The Search for God’s People—Part 1

The Call of the Apostle to the Gentiles

THE general concept taught in Christian churches throughout the world is that God’s purpose now in having the Gospel message proclaimed is to convert the world to Christ, and to save the souls of mankind. If one hears the word and responds—he will go to heaven. If he ignores the message—he faces eternal torment. A careful study of the Bible reveals that this is not so. God’s objective for this age in sending forth his Word is to find “a people for his name,” an expression used by the Apostle James concerning the first of the Gentile converts.—Acts 15:14

The search for those who will be of the Christ class has progressed from the time of our Lord’s first advent until our Jay—a period of time which has involved approximately one thousand nine hundred and fifty years. We note that as this search continues, its objective has not changed; it is no different today than it was in the days of the apostles. And it is only when this selective work has been completed that God will turn to all the people for their conversion through the Christ.

As we look back at those beginning days of the search for God’s people, we note God’s faithfulness in keeping his word to Israel. For centuries God dealt exclusively with the nation of Israel, even as he said through the Prophet Amos, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.”—Amos 3:2

That exclusive favor brought penalties for unfaithfulness. Among those punishments was their captivity in Babylon which lasted seventy years. Daniel, one of those taken captive, went to God in prayer as the time approached for the end of their captivity, seeking the return of God’s favor to his people. God answered that prayer through the angel, Gabriel, who revealed to Daniel how God would bless Israel with a period of favor. Daniel 9:24-27 tells of the seventy weeks of favor to Israel.

The key to understanding the time features of this prophecy is obtained from Daniel’s contemporary, the Prophet Ezekiel, who was given this vital factor by God: “I have appointed thee each day for a year.” (Ezek. 4:6) The seventy weeks, then, were not intended to be four hundred and ninety days, but rather four hundred and ninety years. Within the seventy weeks, however, a period of sixty-nine weeks—or four hundred and eighty-three years—are mentioned, spanning the time when the decree would go forth to “restore and to build Jerusalem” unto “Messiah the prince.”—Dan. 9:25

True to Gabriel’s prophetic announcement, as soon as Babylon was conquered by Medo-Persia, Cyrus, the king of Persia, made a decree to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:1-4) But this decree, made in 536 B.C., was not to rebuild the city. It was not until 454 B.C., when Nehemiah asked King Artaxerxes II for permission to rebuild Jerusalem that the decree went forth to accomplish this task. (Neh. 2:1-6) Likewise, four hundred and eighty-three years later—in A.D. 29 Jesus came to Jordan to be immersed by John the Baptist. Israel’s Messiah had come and started his ministry.

However, the prophecy recorded in the ninth chapter of Daniel also stated that Messiah would be “cut off, but not for himself.” (vs. 26) Later it was revealed that this would be “in the midst of the week.” (vs. 27) Three and one-half years after Messiah began his ministry, he was put to death in the middle of that week of seven years. Yet that last week of favor, from A.D. 29 to A.D. 36, was a very special time indeed, and was particularly mentioned in Daniel’s prophecy.

There was no doubt that the favor to Israel was exclusive. Nevertheless, during Jesus’ ministry there were times when Gentiles sought the blessings he had to offer. One such incident involved a woman of Canaan, whose daughter was vexed with a devil. As she pleaded with Jesus, “he answered her not a word.” Although ignored, this woman was so persistent that the disciples besought Jesus to send her away. Jesus then told her plainly, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But still she would not be denied, and continued to beseech him. Jesus again said to her, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs.” “Truth, Lord,” she responded, “yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” This expression of faith touched Jesus’ heart, and he healed her daughter.—Matt. 15:21-28

This woman was one of several Gentiles who received blessings from Jesus, but they were few in comparison to the great majority of natural Israel who received the benefits of our Lord’s teaching and healing liberally. This exclusive favor to Israel was shown in other ways. The twelve apostles were chosen from Israel, and became foundation members of the church.

