Part 4

I am sorry that there has been a three-week gap in this study. Let me begin with a brief review.

In the first lesson we emphasized this fact: what occurred in Acts 2 was the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel to "renew (or restore) the fortunes of Israel." You read with me a number of texts to document from scripture that understanding.

In the second lesson I called your attention to many statements in the first 9 chapters of Acts that verified the earliest church was completely Jewish. That does not mean that all Christians were physical descendants of Abraham. It means that all Christians were committed to Judaism prior to becoming Christians. Those first Christians worshipped at the temple, in synagogues, and followed Jewish practices. The key difference was the fact that they accepted Jesus as being God's promised Messiah (Christ) to Israel.

In the third lesson I called your attention to the huge question when the church began: must all Christians do things the way Jewish Christians do them?

Tonight I want us to focus on a single point: the earliest argument among Christians (among people who believed and accepted Jesus as God's Christ) was the argument about methods. If a believer from idolatry entered Jesus Christ, did he or she have to do things the way Jewish Christians did them? The core of the debate was NOT could non-Jewish people who lived in idolatry become Christians. The argument was this: what path should they follow to conversion to Christ, and how should they live after conversion to Christ?

[The primary sources for some of the facts I share with you this evening are the Bible, Everett Ferguson's Second Edition of Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Jack Lewis' commentary, The Gospel According to Matthew, Volume II, and The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Volume 3.]

  1. To me, the beginning point for producing a deeper biblical understanding needs to begin with a deeper understanding of proselytes.
    1. Proselytes were people who were not descendants of Abraham through Isaac who had converted to the Jewish God and the teachings of Judaism which allowed them to be a part of the Jewish community.
      1. Was God interested primarily in Israel and the way Israel was commanded to do things?
      2. Was God interested in all people, not just Israel?
      3. Some of the Jewish people in the first century (and likely before that time) said God was only interested in Israel, and it angered them for anyone to say otherwise.
      4. Some of the Jewish people in the first century (and likely before that time) said God was interested in all people.
    2. God made it clear very early that He was interested in all people.
      1. Hundreds of year before God made Israel a nation, He made this statement to Abraham in Genesis 12:3:
        "And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed."
        1. God made many promises to Abraham in verses one, two, and three.
        2. But everything God promised Abraham was to result in a worldwide blessing on all people.
        3. Abraham's descendants would be special to God, but God intended to use His work in Israel to bless all people.
      2. Even when Israel was a nation, God stressed His interest in people who were not Israelites.
        Exodus 12:48 But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it.
        Leviticus 19:34 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
        Numbers 15:30 But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from among his people.
      3. Note:
        1. At the first Passover God made provisions for people who were not Israelites to take the Passover in the future.
        2. A person who was not an Israelite living in Israel was to be loved as if he were an Israelite.
        3. But, the person who was not an Israelite was required to live by the law of Moses.
    3. God never stopped declaring to Israel His interest in all people.
      1. Rahab was a prostitute from Jericho who assisted some Israelite spies when the invasion of Canaan was planned, and she was an ancestor of King David and Jesus Christ.
      2. Ruth was a Moabite who followed her mother-in-law to Israel as a person in poverty in very difficult times; she was King David's great grandmother and an ancestor of Jesus Christ.
      3. Jonah was an Israelite prophet sent to the Assyrians.
      4. The Jewish prophets made many statements of God's interest in the nations.
      5. I suspect that in all ages it was common to have people who were not the descendants of Abraham living in Israel among Israelites who followed the teachings and practices of Israel.
    4. That was definitely the case in Israel when the church began.
      1. Acts 2:10 clearly states proselytes were present on the day of Pentecost when Peter presented the resurrected Jesus to Israel as God's promised Messiah.
      2. Acts 6:5 clearly states that one of the seven Christians of good reputation full of the Spirit and wisdom selected to oversee the ministry to the widows was a proselyte.

  2. What do we know about Jewish proselytes?
    1. We know that Israelites were divided over the issue of accepting people who were not true descendants of Abraham (through Isaac) into the Jewish community.
      1. Some Israelites opposed the conversion of anyone. These Israelites were a minority.
        1. A person who was not the descendant of Abraham had no place in the Jewish community; a person was born into Judaism, not converted to Judaism.
        2. They said such people were more likely to sin.
        3. They likened them to sores on the skin of Israel.
      2. The majority of Israelites accepted the conversion of non-Jewish people.
        1. Proselytes were common in Israel in the first century.
        2. They also were a part of the early church.
      3. This disagreement should come as no surprise to us today.
        1. One huge problem in the church today is the feeling that some first generation Christians are second-class members.
        2. They are less likely to become a part of the church's leadership.
        3. They are less likely to become "important adult teachers."
    2. We know that proselytes perhaps did three things in their conversion to Judaism.
      1. If you were a male convert, you had to submit to circumcision, and all the males in your family had to be circumcised.
        1. That requirement resulted in many men believing in the God of the Jews, but not converting.
        2. Some did not convert because it was a painful requirement.
        3. More did not convert because they regarded circumcision to be a disgusting practice.
      2. If you were a male or a female, you were ceremonially immersed, and that immersion was very similar to our baptism.
        1. It was a cleansing ceremony, a spiritual ceremony.
        2. The person immersed himself or herself in the presence of witnesses.
        3. The witnesses recited the commandments of Judaism as the person performed this cleansing or baptism.
      3. A proselyte was expected to give a gift to the Jewish temple.
        1. This requirement is debated.
        2. Was it a requirement only in Palestine only prior to the destruction of the temple?
    3. My point: people who were not Jews were converted to Judaism long before Christianity began.
      1. The debate between Paul and Jewish Christians in Acts 15 and Galatians 2 was not about the right of people who are not Jews to come to Christ.
      2. The debate was about how that happened.
      3. It was about the route of conversion to Christ or the methodology of coming to Christ.

  3. Allow me to try to show you clearly what this intense argument was about.
    1. Many Jewish Christians said that of course people who were not Israelites could become Christians, but to do so they first had to learn to do Jewish things Jewish ways.
      1. First, they had to believe in the one God, not the many gods of idolatry.
      2. Second, they had to be indoctrinated on the correct things to do and the correct way of doing them.
      3. Third, they had to be circumcised then immersed.
      4. Fourth, they had to have their lives monitored to see that they lived by Jewish law.
      5. The end result was that the church would be Jewish in its practices.
      6. This was the only way to make certain that people who were converted from idol worship did godly things in godly ways.
    2. Paul said this was totally unnecessary for conversion to Christ.
      1. If a person believed that Jesus was the Christ,
      2. If a person wished to turn away from a life of idolatry to Jesus Christ,
      3. If a person was immersed into Christ,
      4. He or she was in 100% relationship with God, saved from his or her sins.
      5. A person did not have to be an Israelite or do things the way Israelites did them in order to be a Christian.
      6. God through His Spirit would produce the fruit of the Spirit in that convert's life.
    3. That was the issue.
      1. It was not about could they become Christians.
      2. It was about the path they followed to become Christians.
      3. Could one serve God in Christ without learning Jewish ways?
        1. Some Jewish Christians said it was absolutely essential to do things in Jewish ways--circumcision and observance of the law of Moses was a must (Acts 15:1,5).
        2. Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy , and other Jewish Christians said those who were not Israelites did not do things the way Jews did them.

That was a major first century issue in the early church, and a very heated, emotional issue. If in Acts 15 it had been decided that all Christians must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, it is highly probable that you would not be a Christian.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 11 August 2002
previous next in series

 Link to next sermon

 Link to other Writings of David Chadwell