Early Church; Table of Contents

The purpose of the articles listed below is to describe the context within which Paul’s letters were written.  For this purpose these articles describe four major turning points and the four major phases in the first 30 years of the church, which transformed the church from a movement within Judaism to a separate entity, including uncircumcised Gentiles.

These articles are mostly based on the Bible Book of Acts.  This book left an immense amount of apostolic activity is unrecorded, and focuses only on the major transitional events.  Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible verses quoted are from the NASB version of Acts.

The Jerusalem Phase (Acts 1 to 5) starts with Christ’s resurrection.  Just before His ascension, 40 days later, He told His disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the power of the Holy Spirit.  They received this power on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), ten days later.  Over the following 2 to 4 years the church grew exponentially, from the initial 120 followers to thousands, but the church was limited to Jerusalem only and consisted of Jews and proselytes only.  They worshiped daily in the temple, functioned as a part of Judaism and observed the Law of Moses and the Jewish customs.

The Judea and Samaria Phase (Acts 6 to 9) starts with the stoning of Stephen and persecuted the church (8:1).  The church was limited to Jerusalem and the persecution was also limited to Jerusalem, and forced the believers out of Jerusalem to other cities in Judea and Samaria, preaching the gospel where-ever they went.  Paul intended to persecute the believers also outside of Jerusalem, but God stopped him immediately, allowing the church to grow in Judea and Samaria for a period of about 5 or 6 years.  During this phase all Christians still observed the Law of Moses.

The Gentile Dispute Phase starts when Gentiles for the first time received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10) and for the first time were allowed to join the church.  Before this event the church viewed Gentiles as unclean, and avoided them.  The events in Acts 10 convinced the church that Gentiles are allowed to join the church, but a dispute arose afterwards as particularly the Christian Pharisees maintained that these Gentiles must still be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses.  These Christian Pharisees therefore still thought of the church as a part of Judaism—the true Jewish religion—and sought to convert these Gentiles to Judaism.

The Separation Phase started with the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, nearly 20 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, where it was decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.  This decision created separation between Gentile and Jewish Christians; one group observing the Law of Moses, the other not.

A fifth article explains the theological implications.  The history explained in these articles is important context for Paul’s letters, for Paul’s arguments that Jewish and Gentile Christians are united under the same law, that the Law of Moses is no longer relevant, that man is not justified by the works of the Law and for Paul’s teaching, or lack of it, with respect to the Seventh Day Sabbath.

A page is also available with estimated dates for significant events in the history of the early church.

TO: General Table of Contents

Theological Implications of the history of the Early Church

SUMMARY

The church started as part of Judaism.  John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles were all Jews.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell only on Jews.  In the first few years of its existence the church functioned as a movement within Judaism, consisting only of Jews and proselytes.  They were all circumcised and they all observed the Law of Moses and the traditions.

Only about ten years after the Cross, through divine intervention, did the church for the first time preach the Jesus-message to Gentiles and were the first Gentiles baptized.  The Gentile Christians in the church caused a dispute over whether they must observe the Law of Moses.  This dispute was settled a further ten years later when the church council meeting, recorded in Acts 15, decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.  Jewish Christians, on the other hand, remained zealous for the Law of Moses throughout the period recorded by the Book of Acts.

The history explained in these articles is therefore important context for Paul’s letters, most of which have been written in the decade after the Jerusalem council decision recorded in Acts 15 (see, for instance Bible Hub).  For example:

The dispute raging in the church before the Jerusalem Council decision explains the letter to the Galatians.

The separation made by the Law of Moses between Jewish en Gentile Christians explains the need for Paul’s arguments for unity.

The continued observance of the Law of Moses by Jewish Christians provides background to Paul’s statements that the law was added “until the seed (Jesus) would come” (Gal 3:19), which implies that the Law of Moses is no longer relevant; even for Jewish Christians.

