When the apostles first proclaimed the gospel message, they encountered two different audiences, Jewish and Gentile. The book of Acts records those encounters and the emphases in the content of the messages. Peter had the privilege of preaching the first gospel message to a Jewish audience on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14–41). He connected the unusual experiences of the Spirit-filled believers to the Old Testament prophecies in Joel to explain the establishment of a new era because of Jesus’ redemptive work. Further, he quoted from Psalm 16 to verify that the resurrection of Jesus was foreknown. He also established the Messianic Lordship of Jesus by quoting from Psalm 110.
In so doing, Peter communicated that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the offer of forgiveness in salvation was a continuation of God’s plan for the Jewish people. His message was for “the house of Israel” (Acts 2:36), and he stated clearly, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (v. 39). The response was remarkable. About 3,000 Jewish people welcomed the message, were baptized, and thus added to this newly formed spiritual community, the church.
Jewish People: First to Be Blessed
Peter’s next message also addressed a Jewish audience gathered in response to the miraculous healing of a paralyzed man (3:1–10). Again, he connected the event to the Old Testament prophecies concerning Jesus, in whose name the miracle was accomplished (vv. 13–16). Moses prophesied concerning Jesus and so did all the prophets (vv. 22–24), to whom the Jewish people are related. The Abrahamic Covenant also joins them to Jesus and provides the blessing of restoration to God available in Him (v. 25). Peter also declared that the Jewish people are first to receive this blessing (v. 26). As new as this message seemed to be, it declared the fulfillment of God’s plan for His Chosen People.
This second message raised a difficult issue with respect to the timing of “the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (v. 21). Peter promised “times of refreshing” and the return of Jesus in response to their repentance (vv. 19–20), which also has Old Testament prophecy to support it (Zechariah 12:10—13:1). In view of many Jewish people previously repenting and then another large number doing so (Acts 4:4), would this bring about the promise Peter declared? No! The repentance required is a national repentance demonstrated by the Jewish leaders, not the general population, which did not occur, as indicated by the arrest of Peter by the Jewish authorities and their persecution of them (4:3, 5–22).
For the Jewish people, the proclamation of the gospel continued God’s plan for them as His Chosen People to bring them spiritual blessing, the restoration of their relationship with God.
Even this rejection of Jesus and continuing hostility toward His followers was prophesied (Psalm 2:1–2), which encouraged the believers as they gathered in response to the treatment of Peter and John (Acts 4:23–31). They understood all the events as God’s predestined plan and were confident of His work on their behalf (v. 28). For the Jewish people, the proclamation of the gospel continued God’s plan for them as His Chosen People to bring them spiritual blessing, the restoration of their relationship with God. The other aspects of God’s plan for them await fulfillment, but they are guaranteed that they will be.
As further indication of the ongoing nature of God’s work for Jewish people, the apostle Paul teaches their relationship to circumcision and the Old Testament as an advantage (Romans 3:1–2). He also refers to their connection to the covenants of promise in contrast to Gentiles (Ephesians 2:12). Even in this new era when ethnic distinctions between Jewish and Gentile believers no longer apply (Galatians 3:28), only Jewish people enjoyed continuity with God’s previous promises expressed in the Old Testament covenants. For Jewish believers, the gospel was further indication of God’s favor toward them, albeit with a different focus distinct from national promises yet to be realized.
Gentiles: Fully Included
How do Gentiles fit into God’s plan for redemption from a Jewish perspective? Peter also had the privilege of preaching to a Gentile audience in Caesarea (Acts 10). God prepared him to accept Cornelius’s request to visit his home and speak to his household (vv. 9–16). This was necessary because Peter retained his Jewish abhorrence of relationships with Gentiles (v. 28). This indicates that Jewish believers understood the gospel was God’s ongoing blessing for them, but not so for Gentiles. Thankfully, Peter learned God shows no partiality and went to Cornelius, spoke to his household, and experienced God’s salvific work among them (vv. 34–48). In his renewed perspective, he still mentioned that the message was sent to Israel ( v. 36), retaining its connection to this new work. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, he needed to explain his ministry to Gentiles because of criticism by the circumcision party, which again indicated the belief that Jewish people were included as chosen beneficiaries of the gospel and solely so for this party.
