This lack of uniformity in the first Jewish congregation created a MAJOR crisis when the good news of Jesus’ resurrection reached outside the Jewish community. A man who was gentile lived in the city of Caesarea. He was an officer in the Roman Empire’s occupation force stationed in Palestine. His name was Cornelius. His job was to assist in controlling the Jewish population in Palestine when Jewish loyalties threatened Roman authority.
As a result of being stationed in Palestine, Cornelius became a believer in the God the Jewish people worshipped. He was a person in a group known as God-fearers. God-fearers were people who believed in Jehovah God, but were not Jews and had not officially converted to Judaism [they were uncircumcised]. Cornelius was devout, reverenced God, was personally benevolent toward Jews, and prayed daily to the God of the Jews.
In order to teach this man about the resurrected Jesus, God sent Cornelius [a gentile] the apostle Peter [a Jewish Christian]. It took a lot to convince the Jewish Christian Peter to travel from Joppa to teach a gentile in Caesarea! (1) A hungry Peter saw a vision three times, each time concluding with this admonition: “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:10-16). (2) A thoroughly confused Peter was told by the Spirit to accompany Cornelius’ men back to Caesarea (Acts 10:19, 20).
Peter went because God told him to go, not because he fully understood why God sent him. When he arrived, he told Cornelius and those assembled, “You know Jewish law forbids me to be in your gentile home, but God showed me that I should not call any person unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28). His next question was quite revealing: “Tell me why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:29) Peter did not understand why he, a Jew, was in the home of this gentile!
The end result of Peter’s visit and teaching was the baptisms of Cornelius and many others. On that occasion, two things happened: (1) a Hebraist Jewish Christian understood people who were not Jews had the right to respond to Jesus Christ [see Acts 10:34-35]; (2) people who were not Jews or proselytes received the Holy Spirit and were baptized into Christ. That began a major problem that expressed itself in relationship problems existing between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians.
The Problem Escalates
Quickly word traveled back to the Jerusalem congregation that Peter had eaten with gentiles. Peter’s action traveled throughout Judea more quickly than Peter traveled to Jerusalem! (See Acts 11:1.) This was long before the age of telephones, radio news bulletins, or televisions! What Peter did truly was unthinkable in the understanding of the Palestinian Jewish community or the Jerusalem congregation.
When Peter returned to Jerusalem, Jewish Christians confronted him. The conversation was a serious, heart-to-heart confrontation. Paraphrased, “God promised Israel the Christ. How dare you share him with someone who has not been circumcised? You had no right to be there!” (See Acts 11:2, 3)
Note Acts 11:3: “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
The group of Jewish Christians who confronted Peter finally were satisfied that God Himself granted the gentiles repentance that results in life (Acts 11:18). Yet, that merely began a major problem in the first century church—not ended the conflict between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians.
In Acts 11:19-26 when the first known gentile congregation came into existence [as a result of Jewish evangelism!], the first congregation [Jewish] send Barnabas [Jewish] to observe what was happening. Though Barnabas rejoiced when he observed God’s grace at work among people who were not Jews (see Acts 11:23, 24), the problem would get worse, not better.
In Acts 15:1 Jewish Christians from Judea insisted gentile Christians in Antioch had to be circumcised [converted to Judaism] to be saved. These Jewish Christians created such a hostile atmosphere and disagreeable debate among gentile Christians that not even Paul and Barnabas could resolve the confusion—immediately after returning from a successful mission trip among the gentiles! (See Acts 15:2, 3)
The issue debated in Antioch was referred to the Jewish apostles and Jewish elders in the Jerusalem congregation. Some Jewish Christians insisted that gentile Christians must be circumcised and observe the law of Moses [convert to Jewish lifestyle] in order to be Christians (Acts 15:5). After all the evidence and testimony was presented, James [a Hebraist Jewish Christian and leader in the Jerusalem congregation] declared it was unnecessary for gentile Christians to become Jews in order to enter Christ. The apostles, elders, and whole church [Jewish Christians in Jerusalem] (Acts 15:22) sent a letter by devout Jewish Christians confirming this decision. Not even that decision ended the controversy! Obviously, the letter did not represent every Jewish Christian’s viewpoint!
Later Paul sent the letter of Galatians to gentile congregations in the Roman province of Galatia. This same problem produced destructive confusion in gentile congregations in that area. Paul was astounded that Jewish Christians had convinced gentile Christians that they were not saved unless they converted to Judaism (see Galatians 1:3-12). After providing evidences of God’s acceptance of gentiles without conversion to Judaism, Paul recounted an incident that involved the apostle Peter and himself. Peter came to the gentile congregation at Antioch and engaged in full fellowship [including eating gentile foods] with gentile Christians. However, when a delegation of Jewish Christians visited the congregation at Antioch, Peter broke off a complete fellowship [including eating] with gentile Christians because he was afraid of Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11,12). In fear, Peter even convinced Barnabas to do the same thing! (Galatians 2:13) Paul called their action hypocrisy and confronted the apostle Peter face to face publicly about being in error in this matter.
Do these incidents give you a sense of the enormity of the Jew-gentile problem among Christians in the first century church? Does it challenge you to realize that from the beginning the central issue in God-defined unity in Jesus Christ was not uniformity?
Chapter Four Chapter Six