The world of the first century was an extremely complex place, just as is our world of today. For example, it cannot be accurately viewed as simply a world of Jews [descendants of Abraham through Isaac] and gentiles [people of all other backgrounds]. Consider the Jewish people. They were composed of two distinct sections: the Jews who lived in Palestine and the Jews known as the diaspora [Jews who lived outside Palestine]. Not all Jews, for example, who were descendants of those exiled to Babylon [in the Old Testament period] returned to Palestine. More Jews remained out of Palestine than returned to Palestine. Those who did not return were the origin of the diaspora [dispersed ones].
Though most major cities/population areas of the first century gentile world had a Jewish community, though Jews in Palestine and Jews outside of Palestine shared numerous things in common [circumcision, the law, synagogue worship, etc.], there also were basic differences between Jews in Palestine and Jews in the diaspora. A verification of those differences is acknowledged in Acts 6:1. The Jews in Palestine spoke Aramaic and were culturally different from the Hellenistic [diaspora] Jews. The differences created a problem in the first congregation. The worldwide Jewish community made some striking distinctions among themselves!
To illustrate the complexity of the Jewish community, consider an incident related by Josephus in Antiquities [book xx; chapter 2; verses 2,3,4]. Queen Helena’s son, Izates [the king over Adiabene] wished to convert to Judaism as had the Queen. He wished to submit to the circumcision rite in his conversion. In his personal understanding, he could not be thoroughly a Jewish proselyte unless he was circumcised. His initial teaching came from Ananias, a diaspora Jew, committed to making converts to Judaism.
However, both Queen Helena and Ananias urged Izates not to be circumcised because this act might incite a rebellion of his subjects against his rule. Ananias convinced Izates that God would not withhold forgiveness from him because he was not circumcised. Izates was assured by Ananias that God would receive his worship.
Later, a Jew from Palestine [Eleazar from Galilee] urged Izates be circumcised, and Izates willingly complied.
This is cited as an illustration. Even among some Jews from Palestine and some Jews among the diaspora, there was basic disagreement over matters as fundamental as conversion to Judaism.
Beware of oversimplifying the situation in that world!
To Be a Proselyte
A proselyte was a gentile who through the conversion process became a part of the Jewish community. This was not a casual decision. It was not what Christians today might refer as a ‘spur of the moment’ decision in which a gentile was motivated by a Jew ‘to walk down the aisle’ to reject his gentile culture and adopt Jewish ways.
Gentiles were welcome to attend Jewish synagogues and learn about God. See Acts 13:16. Note this occurred in a synagogue. Note the “men of Israel” were Jews. Note “those who fear God” were gentiles. Note the author of Acts acknowledged the presence of both. Also read Acts 13:44-52. Observe the author of Acts acknowledged (1) Jews and gentiles came to that synagogue, and (2) each group reacted quite differently to Paul’s message.
Before a gentile became a proselyte, he or she must be attracted to the God of the Jews. Becoming a part of the Jewish community [leaving your gentile culture and adopting Jewish ways] required a period of learning and understanding. Today we might refer to that process as indoctrination. Everett Ferguson notes in Backgrounds of Early Christianity [second edition, page 512] that numerous things attracted gentiles to Judaism including monotheism, high ethical standards, philosophical worship in synagogues, an ancient and inspired revelation, and the social cohesiveness of the Jewish community [dwc--though Jewish differences existed among themselves, Judaism was not nearly as fragmented as was a gentile community with its many forms of idolatry]. Typically, what was required to be a proselyte was circumcision of males, baptism [a cleansing by immersion] for males or females, and an offering at the temple [prior to the temple’s destruction in AD 70].
Some Jews, a minority, did not approve of accepting gentiles into the Jewish community. These Jews regarded even converted gentiles to be a dangerous influence who could corrupt the devotion of the Jewish people to ethical and moral standards. Remember, there was a genuine fear of idolatry in the Jewish community! The Jews who feared accepting proselytes into the Jewish community believed gentiles were so ingrained in immoral conduct and idol worship that it was unlikely that gentiles completely could be separated from such past influences. Therefore, even without consideration of Christian influence, part of the Jewish community was seriously skeptical that gentiles could come from the influences of idolatry and adjust to the Jewish environment without exerting a negative influence in the Jewish community.
