Salvation from Israel to Israel

A study of the strategy of Paul’s Gentile mission

1. Introduction
Paul is, without doubt, the greatest theologian and missionary in the entire Christian history. There may be many theologians after him whose work inspired and even led to crucial church reforms and changed the entire course of history, but few of them did so without consulting the original work of Paul.

While Paul has laid the cornerstone for so many Christian doctrines, until recently few scholars paid attention to his theological foundation for his missionary activities. In fact, his mission work has long been separated from his theology; even today, mission and theology have not informed one another as they should. [1] A careful study will show that Paul had achieved unparalleled success in Christian missionary activities not only during his time but also in the entire human history. Hengel advocated that “Paul was the first Christian theologian precisely because he was the first Christian missionary”.[2]

Paul did not sit down and write theology; all the epistles that are attributed to him were, in reality, written to the churches that were either founded by him or were subjects of his deep pastoral or missionary concerns. Most of the letters were prompted by specific reasons or problems that he was compelled to address or resolve, and since most of the problems resulted from the lack of knowledge of or misunderstanding of Christian faith, Paul had to admonish the churches with spiritual or theological justifications. Therefore to study the Pauline letters without familiarity of his mission endeavors is to have the means without its intended ends.

The purpose of this paper is to begin the study from Paul’s call to Gentile apostleship and his mission objectives, and determine whether he plotted his mission map strategically or whether his itinerary was a result of circumstances. We will also explore briefly Paul’s view of the true identity of Israel.

2. Salvation defined
Before we proceed to examine Paul’s mission strategy, we have first to look at the primary content of his message: Salvation. It is one of Paul’s favorite terms or metaphors to denote the sense of “rescue, bringing to safety” and the wholeness of the healthy person. [3] In the Pauline writings, “salvation” refers to deliverance from sin and from the consequences of sin.[4]

What is more important, however, is the content of Paul’s message which brings about salvation, which he clearly spelt out in Rom 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, since it is the power of God for salvation….” and this gospel has been given “through Christ Jesus” about “Christ Jesus”. It is the gospel of God, the gospel of the Son of God.[5]

Dunn identified two equally fundamental stages of salvation: the first being the beginning which is a decisive event in the past; the other refers to a continuing process of being transformed.[6] It is important to highlight these two aspects of salvation as they have significant bearing on Paul’s mission theology as we continue to examine his every move in the mission field.

3. The Christophany and the Call
The road to Damascus was a life-changing experience for Paul not only because Jesus appeared to him and revealed Himself as the Christ whom he was persecuting, but also, according to Paul’s own account, commissioned him to be the apostle to the Gentiles. From that day thereafter, the sole purpose and meaning of his life was to proclaim the crucified and resurrected Christ.

The Christophany was regarded by Paul as an encounter with the risen Christ in the same way as His disciples encountered the risen Christ before His ascension. This constituted the justification for his claim to be among the witnesses of the risen Christ (1Cor 15:8) and therefore satisfied the prerequisite of apostleship. His testimony in Acts 26: 16-18 further demonstrated that the main purpose of the Christophany was to commission Paul to preach to the Gentiles.

4. Salvation for Gentiles
The greatest struggle for the Jews was the fact that salvation which was known to be exclusive to the Jews was now being offered to the Gentiles. Paul therefore had to justify the legitimacy of his call by pointing out the following:

4.1. The mystery of God revealed
In his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians, Paul repeatedly spoke of the “mystery” in the past generations that had been “kept hidden in God” and now been revealed to him by revelation. In Eph 3: 2-7 Paul focused on God’s revelation to himself of the mystery regarding the Gentile’s part in salvation and that this goal would be achieved through his preaching (3:8-12). As he reflected upon his commission to be Christ’s missionary to the Gentiles, Paul was amazed that he was given the extraordinary privilege to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. This was something which the Old Testament prophets looked forward to see and through the grace of God (3: 1, 7) Paul became the first one to be given the privilege of unfolding the mystery to his contemporaries.[7]

4.2. The purpose of God’s call
Paul was a persecutor of Christians and was unworthy of the salvation of God, yet God called him to be His servant to proclaim this glorious and profound gospel. Such a calling can only be due to God’s grace, which indicates that his calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles was bound up with the salvation event itself.

