A Turning Point: A Culture Clash Led to a Mission Movement to the Gentiles
Ed. Note: Dr. Viju gives us an arresting view from India into the NT confrontation that led to a radical "reformation" of existing Jewish outreach to the Roman Empire. His thoughts result from years of experience in India wrestling with the question of what is Biblical and what is cultural in our message.
The Lord Jesus commissioned his disciples to make disciples of all nations. They were to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. During his time with the disciples, Jesus revealed himself as the Son of God and trained his disciples for the task he was to assign them ..."As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." He promised them the Holy Spirit to empower and guide them. There was a spectacular beginning on the day of Pentecost. The promised Holy Spirit came and the Gospel was preached to an audience of "God-fearing Jews from every nation under the sun!" There was a tremendous response and thousands believed. Acts 1-12 describes the growth of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Antioch, over a period of about fourteen years.
This was a very unique situation and the movement was almost entirely within the Jewish community. God had indeed prepared the Jewish community over a period of two thousand years for its Messiah. They had the Word of God: the writings of Moses and the prophets, and the Psalms. They knew the stories and embraced the promises of a Messiah that would come. Those early disciples understood the Gospel as the actual fulfillment of the messianic prophecies.
Jesus was the promised Messiah. This truth about Jesus, their experience as "witnesses" to Christ's death and resurrection, propelled the Jews to take the Gospel to the Jewish world. The Gospel fit well into existing Jewish religious practices. Their activities centered around the Temple and they continued to observe the Jewish traditions, customs and feasts. They held to the familiar except that now, in Jesus, they had their Messiah. As far as they were concerned, Judaism had finally come true and the ancient Scriptures had been fulfilled! For many, it probably never entered their minds that they were, in fact, a part of a new global work by God.
Few however, had more insight into what was happening. Stephen must have understood that it would be impossible for this message to remain within the boundaries of Judaism. He must have recognized that the Temple, with its rituals and institutions, was now obsolete. He was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin under the charge that he spoke "against this holy place and against the law," that he had said, "Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs of Moses handed down to us." Stephen's defense revealed his understanding of God's purposes. His reference to Isaiah 66:1,2 reflected the same thing Jesus had told the Samaritan woman, that the time "has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth;" that Jerusalem was no longer the place.
But Stephen was stoned to death. With the outbreak of persecution, the believers had to flee Jerusalem. Now for these people, the Temple ceased to be the focal point and the Gospel was extended geographically. "Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message ONLY TO THE JEWS..." They apparently believed that Jesus was exclusive Jewish property. It is understandable that that was the perspective of the Jewish believers-- they were the "heirs." But the significant thing was "Some of them, however, ... BEGAN TO SPEAK TO THE GREEKS ALSO ..."
This indeed was a turning point! God prospered this effort; "The Lord's hand was with them and a great number of people believed...," and this triggered the movement of the Gospel into the Gentile world. The Apostolic team of Paul, Barnabas and others set out from Antioch. Acts 13--28 records the spread of the Gospel into the Gentile world through the apostolic effort of Paul and others. The Gospel's expansion into the Gentile world was not without tensions and conflict! Through these tensions and conflict, God's eternal purposes and the Gospel was understood and clarified.
Some insight into the deep chasm between the Jewish believers' world and the Gentiles' will help to understand and learn from the tensions
the early disciples had to work through. Long before Antioch and Paul's mission to the Gentiles there was an exceptional case when the Gospel spilled over from the Jewish mould into a Gentile's home--the Apostle Peter's visit to the home of Cornelius, a Roman military officer, "devout and God-fearing...and prayed to God regularly."
Peter visited Cornelius under coercion by the Holy Spirit. We find Peter saying to his Gentile host, "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him." (Where did Peter get that idea? Can you imagine saying something like this to your host?!) God had put Peter through a special preparation which helped him to say, "But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean." Peter had overcome a major mental block and when he heard Cornelius' story a new insight hit him. He exclaimed, "I now realize how true it is that God ... accepts men from every nation who fear him."
With this realization Peter proceeded to explain the Gospel to all who had gathered at Cornelius' house, and even before he had finished, the Holy Spirit came! The Jewish believers along with Peter "were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles."
