The 490 years promised to Israel in Daniel 9 came to an end a few years after the Cross; at the stoning of Stephen.

Peter preaching at PentecostIn the first few years after Jesus died, under God’s guidance, the gospel was preached only to Jews.  The Christian Jews continued to live like Jews.  Christianity was a sect of Judaism and had its headquarters in Jerusalem.  Two to four years after the Cross commenced the Jewish persecution of the Jewish Christians, beginning with the stoning of Stephen.  This was the end of God’s covenant with Israel, which is also the end of the 490 years promised by Daniel 9.

Sect of Judaism

The first seven chapters of Acts do not mention non-Jews.  In those first few years after Jesus’s death the gospel was preached only to the “circumcised” (Acts 10:45 – i.e. Jews).  Christians continued to live practically like Jews.  Christianity existed as a sect of Judaism and the dramatic acts of the young church were confined to Jerusalem.  This is evidenced by following:

Jerusalem

Jesus explicitly told the apostles to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4).

Pentecost

PentecostThe apostles and other believers received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, when Jews from all every nation were gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10, 5).  This implies that God chose that place and time to give the apostles the opportunity to preach repentance to the Jews.  Peter preached to the gathered Jews to repent (Acts 2:38) and on that day 3000 were added to the church (Acts 2:41, cf. 5:11).

Healing at the Temple

Peter preaching at the templeIn Acts 3 God gave Peter to heal a lame man at the temple (3:2, 7).  This implies that God chose this place for the healing to give Peter opportunity to preach the gospel at the temple.  All the people gathered around Peter and the apostles, full of amazement (Acts 3:11).  Peter urged them to “repent, so that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19).  Many believed, and the church grew to 5000 men (Acts 4:4).

Go again to the Temple

After the apostles were jailed (5:18), an angel released them and told them to go and speak to the people in the temple (5:20).  They preached every day in the temple (5:42).

Israel forgiven

Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter told the Jews that Jesus had been exalted by God “to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31).

Peter’s vision 

Peter dreaming unclean animalsA few years after the cross God gave Peter the vision of unclean animals (Acts 10:19-20) to convince him to accompany “without misgivings” the uncircumcised men which Cornelius sent.  Many people suppose that that vision was about what Christians are allowed to eat, but when Peter arrived at Cornelius, he interpreted his vision himself.  He said, “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28).  Peter also declared “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (v34-35).  This implies that Peter previously thought that God was partial to the Jews.  He previously thought that non-Jews were unholy or unclean.  The fact that God had to give Peter this vision confirms that disciples and other believers did not associate with the “uncircumcised” in the first few years after the cross.

Holy spirit on gentiles

Cornelius receives the Holy SpiritA number of the circumcised Christians went with Peter to Cornelius (10:23, 45).  While Peter was speaking to the uncircumcised gentiles in Cornelius’ house, the Holy Spirit fell on them (10:44, cf. v45) and they spoke in tongues (10:45).  This amazed the “circumcised” that came with Peter (10:45).  The fact that they were amazed again shows that this was the first time that uncircumcised people received the Holy Spirit.

Back in Jerusalem

When “the circumcised” in Judea heard about these things, they took issue with Peter (11:2), asking why he went to uncircumcised men and ate with them (11:3).  After Peter explained what happened, they declared: “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).  This again confirms that, prior to this point in history, the believers did not associate with the uncircumcised, which means that the gospel was focused exclusively on the circumcised.

A series of articles is available that explains the history of the early church in more detail.  Please see Early Church Table of Contents.

Stoning of Stephen; turning point in history

In Acts 6 the gospel still focuses on the circumcised.  “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (6:7).  But in Acts 10 God, by giving Peter the vision, redirects the gospel to non-Jews.

Stoning of StephenMost of the intermediate verses describe the persecution of the believers, starting with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 (8:1) and ended with the conversion of Paul (9:31).  This shift in gospel focus was therefore caused by the persecution of God’s Spirit filled people.

The stoning of Stephen was a turning point in the history of the early church:

Prior to that, the church functioned as part of Judaism, Christians lived practically as Jews and the church was confined to Jerusalem.

Through the persecution, which followed after his death, God dispersed the believers.  This reversed Jesus’s instruction to His followers to stay in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4).  The church was expelled from Judaism and Jerusalem.  The Christian message was taken to the Gentile world.  As was their habit previously, the fleeing believers at first took the message only to Jews (11:19).  But the Holy Spirit steered the gospel towards the non-Jews, particularly through the conversion of Paul; the apostle to the Gentiles.

Dating of the stoning of Stephen

The dating of Stephen’s death is entirely dependent on the date of Paul’s conversion.  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 the stoning of Stephen and the conversion of Paul.  R. Jewett (A Chronology of Paul’s Life (Philadelphia, 1979), pp. 1-2.) dates Paul’s conversion to AD 34.  Since this should at the most months after the stoning of Stephen, the Stoning of Stephen could be as late as 34 AD.  Stephen therefore died about 2 to 4 years after the Cross.