One, Judas, failed in his calling and had to be replaced. The apostles thought to do this, using a very proper and approved procedure—casting votes for the selection. (Acts 1:15-26) However, they had overlooked the fact that it was not their task to select apostles. This appointment could only be made by the Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus. They had forgotten our Lord’s words to them, “Ye have not chosen me, I have chosen you.” (John 15:16) The principle here stated by our Lord applies to all selected as “people for his name.” Later, Saul of Tarsus, also a Jew, was chosen by the Lord to replace Judas.

We might expect that the work of finding members of the body of Christ would require a certain amount of organized effort, and we find that this was so. Key people were motivated by the Holy Spirit to relocate to other geographic areas, so this work could gradually be extended. At first, all witness activity was centered in Jerusalem. The eleven apostles as well as other disciples continued to reside in that city, because Jesus had told them to tarry at Jerusalem until the helper, the Holy Spirit, would be sent to them.

Although, after the Holy Spirit came, many new converts continued with the apostles in Jerusalem, it was not long before hostility against the disciples grew until it became very severe. This compelled them to resort to a communal arrangement for survival, since the means of earning their livelihoods was not readily available. Persecution continually made matters more and more difficult, and so they lived by pooling their resources.—Acts 2:41-47; 4:34,35

Word of this increasingly perplexing problem was communicated to other disciples living in outlying places, no doubt through those who came to Jerusalem from time to time to worship. It was probably in this way that the Lord touched the heart of a Levite named Joses, who lived on the island of Cyprus. He possessed valuable property there, but sold it and came to Jerusalem, laying the money at the feet of the apostles. (Acts 4:32-27) This was the Lord’s way of bringing Joses, surnamed Barnabas, to Jerusalem where he was needed and could be used.

There were still many Israelites in the Holy City who had come to Judah from other lands to celebrate the Passover. Some of these stayed, becoming disciples of our Lord. Among these were the Hellenists, or Greek-speaking Jews. The widows of this group began to complain that they were neglected in their share of community supplies. Word of this situation soon reached the apostles, who corrected it by having deacons appointed to oversee this service.

One of these deacons was Stephen, who is believed to have been a Hellenist. His preaching concerning Jesus as the Messiah caused confrontations with other Greek-speaking Jews who were not believers, which eventually led to a trial and conviction, followed by a terrible sentence of death by stoning.—Acts 6:8-15; 7:1-60

Stephen’s death had a severe impact upon the disciples in Jerusalem. Because of this evidence of increasing persecution, many chose to get away and settle in distant places. Some left for former homelands, and others who were natives of Judea decided to go with them. We read: “At that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. … Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word.”—Acts 8:1-4

There was a young man who was present at the stoning of Stephen who consented to his death, and participated by guarding the cloaks of those casting stones. Afterward, this young Jew went about with great zeal, creating havoc in the Early Church at Jerusalem—having Christian men and women arrested and imprisoned. Not content to limit his activity to Jerusalem, he decided to pursue some who had escaped. This man, called Saul of Tarsus, having obtained letters from the high priest to bring these disciples back for trial, set out for Damascus, in Syria.

While en route with his party, he was stopped, and struck blind by a brilliant light from heaven, and he heard a voice saying to him: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4) When Saul realized that the one confronting him was the Lord Jesus whom he was opposing, he was greatly frightened and confused—his self-confidence and self-assurance was suddenly gone. He was told to go to Damascus where he would receive further instructions from the Lord. The other members of the group led him by the hand and brought him to the home of a man named Judas. There he sat in the darkness of sightlessness for three days and three nights, neither eating nor drinking, but devoting himself to prayer.

If we were to place ourselves in Saul’s situation, we too would be turning over in our minds all our former misdeeds and misguided zeal, and then, beginning to realize that our actions had not been according to knowledge, we would beg the Lord for forgiveness. Through this very moving experience, Saul had a complete change of heart.

