NT, Part 7. Melding together a Jewish and Gentile church.
Last week we examined Paul and Barnabas’ visit to many cities, including Lystra, a city in Galatia where they journeyed after being commissioned by the church in Antioch. They brought the Gospel to the Celtic peoples of Galatia and the Jews dispersed throughout southern Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).
There in Lystra, Paul had been stoned and left for dead. He then had risen and entered the city, before continuing onward with Barnabas to Derbe.
“When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:21-23 ESV).
Paul and Barnabas returned to all the churches because it was essential that they encourage the new believers and that they appoint leaders. The newly appointed elders were probably Jewish believers, because they already knew the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament), whereas new converts may not have known.
Yet many Gentiles were already converts to Judaism — as Cornelius was back in Judea — and had been so for a while, so the mature among these could likewise have been appointed as elders.
“Then they [Paul and Barnabas] passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. And when they had spoken the word in Perga [not having done so earlier], they went down to Attalia, and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled.
“And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples” (Acts 14:24-28).
This first missionary trip occurred in A.D. 46-47, taking between a year and a half and possibly up to three years. After completing this first trip, they then returned home to Antioch to report all that had occurred and to inform the church of a pressing issue involving Biblical Law.In approximately A.D. 46-47, Paul and Barnabas took the Gospel of Jesus Messiah across ancient Galatia, telling all who would listen that salvation comes by faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Click To Tweet
Did the new Galatian converts (Gentiles) need to obey certain elements of the Law?
The Jews in their newfound churches were circumcised, the men having been circumcised on the eighth day of their lives, as required by Biblical Law. They also kept the food restrictions as a matter of lifelong habit.
Was circumcision necessary for Gentiles? Did they also have to keep the food restrictions and ceremonial laws that the Jewish believers did by habit?
Doubtless, since Paul and Barnabas preached in the synagogues of each town, this issue was discussed. The Biblical scrolls or parchments of the Old Testament were in each synagogue and had been memorized in childhood by the Jewish men.
The Septuagint — the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek — was used by Greek-speaking Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism. All of the rules pertaining to diet and to circumcision were right there in the scrolls.
So, what should be done?
After Paul and Barnabas had returned from their evangelistic trip in A.D. 48, Jewish believers from Judea — Judaizers — traveled north to Antioch to argue that new Gentile believers also must keep the Jewish dietary laws and restrictions, including circumcision.
These men concluded that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
But, this isn’t the message of the Gospel. The Judaizers were wrong.
Knowing what the Judaizers were attempting to accomplish and how they were spreading confusion, Paul wrote to the Galatians from Antioch soon after returning home from their region and after discussing the matter with the other prophets and teachers there in Antioch.
We know that Paul wrote to the Galatians before traveling to Jerusalem to consult the apostles, because no mention is made in his letter of the decision later made by the Jerusalem council.
The Letter to the Galatians, Paul’s first letter, was written sometime around A.D. 48. Law vs. Grace is the main topic. It is written to both Jewish believers who are familiar with their history since Abraham, but also to Gentiles, so that they may be educated and grounded in the truths about Jesus Messiah.
Having met, led to Christ, fellowshipped with, and baptized new Gentile believers all across Galatia, Paul had already puzzled through the matter, arriving at the same conclusion that would later be determined in Jerusalem.
Additionally, in his Letter to the Galatians, Paul mentions that fourteen years after his conversion to faith in Christ in A.D. 33/34, he and Barnabas had taken Titus (a Gentile believer) to Jerusalem with them right before their missionary trip across Anatolia, sometime in early A.D. 47.
Paul and Barnabas, with Titus, had traveled to Jerusalem to present to the leaders the Gospel message that they were proclaiming to the Gentiles in Antioch. Since they went at about the time of a famine, the church in Antioch sent aid with them for the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30; Galatians 2:1-10).
During this trip, Paul and Barnabas wanted to verify the accuracy of the Gospel message they were preaching, for their first missionary journey was approaching. By running their message by the leaders, they secured not only the blessing of their home church in Antioch but also of the leaders in Jerusalem for their upcoming missionary efforts.
While in Jerusalem, the uncircumcised believer Titus had been welcomed, with no suggestion or demand that he be circumcised. “But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (Galatians 2:3 ESV). Therefore, we know that the apostles in Jerusalem didn’t believe that circumcision was necessary for Gentile male converts to Christianity.
Knowing all of this, as soon as Paul could upon their return from his trip with Barnabas, he wrote his Letter to the Galatians to encourage the new believers and to head off confusion and conflict in the new Galatian church. Judaizers were traveling across that region, attempting to promote their position. The issue was also pressing because the Gospel traveled outward into wider groups of Gentiles, some without much affiliation with Jews.
Why was circumcision important?
God had instructed Abraham that “as a token of the covenant with him” Abraham’s male descendants and household members were to be circumcised for all generations, as an “everlasting covenant” (addressed in Paul’s letter). This is still observed by the two Abrahamic religions — Judaism and Islam.
