A Question I Was Asked:

Why Was Gospel Outreach to the Gentiles So Slow?

The Question:

I am wondering what you think regarding the apostles' and disciples' non-existent outreach policy to Gentiles up to the point when Peter sees a vision and is convinced that Gentiles also are to be given the gospel. Before the vision there is no work being done to deliver the gospel to non Jews, despite Christ's last instruction to them (aka great commission). It seems either the Christians are not aware of this or there is something which is not mentioned in Acts.

It takes them about 10 years to realise that it is alright for Gentiles to join them in their faith?

God probably allowed the early Gospel to have a Matthaic complexion to help draw in Jews...

UK Apologetics Reply:

There is no question that the recipients of the Gospel were initially more interested in taking it to those of Israelitish descent. Even Jesus said,

"...I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." (Matthew 15:24b).

However, in that very 15th chapter of Matthew, Jesus does heal a Canaanite woman.

James starts his book thus,

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (James 1:1).

So there can be no doubt that the original Jerusalem church was very Israel-focused. They will have heard the Great Commission but wished to start with Israel. Maybe they had an understanding that a work among the Gentiles would come later. Even Paul, who became the Apostle to the Gentiles, always firstly entered the synagogues in any town which he visited, although he may well have intended to seek out the 'God-fearers,' who were Gentiles who believed in, and wished to worship, the God of Israel.

The Jerusalem Conference convened about AD49, its conclusions are recorded in Acts 15. It is obvious that Paul already had a mission among the Gentiles by this date, probably well before that date but now he sought full authority and clarification for his mission to the Gentiles. It was certainly granted but it is interesting to note that some Jews were not happy about this. Some believed that Gentiles needed to be taught to observe all the mosaic rituals including such things as circumcision. Acts 15 commences,

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15:1-2).

Although Paul and Barnabas had already preached to the Gentiles before AD49, possibly well before that date, they now had the full authority of the Jerusalem Conference. Moreover it was decided that their mission was to preach Christ and Him crucified, matters such as foods, circumcision and even the Sabbath were not to hinder them. Yet there is no question that certain troublemakers, probably mainly emanating from Jerusalem, continued to give Paul and Barnabas real problems for a few more years, certainly to at least AD57 (when Romans was written), or even later.

Matthew wrote his gospel to the Jews and shows little interest in non-Jews (I use 'Jews' in the broadest sense to include all of Israelitish descent), James, elder at Jerusalem, also shows little or no interest in non-Jews. It may well be that our Lord allowed a more Jewish-flavoured Gospel until the destruction of the temple in AD70, after which only the broader Pauline Gospel had authority because this is - effectively - what we see. The gospels of Luke and John (especially the latter) are much broader and wider than Matthew's approach and show a generous understanding of the place of Gentiles.

So yes, the first preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ - mainly by Israelites among fellow Israelites - had a flavour which would appeal to those people. This seems to have been the usual aproach for the first 37-40 years, but with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD70, the whole flavour changed - now the more Pauline-flavoured Gospel would hold sway and has continued to do so throughout the history of the Church.

I don't really think this is about blaming the first Christian believers about the "non-existent outreach policy to Gentiles," God does things in His own time. It seems to me that God used people such as Paul, Barnabas, possibly Apollos, and probably others we don't even know about to bring His divine Gospel message to its full maturation, in a form for every man and woman of every nation. This, after all, fulfilled the Great Commission. We have to remember that the old covenant was often seen as being primarily about the behaviour of the children that Abraham fathered through Sarah, it took a long time for this strongly nationalistic perception to die among certain sections of Israel.

Robin A. Brace. August, 23rd, 2012.