The claim that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1) explains the idea of justification by the works of the Law (Rom. 3:27), which Paul had to contend with in his letters.  Justification by the works of the law is the idea that compliance with the rituals and ceremonies of the Law and the traditions will compensate for one’s sins, in contrast to Paul’s argument that we are “justified as a gift by His grace”.

This history provides important context for Paul’s teaching, or lack of it, with respect to the Seventh Day Sabbath, and for his comments on the observance of “days” (Rom. 14:6; Gal. 4:10).  When he wrote, all Jewish Christians observed the Sabbath while the Gentile Christians probably observed the Sabbath, but the different Sabbath taught by Christ.

OVERVIEW OF THE FIRST 30 YEARS

The church was conceived within its mother religion – Judaism.  John the Baptist was a Jew, calling Israel to repentance.  Jesus was a Jew, and His followers were Jews. He preached in the Jewish countryside, not the Hellenistic cities.  When a Gentile woman once asked for healing for her daughter, Jesus responded (at first)

Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).

The apostles were all Jews.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell only on Jews.  In the first few years of its existence the church functioned as a movement within Judaism, consisting only of Jews and proselytes.  They were all circumcised and they all observed the Law of Moses and the traditions.  In those first years the church grew exponentially, but it was confined to Jerusalem – the capital of Judaism.

In the earliest stage Christianity was made up of all those Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah (Christ). [David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers (2000). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Amsterdam University Press. p. 709. Retrieved 15 February 2014.]

After the first few years the church was dispersed throughout Judea and Samaria by the persecution of the church by the Jewish authorities.  Many Samaritans accepted Christ and were baptized, but the Samaritans also accepted the five books of Moses.  Consequently all Christians still observed the Law of Moses.

Only about ten years after the Cross, through divine intervention, did the church for the first time preach the Jesus-message to Gentiles and were the first Gentiles baptized.

The Gentile Christians in the church caused a dispute over whether they must observe the Law of Moses.  This dispute was settled a further ten years later when the church council meeting, recorded in Acts 15, decided that Gentiles do not have to observe the Law of Moses.  This decision created a double separation:

Firstly, the decision was not relevant to Jewish Christians, who were still the majority in the church.  The Jewish Christians, particularly in Judea, continued to be zealous for the Law of Moses, and continued to live like Jews, as evidenced by Acts 21, which is dated to nearly 30 years after the cross.  There arose therefore a separation between Gentile and Jewish Christians; one group observing the Law of Moses, the other not.

Secondly, this decision erected a permanent barrier between Judaism and the Church.  For the Jews it was a great sin to associate with uncircumcised people.  By associating with uncircumcised Christians, the Jewish Christians became unclean in the eyes of their Jewish friends and families (Gal. 6:12), hastening the separation of the church from Judaism.

The apostles and the other Christian Jews in Jerusalem therefore remained zealous for the Law of Moses throughout the period recorded by the Book of Acts.  The Jerusalem church also had a strong influence over the wider church, as evidenced by the following:

  • The Samaritans only received the Holy Spirit after Peter and John laid hands on them (8:14-17).
  • The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit through Peter (Acts 10).
  • The dispute whether Gentiles must observe the Law of Moses was referred to Jerusalem for resolution (Acts 15).

The influence of the Jewish Christians on the wider church diminished in later years due to various factors, but this is not discussed in this article because the purpose here is to describe the context within which Paul’s letters have been written, at a time when the influence of Jewish Christianity still was strong.

CONTEXT FOR PAUL’S LETTERS

Christians today find it difficult to appreciate the Jewishness of the early Christian church.  They tend to think that the early church was like the church of today; unaware that the past 2000 years have transformed the church from a movement within Judaism—an exclusively Jewish organization—to an almost exclusively Gentile organization.  The consequence is that Christians today read Paul’s letter into today’s context, and then misinterpret what he wrote with respect to issues such as the Law of Moses, the role of the nation of Israel, justification and the Sabbath.

