Answering “Why?” – Ancient Church Theology – Part 1

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



1. Review

2. Introduction

3. The Devout Man, Cornelius

4. The Jerusalem Council, Introduced

5. The Council

6. Theological Tension

7. The Council’s Decision

8. The Council’s Decision Confirmed

9. The Apostle to the Gentiles, Saul

In Ancient Church History, I presented some very controversial, important and crucial truths about the Ancient Church. In this Review, I forgo including the citations from the Book of Acts because the citations can be found in Ancient Church History. But, it is important to realize the Book of Acts records several important items about the Ancient Church.

Again, up front, I can guarantee that someone will accuse me of taking Paul and the Bible out-of-context. To that accusation I can only offer the following defense. Based upon my presentation in Ancient Church History, Saul and the events found in the Book of Acts have been taken out-of-context since the First Century. This Review simply recaps some information discussed in Ancient Church History.

Acts showed all the Apostles were Jews from Jerusalem. Those Jewish Apostles preached the gospel message, and the very first First Century Disciples came from one of four categories of people: Jews, Proselytes, Devout People, and Strangers. Acts also showed that the First Century Disciples continued to assemble at synagogue, visited the Temple, and had no issues gathering with other Jews.

Acts also revealed that Saul did not turn away from his Jewish heritage because he continued to attend synagogue and the Temple, even teaching Romans Jewish customs. Acts revealed that James commanded Saul to perform a vow at the Temple to prove that Saul neither forsook the Law of Moses nor the customs of the Jews. Most importantly the final eight chapters of Acts contain detailed information about Saul testifying in his own defense that he was not against the Law of Moses, the Jews, the Temple or the customs of the Jewish people.

Acts also showed an Ancient Church that worshipped, prayed, fasted, shared the gospel, visited, ate food together, and shared property to help each other. But, also performed signs and wonders, healed bodily illnesses and diseases, healed people of unclean spirits, and brought people to life after death. That church also spoke in different languages, had both male and female prophets, had angels work on behalf of God and the Church, and had Jesus visit (post-ascension) two different people.

What was not discussed in Ancient Church History was the manner in which that Jewish Church handled the vital and important issue of the reality of Gentile Believers coming into faith and belief in Jesus and thus becoming part of the Church. While the issue of the Gentiles coming to faith is historical, it is not so much historical or cultural information as it is theological. That is why I saved discussing the Gentile Believers until Ancient Church Theology.

The Ancient Church made a decision that affects all of church history. Again, I can guarantee that someone will accuse me of taking the Bible out-of-context. To that accusation I can only offer the following defense. Based upon my presentation here in Ancient Church Theology I will assert that Saul and the Jewish Church have been taken out-of-context since the Second Century.

Here in Ancient Church Theology, I will address the Jewish Church’s decision, with Holy Spirit approval, regarding the Gentiles who believed in Jesus. I will also address what the Apostle to the Gentiles and the Ancient Church believed was the Gentile Believers’ responsibility to the Law of Moses. Thus, Ancient Church Theology will look at parts of Acts Chapters 10, 11, 15, 21 and Saul’s epistle to the Roman Church.

The Devout Man, Cornelius
It seems to be widely known and accepted that Cornelius is the first Gentile to be given the gift of the body of Christ, through Holy Spirit approval. Thus, “knocking down” the door for all Gentiles to be welcomed into the Church.

Lots of information is taught about Acts Ten and Eleven. Some disputed. Some not. I do not seek argument with this section. I simply want to point out several key issues about this event.

