The Gospel Reaching the Fortunate

One of the things the Lord has placed on my heart is an odd sort of apologetic (expressed on some of my other blogs). It initially unfolded in a manner focused on intellectuals or others who are “comfortable”. By this I mean people with additional education, perhaps leaders in some fashion, and so probably not poor. In fact this group, especially in America, would be among the world’s rich. The idea of deliberately reaching out to such people seemed weird, so I sought the Lord’s confirmation. Combing through Scripture, I prayerfully looked for indications that the Spirit worked to bring the fortunate to salvation. Turns out there are number of such examples, and looking at them produced some interesting spiritual insights. Upon mentioning this to another believer, he asked for the list, so I wrote it up. Here it is:

Joseph of Arimathea
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. Matthew 27:57 (NASB95)

Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels as coming to get Jesus’ body. Each account has a slightly different description of him. Here he is described as a rich disciple; in Mark he is also described as a prominent member of the Council. He wrapped Jesus’ body in linen and laid it in his own tomb.

Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus
When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. Acts 13:6–7 (NASB95)

Sergius Paulus was evidently seeking spiritual truth, hence his interest in the false prophet. But when given the chance to hear from Barnabas and Saul, welcomed the word they shared. The false prophet attempted to thwart them but Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, blinded him. The proconsul became a believer; not only a man of authority, but specifically described as a man of intelligence.

Prominent Greek women and men of Berea
The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. Acts 17:10–12 (NASB95)

Similar to Sergius Paulus, here is an example of “prominent” people coming to faith. Although Paul and Silas had gone initially to the Jews, some Greeks evidently heard what was going on, and through whatever means came to faith. This is actually the second time in Acts such a group is mentioned. The first time was earlier on the same trip, in Thessalonica:

Leading women of Thessalonica
Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women. But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also;” Acts 17:1–6 (NASB95)

Before Berea, when Paul and Silas were in Thessalonica, they had followed a similar pattern in going to the Jews with their message, and having a response not only there but also among the Greeks. In this case among the Greeks are those described as “leading women”. From 1 Thess. 1:9, it seems likely that these were not Jewish proselytes, but idolaters who converted directly to Christianity.

Ethiopian court official
But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship, Acts 8:26–27 (NASB95)

The personal state of this man is not described, but his office as one in charge of all the queen’s treasure, was certainly a position of great authority and accustomed to matters of wealth. It’s interesting that this official showed interest in the Scripture and had been in Jerusalem apparently for Pentecost.

Council of the Areopagus in Athens
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.” (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.” Acts 17:16–22 (NASB95)

The Areopagus was an ancient council of powerful people, which by this time had lost much of its power but was still in force for deciding matters of homicide, morals and religion. It was an ideal place for this proclaimer of strange ideas to present his case. Originally the council was composed of the most powerful people in society, but by the first century the details of its makeup are unclear. However with the reference to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and the parenthetical comment regarding intellectual curiosity, it’s clear that these were probably people of some intelligence and education, and represented powerful opinions in Athens. It’s interesting to note references that indicate seeking hearts among this pagan populous: reference to the “unknown god” and the parenthetical comment.

Cornelius the Centurion
Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually. Acts 10:1–2 (NASB95)

When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants, and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. Acts 10:7–8 (NASB95)

But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am just a man.” As he talked with him, he entered and found many people assembled. Acts 10:26–27 (NASB95)

These passages give us a picture of Cornelius, a military leader whose household included multiple servants, and whose position included personal attendants. We don’t know his personal economic status (there were centurions of various levels), but he was apparently in a position to give “many alms”, and lived in a home large enough for “many people” to gather together. Centurions are generally portrayed favorably in the New Testament, and are described by the ancient Greek historian Polybius as “chosen by merit, and so were men remarkable not so much for their daring courage as for their deliberation, constancy, and strength of mind.”

Joanna, wife of Herod Antipas’ steward
Soon afterwards, He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means. Luke 8:1–3 (NASB95)

Jesus’ ministry spanned the whole gamut of society, and here we see where it touched the household of Herod itself. Chuza was Herod Antipas’ steward, or “head of household”. Chuza’s wife, Joanna, was apparently healed of some affliction by the Lord, and followed Jesus with those who were supporting Him of their own means. She was also among those who visited His tomb with spices, only to be sent back to the Twelve with the news of His resurrection.

A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. Acts 16:14–15 (NASB95)

Paul encountered Lydia by a riverside, which he supposed would be an area of prayer. The purple dye in which she traded was renowned, and it is likely she was a successful businessperson. This seems especially likely in view of the hospitality she was able to afford Paul and Silas, especially as a woman head of household. Most scholars believe that she was wealthy, and perhaps a woman of rank.

The Disciples James, John, Peter, and Andrew as fishermen
Now it happened that while the crowd was pressing around Him and listening to the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret; and He saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake; but the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the people from the boat. When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered and said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.” When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break; so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” Luke 5:1–10 (NASB95)

As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him. Mark 1:16–20 (NASB95)

Fishing was a major industry in this part of the world, and at least four of the Twelve were professional fishermen before being called by the Lord. Scripture gives us even more information than that, because we find that among them were a partnership with multiple boats and workers. Zebedee, in particular, is often regarded as being successful because in addition to his sons, there are additional hired men as part of his business.