The history explained in these articles is therefore important context for Paul’s letters.  The dispute raging in the church before the Jerusalem Council decision explains the letter to the Galatians.  Even after that decision Paul’s letters had to frequently explain why it is not necessary to observe the law, namely that man is not saved by the works of the Law, but by grace.

This history makes us aware of the sensitivities which Paul had to avoid.  Paul did his best not to offend the Jewish Christians.  In many towns there were Jews and Jewish Christians, and when Paul arrived in a town, he first preached his message to the Jews.  That normally failed. Then he turned to the Gentiles.  With his letters he addressed both groups simultaneously, and he had to be very careful not to offend unnecessarily.

UNITY OF JEW AND GENTILE

One aspect that is explained by this history is Paul’s arguments for the unity of Jewish en Gentile Christianity.

Even 30 years after Pentecost the mother church of Christianity, namely the church in Jerusalem, made distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  It expected Jewish Christians to adhere to the Law of Moses:

Jewish Christians combined the confession of Jesus as Christ with continued adherence to Jewish traditions such as Sabbath observance, observance of the Jewish calendar, observance of Jewish laws and customs, circumcision, and synagogue attendance. [David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers (2000). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Amsterdam University Press. p. 709. Retrieved 15 February 2014.]

1st century “Jewish Christians” were totally faithful religious Jews. They differed from other contemporary Jews only in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. In effect, the Jewish Christians seemed to regard Christianity as an affirmation of every aspect of contemporary Judaism, with the addition of one extra belief — that Jesus was the Messiah. [ McGrath, Alister E., Christianity: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing (2006). ISBN 1-4051-0899-1. Page 174: “

On the other hand, they allowed Gentile Christians freedom from the Law of Moses.  It is not suggested here that Jewish Christians are still subject to the Law of Moses, but rather that this explains the context within which Paul taught that the two groups are made one, such as:

“Neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision” (Gal. 6:15).

“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).

He (Jesus) Himself is our peace, who made both groups (Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles) into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:11-14).

He described Israel as an olive tree from which some branches have been broken off (unbelieving Jews), while branches from a wild olive (the Gentiles) have been grafted in, sharing in the wealth of the root (the fathers of the Jewish nation and the promises they received) (Romans 11:11-24).

While the Christian Jews in Jerusalem based their separateness on Moses and his law, Paul taught the unity of two groups in Abraham; both groups are children of Abraham and both share in the promises to the fathers of the nation of Israel (Gal. 3:17).

LAW OF MOSES

This evidence that the large number of Jewish Christians observed the Law of Moses during the entire period during which Paul worked and wrote his letters, explains the context for his statements about the law.  Paul was accused by the Christian Jews in Jerusalem “that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses” (Acts 21:21).  Reading his letters, this was true.  Paul wrote of himself that he is not under the law (1 Cor. 9:20) and that the law was added “until the seed (Jesus) would come” (Gal 3:19), which implies the Law is no longer relevant; even for Jews.  See the discussion of Galatians 3:19-25 for more on this subject.

JUSTIFICATION

This context allows one to better understand the idea of justification by the works of the Law (Rom. 3:27), which Paul had to contend with in his letters:

The Jewish Christians maintained “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1).  That is justification by the works of the law.  It does not mean that one is justified by not sinning.  Justification by the works of the law is the idea that compliance with the rituals and ceremonies of the Law and the traditions will compensate for one’s sins, and put one in a right relationship with God.  This was not a novel idea that developed after the church was established, but a concept which the church inherited from its mother religion – Judaism.

In contrast Peter argued, “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (15:11).  This is the same as saying that we are “justified as a gift by His grace” (Rom. 3:23), which is something which Paul emphasized.  This means that our sins are wiped away by grace (mercy); not by the rituals and ceremonies of the Law.

SEVENTH DAY SABBATH

This history is also important context for Paul’s teaching, or lack of it, with respect to the Seventh Day Sabbath.

