The Gospel, Spain, and the Ends of the Earth

“I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain” says Paul, while imprisoned. His ambitions are repeated a few verses later: “When therefore I have completed this … I will leave for Spain by way of you” (Rom 15:28). It’s certainly ambitious for him to be making travel plans. But Paul wasn’t making casual conversation or planning a vacation. He believed that his life and ministry would not end until he reached Spain. We aren’t sure if Paul made it, but he was passionate about getting there. Why? He saw himself in the prophecy of Isaiah 66.

Day of Salvation

Throughout his letters, Paul quotes Isaiah and other Old Testament books to show that the long-promised day of salvation would come during his lifetime. In the Old Testament, the Jewish belief in Jesus as the Messiah was preceded by something Paul referred to as “the fullness of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:25).

In Romans 9–11, Paul says that gentile (non-Jew) inclusion in the people of God was made possible by the hearts of the Jewish people being temporarily hardened (11:25–26). Accomplishing the mission of gentile evangelism would undo this hardening. Only then would Paul’s longing for the Jews to believe in Jesus come to full fruition. And only then would the deliverer (Jesus) come again from Zion (11:26).

Isaiah 66:18–20 prophesies that the Lord would gather all nations to see His glory. He would give them a “sign” of his promised salvation. The sign would be delivered by Jewish exiles, sent by God into far-off nations—specifically, the lands of Tarshish, Put, Lud, Tubal, and Javan. The conversion of the gentiles would result in the Jews from those nations returning to the Lord.

The Sign Paul Saw

Paul interpreted Isaiah 66 through Christian eyes. The “sign” (אות, ʾot,) was the virgin-born Jesus (compare Isa 7:14—“The Lord himself will give you a sign”). At Pentecost, Jews whose ancestors were exiled to foreign nations came to Jerusalem from those nations. They witnessed a sign of the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, heard the gospel miraculously in their own language, and believed (Acts 2). Returning to their countries—nations scattered throughout the Mediterranean—they spread the word to the gentiles.

Reading Acts 2 carefully, we can see that the nations listed move east to west, beginning with the region where Jews were first exiled. Paul’s missionary efforts began at the geographical midpoint of those listed nations and moved westward.

The Ends of the Earth

Spain—the location of ancient Tarshish, listed in Isaiah 66:19—was the end of the world, according to the thinking of Paul’s time. When Paul wrote Romans, he and other believers had taken the gospel to every region in Isaiah 66—every region except Tarshish.

Paul believed that his mission, “the fullness of the gentiles” and the salvation of his fellow Jews, would be fulfilled once he reached Spain. His focus was evident when he and Barnabas were rejected at Antioch: “[We] are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:46–47). For Paul, reaching Spain was about the gospel being fulfilled—there was no other option. This is something we wouldn’t pick up on without reading our Old Testament.

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why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Comments

  1. Mark Keown says:

    Hi Michael. I question whether Paul believed that the gospel mission would be complete after Spain. As Schnabel has evidenced in his great mission work on Paul, the early Christians were well aware that the ends of the earth extended east to India and China, north to Britain, Europe, and the Russian Steppes, and Africa. Paul considered he had established the gospel from Jerusalem to the eastern Balkans and then to Spain. The gospel had barely penetrated east and only into North Africa and some parts of Europe. I believe he, Mark, and other NT writers were well aware that the gospel had to go a lot further, considering he had a cosmic scope missional perspective. I have an essay coming out on this in a Brill publication pushing back against what I believe is a common misnomer. Blessings. Mark.

  2. It would appear then that Paul did not reach Spain? Which would mean he failed in his mission? And even if he did, he was basing his mission on a faulty, Ancient Near Eastern understanding of what constituted tue world. In this context, Paul doesn’t seem any better than any of American cult leader we have seen in the last 200 years who have startwd movements based on their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible.

    • Mark Keown says:

      Paul never stated absolutely he was going to Spain. In Romans 15 it is dependent on the outcome of his situation. Paul likely changed his travel plans because of the needs of his churches in Philippi and elsewhere. So he went east and not west.

      What Paul was establishing is not a cult in the negative sense of the term. It is a voluntary organisation people are welcomed into by a common belief. They are free to leave at any point. No financial requirement is commanded (tithing is an Old Testament concept not found in the NT). They are summoned to live a particular way, supremely by love. There is much grace afforded to those who struggle, as in the case of the Corinthians. The primary injunction is to love one another including material concern.

      If the world opted into Paul’s vision, or better, the vision of the one he preached (Jesus), as Jesus and Paul want us to understand it, what a great cult/world it would be.

      The failure of Christians to embody this vision is no excuse to abandon the vision or ridicule it. Ridicule us in our failure for sure, we deserve it, we constantly let down God and Jesus. Yet, there is no better vision in the universe than Jesus and Paul’s common hope of people who embody the love of God toward him and others.

  3. Nicholas A Venditti, Ph.D says:

    Dr. Heiser,

    Blessings in the glorious name of Jesus Christ. I want to commend you on your books and writings. Your pursuit for biblical truth through scholarship is commendable. There is a great need in the Spanish speaking world for more books and articles like yours. I am aware of Faithlife working in Spanish. Are you working with them on translating your material? If so, please let me know. Be encouraged because your efforts are worthwhile and a blessing.

    Serving Him together in His mission,
    Nicholas A Venditti, Ph.D.

    • Karen Engle says:

      Hi Nicholas, We appreciate that you took the time and thought to send this message. I’ve passed it along to Dr. Heiser. May God bless you in your ministry!