As the Early Church began to Develop its Outreach, Decisions were made that also, give us a Glimpse into the relationships among and between Leading Ministers. Is there anything in their approach we ought to consider appropriate for our time?
© Rich Traver 81520-1411 4-25-15 [ 246 ] www.goldensheaves.org
While Christ’s Great Commission to “go you into all the world and preach the Gospel” was recognized then and still is recognized as an unquestioned mandate, it was not entirely clear from the onset just what it was to involve or how it was to ultimately be carried out.
To the Jew First
The early Church was oriented to involving themselves with ‘the circumcision’ for the most part, those who either were ethnic Jews or who were proselytes of Judaism. That would help explain the origin of the controversy we read of in Acts 15 where the question of a requirement for circumcision involving the Gentiles came to be at issue. There were few, if any at that time, who had been ‘called’ (to their awareness) who were not.
Further clarification of the issue: that of taking the Gospel outside of the primitive Community of Faith, is addressed involving one chief obstacle, Peter, in Acts 10. Cornelius was not a Jew. Peter would have reacted differently had he not first been given the vision that he was given while there in Joppa. (People not understanding the point being made there have incorrectly interpreted this as involving eating ‘unclean meats’.)
Cornelius was a Gentile, well known in Judaea, as he was a renowned commander of a prominent band of soldiers. Peter, to this point, would have been inclined to reject association with such a person, despite his solid God-fearing reputation. But, a profound change of attitude and approach was now in order. God was calling new people from outside of the early Church’s limited ethnic sphere of association.
The previous regard for “common Gentiles” was deemed to be becoming passé as it involved the scope of the greater Commission.
Peter acknowledged this prohibition, against eating with or associating with “common” men, (those not of their religious/ethnic orientation) in verse 28 of Acts 10. “Then said he unto them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (NKJ) But, this new thinking isn’t the only development in this regard, but as history shows, one of a series of profound developments.
Reaction in Antioch
Saul and Barnabas, on one of their evangelistic missions, presented the Gospel in a Synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia where there was a mixed ethnicity gathered. Apparently, despite the event we read of in Acts 10, Peter didn’t fully comprehend the full implications of that experience, because he’s shown disassociating himself from uncircumcised Gentiles when a delegation from Jerusalem arrived. While he appears to have none of his former aversions up until the time they came, his apprehension of being reprimanded by this ‘party of the circumcision’ delegation caused him to pose as though he was of their persuasion. He apparently didn’t yet fathom the broader implications.
We read of that situation in Galatians 2:11-13. “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation.”
In this also we can see that the matter wasn’t generally resolved in everyone’s minds.
Peter Is Pointedly Corrected In Public!
What we can discern from these situations in both Antioch and Joppa, and from Peter’s own words, is that he didn’t yet fathom the full implications of his personal experience. The ‘unclean animals’ vision in Joppa, as Peter understood it, is further explained when Peter spoke to Cornelius and his household there in Caesarea.
- Peter still regarded himself as a Jewish man, as he explains in Acts 10:28.
- Peter didn’t at first see his experience as extending beyond his personal actions.
- His vision in Joppa wasn’t yet seen as initiating any formal outreach TO non-specific Gentiles.
- Those of Cornelius’ household were Gentiles, but he first was a devout Jewish proselyte. 1
- The event in Joppa preceded the scene in Antioch by some 17 years. 2
- Those Gentiles present among the gathering in Antioch had not all been Jewish proselytes previously.
- The idea of taking the Gospel generally to those outside of the community of faith as a formal ‘ministry’ was as yet not under consideration.
- Peter’s reaction in Antioch shows that he still regarded himself somewhat as a “Jewish man” even at that late date.
- And, the situation there in Antioch shows that Peter didn’t regard himself as the Chief Apostle, in unquestioned authority, exempt from the critique of this “party of the circumcision” even by 58 AD, more than a quarter century after the Day of Pentecost!
- Further, Peter accepts being publicly corrected by a man (formerly a devout Pharisee) called much later than he, a man who had begun his ministry less than two decades before! 3
A Jerusalem Conference
Now, it’s the conference we read of in Acts 15 that addressed the major question being raised at the time. This conference in Jerusalem occurred in 52 AD, eleven years after Peter’s vision at Joppa. The delay in addressing this particular question shows that Jerusalem was not yet in full embrace of the Gentiles whom Paul had preached to. As can be seen from the question itself, these Gentiles were not fully accepted within the community of faith unless they first were circumcised. But with the question resolved, some attitudes changed. It just hadn’t moved on to the next obvious stage.
The WORK Expands
Despite the evidence that God was calling Gentiles, a distinction hadn’t been made to specifically target the “pagan” world.
It was at this gathering in Antioch near Pisidia 4 that caused the leaders to realize that more should be done with regard to pointedly extending their evangelistic efforts to involve non-Jewish audiences.
But there was an interesting thing that took place as a result of this event. It was fortuitous that the three principals were present. It apparently was a pre-arranged gathering for these all to be present at the same time. We aren’t told what the reason was, or what the agenda had been, but something was done on that occasion which shaped the outreach efforts of the early Church from that point on.
Right Hand of Fellowship
“And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.” (Gal. 2:9) We can safely deduce that there had been a prior discussion of the responses, from within the ‘heathen’ community, to the Truth for this action to be regarded as appropriate.