For the first years of the church, when it was still confined to Jerusalem and consisted of Jews only, all Christians observed the Law of Moses, and therefore also the Sabbath.  After the church was dispersed by persecution throughout Judea and Samaria, many Samaritans put their faith in Christ, but since they also based their religion on the five books of Moses, all Christians were still circumcised and observed the Sabbath.  Seven to ten years after the Cross the first Gentiles were allowed into the church (Acts 10).  A dispute arose whether they must observe the Law of Moses (15:1).  About twenty years after the Cross a church decision was made that Gentiles do not have to observe the Law of Moses (Acts 15).

But the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continued to be “zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20).  The Law included the Sabbath.  If the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem observed the Sabbath, then probably all Jewish Christians in Judea and even the Jewish Christians that lived in Gentile nations also observed the Sabbath.

When the first Gentile Christians received the Holy Spirit, about seven to ten years after the cross, the Christian Jews were most surprised.  They thought that the Holy Spirit was for circumcised people only.  What is revealing about the account is that Peter did not convert them to Judaism first through circumcision, and then to Christianity through baptism; under the guidance of the Holy Spirit he received them directly into Christianity through baptism. The implication of these events is the then novel idea that Gentile Christians do not ever have to convert to Judaism through circumcision.

The question is what the Gentile Christians were taught about the Sabbath.  The Jerusalem Council decision in Acts 15 mean that Gentiles are not under the Law of Moses.  It is nevertheless proposed here that we should conclude that the first Gentile Christians were probably taught to observe the Sabbath, for the following reasons:

(1) The specialness of the Seventh Day originated at creation.

(2) A seven day cycle was maintained before Moses.

(3) The Acts 15 decision obviously did not free the Gentile Christians from moral laws, and the Sabbath is included in the Ten Commandments with nine other moral principles.

(4) Christ never indicated that the Sabbath was aborted, but argued with the Pharisees what is allowed on the Sabbath.  He said the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27), that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:12) and that the Sabbath is the preferred day for healing (Luke 13:16).  (See the article What did Jesus teach about the Sabbath? for more information.).

(5) Christ in His teachings already replaced the Law of Moses with the “Law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:21).  For instance, in Matthew 5 Jesus several times quoted from the Law of Moses, and then gave His alternative, which is always at a much higher moral level.  This is not something that happened at the Cross.  Christ’s teaching with respect to the Sabbath was therefore not an interpretation of the Sabbath commandment, but a replacement of it.  (See the article on the Law of Christ for more information.)  Consequently, when the church decided that Gentiles do not have to observe the Law of Moses, it simply applied something which Christ already taught twenty years earlier.

(6) Just before His ascension, Jesus said to His disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

(7) All Jewish Christians in the early church, and therefore the majority of all Christians, observed the Sabbath.  The only teachers that the first Gentile Christians had were these Jewish Christians.  The church in Jerusalem had a strong influence in those days.

(8) the Sabbath, by itself, was not a matter of controversy in Paul’s day, as indicated by the fact that he used the word “Sabbath” only once in all of his letters, and then only as part of a technical term to refer to the entire system of special days on the Jewish calendar (Col. 2:16 See the article Feasts … New Moons … Sabbaths for more information).  The fact that there was no controversy in the early church about the Sabbath, combined with the fact that the Jewish Christians observed the Sabbath, implies that all Christians observed the Sabbath.

However, Jesus taught a different Sabbath.  Christ did more than to interpret the Sabbath commandment; He gave a new meaning to it. He converted the seventh day from a day of compulsory idleness to a day that is filled with purpose, activity and work; a day to show kindness and mercy; a day to free people from the physical, psychological and spiritual bonds of Satan, to elevate the entire man to God’s ideal; in particular, a day to heal.  This does not mean that Christ taught that the requirement to rest, as given in the Law of Moses, is no longer binding, but the Law of Moses made rest the goal, while Christ shifted the focus to the purpose of the rest, namely healing.  See the article Jesus taught a different Sabbath for more information.

