Before the 1st century C.E. was half over, controversy had already begun, among the followers of Jesus Christ (peace be with him), over the ministry of the apostle Paul. Some believed he was a genuine representative of God’s anointed one, Jesus; others believed he was a heretic. This controversy continues today, with some believing that the ‘Church’ “founded by Paul” is an apostate ‘Church’, having little if anything to do with the teaching of Jesus. They contend that traditional ‘Christianity’ should rather be called something like “Paulianity” or the “Pauline Church”, as opposed to the true “Christian Church” or “Christianity”.
What caused this controversy originally? The division arose over the question of whether or not the ‘Gentiles’ who were gladly receiving the message about Jesus as God’s anointed must fully embrace (or convert to) Judaism in order to be accepted into the Church. Must they be circumcised, start observing the Jewish holy days, and observe all of the ritual laws of Moses?
Jesus (PBUH) himself had not said much about circumcision. He mentioned it when he explained why he healed people on the Sabbath day: the Jews did not consider it a violation of the Sabbath to perform circumcisions on the day of rest, so why should they complain when Jesus healed people on that day? But although he said on some occasions that his message was meant to embrace the whole world (for instance, John 12:32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself), he is not recorded to have given any instructions as to what requirements were to be made concerning the non-Jewish people who would be drawn to him.
In fact, for whatever reason, despite the recorded instructions of the “Great Commission” which Jesus is said to have given just prior to his ascension into heaven – in which the disciples were told to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation – the disciples for some time did not seem to be making any great effort to do that. Acts 8 tells us that the “deacon” Phillip went to Samaria and preached there; but the Samaritans were of Jewish heritage (even though they were considered ‘apostates’ and ‘heretics’), and believed in and practiced the Torah (Law of Moses). Then an angel instructed Phillip to go down the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza, and Phillip met an Ethiopian eunuch in the service of the Queen of Ethiopia. But this eunuch was apparently already a convert to Judaism, as he was on his way to Jerusalem to worship and was reading from the prophecy of Isaiah. Phillip explained to the eunuch that the passage in Isaiah, as well as other Scriptures, referred to Jesus and told him about that holy and truthful servant of God. The eunuch believed and was baptized.
Then, following the record of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9, the account is given (in chapters 10 and 11) concerning something which came as a great shock to the disciples of Jesus Christ: the conversion of a household of unquestionably Gentile people. These people (the household of a Roman centurion named Cornelius) were neither Samaritan ‘apostates’ nor Gentiles who had converted to Judaism.
Cornelius and his household were what the Jews considered “righteous Gentiles”: they “feared” and prayed to God, and did good and charitable deeds. But they were still uncircumcised Gentiles who had not actually embraced Judaism.
One day, Cornelius got quite a surprise when he had a vision in which an angel told him to send messengers to the city of Joppa and ask a man named Simon Peter to come to his house in Caesarea. Then he should listen to whatever Peter said to him. So Cornelius did as he was told.
When those messengers were approaching Joppa, Peter had his own vision. Three times he saw a great sheet being lowered from heaven; and on this great sheet were all kinds of animals which were considered ‘unclean’ under the Law of Moses. Then Peter was given this incomprehensible instruction: Rise, Peter, kill and eat. Peter gave the good and correct Jewish response that he couldn’t do that, he had never in his life eaten anything ‘unclean’. But the voice he heard responded that Peter shouldn’t call ‘unclean’ that which God had cleansed!
While Peter was still pondering about what such a vision could possibly mean, the messengers from Cornelius arrived, and “the Spirit” instructed Peter to accompany them without any hesitation. The messengers then explained about the vision Cornelius had seen, and Peter went with them to Caesarea.
When Peter and Cornelius’ messengers arrived at Cornelius’ house, each explained to the other about the vision he had seen. Peter explained that, as Cornelius knew, it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with people from other nations; but now he understood that the meaning of his vision was that he should not call any man unclean.
Then as Peter began to preach, he said that he now saw that God truly does not show partiality; those in every nation who ‘fear’ God and do what’s right are accepted by God. Then he proceeded to tell them about Jesus, God’s anointed man who did good things and healed those who were sick. He explained about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; and that now God has given him (Jesus) authority as judge over all men. Those who believe in him (that is, believe his message and produce the fruit of good works) receive forgiveness of sins.
Now comes the real shocker: before Peter could finish speaking, God’s “holy spirit” came upon them, just as it had on the circumcised Jewish disciples on the day of Pentecost (in Acts 2), and Cornelius’ household began to praise God and speak in other languages which they had not previously known!
As I said earlier, even though Jesus had indicated that his message was ultimately for the world, he had left no instructions as to how believers from the non-Jewish nations were to be received. Perhaps Peter and the others believed that the Gentiles would hear the message, believe it, and convert to Judaism – including of course the belief that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Christ. Then they would receive God’s blessings. Whatever he thought, he and the Jewish believers who had accompanied him to Caesarea were completely astonished to see the spirit from God filling these uncircumcised Gentiles.
