting churches with Gentiles. For this, of course, he would make no apology. God himself had opened that door.

The faith that had been planted through one particular people—the people of Israel—was spilling beyond these initial borders into unfamiliar territory. But because the people of Israel—or certainly much of the leadership—had become so narrow-minded and hard-hearted, they couldn’t conceive of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob also being the God of Cornelius and Lydia.

We see the tension between the growing Christian movement and the Jewish community ratcheting up. The old wineskin would soon be unable to contain the new wine. You could argue that the old wineskins were about to burst.

Whenever God moves to do something new, because the previous methods or models or institutions have grown stale, inefficient, or immovable, it can be a hard pill to swallow. There will always be opposition. Some will angrily and stubbornly resist change. Some will try to put a stop to it, believing themselves to be in the right.

To be open to the moving of God by his Holy Spirit in our lives and in the life of our communities of faith means being open to change, to new expressions of church, to new ways of embodying the good news of Jesus.

By holding on too tightly to what we have known, are familiar with, and no doubt love might well be resisting God—and may well keep others from hearing and experiencing the same Jesus Paul met while on his way to persecute those who were already following him as Lord.

We are all Gentiles now.

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