The Gentile Christians would have been taught the seventh day as taught by Christ.  Just like Christ’s Sabbath practices made the Jews so angry (Luke 6:11) that they wanted to kill Him (Mat. 12:14), the Sabbath practices of the Gentile Christians would not have been acceptable to the strict Jewish Pharisees.

The analysis above of the first years of the church is important context for Paul’s comments on the observance of “days” (Rom. 14:6; Gal. 4:10).

TO: Early Church Table of Contents

Early Church Chronology

To estimate exact dates for the key events in the first 30 years of the church is very difficult.  A fixed date is the death of Herod Agrippa in AD 44, mentioned in Acts 12:23.  A less certain date is the prophecy of Agabus that refers to the reign of Claudius Caesar (Acts 11:27-28), who became Emperor in AD 41.  Two dates are generally proposed for the Cross, namely AD 30 and 33.  To determine dates for other events chronographers mostly analyze the text, trying to estimate the time between events.  Below is a table of estimated dates for significant events in the history of the early church, according to various internet sources:

  Christian history Christian Apologetics & Research Anno Mundi Christian History Institute Bible Hub Amazing Bible Timeline Bible CA Genera-tion Word
Jesus Born 10 TO 3 BC 4 BC 3 BC     4 BC 4-6 BC
Tiberius reigns             AD 14  
Jesus’ ministry   AD 29            
Pentecost (Acts 2) AD 30 OR 33 AD 33 AD 30   AD 30 AD 33 AD 30 AD 30
Stephen (Acts 7)     30 – 32 AD 35 AD 31     AD 34
Persecution (Acts 8)         AD 31      
Paul (Acts 9)   AD 35 AD 32 AD 35 AD 34     AD 35
Gentiles (Acts 10)         AD 37 AD 40 AD 40 39/40
Herod dies (Acts 12) AD  44       AD 44 AD 44 AD 45 AD 44
First journey (Acts 13)   AD 48       AD 45 AD 45  
Council (Acts 15)   AD 41 49/50   AD48 AD 50 AD 50 AD 48
Gallio (Acts 18) 51 or 52              
Jerusalem (Acts 18)   AD 52          
Jerusalem (Acts 21)       AD 59     AD 57
Paul executed 64-67     AD 65        
Jerusalem destroyed AD 70              

Other internet sources with respect to the year in which Stephen was stoned include:

Merrill C. Tenney, in his book “New Testament Times” (Inter-Varsity Press, 1967, chapter 7), gives 30 AD at the most probable year for the crucifixion and 32/33 as the most probable date for Stephen’s death and the conversion of Paul.

DATE FOR PAUL’S CONVERSION

Paul mentioned that he visited Jerusalem three years after his conversion (Gal. 1:16-18).  Then he continued, “fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also” (Gal. 2:1).  It is assumed that he is counting 14 years after his conversion, not 14 years after his previous visit, since his conversion was the key event in his life.  It is furthermore assumed that this second visit to Jerusalem does not refer to the Jerusalem Council of AD 49/50, because after the visit in Gal. 2:1 Peter was still vacillating over the question of circumcision of the Gentiles (Gal. 2:7-14), while at the Jerusalem Council everybody—Including Peter—agreed that circumcision of the Gentiles was unnecessary (Acts 15:7-11).  The Jerusalem visit in Gal. 2:1 therefore occurred before the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council.  It could have been the earlier visit in AD 46, when he went with relief for those stricken by the famine. Subtracting 14 years from AD 46 we get AD 32 as the date for Paul’s conversion. This is a very early date, only two years after the first possible date for Pentecost, when church was founded.

TO: Early Church Table of Contents

Early Church Phase IV; Separation

OVERVIEW

Antioch was the second most important city in the history of the early church, behind only Jerusalem.  There were more Jews living in Antioch at this time than in any other city outside Judea.  It became the cradle of Gentile Christianity.

