Many teachers and preachers over the years have attempted to sidestep the issue of controversies that occurred in the first century church, fearing that this would take from the validity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In reality, the opposite is true.
It is when we understand how a Holy God controls, works with, and treats a sinful people who interact with other sinful people; both of which are believers, that we see the greatness of our God in light of our own imperfections.
As such, examining the controversy of the first century church between those believers which came out of Judaism to salvation in Christ, and those Gentiles which came out of paganism to Jesus Christ, is beneficial as we deal with our own controversies in dealing with each other.
This article in no way shape or form is meant to denigrate these First Century Church Fathers, but it is meant to show their human side and how God works within humanity in spite of humanity – yet always for His own Glory, and it is Him that should be praised, in that He can still function without restraint with in such limited situations.
The Key Text – 1
First let’s examine the controversy based upon Acts 15:1-20, which states:
“And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. [which Peter did not follow through with, Paul did – it is apparent in the Greek grammar as well as the English that Peter is boasting here]. And God which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.”
There were two issues behind the Acts chapter 15 situation.
First, that of salvation for the Gentiles and their place within the church, which creates the second issue, that of Israel’s destiny, which is implied by the thought, “What is to happen to Israel if Judaism is canceled, which James refers to,”
Today we will deal with the first issue concerning the Gentiles, and at a later point, we will deal with Israel’s destiny in another article.
To start with in verse one, “certain men“ attempted to piggyback Christianity onto Judaism, which would make sense if it was not for the fact that they knew better.
These “certain men“ appeared to also be represented as holding the same beliefs as the Pharisees Believers of verse five, if not the same individuals themselves, with verse five stating:
“But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
Putting Flesh and Bone on the Situation
We need to really understand what is going on here.
All of the apostles (“…for salvation is of the Jews.” ~ John 4:22), and with very few exceptions all of the rest of the followers of Jesus as of the time of His resurrection, were Jews who practiced Judaism in their religious observance of the Torah.
And when they became believers in Jesus Christ, they understood that Jesus was a fulfillment of that which came out of the Torah, not in place of the Torah.
Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, not only the Savior of the world.
Therefore, it might seem only natural for them to assume that the Gentiles needed to first accept the Torah before accepting Jesus as that is what they did, and at this time there had been no tantamount teaching concerning the church being made up of both Jews and Gentile alike, with no discrimination between the two.
The Jewish Believers are Without Excuse
The Jews had memorized the Torah, the prophets, and the books before the age of five; wherein one of their greatest prophets Isaiah stated concerning the destiny of the Gentiles:
“And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:10)
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.” (Isaiah 42:1)
“I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles“ (Isaiah 42:6)
“And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
“Thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people: and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.” (Isaiah 49:22)
“And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Isaiah 60:3)
“For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts.“ (Malachi 1:11)
And was it not Jesus himself that taught that the Gentiles would be brought into congregation as seen in the following Scriptures:
“And in his name shall the Gentiles trust.” (Matthew 12:21)
“A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.“ (Luke 2:32)
Peter and the Gentiles
We find the first active move in this direction concerning Acts chapter 10, where we have God using Cornelius of Caesarea to interact with Peter, wherein Peter is re-educated by God (Acts 10:15), reinforcing the place of the Genitals in the Church, and Peter taking the message back to Jerusalem, and the church receiving it. it is believed that Paul’s interaction with Cornelius occurred around the year 40 A.D., seven years after the resurrection of Christ.
However, it does not appear that Peter communicated any further with the Gentiles, nor that he communicated this revelation more openly to the church at Jerusalem, because it was nine years later when we have the situation that is recorded in our key text, acts 15.
This is the first time that Peter is recorded having expounded that the gospel was given to the Gentiles as well, though he did state that the church of Jerusalem was aware of the incidence with Cornelius.
It appears that they did not attempt to evangelize the Gentiles are proceed further concerning Peter’s revelation.
Even more alarming is the fact that for 17 years the church at Jerusalem had been taking such a close relationship with Judaism to the point where the situation in Antioch appeared to be the defining moment that the church council fully accepted the Gentiles into the church.