Two other items are noteworthy regarding the status of these families. The first is that Zebedee’s wife (the mother of the sons of Zebedee) is described in Matthew 27:55-56 as being among the women who ministered to Jesus in and around Galilee (compare Luke 8:1-3 ). A variety of women apparently traveled with Jesus and supported Him out of their own means. This indicates that they had means with which to support Him, which certainly seems likely from what we have seen about Zebedee.

Second, John is usually associated with the other disciple who accompanied Jesus before Annas. If this is true, then it is interesting to note that he is described twice as being known by the High Priest himself. Coupled with the observations earlier about Zebedee’s business success, we get a picture of a family of some status in the area.

The Disciple Matthew, a tax collector
After that He went out and noticed a tax collector named Levi sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me.” And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him. And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax collectors and other people who were reclining at the table with them. Luke 5:27–29 (NASB95)

It is generally taken that Levi was also known as Matthew, and so this event is Luke’s description of the calling of Matthew. In any case, Jesus encountered him while working at his station in Capernaum. Tax collectors were hated by the people because they often took more than was necessary. This came about because they were personally responsible for paying the money to the government (often pre-paying it) and were then allowed to collect extra in order to earn a profit, but with little official oversight. This freedom was naturally often abused, leading to the animosity. There’s no evidence that Matthew/Levi did this, yet it’s unlikely a tax collector would have been poor. Especially note Luke’s comment that Levi gave a big reception for Jesus, hosting a large number of people. He specifies that this was in Levi’s house, implying that it was a large residence.

Zacchaeus the tax collector
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:1–10 (NASB95)

Zacchaeus is another example of a tax collector, but in this case the Greek expression used implies that he was the contractor for the whole Jericho region, and had collectors under him. This was the common practice. Regardless, it’s clearly stated that he was wealthy.

The early church
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:44–47 (NASB95)

And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:32–35 (NASB95)

The early church is often pointed out as the ideal towards which the modern church should strive. One example is the recent growth of house churches, noting that the early church met in each others’ homes. Here is another example of the character of the early church: their generosity towards each other and in particular how this was manifested by the selling of property. This shows that they were not all poor, for there had to be landowners among them. Of course, they were not all wealthy either, for there was need to help others’ needs. But it’s clear that people of some means were among those of the early brethren.

This list is yet incomplete. There is also Martha, another independent woman with her own home large enough in which to host groups of people, a very uncommon thing in the first century (John 12:1-2); Paul, a citizen of Tarsus, in which citizenship was not cheap (Acts 21:39); Manaen, the close friend of Herod the tetrarch (Acts 13:1); and Philemon the slave owner (Philemon). And this is only a list of those who responded. Even more were given opportunities to hear but apparently rejected the message. The fact that this happens is no excuse to not try.

Reading through these passages makes it clear that God’s love and salvation extends to all levels of society, including those who are physically comfortable. Compiling this list gave me additional assurance that the path on which God had set me was consistent with His nature. But going beyond that, it has also started teaching me new things about His desire for reaching all people. There are a number of patterns in these passages that bear further reflection.

First, note that many of these people were spiritually open, even seeking. Their paths varied, from Sergius Paulus’ association with magicians, to the Athenians’ preoccupation with new ideas, to the number of God-fearing Gentiles encountered. All these are reminders that physical comfort is no guarantee of spiritual peace. For those who would reach out towards the comfortable, it reminds us that God is working ahead of us. The task is not to start something, but to seek out how He is already working in people’s lives, hearts, and minds, and share truths in that way. This requires listening to the Spirit.

Second, it’s interesting how common it was for people, upon coming to faith, to give up material things for spiritual. It may be simply to focus on one’s new life, as did the first disciples; to share with the Body of Christ as did the women following Him in Galilee, or the early church sharing with each other; or to give to the poor as did Zacchaeus. It seemed not so much a commitment to poverty as a demonstration of the greater importance placed on spiritual things when becoming a Kingdom citizen. Perhaps it serves as a form of witness that there are more satisfying things to seek than the material. Just saying that carries little weight if you are not living it.

Third, one can’t help but wonder if part of God’s technique in using few people to upset the world was to have them consistently reaching people of influence. Paul and Silas are described this way in Thessalonica where their message had reached the leading women. God is no stranger to working through powerful people, and there’s no reason to expect His power and reach would be diminished as He indwells His people. Those seemingly in control of the world today need to be sought out and told the truth as much as those who are being controlled.

This list challenged my natural tendency to help only the less fortunate, to reach out to people with mainly physical ministry. Yet Scripture is very clear: God is no respecter of persons when it comes to the Gospel. He reaches out to everyone. And one of the most effective ways to liberate the oppressed is to change the heart of the oppressors. I think there are still truths yet to be learned from this list, but my prayer is that God can still work this way to “upset the world”.

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