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and taught that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses (15:1, 5).  In other words, in their view, these Gentiles must still be converted to Judaism.  Their demands were met with firm resistance from Paul and Barnabas (15:2), and it was decided to refer the matter to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem for a decision (15:2).

A church council meeting was called in Jerusalem (Acts 15).  Peter maintained that Gentiles must not be circumcised or be required to observe the Law of Moses (15:10).  James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19), acting as the head of the church in Jerusalem, then proposed “that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (15:20).  This proposal was accepted.

The decision in Acts 15 was only relevant to Gentiles (15:19).  It said nothing about the Jewish Christians who still were the majority in the church.  Jewish Christians continued to circumcise and abide by the Law of Moses.  This is confirmed in Acts 21, where it is recorded that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were “zealous for the Law“ (21:20).  But they were concerned that Paul was “teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (21:21).  They requested Paul to show that this is not true, but “that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law” (21:24).

This resulting in a separation in the early church between Jewish Christians, who observed the Law of Moses, and the Gentiles Christians, who did not.

SUMMARY OF THE TEXT

After their first missionary journey (described in Acts 13-14) Paul and Barnabas (13:2; 14:20) returned to Antioch (14:26), from where they also started that journey (14:26). In Antioch they spent a long time with the disciples (14:28).  When some men came down from Judea and taught, “Unless you are circumcised … you cannot be saved” (15:1), Paul and Barnabas had a great argument with them (15:2).  The brethren in Antioch then decided that Paul and Barnabas and some others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue (15:2).

After they have arrived at Jerusalem, the apostles and the elders came together to discuss this question (15:5-6):

Some of the sect of the Pharisees, who had accepted Christ, said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (15:5).

Peter stood up and recounted his visit to Cornelius, where God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles, ”just as He also did to us“ (15:8).  “He (God) made no distinction between us and them” (15:9).  Peter maintained that Gentiles must not be circumcised or be required to observe the Law of Moses (15:10).  In contrast to some Jewish Christians’ view that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1), Peter’s position was “that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (15:11).

All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12).

James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19), who seemed to have acted as the head of the church in Jerusalem, then argued that the prophets agree with Peter’s position (15:14-18), and proposed “that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (15:20).

This proposal was accepted, and the apostles and the elders of Jerusalem sent two leading men with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, together with the letter as proposed by James (15:22-29).  When the believers in Antioch read this letter, they rejoiced (15:30-31).  Afterwards Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord (15:35).

ANTIOCH

Antioch is not mentioned much in the New Testament, probably because none of the New Testament letters are addressed to the church in Antioch.  But Antioch really was a very important city in the early history of Christianity.  In Paul’s day it was the third largest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome and Alexandria), capital of the Roman province of Syria, and located about 300 miles north of Jerusalem.  It was the second most important city in the history of the early church, behind only Jerusalem.  It had a large and flourishing Jewish colony, among the predominantly ‘Greek’ (meaning non-Jewish or Gentile) population. The Jewish historian Josephus records that there were more Jews living in Antioch at this time than in any other city of the world outside Judea.  These Jews offered an immediate field for Christian teaching.  It was perhaps the first place in which large numbers of Gentiles joined the church.  One of the first seven deacons was Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch (Acts 6:5).  Antioch was Paul’s starting-point in his three missionary journeys (Acts 13:1; Acts 15:36; 18:23), and thither he returned from the first two as to his headquarters (Acts 14:26; Acts 18).  It is possible to call Antioch the cradle or the mother-church of Gentile Christianity.  It was at the instance of the church at Antioch that the council at Jerusalem decided to relieve Gentile Christians of the burden of the Jewish law (Acts 15).

DISCUSSION

It was agreed by the church leaders in Acts 10 and 11 that Gentiles are not to be regarded as unclean, that Jews may associate and eat with Gentiles and that Gentiles may be baptized into the church.

