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 Phase III; First Gentiles

Phase III commenced when the First Gentiles were accepted into the church and closed 10 years later with the decision that they do not have to observe the Law of Moses.

OVERVIEW

The first 30 years of the church can be divided into four phases.  The third phase commenced with Acts 10.  This chapter can be divided into two events, both of which were shocks to the early church.

The first was the vision which Peter received in Joppa (10:5, 10).  Through this vision Peter, representing the church, discovered that Gentiles are not unclean (10:15, 28), that God does not show partiality to the Jews (10:34), and that people from all races and nations are welcome to Him, if they fear Him and do what is right (10:35).  This was a shock to the church because it previously thought of Gentiles as unclean and as not welcomed by God, even Gentiles that fear Him and does what is right.  The church previously thought only Jews are welcomes by God and that they (the church) are accepted by God because they are Jews.  The purpose of the vision was to convince Peter to “accompany them (the Gentiles) without misgivings” (10:20, 29), and to prepare him for the second event.

The second event—and shock to the early church—was when the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles while they were listening to Paul (10:44-45); “all the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed” (10:45).  The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jews received the Holy Spirit in the beginning.  This made such a huge impression on Peter that he mentioned it twice when he reported back to the Christians in Jerusalem (11:15, 17), and once again during the Jerusalem Church Council (Acts 15:8).  The purpose of this event was to show the church that believing Gentiles must be baptized into the church (10:45).  This was the first time that Gentiles were allowed to join the church.  Before this event the church had no idea that the gospel must of may be preached to Gentiles.

However, this is not a completely accurate statement.  Because the believers included circumcised Gentiles, the distinction between Jew and Gentile is not exactly the same as between circumcised and uncircumcised people.  The Old Testament allowed Gentiles to become part of God’s covenant people and to share equally in the duties and benefits of the Law of Moses (Ex. 12:48-49; Deut. 23:8; Isa. 14:1; 56:6-8).  Such Gentiles are called proselytes (Mat. 23:15; Acts 13:43).  They were circumcised, and observed the Law of Moses.  As far as religious matters are concerned, the Jews did not distinguish between Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles, but between “circumcised” and uncircumcised men”.  That is why Paul so often referred to the uncircumcised, instead of Gentiles, and to the circumcised, instead of Jews (for instance Eph. 2:11; Gal. 2:7; Col. 2:11, Rom. 2:25-29; 3:1).  Therefore, where-ever this article refers to “Jews” the reader must understand “circumcised believers”, which include proselytes (circumcised Gentiles).  Similarly “Gentiles” must be read to exclude Gentiles that converted to Judaism.

The real surprise in Acts 10 (to the early church) was not that Gentiles received the Holy Spirit because Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit before (6:5).  The real surprise and real lesson in Acts 10, to the Jewish mind of the early church, was that uncircumcised” Gentiles, who do not observe the Law of Moses, received the Holy Spirit.  Before these events the apostles preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to circumcised people only.  The purpose of the events in Acts 10 was to show that the gospel must be preached to uncircumcised people as well, and that Gentiles must be accepted into the church without conversion to Judaism.

The events of Acts 10 provide further evidence that, up to the time that Gentiles received the Holy Spirit in Acts 10, all Christians observed the Law of Moses:

Peter said, “I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14).

The believers that came with Peter are described as “circumcised”, which implies that they observed the Law of Moses.  They were “amazed“ when “Gentiles” also received the Holy Spirit (10:45).  Gentiles therefore are mentioned as the opposite of “circumcised”.  This means that uncircumcised people (Gentiles)—namely people that do not observe the Law of Moses—have never before received the Holy Spirit.

This was the first time that “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18) and that Gentiles were baptized (10:47), which means that only Jews previously accepted Jesus as Christ (Messiah) and were baptized.

The church, until the time of the events in Acts 10, not only consisted of Jews only; they also strictly observed all Jewish laws and traditions, but obviously, as taught and applied by Christ.  But since all other church members observed the Law of Moses, the question afterwards arose whether the Gentiles that have accepted Jesus must not still be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses.  Since his vision informed Peter that Gentiles must be accepted as clean, and since the Holy Spirit was poured out on uncircumcised Gentiles, just like on the Jews at Pentecost, Acts 10 seems to indicate that these Gentile Christians do not have to convert to Judaism through circumcision.  The third phase concluded when the church made a formal decision that Gentiles do not have to observe the Law of Moses.  This is recorded in Acts 15.

Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time (Acts 10) more or less 7 to 10 year after Pentecost.  There were a further about ten years between the events in Acts 10 and Acts 15.  In other words, only about 20 years after Pentecost did the church formally agree that Gentiles may join the church without circumcision and without the need to observe the Law of Moses.

ACTS 10 SUMMARIZED

A Gentile at Caesarea named Cornelius (10:1), a devout man who feared God and prayed to God continually (10:2, 22), saw a vision of an angel who said to him to send for Peter (10:3-6, 30-32), for “he will speak words to you by which you will be saved” (11:14). Cornelius sent two servants and a devout soldier to Peter (10:7-8).