There was at that time a disciple living in Damascus named Ananias, to whom the Lord appeared in a vision, instructing him to go to Saul. “The Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for behold, he prayeth, and hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.” (Acts 9:11,12) We note that the prayers of Saul did not go unheeded. Ananias demurred, saying, “Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem. And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel.”—vss. 13-15

This experience occurred, according to our best reckoning, about A.D. 35—one year before the last week of exclusive favor to Israel would come to an end. In these words to Ananias, our Lord gave one of the first direct indications that Gentiles would be invited into the body of Christ.

In the end, Ananias did as he had been instructed, and went to the home of Judas where he greeted the blind man with the words, “Brother Saul!” Immediately Saul’s eyesight was restored, and he was immersed into Christ. Having been without food for three days and nights, he ate and was strengthened, and stayed with the disciples at Damascus for several days.

It might appear from this account in Acts that Saul immediately went out and began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus was the Christ. But can one witness effectively without first learning God’s plan from the Scriptures? When Luke wrote the account, he did not tell how Saul obtained an understanding of the Scriptures. However, this information is supplied by Paul himself (Saul later became known as Paul, Acts 13:9), when he wrote letters to the churches of Galatia and Corinth.

In the opening verse of the letter to the Galatians we learn how Paul confirms his appointment as an apostle by Jesus and the Heavenly Father: “Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by men, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead).” (Gal. 1:1) Then, recounting his experiences, he tells how he made a complete turnabout from obeying men and following after the praise of men, to the service of God. He also mentions how God sent him into Arabia to receive very special knowledge through direct revelations. However, this great honor never made him high-minded; he was always reminded that first he had run entirely in the wrong direction. He later wrote: “I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”—I Cor. 15:9

One might wonder why our Lord did not send Paul to Jerusalem, to be instructed by the other apostles. Perhaps one reason was due to their feelings about Paul shown later, when they shunned him upon his return to Jerusalem, no doubt fearing that his apparent conversion was a hoax to trap them. Saul’s persecution of the church initially caused a barrier between him and the apostles, so God taught him the truth in a different way. Paul writes of this in Galatians 1:15-17: “When it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.”

Just prior to this, Paul told of his complete conversion from obeying and pleasing men, by his zeal for Judaism, to obeying and pleasing God. Paul’s experience should remind us that we can all too easily fall prey to the improper course of obeying and pleasing men, instead of striving to obey and to please God. He said, “Do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ. But I certify you, brethren, that the Gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equal in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.”—Gal. 1:10-14

The special call of Paul and the direct revelations given to him by Jesus and the Heavenly Father are confirmed again in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. There he observed that anyone who had undergone experiences such as these might have a tendency to boast about them. “Is it necessary to boast? It is not profitable indeed, but I will come even to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man, in Christ, who above fourteen years since—(whether with a body, I know not; or without a body, I know not; God knows;)—such a one suddenly conveyed away to the Third Heaven. And I know this very man, (whether with a body, or without the body, I know not: God knows;) that he was suddenly conveyed away into paradise, and heard indescribable things spoken, which it is not possible for a man to relate. Respecting such a person I will boast; but respecting myself I will not boast, unless in my weaknesses. For if I should desire to boast, I shall not be unwise; for I will speak the truth; but I forbear, lest anyone should impute to me more than what he sees me to be, or what he hears from me. And in order that I might not be unduly elated by the transcendency of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me—an Angel adversary—that it might afflict me; so that I should not be much exalted.”—II Cor. 12:1-7, Diaglott

We do not know how long Paul was in Arabia receiving these special revelations, but it might be safe to speculate that it was several months. After this he returned to Damascus, “and straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:20) The reaction of the unbelieving Jews in Damascus was one of amazement, knowing that Saul had come there to take those believing in Christ as his prisoners. His logic was so compelling and clear that none could refute his powerful preaching of the resurrected Christ. Therefore, his opposers decided it would be necessary to seal his lips by killing him. When the brethren learned of their plot, they helped Saul escape and to make his way back to Jerusalem.

