Vigilance and resoluteness of purpose defined the early congregations.
During the first century, the dynamic of the gospel of the kingdom being spread across the known world was one of irregular, but steady growth. One of those stages which took this growth to the next level is when the message began being shared even with those outside the accepted Jewish faith. This group of outsiders consisted of Hellenists.
Acts 11:19-21: “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Messiah. The hand of Yahweh was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to Yahweh.”
Scholars have several opinions about who these Hellenists were. As they are mentioned in the Bible, many times the context determines who is being discussed. Were they former Jews who had assimilated into the surrounding Greek culture, or were they just the pagan Greeks who had never known the Bible, commonly referred to as Gentiles?
The weight of history, at least the history of Christianity, has fallen on the side of these people being Gentiles, explaining why so many non-Jewish believers have populated the “Church” over the millennia. However, a strong case exists for these Hellenists being descendants of the Jews who had been scattered during the Diaspora (the captivities of Assyria and Babylon) and who had over time assimilated into the regional cultures. This makes sense of passages which speak of God bringing all of the former tribes back together into his everlasting kingdom.
One of the most famous and descriptive of these passages is the prophecy of “two sticks” in Ezekiel 37.
Ezekiel 37:19-27 – “tell them, ‘This is what Yahweh GOD says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel associated with him, and put them together with the stick of Judah. I will make them into a single stick so that they become one in my hand.’ “When the sticks you have written on are in your hand and in full view of the people, “tell them, ‘This is what Yahweh GOD says: I am going to take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them into their own land. “I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel, and one king will rule over all of them. They will no longer be two nations and will no longer be divided into two kingdoms. “They will not defile themselves anymore with their idols, their abhorrent things, and all their transgressions. I will save them from all their apostasies by which they sinned, and I will cleanse them. Then they will be my people, and I will be their God. “My servant David will be king over them, and there will be one shepherd for all of them. They will follow my ordinances, and keep my statutes and obey them. ” ‘They will live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They will live in it forever with their children and grandchildren, and my servant David will be their prince forever. “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be a permanent covenant with them. I will establish and multiply them and will set my sanctuary among them forever. “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
The apostle Paul even quotes this passage directly when speaking of believers as the temple of God:
2 Corinthians 6:16 – And what agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said: I will dwell and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.
This also explains why the “missionary” emphasis was so strong during the first century, since it was imperative the message of the kingdom was spread as far as possible to include all of the former tribes.
Regardless of the specific spiritual intent of these missionary journeys, the ultimate goal was that everyone, Jew, Hellenistic former Jews, and Gentiles would come to Messiah. Once involved in a local congregation, they were all encouraged to respect their differences but to maintain a vigilant unity in Messiah.
Acts 11:22-24: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to Yahweh.”
As Barnabas exhorted the believers in Antioch, he encouraged them all to remain faithful to Yahweh with “steadfast devotion.” This phrase speaks to the demonstrable nature of the early faith of the believing communities. The phrase in the original Greek can be translated as “resolute purpose” or “openness of heart.” It is a phrase that is also used in describing the “showbread,” the twelve loaves of bread that were continually placed before Yahweh in the temple. This bread was a reminder of how each of the twelve tribes of Israel was to recognize how they were to remain purposefully open and evident within the presence of God Almighty at all times.
To me, this is a poignant illustration of the work that God was doing among those first-century believers: calling all of the tribes, whether in scattered Jewish outposts or Hellenists, back to himself with the message of Messiah and the kingdom of God. Through their combined reunification, other “God-fearers” of the Gentiles would also be welcomed into the new movement that would grow to become a worldwide phenomenon, which continues to this day.
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