  • Cornelius was a devout man (Acts 10.1-2);
  • Cornelius and his household feared God (Acts 10.2);
  • Cornelius gave alms – charitable giving – to people (Acts 10.2);
  • Cornelius prayed to God (Acts 10.2);
  • Cornelius had a vision meeting an angel of God (Acts 10.3-7);
  • Cornelius sent for the Jewish Apostle Peter (Acts 10.7-8);
  • Peter had a prayer-trance (Acts 10.9-16);
  • The Spirit told Peter to meet the men Cornelius sent (Acts 10.19-20);
  • Peter stated the relationship between Jews and Gentiles (Acts 10.26-29);
  • Cornelius said he fasted (Acts 10.30);
  • Peter presented the Gospel to Cornelius and his house (Acts 10.34-43);
  • The Holy Spirit’s gift was given to the Gentiles (Acts 10.44-46);
  • Peter decreed Cornelius and his house to be baptized (Acts 10.46-48)

There is much that can be discussed, but to grasp the Ancient Church Theology, we have to see not Cornelius or the Holy Spirit, but Peter. Peter is behaving as a Jew, and does not look like we might think of as a Christian. This is known because of Peter’s statement:

“Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts 10.28 KJV)

In that statement, there are two things that I want to point out. One, Peter states the cultural or social conditioning of the First Century Jewish mind, the Jew was not to interact with the Gentiles, whether as an individual or group or nation of people. Two, when God gave Peter the vision (Acts 10.9-17), God revealed to the Jewish Apostle Peter that any Gentile who worked righteousness (Acts 10.35) – meaning things like giving alms and praying to God – is acceptable (clean) before God.

This separation of Jew and Gentile is one of the issues that Paul stated was torn down with the Gospel. Through Jesus, this wall of partition between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2.14) is no longer. Bringing that Gospel truth into focus and reality must have been a real ordeal. However, the truth is the truth, there is no separation between Jew and Gentile in Messiah, all Believers are ONE in Messiah.

The Holy Spirit’s gift upon Cornelius and his household was physical miraculous proof for the attending Jews. The Jews in the Gentile’s House saw the work of God and the Jews could not argue with God about the acceptability of the Gentiles in Messiah. Prior to Cornelius’ House Peter received a vision, an insight (Acts 10.9-17) and stated that insight to Cornelius (Acts 10.34-35). But, only after seeing the Holy Spirit’s gift, did Peter “see” the importance of the event. Peter, without hesitation, declared the power of Jew-Gentile unison decreeing Cornelius and his house to be baptized (Acts 10.36).

Acts 11.1-18 records Peter telling the truth of the tearing down of the wall of partition to the Jewish Jerusalem Church. It is absolutely significant that this Holy Spirit tearing down of the wall took place between Jew and Gentile. However, we must see that there were also other theological issues at work in the early Church. Jews, who believed in Jesus as Messiah, left Judea and began teaching that Gentile salvation was via circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses (Acts 15.1, 5). These two contrary theological positions fuel the meeting of minds in Jerusalem, which is the topic of our next section.

The Jerusalem Council, Introduced
Sometime after the return from Babylon, but prior to Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and ascension there seems to have become a standardized way for a Gentile to become fully accepted to God. From what I understand, interpreting from the Law of Moses, the Sages and Rabbis taught that for the Gentile to be fully accepted to God was for the Gentile to become a proselyte. As mentioned in Ancient Church History, a proselyte would have been a Gentile who became circumcised and would have diligently followed the Law of Moses. But, what was not mentioned was that a Proselyte Gentile would also have been baptized – immersed into water.

Knowing that, what we have to see is that the Ancient Church was compelled to confront the opposing forces of biblical theology. To reiterate, how one interprets God is important; but, theology gives interpretation, and interpretation gives doctrine. This is what the all Jewish Jerusalem Council is facing.

The following list is an outline of the events surrounding the Council of Jerusalem located in Acts Fifteen. While Luke does not refer to Paul as Saul in Acts Fifteen, as established in Ancient Church History, I will use the name Saul. I do this to keep before our eyes that Paul, the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, is the Jewish Pharisee, Saul. After the outline, I will provide a detailed examination of the theological issue that the Council of Jerusalem addressed.