End of the 490 years

As argued in the article Confirm the covenant, the Seventy Weeks (490 years) come to an end when the Messiah no longer maintains His covenant with Israel (Daniel 9:27).  Since the gospel went to Jews only during the first few years after the Cross, God’s covenant with the Jews did not come to an end at the Cross.  But since God suddenly redirected the gospel away from the Jews to all people, a few years after the cross, this must be the end of the Seventy Weeks.

It also seems appropriate that Israel would seal the termination of the covenant with the rejection and persecution of the people to whom God gave His Holy Spirit, just as they persecuted Jesus a few years before.

This conclusion also fits the time specifications exactly.  There was 483 years from the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (see Which Decree) to the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry at His baptism, as required by the prophecy.  3½ years later He offered Himself as the Lamb of God, “putting a stop to sacrifice and grain offering” (9:27).  Another 3½ years later, at the end of the 490 years, the covenant with Israel came to an end.

490 yearsTherefore, God’s covenant with Israel ended two to four years after the Cross.

Stephen announced the end of the covenant.

In an earlier article (The Covenant in Daniel 9) it was shown that the entire Daniel 9 is based on the covenant God made with Israel.  Stephen’s speech was similarly based on the covenant.  While Daniel confessed the sins of his people and prayed for the mercies of the covenant, Stephen’s speech was a pronouncement of God’s judgment in terms of the covenant.

In contrast to Peter some time earlier (cf. Acts 4:8-12), Stephen made no effort to defend himself.  In contrast to other speeches in Acts, Stephen did not call his hearers to repentance.  Rather, he cites God’s mighty acts on behalf of His people in the past—keeping His side of the covenant.  Then he lists the failures of the Jewish people—explaining that the Jewish people did not keep their side of the covenant.  After his long recital of Israel’s history, he announced his verdict:

You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:51- 53).

Jesus stood in judgment

Stephen then “gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55).  The Bible consistently says that Jesus sat down at the right hand of God (Luke 22:69; Heb. 8:1-2; 10:12; cf. Col 3:1; Rom 8:34; Acts 2:33; 5:31; Mar 16:19; 1 Peter 3:22).  But Stephen saw Him standing.  It is therefore proposed that Jesus stood in judgment, and that Stephen was the conduit through which Jesus’ judgment was announced on the Jewish nation.  Stephen brought to the Jewish leaders not only another one of God’s covenant lawsuits, but the final one.

Israel no longer the covenant people

The period of privilege for the Jews did not end at the Cross.  After Christ’s death God offered them a last opportunity.  But they failed (Acts 7:53).  The seventy weeks which God decreed for Israel have come to an end.  They were now no longer the people of the covenant.  The change in Stephen’s speech of the pronoun from “our” (Acts 7:11, 19, 38, 44 and 45) to “your fathers” (v. 51) means more than a simple breakage in Stephen’s solidarity with his audience.  It also implies the definitive end of the covenant God made with Israel.

Jew First

The gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).

The covenant which God made with Israel was not synonymous of salvation. The purpose of the covenant was to take God’s salvation to the entire world (cf. Genesis 12:1-3).  God elected Israel for Himself and conferred to them a series of privileges, such as the multiplication of their seed, the gift of the land, and His own presence in blessing and protection, in order to enable them to be the channel for His blessing to all other nations.  Thus the covenant must be understood in terms of mission.

So to state that the Jews are no longer the people of the covenant does not mean that God has rejected them (cf. Romans 11:1–10).  Rather, God has chosen another method to execute His missionary plan.  God’s covenant with Israel was established on a corporate basis—i.e., it involved the entire nation as an entity.  The end of the covenant with Israel does not imply the end of God’s interest in the Jews as individuals.  Because of this, the gospel was still preached to them even after the stoning of Stephen (cf. Acts 28:17-28) (92).  But the privilege of being “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9) was no longer theirs.  The people of the covenant are now not defined by bloodline, but by faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26-29; cf. Romans 11:25-32).

In his last moments Stephen prayed: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60).  These words were much more than a prayer.  They were the genuine expression of God’s will in relation to the Jews. “If they do not continue in their unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23).

What if Israel accepted the Messiah?

What would have happened if Israel accepted the message brought by the Holy Spirit?  It would have proclaimed “the excellencies of Him” to the entire world in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the goals for the seventy weeks would have been attained:

Finish the transgression,
Make an end of sin,
Make atonement for iniquity,
Bring in everlasting righteousness,
Seal up vision and prophecy and
Anoint the most holy place.

 

For more on this controversial subject, please see the series of articles on the return of Christ, concluding with Why did He Not Return in the First Century as He promised?.

Early Church; List of Articles

Four major turning points in the first 30 years of the church transformed the church from a movement within Judaism to a separate entity.

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

Early Church History – Theological Implications

Early Church history explains Paul’s letters, the dispute over justification in Galatians, unity of Jew and Gentile, the Law of Moses, and the Sabbath.

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: General Table of Contents

TO: Early Church Table of Contents

Early Church Chronology

Approximate dates for certain key events in the Early Church

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: General Table of Contents

TO: Early Church Table of Contents