To Be A Christian
When the Jewish Christian Peter went to an uncircumcised gentile’s home and ate with gentiles [had table fellowship with them], circumcised Jewish Christians were upset with Peter (Acts 11:2-3, 17-18). After Paul was converted to Christ (Acts 9:1-19), this Jewish Christian man became an apostle to the gentiles (Galatians 2:8). Much of this Jewish Christian’s work involved efforts to teach gentiles about Jesus Christ [as examples, consider Acts 9:15; 13:13-52; 14:1; 15:1-3; 26:20; etc.].
Among the majority of the Jewish people, the issue was not can gentiles belong to God, but what must gentiles do to belong to God. Most Jews were comfortable bringing gentiles to God (Matthew 23:15), but they were comfortable only if it was done in the ‘right’ way. When the Jewish Christian Paul declared gentiles could belong to God through grace in Jesus Christ without first becoming proselytes, many Jewish Christians as well as Jews who followed God rebelled. They rejected the concept that grace in Christ without proselytism could make a gentile a person who belonged to God.
From the common Jewish perspective [even among most in the Jewish church], the path for gentiles becoming Christians was this:
idolatry to Jewish teaching/indoctrination; to proselytism rites; to faith in Christ
For the Jewish Christians such as Paul, Barnabas [at times], Silas, Timothy, John Mark, Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, and Peter [at times], the route for gentiles coming to God was quite different:
idolatry to Christ through grace administered by Jesus Christ
In these Jewish Christians’ understanding, the route to God for gentiles did not involve the Jewish community, Jewish teachings, Jewish traditions, or Jewish culture. Many Jewish Christians and the Jewish community said the route of grace through Jesus Christ simply would not work. It was too easy! There were too few prices to be paid! Or, “We are the experts when it comes to getting paganism out of the pagans. We can redirect their lifestyle. We know how to do it. We were doing it before Christianity existed! The way of grace in Christ simply will not work. Instead of grace in Christ turning gentiles to a godly lifestyle, it will provide them the door of opportunity to bring idolatry and immoral behavior into God’s community. The grace path you people suggest will ruin the kingdom of God!”
The work of the Judaizing teachers [some of the Jewish Christians from the Judea/Jerusalem area] reflected in the letter from Paul to Galatian congregations provides this picture: “We came to inform you of essential things Paul did not tell you. If you are not circumcised and do not know and keep Jewish traditions, your baptism is ineffective. It cannot save you.” [To see this Jewish Christian view, consider Acts 15:1, 5; Galatians 1:6-7].
Remember, the basic issues involved in faith in Jesus Christ were quite different in the Jewish community and in gentile communities. The fundamental issue among the Jews was this: “Is the man Jesus the Christ [Messiah] God promised Israel?” To see this issue addressed, consider Acts 2:36 and 3:18-21. Both these remarks were addressed to Jewish audiences.
The fundamental issue among the gentile idol worshippers was this: “Was there a resurrection?” To see this issue addressed, consider Acts 17:30-32. This thought was addressed to a gentile, idol worshiping audience. Note the group’s response.
Paul’s Perspective or God’s Perspective?
Paul did not create or fabricate God’s interest in gentiles. Paul understood God’s interest in gentiles. From the beginning, God was interested in making it possible for gentiles to be reconciled to Him. Before Israel existed, when God made the initial covenant with Abraham, Genesis 12:3 states, “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Again, God promised Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:18). God renewed the promise/covenant to Isaac: “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. . .” (Genesis 26:4). Centuries later, God said through Isaiah, “Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it, ‘I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations. . .’”(Isaiah 42:5-6). God also said to Israel [Judah], “He says, ‘It is too small a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth’” (Isaiah 49:6). Simeon said upon seeing the infant Jesus, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A Light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
After conversion to Jesus Christ, Paul grasped God’s ancient plan and present intent. He declared to the Jews in Iconium, “For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have placed You as a light for the Gentiles, That You may bring salvation to the end of the earth’ ” (Acts 13:47). To King Agrippa, he declared, “So, having obtained help from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place; that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22-23). Before Paul’s conversion, he did not understand God’s intent, but after conversion, he grasped God’s ancient intent.
This was the major question regarding the gentiles and God’s kingdom: will the conversion of gentiles to the Living God through grace administered by Jesus Christ become a serious threat to the kingdom of God? The Jewish community and many Jewish Christians said, “Yes!” The few Jewish Christians who understood that God’s intent was older than the nation of Israel said, “No!” That disagreement was a major issue in the first century church.
Chapter 7 Chapter Nine