This is not to deny that his convictions about this calling grew or that he came to a deeper understanding of the magnitude of his missionary task at a later stage. But the logic of preaching Christ to the Gentiles was already grasped by Paul at the time of the Damascus road revelation.[8]

4.3. Paul’s commission and the salvation history
In order to defend his Gentile mission, Paul identified the gospel with the promise made to Abraham in Gal 3:8, that “all the nations will be blessed through you”. As Paul preached the gospel and Gentiles were brought into a covenant relationship with the living God through faith, so the promises made to Abraham were in the process of being fulfilled.[9]

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul alluded his call to that of Isaiah and Jeremiah in that they were all separated before birth to be the Servants of God for the ‘nations’[10]. Therefore Paul’s Gentile mission was to be viewed as a continuation of the salvation work of the Servant figure in Jer 1:5 and Isaiah 40-55.

5. Paul’s Strategy for Gentile Mission
5.1. Jewish missions
In the view of Schoeps, Paul was already a missionary before his conversion. As a Pharisee, his zeal was for the Jewish traditions and the Laws to be spread far and wide to the Diaspora. During the apostolic age, the number of Jews, including proselytes of Hellenistic Judaism, reached a record high of one in every fourteen or fifteen men in the Roman Empire. This wave of Jewish mission was inspired by a universalistic messianic hope which stemmed from the Old Testament prophecies e.g. Isaiah 26:2 that “the righteous nations which keep faith may enter in”. Even Jesus acknowledged the zeal of Pharisees in His time who traveled through land and sea to make proselytes (Mt 23: 15).[11]

Throughout Paul’s life the same prophetic promises were the impelling force behind his mission activities, the promise that in the Messianic age the nations would join Israel in the worship of her God, to serve Him side by side with Israel after their lips had been cleansed (Zeph 3: 9). Hence, after his conversion, he was quick to become a Christian missionary to the Gentiles as ‘he saw his old task in a new light’.[12]

5.2. The geographical framework
Many scholars were puzzled over Paul’s claim in Rom 15: 23 that “there is no more place for me to work in these regions” when he only covered selected areas in Asia, Macedonia and Achaia. It is therefore necessary to examine the foregoing passage in Rom 15: 19-21 for clues concerning what he had accomplished till then and his justification for making such a claim.

In v19 he described in a big sweep “from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum” all the areas that he had covered in his three mission journeys as he stood at the tail end of his third journey in Corinth, gazing across the Adriatic sea towards Rome, his intended transit station before going to Spain. Apparently he saw a particular pattern in his missionary efforts which could be expressed within a geographical frame of reference and understood Jerusalem to be the starting point of the whole Christian mission.[13]

5.3. Jewish and Old Testament support
Riesner found two major Old Testament texts that may have provided Paul with the theological understanding and foundation of his Damascus Christophany and the subsequent mission routes that he took as well as his impetus to dedicate his life to the Gentile mission.

5.3.1. The light of the Messiah in the land of Damascus
Paul’s encounter with Christ was accompanied by a heavenly light which may have reminded him of Isa 9: 1-2 and Isa 49: 6 as the eschatological light that radiated around him. The promise of Isa 9: 1 belongs to a particular geographical context that is closely associated with the Messianic hope. According to Josephus, the territory of Naphtali extended to Damascus. As Jesus the Messiah began His ministry in northern Galilee and the land east of Jordon, it is reasonable for Paul to interpret the shining of the messianic light near Damascus as the beginning of the eschatological ingathering of the Gentiles. Isa 49:6 provided Paul with the eschatological commissioning to be the Servant of God to the Gentiles.[14]

