In the Bible’s terminology, most American Christians are gentiles. In fact, the majority of Christians are gentiles. At some moment in history after Acts 10, the majority of Christians in the last half of the first century were gentiles.
Consider the meaning of a fact. Many Christians in the New Testament were called gentiles by the Jews. What does that fact mean? Quite simply, its means Christians who were gentiles ethnically were not Jews. From a biblical Jewish perspective, people could be divided into two categories: those who descended from Abraham through Isaac [Israelites or Jews] and all other peoples [gentiles].
Even among the conservative Jews of today, those two primary divisions are typically recognized as a primary division of peoples in the world. A person is a Jew or he/she is not. If he/she is not, he/she is a gentile. To a conservative Jewish person, these terms are important for distinguishing between people who are Jews and people who are not. Jews were [are] persons descended from Abraham through Isaac. That was [is] either true of a person’s physical ancestry, or it was [is] not.
Most gentile Christians worldwide [definitely including Americans] think in salvation terms without regard to ethnicity [who your ancestors are; what race of people accepts you as one of them]. To associate salvation through grace with ancestry in an ethnic group is not even a part of the religious thought process for many gentile Christians. To many gentile Christians, attempts to combine salvation concepts with ethnic concepts radiate suggestions of racism.
However, the conservative Jewish mindset thinks in ethnical-religious concepts as though the two concepts are an inseparable part of each other. To these people, the preservation of the Jewish people in a world often hostile to Jewish people cannot and must not be separated from religious concepts. The preservation of Israel as a nation is a fundamental expression of Judaism [the Jewish religion]. In conservative Jewish thinking, it is impossible to commit oneself to God and His teachings and be unconcerned about the preservation of the Jewish people and the nation of Israel.
Even in the first century, why was it essential to defend a strong bond between ethnically being Jewish and being a follower of God? Why was maintaining and preserving Jewish tradition and custom an essential religious expression? Understanding the answers to these questions is critical to an understanding of the New Testament concept of unity in Jesus Christ.
First, combining (1) ethnic identity and (2) religious commitment to God began in God’s promises to Abraham about two thousand years before Jesus’ birth. Among the promises God made to Abraham early in their relationship was this: “And I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). A blessing would come to all people through Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12:3). Abraham followed God by becoming a nomad in Canaan. Later God confirmed His promise [covenant] with Abraham by declaring in Genesis 15:18, “To your descendants I have given this land . . .” [speaking of Canaan].
When Abraham was 99, God reaffirmed His promise [covenant] to Abraham with this statement: “I am God Almighty [El Shaddai, the God who is strong enough to help and sensitive enough to care]; walk before me, and be blameless [be a person of integrity]. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly” (Genesis 17:1, 2). Then God made this statement to Abraham: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7). In the same conversation, God told Abraham that Canaan would be his descendants’ everlasting possession (Genesis 17:8) and specified the descendants who came through Isaac (Genesis 17:21). The sign that signified Abraham and his descendants through Isaac honored this covenant was circumcision [practiced as a religious rite] (Genesis 17:9-14).
Hundreds of years later, God delivered Abraham’s descendants from their slavery in Egypt. Within months after their deliverance, after the plagues in Egypt, after crossing the Red Sea, after the quail and manna, after the water at Meribah, God instructed Moses to deliver this message to the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6). After this statement, God gave the people of Israel [by speaking to them] the ten commandments.
Deuteronomy repeatedly emphasized the unique relationship between God and the people of Israel. “But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, from Egypt, to be a people for His own possession, as today” (Deuteronomy 4:20). “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). “Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deuteronomy 9:4, 5). “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 14:2). “The Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments . . .” (Deuteronomy 26:18). “so it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. The Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:1-6).
Though Israel frequently forgot what it meant to be the Holy God’s people [consider the incidents in Judges and the situation in Isaiah 1], they clearly understood God had chosen them as His people. Frequently they placed more confidence in ‘who we are’ than in the God who chose them because of Abraham’s great faith. God’s redemptive purposes were even greater than His covenant to Abraham. His covenant with Abraham was merely a piece of the puzzle. The divine redemption of ‘all people’ was the puzzle.
The second myth that is frequently unquestioned is this: “Jewish Christians were elated that gentiles accepted Jesus Christ through grace.” That was not the situation. Most Jewish Christians (1) regarded the baptism of gentile Christians with skepticism; (2) were certain gentile Christians must yield to Jewish covenant signs, Jewish morality, and Jewish traditions/customs, and (3) were convinced gentile Christians could not be saved just through an obedient surrender to Jesus Christ.
The Jewish Christians who were thrilled with the gentiles’ acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior were relatively few. Peter was. Yet, it took God’s powerful acts and the outpouring of the Spirit to convince Peter that gentiles could be saved (read Acts 10). Long after his realization in Acts 10:34-35, Peter feared Jewish Christians who did not understand God could forgive gentiles aside from their being proselytes. Peter feared these Jewish Christians so much that he disassociated himself from gentile Christians at Antioch of Syria—and successfully convinced other Jewish Christians who had accepted gentiles to follow his example! (See Galatians 2:11-14.) Barnabas was one of the first Jewish Christians to rejoice in gentile acceptance of Jesus Christ (Acts 11:22-24). Yet, he was influenced by Peter to sever [at least part] of his relationship with gentiles (Galatians 2:13). Paul, after conversion to Christ, became the apostle to the gentiles (Galatians 2:7-10). However, he endured numerous problems because he dared convert gentiles to Christ (consider Acts 15:1, 2 and 28:17-28 as examples). Other Jewish Christians who rejoiced in the conversions of gentiles included Silas, John Mark, Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos, and the elders of the Jerusalem congregation in Acts 21:18-21. The Jewish Christians opposing the salvation of gentiles through grace likely outnumbered [considerably!] the Jewish Christians who championed the salvation of gentiles through grace.