Samaritans, a group with mixed ethnic identity of Jew and Gentile, had a similar problem with Jewish acceptance as included in God’s blessing. When Philip preached to them with significant response (8:4–14), his ministry needed verification by the apostles at Jerusalem. God ensured these new believers were regarded as fully included as members of the church in the sending of Peter and John from Jerusalem, by whose agency the Samaritan believers received the Holy Spirit (vv. 14–17). God provided a sure sign of His full acceptance of these believers, which protected the unity of the church and prevented division on ethnic grounds.
These various events indicate that Jewish believers, including the apostles, still considered the Jewish people as those chosen by God for blessing. Covenant promises made to Abraham, then Isaac and Jacob, as well as David and Solomon, along with the prophecies for Israel provided the foundation for Jewish believers to welcome Jesus as their Messiah and the blessings available in Him. This did potentially create a barrier for acceptance of non-Jewish believers, which God addressed through the experiences of the apostles and others.
Reaching Gentiles Where They Were
God called Saul of Tarsus, later identified as the apostle Paul, to reach Gentiles with the gospel (9:15). Paul did not ignore the need of Jewish people and often preached to them first before going to Gentiles (13:5, 14, 44–47; 14:1; 17:2; 18:4–6), but his primary calling was Gentiles. Interestingly, when Paul spoke to Jewish audiences, he used the Old Testament to support the gospel message in a similar manner to Peter (13:15–41). Once again, Paul considered Jewish people as privileged to receive God’s blessing as a continuation of promises made to previous generations.
When speaking to Gentiles, his method of communication changed to suit their context, best illustrated by his message in Athens (17:22–34). Having no connection to the Old Testament, Paul used a local idol, “the unknown god,” to bridge the gap between them and the message of the gospel (v. 23). He also referred to their literature (v. 28), as he revealed God’s requirement of repentance to escape judgment (v. 30). The Gentile hearers previously labeled Paul’s communication as a “new teaching” and “some strange things” (vv. 19–20), which prompted the invitation to communicate further.
For all these Gentiles, the gospel was a new revelation of God’s blessing in the person of Jesus.
The response was varied with some mocking Paul’s mention of resurrection from the dead, others wanting to hear more and some believing the message, joining Paul (vv. 32–34). For all these Gentiles, the gospel was a new revelation of God’s blessing in the person of Jesus. Paul explains this new revelation with respect to Gentiles in his letter to the Ephesians. He calls it a mystery now made known that “Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). In this new era of redemptive history, Gentile believers are blessed as much as Jewish believers.
A Difference in Responses
Perhaps the revelation of inclusion in God’s redemptive program was more attractive to Gentiles than Jews, who already saw themselves as God’s Chosen People, because it offered them a relationship with God and all that came with it. Certainly, Paul experienced an increasingly hostile reaction from Jewish people on his missionary journeys and a warmer welcome from Gentiles in many places. His letters to churches indicate a large Gentile proportion among the believers as the gospel impacted various localities, such as Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Sadly, Jewish response to this incredible message of God’s provision in Jesus their Messiah diminished over time so that the church became mostly Gentile in membership. This shift in demographic flipped the perspective of Gentile believers to consider themselves the sole beneficiaries of the gospel, excluding Jewish people, just as previously Jewish people had excluded Gentiles. Gentile believers sought to find continuity in the Old Testament by replacing Israel with the church even in that context, rather than retaining the clear connection with God’s Chosen People, Israel.
The gospel message was the same for all people, but its relevance was different according to one’s connection with the Old Testament. Jewish people had continuity with the Old Testament, whereas Gentiles did not. This did not mean Gentiles were not included, as even Jesus pointed out in the provision for a Sidonian widow and the healing of a Syrian general, Naaman, in the Old Testament era (Luke 4:25–27). It does mean understanding our place in redemptive history makes a difference. The identity of our audience is important, and we should keep that in mind as we proclaim the gospel today.