As they were nearing the place where Peter was, Peter also had a vision (10:9-10; 11:5).  He saw the sky opened up, and a great sheet coming down, filled with all kinds animals and crawling creatures and birds (10:11-12).  He heard a voice saying, “Peter, kill and eat!” (10:13; 11:7).  But Peter answered, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14; 11:8).  Then the voice said to him, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (10:15; 11:9).  This happened three times (10:16; 11:10).

Peter was greatly perplexed about the vision.  While he was still thinking about it, the men from Cornelius appeared at the gate (10:17), asking for Peter (10:18). The Spirit said to Peter, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Go down and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself” (10:19-20; 11:12).  Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; why have you come?” (10:21-22)  They said, “Cornelius was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you” (10:22).  Peter invited them in and gave them lodging (10:23).

The next day Peter and some of the brethren went with Cornelius’ men to Caesarea (10:23).  Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends (10:24-27).  Peter said to them:

You know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for.” (10:28-29).

After Cornelius explained the vision he had seen (10:30-33), Peter continued:

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” (10:34-35).

Peter then explained to them what Jesus Christ did in the land of the Jews, that He was crucified, but resurrected and appeared to chosen witnesses, and that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins (10:36-43).  While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening, just as He fell on the Jews at the beginning, and they spoke with tongues and exalted God (10:44-46; 11:15).  This amazed the circumcised believers who came with Peter (10:45).  Then Peter said “Surely no one can refuse to baptize a person who has received the Holy Spirit, can he?” (10:47)  Peter ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (10:48).

The apostles and the Christians in Judea heard what happened (11:1). So when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2-3).  Peter then explained to them what happened 11:4-16) and concluded:

If God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17)

The Christians in Jerusalem then concluded:

Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).

GENTILES UNCLEAN

Most of Acts 10 describes that happened, interspersed with conclusions expressed by Peter and others (10:28-29, 34-35, 47; 11:17-18).  These conclusions are important.  We should not develop our own interpretations of these incidents.

Peter’s first conclusion in Acts 10 is his interpretation of the vision.  He said when he arrived at Caesarea:

You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28). “That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for” (10:29).

This has a number of implications:

Firstly, Peter thought of himself primarily as a Jew; a loyal member of Judaism, and only secondarily as a Christian.  He thought of Christianity as a subset of Judaism, namely as the Jews that believes in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

Secondly, the Jews in general, including the Christians—since all Christians at this point in time were Jews—considered Gentiles to be “unholy and unclean”, which made it unlawful for Christians to associate with Gentiles or to visit them.  For that reason, as stated in verse 29, Peter would not have been willing to go with Cornelius’ met to Cornelius’ house if he did not receive the vision.

This is confirmed by what happened when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, when his fellow church members: “took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2, 3).  In other words, the church strongly disapproved of eating with “uncircumcised men”.

We also see in Galatians, written much later, that some Christian Jews still then considered eating with Gentiles to be a grievous sin (Gal. 2:12). This was the attitude in the Jewish culture of which the church was part.  The Jews despised Gentiles.

We see an illustration of this in Acts 21, where Paul addresses the non-Christian Jews.  They listened quite attentively, but the moment he mentioned God saying to him “I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21), the Jews were in uproar (22:22).

Another striking example of the Jews’ hatred of Gentiles is found in Luke 4.  In verse 22 “all were speaking well of Him (Jesus)”, but when He mentioned two examples from the Old Testament where Gentiles were chosen above Israelites (4:25-27), “all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage” (4:28) and “drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill  … in order to throw Him down the cliff” (4:29).

NOT A MESSAGE ABOUT FOOD

Many people think that the purpose of the vision of the sheet containing “all kinds of four-footed creatures” was to allow Christians to eat “unclean” animals, but Peter’s vision must be interpreted as Peter himself interpreted it, namely that “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28).  The purpose of the vision was not to say something about food, but to convince Peter to accompany the uncircumcised men, which Cornelius sent, “without misgivings” (10:20).  To interpret the vision as saying anything about what Christians may eat, is taking it out of its context.  One should not separate Peter’s vision from the entire incident,

JEWS CHOSEN

Peter’s next conclusion, made at the beginning of his speech in Cornelius’ house, was:

“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” (10:34-35).

This means that he (and the church in general) previously understood that God does show partiality, namely to Jews, and that other people are NOT welcome to God; even people who fears Him and does what is right.  Israel though of itself as the Chosen People.

OBSERVE THE LAW OF MOSES

It has been shown above, in the discussion of the Judea & Samaria phase, that all Christians in that phase observed the Law of Moses. This would then be true up to the point in time when Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time in Acts 10.  This is confirmed by the events of Acts 10 and 11:

Peter’s response, “I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14), indicates that the church, up to that point in history, did not eat anything unholy and unclean.  This implies that the church, at the time, still observed the Jewish laws.

