First Century Conversion
Quarter 2, Lesson 2

Lesson Two

The First Century Jew and Conversion

Last quarter we studied the religious diversity within the Jewish society. A broad separation existed: the Palestinian Jews from Jews living in other nations. The depth of this issue is seen in Acts 6:1. Remember, many of these were the same Jewish Christians of Acts 2:44-47. The Grecian or Hellenistic Jews lived among the nations. The Hebraists Jews lived in Palestine. Some customs in each group differed.

Sources indicate differences in perspectives existed among Jews who lived among the nations. No reason exists to conclude that Jews living outside of Palestine were religiously homogenous. Biblical evidence suggests great religious diversity existed among Jews in Palestine. Last quarter the righteous, the sinners, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees were identified as groups within that religious mix. In addition, other sources indicate the Essenes and the Zealots were also part of that mix. Further evidence indicates differing perspectives existed within the groups themselves. For example, not all Pharisees held identical religious perspectives.

To understand conversion to Christ among first century Jews, the first understanding is difficult for us to grasp. The Jewish people did not consider differing perspectives as "Jewish denominationalism." To us, differing theological perspectives is "denominational." We must not impose our thinking on first century Jews. If a first century Jew was circumcised, accepted the temple sacrificial system, kept the law (as he understood it), attended the synagogue, and maintained the laws and customs of purification, he was considered a devout Jew.

Most of us do not consider the in-depth issues first century Jews had to resolve to convert to Jesus Christ. Following are a few.

(1) They regarded themselves (with biblical reason) to be God's chosen people. God promised Abraham in Genesis 12:2 that his descendants would be a "great nation." A blessing would come through this "great nation" to benefit all people (Genesis 12:3; 18:18). God's agreement was with Abraham (Genesis 17:2) who would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:4,5). However, the "great nation" would descend through Isaac (Genesis 17:19,21). Abraham's descendants through Isaac would bring the blessing to the world. The route to becoming the "great nation" involved a stay in Egypt (Genesis 46:3). Shortly before Israel entered Canaan, Moses reminded them that their relationship with God made them a "great nation" (Deuteronomy 4:4-8; 26:5).

(2) They regarded their covenant with God to be eternal [permanent]. God stressed to Abraham the covenant was "everlasting" (Genesis 17:7). God informed Abraham the covenant extended to his descendants through Isaac on an "everlasting" basis (Genesis 18:19). First century Jews knew the "everlasting" covenant included them.

(3) During the Maccabean period (167-63 B.C.), Palestinian Jews had freedom. In 63 B.C. the Roman Empire destroyed their freedom. Perspectives on the Messiah and God's kingdom differed. Many perspectives envisioned the Messiah as a great political leader [likely a military leader]. This leader would establish God's kingdom in Israel as a dominate world power. This perspective is reflected by the twelve in passages such as Matthew 16:21,22 and Acts 1:6. A resurrected man did not fit common expectations. How could such a person sit on an earthly throne as the leader of a great physical nation?

Conversion involved unique issues for first century Jews. Would God's chosen people find their divine destiny in nationalism or in a resurrected Jew? Was God's everlasting covenant accomplished through nationalism or in a resurrected Jew? Were they to redefine their past, present, and future by heritage and nationalistic expectations [as did their ancestors for hundreds of years], or by faith in a resurrected Jew? If they converted to Jesus as the Messiah, many first century Jews had to rethink who they were and what their divine destiny was.

Consider three evidences. First, consider the place of Jewish history and prophecy in sermons delivered to Jews. Consider Peter's sermon in Acts 2:16-21 (1) in his opening and (2) in his use of Psalms 16:8-11 and Psalms 110:1. Consider Stephen's entire sermon in Acts 7. Consider Paul's sermon in the synagogue in Acts 13:17-41.

Why did Jewish history and prophecy play an important role in preaching to first century Jews? Those presenting the "good news" to Jewish audiences wanted a specific understanding. God's purpose before His promises to Abraham was to bring a blessing to the world through the Jews by a crucified, resurrected Messiah. Jesus the Messiah was not produced by creative imagination. He always was God's plan and purpose. Jewish history and prophecy evidenced the crucified, resurrected Jesus always was God's plan and intention.

Second, as long as Christianity was a Jewish movement, many Israelites looked at it through hopeful eyes rather than distrustful eyes. Before the "good news" was shared with people outside the Jewish nation, Jesus' principal adversaries were the Jewish leaders. That was not a new development. Following Lazarus' resurrection, many Jews believed in Jesus (John 11:45). To protect the nation and their positions, they decided it was in everyone's best interest to kill Jesus (John 11:47-53).

When the council arrested Peter and John, and later all the apostles, they acted consistently with the decision to kill Jesus (see Acts 4:5-22; 5:17-42). This council also killed Stephen (Act 7:59.60). Their decisions motivated Saul (Paul) as a persecutor of Jewish Christians (Acts 8:1-3). Acts 9:1,2 reveals Saul's close ties with Israel's power structure.

The real crisis for Christian Jews came when the Christian movement converted people outside of Judaism (see Acts 15:1-31). As converts increasingly came from outside Judaism, the crisis escalated. When the church in the Roman world contained more converts outside Judaism than converts who were Jews, the crisis accelerated Jewish separation. In the last half of the first century, it was increasingly difficult to belong to the nation of Israel and the church.

Read Hebrews 10:32-39.

  1. What did these Christians endure in "the former days" (verses 32-34)?

  2. What should they not throw away (verse 35)? Why?

  3. What did they need (verse 36)? Why?

The writer of Hebrews' point: if you leave Jesus to return to Judaism, you leave God. Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises and purposes.

The first century Jewish conversion issue: the heritage of nationalism or the resurrected Jesus?

Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 2, Lesson 2

Copyright © 2001
David Chadwell & West-Ark Church of Christ

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