5.3.2. The prophecy of Isa 66: 18-21
In Isa 66:19, some specific geographic descriptions were provided within the context of eschatological hope for the Gentiles.[15] The first point to note is that some “survivors” will be sent to places where the people “have not heard of my fame or seen my glory”. In this passage, Paul found support for what he wrote in Rom 15:20 that he only “preach the gospel where Christ was not known” since it was from here that the notion that human agents were sent to proclaim the gospel to those who have not heard of the name of God surfaced. The human agent naturally referred to missionaries such as himself.[16]

Altogether seven areas in the ancient text of Isa 66:19 have been identified (especially by rabbinic tradition) geographically to be: Tarsus, Cilicia, Lydia, Mysia, Bithynia, Macedonia, and the farthest west. This map corresponds to the geographical region mentioned in Rom 15: 19. While there is no evidence to prove that Paul planned his missionary journeys based on this prophecy, there seems no reason to rule out the possibility that this was one of the factors which influenced Paul in making his every move throughout his journeys.[17]

5.4. Paul’s mission strategy
Paul’s Christian missionary success was recognized as a phenomenon which was much more remarkable and aggressive than the Jewish mission. His choice of missionary fields was mainly determined by the following factors:
1. taking the Jewish synagogue congregations as a point of departure along with the circle of proselytes and “God-fearers” often found around them;
2. favorable or unfavorable travel conditions
3. an orientation toward the Roman provinces and their centers;
4. a positive reception of or opposition to the gospel;
5. work in areas previously not the object of missionary activity;
6. the building and nurturing of viable churches; and
7. the Pauline conviction of not only being bound generally to God’s will, but also of receiving concrete guidance through the Holy Spirit. [18]

We shall now follow the route that Paul took in his three mission journeys to examine Paul’s strategy in pushing forward the gospel. The starting point, of course, is none other than Jerusalem.
5.4.1 The starting point

Immediately after the Damascus event, Paul was said to be in Arabia. We are not told of the exact location, but in 2Cor 11:32 Paul’s reference to his arrest in Damascus by the Nabatean Ethnarch may provide a clue to the beginning of his Gentile mission. At this point, he went to Jerusalem. This seemed to fit into Rom 15:19 where Paul viewed Jerusalem exclusively as the point of departure for his mission to the Gentiles.[19]

However, the situation in Jerusalem did not permit him to stay long (Acts 9:29), and upon seeing the vision of God (Acts 22: 17-21) he left very quickly. Paul was now faced with a major decision: where should he begin? As the Nabateans were controlling the southern and eastern caravan routes, the mission doors to these two areas had been closed for Paul. Moreover Isa 66:19 mentioned neither the east nor the south. Therefore the nearest route was to go north, bringing him to Tarsus, his birth place, which happened to be the first location listed in Isa 66:19.[20]

5.4.2. The early mission
Tarsus had much to offer as Paul’s first missionary base:
1. He could be protected by his Tarsan and Roman citizenship.
2. It was the second most important city in Syria-Cilicia region after the capital at Antioch with a significant Jewish presence.
3. It was close to the port and the Cilician Gates where Paul could travel to the north or west.[21]

Paul could have spent the most part of his initial years in Cappadocia, even though Acts was silent over this.[22] If Paul understood Cilicia to be one of the locations mentioned in Isa 66:19, it could easily explain why he spent such a long time in Tarsus.[23] Because of its proximity to Antioch, Barnabas took Paul from Tarsus to join him in pasturing and preaching in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26) where the subsequent series of aggressive Gentile mission were launched.

