The first Christians – and the only Christians – for around ten years following the Day of Pentecost were of a Jewish background. They had been looking forward to the Messiah, they learned that the Messiah had come and he was Jesus, they were immersed and took him as the Lord of their lives. For the Jews, the entire idea of the Messiah was rooted in what they knew in the scriptures. They were able to continue doing much of what they had been doing as Jews, but with Jesus as the fulfilment of the prophets.
With Cornelius (Acts 10) there began to be Gentiles – those who were not Jews – becoming Christians. This posed quite a problem for the Christians of a Jewish background because they were still observing the law of Moses, a law given to the Israelites. The Gentiles never had followed the Jewish scriptures. The question that came up was whether Gentiles had to become Jews as well as Christians. Did they have to begin following all the distinctly Jewish practices? This seems to have been centered particularly in men being circumcised.
This question reached a critical point in Antioch, a congregation made up of both Jews and Gentiles. It was Jewish Christians who began to teach the need for circumcision.
“Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (Acts 15:1 NET)
This resulted in a major argument and debate with no agreement being reached. The solution the Christians came up with was to send a delegation from Antioch, including Paul and Barnabas, to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders to seek their understanding.
When they arrived in Jerusalem we discover that the idea of Gentiles taking on the Mosaic Law when they became Christians was centred in those who were Pharisees. “But some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5).
The apostles and elders met together to consider this. After much debate specific information was presented by Peter and then by Barnabas and Paul. Peter was the first to teach Gentiles, so what he said was important. Barnabas and Paul had been working among the Gentiles, so they would have first hand knowledge as well.
Peter emphasised that by God giving the Holy Spirit to Gentiles in the same way he had to the Jews, he was not adding anything that they needed to do to become Christians. He added,
“So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are” (Acts 15:10-11).
Barnabas and Paul explained their work among the Gentiles and God working miraculous signs and wonders through them – but he had not added that they had to observe the law of Moses.
James summarised and proposed a solution. They should not be adding anything that would make being a Christian difficult for the Gentiles, but there were some things they should not do. These were primarily something that would have been offensive to the Jewish Christians and were all involved in some way, although not exclusively, with idolatry. These were: “abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20). These were taught against in the law of Moses.
Perhaps the lesson in this is that we should be careful not to add anything to what God’s word says about being a Christian. Sometimes Christians struggle to distinguish between what is tradition from what God’s word says because we are used to doing something in a particular way.
May we always call people to follow Jesus and become Christians only.
Photo by hudsoncrafted from pixabay.com.
Readings for next week: Acts 14-19