This ancient symbol of a covenant between God and the Jews marked them as his people, therefore, we can comprehend why the Judaizers insisted on it. Gentiles were coming to Christ, and they were also becoming God’s people.
The ESV Study Bible states in the introduction to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “Christ’s death has brought in the age of the new covenant (3:23-26; 4:4-5, 24), in which believers do not have to become Jews to follow the outward ceremonies of the Mosaic law (2:3, 11-12, 14; 4:10). To require these things is to deny the heart of the gospel, which is justification by faith alone, not by obedience to the law (2:16; cf. 1:6-7). In this new age, Christians are to live in the guidance and power of the Spirit (chs. 5-6).” 1
Jesus came to make a new covenant with his blood. Salvation is by the grace of God alone, the absolute mercy of God poured out upon those who repent and turn to Christ as their Savior.Jesus came to make a new covenant. Salvation is by the grace of God alone, the absolute mercy of God poured out upon those who repent and turn to Christ as their Savior. #Faith Click To Tweet
And now, this message of grace had just been delivered all across the region of Antioch in Syria and now also across Galatia. Were these other stipulations of Judaism important to also pass down to the Gentile converts?
In our day and age, it’s hard to comprehend why this issue was of such importance, but at that time in history the church was transforming from being predominantly Jewish to becoming a mixture of Gentiles and Jews.
Eventually, the church would become mostly Gentiles, as it is until this day, but this may change again as we approach the latter days. Therefore, issues we never even consider when telling someone about Jesus still had to be worked out theologically.
As you consider all of this, in what ways does the amount of work done by the apostles to assure solid doctrine impress you?
What do we learn about Paul’s heart for those he leads to Christ?
In what ways does Paul’s concern for solid doctrine and prevention of early confusion among young believers provide us a model?
1. ESV Study Bible, Crossway Bibles, Wheaton, Illinois, 2008.
Another great Bible history lesson with so much depth of information. Jesus formed His church to be one but once humans got involved, we wanted it to be this way or that way. Now, we have all the various denominations. God’s idea of church was perfect but we are not. I imagine God shaking His head on occasion at the division we created within His body.
From Day One of the founding of the church this began. You’re so right that we would rather divide than unite, Yvonne. And we choose all sorts of matters over which to separate still to this day.
Such a good article summarizing the resolution of doctrinal differences in the early church – with great application for resolving our differences today!
If only we will apply those standards of listening and learning from one another, of studying the Scriptures rightly, Ava! They do set us a good example, so that we can walk in their steps that follow Jesus.
Lessons can be learned through past experiences. History is filled with moments that we can use to grow and strengthen our faith. Thank you for sharing this information with us. I wish we could be together in person and discuss this as a group Bible Study. 🙂
Melissa, that type of group study would be such a blessing! I used to write the Bible study material for our church in Michigan. I really loved engaging in those kind of discussions each Wednesday night. I do miss it! Writing this kind of content has filled the void.,
Learning the historical and geographical realities of the early church and the apostles really helps the Bible come alive for me! I feel the authenticity in a whole new way. Thanks for this!
Jessica, this is one very significant reason that I enjoy studying the New Testament in chronological order with the letters interlaced to the time table given in The Acts of the Apostles. It brings the letters and the experience of the first-century Christians to life!
Thank you for walking us through the details of the scripture, which actually affect our greater understanding of the gospel of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. When I imagine myself in their shoes, I can see it might have been difficult to accept this message that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus’ finished work on the cross. How easily we desire to add our own actions to the equation. Amazing grace!
Yes! I agree wholeheartedly, Melissa. We all want to think we can add something — our talents, our repentance, our growth. And yet, even all of that is from God, molded by him to be used for his glory. The life of Paul demonstrates that so thoroughly!
Melinda, I’m very grateful for the apostles work to assure solid doctrine. While it’s hard for us to understand the controversy over circumcision at that time among the Gentiles, we can understand the need for solid doctrine. Not to let anything take the place of grace as we embrace the new covenant of Jesus. It’s why I am committed to being a student of the whole counsel of Scripture, Genesis to Revelation. You are part of our sound teaching with these kinds of pieces and writings. Thank you!
Thank you, Karen! I used to write the Bible study material for our church before we relocated to the South. It was such a great blessing to study God’s Word and to present it in Bible study format. I draw on my previous studies for these posts and thoroughly enjoy revisiting the doctrine in the New Testament as found in Acts and the epistles!
Circumcision seems a bit like the liturgical practice of infant baptism or the evangelical practice of dedication. The child becomes part of the community. The parents commit themselves to be their best for this new life. And most of all, these practices ideally ask God to bless and work in the life of the child.
That’s true, Nancy. It was a significant ritual in a Jewish family, but had to give way when Gentiles joined the church. It could no longer be a requirement. This doesn’t mean that Jews couldn’t continue the tradition, but it was no longer required, for the covenant at that point was marked by Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and not by any deed we might do.