The Early Years of the Church
In the early years of the church, some Jewish Christians were still thinking that they had to follow the law of Moses. And after the Gentiles had been added to the church, and especially when the numbers of Gentiles were increasing, a lot of Jewish Christians taught that the Gentile Christians had to keep the law, and be circumcised. And a lot of this teaching went on in the city of Antioch, because it had become such a large hub of Gentile Christians. Certain Jews specifically said, in Acts 15, verse 1; “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved!”
We sometimes talk about “salvation issues”, and these men believed that circumcision was a salvation issue. And this became such a big problem that a special meeting had to be held in Jerusalem, with all the apostles, and the elders of the church there, to decide what to do about this issue. And even in Jerusalem when they met, there was contention. It says in verse 5; “But some of the sect of the Pharisees, who believed, rose up saying; It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
We can see that almost from the very beginning, people have had a hard time differentiating between the old physical law, and the new spiritual law. So it says in verse 6; “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.” And I should point out that at this time, probably NONE of the new testament had been written yet.
I bought a new bible several months ago, and it’s called, the “Chronological Study bible. It’s not laid out like a regular bible, with all the books in a certain order. Instead, the books are addressed in chronological order. And it gives you a time line of events, every few pages, to help you keep everything in order in your mind.
You’ll find that not all sources completely agree on the exact time line of specific events, but there is usually a general agreement. It’s generally accepted that this council in Jerusalem took place around the year 49. On the subject of the Gentiles, it’s hard to say what year the household of Cornelius was baptized, in Acts chapter 10. And after that, we still don’t see anything definite in the scriptures about the Gentiles being preached to and converted, until Acts 13, and verse 46, which says; “And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said; It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; (He’s talking to the Jews here) Since you repudiate it, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.”
Then in chapter 15, we’re told about the council in Jerusalem. Now Paul does deal at length, with the issue of circumcision in his letter to the Galatians. But the very earliest date given for that letter, is the year 48 or 49. So it’s most likely, that the council took place in either 48 or 49, and then Paul probably wrote the Galatian letter, sometime very shortly afterwards.
And so when this circumcision question arose, and other questions, there was no written word, and nowhere to go for answers, except to the apostles. They were the ones who were guided by the Holy Spirit, into all truth.
Jesus said in John 16:13; “But when He, the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak. And He will disclose to you what is to be.”
Now to bring up a different subject for just a minute; The fact, that the Spirit of truth, was going to be guiding the apostles into all the truth, is the reason that Jesus said to the apostles, in Mathew 16, verse 19; “Truly I say to you; whatever you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven. And whatever you lose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” The apostles were going to be guided by the very Spirit of God, and so they would be speaking, “the words of heaven” you might say. They would be speaking God’s words. So then, when you realize this, it becomes obvious that whatever the apostles would bind on earth, would of necessity, already also be bound in heaven. And whatever they loosed on earth, would already, also be loosed in heaven, because it was God speaking through them.
We talked about this subject in a recent bible class. About how a lot of people misunderstand that verse in Mathew 16:19. A lot of people think that the apostles were given the authority to make their own decisions. And consequently, a lot of people don’t think that the words the apostles spoke, are binding as laws on us today. They think it was simply the apostle’s opinions, and not God’s laws. But of course, that’s not true. What the apostles said, was inspired by God. Their words were controlled by God.
So, back to Acts chapter 15. The apostles came together with the elders of the church in Jerusalem to look into this circumcision issue. Verse 7 says; “And after much debate, Peter stood up and said to them; Brethren, you know that from the beginning days among us, God chose that by my mouth, the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.”
Peter is referring to how he was the one, who was instructed by God, to go to the house of Cornelius, and preach the gospel. Acts 10, verse 22, says that Cornelius, “was divinely instructed to send for you, (to send for Peter) to come to his house, and hear a message from you.”
So Peter reminds those at the council, how he was selected by God to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, for the very first time. Of course he was also the one who preached to the Jews for the very first time, on the day of Pentecost. So then Peter had truly been given, “the keys to the kingdom”, just as Jesus said, in Mathew 16, verse 19.
Now here’s what Peter continues to say at the council, in Acts 15, verses 8 thru 11; “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, (to the Gentiles) giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us.” When Peter says that God gave them the Holy Spirit, he’s talking about how God had given, both the Jews and the Gentiles, the ability to speak in tongues, verifying that they were both approved of by God.