  • Men from Judea teach salvation by circumcision (Acts 15.1);
  • Saul and Barnabas vehemently disagree with the men of Judea (Acts 15.2);
  • Agreement is made to go to the Jerusalem Church to discuss this theological salvation issue with the Apostles and the Elders (Acts 15.2);
  • Saul and Barnabas were welcomed by the Jerusalem Church, the Apostles, and Elders (Acts 15.4);
  • Believers in Jesus as Messiah were teaching the need to be circumcised and to keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15.5);
  • The Apostles and the Elders came together as a council to resolve this theological issue (Acts 15.6);
  • Peter attended and spoke at the Council (Acts 15.7-11);
  • Barnabas and Saul attended and spoke at the Council (Acts 15.12);
  • James attended and spoke at the Council (Acts 15.13-21);
  • The Apostles, the elders, and the entire Jewish Jerusalem Church chose Saul, Barnabas, Judas Barsabas, and Silas to take the decision out to the Gentile Believers (Acts 15.22);
  • The Council used those four men – chief men among the brethren (Acts 15.22) – to write a letter for the Gentile Believers regarding the Council’s decision (Acts 15.23-29);
  • The Gentile Believers in Antioch were the first to receive and rejoice at the decision of the all Jewish Jerusalem Council (Acts 15.30-33);
The Council
First, I want to emphasize the importance of the all Jewish Jerusalem Council. It could be adequately debated that there were Gentiles in the Jerusalem Church. However, it is vital to grasp that the Apostles and the Elders of the Jerusalem Church conducted and directed the Council (Acts 15.2).

The Apostles were – every one of them – Jew, including Saul. The Elders of the Jerusalem Church – by purview of relation to other Jews in the city – would have been only Jewish men because nothing else would have permitted the Jerusalem Church to be in good standing with the Jews of Jerusalem. This is evidenced and thus substantiated by Peter’s statement about the social condition of the First Century Jewish/Gentile relationship (see the previous section: The Devout Man, Cornelius). Furthermore, the voice that brings the Council of Jerusalem to a decision point is James. James is considered the Brother of Jesus; this makes James a Jew.

Some might try and dispel the importance of the makeup of this Jerusalem Council. But, it is important that Gentile Believers accept that the JEWS made a theological decision on behalf of and in favor of the GENTILES. What we will see is that the Jewish Believers bound only four things on their Gentile brethren, and they didn’t include circumcision or keeping the Law of Moses. But, we shall also see that the Jewish Believers never insinuated that the Gentile Believers should divorce themselves from Moses.

While some might think that church councils were an “invention” post-first century, Acts Fifteen reveals that the Council of Jerusalem is the very first church council in church history. By purview of the Jerusalem Council being recorded in NT Scripture, that council set the precedent for all future church councils. In and of itself, a church council is not a bad thing. However, the only Church Council that has the authority of NT scripture is the Council of Jerusalem; thus all other church council decisions must be in keeping with the decision of the Jerusalem Church Council. Additionally, it is important to understand a church council: a council is convened when a need arises; the council sets forth resolutions for that need; the council is then disbanded.

Theological Tension
As mentioned prior to the list, there was a theological tension that existed and gave need for the creation and convening of the Council of Jerusalem. The theological tension was differing thoughts about salvation. Acts 15.1 and Acts 15.5 show that there were Believers in Jesus who also had the theological interpretation that circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses gave salvation. The Believers who had that theology were Pharisees.

Bringing attention to these Believers being Pharisees is not disparaging. However, like Luke, I am simply using a more specific name to identify this group of Believers who differed theologically. So I state an unfortunate, but necessary caveat. The temptation is to interpret Pharisees as bad and evil; but such is not the case with Acts Fifteen. These Pharisees believe that Jesus is the Messiah and are consequently for Jesus, which reveals that not every Pharisee was against Jesus.

As discussed in Ancient Church History (see Ancient Church History for the citations from the Book of Acts):

  • Saul identified himself as a Pharisee;
  • Saul never turned away from the Law of Moses neither did these believing Pharisees;
  • Saul never turned away from the customs of the Jewish people neither did these believing Pharisees;
  • Saul never turned away from the Temple neither did these believing Pharisees;

We know the believing Pharisees did not forsake any of these things because they went about the land teaching that salvation depended on doing these things (Acts 15.1, 5). Saul and the Pharisees have something else in common – both believe in Jesus as the Promised Messiah of Israel. However, curiosity makes me ask: when is the last time readers saw that there were Pharisees who believed in Jesus as Messiah?