However, some of the Jewish Christians—particular the strict Pharisees (15:5)—believed that Gentiles, after they have come to faith in Jesus, and after they have been baptized, must still be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses (15:5).  In other words, in their view these Gentiles must still be converted to Judaism.  Otherwise, they argued, these Gentiles cannot be saved (15:1).  They could point to the fact that all other church members, being Jews and proselytes (2:10), were circumcised and do observed the Law of Moses.

Those same Pharisees traveled to Galatia to promote their views.  This resulted in Paul’s angry letter to the Galatians in which he accused them of distorting the gospel (1:7).  (As argued elsewhere on this website, Galatians was written before the Acts 15 Church Council decision.)

Now, somewhere in AD 48 to AD 50, about 10 years after the Gentiles first received the Holy Spirit and about 20 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, these Pharisees decided to also take their beliefs to Antioch (14:26; 15:1); the mother church of Gentile Christianity.  In Antioch their demands were met with firm resistance from Paul and Barnabas (15:2), and it was decided to refer the matter to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem for a decision (15:2).

A church council meeting was called in Jerusalem (Acts 15).  After the Christian Pharisees explained their position, Peter stood up to talk.  Peter was the one chosen by God to receive the vision in Acts 10 and to see how the Holy Spirit falls on Gentiles for the first time (10:24, 44).  However, in Antioch he failed to live up to that revelation (Gal. 2:11-13) and Paul had to rebuke the Jewish Christians strongly (Gal. 2:14-21).  But now at the church council in Jerusalem Peter is willing to stand up and correct his previous mistake.  In the first years of the church, when it was still limited to Jerusalem (Acts 1-6), Peter was the main spokesman.  Now, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, he has the humility to accept correction.

Next “Barnabas and Paul .. were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (15:12).  These “signs and wonders” provide further support for the view that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised or observe the Law of Moses.

Lastly James made his proposal, which was accepted.

It must have been difficult for the proud Jewish mind to accept that they are no longer God’s chosen people,  The decision of the council required humility; showing that God controlled His people by His Spirit.

ZEALOUS FOR THE LAW

After the Council decision Jewish Christians continued to circumcise and abide by the Law of Moses.  The decision in Acts 15 was only relevant to “those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” (15:19).  It said nothing about the Jewish Christians who still were the majority in the church.

This is confirmed by Acts 21.   Here is recorded a visit by Paul to Jerusalem about 10 years after the decision in Acts 15.  After his arrival (21:17) the leaders of the Jerusalem church (21:18) said to him:

You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law“ (21:20).

They continued and said that these Jewish Christians “have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (21:21).  Note the distinction they made between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They were not concerned if the Gentile Christians would “forsake Moses” and the “customs”.  They were concerned only about the Jews “who are among the Gentiles”.  In Judea there was no concern, indicating that they were all zealous for the Law of Moses and for the traditions (customs).

They then requested Paul to show to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem that this is not true, but to show “that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law” (21:24).  They therefore expected Paul himself to keep the Law and the traditions.  They asked him to prove this by performing a purification rite (21:23-24).

The church leaders in Jerusalem concluded their request by confirming the decision that “the Gentiles who have believed” are not subject to the Law of Moses (21:25), again indicating the sharp distinction they made between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

Paul complied with their request (21:26).  He later explained:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; … though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law (Gentiles), as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law (Gentiles).” (1 Cor. 9 20-21)

These verses are important for a correct understanding of what Paul did.  He himself was not “under the Law” (of Moses), but “under the law of Christ” which refers to Christ’s teachings.  But to win as many as possible people for Christ he lived like a Jew when he was with Jews and lived like a Gentile when he was with Gentiles.

UNITY OF THE CHURCH

Had Paul attempted to settle the matter himself, acting on his own apostolic authority at Antioch, this might easily have created a breach between the Jewish church in Jerusalem and the Gentile church in Antioch.  But by referring the matter to the mother church in Jerusalem for a decision, the unity of the church was maintained.

NEXT: Theological Implications

TO: Early Church Table of Contents