Here’s how we KNOW that’s what Peter was referring to; In Acts chapter 10, Peter was preaching to Cornelius, and his household, about the forgiveness of sins, through Jesus Christ. And it says in verses 44 thru 48; “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon those who were listening to the message. And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also.”
Now listen to what it says next; “For they were hearing them speaking with tongues, and exalting God!” That’s the gift they had received from the Holy Spirit; The ability to speak in tongues. In other languages. That’s exactly the same gift that was poured out on the apostles on the day of Pentecost. But it’s DIFFERENT from the gift that EVERYONE is promised, when they repent and are baptized. That’s the gift of eternal life, and that gift is for everyone who obeys.
“Then Peter responded; Surely, no one can refuse the water, for these to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we did, can he? And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.”
So then Peter tells those at the council, that the Gentiles received the very same gift from God, as the apostles received. And then he says;
“And He made NO distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.” In other words, God forgave their sins, just like He had forgiven the sins of the Jews, by faith in Jesus. “Now therefore, (Peter says) Why do you put God to the test, by placing upon the neck of the disciples, a yoke which neither our fathers, nor we, have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
Peter says that WE (the Jews) couldn’t keep the law of Moses acceptably, and neither could their fathers keep it. So then why are you trying to impose that law on the Gentiles? The fact that nobody could keep the law, and the fact that the law couldn’t save anyone anyway, is the reason that the law was “nailed to the cross”.
Hebrews 10, verse 1 says; “For the law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices, year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near.” And so Colossians 2, verse 14 says; “Having cancelled out the certificate of death (that’s what the law of Moses was; It wasn’t salvation, it was a certificate of death) consisting of decrees which were against us, and which was hostile to us, and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
But of course, none of this had been written yet, when Peter was speaking at that council in Jerusalem. And so Peter was really then explaining to the Jews, WHY no one, including the Gentiles, had to comply with the law of Moses anymore. And of course circumcision was a big part of that law.
Back in Colossians 2, verses 9 thru 13, Paul tells us; “For in Him (Jesus) all the fullness of Deity dwells, in bodily form. And in Him, you have been made complete. And He is the head over all rule and authority, and in Him, you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ. (Jesus, “cuts away” the sins of the body of the flesh) Having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him, through faith, in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And when you were dead in your transgressions, and in the un-circumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us, all our transgressions..”
All this, is basically what Peter was explaining to those at the council in Jerusalem. And then after Peter finishes speaking, Paul and Barnabas start to relate all the wonders that God had brought about through them among the Gentiles. (that’s verse 12) And then James (the brother of Jesus) speaks about how God had originally taken, out from among the Gentiles, the people that eventually became Israel. And we know how Israel was unfaithful, and so they were taken into captivity, and the nation was broken up, and the people were dispersed.
But then James quotes the prophets, and says in verses 16 thru 18; “After these things, I will return (that’s God) And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild it’s ruins, and will restore it. In order that the rest of mankind (and that’s the Gentiles again) may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name; Says the Lord who makes these things known from old.”
And here’s how he sums it all up, in verses 19 & 20; “Therefore, it is my judgment, what we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them, that they abstain from things contaminated by idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood.”
Verse 22 & 23 say; “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole congregation, to choose men from among them. to send to Antioch, with Paul and Barnabas; Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. And they sent this letter by them..”
And here’s what the letter said; “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch, and Syria, and Celicia, who are from the Gentiles.. Greetings; Since we heard that some of our number, to whom we gave no instruction, have disturbed you with words, unsettling your souls; It seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you, with our beloved Barnabas and Paul. Men who have risked their lives fro the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth.”
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.. (you see how it was the Holy Spirit of God, that was at the heart of this) So, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you, no greater burden than these essentials.” Now, I’ve got to stop here for a minute. That word, “essentials” is used only this one time in the bible. But according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, it means.. Necessarily”, and “on compulsion”. It means.. “These things which are necessarily imposed”.
So in other words, these things are not optional, they are mandatory!
Here’s the things that the apostles list in their letter, as essential, and mandatory.. “that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication. If you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well.”
Not a very long list is it? But of course, as the new testament was written, many more things became enjoined upon Christians. Things we should do, and things we shouldn’t do. And I’m sure that those inspired men dealt with many of those things verbally, even before they came to be written down.
So I hope you enjoyed a little church history there. It’s always so interesting how everything in the bible ties together so well. Every story, and every verse, compliments the others. And no matter how many times we study it, the bible always seems to come up with something new for us to learn. That’s the wisdom of God.