What could Peter do? God had made clear by the vision, and then by the outpouring of His spirit, that He wasn’t hindered by the fact that these Gentiles were uncircumcised. God’s mercy knows no boundaries, and He is completely free and magnanimous in bestowing that mercy. So Peter commanded that water be brought so that the household could be baptized.
Acts chapter 11 tells us that when the apostles and brothers at Jerusalem heard about those events in Caesarea, they criticized Peter for visiting and eating with uncircumcised Gentiles. So Peter had to defend his actions by explaining the circumstances to them. After Peter explained everything, he made this wise statement (11:17): If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?
After this event, according to the rest of chapter 11, some of the Jewish believers – who had been scattered due to the persecution arising after the disciple named Stephen had been killed – went to Antioch and began preaching to the Greeks there. Many believed; and when the apostles at Jerusalem heard about it, they sent Barnabas down to check it out. Barnabas was gladdened in spirit, went to Tarsus to find Saul (who had gone there after his conversion), and the two of them came back to Antioch.
Eventually, Barnabas and Saul/Paul went on a ‘missionary’ tour around cities outside of the Judea/Galilee/Samaria area. Their practice was to go to the Jewish synagogues in those areas and preach that Jesus was the Christ. The message would spread to Gentiles, who began to embrace the message of Jesus as God’s anointed one. In all of this time, from Peter’s experience with the household of Cornelius on through the ‘missionary’ journeys of Paul and Barnabas, there was no talk of any necessity of the Gentile believers to “be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses”. It would seem that the message was pretty clear that God was doing surprising things, and His servants shouldn’t try to interfere.
But this didn’t last. When Barnabas and Saul finally returned to Antioch, some of the Jewish believers came down from Jerusalem and started telling the Gentile believers that they needed to fully convert to Judaism by being circumcised and submitting themselves to the ritual laws of Moses; otherwise they couldn’t be saved. Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed with those Jewish brothers, and intense arguments and debates ensued.
As a result of this debate, Paul, Barnabas, and a few others from Antioch were sent to Jerusalem to take up the matter with the apostles and elders there. Both on their journey and after arriving at Jerusalem, the group from Antioch told about the wonderful things God was doing in converting the Gentiles.
But once again, at Jerusalem, some of the Jewish believers insisted that these Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and commit to keeping the Law of Moses. Therefore, what has come to be known as “the first Church Council” took place, in which the question was debated concerning circumcision for Gentile believers in Jesus as God’s anointed one.
After the debate had been going on for a while, Peter stood up and recounted once again his experience with the uncircumcised Gentile household of Cornelius. He gave his conclusion by saying:
Acts 15:8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, Acts 15:9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Acts 15:10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
Then Paul and Barnabas again recounted the signs and wonders God was working among the Gentiles to whom they had ministered. Finally, James (the brother of Jesus, peace be with him) rose and gave his conclusion concerning the matter. He reminded them again of Peter’s testimony, and made reference to a statement from the Hebrew prophet Amos (9:11 and 12) which says this (as quoted by James):
Acts 15:16 ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, Acts 15:17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things Acts 15:18 known from of old.’
A major conclusion James apparently drew from this Scripture was that the Gentiles, as Gentiles (not as Jewish converts), would turn to God, be called by God’s name, and be blessed. James then concluded: Acts 15:19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, Act 15:20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.
The apostles, elders and the whole church agreed with this very reasonable conclusion, and sent a letter to the Gentile churches by means of Paul, Barnabas, Judas (also known as Barsabbas) and Silas. This brought rejoicing and peace to the churches.
This should have finally settled the matter. With this decision, it was made clear that James, Peter, and all the apostles and elders in Jerusalem stood with Paul and Barnabas in their ministry among the Gentiles. Paul was not a ‘heretic’ or ‘apostate’ for receiving Gentiles into the churches without requiring circumcision. Peace and unity were achieved. Jewish believers could remain Jewish, and Gentile believers could remain Gentiles; but they could unite together in the worship of God and in honoring that man whom God had raised to a position of supreme authority in God’s kingdom.
Unfortunately, this was only temporary, as some of the Jewish believers later renounced the Jerusalem decision and again began to stir up dissension and disharmony in the churches of God. As Muhammad M. Pickthall’s translation of the Qur’an 38:2 says: Nay, but those who disbelieve are in false pride and schism. But I’ll have to take up those further developments, and the Scriptural defense used by Paul and others for the non-requirement of circumcision for Gentile believers, in another article.
Psa 133:1 A Song of Ascents. Of David. Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! May “peace like a river” be with all who are reading this article.