Still the apostles and disciples at Jerusalem were afraid of Paul, thinking he had entered in among them to spy. Even though most of them found it difficult to accept him as a follower of Christ, Barnabas, who was an older disciple, realized that the matter had to be resolved, so he sought out Paul to talk with him. After he had learned of his peculiar experiences, obviously from God, and was convinced of his conversion, he took Paul to the apostles and insisted that they know the truth of the matter and of the complete change that had occurred in Paul’s life. The apostles and disciples then did accept Paul, and he became one of them, entering into their activities and speaking in the name of the Lord Jesus.

His preaching often brought him in contact with the Hellenists. We read of this in Acts 9:29: “He spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him.” From this we might receive the impression that he preached to Greek Gentiles. However, here the word Grecians should be translated ‘Hellenists’. Again, as before in Damascus, his logic and clear understanding of the Scriptures were so persuasive that none could disprove him. Similarly, these Hellenists decided the best way to silence the debate was to kill Saul, as their fellows in Damascus had thought to do.

The disciples in Jerusalem, learning of the plot, decided that for Paul’s safety he should return to his home in Tarsus—a city in Asia Minor in the province of Cilicia. They provided for his safe escort by way of Caesarea, a port city from which he could have sailed to Tarsus. There he remained for at least two years. Luke wrote, “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, were multiplied.”—Acts 9:31

This is a meaningful insertion by Luke concerning the change in conditions throughout the region. The Lord caused a respite from the severe persecution that had existed since the time of our Lord Jesus’ crucifixion. This was no doubt beneficial to the church, helping them in a material way since they then became more acceptable in Israel’s society, and employment was more readily obtainable. As a result, the communal arrangement became less and less important, and soon ended. It is noteworthy that there is no further mention of this type of shared, close-living social structure continuing, or being revived, among them. The main thrust of Luke’s comment is the spiritual growth of the church, as well as their growth in numbers. Keeping in mind that three thousand were immersed on the Day of Pentecost, the increase of the brethren in the church from that large beginning, all from the ranks of Israel, shows how God’s blessing was upon this nation only, even as the last week, or seven-year period, of favor came to an end.

In A.D. 36, the exclusive favor to Israel came to an end. The church, composed of disciples taken from Israel, had multiplied during the three and one-half years since our Lord’s death. Yet there were not enough found to complete the body of Christ. So God now began to call and choose disciples from among the Gentiles. The first to be selected was a Roman centurion named Cornelius. We read concerning him: “There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band. A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always.”—Acts 10:1,2

Although it is not a point that can be proven, it appears that this centurion was the one previously mentioned in Matthew 8:5-10, and Luke 7:1-9. Matthew’s account reads as follows: “When Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me; and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

After commending this centurion for his faith, Jesus said, “I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 8:11-13) This prophetic statement made by Jesus indicated that many in Israel would fail to avail themselves of the opportunity to become members of the body of Christ, and that God would turn to the Gentiles to find a people for his name. It was appropriate that Jesus should remark that he had not found so great a faith, no, not in Israel, in commendation of the centurion.

Matthew, in reporting this incident, condensed the account; Luke, however, presents the missing details. He begins by saying, “Now when he [Jesus] had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant.” Note how this report indicates that instead of the centurion, a Gentile, directly approaching Jesus, he sent elders of Israel to ask Jesus for this favor.