The reason for Paul to begin his first mission journey in Cyprus was probably due to the fact that Barnabas came from Cyprus and there could be a large Jewish congregation there. From Perga, the way to Bithynia in the north and Greece to the west was made possible by the Roman highway through Pisidian Antioch, leading to the Black Sea area and Mysia. However one possible factor that determined Paul’s onward destination from Perga to Pisidian Antioch and south of Galatia was the advise of proconsul Sergius Paullus whom Paul met in Paphos (Acts 13:12).[24] The assumption makes good sense because if he intended to go to Galatia during his first trip, he could have departed from Antioch by land through Tarsus, as he did subsequently in the next two trips, instead of taking the round about way by sea.[25]

5.4.3. The westward push
A Zealot movement which aroused hatred between the Jews and the Gentiles might have intensified the crisis faced by the early Christian churches concerning the need for circumcision of the Gentiles. The Jerusalem council, through the providential guidance of the Holy Spirit, put this problem to rest and paved the way for Paul’s aggressive Gentile mission. His separation with Barnabas further accentuated his intention to fulfill the prophecy of Isa 66:19 while he ventured further into the west, into Macedonia and Achaia.[26]

One interesting factor that occurred during the second journey was the intervention of the Holy Spirit which prevented him from going to Asia as well as Bithynia. Besides geographic difficulties, there could well be a linguistic reason. Reisner commented that Luke only highlighted a few locations to demonstrate the “goal-oriented guidance of the Spirit into the new mission of Europe” and cited “three thwarted destinations to which Paul was directed by Isa 66:19: Asia, Mysia and Bithynia”. The deliberate move to Troas could again be spurred by the fact that after Bithynia, the destinations mentioned in Isa 66:19 were Greece or Macedonia, an area untouched by the gospel at that time.[27]

5.4.4. The gospel reaches Europe
The first destination in Macedonia was Philipi, with Thessalonica, the provincial capital as his goal.[28] Paul evidently had Rome in view as he tried to push his west-bound journey but the situation in Rome did not permit him to do so.[29] With no further destination to the north of Macedonia in Isa 66:19, and in order to establish a close connection between the newly founded churches in Macedonia, Achaia and south Galatia, Paul decided to move from Corinth to Ephesus, the metropolis of Asia Minor. Paul concluded his journey by delivering the collection to Jerusalem before going back to Antioch, possibly with the intention of establishing connections between the new churches in south Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia with the two mission headquarters, Jerusalem and Antioch.[30]

Paul’s third trip followed the same route through south Galatia and reached Ephesus via Phrygia, wherein he strengthened the disciples along the way. The fact that he did not travel by sea from Palestine to his destination, Ephesus, underscores the importance Paul placed in connecting the south Galatian congregations. Ephesus became Paul’s mission headquarters for the next few years, during which Paul founded churches in the surrounding areas and maintaining contact with Greece by means of letters, including the first letter to the Corinthians. [31]

Paul left Ephesus after facing afflictions and probably imprisonment, and moved to Troas where he had great success with the gospel. When he wrote the second letter to the Corinthians in Macedonia, Claudius had died and was succeeded by Nero, thus opening the way for Paul to visit Rome.[32] Therefore before returning to Jerusalem, he wrote the letter to the Romans to announce his intended visit and his wish for their support for his mission endeavor in Spain.[33]

By this time, Paul had already established strong ties with his Asian and Macedonian churches along the localities mentioned in Isa 66:19 to justify his claim in Rom 15:19 concerning the fulfillment of the gospel, that is, except “the distant islands” or the farthest west. I shall end the account here because Luke did not provide further information after Acts 28 even though close studies of Paul’s letters may provide clues for his activities after his release from the house arrest in Rome.

6. The real Israel
Paul saw the Gentile mission as the fulfillment of Isa 49: 6 both in terms of ushering in of the messianic age as well as his role in the fulfillment of this prophecy. [34] However the one struggle he had to overcome was reason for majority of the Jews to be excluded from salvation as they continued to reject the Messiah and persecute the Christians. No doubt the Jews’ rejection of the gospel helped to justify Paul’s Gentile mission in addition to the biblical support;[35] he was perturbed about the fact that Israel, the chosen people of God, was denied salvation.

