1. A Light to the Gentiles

Missions: The Heart of God

Commentary on Acts 13

Two reflections on Acts 13:47

"For this is what the Lord has commanded us:
'I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
   that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'" (Acts 13:47)

Both the Old and New Testaments speak of God's people being a light to the Gentiles. Isaiah used that phrase twice (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6). Those same words appear at the beginning of the New Testament when Mary and Joseph "presented" eight-day-old Jesus in the Temple. That day, an elderly priest named Simeon took the infant Messiah in his arms. As he did so, the Holy Spirit moved him to quote Isaiah's light to the Gentiles phrase (Luke 2:28-32).

About fifty years later, Paul was on his first missionary journey hundreds of miles northeast of Jewish territory. In Pisidian Antioch, he and Barnabas said Isaiah's light to the Gentiles phrase was why they were preaching about the Jewish Messiah to a Gentile audience far from Jerusalem. As Paul and Barnabas quoted Isaiah's light to the Gentiles, they said, "The Lord commanded us."

To be sure, today, we almost never use the word "Gentile" in everyday speaking. So, would that mean light to the Gentiles has almost no relevance to us today? Hardly. To First Century Jews, "Gentiles" meant every other ethnic group on the planet. Furthermore, while some Gentiles lived in or at least close to Israel, most lived far away. Getting the light to those Gentiles meant crossing geographic as well as cultural and language barriers.

Light to the Gentiles thus clearly speaks about world evangelism. Indeed, to further emphasize that light to the Gentiles is something different from evangelizing people just like us who live near us, Paul and Barnabas added the "ends of the earth" phrase used by Jesus just before His Ascension (Acts 1:8). Light to the Gentiles thus pushes us to make "ends-of-the-earth" evangelism as equally important as near-neighbor evangelism.

Referring to the contrast between darkness and light signals that Christianity is more than just another religious option. The clear implication is that no matter how "good" or "spiritual" people may seem, those without Jesus are in darkness.

Several years ago, Kathy Truccoli and Chris Rice had us singing "Carry your candle; run to the darkness." Sadly, the Church has not always run toward the darkness carrying the light. Indeed, 2,000 years after the Day of Pentecost there are still people groups to which the Church has not yet taken the Gospel light. Sadly, one sometimes gets the impression that the Church is waiting for the darkness to come to it.

The "go" in Jesus' Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) exhorts us to take the light to today's Gentiles, those who have yet to see the light. Will we do it? Will we be light to all the peoples of the world?

Discussion questions

  1. How does the concept of being a "light to the Gentiles" apply to modern-day world evangelism efforts?
  2. What is the significance of the "ends of the earth" phrase in regard to the idea of being a light to the Gentiles?
  3. In what ways can it be said that the Church has faltered in carrying the Gospel light to all people groups? What should be done to remedy this?
  4. What can individual Christians do to participate in the task of being a light to people groups around the world?

2. Carrying out God's plans

Do Paul's words in Acts 13:47 also include us in some way?

"The door is open to all the outsiders. And we're on our way through it, following orders, doing what God commanded when he said, 'I've set you up as light to all nations. You'll proclaim salvation to the four winds and seven seas!' -- Acts 13:46b-47, The Message

Once in a while, someone reflecting on Jesus' admonition to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19-20) has concluded that Jesus' command applies only to those who were face-to-face with Jesus at the time He gave it. That, for instance, is what some early leaders of the Reformation believed.

Early Christian writings indicate that several of the 12 original apostles left their homeland to go elsewhere to proclaim the Good News. There are reports, for example, of Andrew evangelizing in Greece, while James the Younger may have gone to Egypt. Jude (Thaddeus) likely wound up in Persia and Matthew in Ethiopia. There is credible evidence that "Doubting" Thomas went to India to preach the Gospel and plant churches.

Was, however, such First Century missionary activity by the original apostles all that Jesus meant in His Great Commission? It was not if Acts 13:47 is understood correctly. To be sure, Paul's recounting of the divine command is a quote from Isaiah 42:6 rather than a word-for-word repetition of Matthew 28:19-20. However, Acts 13:47 contains the "ends of the earth" phrase Jesus used in Acts 1:8, and it certainly communicates the sense of the idea of "all people groups" found in the words of Matthew 28:19- 20.

As to the context in which Paul spoke the words of Acts 13:47, he was preaching in Psidian Antioch on his first missionary journey. He was speaking that day to a predominantly Gentile audience. Not one of the original 12 Apostles was present.

Paul points out to his audience that "the Lord has commanded us." When he says "us," Paul seems to include the new Gentile believers listening to him that day. That would be in line with his statement on another occasion that all who belong to Christ are children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7, 29). Clearly, Paul felt that the command to take the Good News to the ends of the earth was directed to the whole People of God and not just to the original 12 apostles.

Ninety years ago, Greek scholar A. T. Robertson wrote a now-classic verse-by-verse look at the New Testament. That six-volume work was titled Word Pictures in the New Testament. In his comments on Acts 13:47, Robertson reminded his readers that centuries had passed since Luke penned that verse. He further commented that if we calculate from the time of Isaiah's original writing, even more centuries have gone by. Robertson then noted that, at the time he was writing, more than half of the world's population still had not heard the Gospel.

"God's people," Robertson concluded, "are slow in carrying out God's plans for salvation."

Sad, but true. Ninety years later, it's still true. We have clear marching orders and we're still dilly-dallying.

Discussion questions

  1. What help could Acts 13:47 give us in trying to fully understand the Great Commission of Jesus Christ?
  2. How does Paul's inclusion of Gentile believers in his statement about carrying out God's plans help us understand who is responsible for carrying out the Great Commission?
  3. Why do you think some people believe that Jesus' command to make disciples of all nations only applied to those who were face-to-face with him at the time he gave it?
  4. Why might A.T. Robertson's comment that "God's people are slow in carrying out God's plans for salvation" still be relevant today?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

These mini-essays on a world missions Bible passage are two of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.

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