Though instructed by God to go to the Gentiles, Paul kept trying to preach to the Jews, it was during his first missionary journey and 47 A.D., two years prior to this that Paul was evangelizing the Gentiles.
The Church of Jerusalem and the Gentiles
It is self evidence that even as Peter and Paul had testified to the Jerusalem church, they had misgivings as is seen in verse 18, says: “When they heard these things, they held their peace…”, indicating opposition to what was being said, while at the same time keeping their thoughts to themselves.
James was the leader at the time, rather he implied Judaism was still okay, or he neglected to clarify this point; this is a sign of bad leadership.
Every organization is a reflection of its leader, and it’s true “the buck stops here”.
Since James felt it was acceptable to disobey Jesus’ parting directions concerning the leadership of the early church, which was to be Peter (“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” ~ Matthew 16:18-19) , James holds that much more responsibility in the confusion concerning the Gentiles and Judaism as their leader (“And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me” ~ Acts 15:13; James keeps speaking until Acts 15:19, when James concludes with “Wherefore my sentence is… “; displaying that James was then the leader of the Church).
And it was Jesus Christ Himself that told the disciples, that this gospel was to go into “…all the world,…” – to all the Gentiles; so why was there a need for a discussion concerning the Gentile believers needing to proselytize to Judaism before salvation was achievable.
What is interesting is Acts 15:5, identifies that certain individuals of the “sect of the Pharisees which believed”.
Yet why is there still the pride that comes from identifying oneself as a Pharisee, as if we could have pharisaical Christians, which was an in opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And as the Scripture so eloquently states that they were Pharisees first, then believers second (the Greek bears this out).
And they did not simply express themselves in suggesting that circumcision was a nice addition, the word “saying” in the Greek grammar better expresses their contention for maintaining legalism, and is much stronger than it appears in the English translation – they were demanding or arguing that Judaism was a part of Christianity.
Again this after Acts 10, and the leadership’s lack of addressing this issue, even after God had clearly made his point.
The Key Text – 2
Perhaps a better way of understanding the situation is in light of Paul’s reference to this situation which can be seen in Galatians chapter 2, which was recorded 14 years after the event.
One thing that is very noticeable is that Paul does not hold as high a regard for the leadership at Jerusalem as they hold for themselves during this event.
Though not contempt in its nature, he does not display submission that they think they are worthy of. In fact, he had made up his mind that if they disagreed with him, he would do what he felt God wanted him to do, in spite of their unwillingness to do so.
At the time of the occasion, perhaps due to his youth Paul exhibits respect that is not seen many years later as recorded in Galatians.
Galatians 2:6, uses the reference:
“but of these who seemed to be somewhat, [“appeared to be”, which only concerned they’re reputation, it was not a factor him] (whatsoever they were, [His inference is that what their position was, was not identifiable, or not worth identifying] it maketh no matter to me; God except as no man’s person) for they who seemed to be somewhat in confidence [a backhanded reference concerning their pride] added nothing to me [Paul boast that he was not their underling, or student, and therefore was not called to be submissive to them, if a disagreement continued during the encounter of Acts 15, he was going to do what God told him to do anyway, and even concerning the giving to the poor, he would not let them get the credit for it, when he said I was going to do that anyway]“.
Galatians 2:9 says:
“and when James, Cephas, and John who seem [in appearance only, their reputation; he was not stating that they were in fact pillars, but that they looked like it, which implied that they were truly not what they appeared to be – the true pillars of the church. We need to put flesh and blood upon this. Jesus told them in the last chapter of Matthew to go into all the world, yet they did not. It is only the Apostles who were martyrs for the kingdom that went and preached the gospel to the world. The church at Jerusalem, which included their new leadership of James; did not follow Jesus instruction. The church of Jerusalem did not fully commit itself to evangelizing the Gentiles, rather it was the Gentiles through Paul that funded the Jewish church in Jerusalem, not the other way around. And they and their disciples did not leave Jerusalem to evangelize the known world until the destruction of Jerusalem 38 years later. This is why the history of the Church Fathers is actually seen in their disciples, and their disciple’s disciples, not in those that made up the church of Jerusalem, per se] to be pillars“.
