Cast of Characters

To be read prior to reading the manuscript . . .

When a book has many characters, sometimes my wife makes a list of characters as she reads so she can quickly discern “who is doing what” in the book.  This writing does not have numerous characters.  It may challenge you to look at some groups of people in ways you have not considered previously.  Following is a description of some groups that may be helpful as you consider the material.  The complete context is always concerned with “who is speaking to whom about what.”

The author realizes readers are challenged to consider a complex situation.  He also realizes that, at times, he over-simplifies complex situations.  Never are complex situations presented in a summary overview with an intent to deceive.  Please remember these thoughts are intended as a stepping stone to a (perhaps unreachable) destination rather than an arrival at the destination.  If the material moves Christians in the direction of God’s purposes, it achieves the writer’s objective.

The majority of the Jewish people rejected Jesus as God’s promised Messiah or Christ.

Most of the Jews rejected Jesus as God’s promised Messiah or Christ.  Though most first century Jews believed that gentiles [all peoples who were not Jewish] could come to God through Jewish proselytism [conversion to Judaism—the Jewish religion—which involved accepting the Jewish lifestyle] (Matthew 23:15), they did not believe that gentiles could come to God without adopting the Jewish ways and Jewish beliefs.  These people are seen in such passages as Acts 3:17-26 [the audience to whom these words were directed]; 4:1-3 5:17-18; 6:9, 12-14; 8:1-3; and 9:1-3 [the people represented by Saul the antagonist of Christians].  As a group they violently opposed Jews who believed that Jesus was the Christ.

The minority of the Jewish people believed Jesus was God’s promised Messiah or Christ.

Though to today’s Christians the numbers of first century Jews who became Christians are perceived to be a large group, the Jews who believed Jesus was the Christ were always the minority among Jews in the first century.  Most of this minority also believed that gentiles could be Christians if they became proselytes of Judaism and accepted the basic Jewish lifestyle—the Jewish traditions and customs.  This group included synagogue attending believers (Acts 9:1,2; 26:11); temple attending believers (Acts 3:1; 21:20, 21); believers who were determined to bind circumcision, the Law, and Jewish custom on gentile Christians (Acts 15:1, 5, 19); and the Judaizing teachers (Galatians 1:6-10; 2:12).

These Jewish Christians frequently disagreed among themselves about the “obligation” of gentile Christians to accept circumcision and elements of the Jewish lifestyle.  That is the reason for the discussions in Acts 15.  It is the reason for the Jerusalem elders to be concerned about the misrepresentation of Paul’s teachings and actions in Acts 21:20-22.

The responsibility of gentile Christians to Jewish law, traditions, customs, and circumcision was a major issue in the first century church after Acts 10.

A “sprinkling” of Jewish Christians understood that God sent Jesus Christ to save both Israel as a nation and the gentiles.

This is a minority group within the minority group.  It included Jewish Christians like Paul, Silas, John Mark, Timothy, and Aquila and Priscilla, and at times it included people like Peter and Barnabas (see Acts 10:34, 35 and Galatians 2:11-13).  These Jewish Christians accepted an understanding of God’s ability to save idol worshippers through Jesus Christ without requiring them to become Jewish proselytes.

The issue:

It is critical that the foundation issue of the conflict among Christians in the New Testament be understood.  The issue was this: does the grace God revealed through Jesus Christ enable gentile idolaters who believe in Jesus Christ to belong to God without going through the process of Jewish teaching, indoctrination, and adoption of Judaism.

The issue was not “does God save by grace?”  Even Jews who did not believe that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah understood God saved by grace.  Their ancestors' rescue from Egyptian slavery, their gift of Canaan, and their position of being recognized by God as His people resulted from God’s goodness, not from their deservedness (see Deuteronomy 7:6-11; 8:11-20; 9:4, 5).  They freely acknowledged that truth.

Israel had a long history prior to the Babylonian captivity of incurring God’s wrath because they worshipped idols (see Deuteronomy 4:25-31; 12:3).  It took generations for the nation of Israel to learn that idolatry and the living God were totally incompatible.

To the Jewish people [Christian and non-Christian], the way to escape the legacy of idolatry’s immoral lifestyle and wrong concepts of God was through Judaism.  To most first century Jews [both those who did and did not believe in Jesus as God’s promised Messiah] it was unthinkable that anyone could go directly from idolatry’s immoral lifestyle and wrong concepts of deity to covenant relationship with the Holy God.  Idolaters viewed deity as human art work (Acts 17:29) and worshipped repulsive things such as human forms, birds, animals, and reptiles (Romans 1:23).  Proselytism would teach these people how to begin a covenant relationship with the living God and the right lifestyle to be lived by God’s covenant people.  Judaism would bring gentiles to the understanding that the Holy God created human forms, birds, animals, and reptiles.

Paul’s position: God’s grace as revealed through Jesus Christ can take a person directly from idolatry to the living, Creator God and place that person in God’s family.

The position of most Jewish Christians: God’s grace in Jesus Christ cannot do that.  It will not “work.”  Gentiles must “get the paganism” out of them before they can approach the Holy God.  The Jewish method of proselytism had proven it could “get the paganism” out of idolaters.  God’s grace in Jesus Christ, of itself, was insufficient to “get the paganism” out of them.

Stated in oversimplified terms, it was not necessary for a gentile to adopt the lifestyle of a Jew to be a Christian, and it was not necessary for a Jew to adopt the lifestyle of a gentle to be a Christian.  Christian gentiles could be redeemed gentiles, and Christian Jews could be redeemed Jews.  They did not have to be identical.  They were one because of what God did for each group in Jesus Christ.  Faith in Jesus Christ, not identical religious rites or lifestyles, made them one.

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