We consider the transition from Jewish to Gentile Christianity and 1st to 2nd Generation believers
This week’s episode is titled – “Launch”
We ended the previous episode with Jesus on the cross just outside the walls of Jerusalem late Friday afternoon. The Jewish leaders & Romans thought that was the last of the enigmatic trouble-maker from Galilee. For that matter, his closest followers thought that was the end as well.
If that had been the end of Jesus’ story, how might history have labeled Him? Some skeptics, rejecting Jesus’ resurrection, consider Him a religious & social reformer who wanted to turn the stiff formalism of 1st Century Judaism into a more personal & intimate faith in God. These skeptics recast the miracles attributed to Jesus as myths meant to explain the effect of His charismatic personality on others. They say He didn’t really turn a few fish & loaves of bread into fish sandwiches for thousands; He merely used the generosity of a young boy to provoke the crowd to share with one another. He didn’t really walk on water, He merely came along the shore in a low lying mist. And He didn’t really rise from the dead; His example of love for God and others merely inspired the disciples to follow His example. His memory endured, not His literal person; say the scoffers.
So, was Jesus merely a reformer? Was His mission just to return Judaism to something Moses would have given a hearty thumbs-up to?
While Moses would indeed have endorsed Jesus, He wasn’t merely one of the many prophets God sent to call people back to Himself. Moses would approve of Jesus because all Moses did pointed to & prepared the way for Jesus. Jesus was the original Former, not a reformer; He was, the “I AM” Who spoke to Moses from the burning bush & commissioned him to lead Israel out of bondage & into the Promised Land.
This becomes clear when we consider the words of Jesus at that last meal He shared with His disciples. When He took the cup to inaugurate the rite of Communion, He said something remarkable. “This is the NEW COVENANT in my blood which is shed for you.” Those young men sitting round that table could not mistake what Jesus meant for it something that had been burned into them since childhood. Jesus made claim to the cherished promise of the Prophet Jeremiah who in ch. 31 said,
“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Jesus laid claim to that promise, saying He was its fulfillment & what He was about to do in going to the cross would activate the New Covenant. Jesus didn’t come to reform Judaism or refresh the covenant Moses mediated with Israel. He came to consummate that covenant and initiate a new, based not on the performance of the Mosaic Law, but on abiding faith in Him.
Of course, if Jesus had remained in the tomb, He’d be nothing but a tiny footnote to the history of the 1st Century, if that! Just one of a parade of Jewish trouble-makers who had a little flurry of popularity among some malcontents. Nothing of consequence would have followed.
But His resurrection changed everything. It turned His timid band of followers into men of unquenchable vision & determination. Only the resurrection can account for the dramatic change that took place in those who’d followed Jesus.
In writing to the Corinthians some years later, the Apostle Paul said that in His post-resurrection appearances, Jesus was seen by some 500 at one time, not just the original handful of disciples. It was this critical mass of witness that made sure the news of His resurrection wasn’t suppressed by the authorities. And it was the surety that Jesus had been dead, then made alive that compelled His followers to remain faithful, even in the face of martyrdom.
After a brief stint back in their home region of Galilee, the disciples permanently relocated to Jerusalem. It was reasonable that the center of their movement be at the heart of the Jewish world.
Though Jesus said His followers would one day come from all over the world, those first believers had a difficult time seeing the church as anything other than fundamentally Jewish. They met as a large group in one of the temple courtyards where they listened to the disciples teach on the life & words of Jesus. Because it was the way education was practiced in the first century, it didn’t take long until a set or accepted story began to develop. This oral tradition formed the core of what was used by Matthew, Mark, & to a certain degree by Luke, when they wrote their Gospels. John already knew of those accounts & chose instead to write a story of Jesus that filled in some of the details not included in the official oral tradition.
After the large group had listened to the teaching by the apostles, they broke into smaller groups, meeting in homes where they shared a meal, prayed, & discussed what they’d just learned.
There was little organization to this early group as these first Christians felt their way forward. Despite that lack of organization their faith grew & their community became marked by a remarkable love attractive to others. Their numbers grew.
They went by different labels. Some call them Nazarenes, meaning followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Others disparagingly called them “Christians” linking them to Jesus & his humiliating death on a Roman cross. They called themselves simply “People of the Way.”
The church grew in relative quiet for a few years till their numbers became too large for the Jewish ruling Council, called the Sanhedrin, to ignore. As the apostles taught about Jesus they realized a good part of what the Jews had been told their Scriptures meant was wrong. Some of the more bold believers began voicing their criticisms of contemporary Judaism out loud. They ran afoul of the authorities & persecution began. When Stephen, a younger Christian leader was executed for blasphemy, it sent a shock wave through Jerusalem. It was now clear Jesus’s followers were under an official ban.
While the 1st Generation leaders, called “the apostles,” stayed in Jerusalem to tend to the needs of the church, younger leaders moved to Samaria & Syria where they founded new communities of believers. Churches sprang up in Damascus, Antioch, Egypt & other locales.
