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A-Z of Paul: Xenophilia

Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Paul's mission is to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations (Acts 9:15; Rom 1:5; 15:18; 16:26). He glories in this mission to the 'gentiles' (also translated 'nations' or 'pagans' - Rom 11:13; Gal 1:16; Eph 3:8) contrasting it with Peter's mission to the Jews (Gal 2:7-9).

This was not because Paul loved foreign things as such (the dictionary meaning of 'xenophilia') but because he had come to see that the promise to Abraham of a posterity that would be a blessing to all nations had been fulfilled in Christ. Christ is the offspring or seed of Abraham in whom is finally fulfilled the promise made at the beginning of salvation history (Genesis 12; Galatians 3:8,14).

Gentiles are not innocent just because they do not have the law. Paul is not romanticizing the 'noble savage'. What the law requires is written on their hearts, and their failure to live by it shows that they too need salvation (Rom 2:14-16; 3:9). The work of Christ extends to Jew and Gentile alike (Eph 2:14-18). For Paul this was not an alternative to Judaism but rather its fulfillment and he quotes psalms which speak of the Gentiles glorifying God, praising his mercy and finding their hope in the God of Israel (Rom 15:9-12). We know from the Acts of the Apostles that his strategy was to preach first in the synagogues of the towns he visited, to try to convince the Jews there that they should believe in Christ, and only after would he preach to the Gentiles. But he was clear from the beginning that his mission was to them also and not just to Jews.

At times the term 'gentiles' or 'nations' takes on the pejorative sense that is often given to the term 'pagans'. Paul often writes to his Christian converts reminding them of the idolatry and immorality that characterized their lives as pagans and from which they have now been freed (1 Cor 12:2; Gal 4:8; Eph 2:1; 4:17; 1 Thess 4:5). They have been baptized into the one body of Christ, along with Jews who have come to believe in Christ, and have been made to drink with them of the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). Christ has broken down the hostile dividing wall that separated Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14). They are reconciled in one body to God by means of the cross of Christ (Eph 2:16). The cross of Christ is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, Paul says, but to all who are called, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, it is the power and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18.25). The pagans are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, fellow partakers of God's promise, having equal access through one Spirit to the Father (Eph 2:18; 3:6).

Paul's transformed understanding comes about through his encounter with Jesus, risen from the dead, and therefore vindicated by God the Father. A light shines backwards then for Paul, across all the texts of the Old Testament, illuminating a promise that had always been there and has now been fulfilled, that in Abraham all the families of the earth are blessed (Gen 12:3). The offspring of Abraham through whom the promise is fulfilled is Christ (Gal 4:16). Salvation is from the Jews, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman (John 4:22) but it is for all nations, as the great hymns of the Book of Revelation celebrate (e.g. Rev 5:9-10).


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