The question comes to mind, why would the Jewish elders comply so willingly to this request? The answer comes as we read on: “When they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, that he was worthy for whom he should do this: for he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. Then Jesus went with them. And when he was not now far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.”—Luke 7:4-10

It seems logical that anyone whom the Lord would choose to come into the body of Christ would first have exposure to Jesus and his teachings. We do not know when Cornelius came to Judea, but it must have been several years before Jesus started his ministry. Why would the Lord select a military man to be the first Gentile called to become a member of the body of Christ? We must keep in mind the providential leadings of God in the matter. Being displaced from one’s land to another so far away was unlikely unless that person was in the military service, or in Roman politics. Being in the army made it possible for Cornelius to come to Judea, and observing the religious worship of Israel, he compared it with his own religion. After weighing the matter, he accepted the worship of the true God of Israel. This was God’s way of preparing Cornelius and all his household for that greatest of all favors—an invitation to run for the prize of the high calling!

Thus, while Cornelius prayed, an angel of the Lord came with instructions for him to send for Peter who was nearby in Joppa, at the home of Simon, the tanner. Cornelius complied, sending two of his servants and a devout soldier. About that time, Peter had a most unusual experience. He had gone to the housetop to pray. He was hungry and would have eaten, but while the meal was being prepared he had a vision. In this vision “a vessel,” or a “great sheet knit at the corners,” descended from heaven. In it were unclean animals. Peter heard a voice say, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice spoke unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”—Acts 10:14,15

This same message was repeated two more times. And as Peter pondered the meaning, behold, the men sent by Cornelius were at the gate and asking whether Simon, surnamed Peter, was lodging there! The Holy Spirit enabled Peter to associate the three instructions of the vision to eat unclean animals, with the three Gentiles who had come on behalf of Cornelius. As they explained their mission, the description given to Peter of Cornelius and the one of the centurion in Luke 7:5, are remarkably similar. Luke 7:5 says, “He loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.” Acts 10:22 says, “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews.” Certainly a Roman centurion who would love Israel enough to build them a synagogue would be a most unusual man. Knowledge of his good deeds would be publicized throughout the nation. It is most unlikely that there would have been two centurions that matched this unique description.

Peter lodged the visitors overnight, and on the next day they all traveled to Caesarea with brethren from Joppa accompanying them. When they arrived at the home of Cornelius, they found a large group of kinsmen and near friends. The “devout” soldier sent on this mission, as well as the presence of these associates, gives us further insight into Cornelius’ life. His devotion to the God of Israel was not secret; others had been convinced by him to worship Jehovah. As Cornelius saw Peter coming, he fell at his feet worshiping him. (Acts 10:25) Peter explained that this was not necessary—he was an ordinary man. He also said, “Ye know [They were aware of this point of Jewish Law.] how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”—vs. 28

Peter then inquired why Cornelius had sent for him. Cornelius rehearsed all that had happened at the time the angel of the Lord appeared to him. Peter exclaimed “that God was no respector of persons” (vs. 34), and began to explain the reason for God’s interest in the Gentiles. He gave a wonderful discourse about our Lord Jesus: how he went about doing good, healing all that were oppressed of the devil. Apparently Cornelius and his household were acquainted with Jesus’ ministry, because Peter reminded them that they too were “witnesses of all things which he did.” (vs. 39) It is noteworthy that Peter spoke of the teachings of Jesus in a way that implies they were already familiar with them, using the expression: “that Word [which God sent to the children of Israel through Jesus] ye know.”—vss. 36,37

As Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit fell upon his hearers and they received the gifts of the Spirit. By this sign, none of the Jewish brethren there, as well as Peter, doubted that Gentiles were being called by God. Cornelius and all his household were immersed. (vss. 44-48) Although the name of Cornelius is remembered as the first Gentile converted to Christianity, it was, in fact, the entire group assembled at his home that had been invited by God to run for the prize of the high calling. Their names nor number we do not know, but the Scriptures indicate that many were gathered there.—vs. 24

The selection of these first Gentiles marked the end of exclusive favor to Israel for the extending of this great honor—to be part of the church class. From this point in time on, there would be “neither Jew nor Greek,” but all would be “one in Christ Jesus.”—Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11

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