EXCERPT: Early Church history provides context for Paul’s letters; for the debates about the unity of Jew and Gentile, the Law of Moses, Justification by the works of the Law, and the Sabbath. This is particularly relevant to the dispute over justification in Galatians.
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 (Acts 21:10) 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 required 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 (Acts 8:14-17).
- The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit through Peter (Acts 10).
- The dispute about 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 a 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 a 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.
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” (Acts 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” (Acts 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 an 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 means 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” (Matt 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 …” (Matt 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 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 (Matt 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 an important context for Paul’s comments on the observance of “days” (Rom 14:6; Gal 4:10).
ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
1. Jerusalem Phase: The church consisted of Jews only.
2. Judea and Samaria Phase: All Christians still observed the Law of Moses.
3. Gentile Dispute Phase: A dispute arose whether Gentile Christians must observe the Law of Moses.
4. Separation Phase: The Jerusalem Council decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.
5. Theological Implications of Early Church History.
6. Estimated dates for significant events in the early church.
See Early Church Table of Contents for a more complete description of these articles.