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Shepherds in Search of Lost Sheep

Description

The Apostle Paul modeled the values and priorities that should guide our efforts today. Even though his primary call was to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, he never lost touch with God’s heart for the Jews.

I speak the truth in Messiah—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Messiah for the sake of My people, those of My own race, the people of Israel (Romans 9:1-4).

The Apostle Paul is following a well-established pattern. He enters the city of Ephesus for the very first time. True to form, he heads directly and purposefully toward the city’s main synagogue. It is autumn, A.D. 54.

This pattern had unfolded in scores of cities and provinces visited by Paul over the previous 17 years of his apostolic travels throughout the eastern Mediterranean. In Salamis, Paphos, Perga, Iconium, Antioch, Derbe, Lystra, Thessalonica and countless other cities, Paul and his traveling companions had followed this script. Upon entering the city, Paul made a beeline for the synagogue where he would seize an opportunity to proclaim what he repeatedly called his Gospel—that is, “good news.”

The wonderful news Paul delivered in synagogue after synagogue across the Roman world was that the long-awaited Messiah had come, had fulfilled messianic prophecy, had been executed for the sins of the world, and had been resurrected after three days and elevated to the right hand of God. His name was Yeshua, the Hebrew word for “salvation.”

Thus it would be much like that on this day of Paul’s arrival in storied, cosmopolitan Ephesus. As Acts 19 reveals, Paul’s first encounter here is with a small group of Jews who had been followers of John the Baptist. So, before continuing his trek to the synagogue, Paul stops to preach to this little Jewish community. He completes their understanding of John the Baptist’s forerunner role, water immersion and message. Then when they embrace the good news, Paul baptizes them once more, this time in the name of Yeshua. Then he places his hands upon them and the Holy Spirit of God seals the miracle of transformation by pouring Himself into and upon the joyous recipients.

Then it is on to his primary target: Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:8-10).

Three months! Yes, Paul spent his first three months in this new city laboring to reach the Jewish population of Ephesus with the good news of Yeshua. And when that venue was exhausted, he moved to another meeting place from which he could preach to both Jews and Gentiles—and remained there for two years! So thorough was Paul’s communication strategy that the above verse declares “all the Jews and Greeks” in the entire Roman province called Asia (comprising much of modern day Turkey) had been given an opportunity to accept or reject the message.

We have to ask ourselves, “Why this pattern? Why begin every new outreach in the city’s synagogue?” This is especially noteworthy because Paul’s primary calling was to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. He declares this himself on several occasions in his letters. For example: For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8).

Paul gives us insight into the thinking behind his strategy in his letter to the Romans. In it he articulates a principle that has become the anchor of my own life and ministry: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile (Romans 1:16).

The fact is, both the life and ministry of this “apostle to the Gentiles” clearly display a deep understanding of the “to the Jew first and also to the nations” principle. It is a principle established by Yeshua Himself in the way He defined His own earthly ministry. For example, in the tenth chapter of Matthew we find the Messiah sending the 12 disciples out to preach and minister. He commissions them with these instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). Later, when confronted by a Canaanite woman seeking help for her daughter, Yeshua explains, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

Last words are important words. And in His final instructions to His disciples before ascending into Heaven, Yeshua said: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After He said this, He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight (Acts 1:8-9).

Yeshua is remarkably specific in terms of geography in these parting marching orders. He begins by focusing His evangelists toward Jerusalem, the historic, global heart of Israel and home to the largest concentration of Jewish People on earth at the time. Then He progressively widens the circle outward from there—Judea and Samaria representing the two principle historic districts of greater Israel and the two pieces of the divided kingdom.

From there the disciples are pointed beyond historic Israel to the diaspora—the Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome. The book of Acts is silent as to activities and travels of most of the disciples other than Peter, James, and John. But Church history suggests that Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, and the others obeyed Yeshua’s command and fanned out across the known world—proclaiming the good news in the power of the Holy Spirit to Jewish communities from Ethiopia to North Africa, to Asia Minor to Europe.

They heard their Rabbi and Messiah declare Himself to be a shepherd sent to gather the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). They’d received and embraced His commission to go to the ends of the earth as under-shepherds to gather those lost sheep as well. Tradition tells us that most of them died martyrs’ deaths in that tumultuous, 40-year interval between Yeshua’s ascension and the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in A.D. 70.

Meanwhile, Paul was modeling the values and priorities that should guide our efforts today. Even though his primary call was to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, he never lost touch with God’s heart for the People chosen to bring Messiah to the world. Thus he never lost his burden “for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.

To the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.

 

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