The answer lies in the theodicy, the explanation and justification of God’s ways of salvation, which to mortal eyes are so inscrutable. [36] Firstly Paul discovered that the Torah, which served as the dividing wall separating Jews and Gentiles, was superceded by the saving act of Christ on the cross (Eph 2: 14-15; Rom 3: 21-22).[37] The Jews erred because of their failure to understand or accept this profound doctrine of salvation. Jesus tirelessly warned the Pharisees and his disciples about the same problem with countless teachings such as parables of the old and new (Lk 5: 33-39), the new commandments (Mk 12: 28-34), and clean and unclean hands (Mt 15: 1-20). Israel’s old understanding was now a hindrance to rather than an expression of God’s righteousness.[38]

Secondly Paul viewed the Jews’ rejection of the gospel as the necessary consequences of his eschatological convictions. Contrary to the liberal opinion that he conceived the idea of Gentile mission only after he failed to convert the Jews, Paul saw it as cohering with the divine plan of salvation since Adam and Abraham.[39] In Rom 9: 6 Paul made a startling statement that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel”. From the historical examples of God’s election, Paul deduced that membership in Israel did not come merely through physical birth, but must occur by promise and divine choice.[40] To be a real Israel, the ones called must respond with faith in Jesus Christ.[41] They are “the Israel of the new covenant, consisting of believing Jew and Gentile.” [42]

This brings us to the third aspect, which is the mystery of God’s predetermination of the ethnic Israel’s rejection of the gospel. In Rom 11: 25-27, Paul explained that Israel was experiencing a “partial hardening” until “the full number of the Gentiles” had come in.[43] The question is, since it was foretold by the prophets,[44] it must be part of God’s sovereign plan of hardening the hearts of Israel for the sake of Gentile inclusion. Paul ruled out this discussion on the grounds of God’s sovereign right to do so therefore the created beings should not question the Creator.[45] However, I would like to suggest that one should not focus on this isolated case as this was not the first time the Israelites had rejected and turned away from their faithful God. Israel throughout history has been repeating this cycle of disobedience, judgment, repentance and salvation that she herself was to blame.[46] It was the providence of God to always preserve the “remnants” no matter how severe the punishment was (Rom 11: 1-6).

Since the new Israel refers to the universal Christian community, no race is singled out for condemnation. On the one hand, the ethnic Israel has not been permanently or completely rejected; on the other hand, she has lost her historical advantage over the Gentile.[47]

8. Conclusion
Jesus made this proclamation in Jn 10: 16 during His earthly ministry: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” He did not bring in the “other sheep” Himself; it was the sovereign will of God to call Paul and those after him to the task. The gospel has to be preached to the whole world and it is not Jesus’ job but ours.

Paul certainly had a strategy for his Gentile mission, but his strategy was none other than the combination of inspiration from and interpretation of God’s prophecy, divine circumstantial influence and the direct prompting of the Holy Spirit. He followed the footsteps of Jesus in preaching firstly in the Jewish synagogues and was quick to turn to the Gentiles when he received negative response, not because he had no choice, but because he was eager to convert the Gentiles and bring them into the fold of Israel.

As beneficiaries of Paul’s Gentile mission, it would not suffice for us to rejoice over our new “citizenship of Israel”[48] and marvel at his wonderful accomplishment. Paul has done his part. He has fought the good fight and finished his race.[49] The responsibility of preaching the gospel is now ours. Paul was anxious to usher in the new age of God’s kingdom; so should we. We should pass on the baton, run our race and fight the battle which Paul left off in other parts of the world, and surely Jesus Christ will be with us always, to the very end of the age.[50]