From the Book of Acts, it is important to see that Jesus did not require Jewish disciples to forsake Moses, the Temple, or the Jewish way of life. As such, for the church to claim such is an affront to information found in the Book of Acts. Additionally, for the church to demand such requires the Jews to do something that the Messiah Himself did not require.

The Book of Acts proves that Saul and these unnamed believing Pharisees never demanded that fellow Jews turn away from the Law of Moses, the Temple, or their customs. So, we can see that Saul and those unnamed believing Pharisees had many things in common. Yet, for all their similarities there is a grand distinction between Saul and these believing Pharisees.

Saul did not teach salvation by circumcision. Saul did not teach salvation by doing the works of the Law of Moses. Saul did teach salvation by faith in Jesus as the Promised One of God for Israel and the Nations. Saul also taught that it was needful for Believers to fulfill the Law of Moses and learn from the Law of Moses. Saul and the Jerusalem Council are in agreement; further discussion will demonstrate this.

The Council’s Decision
Theologically, both Saul and the all Jewish Jerusalem Council uphold – by Holy Spirit approval (Acts 15.28) – that belief in Jesus is the mechanism for reconciliation and salvation to God. That decision was upheld by Peter and his statement to the Council:

     Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
     And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. (Acts 15.7-11 KJV)

Here is the Letter that the Council of Jerusalem sent to the Gentile Believers:

     The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:
     Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law [of Moses]: to whom we gave no such commandment: It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.
     For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.
     Fare ye well.
(Acts 15.23-29 KJV)

From the Letter to the Gentile Believers, the Council’s decision is very clear:

  • Gentile Believers are NOT bound to circumcision;
  • Gentile Believers are NOT bound to keeping the Law of Moses;
  • Gentile Believers are BOUND to abstain from four things (abstain from 1. meats offered to idols; 2. blood; 3. things strangled; 4. fornication);

However and very importantly, the Council’s letter to the Gentile Believers does not include – what I term – the synopsis of the Council’s deliberation about this theological question. I refer to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts Fifteen as a synopsis, because of this one phrase “there had been much disputing” (Acts 15.7). From that one phrase, we know that there was much more deliberated at that Council than Acts Fifteen records. Although not completely inclusive, it becomes vital that God permitted Luke to record the synopsis of the Council’s decision. To understand Ancient Church Theology, we must accept that the Council’s Letter does not include the synopsis of their debate, but a synopsis of the debate was recorded in the Book of Acts (Acts 15.6-29).

Furthermore, to understand the ramification of the Council of Jerusalem’s decision about this theological argument, we must recall that, prior to Jesus’ ascension, acceptability of a Gentile before God included circumcision, keeping the Law of Moses and baptism (discussed at the beginning of this section). It is important that we understand that baptism was part of a Gentile becoming a Proselyte. This is because baptism is one act repeatedly seen in the Book of Acts. Whether the Believer was Jew or Gentile, a Believer was baptized. While baptism in Acts is a different application than baptism to be a Proselyte, the actionable event is so similar that it cannot be dismissed.

However, the Jerusalem Council’s major dissention was that Gentile “converts” did not have to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses. This is at variance with the process of “converting” a Gentile into a Proselyte. The Council determined that belief in Jesus made both Jew and Gentile purified to God (Acts 15.9) and gave salvation (Acts 15.11). While the Council never affirmed the importance of baptism, based upon the remainder of Acts, undergoing baptism was assumed to be part of the equation.

The synopsis of the Jerusalem Council’s decision makes one additional item absolutely clear. While James, the brother of Jesus, agrees with Peter’s statement about the Law of Moses being a yoke, James also states “Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (Acts 15.21). In Ancient Church History it was shown that the First Century Disciples continued to attend synagogue. This knowledge is vital to understand the importance of James’ statement.

James made his recommendation to the Council based on two things. His recommendation was based upon Scripture (Acts 15.15-18, referring to Amos 9.11-12). His recommendation was based also upon the religious reality of the First Century Church – Moses and the liturgical services that were associated with it (cf. Acts 13.15) – were witnessed by Gentiles every Sabbath. With his recommendation, James expected the Gentiles to continue learning about God through Moses at synagogue services on Sabbath.

