In my CT article on Paul, I stated the following:
The problem in the early church, therefore, was not the temptation toward legalistic works righteousness. They faced the communal challenge of incorporating non-Jewish converts into the historically Jewish people of God. First-century Judaism didn’t have a legalism problem; it had an ethnocentrism problem. The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and had difficulty imagining that the God of Israel who sent Jesus Christ as their Savior could possibly save non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism. This is the issue in Acts 15, when Christian Jews from Judea urged the Gentiles in Antioch, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
While the early church leaders decided in theory that non-Jewish believers in Jesus were not required to become Jews (Acts 15:13-21), many churches struggled with the practical challenges of becoming healthy multiethnic communities.
Our conversation from the last few days indicated the need to define “legalism” and “ethnocentrism” more precisely. Today, however, I want to set the discussion within the context of the early church’s struggle to which I referred.
In Acts 2, the Spirit descends upon the followers of Jesus, demonstrating that the God of Israel is fulfilling his promises and furthering the story of Israel among Jesus’ followers and not among other Jewish groups. And these first Christians, of course, remained thoroughly Jewish, followed the Way of Jesus within Judaism, and were well-regarded among the Jewish populace. Luke sums up the effects of Pentecost:
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:46-47 NIV).
The existence of a radical Jewish group proclaiming the return of God’s Spirit to Jerusalem, the holy city, would have generated much excitement and very little immediate opposition. Certainly the Jewish authorities wanted to keep the city’s population under control in order to maintain their positions of power. They knew the occupying Romans could easily replace them if things got out of control. Beyond this, however, the return of Israel’s God to his holy city was not a claim that challenged Jewish assumptions.
In Acts 8, however, things begin to change. Philip finds himself in Samaria because of an outbreak of persecution. He proclaims Christ and many repent. When word of this reaches back to Jerusalem, it isn’t greeted warmly. In v. 14, Luke simply reports, “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria.”
The Jerusalem church sends the “big boys” down to Samaria to “sort things out.” Remember the intense racial animosity toward Samaritans. It was just so hard to imagine the God of Israel saving Samaritans. Goodness, if anything fell from heaven on Samaria, surely it would be God’s judgment!
As it happens, the apostles pray and the Spirit descends upon the Samaritans. They had not yet received the Spirit, having only been baptized. This is very unusual, the only instance of the Spirit descending a while after repentance and baptism. It happens this way to prove to Peter and John that God is indeed not content to reside in Jerusalem, but is spreading his salvation among the nations. They can bring this report back to the Jerusalem church as irrefutable proof that God is indeed on the move.
The same thing happens in Acts 10-11 after Peter’s ministry to Cornelius and his household. Luke recounts the aftermath:
The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:1-3).
Again, the early Christian church, an entirely Jewish group, is not at all comfortable with the salvation of the God of Israel including non-Jews who remain non-Jews.
In addition to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 we could note Paul’s final return to Jerusalem in Acts 21. When he meets with the community leaders, James informs him that his presence is likely to cause problems both among Jews in general and the Jewish Christians.
When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law (Acts 21:20-24).
I sketch this broader context to emphasize a few brief points. First, it was not the case that the first Christians realized they were stuck in a legalistic religion which they abandoned for the freedom of Christianity. The first Christians constituted a group within Judaism and called on their fellow Jews to join them in following Jesus. There was no thought that Judaism and the Way of Jesus were incompatible or even two separate religions.
Second, the first Christians struggled mightily with the implications that the God of Israel was seriously committed to his mission of creating one new family in Christ made up of Jewish Jesus-followers and non-Jewish Jesus-followers. Paul’s mission activity takes place amidst this struggle and his ministry becomes the focal point of the tensions arising from it.
Paul’s letters, especially Romans and Galatians, should be read with this in mind.