As we have already established, a tension had arisen from the carrying of the gospel to the Gentiles. Luke’s The Acts of the Apostles gives us a clear picture of the intensity of resentment which unfortunately festered in the minds of many Jews, and some Jewish Christians within the early Christian movement.
For most people, changing long held traditions is very difficult. Imagine how difficult it must have been for the Jews in the first century, whose traditions dated back many hundreds of years.
In Acts chapter 15, verses 1-35, Luke records how the early Christian leaders chose to remedy the situation by setting forth the church’s expectations concerning Gentile converts.
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute with them.
The verses go on to say that as a result of this confrontation Paul and Barnabas, along with some other believers, were dispatched to Jerusalem, where many of the early Christian leaders lived.
The disciples in Jerusalem welcomed Paul and his contingent. But: Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses.”
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things,’ that have been known for ages.”
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
From this passage in Acts we see the controversy as well as the proposed solution, which was to officially spell out to the increasing numbers of Gentile converts the minimum criteria for their conduct in the faith. Remember, many of the Gentiles were themselves having trouble abandoning pagan practices to which they had become accustomed.
A letter was drafted, and Paul and Barnabas and a few others were sent to the largely Gentile city of Antioch to deliver it to the church there.
Only four requirements were listed in the letter:
First, the Gentiles were to abstain from eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, a practice which many believers – and especially Jews – considered an affront to God.
Second, the Gentiles were not to eat or drink blood.
Third, the Gentiles were instructed not to eat the meat of animals killed by strangulation.
And fourth, the Gentiles were to abstain from sexual immorality as outlined within the Mosaic Law.
For their part, we are told, the Gentile believers received these instructions with gladness – perhaps even relief.
But the controversy was far from over. Paul would soon find this out upon his return to Jerusalem, where he would be accosted and nearly killed by a mob, no doubt instigated by the orthodox Jewish establishment, of which Paul himself was a former member.
You might wonder why the Sabbath was omitted from the list of requirements that the letter to the Gentiles specified.
It is a valid question. But remember that the seventh-day Sabbath was more than a mere element of the Law of Moses, which the Judaizers were intent on sustaining in its entirety. Rather, the Sabbath long predated both the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses. And it was so completely established in the consciousness of the Hebrew people (and others before them) that any thought of discontinuing its observance would never have been entertained.
In Paul’s view, as we’ve already seen, the weekly Sabbath was still God’s Holy day; but to the contrary, the Law of Moses was no longer in effect. Nevertheless, in a seemingly conciliatory gesture to reduce the hostility of the Judaizers, the church leaders had decided to impose on Gentile converts four restrictions that derived from the Law of Moses.
Jerusalem, after all, was the headquarters of Judaism. More than a few Jews had become Christians. But many others, especially those in positions of influence, had denounced Christ. And even those who had converted to Christianity undoubtedly struggled not only with the idea that circumcision and other Mosaic restrictions were no longer required of Christians, but with an inherent bias against Gentiles that had existed for centuries.
After all was said and done, Paul had survived his two trips to Jerusalem, where ultimately …the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. (Acts 23:12)
But it was not to be. The night before, we are told, the Lord Himself stood near Paul and said to him: “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” (Acts 23:11)
Church historians believe that it was there, in Rome, that Paul was beheaded a few years later under the Roman Emperor Nero.
Ironically, Rome would also prove to be one of the first places where some Christians first chose to abandon the seventh-day Sabbath in favor of a new day of worship – Sunday, the first day of the week.
In our next segment, we will look at the historical evidence of that fact.