The Council’s Decision Confirmed
As we begin wrapping up the Council of Jerusalem, there is one last thing we need to notice about James. In Acts Twenty-One, Saul along with Luke made it to Jerusalem. While in Jerusalem, Saul talked with James and the Elders of the Jerusalem Church (Acts 21.18-19). It is important for us to notice the orders that James and those Jewish Church Elders gave Saul. Here is what they told him:

     Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law [of Moses]: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake [the Law of] Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.
     What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law [of Moses].
     As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.
(Acts 21.20-25 KJV)

This statement from James and the Jewish Jerusalem Church Elders tells us five major things.

  • The Jewish Church in Jerusalem – through the Council and this statement to Saul – made decisions that affected the global church, including Saul – the Apostle to the Gentiles;
  • Overseen by Jews, the Jerusalem Church recognized that Jews still abided by and appealed to the Law of Moses and the customs of the Jews;
  • The Jewish Jerusalem Church informed Saul that incorrect things were claimed about him and his teachings regarding the Jews, the Law of Moses, and Jewish customs;
  • James – the brother of Jesus, and the Jewish Elders said that Saul walked orderly and kept the Law of Moses;
  • The Jewish Church in Jerusalem confirmed that Jewish Believers in Jerusalem BOUND only four doctrinal items on Gentile Believers.

So there it sets, two instances in the Book of Acts that confirm that circumcision and the Law of Moses ARE NOT BOUND upon Gentile Believers. But, Jews still continued to circumcise and follow the Law of Moses. This is significant. However, there is one last thing for the Gentile Believers.

In the Ancient Church, the Gentile Believers were SITUATIONALLY BOUND to learn from and to respect the Bible of that Ancient Church – which included Moses. The only “Bible” the Jews had is what modern Christians call the OT. The Ancient Church had those Scriptures in two formats. The First was the Bible in Hebrew (arranged Genesis to Chronicles). The second was a translation of the Hebrew into Greek (arranged Genesis to Malachi).

This is true because in the Ancient Church two things apply to both Jews and Gentiles. When the Ancient Church began: 1) no Believer had what we call the NT; and 2) every Believer gathered on Sabbath at synagogue services. To interpret James, or the Apostles, or the Jerusalem Church Elders, or the Jerusalem Church, or the Council of Jerusalem any differently makes for theology and interpretation not in keeping with the Jewish origins of the Church.

The Apostle to the Gentiles, Saul
We saw that the Book of Acts revealed Saul defending himself and his position regarding the Law of Moses. Here in Ancient Church Theology – Part 1, we did not discuss Saul’s attitude toward the Law of Moses. As such, and as part of Ancient Church Theology, it becomes critical that we examine Saul’s theological position regarding the Law of Moses.

I end Ancient Church Theology – Part 1 knowing that Part 2 will be an in depth examination of Saul’s Epistle to the Romans. Ancient Church Theology – Part 2 will examine all sixteen chapters of Romans. Doing so is important in order to see that Saul’s letter to the Romans really is: The Apostle Saul’s great dissertation about the Law of Moses, and the relevance of the Law of Moses for both Jewish and Gentile Believers – lengthy, I know.

Saul’s theology has been sermon-point-delivered and proof-texted for so many centuries, it is time we shed some contextual and theological light on Saul’s theological intent for the Law of Moses in the New Covenant. Seeing Saul’s theological intent is partly based upon Saul’s own personal defense and support of the Law of Moses as seen in the Book of Acts. As such, in Ancient Church Theology – Part 2, I will present what I believe is Saul’s attitude toward the Law of Moses.

The discussion of all sixteen chapters is of such a length that it required being separated into its own section. This is why Ancient Church Theology is presented in two parts.

As I post this, I am finalizing Ancient Church Theology – Part 2, which will include the Epistle to the Romans and my conclusion to Ancient Church Theology.

Blessings and Shalom