Paul's Gospel Script

By Tim Isbell,    January 2020

I’m teaching a class on the book of Acts and, at the same time, reading N.T. Wright’s book, Paul - A Biography. Half of Acts describes Paul's travels around the Mediterranean Sea, introducing the good news of Jesus to first-century Jews and Gentiles. Wright's book briefly describes the script's content and peoples' response to it, especially Gentiles.

We adapted Wright's material and used it in our class by packaging the concepts in the three discussion questions shown below. Paul's experience 2,000 years ago is more than interesting theology; it guides us in sharing the good news today.

What "gospel script" do you think Paul used in synagogues around the Mediterranean?

Paul could assume the (mostly) Jews and (a few) Gentiles who gathered in each synagogue were already familiar with the Old Testament story. So, Paul didn’t need to unpack the Old Testament details, he could just point to the four key elements and then move on and introduce Jesus. N.T. Wright asserts that Paul used some variation on this script:

1) Abraham’s story: God chose Abraham and his descendants so that, through them, God would eventually bless the whole world.

2) Moses’ story: God saved Abraham's descendants from slavery, gave them The Law to guide them and some land to call home. There he built them into the nation of Israel.

3) David’s story: God tapped David, a descendant of Abraham and “a man after God’s own heart,” to serve as King of Israel, promising that his Kingdom would last forever.

4) The Prophets’ story: During times when God allowed neighboring countries to subjugate Israel, God raised up prophets who foretold that a descendant of David would someday come as the Messiah (Savior) and would set all things right.

5) Jesus’ story: Along with the other disciples, Paul pointed to Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah who the Jews crucified, then God resurrected, after which Jesus returned to heaven. He left behind a promise and an instruction. He promised to return one last time to set everything aright and gather all his followers into God's final kingdom. In the meantime, he instructed his followers to wait for the Holy Spirit to fill and empower them. Fifty days after Jesus' resurrection, the Spirit came, filled Jesus' followers, and launched them as a new community. At first, it was called The Way of Jesus and it was fully open not only to a selection of biological descendants of Abraham but to everyone else willing to abandon their old ways and opt-into the New Community. Today we call this the Church, and it is a community of people who live as citizens of Jesus' final kingdom as they await his final coming.

6) Paul’s “ask”: Paul invited Jews to shift their ultimate and wholehearted allegiance from Moses’ Torah to faith in Christ Jesus the Lord, and take their place in the New Community. He simultaneously invited all Gentiles (non-Jews) to shift their allegiances from the emperor and all other gods to faith in Christ Jesus the Lord. Both Jews and Gentiles were to live together in the New Community. This was welcome news to the Gentile listeners, but not so much for the Jews.

Jewish converts to The Way faced several difficult challenges. They had to accept Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. And they had to generally dismantle the purity laws that defined Jewish communities for centuries so they could share a common table with the influx of Gentile converts. Jewish Christians stopped sacrificing in the Temple. The had to eliminate the circumcision requirement. They had to abandon the Jewish institutions of Pharisees, Sadducees, Priests, etc.. Those who opted-into the new community jeopardized the unique deal Rome had given the Jews to worship their One God instead of the Roman gods.

What script did Paul use when preaching to a Gentile audience?

Paul didn't leave us as many examples. But the New Testament offers enough to know that he began with whatever pagan religions or philosophies he found there and then created a path to the gospel of Jesus.

Gentile converts to The Way also faced severe challenges. Rome knew that they were not Jews by birth or circumcision, so they risked punishment for not worshipping the emperor. They also risked rejection from their family and peers for not worshipping the pagan gods and philosophies all around them. Gentile converts destroyed all their idols. The next time their crops failed or a loved one fell sick, Jesus was their only option. These were all statements to their family and peers that they were part of The Way of Jesus.

Gentile converts were generally free from the historic Jewish purity rules. But they still found enlightenment from the stories of how the God of Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets was now reaching out through Jesus to them. In other words, the Old Testament part of Paul's script enlightened Gentile Christians as to the ancient history of their new God. 

Why do you suppose some Jews and many Gentiles converted to Christian faith?

They found Paul's message compelling, and they noticed that the people and communities who embraced this gospel message...
  • Experienced a transcendent, heart-level connection with Jesus that impacted their everyday lives. (Ephesians 1.12-14)
  • Lived in intentional communities that valued love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5.22-23)
  • Anticipated their own resurrected life when they joined their resurrected Lord in his final Kingdom. (John 3.16)

Paul’s first-century script remains useful today: Start with where people are and then point them to Jesus. That content, along with everyday relationships with other people who are already on The Way, draws more people to The Way.

The Roman Empire is not around anymore to coerce its citizens to worship the emperor. But there are some 21st-century secular countries that are just as brutal to religious faith. For instance, on February 1, 2020, China will impose Administrative Measures for Religious Groups, which put every religion under the full control and management of the government. The Rules will almost certainly impact Christian “house churches,” among many other religious groups.

Other 21st-century countries operate as Islamic theocracies, demanding that every citizen adopt some subset of Islam as their religion and live according to its purity rules. In liberal democratic countries where there is something akin to the U.S. First Amendment, there is general religious freedom. But even in the United States, some self-identified Christians are trying to take over and run the country according to their interpretation of Christian purity rules. For more on this, see Politics - The Way of Jesus.

Blessings, Tim

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