WHO WERE THE PEOPLE WHO FOLLOWED JESUS BEFORE PAUL?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“Who were the people who followed Jesus before Paul?”
Thank you for this question. The Apostle Paul (then known as Saul of Tarsus) was saved in Acts chapter 9, one year after Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Those who followed Jesus Christ prior to Paul are found between Matthew chapter 1 and Acts chapter 8. We will examine some of those passages here.
The Holy Bible knows this group of believers by various and sundry names:
- “them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38);
- “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16);
- “the little flock” (Luke 12:32);
- “a foolish nation” (Romans 10:19; cf. Deuteronomy 32:21);
- “the strangers scattered throughout…” (1 Peter 1:1);
- “a kingdom of priests” and “an holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9);
- “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1);
- “the church which was at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1);
- “[those] waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25);
- “[those who] waited for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43);
- and “the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; cf. Matthew 16:18).
Personally, I often call them “Israel’s little flock” (see Luke 12:32), “Israel’s believing remnant” (Romans 9:27; not every single Jew will be saved), or “Messianic Jews” (in light of their profession that Jesus is Messiah/Christ). Technically, the name “Christians” was not used until Acts 11:26. Later, in 1 Peter 4:16, the Messianic Jews were called “Christians.”
These believers during the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are “Messianic believers.” They knew nothing of Calvary’s cross until after it happened (see Matthew 16:21-23; Luke 18:31-34; Luke 24:44-46; John 20:9). Even in the early Acts period, God did not let them see the full picture, the full merits of Christ’s finished crosswork. Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, people simply believed that He was the King of Israel, the Messiah/Christ, the Son of God. Jesus Christ told His 12 apostles to preach, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7). At that point in the program of God, there was nothing in the Gospel message about Calvary. God had not yet revealed the Gospel of Grace that we preach today; Jesus had not even died yet.
Notice the confessions of these Messianic Jews:
- Andrew told his brother Simon Peter, “We have found Messias, which is, being interpreted, Christ” (John 1:41).
- Nathanael said to Jesus, “Thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel” (John 1:49).
- Peter said to Jesus, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
- Martha said to Jesus, “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world” (John 11:27).
- The Samaritans of John 4:42 said of Jesus, “we… know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.”
- In Acts 2:36-38, Peter stressed Jesus’ Lordship and Christship and urged Israel to repent and be water baptized in Jesus Christ’s
- Even as late as Acts 8:37, a year after Calvary, the Gospel was still “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Modern Bible versions and their underlying manuscripts omit this important verse!)
The Gospel message that highlighted who Jesus was—that He was Israel’s Messiah-King—is called “the Gospel of the Kingdom” (Matthew 9:35; Mark 1:14-15; et al.) It was around this Gospel message that God formed Israel’s believing remnant, the little flock. Note that Calvary’s crosswork is absent from the professions of faith listed above. God had not yet revealed that information. That mystery would not be revealed until Paul’s ministry (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).
The little flock of Jewish believers would include people such as:
- Zacharias and Elisabeth, parents of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25, 57-79);
- Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ mother (Luke 1:26-56);
- Simeon (Luke 2:25);
- Anna (Luke 2:36-38);
- John the Baptist (John 1:6-34);
- the 12 apostles (Matthew 10:1-4);
- Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (Matthew 27:61);
- Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha (John 11:1-2,22-28);
- Joseph of Arimathaea (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; John 19:38); and various others.
- There were 120 disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem in Acts 1:15-16.
- Over 500 believers saw Jesus Christ post-resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6).
- There were about 3,000 Jews saved on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and about 5,000 Jews saved in Acts 4:4.
- We read about various other believers throughout the first eight chapters of Acts. Stephen and Philip are the primary examples of Messianic Jews in Acts chapters 6-8.
- These were all people who followed Jesus Christ prior to Paul, people whom Paul (or at that time, known as Saul of Tarsus) persecuted when he was a lost man (Acts 8:1-4; Acts 26:9-11; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13-14; 1 Timothy 1:13).
On the basis of Isaiah chapter 11, or Daniel 9:24-26, or Isaiah chapter 53, or Psalm chapter 22, or Micah 5:2, or Isaiah 9:6-7, or Isaiah 35:4-6, or 300 other Old Testament prophecies, the Jews were able to identify Jesus as Messiah when He showed up in Israel 2,000 years ago. Furthermore, they had John the Baptist’s ministry to bear record that Jesus of Nazareth undoubtedly was the Messiah promised throughout the Old Testament economy. They were anticipating Him to come and establish an earthly kingdom (yet future beyond our day). In that kingdom, there will be no curse of sin or sickness or death. Israel will inherit all of God’s promises and blessings (forgiveness of sins, deliverance from Satan, the land, the New Covenant, the David kingdom, their national priesthood, et cetera). When we come to Paul’s ministry in the Bible, we learn about the Church the Body of Christ, a group of believers who will inherit an heavenly kingdom. (Beyond the scope of this study.)
We need to always distinguish between the nation Israel and the Church the Body of Christ. Your question is helpful in accentuating that difference. When we see the Gospel that Paul preached to form the Church the Body of Christ, and the Gospel that Peter and 11 preached to form the nation Israel’s believing remnant, they were obviously two different messages, two different programs, two different sets of believers, two different hopes. Prior to our Gospel being revealed through Paul, the good news that God wanted Israel to believe was that Jesus was His Son, the King, Messiah/Christ. However, when we come to Paul’s ministry, the good news that God wants us to believe is that Jesus Christ paid for our sins by dying on Calvary’s cross, and that we appropriate those merits by simple faith in that finished crosswork. While we could carry this study much, much, much further, we will conclude it and refer you to the three associated Bible studies linked below. They expand on topics we have only briefly introduced here. Also, they cover material we omitted here for brevity’s sake.