And Galatians 2:7, starts off by Paul stating
“But, contrariwise” (transitive verb), indicating his opposition to the prior verse which talked about “those who seemed to be somewhat in confidence,” indicating Paul’s contempt for them, as Paul followed the instructions that Jesus gave which they did not to take the gospel to the Gentiles.
Paul and the Gentiles
What we must also recognize is that it was Paul who defined the church as being made up of Gentiles and Jews as declared in the book of Ephesians which was written either between 57-59 A.D., or 60-62 A.D.; however the time that the incidence of Ephesians occurred was after his first missionary journey which occurred around the years 47 A.D. to 49 A.D., but much prior than his 2 1/2 year stay at Ephesus in the year 54 A.D.
As Paul writes in Ephesians 3:1-6:
“For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel”
Wherein Paul is the first to be given the direct Revelation that the church is simply not to have the possibility of Gentiles coming in, as might be interpreted concerning Peter’s visit with Cornelius. But that the church was fellowheirs with the Jews in the makeup of the church, which was Christ body.
Therefore, we must understand that the situation which is recorded in Acts chapter 15 occurred between the years 40 A.D. and 49 A.D., which was the time frame that the assembly of believers at Jerusalem, came to accept that the church of Jesus Christ was to be made up of a homogenization of all races and nations, both Jews and Gentiles (understanding that the word Gentile simply means anyone who is not a Jew, which would be everyone else).
Paul’s Calling to Complete the Direction of Jesus, Which Others had Failed to do – “one born out of due time.”
There is a reason that Paul referred to himself as called Paul as “born out of due season” (“And last of all he was seen of me [Jesus] also, as of one born out of due time.” ~ 1 Corth. 15:8), to evangelize the rest of the known world, complete more than half of the New Testament, and do more for Christendom than any other New Testament disciple; there is a reason why God called Paul to do what the others did not.
It is self-evident from the teachings of Christ that He has always meant for the disciples to take the message to the Gentiles (Those “other sheep” ~ John 10:16), yet even after God affirmed it with Cornelius, and they at Jerusalem witnessed (or were told of and believed) the baptism of the Holy Spirit upon Gentiles, God still needed to bring an outsider in to do what He had ordered His disciples to do.
The reason is simple, it is to display the Majesty in power of our God, that even when we have failed time after time; he still accomplishes his will in spite of our failures – that is part of his greatness, his ability to use sinful broken creatures, in spite of themselves, or even calling one such as Paul to continue what was never done by the others.
Unfortunately there are many in the church, who because of insecurity, or pride, don’t want to talk about the sinfulness of the early church, or the failures within churches today. They attempt to play down divisions or conflicts
Yet it is the power of God as seen in the conflict that arose between Paul and Barnabas, and God’s ability to double their outreach because of them splitting up (“And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus” ~ Act 15:39), but it is God that is glorified; and years later we hear Paul talking about how dear Mark is to him years after this conflict between these two great pillars (“Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.” ~ 2 Timothy 4:11). Yet what we do not see is that Barnabas after the situation established a very large ministry, though few have written about it…
God has always been in control to the point that He can work within a creation that has turned sinful and fully complete his will.
Biblical faith in God is contingent upon two premises. One that God’s will for his children is good, and secondly; His power is undaunted even by our own ability to seemingly flawed His Will….And He has demanded for us to live in faith, that even when it seems like He’s not in control, to believe and to trust that He is.
A good example of God’s complete power to use any situation is seen in the life of Joseph as recorded in Genesis 50:20, where he states concerning his brothers betrayal in selling him into bondage, and their later fear that as a great leader he would seek retribution, his reply was:
“But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good…“.
The fact that the church at Jerusalem may have done so miserably, only amplifies our observation of Gods total ability and power to do His Will, even in spite of us.