These new communities, while still primarily Jewish in composition, were made up of Jews more acclimated to the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean world than those in Jerusalem. When word reached the mother church in Jerusalem that new fellowships were springing up in other places, the apostles sent delegates to the new communities to establish a connection. One of the representatives they sent out was an elder named Barnabas. He visited the church in the Syrian capital of Antioch, 3rd largest city of the Roman Empire with a population of a half-million. The church there was something new, a mixture of Jewish & Gentile believers. It was at Antioch the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.”
The readiness of Jewish believers at Antioch to welcome Gentiles into their fold shifted the focus of missionary activity from Jerusalem to Antioch. It was at Antioch that one man rose to leadership who would, next to Jesus, have the greatest impact on Christianity – Saul of Tarsus, or as he’s more commonly known, Paul.
Paul’s hometown was the Roman city of Tarsus, capital of Cilicia in what is today South Central Turkey, 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. The famous Roman General Pompey the Great had made Tarsus the center of Roman government in the area, granting all its residents citizenship. Tarsus was also a center of Greco-Roman culture. Paul was born to Jewish parents in Tarsus, making him a unique mixture of Roman, Greek & Jewish. This all conspired to make Paul an effective instrument for the spread of the Gospel.
After his early education in Tarsus Paul moved to finish his training in Jerusalem under the great Jewish scholar Gamaliel. He became a member of the ultra-strict sect known as the Pharisees. He finished his training just as the followers of Jesus ran afoul of the authorities in Jerusalem. Whether Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin or merely their agent, it was he who presided at the execution of Stephen, lending those doing the deed their authority. Paul then embarked on a campaign to harass the Christians in the environs of Jerusalem. When the church was driven underground there, he received official permission to carry his campaign of harassment to Damascus where rumors said the Christians were thriving.
But when Paul finally entered Damascus it was a very different man from the one who set out from Jerusalem a few days before. In a vision of the risen Christ, Paul realized Jesus was indeed the Messiah & the Gospel he’d been trying to stamp out wasn’t a dangerous heresy; it was the Truth of God.
When he returned to Jerusalem, the leaders of the church were wary of him. After all, this was the guy who’d just ravaged them. But when it became clear he was a genuine believer, the apostles embraced him.
Well à sort of.
In reading the book of Acts & a couple of Paul’s letters, one is left with the impression that while the core leadership Jerusalem accepted Paul’s conversion as legitimate, they preferred he find another church to attend. That church turned out to be Antioch where Paul partnered up with Barnabas who’d become one of the church-leaders there.
And this would be a good place to briefly talk about the different perspectives on the nature of the Christian life that developed between Jerusalem & Antioch. We could call it the difference between 1st & 2nd Generation Christianity.
As I’ve already mentioned, 1st Generation Christianity was thoroughly Jewish in orientation and was centered in Jerusalem. 2nd Generation Christianity was still officially headquartered at Jerusalem with the apostles as the authority. But the focus of activity shifted to urban centers outside of Israel. An increasing number of Gentiles were now being won to the faith. As cultural Jews, 1st Generation believers continued to cast their faith in Jewish forms. They kept kosher, observed the Sabbath, circumcised their sons, etc..
2nd Generation believers counted the ritual aspects of the Mosaic law as having been meant to point to Jesus & consummated by Him. They felt there was now no need to engage in or observe such rituals any longer. A kosher diet, keeping the Sabbath, & circumcision weren’t considered essential practices in following Jesus.
What made things messy is that there was a protracted period of tension as 1st Generation Christians contended with 2nd Geners over the expected lifestyle of Jesus’s followers.
Even though Acts 15 sees the leadership of the church in Jerusalem deciding the matter in favor of the 2nd Generation position, diehard 1st Gen advocates continued to promote the idea that if believers wanted to have a God-approved lifestyle they had to adhere to the Mosaic law-whether Jew or Gentile. These “Judaizers,” as they were called, proved to be one of the Apostle Paul’s biggest trials. They dogged his steps, infiltrating churches he’d planted after he left, claiming they were there to complete what Paul had only begun. They sought to turn Paul’s converts to Jesus, to Moses. Some of Paul’s letters are eloquent & at times scathing rebuttals to the problems introduced by the Judaizers.
The debate between 1st & 2nd Generation believers didn’t end with the early church. It endures to this day. Modern-day Judaizers known as legalists insist on a set of behavioral guidelines as necessary to demonstrate genuine faith. Whether it be dress, diet, or devotion; a certain level of giving, service, or submission–rules are set that prescribe the acceptable lifestyle. Such legalists see the preaching of grace as dangerous & a license to excuse sin.
But the grace described in the New Testament is no license to sin. For Paul & those 2nd Generation Christians who carried the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world, if someone genuinely believed in Christ, they’d been born again & would demonstrate a new life commensurate with the life & teaching of Christ.
The person who truly loves God can do as he chooses because he will choose to love God.
In our next podcast, we will briefly review the journeys of the Apostle Paul & the early growth of the church.