5. Early Church: Nature

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Early Church: Nature


Let me go on and talk about the Jewish nature of the early church. When we talk about the early church, we talk about Jewish Christianity. And sometimes the Jewish quality of the early church is somewhat surprising to Christians. For instance in Acts 2:46 after Pentecost, we read, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The earliest church in the Book of Acts is referred to as attending the temple daily together. Why didn’t they just build the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem right away? Why attend the temple? Peter and John, in 3:1 “…were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.” The apostles go to the temple to pray. The First Baptist Church was still being built, so they seem to be going to the temple to pray. Acts 5:12 says, “Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.” Solomon’s Portico is part of the temple. And if you think of the temple, the eastern side of the temple faced the Mount of Olives. On the wall facing that, they had a double colonnade – large columns, all the length of the wall. The colonnade was 49 feet wide and the columns were 38 feet high, and it was covered. They met in these colonnades that were there, and they met daily and preached at that time.

In 5:42, “And every day, in the temple and at home, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” At home they of course teach, and in the streets, but it’s the temple that is the heart of their preaching ministry. In 6:7, “And the word of God increased, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” Notice, it doesn’t say former priests, these are priest-priests. In other words, these are priests that are active in the work and the ritual of the temple. They’re still there offering sacrifices and doing the ritual requirements that are in the temple. In 15:5, in Jerusalem we read that there are believers among the Pharisees (you never read anything about the Saducees, but you do about the Pharisees. “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and charge them to keep the law of Moses.” In 21:20, after a successful missionary journey, Paul comes back and gives his testimony as to what has happened on his missionary journey to James and the Jerusalem Christians, “And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, 'You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law….” Yes, you’ve been successful, but think of all the thousands here in Jerusalem that are believers as well. In 21:33 there’s a problem, and we will look at it in more detail later in the semester. But in 21:23, James says that Jewish believers here are being told that you tell the Jews who live among the Gentiles that they shouldn’t keep the law of Moses, and that they shouldn’t circumcise their children or observe any of the customs. Let’s try to put this rumor at rest, and here’s what we’ll do: “We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads. That all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in obedience to the law.” So he goes and offers a sacrifice with regard to the Jewish law -- a very Jewish thing in the early church. Does this seem strange?

What are the priests doing with sacrifices? How might a priest -- a Jew who’s a priest -- respond to sacrifices? There’s only one sacrifice and that’s Jesus Christ. They don’t need sacrifices any more. How might a Jewish Christian respond? ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll quit’ – well, you can’t. Does Luke, when he writes about them, write about it disparagingly? No, it doesn’t seem to be a particular problem. What’s your problem with regard to being a priest? There are other things too that they’re doing – they’re keeping the Passover (doesn’t Paul say later in the Book of Acts that he wants to get to Jerusalem in time for the Passover so he can participate?) If you’re a Jew does it mean that you have to stop circumcising your boys when they’re born? If you’re a Jewish Christian can you circumcise your boys if you want? Is there a problem there? If you’re a Jewish Christian can you keep the Passover? Is it just kind of part of your cultural background? Supposing you were raised in an Aztec tradition, and you become a Christian. Can you still offer the sacrifices and be a priest and be a Christian? You’re not so tolerant of that one (it’s a little bit gory). I would say no.

When the early Christians start preaching, what kind of a message do you think they’re going to start preaching? We’re going to look at some of these messages later but when Peter preaches at Pentecost, how is he going to start? Is he going to say “Hey, we’re starting a brand new religion, and we’re looking for charter members. Would you like to join?” What is the message? What is the relationship with Christianity? In other words, the greatest emphasis of the Christian church is not the difference between Christianity and Judaism, but the continuity. This is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. And probably these priests, when they offered sacrifices, they probably said “you know, all these point to the greatest, who is the fulfillment -- these are not the real ones, these are symbols of the one who will be,” and us it as a Gospel message. When you circumcise your children and keep the Passover, you talk about the covenant that God made that has been fulfilled in the coming of David’s son Jesus the Christ. And so the early message is not discontinuity between Christianity and Judaism, but continuity. This is the fulfillment – what God has promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, these things have taken place. The Christ has come.

And so, the Jewish nature of the church is easily understandable. And among other Jews, they are highly esteemed. They’re not seen as a foreign group; they’re not seen as a threatening group by the people. In 2:47, Luke makes this comment, “praising God [these people who partook of food with glad and generous hearts], and having favor with all the people.” In 5:13, “the people hold them in high honor.” The leadership doesn’t, but it’s the same with Jesus (the leaders are opposed to him but not the people). “Many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor.” So you have this Jewish nature of the church. They are not embarrassed by their Judaism. They see that in the coming of Christ this is the fulfillment of the promises that God has made to his people. However, do you see a problem that they have to face one day? What is the big problem that the early church is going to face? In the beginning it’s not a problem, but it will be quite soon.

What happens when Joe Gentile wants to become a Christian? Everybody in the group is circumcised (all the males), they keep the law, they’re kosher. Does Joe Gentile, to become a Christian, have to be circumcised, start keeping all the ritual laws, circumcise his children, and so forth? That hasn’t been settled – the issue hasn’t come up, because there’s no Joe Gentile yet here. But somebody’s going to come along and cause a real problem, and that’s going to be a man named Cornelius.

But that’s still down the road – we’re still talking about the earliest days of the church; and in the earliest days everybody is Jewish and so those issues have not yet arisen, but they’re there, and they’re going to have to come up. And yet, as long as the church is Jewish in Jerusalem that’s not a problem. None of these issues are a problem. But can a person take a Jewish vow? Paul does, and Luke doesn’t criticize him for it.

It’s interesting – some people emphasize that Paul is the apostle of liberty – he would never take a Jewish vow. But if he’s the apostle of liberty, if he’s free, he can take it if he wants – it’s irrelevant. If it makes some people happy he’ll take it. So there’s nothing wrong with these Jewish issues, however the issue will come up: must Gentiles, if they want to become Christians, become Jews as well? That will be an issue that will come up, and that will be the major issues that the early church will face.