But when Peter returned to Jerusalem he found himself in trouble! The Jewish believers "criticized him and said, 'You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them." After Peter explained all that had happened, his critics themselves concluded, "So then, God has even granted the Gentiles repentance unto life." This episode gives a small glimpse of the kind of struggles the early disciples experienced in the process of understanding God's working and the unfolding of the Gospel. But the real tensions hadn't even begun.
God chose Paul to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. It probably took several years before Paul grasped God's purposes for the Jews and all peoples. He understood that the Gospel of Christ was distinct from the Jewish law and tradition, and that salvation is by faith in Christ apart from the law. He realized that the Gospel of grace was for all peoples and that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. This understanding was not his own invention. It was revealed to him. This was the message of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey and God "opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." Many Gentiles turned to Christ and the Gospel was sown into the Gentile soil.
Apparently, some Jews, probably from Jerusalem (and Judea), did not agree with Paul's message. They said, "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." They went about correcting Paul's Gospel because he had left out the need for circumcision, had not instructed the Gentiles to observe Jewish customs, nor had he told them to keep the special days and feasts. When Paul heard this he was furious and was ready to go to war. What was the issue? What was at stake? Acts 15 and Galatians provide insight.
[There is some uncertainty about the sequence of events--whether the letter to the Galatians was written first, or whether the Jerusalem Council came first. It really doesn't matter, as there was no confusion regarding the issues.]
At the Jerusalem Council, some of the Jews vehemently maintained that "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." As the Apostles and elders considered this issue, it is very important to notice the process and basis on which conclusions were drawn. After much discussion and debate, Peter recalled the Cornelius episode and the lessons that came out from that experience. He said, "God...showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us...he purified their hearts by faith. Then Peter puts his finger on the core issue: "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?" Then followed the testimony from Barnabas and Paul. "The whole assembly became silent as they listened" to what "God had done among the Gentiles." Finally, James spoke up and said that what they are doing fits with Scripture. He quoted from Amos. His conclusion, echoing Peter's observation, was, "WE SHOULD NOT MAKE IT DIFFICULT FOR THE GENTILES WHO ARE TURNING TO GOD."
Three things contributed to this conclusion: 1) Peter's experience with Cornelius, which demonstrated that God could work outside the precincts of Jewish structures and traditions; 2) the obvious blessing of God on Paul's efforts; 3) and on the Scriptures. The process of distinguishing the Gospel of Christ from Judaism was set in motion. The purity and mobility of the Gospel was at stake on that day.
How far would the Gospel have gotten had Paul and Barnabas lost this debate? They won the freedom to offer a pure, clean Gospel to the Gentile world--a Gospel that was free of religious, cultural and traditional trappings.
The first major crisis for God's people was a culture clash--but the Jews thought that the issues were doctrinal. They couldn't imagine life without Moses and the Law. Over the centuries the laws of Moses had become more than religion, they had become deeply ingrained traditions that gave them their identity as a people. But the Gentiles couldn't live with those traditions. Because they were unfamiliar with the Jewish tradition, the Gentiles would have gotten confused over what was grace and what was Jewish. When new believers are required to take on a new set of customs in order to be part of 'God's family', they are in danger of getting their understanding of grace by faith mixed up.
They also become outsiders to their own people. Thus, the Gospel is immobilized. This is so obvious, but so often we ignore it. To require people to embrace anything beyond what is Scripture is to put a yoke on their necks that they will not be able to bear. Anything more than Scripture is too much. This has been a constant recurring tension throughout history. It is a tension today. We can't seem to resist including a few amendments to the Gospel of grace.
The first century disciples had to sort out Jesus from Judaism in order to take the Gospel to all nations. Today, we have to sort out Jesus from our religious traditions--our "Christianity"--in order to make Christ available to the "nations" of India.
That's the challenge we face.
This remarkably concise statement of major Biblical truth came to us after the material in pages 6 and 7 had been written. There is much in common. Dr. Viju emphasizes the fact that a "pure, clean" Gospel was extracted from "religious, cultural and traditional trappings." I would suggest that this does not mean that what are "trappings" to Greeks are necessarily offensive to Jews.
Each cultural expression of true Biblical faith--circumcision of the heart--whether it be Greek, Roman, German, Western or non-Western, soon gets associated in any new cultural tradition with an accumulation of fixed liturgies and religious vestments and "trappings." These can readily disguise the absence of the Spirit, but they are not in themselves the evidence of decay.
We do not have to look far in Greek history to see immense cultural baggage added to the new "Christian" faith.