Word count: 3867

Dahl, Nils Alstrup, Studies in Paul- Theology for the Early Christian Mission, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002.
DeSilva, David A., An Introduction to the New Testament- Context, Methods & Ministry Formation, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Dunn, James D. G., The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Morris, L., “Salvation”, Hawthorne, Gerald F., Martin, Ralph P., Reid, Daniel G., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
O’Brien, P. T., Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul- An Exegetical and Theological Analysis, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993.
Riesner, Rainer, Paul’s Early Period- Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Schoeps, H. J., Paul- The theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History, London: Lutterworth Press, 1961.
[1] Nils Alstrup Dahl, Studies in Paul- Theology for the Early Christian Mission, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002, 70. To scholars of two different extremes, Dahl confirms that Paul’s “theology and his missionary activity were inseparable from one another”.
[2] P. T. O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul- An Exegetical and Theological Analysis, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993, x-xi. O’Brien quoted from M. Hengel, ‘The Origins of the Christian Mission’, 49-50.
[3] James D. G.Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, 329. Other metaphors of salvation mentioned by Dunn are “Justification” (to be acquitted); “Redemption” (buying back of a slave); “Reconciliation” (restoring peace to two enemies), to name a few.
[4] L.Morris, “Salvation”, Hawthorne, Gerald F., Martin, Ralph P., Reid, Daniel G., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993, 858.
[5] Dunn, 164-165. The “gospel” is the main theme and message for majority of Paul’s letters, including Romans, which is famous for its doctrine of “Righteousness through faith”.
[6] Dunn, 319. L. Morris, in “Salvation”, added one more stage of salvation –“salvation now”, underscoring the urgency of salvation. “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2Cor 6: 2).
[7] O’Brien, 17-18. According to O’Brien, the divine mystery is integral to Paul’s missionary calling.
[8] O’Brien, 8-10.
[9] O’Brien,10-12.
[10] O’Brien, 5-6. Parallels can be found in Isa 49:1, 5 and Jer 1:5 which echoed Paul’s claim in Gal 1:15-16 that his was a divine call to be God’s servant to the Gentiles.
[11] H. J.Schoeps, 219-229. Schoeps distinguishes three categories of non-Jews who were related to Judaism: (1) the aliens who dwell in the land who had to observe the seven Noachidic commands, (2) the Gentiles won over by the missionaries who were expected to keep the most important commands-the Decalogue, the Sabbath, abstinence from nebeloth, and payment of the temple tax, and (3) the full proselytes who must keep the whole of Torah and go through circumcision in order to be counted as real Jews. Schoeps advocates that the second group forms the majority of Paul’s converts in Antioch, Thessalonica, Berea, Iconium, and Corinth. They were, in fact, converts of the Jewish missions and not “pure” heathen.
[12] Schoeps, 219.
[13] O’Brien, 37-38. O’Brian pointed out that Paul was not writing exclusively of his own work but was referring to the universal gospel mission as a whole.
[14] Rainer Riesner, Paul’s Early Period- Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, 237-241, 245.
[15] Isa 66: 19 “I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations—to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubai and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations.”
[16] Riesner, 245-249. Comparison of the “priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God” in Rom 15: 16 and the selection of “priests and levites” from among the nations who “bring their grain offerings to the temple of the Lord” in Isa 66: 21 reminds the readers of the importance Paul placed on the “offerings from the Gentiles” and the Gentiles themselves “as an offering to the Lord” (Isa 66:20).
[17] Riesner, 250-253. The contemporary understanding of these areas in the New Testament period: Tarsus in Cilicia, Libya (Cyrene) or Cilicia, Lydia in Asia Minor, Cappadocia or Mysia, the Caucasus or Bithynia, Greece or Macedonia, and the western end of the world.
[18] Riesner, 253-256. Please refer to p 255-256 for biblical accounts of the determining factors that changed the course of Paul’s journeys.
[19] Riesner, 256-263. Arabia could be the Nabatean Kingdom, including parts of Decapolis in Arabia with a Jewish settlement as a result of its connection with the Herodian Kingdom. Many scholars are certain that Paul also preached in Petra, but the fact that there was no known Christian community may suggest that even if he did, there was not much success. This is why Paul considered Jerusalem to be the starting point of the Gentile mission.
[20] Riesner, 262-266.
[21] Reisner, 266-267.
[22] Reisner, 267-268. Reisner attributed the reason for the silence to the fact that the Cappadocians were known to be crude and stupid which resulted in slow Hellenistic influence.