The biblical evidences of Jewish Christians’ opposition to gentile conversions to Jesus Christ through grace are numerous. Even though Peter was sent to Cornelius in Caesarea by the Lord and the Spirit, he took Jewish Christians with him to be witnesses (Acts 10:45-48). Why? Just entering a gentile home was a highly objectionable act for a Jew of good standing in the Jewish community. In Peter’s words, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him . . .” (Acts 10:28).
When Peter returned to Jerusalem, Jewish Christians in the Jerusalem congregation and throughout Judea expressed opposition to his actions (Acts 11:1-3). Note the issue was much more fundamental than Peter baptizing Cornelius and others. He ‘ate with them’. He had table fellowship with them. He violated basic Jewish tradition and custom by eating unclean food [food not prepared according to Jewish regulations] with unclean people [uncircumcised people outside God’s covenant with Abraham]. The problem: they were unclean because they had not been circumcised (see Genesis 17:14 and Exodus 12:48 to note the significance of circumcision to Jewish people). Peter’s act in Acts 10 was much more than a baptism issue. It was a Jew-gentile issue. The fact that Jewish Christians finally quieted down and glorified God when they heard about God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on gentiles (Acts 11:18) did not resolve the Jewish Christian-gentile Christian crisis.
When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch of Syria after their first missionary journey [in which they converted both Jews and gentiles], they arrived in the midst of a local emotional confrontation. Some Jews [likely Jewish Christians since they confronted gentile Christians] told gentile Christians that unless they were circumcised according to Moses’ custom they could not be saved (Acts 15:1). Conversion to Jesus Christ was not enough! Paul and Barnabas entered the confrontation—they had recently converted gentiles to Jesus Christ!
The confrontation was so serious and emotional, it is described as “no small dissention and disputation” [KJV], “great dissention and debate” [NASV], “no small dissention and debate” [RSV], “sharp dissention and debate” [NIV], “a long argument” [JB], “fierce dissention and controversy” [NEB], and “no small dissention and dispute [NKJV] (Acts 15:2). This was a serious, emotional question/problem/matter! The disagreement was of such intensity that not even Paul and Barnabas could resolve it [even though they just had returned from converting gentiles to Christ!]. The issue at stake was of such significance that it had to be referred to the apostles [Jewish] and elders [Jewish] in Jerusalem! Not even Peter’s instructions from God in his Acts 10 experience resolved the fundamental question of the correct manner for converting gentiles to Jesus Christ. Must gentiles convert to Jewish traditions and customs in a manner sanctioned by Jews before they converted to Jesus Christ?
When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas gave a report to the apostles and elders on God’s work among the gentiles through them (Acts 15:4). However, some Pharisaic Jewish Christians took issue with the evidence provided by Paul and Barnabas. They declared it was not only necessary to circumcise gentile converts [a religious rite], but also to instruct them to observe the Law of Moses (Acts 15:5). Note the apostles and elders allowed all who wished to express themselves to do so.
After hearing all the evidences, James declared that gentiles did not have to accept and follow Jewish practices in order to have salvation in Jesus Christ. His statement goes to the heart of the issue: “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). A huge fear in the Jewish Christian community was this: including gentiles in the church without requiring conversion to Judaism eventually would destroy the distinctiveness of Israel. James, a Jewish Christian leader in the Jerusalem congregation, said this would not happen. Salvation of gentiles in Christ would not destroy Jewish identity!
This Jewish Christian who is a leader in the Jerusalem church declared Jewish traditions and practices were guaranteed a secure position because synagogues would teach these traditions and practices every Saturday. The conversion of gentiles to Jesus Christ through grace was not a threat to Jewish tradition or practice. A Jewish leader in the Jerusalem church was defending (1) the right of gentiles to be Christians without first becoming proselytes and (2) the continuation of Jewish tradition and teaching through the functioning of the synagogue.
The Acts 15 letter was circulated among the gentile congregations in Syria and Cilicia by the agreement of apostles, elders, and whole church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:22-29). It confirmed gentiles did not have to become Jewish proselytes before conversion to Jesus Christ. However, this Jerusalem church decision and this letter from the Jerusalem church did not resolve the Jewish Christian-gentile Christian issue. This issue was a definite factor in Paul’s arrest in Acts 21:20-28. It was definitely part of the controversy that plagued Christians in Rome (Romans 14). It was the primary reason for the letter of Galatians, a letter to gentile Christians concerning the message and evaluations of Judaizing teachers. It was a factor in the warnings found in 1 Timothy 1:4 with 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; and Titus 1:10-14 with Titus 3:9 regarding questions, genealogies, arguments about words, etc. This controversy was enormous among first century Christians.
Chapter Five Chapter Seven