The believers that came with Peter are described as “circumcised”, which, in this context, means that they observed the Law of Moses.  They were “amazed“ when “Gentiles” also received the Holy Spirit (10:45).  Gentiles therefore are the opposite of “circumcised” people.  Gentiles are “uncircumcised” (11:3).  Since Peter’s “circumcised” companions were amazed that “uncircumcised men” (11:3) received the Holy Spirit, we can conclude that this never happened before, which means that all Christians previously observed the Law of Moses.

Peter, after he saw that the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, said: “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he? “ (10:47)  This therefore was the first time that Gentiles were baptized.  Peter—and therefore the church in general—previously thought that, because the Jews were God’s chosen people, only Jews may be baptized.

The conclusion of the Christians in Jerusalem, after Peter reported back to them, was, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).  This confirms that this was the first time that Gentiles accepted Jesus as Christ (Messiah).

The church, up to that point in history, not only consisted only of Jews; they also observed strictly all Jewish laws and traditions, but obviously, as taught and applied by Christ.

CIRCUMCISION

The distinction between Jew and Gentile requires further explanation.

Acts 10:45-11:3 describes the believers as “circumcised” and Gentiles as uncircumcised men”.  This is the first time that the Book of Acts refers to people in such a way”.  It says, “those who were circumcised took issue with him (Peter), saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2-3).  Why does Acts now suddenly refer to circumcised and uncircumcised men, instead of Jews and Gentiles?

Furthermore, Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit before, for instance “Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch” (6:5). Why then were the “circumcised believers” “amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles” (10:45)?

The answer is that, as far as religious matters are concerned, the Jews did not distinguish between Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles, but between “circumcised” and uncircumcised men”.  The Old Testament allowed Gentiles to become part of God’s covenant people:

Deut. 23:8 speaks of “one who enters into the assembly of Jacob“.

Isa. 14:1 mentions converts as “strangers” who shall “cleave to the house of Jacob“.

Joshua led the people of God across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Thanks to a Gentile woman, named Rahab, the city of Jericho is taken. Rahab not only protects the Hebrew spies from her own people, but also confessed the Lord with her mouth, saying, “I know that the Lord has given this land to you … the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:9, 11). Rahab joined the people of Israel, and she was included in the genealogy of the Messiah Himself (Matthew 1:5).

Naomi was an Israelite whose husband and sons died in the foreign land of Moab. Both her sons had married Moabite women.  While one of their wives stayed in Moab, the other – Ruth – followed Naomi back to the land of Judah, where she married the kinsman redeemer Boaz (whose mother was Rahab).  A whole book in the Bible is devoted to her, and she also became an ancestor of Christ (Matthew 1:5).

A Gentile that put his or her faith in YHWH, is called a “proselyte”:

Jesus said to the Jews, “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte” (Mat. 23:15).  (See also Acts 13:43)

The duties and benefits which the Old Testament bestowed on Jews apply equally to proselytes.  They were also circumcised and they also observed the Law of Moses:

Ex. 12:48 provides for the proselyte’s partaking of the paschal lamb.

The same law shall be to him that is born in the land, and to the proselyte that sojourneth with you” (Ex. 12:49).

Foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD … and who hold fast to my covenant-these I will … give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6-8).

Jews would not “associate with a foreigner or to visit him” (Acts 10:28) or eat with them (11:3) because they were thought to be “unclean”.  But once a Gentile has been circumcised and “observe the Law of Moses” (15:5) and the Jewish customs, they were no longer viewed as unclean.

The real distinction was therefore not between Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles, but between circumcised and uncircumcised.  That is also why Paul so often referred to the uncircumcised, instead of Gentiles, and circumcised, instead of Jews:

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision” (Eph. 2:11)

But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter” (Gal. 2:7 KJV; See also Col. 2:11, Rom. 2:25-29; 3:1).

Therefore, where-ever this article refers to “Jews” the reader must understand “circumcised believers”, which include proselytes (circumcised Gentiles).

It therefore did not surprise the Jews when a Gentile proselyte received the Holy Spirit.  The surprise, in Acts 10, was that uncircumcised Gentiles, that do not observe the Law of Moses, have received the Holy Spirit.  Before these events the apostles preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to circumcised people only.  The purpose of the events in Acts 10 was to show that the gospel must be preached to uncircumcised people as well, and that Gentiles must be accepted into the church without conversion to Judaism.

UNITY

In Acts 2 the apostles received the Holy Spirit without the intervention of other people, but in Acts 10-11 the apostle Peter went to the Gentiles for them to receive the Holy Spirit.  Similar to the Samaritans, who received the Holy Spirit only after the apostles went to Samaria and laid hands on them, the authority of the apostles and therefore the unity of the church was preserved.

NEXT: Separation Phase

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